The following is an article from Huanqiu Lianwang by Song Luzheng.
Translated by Tom Martyn
Both Marxism and Western style democracy arrived in China from the West, with the latter arriving first. Not only did democratic theory attract the interest of Chinese political elites, but democracy was attempted on two occasions. One was the constitutional monarchy-orientated 100 Days Reform movement and the reforms of the late Qing dynasty. The other was the American style ‘Constitution of Five Powers’ during Nationalist rule. Marxism only really influenced China after the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. However, it was Marxism that gradually emerged victorious amongst the various political movements, including Western style democracy, leading China to a new period. It was Marxism that culminated in the attainment of the long strived for goal of Chinese people of independence and national unity.
Both ideas came from the West, yet one led China to glory, and the other failed despite having first bite of the cherry. Looking back through history, the underlying reasons for this still have a very strong practical significance.
One explanation has been popular recently. It goes that during the 1930s and 40s, the West suffered from economic crises and war, which was in contrast to the successes experienced by the Soviet Union. Add in the necessity of saving the nation, this led Chinese history to choose Marxism. External reasons are indeed important, but they are not defining. The correct explanation comes from an examination of Marxism and China itself.
We know that Marxism is made up of two parts, basic theory and revolutionary strategy. Basic theory includes historical materialism and surplus value. Revolutionary theory includes class struggle and violent revolution. In the opinion of noted philosopher Li Zehou, historical materialism is central. This means that production methods, productivity and science and technology are the foundation of the continuation and development of society. This is a pre-condition of understanding why Marxism succeeded in China.
Before Marxism arrived in China, the theory of evolution had already been accepted by Chinese intellectuals. This is partly connected to the traditional practical and rational Confucian ideal of ‘productive learning’, or ‘learning to benefit the country’. The idea that humans developed from apes was especially able to be accepted by China, as it is not traditionally a religious country, in contrast to Western nations. Intellectuals including Lu Xun, Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu first accepted evolutionary theory, then became believers of Marx.
There are four main reasons why evolutionary theory was replaced by Marxism. One, historical materialism more specifically explains human history, and is not a simplistic ‘survival of the fittest’ and species evolution theory. Marxism has a greater rational persuasiveness. This emphasis on history matches closely with China, which itself emphasises history and has a rich historical sentiment.
Two, China has a long and strong Utopian tradition. The Confucian ideal of a stable universe, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, Qing reformer Kang Youwei’s utopian treatise ‘Book of Great Unity’, and Sun Yatsen’s ‘all under heaven are equal’ concept are progressions of and from each other. Other schools of thought that have influenced Chinese society, such as Taoism, the Mohists and Buddhism, also have Utopian ideals. The Marxist depiction of the future is thus closely aligned with this Chinese tradition.
The third point relates to the moralism present in Chinese traditions and political culture. One of the key values of Marxism is criticism of capitalists, repudiation of exploitation, and sympathy for the proletariat and working class, i.e., it has a strong moral component.
Fourth and finally, Marxism has a strong emphasis on practical application, particularly class conflict and violent revolution. This was suitable to the requirements of the desperate situation China was in at the time.
Thus, the intrinsic reasons the Chinese intellectuals accepted Marxism are the identification and superposition of Marxism with Chinese traditional thinking, sentimental leanings and psychological structure. This in turn led to the swift ‘Sinofication’ of Marxism, i.e., it brought about the rise of Mao Zedong Thought, it united the disparate and individualistic Chinese people and gave rise to a huge revolution in society. The significance of this revolution in Chinese history is particularly special, in that it led to equality in society following the eradication of landlords and the capitalist classes, the improvement of the position of women in society, and land reforms. This energy or potential was evident at the foundation of the PRC. Even though the country was in a mess with much work requiring to be done, China was still able to match up to the most powerful country of the time, America. This changed the 100 year old weak and stagnant international image of China.
In contrast, Western style democracy went from being advocated early on but eventually discarded. It is the ‘practicalness’ of China that accounts for why Western democracy was accepted during the late Qing and Republican era. The systems used by the big powers of Britain, United States and France, as well as the Western system used in Japan, caused people all over the country to believe that only constitutionalism or republicanism could save China. However, the reason for its success was also the reason for its failure. During the Republican era, once these constitutional systems came under the influence of former Qing officials and later warlords like Yuan Shikai and Cao Kun, the ever-practical Chinese intellectuals quickly lost faith in such systems.
There are many reasons why Western democracy failed in China. One is the strictness of conditions required for Western democracy. To implement parliamentary democracy, a census needs to be conducted to determine the size of each province. However, the first census was conducted in 1953, after the establishment of the PRC. During the elections carried out during the late Qing and Republican era, numbers were only estimated, thus there was an innate inadequacy present.
Additionally, democracy requires the establishment of political parties. This runs counter to the Chinese political tradition of eschewing ‘group’ formations. More importantly, a system of competition between parties is not at all suited to China. Chinese traditional political thought holds that if power is held clearly in one place, then society will be stable and in a position to develop. Once the location of power becomes unclear, it will promote factionalism, infighting, open up power struggles and cause chaos. The only thing that competition between political parties brought to China was the assassination of Song Jiaoren, the failed Second Revolution of Sun Yatsen, and warlordism
A lack of moralism is another area where Western democracy is at odds with Chinese traditions. As early reformer Zhang Binglin said, ‘the dynasty changed, but the corrupt officials bandied together’. During the Republican era, bureaucrats and opportunists from the previous administration all remained in their old positions, and there was no shortage of degenerate and morally reprehensible tyrants able to enter Parliament. Zhang Binglin opposed them as enemies of the people. It was democracy of the monied classes and local tyrants. As far as the Chinese people were concerned, it was just yet another group of oppressors. This was the situation in China at the time. A democracy lacking in morals is naturally unable to compete with the collectivism, unity, selflessness, and probity of Marxism.
In conclusion, there are two main reasons for the failure of Western style democracy in China. Western style democracy deviates from Chinese humanist traditions, and it is unable to solve China’s actual problems. In turn, these are also the reasons for the success of Marxism. Without a sufficient societal, economic and thought base, any reform is destined to meet with failure. For a period after 1949, China went through a period that emphasized ideology and subjective initiative. This represented a departure from Marxism. However, since the beginning of Reform and Opening, Deng Xiaoping’s advocacy of ‘science as primary production strength’ is a return to Marxism. The success of China in the last 30 years cannot be explained or expressed by any Western theories. As American historical scientist and scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn said, it is impossible to use words from an old concept to understand a new concept. China is creating a new path for the development of human society.