“Age of Awakening”: A Comparison of Chen Duxiu and Mao Zedong Thought

In this longer read ACR member Gregor Benton is interviewed by the student newspaper at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in which he discusses the difference of thought between Chen Duxiu and Mao Zedong on Marxism and Trotskyism. The courage of the students requesting such an interview should be commended.


This interview was originally published in the student newspaper at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a link to the original Chinese language version can be located here


Q. Whereas Wang Fanxi recognised that both Mao and Chen “built a rough superstructure of foreign style on a solid Chinese foundation,” other writers such as Isaac Deutscher would describe Mao’s thought as more traditional. According to Isaac Deutscher, “Mao’s idiom is far more archaic than Chen Duxiu’s, whose language was closer to that of the European, especially the Russian, Marxists of the pre-Stalin era,” and Maoism was an “amalgam of Leninism with China’s primitive patriarchalism and ancestral cults”. Is Deutscher right? Can we distinguish between Mao’s “indigenous” and Chen’s “foreign-influenced” thinking? How do you see the relationship between the “foreign” and “native” elements in their thinking? 

A. As boys, both Chen Duxiu and Mao Zedong studied the Confucian classics. Both turned against Confucianism as adults and assimilated elements of Western learning. However, Mao had less exposure to it than Chen. Mao was by nature an activist and pragmatist. He had little interest in theory as such. Theory was for him practical and instrumental.

Chen Duxiu was also an activist, jailed on several occasions, but he was by nature a scholar. He made a deeper study of Western thinking than Mao. He was far better acquainted than Mao with critical Western thinking. Commentators have called Chen Duxiu a Westerniser, because of his admiration for Western thinking. This was especially so during his editorship of New Youth in the late 1910s. But even though he was better acquainted than Mao Zedong with Western thought, he was not deeply acquainted with it. He could not read English or Russian. Most of what he learned about Marxism and Western thought was through the medium of Japanese.

Mao Zedong refused to go abroad in the late 1920s until the revolution in China was complete, so he was even less exposed than Chen Duxiu to foreign culture. Many would see Mao’s refusal as admirable and patriotic. No one can accuse Mao of being an uncritical Westerniser or a Wang Ming-style follower of Stalin. Was Chen Duxiu an “all-out Westerniser”? No, he despised Chinese who kowtowed before Westerners, including the Russians. In the early years of the Chinese Communist Party, European Bolsheviks like the Dutchman Maring dominated decision-making in the Party, and their bad advice was in large part responsible for the defeat of 1927.

Chen Duxiu resented their dominance, but like all other Chinese Communist leaders at the time (including Mao), he lacked the confidence and ability to resist policies even though he inwardly opposed them. For example, he opposed immersing the Party in a united front with the Guomindang. He also resented the imposition on the Party of a regime of extreme centralism, since he had always been a democrat and continued to espouse democratic principles even after his conversion to Marxism. But for a long time, he did not go public with his criticisms of the Russians. After his expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party,  he became a Trotskyist.

The Trotskyist Opposition was quite different in character from the official party. It encompassed a wide spread of political approaches and saw a lively internal debate. Chen Duxiu felt a strong sympathy for Trotsky’s politics and proposals. Even so, he never uncritically accepted Trotsky’s pronouncements. For example, Trotsky thought that the Soviet Union remained a workers’ state, despite the Stalinist tyranny. By the late 1930s, however, Chen Duxiu saw Russia under Stalin as little different from Nazi Germany under Hitler.

Marxism is an internationalist doctrine. Although Marx supported the struggle of poor and oppressed nations against rich oppressor nations, class mattered for him more than nation. Both Mao and Chen were internationalists but in different ways and to different extents. Chen Duxiu was more so than Mao. He had a closer connection to Western thought, as a result of his time in Japan and the contacts he made as a result of his editorship of New Youth. He was further removed than Mao from Chinese patriarchal culture. However, he was no less a patriot. He rejected the imperialist degradation of China. His rejection of foreign interference extended to interference by the Soviet Union. In that sense, he was even more a patriot than Mao. For example, in 1929, when the Soviet Union intervened to prevent Chinese forces from taking over the Far Eastern Railway in northeast China from the Russians, he criticised as unpatriotic the CCP’s slogan of “armed defence of the Soviet Union.” Mao too eventually came out in public against Soviet bullying. However, for decades he held back from open criticism.

