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Chen Duxiu – Co-Founder and First General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)

Compiled by Lionel Bopage
27 May 2022

Was His Expulsion the Greatest Miscarriage of Justice in the history of the CCP?


Chen Duxiu was a revolutionary socialist, educator, philosopher and author, who with Li Dazhao co-founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. From 1921 to 1927, he served as the first General Secretary of the CCP. Chen was a leading figure in both the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty and the May Fourth Movement for scientific and democratic development in the early Republic of China. He studied French, English, and naval architecture and went to Japan under a government scholarship. While in Japan, socialist ideas and the growing Chinese dissident movement influenced him. Chen helped setting up two radical political parties there, but refused to join a Revolutionary Alliance, which he considered as narrowly racist.

In the late 19th century China, Government corruption was rampant and led to an economic crisis and widespread impoverishment. He was critical of the corrupt bureaucracy and became increasingly influential within the revolutionary movement, which was agitating against imperialism as well as against the Qing government. He founded the Anhui Patriotic Association in 1903, the Yue Fei Loyalist Society in 1905 and became an outspoken writer and political leader during the time of the 1911 Wuchang Uprising. This uprising started the Xinhai Revolution that led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. In 1912, Chen became secretary general to the new military governor of Anhui, while serving as the dean of a local high school. There he contributed to establishing a student organization, pro-rebel Qing soldiers and secret society members.

Chen established the influential Chinese periodical New Youth for this purpose. Believing social progress cannot be achieved without accurately reporting on the prevailing social issues and deficiencies. Chen introduced many new ideas into popular Chinese culture. Confucianism was unacceptable to him because it preached orthodoxy of thought, while rejecting freedom of thought and expression. It advocated submissive compliance to the inequitable status quo. Chen rejected the concept that the individual was the basic unit of society. Instead of Confucianism, Chen advocated progressive social and political values; independence instead of servility; cosmopolitanism instead of isolationism; utilitarian beliefs instead of impractical traditions; and scientific knowledge instead of visionary insight.

In January 1917, Chen joined the Peking University as its dean. As a professor and dean, he pursued his anti-Confucianism modern ideas with vigour. For Chen “socialism is a theory of social revolution succeeding political revolution; its aim is to eliminate all inequality and oppression.” In 919, conservative opponents at the university forced him to resign. He was jailed for three months by the Peking authorities for distributing “inflammatory” literature that demanded the resignation of pro-Japanese ministers, and government guarantees for the freedoms of speech and assembly.

Chen became a Marxist, being impressed that the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a way of modernizing an underdeveloped country. In May 1920, with a handful of followers, Chen founded a communist group and prepared to establish the CCP. The first representative conference of the CCP was held in July 1921. Chen was elected as secretary general and remained so as the undisputed leader for seven years. He was often regarded as “China’s Lenin”. Chen developed a cooperative, which later became a troublesome relationship with the Communist International (Comintern). Over the next decade, the Comintern sought to use the CCP as a tool of Soviet foreign policy, leading to policy disagreements between CCP leaders and Comintern advisors.

Chen was not confident of the advantage of collaborating with the Kuomintang, but he had to reluctantly carry out the Comintern’s instructions to do so. He was even elected to the Central Committee of the Kuomintang. Nevertheless, Chen came into conflict with Mao Zedong in 1925 over Mao’s essay “An Analysis of Classes in Chinese Society”. While Chen believed that the focus of revolutionary struggle in China should primarily be about workers, Mao placed primacy on peasants. During the last years of his life, Chen denounced Stalin’s dictatorship, and held that various democratic institutions including independent judiciary, opposition parties, free press, and free elections were important and valuable. Because of Chen’s opposition to Mao’s interpretation of Communism, Mao believed that Chen was incapable of providing a robust historical materialist analysis of China. This dispute would eventually lead to the end of Chen and Mao’s friendship and political association.
In 1927, Chen with other high-ranking Communists, including Mao Zedong and Mikhail Borodin, closely collaborated with the Nationalist government in Wuhan. Under this influence, the Wuhan government subsequently carried out certain land reform policies. However, considering this as a provocation, various Kuomintang aligned generals attacked the regime.

Chen was forced to resign as General Secretary in 1927, due to his public dissatisfaction with the Comintern’s order to disarm. This order led to the deaths of thousands of Communists, and is known as the Shanghai massacre of 1927. Also, Chen disagreed with the Comintern’s new focus on peasant rebellions.

After the CCP – Kuomintang collaboration fell apart in 1927, the Comintern blamed Chen, and systematically removed him from all positions of leadership. In 1929, he was expelled from the CCP. Later on, he became associated with the International Left Opposition of Leon Trotsky. Like Chen, Trotsky opposed many of the policies of the Comintern, and publicly criticized the Comintern’s effort to collaborate with the Nationalists. Chen eventually became the voice of the Trotskyists in China, attempting to regain support and influence within the party, but failed. Chen and Trotsky started a complex relationship that was not known in the west, which revealed the developments of Trotskyism in China. Currently there is a revived interest into this interesting relationship.

In 1932, Chen was arrested by the government of the Shanghai International Settlement, where he had been living since 1927, and extradited to Nanjing. In 1933, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Nationalist government, but was released on parole in 1937 after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Chen was one of the few early leaders of the CCP to survive the turmoil of the 1930s, but he was never able to regain any influence within the party he had founded. During the last decade, he had to spend an obscure life. During the long March 0f 1934-35, the Communists had to flee the cities where China’s fledgling industrial working class was concentrated and seek refuge in remote rural areas. There they were able to mobilize the support of peasants. This was naturally taken as vindicating Mao’s position in his debate with Chen.

During the Long March, Mao Zedong emerged as the leader of the CCP.
When Chen was released from prison, he refused multiple offers of positions by the Kuomintang. He said, despite the importance of the war effort “Chiang Kai-shek killed many of my comrades. He also killed my two sons. He and I are absolutely irreconcilable”. Afterwards, Chen met with the heads of the Nanjing Office of the CCP. An attempt was

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