Overview and critical reflection on the historical significance of early 20th century Chinese anarchism, from a 2013 conference celebrating the centennial of China's first anarchist periodical, Huiminglu, better known as Minsheng (Voice of the People).
Huiming Centennial: Why Talk about 1910s Anarchism in the 2010s?
I. Goals of this conference
II. Overview of presentations (omitted)
III. Historical background
IV. Why talk about it now?
V. Ideas for discussion (omitted)
Goals and Concept
This conference aims (1) to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Huminglu, and (2) to promote interaction among people fighting against oppression in China and other countries. A century ago in this very city, Shifu and his associates launched China’s first anarchist periodical, Huiminglu (Records of the Rooster Crowing in the Dark), which changed its name to Minsheng (Voice of the People) upon moving to Shanghai in 1914. There the group connected to Minsheng began researching workers’ resistance. In 1917 they returned to Guangzhou to help workers there form China’s earliest modern labor unions, in 1918 starting China’s first labor periodical and organizing China’s first May Day demonstration. Minsheng focused on popularizing the ideas and practical experiences of European anarchists such as Kropotkin and Chinese anarchists such as Liu Shipei and He Zhen (who had begun publishing from Tokyo in 1907). Liu and He had been the first to theorize “women” and “peasants” as subjects of social revolution in the history of Chinese thought, and it was through Minsheng that many Chinese revolutionaries (anarchist and otherwise) were exposed to such ideas, which played key roles in the New Culture Movement, May Fourth, and the Shanghai Labor University, for example. In 1921 some (former) anarchists took part in founding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), adopting Bolshevized Marxism, while others gradually became opponents of the CCP, developing various critiques of Leninist theory and the USSR’s model of practice (Ou Shengbai’s critique coming close to European left communist positions, for example). The Chinese anarchist movement effectively ended by 1930 after losing many partisans to the CCP and suffering brutal repression by the Nationalist KMT, but in the first three decades of the 20th century, it was the most influential alternative to the revolutionary models offered by these two parties, with over 90 anarchist organizations at the movement’s peak in 1920 and an estimated “several thousand” anarchists influencing countless other revolutionaries and reformers. Although their theory and practice had many flaws, looking back after a century of failed revolutions, perhaps we can excavate some forgotten lessons of relevance to our present situation.
Historian Arif Dirlik (1991:10) dates “the heyday of anarchism in China” from 1905 to 1930, when various forms of anarchism played a central role in China’s diverse revolutionary discourse and practice, until they were marginalized and suppressed by the Guomindang, on the one hand, and the CCP, on the other. The first Chinese anarchist organization, World Society (世界社), was founded in Paris in 1906, followed by the Society for the Study of Socialism (社会主义讲习会) and the overlapping Society for the Restoration of Women (女子复权会), both founded in Tokyo in 1907. The latter two organizations and their journals Natural Justice (天义报) and Discussion (衡报) played key roles in theorizing women and peasants as central subjects of the “communalist” reorganization of China and the world. (Maoism later embraced this prospect, only to distort its revolutionary potential by subordinating peasants and women to the exigencies of “defending the revolution” and “developing the forces of production.” The presentations by XX and XX will deal with aspects of this suppressed possibility first theorized by Chinese anarchists in Tokyo.1 Natural Justice also published the first Chinese translation of Marxist texts:, the first section of The Communist Manifesto and selections from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, both in 1907.
The first anarchist organizations in China were the overlapping Conscience Society (心社) and Cock’s Crow Society (晦鸣学社), established by the Cantonese Shifu and his comrades in Guangzhou in 1912, relocating to Shanghai in 1914 as the Society of Anarcho-Communist Comrades (无政府共产主义同志会). The “centennial” commemorated by this conference refers to their journal, founded in 1913 as Huiminglu, then renamed Voice of the People (民声) the following year and providing some continuity to China’s anarchist movement until 1922. In 1917, anarchists associated with this group initiated the formation of China’s first modern labor unions (among barbers and teahouse workers in Guangzhou), the following year organizing China’s first May Day celebration and founding China’s first labor journal,《劳动》. At the same time, anarchists in Beijing and elsewhere played a major role in the New Culture, May Fourth, New Life and New Village movements of the late 1910s, as well as some early efforts at organizing peasant insurrection in the 1920s, forming a radical pole in reference to which other revolutionaries and reformers had to define themselves, or as Dirlik (1991:34) writes, “an irreducible horizon” that forced revolutionary discourse in general “out of its political boundaries onto the uncertain terrain of the social.”
