Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Formation of the Chinese Communist Party

May 1, 1998

China’s civilization is one of the two oldest in the world. It has a rich history stretching back thousands of years, and a well-established culture which is thick with tradition. This leads into the question: why did China become fascinated with communism, a Western philosophy? One key to solving this puzzle is to look at the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, and determine whether it was the result of forces within China, or the result of outside influence, more specifically the Soviet Union and the Third Communist International. In the end we might find that either position is to be avoided. By looking at the intellectual history of Marxism in China, the theories of Chen Duxiu, party founder, and the actual formation of the party itself, the influence of both internal and external forces can be seen.

History of Marxism in China

Marxism in China does not have a deep historical legacy. Although Karl Marx wrote his famous “Communist Manifesto” in 1848, the first references to Marxism in China were not until the beginning of the twentieth century, by reformers Kang Yu Wei and Liang Qichao. But these were brief references, and nobody seemed to have cared much about them (Ladany 4).

Marx’s influence had not increased ten years later, even though plenty of other things in China had. The 1911 Revolution, and the resulting chaos it brought with it, had sparked new modes of thought in China. On September 15, 1915, in Shanghai, Chen Duxiu began his publication of “New Youth” (Chang 41). The Magazine’s impact on the youth of China was immense. New Youth “had a devoted following that took its every editorial pronouncement as an article of faith” (Bianco 35). Because the magazine was written in the vernacular language, instead of the formal writing style, Chang Kuo-t’ao, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, was later to write that the magazine “was to thought and scholarship what the abolition of bound feet was to women. Hu Shih called it ‘the birth of a living literature’ and Chen Duxiu hoisted high the banner of the literary revolution. Thus began the debate between new and old Literatures” (Chang 41). Although Chen originally wrote New Youth himself, he was soon joined by many of the most brilliant minds in China’s intellectual sphere (Bianco 34).

Yet despite this revolution in thought, the question in 1915 was not why was Marxism so prevalent, but rather why was it lacking? New Youth featured articles on just about every Western thinker imaginable except Marx. The reason for this absence was certainly not fear of radicalism. The thinkers of the time could not seem to get radical enough. Rather, the explanation is that Marxism did not apply to China. Marx expected capitalism to crumble at its most advanced point, Western Europe. China was still largely under a feudal system at the time, and could not participate in the revolution (Schwartz 7).

The May Fourth movement in 1919 soon joined the literary revolution of 1915, and that was when things really began to happen in China. It is not surprising that the Chinese Communist historians see this as the beginning of the modern China era, and not the 1911 Revolution (Bianco 26). The May Fourth movement contained many radical ideas. Because it was a mass movement though, extreme radicals never grew to more than a little clique (Bianco 31). Within the May Fourth movement, many different streams of thought were contained, and it became the intellectual base of both the Communists and the Kuomintang (Bianco 43).

“The May Fourth Movement had united all the ‘new intellectuals’ around such vague or general concepts as democracy, science, humanitarianism, liberalism, and reason, and even more around a common desire for destruction. Success having been won–and so swiftly!–it was inevitable that differences should arise” (Bianco 45). Division soon occurred within New Youth itself. One one side were the liberals: Hu Shih and Lu Hsun, on the other, the Radicals: Chen Duxiu and Li Ta-Chao. Chen and Li founded the “Weekly Critic” in 1918, in an effort to build up more support fo their increasingly Marxist beliefs. Hu, meanwhile, attacked all “systems of thought with universal claims or appeal, notably Communism and Socialism” (Bianco 45).

It was the Russian Revolution that brought Marxism to the attention of China. Lenin’s twisting of Marx now allowed the theory to be applied to pre-industrial nations, and his writings on imperialism appealed to the Chinese, who were victims of imperialism. More importantly, the Chinese were impressed by the policies of the new Soviet Union (Schwartz 7-8). On July 25, 1919, the Soviet Union formally announced its plan to return the Chinese Eastern Railroad to the Chinese people, as well as giving up any concessions enjoyed by the Czarist government. The Soviets also pledged to help the Chinese in their struggle for freedom. Within less than a month, over thirty important Chinese organizations expressed thanks to the Soviet Union (Houn 16). In contrast, at the same time the Chinese experienced continued exploitation by the rest of the Western powers, most evident at the Paris Peace Conference. This caused many Chinese to become disillusioned with the capitalist powers (Houn 15).

