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Origins of the Chinese Communist Party

Early Chinese Communists and the Sinification of Communist Ideology

May 30, 2009


By the turn of the twentieth century, China had a history of dynastic rule stretching over 3,000 years. Throughout the centuries, rebellions had tested and toppled rulers, and thus the fact that the ruling dynasty was in decline was not something entirely new. However when this monarch fell, monarchy itself fell with them. Political alternatives emerged, and within a few decades China became a communist republic. What led to these dramatic changes? Why did early Chinese communists feel communism was an appropriate ideology for China?

Official Communist history claims a long tradition of quasi-communistic Chinese thought, and suggests this tradition eased and even made inevitable the success of Communism. This paper however will argue that the conditions enabling the rise of political alternatives, let alone communism, arrived with the fall of the Qing Dynasty.

Socialist philosophy began gaining ground in the late 1800's, and respect proliferated for Marxism-Leninism after the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Reform-minded intellectuals aligned with the proletariat, and found an idealistic model for change in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Like the Bolsheviki, early Chinese communists decried imperialism and class struggle; and like the conditions the Bolshevik revolted against, China possessed a large peasant population, who had been living in a semi-feudal and agrarian economy under an autocracy. The Bolsheviki emerged victorious atop communism, and hence communist teaching was seen as visionary theory, while the Bolshevik revolution was admired as successful action.

It was for these reasons that early Chinese communists felt communism was an appropriate ideology for China: absolutism waned; industrial growth and liberalization united reformists against imperialism and conservatism; Russian communists had made practical advancements; pre-communist Russia was similar to China; and communist theory promised to fulfill revolutionary aspirations -- technological advancement in a classless society founded on freedom and justice -- a Chinese version of communism that provided the benefits of modernization but none of the problems of Westernization.

This paper will trace the trajectory of China during the early twentieth-century, and outline the five key factors that gave rise to Chinese communism: dynastic decline, industrialization, liberal radicalization, nationalism, and Russian Communism.

Dynastic Decline: The Foundation of Sociopolitical Rebirth

On the most basic level, the ascent of communism was made possible by the decline of monarchism. The fall of dynasty corresponded to the dissolution of ideological conformity, and this permitted new forms of social thought and political activity.

Prior to the twentieth century, uprisings and incursions had challenged the monarch, but even when the monarch was not Chinese, monarchy itself remained. "[C]hange of dynasty was not a revolution; it was a change of government." By the twentieth century this pattern no longer held true; dynasty faced not replacement, but collapse. During the mid-nineteenth century the Qing launched an operation of national reform, in an attempt to stabilize power. The campaign proved ineffective, and in 1898 the emperor began reforming the Dynasty into a constitutional monarchy. Over the course of the next decade the Manchu Reform Movement made sweeping changes to the empire.

As regards the development of communism, four reforms were particularly salient: i) the abolition of civil service examinations, which broke the ties that bound the intelligentsia to civil service, and thus to the ruler; ii) the move towards parliamentary government, which weakened the power of the monarch over the people and the hold of absolutism over thought; iii) the establishment of a national banking system, which empowered decentralized capitalization and industrialization; and iv) the establishment of a national schooling system, which soon produced a censorious liberal intelligentsia.

Reforms did little for the empire, and in 1911 the Qing were forced to cede power to former military general Yuan Shikai. Shikai declared himself emperor in 1914 but died in 1916, at which time warlords began to vie for the control of government.

Warlord governments remained preoccupied with civil war, and were frequently overturned. Central governance deteriorated, and local businessmen took an active role in municipal affairs. Industrialists gained political power, and in this environment two key elements of communist philosophy were reified: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Industrialization: Emergence of the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat

Industrialization began in 1862 and advanced moderately in the following decades. Though industry was influenced by Western ideas and employed Western bureaucrats, it remained under Chinese control. This changed in 1895, when Japan emerged victorious from the Sino-Japanese war and won the right to open factories in China. Western powers followed suit, and developed private economies in treaty ports.

