Why is it important to study the history of anarchism in China? By learning the content, progress and fate of anarchism in China - especially how anarchism compared to the later dominant and more effective Maoism - we can get a better understanding of anarchism today in North America. [See also MIM Theory 8. -ed.] The following is a summary of an essay that reviews and compares two books about anarchism in China during the first quarter of this century: Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution by Arif Dirlik, and Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture by Peter Zarrow.(1)
According to the reviewer, Zarrow's book is "dedicated to summarizing the anarchist thoughts and hundreds of years of related intellectual history in China... [with] ... historical and intellectual context for the anarchist movement ... Zarrow's are helpful services to those seriously considering anarchism." Dirlik's book depicts "the mindframe of the Chinese anarchists and the link of Chinese anarchism to recent intellectual current."
"What we learn is that far from being pure-minded, idealistic and naive, anarchists in China had an uncanny knack for finding themselves on the wrong side of history as far as socialists and progressives are concerned ... we find anarchists actively promoting programs that never had the slightest chance of creating structural change and rapidly frustrating themselves to the point of political capitulation."
In order to understand Chinese anarchism, we need to compare the ideology and political self-definition of Chinese anarchists with their practice. Zarrow gives several descriptions of his own, and a few from some original anarchist sources. According to Zarrow,
"Anarchism can be broadly defined as the belief that individual freedom and social good can be reconciled without coercive agents. In this view, the state may be abolished or brought to a level of minimal functions ... a broad kind of antiauthoritarianism. ... Chinese anarchism broadly represented a set of beliefs about the moral basis for action. To many it seemed no less possible, no more utopian than republicanism, communism, or any other program for change."(2)
Clearly, this definition differs in basic ways from communism. By proposing that significant change can succeed without "coercive agents," one must wonder how. Will big landowners just give up their land when threatened with a "moral basis for action"? History proves otherwise, that no ruling class has ever abdicated its wealth or power, procured and maintained violently and coercively, without coercion.
Chinese anarchists held widely different opinions on questions of methods. Wu Zhihui (who was in Paris, a promoter of science and language reform, and involved with the Guomindang in the 1920s) believed that true education would lead both to true morality among the people and thence instantly to revolution. He made it clear that his political beliefs were no threat to the republic: "My anarchism cannot be realized before three thousand years."(3)
Liu Shifu, however, in spite of his insistence on individual perfection, placed revolution before morality.(4) Liu's anarchist career began in 1912; he established the Conscience Society (Xinshe). He advised a number of people to remain in China (to fight) rather than study abroad (and improve themselves). He believed that since immorality stemmed from the perversions of the social system, a social revolution would lead to a new moral standard, rather than the other way around. Since social evils stem from the existence of government, once the affliction of government is removed, human morality would in this theory immediately revert to its pure state.(5)
Liu's position gets closer to the communist view of an active overthrow. But the sculpting of a socialist morality will also be an active process, since nothing will "immediately revert to its pure state" without political struggle.
Liu Shifu's Definition of Anarcho-communism:
"[We] advocate the abolition of the capitalist system and the creation of a communist society, all without the use of governmental coercion. In sum, we seek absolute liberty on both the economic and the political planes. ... Through the true spirit of liberty, equality, and fraternity we will attain our ideals: a society without the institutions of landlords, capitalists, leaders, officials, representatives, family heads, soldiers, jails, police, courts, laws, religion, or marriage. Then society will consist only of liberty, only of mutual aid and only of the joy of labor ... Anarchism is the inevitable end of evolution ... Thus, it is mistaken to say that anarchism is idealistic and impossible."(6)
Zarrow tries to answer the question: But how was this ideal to be achieved?
"The root of the matter lay in one's learning to be independent-again, a common theme not unique to the anarchists. International social parties would then overthrow the various nations. Gradually the functions of government would be decreased as people learned to govern themselves (zizhi). Then contracts freely agreed upon would replace the legal system (an idea of great appeal at the time), until, in this view, they too could be replaced by the human Way (rendao). ... In this ultimate stage the human Way is that of 'pure reason,' and 'real liberty, real equality, and real love' mark the Datong. ... Most Chinese anarchists would later abjure this kind of blatant utopianism, even without the mystical overtones. But they still shared a faith in social evolution, a sense of the perfectibility of the individual, and a determination to rid the entire would of oppression."(7)
What are the historical similarities and differences between anarchism and communism? Why did communism prevail in China?
