Marxism: Asia

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Marxism: Asia

The writings of Karl Marx offer both a critique and a celebration of modern capitalism. On the one hand, Marx presented a devastating moral indictment of the capitalist exploitation of labor and the drowning of all human relationships in "the icy waters of egotistical calculation." On the other, Marx saw capitalism as a necessary and progressive phase of historical development, yielding the essential material and social prerequisites for socialismmodern industry and the proletariat.

The proposition that socialism presupposes capitalism was seen as universally valid. "The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production," Marx wrote in The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), "batters down all Chinese walls. It compels all nations on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."

In this mid-nineteenth-century anticipation of the late-twentieth-century phenomenon of "globalization," Marx assumed that the precapitalist countries of Asia were destined to follow the Western capitalist path of development. They would do so under the universalistic pressure of Western imperialism. While imperialism was morally detestable, it was historically progressive, breaking apart stagnant "Asiatic" societies unable to move into modern history on their own. In universalizing capitalism, imperialism was laying the basis for an international socialist future.


It was entirely logical that Japan should have been the first Asian country where Marxism took root. Japan was the earliest Asian land to embark on a program of capitalist development. In the 1890s, in response to the social tensions of Meiji modernization, Japanese intellectuals imported Marxism along with a variety of other proscribed Western socialist theories. By the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 19041905, Marxism established itself as the dominant socialist theory. And the preeminent version of Marxism was the economically deterministic doctrine of Karl Kautsky (18541938).

The early Japanese Marxists often intermingled anarchist and utopian socialist ideas with their Marxian beliefs. It was not until the Russian Revolution of 1917 that Marxism found coherent political and intellectual expression. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP), founded in 1922, became the carrier of the Leninist version of Marxism while the Japanese Socialist Party largely based itself (in its various incarnations) on the more orthodox Marxist teachings of Kautsky. But Japanese Marxism in the 1920s and 1930s, partly because of severe state repression, was less influential as a political than an intellectual movement. By the late 1920s, Marxist influences were dominant in the economics departments of elite Japanese universities. The celebrated 19271937 debate on the nature of Japanese capitalism was a major contribution to international Marxist scholarship.

The rise of militarism and fascism in the 1930s led to the wholesale jailing of Marxists and the virtual total suppression of Marxian ideas. With the defeat of the fascist regime in 1945, Marxist intellectual and political life revived under the American occupation. Marxist theory became highly influential in economic and historical scholarship. Marxism found vigorous political expression in the small but influential Communist Party and also in the much larger Japanese Socialist Party (JSP). The JSP, which gained substantial electoral support, was hindered in its bid for power by a long-standing division between Marxist-Leninists and social democrats. A further political obstacle was the general prosperity yielded by Japan's phenomenal economic growth, which eroded Marxist influence. However, the stagnation of Japanese capitalism since 1990 perhaps augurs well for the reinvigoration of Japanese Marxism.


It was primarily in Japan that Chinese students and political exiles learned about Western socialism. In the first decade of the twentieth century, young Chinese intellectuals were attracted to a wide range of socialist ideologies, especially to the anarchist ideas of Pyotr Kropotkin (18421921) and Mikhail Bakunin (18141876), but also to various forms of "utopian socialism." There was some intellectual interest in Marxism, and fragments of the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were translated into Chinese as early as 1907. But while there were many Chinese anarchists, there were no Chinese converts to Marxism prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

It is not difficult to understand why Marx struck few responsive chords among Chinese intellectuals who were increasingly attracted to Western socialist doctrines. Marxist theory, in its orthodox form, taught that a well-developed capitalist economy was an essential prerequisite for socialism. But China was an overwhelmingly agrarian land with little modern industry and only a tiny urban working class. What Marxism conveyed to nationalistic Chinese intellectuals, increasingly alienated from traditional culture and attracted to Western socialist visions, was the disheartening message that they could only wait patiently on the political sidelines while capitalist forces of production did their historical work.

