By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

In the whirling vortex of May 4the movement, all of the ambivalent elements of China’s long love / hate relationship with the West have been powerfully reproduced and amplified. Find out how Chinese nationalists were influenced by the work of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.

The work of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin encouraged the rise of communism in China. (Image: jorisvo / Shutterstock)

Influence of the Bolsheviks

After May 4e movement, while a group of Chinese nationalists gravitated towards Western liberalism, another group was strongly drawn to its Bolshevik antithesis, represented by the triumph of the Russian Revolution.

Disappointed by a century of cruel and insensitive Western treatment of China, as well as Western hypocrisy at Versailles, a growing number of radical Chinese intellectuals were drawn to the example of the Bolsheviks who had succeeded in ridding themselves of centuries of tsarist oppression and to seize the property of the ruling classes.

For the Chinese struggling to overcome a century of national helplessness, this was an extraordinary achievement.

Learn more about the Self-Strengthening Movement.

Li Dazhao: leader of the Marxist study group

Photograph by Li Dazhao.
Li Dazhao believed that patriotism was the key to preparing the country for its coming liberation struggle. (Image: Unknown / Public domain)

Shortly after the Russian Revolution, Chinese scholars began to translate the works of Marx and Lenin into Chinese; and a Marxist study group was formed in 1918 under the direction of a professor of history at Peking University, Li Dazhao.

Part anarchist and part socialist, Li Dazhao believed that in order for China to regain its lost national strength and energy, patriotic intellectuals should replace the pessimism and passivity that had crippled the Chinese psyche with a new spirit of mental struggle and intense physical. Patriotism, he believed, would play a vital role in this national mobilization.

In this belief, Li differed from his main collaborator, Chen Duxiu.

Chen Duxiu: a Westernized intellectual

Photograph by Chen Duxiu.
Chen was an introspective rationalist. (Image: Unknown / Public domain)

Chen was a Westernized intellectual who, early in his career, wrote that the key to China’s national awakening lay in the twin icons of the Western Enlightenment, whom he called “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy’.

Chen Duxiu was wary of patriotism as a blind and unproductive emotion, which could certainly awaken people, but without necessarily enlightening them. And he emphasized, on the contrary, the importance of a deep knowledge of oneself and of society as essential preconditions for effective social action.

Together, these two unlikely allies, Li and Chen, founded China’s first quasi-Marxist newspaper, the Xin Qingnian, or “New Youth” in 1917.

This is a transcript of the video series The fall and rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Mao Zedong

A year later, in 1918, Mao Zedong, a 25-year-old Hunan resident, applied for a post of assistant librarian at Peking University. Armed with an introductory letter to Li Dazhao from his former Hunan middle school teacher, Mao got the job.

It would also change his life and the history of modern China.

Photograph of young Mao Zedong.
Mao was more of a populist than an elitist. (Image: Unknown / Public domain)

From the start, Li Dazhao’s influence on young Mao was evident. Like Li, Mao believed that young Chinese intellectuals should harden their minds and bodies for the coming national struggle; and like Li, he was more populist than elitist. He believed that the main force in China’s national salvation would be the country’s long-suffering rural masses, the peasantry.

These were not particularly Marxist ideas. Indeed, they were going against the grain of orthodox Marxism, which placed all revolutionary hopes in a violent upheaval of the urban working class, the proletariat.

Learn more about Mao’s socialist vision.

Lenin’s theory of imperialism

While Marx’s predictions of a violent class struggle between workers and capitalists clearly attracted many radical Chinese intellectuals, Lenin’s theory of imperialism made a far greater impression. The reasons were not hard to find.

On the one hand, Lenin provided a clear and coherent theoretical explanation of the 19e descent of the century into national humiliation and degradation; on the other hand, Lenin’s writings contained a powerful revolutionary prescription on how to reverse China’s abrupt fall into national impotence.

Lenin’s reasons for imperial expansion

Lenin suggested, first, that the global trade expansion initiated by the Western powers in the 18e and 19e centuries was not simply random or accidental, but was the inevitable result of the ever-increasing competition for commercial profits within the advanced capitalist countries of Europe. According to Lenin, imperial expansion abroad was the direct result of lower returns to capital and labor at home.

Both as a source of cheap labor, industrial resources and raw materials, and as a potential market for Western exports of mechanical manufacturing, pre-industrial companies such as China and India were powerful magnets which attracted foreign merchant capitalists to their shores.

China had been “carved up” by foreign powers in the half-century following the Opium Wars, and the existence of vast untapped foreign markets, resources and labor allowed the Western powers to adopt a strategy of mutual tolerance of “sharing and sharing the same” in their collaborative exploitation of China’s national wealth.

Learn more about the Manchu Dynasty.

Results of the expansion of capitalism

But that was not the end of Lenin’s remarkable theory of imperialism. As European overseas trade expansion continued at a steady pace, he argued, it must ultimately lead to the exhaustion of easily exploitable lucrative opportunities. Once the fruits of foreign concessions and extraterritorial privileges within reach were actually reaped, trade rivalries between the imperialist powers would inevitably intensify.

In terms of modern game theory, the expansion of capitalism abroad would eventually turn from a non-zero sum game (i.e. a win-win situation of mutual gain) into a game of zero sum, where the gain of one power was the loss of other powers.

In China, Japan’s attempt to impose the 21 Claims in 1915, and thereby secure an exclusive industrial and commercial presence in China, represented precisely such a transformation from a mutually cooperative game to a highly competitive game.

The inevitable end result of such competition, according to Lenin, was world war. It was, in short, Lenin’s theory of imperialism: imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism; and war, in turn, is the highest stage of imperialism.

Common questions about how Marx and Lenin influenced Chinese nationalists

Q: Who founded China’s first quasi-Marxist review, the Xin Qingnian?

Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu founded China’s first quasi-Marxist newspaper, the Xin Qingnian in 1917.

Q: How did Li Dazhao’s influence influence Mao Zedong’s beliefs?

Like Li Dazhao, Mao Zedong believed that young Chinese intellectuals should harden their minds and bodies for the coming national struggle; and like Li, he was more populist than elitist.

Q: What was Lenin’s theory of imperialism?

Lenin’s theory of imperialism was: Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism; and war, in turn, is the highest stage of imperialism.

Keep reading
China and the World: How the Equation Changed After 1972
Mao Zedong and the making of Communist China
The Opium War in China, Nemesis and Consequences