LAW Yuk-fun

Historical photograph of Li Dazhao, one of the founders of Chinese Communist Party, who mobilized the peasant class.

Li Dazhao was one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. Under his lead, the party organized a labor movement and cooperated with others, including anti-Communist factions, in an effort to achieve national unification. Li’s other important contribution was his innovative modification of Marxism to suit uniquely Chinese conditions, an adaptation that helped socialism take root in China.

Li Dazhao, along with Chen Duxiu, cofounded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. Soon after, at the urging of the Comintern (the Communist International established in 1919 and dissolved in 1943), the CCP became allied with the Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist Party) under Sun Yat-sen in an effort to present a united front in China, with one of the goals being to eliminate warlordism. Li’s revolutionary tactics would eventually anger Zhang Zuolin, the warlord in power in the mid-1920s; Zhang’s forces captured Li in April 1927 and executed him, along with nineteen others. Li’s contributions to the CCP would become evident some two decades later when the party, under Mao Zedong, came into power in 1949.

Born in Leting, Hebei Province, to a land-owning family, Li Dazhao acquired a comprehensive understanding of the Chinese peasantry, which later influenced his theoretical innovation in the application of Marxism in China. In 1913 Li went to Japan and enrolled at Waseda University, where he studied political science and began to learn about Marxism. In mid-1916 Li returned to China, participating in the antimonarchial restoration movement against warlord Yuan Shi-kai. In 1918 Li took a job as head librarian at Beijing University., where he learned more about the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and encountered Mao Zedong, who later became the leader of Communist China. Meanwhile Li wrote numerous articles to promote modernization and democratization as effective self-strengthening means to fight domestic warlords and foreign imperialists. Some of Li’s articles were published in the journal New Youth, whose founder was Chen Duxiu, the other cofounder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The May Fourth Movement of 1919 turned Li to the Marxist camp. In the September 1919 issue of New Youth Li introduced Marxism to his Chinese audience, followed by another article on the Bolshevik Revolution three months later. In both works Li argued that Communism was the only way to save China from foreign imperialism. Li argued that mobilization of the proletariat and violent revolution were essential and justified. Li’s ideas were well received, and numerous Marxist study groups were founded, with Li heading the Beijing branch, Chen the Shanghai branch, and Mao the Changsha branch. Meanwhile Li and Chen explored the idea of forming a Communist party.

With Soviet Comintern assistance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded on 1 July 1921, in Shanghai, and Li served on the executive committee in the Beijing area. In 1924, at the Cominterm’s instructions, Li led the CCP to join Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang, intending to create a united front to protect the growth of the infant CCP. Li was elected to the GMD’s Central Executive Committee, where he gained resources to support his works in north China. This cooperation between the CCP and the GMD was called the “First United Front,” and the primary task was national unification by eliminating warlordism.

During his stay in the north until his death in 1927 Li concentrated on the labor movement and united-front endeavors to accomplish national unification. In the meantime he continued to promote and modify Marxism to fit China’s unique conditions. In 1923 Li published a work entitled Populism, in which he argued that all people are equal and enjoy the same political rights regardless of socioeconomic status. Li also enlarged the Marxist concept of the proletariat by including peasants. Given China’s mass peasantry, Li stressed its potential revolutionary value and urged party members to go to the countryside to recruit and mobilize the peasants. Li also formulated a number of military tactics and operational strategies, emphasizing the manipulation of China’s vast rural hinterland. All these strategies had direct bearings on Mao, whose final accession to power in 1949 was to a large extent due to the tailor-made tactics and strategies to suit Chinese conditions that Li had formulated two decades earlier. By the same token, this Chinese variant of Communism was accountable for the tense relationship between the Chinese Communists and the Soviet Union from time to time.

Li’s overt antiwarlordism, however, had irritated Zhang Zuolin, who at the height of Li’s revolutionary activities in the mid-1920s, controlled the Beijing government. In 1926 Li’s activities were driven underground when Zhang ordered his arrest. Li found refuge in the Soviet Embassy. Gaining foreign acquiescence, Zhang’s army marched into the Beijing Legation and raided the Soviet Embassy. Li was arrested on 6 April 1927, and executed on 28 April 1927.

Further Reading

Hsü, I. C. Y. (2000). The rise of modern China (6th ed.). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Li Dazhao. (2002). Pingmin Zhuyi [Populism]. Beijing: Huaxia Chubanshe.

Meisner, M. (1967). Li Ta-chao and the origins of Chinese Marxism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Law, Yuk-fun. (2009). LI Dazhao. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1311–1312. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

LI Dazhao (L? Dàzh?o ???)|L? Dàzh?o ??? (LI Dazhao)

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