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Nigel Harris

Marxist Chinese

(Winter 1967/68)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.31,Winter 1967/68, p.38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism
Maurice Meisner
Harvard (East Asia Series 27), 40s

Li Ta-chao was one of the two main founders of the Chinese Communist Party. As a young intellectual during and after the fall of the Manchu dynasty, his life embodied many of the contradictory tendencies in the Chinese intelligentsia during a long phase of revolutionary upheaval. As professor of history at Pekin University and Chief Librarian (Mao Tse-tung was for a time one of his assistants), he was the first important intellectual to declare his support for the 1917 revolution. As a Communist leader in Pekin and north China, he turned the infant party towards agitation among workers’ and peasants, and placed very heavy stress on activism. He was murdered in April 1927 at the age of 39 by Chang Tso-lin, the Manchurian warlord who currently controlled Pekin.

Mr Meisner has written an exceptionally good portrait, and one of some importance for the history of Marxism in China. Unlike many modern sinologists, Mr Meisner has a sympathetic understanding of Marxism and some comprehension of its complexities, so that his account of Li’s intellectual life is sensitive and informed. It is a rare accomplishment in this field, but one which is essential in relationship to Li. For Li translated the Marxism he received from Europe in a form that embodies the main changes subsequently associated with the name of Mao, and he did so in the early twenties, long before Stalinism had been created and before Li became familiar with the works of Lenin. Thus, the inheritance came direct from some works of Marx and Engels, yet in Li’s hands, it still became a populist creed, pitched by an enlightened minority of intellectuals at the peasantry. It is remarkable to see the emergence of Narodnik assumptions from Marxism, generated by the particular personality of Li in conjunction with the material conditions of China at that time. It was not an ‘inevitable’ transformation, for Ch’en Tu-hsiu, the other main founder of the CCP, remained very much more anti-nationalist, anti-populist and oriented on the urban proletariat.

There are some weaknesses in this account, but compared with similar works on modem China, these should not detract from the book’s immense value. Thus, the social context is relatively lighter sketched, Li appears as slightly isolated from ha backcloth. Again, Mr Meisner’s account of the philosophic .roots of Marxism is good, but he accepts uncritically the American view of Lenin as What is to be Done? seen in its worst possible interpretation. There are also occasional suggestions that personality is prior to political position – Li is an ‘activist’ by nature, so his Marxism is of a particular kind. However, leaving these points on one side since they do not in this account affect the basic estimate, this it an excellent book and an important one for understanding modern China.

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Last updated: 28.12.2007