Economic growth was hampered by imperialism and unequal treaties, and it was not until World War One that China began to regain control of industrialization. Great Powers became occupied with war in Europe, Western dominance in China abated, and Chinese exports and production increased. Chinese industry grew rapidly, and brought forth a "Golden Age." Growth was bolstered by national banking and powerful businessmen, and China saw "landmarks in the development of modern ... money and credit ... [and] a tendency toward capital concentration." The concentration of capital amplified social stratification, and class antagonism became a tangible social condition. Nominal wages and maximal working hours defined industrial working life. These developments were pivotal in the evolution of Chinese communism, and Marxist analysis easily explained the interplay of industry and labour; "The emergence and development of national capitalism in China implied the emergence and development of the bourgeoisie and proletariat ... new-born classes which have never existed before in Chinese history."

The proletariat were not alone in their contraposition to exploitation. Soon, they would be united with another of China's modern developments: the radical intelligentsia.

Liberalization and Radicalization: The Origins of Communistic Thought

Intellectual life was dramatically altered during the early 1900's. Reforms established a national school system in 1901, and liberal ideas spread quickly through popular translations of Western books. Intellectuals reflected on modern ideas in politics, science, and the arts, and in this environment a new type of intellectual emerged: born in traditional circumstances but educated in reformist conditions. Repulsed by the old order, aroused by liberalism, and contemptuous of capitalization, these intellectuals soon became the first proponents of communism in China.

Prior to Manchu reforms, intellectual service meant civil service, and civil service meant service to the ruler. Civil work unified the intelligentsia and the empire; however when reforms abolished civil service examinations the integration of "intellectual life and political life ... was broken." Intellectuals worked outside of government, and soon scrutinized the very concept of government itself. Against a backdrop of government instability and social strife, socialist philosophy flourished. Ts'ai Yüan-p'ei, an educator with anarchist sympathies, installed liberal reformists into Peking University, which soon became a forum for debates between "traditional literati and modern intellectuals." Most prominent among those who contributed to communism were Hu Shih, Ch'en Duxiu and Li Dazhao. All three disparaged of the old Confucian order and big business, and believed education and youth could regenerate China along humanistic lines.

Shih advocated "new literature"; a move from the traditional wenyen writing style to paihua -- the vernacular -- in order to make written works accessible to the masses. The transition away from classical writing would undermine the basis of traditional elitism, and this tactic was echoed in the "mass line" strategy of future communists.

Duxiu established the magazine "New Youth", which promoted democratic and scientific ideas. He greatly feared what Marshall McLuhan later called "hardening of the categories;" the attenuation of active thought, and the passive acceptance of conservative ideology. Duxiu reasoned that "[o]ut of ten young men ... nine are old in ... mentality," and attacked old order traditions while promoting new world thought.

Dazhao was head librarian at Peking, and helped found the magazine "Weekly Critic" in 1918. While New Youth encouraged cultural change, the Critic endorsed political change. Dazhao "abhorred the past and the 'dry skeleton' of Confucianism," and believed youthful energy should be channeled toward political revolution.

New thought and new literature produced the aggressively reformist New Culture Movement. Socialism motivated the campaign, whose central themes were freedom and progress. The oppressive cultural patterns of conservatism were attacked, and Confucian principles were denounced under the rallying call "Decry Filial Piety!" Duxiu summarized the movement in rationalistic directives: "Be men of progress, not bound by routine; Be internationalist, not isolationist; Be scientific, not imaginative."

During this period thousands of students received a Western education studying abroad, and millions more received a Western-style education while studying at home in China. Students became optimistic revolutionaries, and sought to redefine themselves -- to find a new culture to regenerate China, and a new identity to redefine the Chinese.

That new identity began to take shape in 1919, when a spontaneous student protest unified disparate elements that had previously struggled in isolation.

Nationalism: The May Fourth Movement

The May Fourth Movement was a watershed in Chinese history. Patriotism had never been an active concept in Chinese thought; there had never been a significant contrast between nations and states, because submission to the ruler was the only option. Patriotism emerged as a response to imperialism, and nationalism stirred in 1915 when Japan imposed their infamous Twenty-One demands. So it was that popular protest broke out on the fourth of May, 1919, when the announcement was made that Japan won control of the Chinese province of Shandong, under the Treaty of Versailles.