According to one estimate, there were several thousand self-described anarchists throughout China in the early 1920s, with 92 organizations formed between 1919 and 1925. (Xiao Xing, cited in Dirlik 1991:13). When the Comintern initiated Marxist study groups in several Chinese cities in 1920, anarchists featured prominently, with the Guangzhou group consisting entirely of anarchists, and until some of these groups formed the CCP the following year, the term “communism” was most commonly understood as anarcho-communism (Dirlik 1991:17). Throughout the 20s, many old and new anarchists went on to develop critiques of the Bolshevized Marxism of the CCP and the USSR, along with the ideology and practice of China’s ruling Guomindang. Many others compromised their ideals (or revised their strategy) to justify collaboration with the Republican government, especially after the Guomindang crackdown on the CCP in 1927, for example in running the experimental Labor University in Shanghai and its newspaper Revolution (革命周报). Over the following two years, however, the Guomindang extended its repression to the anarchists, effectively ending the Chinese anarchist movement by 1930. This roughly coincided with the eclipse of anarchism by various forms of Marxism, nationalism, and liberalism globally until its resurgence starting in the 1960s and taking off in the 1990s. (One important exception was Spain, which saw the most successful anarchist-led revolutionary movement to date in 1936; there anarchism was not suppressed until the fascist victory in 1939, and has remained an influential memory to the present.)
Why talk about it now?
Just over 20 years ago (when many still believed that Chinese socialism might be salvageable if only reformed properly), Dirlik (1991:46) wrote that the early Chinese anarchists “demand our attention” for at least two reasons “beyond the historical”: (1) because “against revolutionary strategies that presupposed a necessary compromise of revolutionary goals in order to confront the exigencies of immediate necessity, they reaffirmed a revolutionary consciousness… that provides an indispensable critical perspective from the Left on the unfolding of the Chinese revolution,” and (2) “what they had to say about revolution in one of the most important revolutionary historical contexts of the 20th century may have much to tell us about revolution at a time when the crisis of socialism (and society) is deeper than ever.”
During the 20 years since Dirlik wrote that, anarchism underwent a major revival and development globally, including a much smaller revival in the Chinese-speaking world. Following the fragmentation of Marxism in the global 1960s and its marginalization in many countries in the 1980s-1990s, anarchist ideas and tactics re-emerged and developed in conversation with new trends in Marxian theory, coming to play key if not central roles in the anti-globalization and environmentalist movements in the 1990s, for example, and in the post-2006 sequence of struggles characterized by riots and plaza occupations (including the Greek uprising of 2008, the Arab Spring, and the “Occupy” movement) – just as it had played a key role in early 20th century revolutionary discourse and practice in China and elsewhere. Many would argue, therefore, that Dirlik’s reasons to study the early Chinese anarchists should be expanded to include the possible use of their legacy to help revive the anarchist movement in China. I will not make such a proposal – personally, I think that both past and present anarchist movements have at least as many flaws as Marxism, and moreover that certain strands of Marxian theory are more helpful for understanding our contemporary world and how it might be changed. More importantly, I think we might benefit from discarding the traditional division of the radical left into exclusive identities such as “anarchist” and “Marxist” – along with factionalism among anarchists and Marxists. This is not a call for a united front: if anything, I think we need more theoretical clarity, but I think that clarity will come not from traditional divisions such as “anarchist” vs. “Marxist,” but from empirical research and practical experimentation that draw critically on both traditions and perhaps others. I encourage people to study China’s anarchist legacy, therefore, both to excavate elements of its rich (anti-)political imagination that were subsequently distorted or suppressed, and to learn practical lessons from its mistakes that many anarchists and others today seem prone to repeat.
- 1 Also see The Birth of Chinese Feminism, edited by Liu, Karl and Ko (Columbia University Press 2013), and “Imagining a Different Future: Anarchist Equality and the Form of Labour in the Journal of Natural Justice” by Zhihang Qiao (Frontiers of History in China 7(3), 2012).