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The Theme of Pragmatism vs. Ideology

March 25, 2010

The Theme of Pragmatism vs. Ideology in Chinese Intellectual History

Chris Hess (2000)

In examining some of the important works of intellectual history dealing with late nineteenth and early twentieth century China an important theme emerges. It centers on a quandary faced by the reformers and revolutionaries of this period who saw great potential in certain foreign ideologies for transforming Chinese society. Ideology alone, however, did not lead to practical changes in the social-political environment. On the other hand pragmatism alone could not bring about the kinds of radical change many intellectuals called for in China during this period. Intellectual historians of the 1950s and 1960s began to focus on the interplay of these two dynamics. A standard of “success” emerged, and within the historiographic literature we begin to see this applied, implicitly or not, to various reformers and revolutionaries. Those who were successful did not interpret or use ideology in a rigid way; rather they adapted it and used it in pragmatic ways to achieve their goals. Perhaps it may be argued that the most successful ideologies are inherently pragmatic and successful pragmatic programs depend on the right basic ideology. This essay attempts to draw out this theme as it is revealed in these various works of intellectual history. In doing so it becomes apparent that ideology and pragmatism were equally important traits for successfully carrying out revolution in China.

Yen Fu: An early model of pragmatism

Benjamin Schwartz’s evenhanded portrayal of Yen Fu deals with several major themes in Chinese intellectual history. Starting from questions about what kinds of ideas from the West were seen by Chinese scholars as important, Schwartz is drawn to Yen Fu. True to the intellectual history mode of the 1960s, he focuses on the “conscious responses of this individual (Yen Fu) to the cultural and historical situation of China at the turn of the twentieth century” (Schwartz, p.3). What he finds is that Yen’s very approach to understanding the West is a pragmatic project. Yen Fu takes the Western ideologies and theories he reads such as Spencer and Mills, and sees them as prescriptive ways to transform society and achieve the goal of wealth and power (p.37). Thus for Yen, Schwartz argues, “Darwin’s theories do not merely describe reality. They prescribe values and a course of action” (p.45). This is a pattern to be followed by reformers and revolutionaries throughout this period. If theory and ideology are to be used, the question becomes how does one use them. Put differently, how do you pragmatically implement a theory or ideal in society?

For Yen Fu, like many concerned with transforming China and making the country strong like the West, education played an important role in this process. As Yen states, “What is most urgent in our present situation is that we turn our efforts to education. Perhaps then we can make some progress” (p.146). Yen was not a revolutionary. He did not see the rapid transformation called for by republican revolutionaries as a realistic plan. For Yen, the ideas of Social Darwinism suggested a gradual evolution. China would become great again, but it would not happen rapidly (p.184-185). Schwartz carefully argues that this had as much to do with the theories that he was exposed to as it did with the concrete political situation in China at this time. “Yen Fu has been taught by his Western mentors to reject all the possible grounds in terms of which a republican revolution might be justified in the China of his day” (p.145). Yen begins the process that other more radical visionaries develop in that he sees prescriptions for action in foreign thought and ideology.

Li Ta-chao: A success story

In the epilogue to his monograph on Li Ta-chao, Maurice Meisner vividly describes Li Ta-chao’s last days living as a refugee in the Soviet Embassy in Beijing until his arrest and execution on April 27, 1927 (Meisner p.259). Upon his death, Li left behind a weak, underground political party few in numbers and decimated by a failed attempt to link itself with the KMT. At first glance this does not read like the story of a man portrayed as an historical success. For Meisner, however, Li Ta-chao was a success because he successfully adapted Marxist ideology to China’s social conditions (p.xiii). As Meisner so carefully demonstrates, Li’s own beliefs before he adopted Marxism had important pragmatic elements that allowed him to emphasize aspects of Marxist thought that suited his call for revolution. Meisner finds that by 1915, Li was predisposed to a voluntaristic approach to solve China’s problems (p.25). Li’s true break with tradition involved his emphasis on consciousness, namely the belief that men can move history and can transform the social-political environment according to their conscious will (p.23).