Chinese delegates had been shut out of the conference at Versailles, as Western Powers took it upon themselves to distribute Chinese lands. Reformist students were outraged, and staged demonstrations in Beijing. Protest spread across the country as students won support from merchants, workers, the press, and warlords. The police in Beijing made arrests but soon discovered that protesters outnumbered jail cells, and opted to lock students in the University. The irony of imprisoning intellectuals in the very buildings that were the fountainhead of their ideas was not lost on Ch'en Kung-po, who later recalled the scene with defiant nostalgia; "What a terrible and wonderful scene it was!" Protesters demanded the dismissal of ministers involved in the debacle, and fearing that demonstrations might grow into a revolutionary coup, the ministers were dismissed, the students were freed, and the Treaty of Versailles was not signed.

Protesters were empowered by this victory and recognized the possibility for change. Soon, what began as May fourth demonstrations became an entire May Fourth Movement, embodying New Culture, anti-warlordism, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism. Writ large, the movement promoted patriotism, science, democracy, and freedom; while condemning imperialism, autocracy, patriarchy, and blind adherence to tradition. Though students and intellectuals drove the demonstrations, the movement unified the intelligentsia and the proletariat. Shanghai workers went on strike in support of the movement, and this had a profound impact on reformists. Previously, radical intellectuals had claimed revolution for themselves, however they now saw the plight and strength of workers, and expanded their revolutionary ideas to include workers in solidarity. "Consciousness of class within China had given socialism a new urgency."

Socialism thrived. Intellectuals promulgated pacifism, utopianism, anarchism, and many other ideas; however, even though discussion was abundant, progress was not. Communal living experiments faltered, and dense theory was not relevant in the minds of the masses. One theory however offered not just analysis, but action: Marxism-Leninism. Soon, where there was once an unsystematic swarm of competing socialisms, one ideology organized with force: communism.

Out of Many, One: Russian Influence and the Birth of the CCP

Study groups formed across the country, as intellectuals sought to unpack the issues circumscribed by the May Fourth Movement. Bolshevism motivated some groups to focus on Marxism-Leninism, and when agents of the Communist International (Comintern) arrived they discovered it was a short step from study group to political cell.

In 1920, Li Dazhao and Ch'en Duxiu organized Marxist study groups in Beijing and Shanghai respectively, and in 1921 the Comintern sent agents to develop communism. With some groups having already begun to focus on Marxism, Chinese radicals proved an eager audience for agent Grigori Voitinsky. Nevertheless, though radicals agreed on socialism, they did not agree on much else. This contention proved useful to Voitinsky, and he consolidated variant socialist analyses in a communist framework. Comintern agents fixated on similarities between China and Russia, and Voitinsky "portrayed the [October] revolution as one that had overthrown ... foreigners ... 'bankers, warlords, and bureaucrats' " -- ergo, precisely the revolution Chinese socialists desired. China's Marxist-Leninists "could reach but one conclusion: 'follow the Russian way.' " One of the CCP's founding members later explained: "Dissatisfied with the results of the revolution, and believing its effects insufficient to get rid of the oppression, the Chinese decided that another step should be taken -- communism should be tried."

The Comintern soon suggested the creation of an official Communist party. Study groups that had focused on Marxism-Leninism broke from other socialistic groups and emphasized the priority of class struggle. These groups commuted into political cells, and directed the activities of other study groups as they converted to communism.

Radical thought had created a foundation for communist thought, and socialist study groups provided an organizational basis for the communist party.


Chinese communism began with the deterioration of Chinese dynasty. A weak dynasty gave way to warlordism and instability, and while government declined, industrialization increased. China's agricultural economy was transformed, and an urban working class emerged. Nationalism solidified in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles, and May Fourth demonstrations empowered new radicals and the new working class.

Though revolutionaries were stimulated by the democratic ideas and scientific progress of the West, respect for the West was tempered by repulsion for Western imperiousness. The success of the Russian Revolution and arrival of the Comintern prompted formation of the CCP, however this was possible only because old order absolutism had lost its hold; the emperor, Confucius, and agriculture no longer governed China. By 1921, imperialism and class conflict were not merely theoretical concepts, they were social constructs, and with guidance from the Comintern, Chinese radicals came to believe communism was the appropriate ideology for China because it offered an organized sino-socialist program that was relevant to Chinese conditions. "Which socialism?" was the question; "Communism" was the answer.

Part of the series: UWO