Both Chen Duxiu and Mao were outraged by Russian bullying, but Chen Duxiu was freer after his expulsion from the Party to denounce it. Secretly, Mao rejected the proposals that Stalin imposed on the CCP in the 1930s with the help of his Chinese protege Wang Ming. However, he generally went along with them. He built the CCP on the same autocratic lines as the Soviet party under Stalin. When Stalin invented the theory of “socialism in one country,” as opposed to Lenin’s idea of socialism as a part of world revolution, Mao Zedong again followed suit. The CCP became more nationalistic, and could justify its nationalism by pointing to the Soviet model. Chen Duxiu, on the other hand, followed Trotsky, who rejected “socialism in one country” and never departed from an internationalist stance. After 1949, Mao Zedong emphasised the need for colonial, semi-colonial, and formerly colonial countries to form an international alliance. Many of Mao’s supporters in the West saw this as a new form of internationalism. To a certain extent, it was. However, where Chinese national interests clashed with those of other oppressed nations, the Chinese Communists forsook their internationalism. Such was the case, for example, in 1971, when Beijing gave economic aid and political support to its friends in the government in Ceylon when it crushed a popular rising led by Ceylonese revolutionaries. 

Both Mao and Chen were steeped as a result of their early education in traditional thinking. Both found it hard to shed old ideas and approaches. However, Deutscher’s analysis of Mao is quite shallow. Yes, Chen Duxiu was more strongly influenced by foreign thinkers and Mao read few foreign books and even fewer Marxist books until the late 1930s. Moreover, the Marxism that Mao absorbed in Yan’an was heavily Stalinised. Even so, Mao famously championed women’s liberation as a young man. He saw the patriarchal lineage as a rope that bound the Chinese people to their oppression, and he was determined to destroy it – his programme of land reform removed its very foundations, irreversibly. Shortly before his death, he launched a movement aimed at eradicating Confucian influence. Unconsciously, however, he remained far more influenced by Confucian and patriarchal attitudes than Chen Duxiu, who was the main vector in China of the new thinking that electrified urban intellectual life after the May Fourth Movement of 1919. The social system that Mao and his comrades created, in the countryside before 1949 and throughout China after 1949, had many of the features of a repressive Confucian-style hierarchy. Chen Duxiu never had the chance to create a new society, but if he had, it would have taken a different form. 

However, Chen Duxiu’s distance from rural culture and from old attitudes and beliefs was in one sense the undoing of Chinese Trotskyism. Chen Duxiu and the Trotskyists were unable to extend their base to the vast Chinese countryside, and even in the cities their political project failed woefully. They were more influential as writers and translators than as revolutionary activists, and under Chiang Kai-shek they spent more time in jail than in the factories. They were determined to cling to the cities because they believed, with Trotsky, that rural rebellions would lead to a new despotism, as they had in the past. They therefore set out to break the cycle by rallying the modern urban classes, especially the proletariat, behind a campaign for socialism with democracy. However, their campaign failed. They lacked the resources of the Maoists and the ability of the Maoists to speak the language of the peasants. They lacked the sanctuaries that the Maoists established in the villages, which is why the Trotskyists spent so long in jail under Chiang Kai-shek. The Maoists not only had a better understanding of the rural world but were better equipped to rouse it behind their goals. However, the Maoists’ goals had at least a basic commonality with Chen Duxiu’s political programme: to build a modern state capable of standing up for China in the world. So Deutscher is wrong to associate Mao with primitive communalism.

When Chen Duxiu formed the Party with Li Dazhao in 1921, he welcomed radicals of all shades into its ranks, ranging from anarchists to socialists and radical nationalists. This pluralism ended with the Russians’ “Bolshevisation” of the Party in the 1920s. The Party under Mao Zedong was never democratic, and became monochrome after the defeat of Mao’s opponents in the leadership in the late 1930s. Mao’s actions both before and after 1949 were never aimed at extending democracy either within the Party or outside it. Democracy was Chen Duxiu’s first love in radical politics. He never renounced his attachment to democracy, and he returned to this his first love in his final years. 

In Western radical circles, however, Mao Zedong was associated in the 1960s with socialist democracy and even anarchism. During the Cultural Revolution, he seemed ready to unleash creative chaos and “mass democracy” in order to defeat his opponents in the Party. This had a big effect on the youth movement in Paris, London, and Berlin and on the anti-war movement in America. However, Mao closed down the youthful ferment in 1968, after it began to get out of hand, just as he and Deng Xiaoping had closed down the Hundred Flowers movement in 1957 for the same reason. By 1968, the Red Guards had more or less served their purpose. Why had Mao dared to risk chaos to achieve his end? Because he was confident of the loyalty of broad sections of Chinese youth, who had resented the direction that the Party took after 1949 and saw Mao as their champion. Pro-Mao radical observers in the 1960s and the 1970s outside China misunderstand the nature of Maoism. Far from being a radical democrat, Mao Zedong was a Stalinist, though he was a far bolder and more charismatic Stalinist than Stalin. Yes, he allowed young people a superficially free rein in 1966. Generally, however, he used Stalinist methods to maintain his rule.

Q. Maoism is often hailed as the sinicisation of Marxism, and its stress on practice is regarded as the key to its indigenisation. In the patriotic movie “The Awakening Age,” released recently in China, Chen is portrayed as a patriot and the founder of CCP and Mao as his successor. But although Mao confessed to having been hugely influenced by Chen Duxiu, he also attacked him for his Trotskyist and “counter-revolutionary” mistakes. In the post-Mao era, there has been a revived interest in Chen’s writings among young Chinese. What is Chen Duxiu’s historical significance for people’s struggles today?

