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China's Quest for a New Political Ideology
During these years before and after the 1912 revolution, China was a place of incredible intellectual fervor and equally incredible hardship. The hardship was manifold but there was no greater location of this hardship than in the vast Chinese countryside. When centralization broke down and local authority became increasingly oppressive, the agricultural system upon which hundreds of millions of lives depended became difficult to maintain.
In the politically active circles in China’s cities, new ideologies flowed in from the West and mixed with traditional Chinese ones. Throughout the 1910s, for example, we see a pronounced influence of Social Darwinism, the idea that societies, like the biological world, evolve by competition and that the “fit” survive and the “weak” and those unable to “adapt” perish. These intellectuals believed that a new type of Chinese individual had to emerge in order to beat back foreign challenges and restore national pride and glory. Notions of Chinese renewal cut across political divisions. In the era of Qing collapse, nationalism and the emergence of a strong China were shared priorities of all reform-minded individuals, though ways of undertaking reform differed considerably.
Besides militaristic and conservative responses to China political disintegration, two other movements, communism and nationalism, grew in strength during the next decades. Their relationship to each other and, later on, their conflicts with each other would define much of the history of China until the conclusion of the Second World War. We have already mentioned the nationalists, the Guomindang. We will first discuss the communist movement as it developed in the years after WWI and then circle back to investigate how the two movements related to each other.
Chinese communism was a non-factor until the Russian Revolution. It is no exaggeration to say that the Russian Revolution in its Bolshevik, Leninist manifestation changed the political dynamics of the world and especially in increasingly chaotic China. Within months of the Bolshevik seizure of power, we find organizations cropping up in China like the “Marxist Research Society” under the leadership like Chen Duxiu. Internationally, Western powers tried to stifle the Bolshevik Revolution, first by backing anti-Bolshevik forces in the Russian Civil War and then by trying to isolate the state in the international community. By the early 1920s, the situation in Russia was quite desperate. The economy had collapsed, people were starving; industry had ground to a halt. The only things that had thrived during the years of civil war were the military and the party bureaucracy, the two ingredients necessary to wage a successful war effort. And yet, the sophistication of the Bolsheviks as a political organization would have great impact on the world, especially after the creation of the Soviet-managed Comintern, whose mission was to promote communism around the globe.
The Comintern found fertile ground in a China. With Comintern support, diffuse groups of intellectuals who espoused communistic ideas were able to build the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party or CCP. The leader of this movement was Chen Duxiu, who had once been the dean of Peking University but had been forced to take refuge in Peking’s French zone of concession. Enjoying the protection of the French, Chen worked to systematize Chinese communist thought on a clear Marxist foundation. Previously, it had contained many different types of communistic ideas. Chen translated and published, for example, the first full copy of Karl Marx’s famous Communist Manifesto.
Communism in China was far from being a unified movement that was directed from the center. Though Chen Duxiu was designated as the head of the CCP, the central CCP organization had only partial influence on what was happening in China’s far-flung provinces. As Chen solidified his support among the urban elite, a young Mao Zedong was organizing the movement among workers and peasants of Hunan.
By 1924, nationalists and communists were in precarious positions. The communists, though backed by Soviet Russia, were still quite tiny (some 350 members in all). The nationalists enjoyed much more popular support but still lacked the military force to drive the warlords from power and to establish a centralized rule over all China. Through skillful Soviet negotiation, however, the differences in the two groups’ platforms were set aside and the communists and nationalists entered into what would prove an ill-fated alliance. In fact, the alliance would be better understood as an attempt to fold the communist agenda into the nationalist one; even leaders like Mao initially supported the tactic. The leader of the alliance was Sun Yat-sen, whose three principles of anti-imperialist nationalism, socialism, and democracy contained a strong enough social message to attract members of the communist party.