Marxism gained its first substantial appeal in China under the twin impact of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and China's May Fourth Movement of 1919. The messianic appeals of the Russian Revolution did not strike the Chinese intellectual world as a "thunderbolt," as Mao Zedong later claimed, but it did arouse sympathetic interest, not least of all because Chinese intellectuals had felt a certain kinship with backward Russia since 1905. It also produced China's first Marxists, including Li Dazhao at Beijing University, soon to be a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Bolshevik Revolution also brought to China the Leninist version of Marxism, which made the doctrine far more relevant to an economically backward land than orthodox Marxian teachings. The Leninist theory of imperialism provided a place for economically backward lands in the world revolutionary process, thus helping to satisfy nationalist and politically activistic impulses. It provided an important revolutionary role for peasants in an overwhelmingly agrarian society. And the concept of the "vanguard" party, which assigned a decisive historical role to the "consciousness" of the intelligentsia, had enormous appeal.

Yet the Russian Revolution and Leninism would have had a much more limited appeal had it not been for the westernizing May Fourth Movement (c. 19151921), which burst into political activism shortly after World War I. The cynical betrayal of Chinese interests (in favor of Japanese imperialism) at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 led to widespread disillusionment with Western liberalism, opening the way for Marxian influences. Marxism received its main political expression in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), formally established in 1921, although Marxism also significantly influenced the Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen and politically independent Chinese scholars.

There was little distinctive about Chinese Marxism in the early history of the CCP (19211927). The official ideology was Marxism-Leninism, as interpreted in Moscow and conveyed by the Comintern. In accordance with official ideology, the CCP found its main base in the urban proletariat and pursued a "two-stage" revolutionary policy, with a "bourgeois-democratic" phase preceding the socialist phase. In the first stage, the CCP was the junior partner in a Comintern-arranged tripartite alliance with the Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen and the Soviet Union. But the mass movement of workers and peasants proved too socially radical for the limited nationalist aims of the alliance, which were confined to national unification and independence. The result was that the Nationalists, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, turned their Soviet-built army against their Communist allies in 1927, violently crushing the popular movement of workers and peasants. The Communists who survived the carnage fled to the more remote areas of the countryside. The suppression of Communist organizations in the cities in 1927 opened the way for the emergence of "Maoism" as a rural-based Marxian revolutionary strategy.

What came to be celebrated as "The Thought of Mao Zedong" was a doctrine that evolved over two decades of rural revolutionary warfare, culminating in the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Maoism, far from being "orthodox" or "hardline" Marxism as frequently characterized in the West, was marked by its departures from the premises of both original Marxism and Leninism. First, Maoism was based on the belief that the peasantry is the principal revolutionary class, even though lip service was ambiguously paid to the principle of "proletarian leadership." This was logically accompanied by a celebration of the virtues of rural life and a suspicion that cities were the breeding grounds of political conservatism and moral corruption. Maoism, thus, inverted the Marxist (and Leninist) conception of the relationship between town and countryside in the making of modern history.

Maoism not only strayed from Marxism in turning to the countryside but was also profoundly non-Leninist in celebrating the spontaneity of peasant revolt. While Mao appreciated the efficacy of Leninist principles of organization, he never accepted the intellectual basis of Lenin's "vanguard party"the insistence that the "consciousness" of the intelligentsia had to be imposed on the "spontaneous" movement of the masses.

Mao's unique strategy of revolution was profoundly non-Marxist not only in the belief that the truly revolutionary class was the peasantry, but also in its conception that the revolution would take the form of a military struggle. Rather than the seizure of state power, the Maoist notions of "people's war" and "protracted warfare" envisioned that the expansion of the Red Army would permit the gradual building of nuclei of revolutionary political power in the rural areas. Ultimately, Maoists envisioned that the forces of revolt in the countryside would "surround and overwhelm" the conservative cities.

