Comintern and the Nationalist Movements in China

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

While Karl Marx believed that there could be no revolution before its time, Vladimir Lenin believed that one could plan and orchestrate a well-coordinated class uprising to hasten a revolution. Read how these two opposing thoughts affected the Chinese nationalists.

Image of Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall with the statue of Sun in front of it.
The Comintern had dispatched several undercover agents to China to explore the possibility of linking up with the newly born revolutionary forces there. (Image: cozyta/Shutterstock)

Marx’s View on Proletarian Revolution

Karl Marx had argued that a proletarian revolution was a spontaneous act that could, and would, only occur when the objective economic contradictions of industrial capitalism had fully intensified and played themselves out.

At that point, and only at that point, the exploited industrial workers, having (in Marx’s famous phrase) ‘nothing to lose but their chains’, would rise up in revolt against their capitalist slave masters. They would seize the factories and abolish all private property.

Precisely because such an uprising could, in Marx’s view, occur only when the contradictions of advanced capitalism had become so intense as to create a situation of spontaneous combustion, a proletarian revolution could not be a product of purposive human agency, that is, there could be no revolution before its time.

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The Russian Revolution of 1917

Unlike Marx, however, Lenin was in a hurry. And, his impatience was rewarded by the Bolshevik experience.

In Russia, the revolution of 1917 was an organized, purposive uprising, led by a self-conscious, conspiratorial Communist Party. The Bolshevik experience proved that one didn’t need to wait until the internal contradictions of capitalism were fully ripe. One could increase the workers’ revolutionary awareness through focused education, propaganda, and indoctrination.

One could also organize workers into secretive, clandestine cells for the purposes of revolutionary agitation. One could, in short, plan and orchestrate a well-coordinated class uprising.

Indeed, this was precisely the stated mission of the Soviet Party. In Lenin’s view, the Bolshevik Party was a highly disciplined organizational weapon that would be used to hasten the coming of the proletarian revolution.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

A Revolutionary Communist Party in China

Statue of Lenin.
The Chinese found Lenin’s prescription for speeding up the historical dialectic by creating a revolutionary Communist Party quite appealing. (Image: Drevs/Shutterstock)

In China, where capitalism was still in its virtual infancy, and where the industrial working class made up no more than perhaps two or three percent of the total population, Lenin’s prescription for speeding up the historical dialectic by creating a revolutionary Communist Party proved quite appealing.

And, shunned by the bourgeois societies of western Europe and surrounded by forces hostile to Bolshevism, Lenin began to search for revolutionary allies abroad.

The ‘Comintern’

Hoping to exploit the radical intellectual ferment of China’s May 4th movement, in 1919, the international arm of the Soviet Communist Party, the Third Communist International (more commonly known as the ‘Comintern’), dispatched several undercover agents to China to explore the possibility of linking up with the newly born revolutionary forces there.

What these Soviet agents found in China was a country descending into disorder. There was no national government that could command obedience in the provinces, which were governed by shifting coalitions of regional warlords.

They also found a situation in which two quite distinct types of revolutionary thinking and organization were developing on separate tracks, quite independent of each other.

The small, newly created Communist movement, the core of which was the Marxist study group at Peking University, was organized by Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu. The other—and at that point, more important— organization, was the newly resurgent republican movement of Sun Yat-sen.

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Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party: Guomindang

Photograph of young Sun Yat-sen.
Sun Yat-sen led the republican movement in China. (Image: K. T. Thompson/Public domain)

After fleeing from China in 1913, Sun had lived in exile in Japan. But as China descended into chaos after Yuan Shikai’s death, Sun began to look for an opening to re-enter the Chinese political scene.

His opportunity came in 1917, when a group of southern provinces, including Guangdong, rebelled against the dissolution of the national parliament in Beijing.

Returning from Japan to his native Canton, Sun began to reassemble the scattered remnants of his failed republican movement. These remnants formed the political base of Sun’s reorganized Nationalist Party, the Guomindang.

Under the patronage of a sympathetic Cantonese regional warlord named Chen Qiongming, in 1921 Sun proclaimed the birth of a Military Government of the Republic of China, and named himself as commander-in-chief.

Sun Yat-sen and Comintern

In 1921, a Comintern operative named Maring had been sent by Lenin to seek out potential revolutionary supporters in China. Although Sun was suspicious of Maring and Lenin’s underlying motives, he was clearly attracted by the prospect of gaining Bolshevik financial and military support.

In 1922, Sun had moved his headquarters to Shanghai, where his conversations with Lenin’s representatives grew more focused and intense.

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Sun Yat-sen’s Agreement with Soviet Diplomat

In January 1923, Sun hammered out an agreement with a Soviet diplomat named Adolf Joffe.

In exchange for receiving substantial Soviet military training, weapons, and equipment, Sun agreed to mute his previous hostility toward Bolshevism and allow the Comintern to advise him in reorganizing his Guomindang Party, in order to turn it into an effective Bolshevik-style revolutionary weapon.

Comintern and Chinese Marxist Movement

Even before Maring and Joffe courted Sun Yat-sen, their Comintern colleague, Gregoir Voitinski, had secretly begun liaising with leaders of the new-born Chinese Marxist movement in Beijing.

In 1920, Voitinsky met with Li Dazhao at Peking University. Li, in turn, introduced Voitinski to Chen Duxiu.

From all reports, Voitinski was not terribly impressed with these two rather naïve and unsophisticated Marxist enthusiasts. Moreover, at this early stage, Li and Chen had recruited relatively few core followers; and their entire Marxist network comprised a few dozen vaguely radicalized members of the Beijing University study group.

Nevertheless, Lenin ordered Voitinski to cultivate Li and Chen, and their followers, and to educate them in Communist doctrine. The result was that they rid themselves of a good deal of their youthful idealism, bourgeois sentimentality, and romantic nationalism acquired during the May 4th era. They had now become dedicated revolutionaries.

Common Questions about Comintern and the Nationalist Movements in China

Q: What were the two revolutionary movements developing in China after May 4th movement?

The first revolutionary movement was the small, newly created Communist movement, organized by Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu. The other was the newly resurgent republican movement of Sun Yat-sen.

Q: What was the ‘Comintern’?

Comintern’ was the international arm of the Soviet Communist Party, the Third Communist International.

Q: What was the agreement between Sun Yat-sen and the Soviet diplomat Adolf Joffe?

The agreement was that in exchange for receiving substantial Soviet military training, weapons, and equipment, Sun Yat-sen would mute his previous hostility toward Bolshevism and allow the Comintern to advise him in reorganizing his Guomindang Party.

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