As a result of the Soviet Union, interest in Marxism exploded. In May 1919, New Youth devoted a special section to Marxism, edited by Li Ta-Chao. By the fall of the same year, a large number of Socialist Study groups were organized among intellectuals. By December, the Society for the Study of Socialism was founded at the National Peking University, containing Chen Duxiu, Li Ta-Chao, Mao Zedong, and over 100 others. In May 1920, the Communist Manifesto was published for the first time in Chinese. It enjoyed great success (Houn 15-17).

By the fall of 1920, the pragmatism of Hu-Shih and Lu Hsun could no longer be reconciled with the growing radicalism of Chen Duxiu and Li Ta-Chao. Hu and Lu quite the magazine, and New Youth became a Communist publication (Bianco 45).

Chen Duxiu

Before going into the history of the Chinese Communist Party, it is worthwhile to spend some time looking at its founder, Chen Duxiu. Chen was born in 1879 to a wealthy family. Instead of training for the examinations, Chen opted for a Western education. Chen, like many of his generation, was pro-Western and looked down on Chinese things. He even refused to join Sun Yatsen’s Revolutionary alliance because he considered it too nationalistic (Bianco 34). Shortly after beginning New Youth in 1915, Chen was appointed dean of Faculty of Letters of Peking University in 1918. At thirty eight, Chen was simultaneously one of the oldest and most influential figures in the May Fourth Movement (Bianco 36).

Chen Duxiu’s changing ideologies reflected the turbulent times he lived in. After being attracted to anarchism as a youth, Chen later became a staunch believer in what he believed were the twin pillars of Western Civilization: democracy and science (Schwartz 8). So dedicated was he to the concept of democracy, that Chen was initially unfazed by the revolution in Russia that affected so many others of the time (Schwartz 14). Rather, it was the growing interest that his students exhibited in Lenin that caused Chen to start studying him (Schwartz 18-19).

In 1919, John Dewey came to Peking University as a sort of visiting professor. His impact on Chen was profound. Dewey’s speeches on democracy caused Chen to come to the conclusion that the reason democracy had failed to take root in China was because it had been imposed from above, instead of being organized by the people. Dewey also raised questions in Chen’s mind about economic democracy, something Chen had given little thought to before. Although this began to open Chen’s mind to class oppression, as late as December 1919, he still advocated that capitalism was good for China (Schwartz 19-20).

By February of 1920, Chen was beginning to become committed to socialism. At about the same time, he converted to Christianity, inspired by the Christian socialism practiced by idealistic young Koreans. This conversion is perhaps not all that surprising, given that both were aspects of Chen’s love affair with the West. Chen claimed that Christianity was originally a doctrine of the poor. His conversion to Christianity helped to quicken his transition to communism. However, as influential as this phase was, his Christian phase proved to be extremely short lived (Feigon 144).

Chen advocated a synthesis between socialism and democracy for a brief period, but by September 1920, he had made a total conversion to Marxism-Leninism. The lateness of this conversion is astonishing, considering Chen founded the Chinese Communist Party in May of the next year (Schwartz 23). However, there remained several differences between Lenin and Chen.

Lenin’s influence on Chen should not be underestimated. Not only did Lenin turn Chen’s attention to the problem of the proletariat, but Lenin’s adaptation of Marx’s theory allowed for “backwards nations” to be included. However, it is questionable if Lenin would have approved of Chen stretching his theories to apply to China. Russia may not have been an industrial nation, but capitalism had made its impact. China, by contrast, fell in Lenin’s category of “semi-colonial”. Although Lenin’s writings are somewhat open to interpretation, it seems he would have thought a proletariat revolution impossible in such a state (Schwartz 30).