A. Chen Duxiu died too soon to influence the main phase of the Chinese Revolution. He and Mao had important goals in common. Where Mao promoted the “Chinese characteristics” of Chinese Communism, Chen insisted that China should make its own revolution according to its own lights. However, Chen could not accept Mao’s kowtowing to Stalin in the name of internationalism. Chen was the same age as his comrade Trotsky, and not in awe of him, in the way that Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin. Both Chen and Trotsky were outcasts from the mainstream of world communism and had none of the material support available to Stalin, and through him to Mao. Chen Duxiu died in poverty and isolation in Sichuan in 1942. His comrades persevered, but they were unable to preserve their unity after Chen Duxiu’s and Trotsky’s death.

In December 1952, the surviving Trotskyists in China were netted up and imprisoned, in many cases for the next 27 years, as “counter-revolutionaries” (having already spent years in jail under Chiang as revolutionaries). Have they left behind a legacy? In 1989, during the protest movement in Tiananmen Square, one of the students’ slogans was “Sai xiansheng, De xiansheng, ni hao?” – Hello, Mr Science and Mr Democracy, the playful slogan put forward by Chen Duxiu during the May Fourth Movement of 1919. After Mao’s death, popular disillusion with the CCP was deep and wide, even among the Red Guards, who felt that they been betrayed by the Party leaders at the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Chen Duxiu’s followers were gradually freed from prison and allowed to return to a relatively normal life in the community after 1976, young historians visited them with questions about the past and their implications for the present. Many young people in the 1980s saw the Party as corrupt and brutal. For some, the Trotskyists, long denounced as national traitors and pro-Japanese collaborators,  seemed untainted by the poison that had infected the official Party. Today, interest in Chen Duxiu and the Trotskyists, while still relatively tiny, has led to the formation of study groups in most major universities.

The Trotskyists in their heyday were inspired by two main projects, which were of course interconnected: permanent revolution, as opposed to the staged and manipulated revolution favoured by Stalin and the Maoists; and democracy within the Party and the country. Before their jailing in 1952, most Trotskyists saw the Soviet Union as a workers’ state and supported it as such, despite its perceived degeneration under Stalin. Later, most of them applied the same analysis to China – also a workers’ state, born of revolution, but one that had been deformed from the start as a result of Soviet influence and the rural path that it had taken, as opposed to the modern urban path that the Trotskyists had favoured. Today, few independent leftists outside China see China as a workers’ state, and most would describe it as capitalist or state capitalist.

As for the issue of permanent revolution, it is no longer to the fore in China, having been settled by the events of 1949. However, the massive inequalities that resulted from China’s capitalist evolution in the late twentieth century have given rise to a great and endless wave of workers’ protests that hold out the promise of a workers’ revolution of the sort that the Trotskyists have long envisaged in China. The Chinese Trotskyists’ indelible association with democracy chimes with the current concerns of large swathes of Chinese opinion, especially in the universities and in Hong Kong. The Trotskyists were never a real force in Chinese politics and the veteran generation of Trotskyists is long since dead. A revival of the Trotskyist party in China would be a miracle. However, the workers’ movement and the emergence of a small band of pro-worker activists in China’s democratic movement may hold out the hope for a new anti-bureaucratic, anti-capitalist, internationalist left that could draw at least in part on the experiences of the Trotskyists.

Gregor is currently working with two Chinese comrades on a sequel volume to his Prophets Unarmed: Chinese Trotskyists in Revolution, War, Jail, and the Return from Limbo. (Brill/Haymarket 2015/2016). This sequel volume looks at Chinese Trotskyists in later generations and emanations.

The planned title might be: The Longest Night: Chinese Trotskyism across Three Generations, in Memory, Letters, Exile, and Diaspora

The title draws on the fact that the Trotskyists were netted up on the winter solstice, as mentioned in Zheng Chaolin’s poem looking back on the arrest on its seventh anniversary, in prison, in 1959:

The light today dies soonest, 
tonight’s the longest night.
Looking back across these seven years, 
I recall the night that broke our hearts in two.
When yin attains its limit, yang begins to grow,
and heat and cold eventually swap places.
The years spin round at ever greater speed, 
while I pursue my lonely, dreary course.

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Gregor Benton is emeritus professor of Chinese history at Cardiff University. He has published many books on China and other subjects. His principal research areas are modern Chinese history, dissent under communism, and Chinese diaspora. His Mountain Fires: The Red Army's Three-Year War in South China, 1934–1938 won several awards, including the Association of Asian Studies’ prize for the Best Book on Modern China. His translation of Mei Zhi’s F: Hu Feng’s Prison Years won the English Pen Award.

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