The will and the way? A review of John Rapp's Daoism and Anarchism...

A timely revival?

A review of Daoism and Anarchism: Critiques of State Autonomy in Ancient and Modern China by John A. Rapp (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012)

For the uninitiated, the Dao, derived from the Dao De Jing (also rend as Tao/Tao Te Ching) is a classical Chinese text thought to have been produced around 6th BCE by a mystical hermit called Laozi. It’s an ambiguous set of poems mainly in the form of advice, purporting virtues and wisdom primarily in the attainment of peace.

From the outset a number of people will undoubtedly object to the premise of a book contrasting and comparing a modern revolutionary idea with something that has the trappings of a religion, or an esoteric fad. Rapp tries to cover that, to varying degrees of success, but if you’re dismissive of religion, utopian thought and pacifism, then you’re going to have problems with a good core of the writing that’s presented.

The book, as Rapp sees it is “aimed at helping non-China specialists to see anarchism as not just a Euro-American concept.” (3) The way this is done is twofold. He contrasts the political nature of the Dao, and the extent of its similarities with anarchism. This forms the premise of the first part of the book.

The second is about misfired Maoist critiques of the Dao and the emergence of ‘neo-anarchist’ trends within modern China, from 20th century onwards. Utilising a term he’s derived from Roberto Michels, Rapp uses neo-anarchism as a ‘negative elite theory’ for those who are grappling with the reality of the bureaucratic nature of the Chinese state, even sometimes within Marxist theory, including inner PRC dissenters. In addition, the book also has appendices of translated Daoist texts of some of the works he discusses at length.

Rightly, the book begins with a definition of anarchism. To Rapp, anarchism is “the idea that the state rules for itself whenever it can…[and] in being able to gain autonomy from its subjects.” (3) Onto this Rapp adds a caveat about wanting to move beyond seeing revolution as a shibboleth to anarchist politics. Whether you think this is an attempt to shoehorn Daoism into the anarchist sphere, or it’s about tracing a libertarian strain of thought historically, I will leave to the reader. Through the course of the book I oscillated between the two.

The roots of the Dao and Laozi begin in pre-centralised China. The emergence of the first imperial dynasty, Qin, around 221BCE is seen as one of the bloodiest episodes in the countries history. The Qin dynasty gave rise to what we would recognise as a modern repressive state. The Dao is not only a critique of the move toward centralism, but also contains tracts in praise of pre-feudal lifestyles. Whether there were genuine communistic style communities that survived Qin empire building, or whether this was a swan song to a lost age is hotly contested. Rapp doesn’t seem to take a definitive view on this, he does however, take issue with a number of scholars who seem to paint the Dao as being in favour of a benevolent government. Rapp believes centrally that the Dao is about ‘undermining political authority.’

From Laozi the radicalism associated with the DDJ seems to go through spates. Rapp eludes somewhere this is because it’s incorporated as a religion by feudal warlords squeezed out by Confucius, but also because it emerges as a current usually in the face of crisis. But notable recantations are brought forward by Ruan Ji, Tao Qian, Bao Jing and the rather ambiguous Zhunagzi. All of whom espouse something we could constitute as having libertarian flourishes to them and some of their abridged works are included in the appendices.

There is a very interesting discussion on the meaning of the utopian nature of the Dao, speculation as to the influences the Dao had, even on Confucius, but for me there was an unanswered problem about why the Dao was unable to evoke social movements. The second problem, which is picked up with the emergence of the early Chinese anarchist movement, is the almost zero political influence Daoism had past the 20th century. Noted historian Arif Dirlik stated that early writings on Chinese anarchism overstated the influence of the Dao, but by Rapp’s closing of the book, despite having discussed the Dao at some length he acknowledges almost the same, but puts hope in a revival of the Dao in opposition to renewed interest in Maoism and Confucius.

By contrast the second half of the book is a potted history of libertarian currents in the modern period. Rapp takes us through the early Chinese anarchist movement and then through the various epicentres of inner and outer party theoreticians, activists and what have you. This part of the book is sublime and slightly different to the more politically elusive tone of the chapters on Daoism.

We are introduced to Shengwulian, who were a dissident Red Guard organisation emanating from the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, who were wanting to take the fight to the ‘Red Bureaucracy’ much further, the Democracy Wall Movement (who were famed for the "Mao Zedong was thirty percent right and seventy percent wrong!" statement) and a host of theorists who started raising critiques around the nature of the bureaucracy, the Asiatic Mode of Production and the need for a change of direction. Some of these people on some level may never have actually broken with the state or the PRC, but that’s not entirely the point. These were a number of tendencies taking to the right path in an otherwise unenviable set of circumstances, both intellectually and in terms of repression. Somewhere in the midst of all this is a very interesting analysis and then a debate on the influence of anarchist ideas on Mao (yes, Mao!).

There might be a lot of bones to pick over, and I am still not sure on the political cannon of the Dao, but the comparison from the book contrasting the politics to Kropotkin and Tolstoy is apt, and frankly there is much worse you could be reading.

Posted By

Feb 18 2013 21:09


  • Rapp adds a caveat about wanting to move beyond seeing revolution as a shibboleth to anarchist politics. Whether you think this is an attempt to shoehorn Daoism into the anarchist sphere, or it’s about tracing a libertarian strain of thought historically, I will leave to the reader.

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Feb 18 2013 21:17

Thanks for posting this.