Beyond this, Chen also differed from Lenin in his concept of party organization. Lenin’s party was based on seizing power, but Chen was more concerned with what would happen once power was seized. Chen was also worried about the way Sun Yatsen had initially dominated the Koumintang, and instead of a strong chief he wanted a party general secretary elected by the committee heads and held responsible to the party. A final, but significant difference between Chen and Lenin is that Chen’s qualifications for party membership were quite different from the strictness of Lenin. Although government officials were excluded from membership, anyone else who was vaguely sympathetic to Marxist ideas was allowed membership (Feigon 153).

The Formation of the Party

The Chinese radicals were there; all they needed was organization. The Soviets realized this, and their visits began in the summer of 1919 to Li Ta-Chao. Two Russian Communists, N. Burtman and A.A. Muller made contact with Li and worked to promote Marxist ideas, as well as strengthen ties between workers and student groups. Other Russian visitors followed, and in late 1919 official representatives of the Third Communist International (Comintern) approached Li. Comintern wanted to establish a Chinese Communist party, but Li did not think that China was ready. Instead, Li referred Comintern to Chen Duxiu, writing in a letter that Chen was the only one who could establish a communist party in China (Feigon 163-164).

In the Spring of 1920, Chen met in Shanghai with Gregory Voitinski, the head of the Department for Eastern Affairs of the Communist International. Chen introduced Voitinski to various revolutionaries, who included Anarchists, Socialists, Marxists, and some Koumingtang members. At a secret meeting in May 1920, these diverse revolutionaries formed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A Communist Youth League was established in August (Houn 17).

In addition, Voitinski and Chen also established a Russian News Agency and a Foreign Language school in Shanghai. The Russian News Agency was supposed to function as a propaganda medium. The language school was to be a disguised training center for communists, and included those sent to Russia for further training. Two publications for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were formed as well, the Labor Circle and The Communist. At the same time, Chen paid close attention to the labor movement, which was going on in Shanghai at the time, hoping to forge links with the working class (Houn 17).

Inspired by Chen’s accomplishments in Shanghai, other communist groups started appearing throughout China. Li Ta-Chao organized a group in Peking, while Mao Zedong, who was an elementary school teacher at the time, started a group in Changsha. With the help of Comintern, groups appeared in Wuhan, Hangchow, Tsinan, Tientsin, and even among Chinese students studying in Japan and France (Houn 17).

In its earliest stage, the members of this fledgling Communist party were far from orthodox Marxists. In fact, in 1920 the CCP was made up largely of anarchists, who were very suspicious of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (Feigon 154, 192). The Communist Youth League, when it was founded, consisted of Marxists, anarchists, and anti-Confucists (Schwartz 31). The party was vague enough to accommodate these differing ideologies in its early stages (Feigon 163).

It is unknown why Voitinski showed such un-Leninist toleration in allowing such diverse views into the party. It has been suggested that he either hoped he could turn the young radicals into communists, or that his limited Chinese made him unable to distinguish between the various factions among Chinese radicals (Schwartz 32).

In September 1920 another meeting was called. At this meeting, they discussed what steps could be taken to produce a more orthodox party. The process of eliminating non-communist from the ranks began, most notably the anarchists. For the next year, most of Chen’s writings were directed against the anarchists, who refused to buy into the essential communist tenet that “coercion could be used for good in the proper hands” (Chen as quoted by Schwartz 33). By May of 1921, Chen had become so frustrated with anarchists that he accused them of not subscribing to Western thought at all, but rather a revival of Taoism. In the atmosphere of the May Fourth Movement, this was no light accusation (Schwartz 33). The attraction anarchism held for the Chinese at the time should not be underestimated. Chen himself used to be an anarchist, as well as Mao Zedong and many of the Chinese intellectuals in France (Schwartz 26). In a famous debate, Chen defended the “dictatorship of the proletariat” against a group of anarchists, which included his two oldest sons (Feigon 154).