One of the pervasive features of Maoism was its voluntarist belief that human consciousness was the decisive factor in history. The Maoist maxim that "men are more important than machines" betrayed a striking lack of confidence in the "objective laws" of history proclaimed in Marxist theory, although the latter were ritualistically repeated in official texts. But the actual belief was that socialism was not dependent on any Marxian-defined level of economic development; rather, the historical outcome would be determined by the spiritual qualities of the people and their leaders.

The incorporation of Chinese nationalism into the Chinese version of Marxism enabled Mao to harness popular patriotic sentiments to the Communist cause during the decisive Yenan phase of the revolution, which coincided with the Japanese invasion of China (19371945). It made the Chinese Communist Revolution as much a war of national liberation as a social revolution.

Perhaps the most profound Maoist departure from the logic of Marxism was a pervasive populist-type belief in the advantages of backwardness. China's alleged condition of being "poor and blank," Mao believed, was a source of great moral purity and revolutionary energy that foreshadowed China's imminent leap to a socialist utopia. It was a totalistic rejection of the Marxist (and Leninist) insistence that socialism must be based on the material and cultural accomplishments of capitalism.

Such Maoist revisions of the inherited body of Marxist-Leninist theory, which were celebrated as the "Sinification of Marxism," were ideological preconditions for the peasant-based revolution that brought the Communists to power in 1949. But they left only tenuous intellectual ties between Maoism and Marxism.

In the end, Maoism sowed the seeds of its own demise. Maoist political methods and values, which continued to bear the birthmarks of its backward rural environment, became increasingly anachronistic in a rapidly industrializing society. It was thus inevitable that Mao's successors would purge Chinese Marxism of its more radical and utopian elements. They first returned to a more orthodox Marxist emphasis on the determining role of economic forces in history. What followed was the ritualization of Maoism, whose vocabulary was retainedbut only in the form of nationalistic slogans severed from the actual policies that have generated a capitalist-type economy. The final chapter in the history of Maoism has seen its reduction to a nostalgic pop culture phenomenonsuch as the opening of expensive Mao-themed restaurants and the sale (over the Internet) of old Mao badges and other memorabilia of the Cultural Revolution.

Yet if Maoism is exhausted, this is not necessarily the case for other forms of Marxism. The rapid development of capitalism in recent decades has yielded a massive industrial working class and an equally large Lumpenproletariat of migrant laborers. Many of the illegal trade unions that have attempted to speak on behalf of these highly exploited groups have done so in classic Marxist terms. It would be a grand irony of modern history if the greatest challenge to the Communist state appears in the form of a working-class movement proceeding under a Marxist banner.

Vietnam and Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, Marxism found its main political expression in Vietnam and, abortively, in Indonesia. Vietnamese Marxism was bound up with nationalism from the outset. In the early postWorld War I years, Ho Chi Minh (18901969), the preeminent figure in the history of the movement who was initially attracted by the nationalist appeals of the Leninist theory of imperialism, became a founding member of the French Communist Party. Ho united several small Vietnamese Marxian-oriented parties into the Indochina Communist Party in 1930, but the party (and Marxism in general) were suppressed by the French colonial administration, forcing Ho to operate largely from abroad until World War II.

In 1941, the Vichy-controlled French colonial regime in Vietnam began active collaboration with the Japanese army. The conditions were thus created for the ICP to emerge as the organizer of nationalist resistance to foreign dominationin the form of the Viet Minh, established in 1941 as an antifascist united front that took on an increasingly military character. While the Viet Minh was broadly based, it was Communist controlledand its leader Ho Chi Minh became the symbol of Vietnamese nationalism. Adopting guerilla warfare tactics, Communist-led military forces successively fought the Vichy French colonial regime, the Japanese army in 1945, the post-war French colonial administration, and eventually the United States in a war that lasted more than three decades. The Communist victory in 1975 was essentially the triumph of Vietnamese nationalism. Marxism-Leninism, the official ideology, lent a social revolutionary dimension to the movement. But nationalism was always at the heart of its goals and appeals.