Li thus called for the active participation of the intellectual in politics. His pragmatism is clear here even before he is introduced to Marxist ideology. Meisner finds that when Li was exposed to Marxism, he was drawn to elements that were consistent with his pragmatism. He did not adopt the more deterministic strain of Marxist thought with its emphasis on economic and structural factors, but was drawn instead to the elements that focused on man’s ability to actively change society (p.129). For Li then, blueprints for action were to be found in the latter category of Marxist ideology (p.128).

Meisner illuminates an important characteristic of the relationship between ideology and pragmatism. Li’s pragmatism led him to search for ways to keep intellectuals active and in touch with Chinese society. He found in Russian Populism (itself a form of ideology) a voluntarism that meshed well with his call for the active participation of intellectuals in politics (p.75). As Meisner argues, the focus on the peasantry as a major force for revolution reflected the culmination of Li’s voluntaristic and nationalistic predispositions that had influenced his interpretation of Marxism. Here this is “joined in a practical program for revolution” (p.255). Li’s pragmatism influenced his interpretation of Marxist ideology. It also allowed him to better use Marxist ideology to pragmatically carry out his program for saving China. Part of Meisner’s larger goal in this work is to demonstrate the success of Li in adapting Marxist ideology to Chinese conditions that at the same time greatly influenced his ability to rationalize and formulate ways to carry out his pragmatic plan. In this way Meisner demonstrates that Marxist ideology was not a rigid ideal imported from Russia, nor were men like Li Ta-chao or Mao simply examples of “the triumph of pragmatic methods of organization and strategy over ideology” (p.xiii). Both of these approaches ignore the crucial interplay between ideology and pragmatism seen in Li’s thought. As Meisner concludes “Li Ta-chao did not live to see the triumph of the communist movement that he had founded, but he did much to mold the ideological orientations that guided his successors to that triumph (p.266).

Feng Yu-hisang: “A Step Behind”

If Li Ta-chao is deemed a success by this mode of intellectual history, then Sheridan finds the subject of his work, the warlord Feng Yu-hsiang, a failure. What is most interesting about this treatment of an individual warlord is that it uses the standard of success set up by intellectual historians examining issues of ideology and pragmatism. Indeed warlords can be seen as historical failures for a number of reasons, and Sheridan is careful to document the many atrocities inflicted on populations under warlord control through their constant warfare and heavy taxation (Sheridan, p. 20-27). The constant shifting of territories and alliances characteristic of warlord rule was simply too unstable an environment for successful governance. But Sheridan’s verdict is also based on his examination of Feng’s brand of pragmatism, and his ideology, which was deemed incompatible with the demands of the time. “In understanding the political and social movements that surged through postrevolutionary China, Feng was always a step behind” (p.42).

Feng had ideological beliefs. Sheridan carefully traces the development of Feng’s ideas about government and finds that he made use of Confucian concepts, such as that of the virtuous ruler, to justify his rule (p.286). Indeed many of his reform efforts were aimed at improving the life of the common people, and Feng conceived of these measures in this Confucian sense. Sheridan importantly points out that Feng was not traditionalistic, “rather, Feng was ready to accept innovation where it promised to realize those Confucian values that tradition had taught him were good” (p.285). In some ways Feng used his ideological beliefs in pragmatic ways. He used his brand of Confucian ideology not only to justify his rule, but also to indoctrinate his troops for example (p.80). But for Sheridan, it was Feng’s inflexibility with the new ideas and trends toward mass political organization that was his most damning feature (p.289).

Throughout this work Sheridan finds that Feng pragmatically adopted various ideologies to suit his needs. For a time he was known as “the Christian General,” and Sheridan finds evidence of him pragmatically using Christianity as a tool to maintain loyalty among his officer corps (p.82). When it finally became necessary for him to accept Russian aid for example, he earned the title “the Red General,” and while Sheridan finds him impressed with the Russian revolutionary program, he concludes that Feng found it an unattractive alternative to his brand of “orderly change” (p.291). We even see Feng using Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles to maintain his revolutionary aura in an attempt to fulfill his bargain with the Russians (p.171).