The party had its official birth on July 1, 1921, at the First National Congress. The Congress took place at a girls school in a French Concession in Shanghai. The participants were therefore safely out of the reach of Chinese law. Although Chen himself was unable to attend, being busy in Canton at the time, twelve delegates, representing about fifty members each, were present, as well as two representatives from Comintern. Fearing surveillance by concession police, the delegates cut off the meeting on the fourth day. They went to South Lake in Chekiang province “where they hired a boat, brought food and wine, and carried through the work of the Congress under the pretense of having a quiet respectable outing” (North in Houn 18).

Although no records of the meeting exist, the delegates decided to base the party strictly on Marxist-Leninist philosophy, restricting all those who were not genuine Communists from party membership. A party constitution was formed, as well as a Central Committee to which Chen was elected to General Secretary in his absence (Houn 17). Other than that, there was little agreement among the delegates. Chen Duxiu’s goal of eventually having a people’s government led by the Chinese Communist Party was considered to radical by some in attendance. A suggestion was made by one of the delegates, Li Han-chun, to send delegates to Russia and Germany and compare the merits of each Revolution. This proposal received some support. The question of joining Comintern never even came up (Schwartz 34).

Although Chen had made some steps towards the formation of a Communist Party before the arrival of the Comintern, their help was invaluable to him. However, despite his agreement to associate with the Comintern and listen to their advice, Chen was worried about the initial attempts of Comintern to dominate the party. He even went as far as to refuse financial adid from Comintern (Feigon 167). The new Comintern representative, a Dutch Communist called Maring, whose real name was Hendricus Sneevliet, was rather untactful in his dealings with the Chinese. Not only did he strike them as unbearable arrogant, but his attempt to gain control of the party by offering financial help from Comintern was seen by Chen for the blatant bribe that it was (Chang 161-165). However, idealism soon gave way to necessity, as Chen realized how important money was in keeping the party afloat. He reluctantly accepted Comintern aid (Feigon 168). Fear of Comintern domination turned many nationalists away from the Communist party such as Tai Chi-t’ao (Schwartz 32).

Although it would be almost thirty years before the CCP would gain control of China, the idealism and motivation that would contribute to their eventual success was present early on. When one considers how small the party was at its conception, it is amazing how quickly support for it grew, making the CCP one of the most successful parties in modern history.


After looking at the history of Marxism in China, the ideologies of Chen Duxiu and the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, we can see how the party was formed both as a result of internal forces within China, and the external influence of the Soviet Union and Comintern. Without the atmosphere of the May Fourth Movement, or Chinese figures like Chen Duxiu, the CCP would never have come into being. Likewise, without the example of the Soviet Union and the help of Comintern, the CCP would also never have been created. Both internal and external forces combined to produce the entity of the Chinese Communist Party.


Bianco, Lucien. Origins of the Chinese Revolution. Stanford University Press. Stanford. 1971. (Translated by Muriel Bell).

Chang Kuo-t’ao. The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921-1927. University Press of Kansas. Lawrence. 1971.

Ch’en Kung-Po. The Communist Movement in China. Octagon Books, Incorporated. New York. 1966.

Feigon, Lee. Chen Duxiu: Founder of the Chinese Communist Party. Princeton University Press. Princeton. 1983

Fitzgerald, C.P. The Birth of Communist China. Penguin Books. Hammondsworth. 1964.

Han Suyin. The Morning Deluge: Mao TseTung and the Chinese Revolution, 1893-1954. Little Brown and Company. Boston. 1972.

Houn, Franklin W. A Short History of Chinese Communist. Prentice-Hall. Englewood Cliffs. 1967.

Ladany, Laszlo. The Communist Party of China and Marxism, 1921-1985. Hoover Institution Press. 1988.

Levine, Marylin A. The Found Generation: Chinese Communists in Europe during the Twenties. University of Washington. Seattle. 1993.

Price, Don C. Russia and the Roots of the Chinese Revolution, 1896-1911. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 1974.

Scwartz, Benjamin I. Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 1961.

Professor’s Comments: Good clear paper based on a good number of sources–but not the most influential recent study of this very question, Arif Dirlik’s Origins of Chinese Communism. I think I mentioned this work to you. Well written
Grade: A-, 92%

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