The spread of historical materialism in China

Previous research on the acceptance and spread of Marxism in modern China was basically focused on its role as a persevering revolutionary guiding theory, with an emphasis on its well formulated theoretical system characterizing its rich achievements of the period. As one of the research results, it was found out that Wu Enyu is the first non-party figure in the history of spreading historical materialism in China, as he learned about Marxism when he was a young student before he went to Tsinghua University later and then to the United Kingdom and continued to study historical materialism under Laskie. After returning to China, he published a highly influential work in this area of study. This reflects to some extent the connection between academic intellectuals and the historical process of Chinese translation, research, and dissemination of historical materialism. Ye Qing, a theorist of the Kuomintang’s Three Principles of the People, using the knowledge of Marxist theory he obtained from various sources during the period of time from his going to study in Paris to his being arrested by the Kuomintang, analyzed and propagated the world revolution, the Chinese revolution, and the revolution of the Communist Party of China; what he did was really beneficial to the development of the revolution, although his understanding and application of Marxism was rather pragmatic, and far from a full formation of an independent theoretical system.4

A few scholars believe that ever since the materialist conception of history entered China as a “new trend of thought” after World War I, it has embarked on a journey of theoretical compromise wavering between “materialism” and “idealism”. The original “economic determinism” theory repeatedly plunged people into a predicament of material and willpower mutually excluding each other. However, the Russian Revolution with its remarkable success had proved the powerful force of the revolutionary will to break through the material limitations. As far as the theory itself is concerned, the rational and material deduction logic of historical materialism ultimately points to a bipolar society with strong emotional stimuli, thus implying a promising mentality of striving for innovations through conflicts.5 Moreover, academically Gu Jiegang during the Republic of China did not exclude historical materialism. As early as the 1920s, he expressed his appreciation for writings using historical materialism. In the early 1930s, he expressed his willingness to accept historical materialism, and later embodied it in his research on ancient history. Although he criticized the debate on social history, his criticism was mainly targeted at “setting as the sole criterion” and “formalism” of historical materialism as was demonstrated in some scholars of the time.6 It is also held by some scholars that Li Dazhao was the first to spread Marxist historical materialism in China, and made three major contributions. One is having set up courses on “studies of historical materialism” at Peking University and other universities, which had cultivated the first generation of key talents with a good knowledge of Marxist historical materialism for the revolutionary cause led by the Communist Party of China. The second is taking historical materialism as a truth for guiding the study of Chinese historical culture and moral reconstruction. The third is using historical materialism to explore the pathway leading China’s development and to have oriented China to socialism. After an examination of how historical materialism evolved in modern China, some scholars believe that historical materialism, as the foundation and backbone of Marxist theory, was introduced into China during the May 4th Movement in the 20th century and was taken as both a view of history and an outlook on life and of society. Dialectical materialism became

Chinese history studies 2009 to 2019 257 popular in the 1920s, whereas historical materialism was reduced to a status of derived theory. In the 1930s, it was equated with the theory of social form, and then developed into historical materialism under dialectical materialism, which constituted the basic content of Chinese Marxist historical methodology. In 1938, as the call for “localization of historical materialism in China” emerged, the dialectics of the unity of opposites ultimately guided the historical materialism to the theory of class struggle.7

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