Feng Yu-hsiang had his own ideology and he was an extremely pragmatic ruler. In approaching his subject from the mode of intellectual history that searched for successful linkage of pragmatism and ideology Sheridan makes this clear. Sheridan concludes that Feng’s pragmatic attempts to maintain his own power overshadowed any true adoption of new ideas and ideologies. These ideologies focused on nationalism and social transformation of a scale and speed that Feng did not accept (p.289). Being “a step behind” perhaps implies a teleology, in this case leading to successful revolutionary change and societal transformation. History rewards those with the right blend of pragmatism and ideology, as seen in the case of Li Ta-chao. It is clear in this case that it must also be the right kind of ideology implemented pragmatically for the right reasons. This Feng did not do, and he is condemned for seeking in his own way “to graft new technology onto old politics” (p.294).

From Pragmatic Action to Ideology: The institutionalization of the united front in Chinese Communist ideology

Lyman Van Slyke’s work adds to this discussion of the relationship of pragmatism and ideology by presenting an example of how a highly successful pragmatic political strategy was transformed into an important ideological element of Mao’s thought. Van Slyke finds this united front strategy codified into “one of the prescriptive lenses through which Chinese society was viewed, even though it no longer conformed closely to the realities of that society” (p.5). Indeed if intellectual historians of this period like Meisner and Schwartz sought to examine men’s thought in order to understand their actions, here we truly are presented the opposite situation. Within this one case we can see the dynamics of the relationship between pragmatic strategy and ideology change as Van Slyke skillfully traces the development of the united front from the war years through the founding of the PRC and into the 1950s.

It may be argued that Van Slyke’s conclusions with regards to ideology and practice are quite similar to those discussed (directly or indirectly) in the works mentioned above. In his examination of the united front, Van Slyke finds it had its greatest efficacy throughout the civil war and into the first five years of the PRC. At this point it may be seen as moving from pragmatic strategy to a conduit for ideologically driven policy implementation. The enormous pragmatic potential of this strategy is clearly described as, for example, it allowed the CCP to quickly move from targeting the Japanese during the war to targeting the KMT during the civil war (p.189). Moreover it was used during the civil war to bring progressive groups outside of the Party “into the fold” as in the case of the democratic league and other minor parties (p.190).

During the first few years of the PRC, this strategy was used to successfully link ideology and practice. For example it was a crucial component in carrying out agrarian reform, and provided guidelines for cadres to avoid the kinds of radicalism that in the past drove the rural population into opposition (p.227). After the CCP established greater control over most segments of the population, Van Slyke finds that the pragmatic importance of the united front began to decline, while the theoretical importance increased and became more abstract (p.237). Its codification into Mao’s theory of contradictions further removed the united front from its original social grounding (p.249). In effect, the transformation into ideology removed the united front from its links with pragmatic qualities, which were the source of its power. What we see is thus the transformation from a highly successful pragmatic strategy for transmitting and implementing goals based on CCP ideology into a component of that ideology itself. At this level, with no concrete way to re-implement this new ideological element with a pragmatic method, it became an isolated ideology, an ideal.

Sun Yat-sen: Pragmatism without ideology

In his work on Yen Fu, Benjamin Schwartz notes a very interesting conversation held between Yen and Sun Yat-sen in 1905. In reacting to Yen’s call for a slower program focusing on education, Sun allegedly replies “How long can a man wait for the river to clear? You, sir, are a thinker, I am a man of action” (Schwartz, p.145). How does Schiffrin portray Sun then? He draws a similar conclusion. “He was an improviser, not a political philosopher” ( Schiffrin, p.2). Again this work fits in the familiar intellectual history mode, and focuses on Sun’s thoughts and actions. In terms of the standard for success under discussion, does Sun represent a success or a failure? Schiffrin’s work focuses on the first decade of Sun’s revolutionary activity from 1895 to 1905. This is an earlier period than that dealt with in the above works, and the term revolution in this context is a bit different.

It may be argued that “revolutionaries” in twentieth century China shared certain beliefs despite the fact that the social and political environments between these early revolutionaries (like Sun and the radical students discussed by Rankin) were quite different from the May Fourth milieu. Obviously they were all dissatisfied with China’s condition. They tended to share the belief that what was needed was a program of action that could rapidly restore China’s greatness. Speed then was a crucial component for the revolutionary programs of both Li Ta-chao and men like Sun. Li, however, focused on consciousness as a key to societal transformation, and this became a cornerstone of the revolutionary process for the CCP. This kind of program required an ideological package linked to pragmatic applications of that ideology. As Meisner points out, the “isms” so detested by the liberal pragmatist Hu Shih, were essential for men like Li to carry out the kind of rapid change they advocated. For many of the early revolutionaries like those dealt with by Rankin, they did not have a clear plan. Revolution was a means to overthrow the Ch’ing. These radicals were often drawn to acts of terrorism and violence and romantic self sacrifice and are not portrayed as having concrete, pragmatic frameworks for their actions.