In the 1920s, the communists and anarchists both started in the same social groups - "primarily the workers and intellectuals -especially the 'cultural elite.' Later the communists would gain ascendancy in the largest social force - the peasantry - but in the 1920s when communism surpassed anarchism in influence in China we cannot say that a difference in where the movements recruited was the reason for the communist triumph ... [therefore] the character of the two ideologies themselves stands as an explanation for the ascendancy of the communist movement over the anarchist one."
Zarrow gives a nice summary of the difference in the ideologies that led to communism's relative importance in China.
"...the intellectual tools of the anarchists included ideas about the evolution of societies, human nature, and human potentiality for which the evidence remains ambiguous. But the Marxist intellectual analysis in China led directly to effective practice: linking communist organization with worker and then peasant movements, in order to give these movements a revolutionary thrust ... In some cases, especially in labor organization, the anarchists were there first ... But anarchist attention to means over ends and organizational weakness were probably fatal in the long run."(8)
"Zarrow goes on to accept the basic anarchist contention that anarchism is 'more pure' than communism because it sanctions no stages of coercion like the dictatorship of the proletariat that is central to Marxism ...[and that] Marxists' compromise with principles ... is the reason that Marxism appears more successful than anarchism as an ideology."
Certainly it would be nice not to need to kill anyone in the process of revolution, but those capitalists just don't seem like the types to give away their property without a fight. The violence that is currently inflicted on the world's people must stop, but purity and abstract principles won't stop it. If "Marxism appears more successful" based on historical facts, then it probably is more successful. To verify that Maoism was indeed more successful in practice, we need to examine what the Chinese anarchists actually did.
The Revolution of 1911 lead to the end of the Chinese monarchy in 1912 (9) and "no self-avowed anarchist movement existed in China itself until 1912."(10) The Guomindang (GMD) "had been created as an open, electioneering political party, out of the revolutionary T'ung Meng Hui and other groups."(11) The Chinese Communist Party was organized in 1921 in Shanghai. The Nationalist Revolution took place from 1925-1928, with Chiang Kai-shek as leader.(12) In 1927, the revolutionary government was dominated by the alliance between the left-wing of the GMD and the communists.
Anarchists in China did not sustain their activist commitments like communists did. Both books provide examples of the eventual capitulation of many prominent anarchists. He Zhen, an anarchist feminist, and her husband Liu Shipei supported monarchism after 1914. He Zhen may also have helped split Sun Yatsen's "Revolutionary Alliance" (Tongmenghui). (13)
Sun Yat-sen was founder of the GMD, and may have been an anarchist himself.(14) However, the GMD was pro-capitalist while under Chiang Kai-shek, especially by the 1940s. Yet other supposedly dedicated anarchists supported the GMD even after the Liberation of China in 1949; several anarchists were on the central committee of the GMD, and many anarchists simply joined the GMD. Some anarchists in the GMD voted to expel communists from the GMD and arrest the communists in Shanghai.
"'Anarchists' joining the GMD, taking posts in the Japanese puppet regime, aiding monarchist governments or movements or accepting government positions in republican organizations would be a much more generally accurate picture of the Chinese anarchist movement than the image of the self-reliant activity of the Liu Shifu types. The anarchists joined the state or proto-state organizations all the while proclaiming their anarchism, whereas the Marxists never claimed to be able to do without seizing state power."
It's understandable why the anarchists ended up without a consistent revolutionary practice: "Anarchists claim to oppose all politics which is impractical because it leaves them no real way to change the world; and leads to compromise of anarchist goals and capitulation to the status quo."
1. Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, by Arif Dirlik (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), and Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) by Peter Zarrow; Reviewed by Henry Park, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 24 No. 2 (1994). Quotes from this article unless otherwise noted.
2. Zarrow, pp. 2-3.
3. Zarrow, p. 65.
4. Zarrow, p. 215.
5. Zarrow pp. 213-5.
6. Zarrow p. 214.
7. Zarrow pp. 216-17.
8. Zarrow p. 224.
9. Fairbank, John King; The United States and China, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), 1983. p. 220.
10. Zarrow, p. 3.
11. Fairbank, p. 222.
12. Fairbank, p. 236.
13. Zarrow, p. 35.
14. Fairbank, p. 216.
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