How Marx and Lenin Influenced Chinese Nationalists


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

In the swirling vortex of the May 4th movement, all the ambivalent elements in China’s long-simmering love/hate relationship with the West were powerfully reproduced and amplified. Read how the Chinese nationalists were influenced by the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.

Image of Communist monument in Beijing.
The works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin encouraged the rise of communism in China. (Image: jorisvo/Shutterstock)

Influence of Bolsheviks

After the May 4th movement, while one group of Chinese nationalists gravitated toward Western liberalism, another group was strongly attracted to its Bolshevik antithesis, represented by the triumph of the Russian Revolution.

Disillusioned with a century of cruel and callous Western treatment of China, as well as Western hypocrisy at Versailles, a growing number of radical Chinese intellectuals were drawn to the example of the Bolsheviks who had successfully thrown off centuries of czarist oppression and seized the property of the ruling classes.

For the Chinese struggling to overcome a century of national impotence, this was an extraordinary achievement.

Learn more about the Self-Strengthening Movement.

Li Dazhao: Leader of Marxist Study Group

Photograph of Li Dazhao.
Li Dazhao believed that patriotism was the key to preparing the country for its coming liberation struggle. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Shortly after the Russian Revolution, Chinese scholars began translating the works of Marx and Lenin into Chinese; and a Marxist study group was formed in 1918 under the guidance of a Peking University history professor, Li Dazhao.

Part anarchist and part socialist, Li Dazhao believed that for China to regain its lost national strength and energy, patriotic intellectuals would have to replace the pessimism and passivity that had paralyzed the Chinese psyche, with a new spirit of intense mental and physical struggle. Patriotism, he believed, would play a vital role in this national mobilization.

In this belief, Li differed from his principal collaborator, Chen Duxiu.

Chen Duxiu: A Westernized Intellectual

Photograph of Chen Duxiu.
Chen was an introspective rationalist. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Chen was a Westernized intellectual who, early in his career, wrote that the key to China’s national reawakening lay in the twin icons of the Western Enlightenment, which he called ‘Mr. Science’ and ‘Mr. Democracy’.

Chen Duxiu distrusted patriotism as a blind, non-productive emotion, one that could certainly arouse people, but without necessarily enlightening them. And he stressed, instead, the importance of deep self-knowledge and knowledge of society as the essential prerequisites of effective social action.

Together, these two unlikely allies—Li and Chen—founded China’s first quasi-Marxist journal, the Xin Qingnian, or ‘New Youth’ in 1917.

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

Mao Zedong

A year later, in 1918, a 25-year-old Hunanese sojourner, Mao Zedong, applied for a job as assistant librarian at Peking University. Armed with a letter of introduction to Li Dazhao from his former middle-school teacher in Hunan, Mao got the job.

It would change his life and modern Chinese history, as well.

Photograph of young Mao Zedong.
Mao was more of a populist than an elitist. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Right from the start, Li Dazhao’s influence on the young Mao was apparent. Like Li, Mao believed that young Chinese intellectuals needed to toughen their minds and bodies for the coming national struggle; and like Li, he was more of a populist than an elitist. He believed that the main force for China’s national salvation would be the country’s long-suffering rural masses, the peasantry.

These were not particularly Marxist ideas. Indeed they went against the grain of orthodox Marxism, which placed all revolutionary hopes on a violent upheaval by the urban working class, the proletariat.

Learn more about Mao’s Socialist vision.

Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism

While Marx’s predictions of violent class struggle between workers and capitalists clearly appealed to many radical Chinese intellectuals, Lenin’s theory of imperialism made a far bigger impression. The reasons for this were not hard to find.

For one thing, Lenin provided a clear and coherent theoretical explanation for China’s 19th century descent into national humiliation and degradation; for another, Lenin’s writings contained a powerful revolutionary prescription for how to reverse China’s steep decline into national impotence.

Lenin’s Reasons for Imperial Expansion

Lenin suggested, first, that the global commercial expansion initiated by the Western powers in the 18th and 19th centuries was not merely random or accidental, but was the inevitable outgrowth of the ever-intensifying competition for commercial profits within the advanced capitalist countries of Europe. In Lenin’s view, imperial expansion abroad was the direct result of diminishing returns on capital and labor at home.

Both as a source of cheap labor, industrial resources and raw materials, and as a potential market for Western machine-made exports, pre-industrial societies such as China and India were powerful magnets that attracted foreign mercantile capitalists to their shores.

China had been ‘carved up’ by foreign powers in the half-century following the Opium Wars, and the existence of vast, untapped overseas markets, resources and labor made it possible for the Western powers to adopt a mutually tolerant strategy of ‘share and share alike’ in their collaborative exploitation of China’s national wealth.

Learn more about the Manchu dynasty.

Results of Expansion of Capitalism

But that was not the end of Lenin’s remarkable theory of imperialism. As overseas European commercial expansion continued apace, he argued, it must eventually lead to the exhaustion of easily-exploitable profit-making opportunities. Once the low-hanging fruit of foreign concessions and extraterritorial privileges had been effectively harvested, commercial rivalries among the imperialist powers would inevitably heat up.

In terms of modern game theory, the expansion of capitalism abroad would eventually be transformed from a non-zero-sum game (that is, a win-win situation of mutual gain) into a zero-sum game, where one power’s gain was the other powers’ loss.

In China, Japan’s attempt to impose the 21 Demands in 1915, and thereby secure an exclusive industrial and commercial foothold in China, represented precisely such a transformation from a mutually cooperative game to a highly competitive one.

The inevitable end result of such competition, in Lenin’s view, was world war. This, in a nutshell, was Lenin’s theory of imperialism: Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism; and war, in turn, is the highest stage of imperialism.

Common Questions about How Marx and Lenin Influenced Chinese Nationalists

Q: Who founded China’s first quasi-Marxist journal, the Xin Qingnian?

Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu founded China’s first quasi-Marxist journal, the Xin Qingnian in 1917.

Q:   How did Li Dazhao’s influence Mao Zedong’s beliefs?

Like Li Dazhao, Mao Zedong believed that young Chinese intellectuals needed to toughen their minds and bodies for the coming national struggle; and like Li, he was more of a populist than an elitist.

Q: What was Lenin’s theory of imperialism?

Lenin’s theory of imperialism was: Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism; and war, in turn, is the highest stage of imperialism.

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