Schiffrin painstakingly describes Sun’s failed attempts at carrying out revolution during the period under examination. These were mostly planned acts of violence, and it was hoped they would lead to the capture of key cities like Canton (p.60). Throughout the book Schiffrin finds Sun an extremely pragmatic character. His flexibility and pragmatic techniques allowed him to search for support quickly where and when he needed it. Thus Schiffrin points out that in a three month period during the short-lived Waichow uprising he organized, Sun had offered various foreign powers and reformers leadership roles and power in the new administration he was fighting to build in return for aid (p.240). “Sun needed help badly, and as usual, he was prepared to share the spoils with anyone who offered deliverance” (p.237). The very imperialist powers, Britain and Japan, so reviled by most revolutionaries were courted by Sun to achieve his goals. Sun’s pragmatism and flexibility then, can be seen as coming at the cost of a lack of principle and a lack of a strong ideological program tied to his pragmatism. “Convinced that delay in changing China would invite disaster, Sun preferred fluid tactics that promised quick results. Matters of principle were less important; he always felt he could properly use others to achieve his own patriotic ends” (p.5).

Schriffrin finds that it was not until Sun adapted once again and linked up with the ideologically driven student intellectuals to form the T’ung Meng Hui that he begins the path toward more successful revolutionary action. The linkage of ideology and pragmatism in this case involved the linkage of two separate groups. The students chose Sun for his pragmatic leadership, Sun found them to possess the ideological traits he lacked. Schiffrin correctly points out that they did not learn anything new ideologically from Sun, who is portrayed here as an entrepreneurial leader (p.365). Sun’s attempts during this period failed for a number of reasons, but his weak ideology was perhaps his greatest flaw. The historical mode used to evaluate Sun clearly points this out. It was not that Sun was without ideology, but his thought was often so vague that it was difficult to enthusiastically embrace them (p.365). The fact that so many groups, the KMT, the CCP and even warlords like Feng Yu-hsiang were able to use his principles so freely attests to their flexibility. He was too pragmatic and flexible to restrain his actions with an ideological program.

Early Chinese Revolutionaries: “The opposites of the Leninist revolutionary type”

Mary Rankin’s study focuses on the early revolutionaries and radical student intellectuals, who like Sun, tried to carry out their own versions of revolution from 1902 to 1911. She finds them successful only in that they became prototypes for later revolutionaries of the next few decades of the twentieth century (p.227). Unlike Sun Yat-sen, they lacked pragmatism. While she is sensitive to the fact that numerous structural factors of Chinese society at this time also contributed to this group’s failure, she does find that a major fault was that they were too ideological driven, too idealistic. “In general it can be said that their methods evolved less rapidly than their theoretical ideas” (Rankin, p.14). Although this work is not purely intellectual history, Rankin nonetheless focuses on the issue of pragmatism and ideology, and finds that these early revolutionaries lacked the former.

What then becomes of ideology without pragmatism? This question is particularly important within the context of revolutionary movements. Without a unified pragmatic organizational structure these early revolutionaries lacked a realistic means to try to connect their ideals of overthrowing the dynasty change with the realities of Chinese society. Thus in her chapters dealing with the attempts made by these radicals to carry out revolutionary reforms in rural settings like Chekiang, Rankin finds them forced to work closely with local elites promoting similar modernizing projects (p.159). Without true revolutionary ideology, that which linked pragmatic strategy without having to sacrifice one’s ideals, it was often difficult to distinguish moderate elites from these radicals (p.158). Rankin finds many of these early revolutionaries drawn to acts of random violence and self-sacrifice, strategies that were consistent with their romantic ideals (p.176). Such attempts may have been good publicity for radical aims, but destructive in the long term (p.176).