The Communist success in Indochina was not replicated elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Indonesia offers a particularly striking contrast. The Indonesian Communist Party, organized under the influence of Dutch Marxists in the 1920s, was among the earliest and largest Marxist parties in Asia. But the party's identification with ethnically Chinese Indonesians, its pro-Beijing sympathies, and its hostility to Islam undermined its nationalist credentials. Thus, the Communist bid for power in 1965 was crushed by the Indonesian army operating under nationalist and Islamic banners. Neither Indonesian Marxism nor Communism survived the bloodbath that took an estimated half-million lives, mostly ethnic Chinese.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the main political manifestations of Marxism took the form of abortive Communist-led guerrilla insurgencies. Hostility to ethnic Chinese, as well as to China, was a major factor in the failure of Communist movements in Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma. Only in the Philippines, where Chinese migrants are socially well-integrated, does a Communist insurgency continue to simmer.


The diverse political implications of Marxism in Asia are suggested by comparing India with China. The two are countries of similar size and population, and both were impoverished agrarian lands in the mid-twentieth century. Yet while a Marxian-based political movement came to power in China and carried out the most massive of modern social revolutions, Marxian-oriented parties have been of marginal significance in India.

The difference cannot be attributed to a better understanding of Marxist theory by Chinese intellectuals. Propelled by the nationalist appeals of the Leninist theory of imperialism, Marxist ideas spread widely among Indian intellectuals in the wake of World War I, at the same time they did in China. Indeed, Marxism probably had a broader and deeper intellectual impact in India than in China because of the accessibility of English Marxist sources.

Although the Indian Communist Party was not formally established until 1926, radical Marxist groups flourished in the major cities from the early 1920s. However, the ICP was banned by the British colonial regime and its leaders were often jailed. Marxist and Communist influences were covertly expressed through the Indian National Congress of Mahatma Gandhi (18691948) and Jawaharlal Nehru (18891964), which monopolized Indian nationalist resistance to British rule, winning the support of the peasantry as well as most urban social groups.

The failure of the ICP to emerge as a serious nationalist force relegated it to a relatively minor role in India's political life. Communist support of the British during World War II, demanded by the Comintern's antifascist united front policies, underscored the Indian party's lack of nationalist credentials. Nor were the ICP's prospects enhanced by the factionalism that plagued the Marxian movement in the post-independence period. The main (but not the only) division was between pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing parties following the Sino-Soviet split of 1958. The factional cleavage between "Marxist-Leninists" and "Maoists" highlighted the failure of the ICP to develop a distinctive form of Marxism suited to specifically Indian social conditions and cultural traditions. This failure, in turn, confined the various Marxian parties to a combined total of less than 10 percent of the electoral vote, although the Communists were able to win sufficient support to lead reformist coalition governments in the states of Kerala and West Bengal. In all, however, while Marxism has had a significant impact on Indian intellectual life, its political expression has been feeble.


It would be futile to generalize about the role of Marxism in the several dozen historically and culturally distinct countries of Asia. However, two brief observations might be ventured. First, Marxian-inspired movements in Asia have been politically successful only where they have come to express popular nationalist feelings and aspirations, as has been the case in China and Vietnam. This does not mean that Marxian Communism in Asia can be reduced to a species of nationalism, but a genuine nationalist content and appeal clearly has been an essential precondition for political success. In view of the original doctrine's internationalist message, this is one of the great ironies of the history of Marxism in the modern world.

Second, where Communists have come to power, Marxism, essentially a critique of capitalism, paradoxically has functioned as an ideology of economic development whose social outcome is a capitalist-type economy. This is clearly the case in China, and appears to be the likely fate of Vietnam.

See also Capitalism ; Communism ; Historical and Dialectical Materialism ; Marxism: Overview .


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Maurice Meisner

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