Lessons from the History of Chinese Anarchism

From Empty Hands History by Spencer Beswick

In 1995, Love and Rage militant Joel Olson wrote an article called “The History of Chinese Anarchism” that drew lessons from the defeat of anarchism and the ascendance of communism (Marxism-Leninism) in China in the 1920s.

Marxists sometimes present this transition as an inevitable evolution from the supposed adolescent phase of anarchism into the maturity of Marxism. Not so, says Olson; as in Europe, this “was not an ‘evolution’ but a political struggle—one that the anarchists lost” due to “the anarchists’ failure to come up with a revolutionary strategy that could build a mass movement without violating their principles of autonomy and freedom.”

The problem for the Chinese anarchists was their faith in the spontaneity of the masses—so long as they were properly educated in the “new morality” which would “bring out the ‘natural’ anarchist inclinations in people.” They did not believe in class struggle or movement building. Indeed, Olson explains that “their anti-political stance led them to be skeptical of any attempts at organizing larger than the local level. […] Most Chinese anarchists believed in an ‘organic’ revolution. They saw social change not as class struggle but in terms of alternative forms of social organization such as communes, study societies, and other free spaces that would replicate themselves, spreading anarchism and anarchist ideas throughout society until eventually the state and capitalism were overthrown.”

In the final section of the article, aptly titled “Learning the Lessons,” Olson argues that:

“Before anarchism can be viable it must be able to effectively organize a democratic political movement that is based on the idea that humans built this world and thus humans are the ones who will have to change it, not on some apolitical belief in the power of ‘spontaneous’ or ‘organic’ local actions to spread throughout a society. This has to be done not by abandoning politics, but by creating a new, participatory, nonhierarchical democratic politics. […] The task now is to make that democracy eminently political, and bridge the gap between democracy and organization.”

This captures the essence of what Love and Rage was attempting in this period: to create new forms of mass, democratic, participatory politics that would be grounded in anarchism but resolute in the search for mass politics beyond radical subcultures and alternative spaces.

Leave a Reply