What emerges from these works then, is a view of success that emphasizes ideology and pragmatism. Just having one and not the other leads to failure. Ideology is not a rigid thing but must be incorporated in and intertwined with pragmatism if it is to be successfully “used.” This appears to be the case in revolutionary efforts to change society for example. Perhaps this is a universal way to measure the success of such efforts regardless of which society or what the time period. Is it fair or correct then for Rankin to compare the revolutionaries of her study to later ones? “Ch’iu and Hsu were the exact opposite of the Leninist type of revolutionary and their efforts ended in personal testimonies of faith in revolution with little thought of the futures of their organizations” (p.176). How, in 1907, were they to have developed the more sophisticated Leninist organizational methods? In setting up this standard for success, how much of it is tainted by this kind of hindsight?

The theme of the relationship of pragmatism and ideology has been drawn largely from the works focusing on intellectual history. In the China field, questions of how foreign ideology and thought was adapted to the Chinese setting were a major component of Fairbank’s broad “response to the west” paradigm that emerged in the early 1950’s during the field’s infancy. In this way, many of these monographs fit neatly as bricks in the Fairbankian “wall.” Indeed in his pioneering work China’s Response to the West Fairbank calls for such monographic study as a crucial component to understanding China’s modern history (Teng and Fairbank, p.5). The focus was on intellectuals. Indeed, access to China was impossible for these researchers at this time. This severely limited the kinds of studies that could be done. With access to many of the writings of these Chinese intellectuals in American collections and in Taiwan, the plethora of intellectual historical monographs on this subject makes sense.

The voices of the Chinese subjects themselves often emphasized the issues stressed by these researchers. Naturally, intellectual historians place great emphasis on ideas as forces that move history. Specifically, the issues of pragmatism and ideology were themselves of utmost importance to men like Li Ta-chao as he developed ways to adapt Marxist ideology to a Chinese context. These researchers are dealing with a very real and important question. One also wonders how much their own personal politics and beliefs influence their work. Perhaps men like Meisner, writing in the context of the Vietnam War, see in men like Li their own hopes of the efficacy of intellectuals to spearhead change in society.

The politics of the cold war must also be taken into account to explain why such an emphasis was placed on modes of inquiry that focused on ideology. Fairbank is clear in his introduction to China’s Response to the West that focusing on issues involving which Western ideas were emphasized by Chinese revolutionaries and how they were used was important for understanding the CCP’s rise to power in China (p.2). Out of political necessity, it was necessary to focus on the rise of Marxist ideology in China, and how it was implemented. What emerges in the literature is both a statement on the efficacy of the right kind of ideology and of how it can be implemented in various contexts. Pragmatism then was essential in order to implement a foreign ideology with prescriptive qualities in China. An emphasis on pragmatism also implies a focus on historical context. It focuses how ideas are implemented on the ground in a given situation. This also had political implications within an American context. Arguments within the field regarding the uniqueness (or lack of) with regard to Mao, and his adaptation of Marxism were important during the context of the cold war and Vietnam. Was Mao so pragmatic he was not a Marxist, or was he simply following Russian instructions? One sees historians like Meisner carefully locating himself within this framework (Meisner, p.xiii).

The standard for revolutionary success, the right combination of pragmatism and ideology is seen throughout these works. Even in those who were not revolutionaries, like the warlord Feng Yu-hsiang, the standard was applied and judgement rendered. On the one hand this is fine, we clearly see that ideology without pragmatism remains at the level of idealism. Too much pragmatism makes successful implementation of a plan, particularly a plan focusing on radically changing society or a political system, difficult if not impossible. The historical “success” in China is the CCP. All of these historians knew this. One wonders then how much of this work is teleological in that it sets up CCP victory. While none of the works ignores the contexts in which the revolutionaries operated, it is curious to find the standard used on men like Feng. Moreover Rankin’s comparison, for example, of the revolutionaries in 1907 with the more organized ones later in the 1920s and 1930s reveals a bias. This theme of the relationship between pragmatism and ideology is indeed a major reason for communist success in China. But in just looking at their rise as fitting the standard runs the risk of ignoring other efforts and dynamics in the history of modern China’s revolution. Perhaps this is the danger of hindsight in historical scholarship.

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