Just a few years ago many socialists in the West saw China as the stronghold of true socialism in the world and Mao Zedong as its wise leader. Now China has few such ‘foreign friends’ and Mao-bashing has taken over from Mao-worship, with some of yesterday’s main worshippers among today’s main bashers. This article, though critical of the Chinese Communist Party, is not part of that trend. It starts out from the belief that what happened in China before and after 1949 was not a restoration of ‘oriental despotism’ but a real revolution, led by a Party of quality that has turned China into a power in the world. But the ‘socialism’ that this revolution brought about was lacking in one vital ingredient: democracy. This study addresses the reasons for that lack, and in so doing rejects two great myths about the Chinese revolution: the old myth that the Party’s immersion in the countryside softened it and made it more prone to listen to the ‘masses’; and the new myth that all China’s present ills have their origin in Mao’s bad character.footnote

Some hold that the reason China does not have democracy is because its traditional political culture forms an insuperable barrier to the establishment of democratic institutions, and that to deplore the lack of them is a hopelessly ethnocentric attitude, not to say ‘cultural imperialism’. Certainly many early Chinese radicals, and even some recent dissidents, have taken the view that China’s salvation lay in Westernization or world revolution, and even today many see China’s ‘feudal’ or Confucian tradition as a main source of its present despotism. What they abhorred in China’s traditional culture was its absolutism, patriar-chalism, and rigid conformism, which were reproduced at all levels of the social system, right down to the family. Confucian China was ruled by a single elite (the state bureaucracy) that kept all serious rivals (religious, economic) under strict control, and left little room for serious political dissent.

It is true of course that the political culture of a country sets the terms within which its political changes will occur. This culture can both help and hinder a radical regime. In China the existence of a tradition of struggling for state power was an asset for the revolution, though it was easily outweighed by the all-pervading tradition of despotism. However, political culture is not an immutable given that exists apart from political, social, and economic relations. Japan’s recent history shows that given a great enough social shock Confucian traditions need not block the emergence of democracy. Shanghai’s ‘merchant democracy’ of the late Qing shows that ‘traditional’ Chinese society could, when put to the test, sustain a surprisingly stable democracy (if only for the merchants) which, ironically, came to a stop only with the Revolution of 1911.footnote1 The rapid growth of a modern capitalist class in the early twentieth century widened the potential base for such democracy, whose main political representative was Sun Yat-sen.

Peasants formed the vast bulk of Mao’s army, and some Chinese Maoists and their Western sympathizers have claimed that the traditional political culture of the countryfolk was quite distinct from that of the Confucian elite, and a storehouse of dissident communalist and even revolutionary values. But today few Chinese seem to believe this, and there is little evidence to support it. On the contrary, peasant society was traditionally conservative and a stronghold of patriarchalism, parochialism, and superstition. Still, these qualities are not innate, and along with changes in rural economy and society both during the revolution and after its final victory new attitudes and values became apparent in the villages.

Chen Duxiu may have drawn his inspiration for the Party from the Bolsheviks, but his idea of it was quite different from theirs. Chen believed that ‘revolution is the work of saints’. Unlike Stalin, he opposed the creation of a strong Party chief, rather insisting that the General Secretary should be elected by and responsible to the different committee heads. He even let non-Marxists and anarchists join the Party. Under his leadership different points of view vied rather freely, and though the outcome of this discussion was settled largely in Moscow, it was some time before the Chinese Party was transformed completely along Russian lines.footnote2

Even Mao Zedong recognized that under Chen Duxiu the Party was ‘rather lively’, though he could not omit the ritual denunciation of Chen’s ‘bourgeois thought’ (in reality the political line forced on Chen by his Comintern advisers). In 1959 Mao said: ‘When we founded the Party, those who joined it were all young people who had taken part in or come under the influence of the “May Fourth” movement. After the October Revolution, when Lenin was still alive, when the class struggle was acute, and before Stalin had come to power, they too were lively. The source of Chen Duxiu-ism is the Social Democratic parties overseas and the bourgeoisie at home. Generally speaking there was no dogmatism in this period, despite the mistakes of Chen Duxiu-ism.’footnote3

Before he became a Communist Chen’s project, as formulated by his journal New Youth, was to save China by learning from the West. Just as Europe’s early Enlighteners had once looked to China for models of the rational society, so China’s Enlighteners of May Fourth 1919 sought their light in Western concepts of humanism, democracy, individualism, and scientific method. But they learned them in artificially compressed time, racing from ism to ism under the constant threat of foreign guns, unlike the philosophes, who had had a century to prepare and spread their ideas. They assimilated an impressive list of doctrines, but reached real depth in none. Thus even democracy, though among Chen’s first and last loves, was rather shallowly rooted in his thinking, and no match for the ‘Bolshevizers’.footnote4