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Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism

January 29, 2010

Maurice Meisner. Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Xiaowei Zheng (2005)

Published in 1967, Maurice Meisner’s Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism is a classic both as an intellectual history and as a study of the early years of the Chinese Communist Party. As Meisner states, his work is in part “a study of the intellectual evolution of China’s first Marxist” and “a study of the early reception and transformation of Marxist ideas in China.” Meisner insists Li Ta-chao to be put front and center: Li was the first to adapt Marxism to the Chinese environment and his writings foreshadowed the Chinese Communist ideology. Of course, Meisner’s choice to study one person in depth is also rooted in his philosophy of history. Believing that “men act, on the basis of what they think,” Meisner insists that historians must examine the interrelationship between historical environment and historical actors’ consciousness. Specifically, to study the origins of Chinese Marxism, one has to study each individual Marxist and his particular intellectual and emotional predispositions.

Part one deals with Li Ta-chao’s intellectual origins before he became a Marxist. Certain of Li’s strong beliefs ran through his entire life. At the very beginning of his intellectual career, Li was a steadfast nationalist, whose overriding concern was the survival and resurrection of the Chinese nation. Moreover, Li emphasized the power of human wills and actions in changing reality and always called on intellectuals to participate in politics directly. Furthermore, contrary to Chen Tu-hsiu, Li was never avid about advocating Western individualism; neither was he found of rejecting traditional Chinese values in total.

Part two lays out Li’s reinterpretations of Marxism. Here, we see serious tensions between Li’s pre-Marxist dispositions and the original Marxist theory. First was the tension between determinism and voluntarism. Then was the tension between nationalism and internationalism. Lastly, in adopting the class-struggle theory, Li faced the fact that in the early 1920s, China did not have a proletarian class in the Marxist sense. An essay published in January 1920 elaborated Li’s efforts in solving the above tensions. In this essay, Li argued that after the modern era, Chinese people had been suffering from the exploitation of the world capitalism; thus, China as a whole was “a proletarian nation” and was entitled to proletarian consciousness. By twisting the original meaning of “proletarian” and blending nationalism with proletarian consciousness, Li succeeded in keeping much of his earlier beliefs and made Marxism relevant to China.

Part three explores the application of Li’s ideas in Chinese politics. Meisner shows that the Chinese revolution absorbed many aspects from Leninism and Populism and was largely a nationalist and peasant revolution. By comparing Li’s thoughts with his disciple Mao Zedong’s, Meisner finds that Mao’s early writings faithfully echoed the nationalist, Populist and Bolshevik ideas of his teacher. Both Li and Mao drew from the materialist conception of history and both of their voluntaristic impulses were inspired by the deeply rooted nationalist convictions.

Well versed in Marxist theories and being acute about Li’s pre-Marxist thoughts, Meisner demonstrates the intellectual trajectory of Li Ta-chao with great conceptual clarity. I especially enjoy the discussion of Li’s creation of the “proletarian nation” theory, which goes into the inner struggles of Li as a passionate revolutionary and a serious thinker. Meisner’s humanized approach is also a highlight of the book and the writer defends it boldly. In his unspecified criticism against Chalmers Johnson at the very end of the book, Meisner argues that the Chinese Communist Party was not some “playthings” in the hands of some faceless social forces and “that ideological tendencies cannot be analyzed without inquiring into the ideas and emotions of the men who made history.”

However, limited by his era when the “culturalism-to-nationalism” schema still dominated the China field and subtler conceptual tools to understand nation was not yet developed, Meisner failed to clarify Li’s nationalism. Where did Li’s nationalism come from? What was the content of this nationalism? In what form did this nationalism take? In a similar fashion, “China” as a concept is treated without enough rigor. In stressing “the survival and resurrection of the Chinese nation,” Meisner seems to regard China as a modern political entity, while when talking about Chinese traditional values, he implies a cultural China. Then, what are the relations between the two Chinas?

All in all, Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism was a ground-breaking study of the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Meisner’s careful investigation of Li’s intellectual trajectory elucidates the origins of the most crucial characteristics of the Chinese Communist Party. It will remain a classic.

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.

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