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(en) Dimensions of Chinese Anarchism: An Interview with Arif Dirlik

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 15 Aug 2004 14:10:10 +0200 (CEST)

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From 1905 to 1930, anarchists exerted a broad influence on
Chinese culture and politics. They were at the center of the
emerging social radicalism of that period and their activities left a
significant mark on later decadeís revolutionary movements.
Arif Dirlik is among the few historians writing in English to treat
the Chinese anarchist movement, which he has chronicled and
analyzed in several works, most notably his Anarchism in the
Chinese Revolution. He has also written numerous explorations of
contemporary problems in radical politics and theory.
I spoke with Dirlik on May 19, 1997. I asked him about Chinese
anarchism, his experience as a radical social theorist in the
university, and the future of his work. ~ Chuck Morse

See Also: Arif Dirlik: A Short Biography and Selected Works

Most histories of anarchism begin by establishing the principles of
anarchism and then narrate the lives of those who embraced these
principles. You chose a different approach in Anarchism in the
Chinese Revolution. You describe the Chinese anarchists as both
subjects and objects Ė products and shapers Ė of the larger
revolutionary process in China, and your book traces the dialectic
between the anarchists and this process. Why did you choose this
form of exposition? Is there something about the Chinese
anarchists that makes this necessary or does it reflect larger
methodological commitments?

Itís the latter. I believe in approaching concepts, theories, or
political orientations historically. While some kind of notion of what
one means by these concepts is necessary for analysis, establishing
first principles tends to dehistoricize the approach to them. In other
words, you establish first principles - as if they were true
everywhere at all times - and then begin to analyze people in terms
of those principles. This leads to ahistorical judgments, in my
opinion, on "who is or isnít a true anarchist" or "who is or
isnít a true Marxist?"

It leads inevitably to unproductive questions of orthodoxy --
unproductive both intellectually and politically. This also results in
certain kinds of sectarianism, since it leads to a question of
truthfulness rather than historical variation. So, this didnít have
anything to do with Chinese anarchism per se, but rather my
approach to intellectual history and concepts.

Unlike Peter Zarrow in Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture,
you de-emphasize the role of Daoism and Buddhism in the
constitution of Chinese anarchism. Why is this?

There is a methodological problem here Ö There has been a
long-standing tendency - Iím tempted to call it an Orientalist
tendency even - to attribute everything new in China to Chinese
tradition, which is another way of saying that there is never
anything significantly new in China, anything that cannot be
explained in terms of the past.

I have been a critic of this tradition in Chinese historiography. I
believe that Chinese society was as subject to change as any other
society, whether or not we are willing to recognize it. So, I was
hesitant, therefore, to attribute the emergence of anarchism,
Marxism, or anything for that matter, to some Chinese tradition or

The problem is that the Chinese tradition has been used to explain
everything, from communism and Maoism to anarchism, and these
days itís fashionable to explain Chinese capitalism in terms of
tradition. I donít know how valid that is as an explanation, that
notion of tradition, when it can explain so many different and
contradictory things.

I came to study Chinese anarchism by tracing the origins of this
notion of social revolution, and I believe that Chinese anarchism
was a radical, new idea. There may be Taoist elements in it, there
may be Buddhist elements in it, there may even Ė through
Tolstoy Ė be Christian elements in it: nevertheless, my concern
was with the new ideas that anarchism brought into the Chinese
intellectual scene, chief among them this idea of a social revolution.
So, I think this emphasis explains some of the differences.

Also, we need to make a distinction between the past as a
determinant of the present and the past as a reservoir of ideas upon
which people can draw to deal with the present. There is no
question that some of the Chinese anarchists - Liu Shipei was the
outstanding one among them, and then Shifu - drew on Taoism
and Buddhism. However, this is not just the determination or
constitution of Chinese anarchism by Daoism or Buddhism, but
rather a two way, dialectical process. In other words, the Chinese
past is being read in new ways with the help of anarchism and
conversely there is a rereading of anarchism through Taoist and
Buddhist ideas. What is important to me is the dialectic, and I stay
away from the notion that the Chinese were somehow
unconsciously under the sway of this or that tradition that then
shaped their readings of anarchism.

You claim that the emergence of Chinese nationalism actually
created many of the theoretical and political preconditions for the
emergence of Chinese anarchism. This seems contradictory at first
glance. How did this happen?

This reflects a particular appreciation of nationalism on my part.
While we obviously are concerned with many of the negative
manifestations of nationalism, it is a rather radical idea at its
origins. It calls for both a new conception of state, a new conception
of the relationship between state and society, and a new conception
of the political subject as citizen. In that sense, it breaks radically
with earlier forms of political consciousness that rested legitimacy
in the emperor and rendered the subjects into passive political
subjects, whereas nationalism called for active political subjects.
Aside from the question of the citizen, nationalismís notion of
the relationship between state and society requires a new kind of
accounting for society, both in the sense of whoís going to
participate in politics, what are the qualifications for participation in
politics, and what are the factors that militate against political
participation. As I argue in my book, in some ways these changes
lead directly to questions of social revolution.

In the case of China, there is another element. Thereís at least
some kind of historical coincidence between the emergence of a
nationalist consciousness and a new kind of supra-national
utopianism, if you like. Itís as if the building of a nation
becomes the first task but somehow not the ultimate task; that once
the nation has been built and society has been reordered, there
would, in the future, be a way of transcending that nationalism.

Itís tricky ... I believe I described this as a counterpoint to
nationalism. If you recall the parts in the book about Liu Shipei -
and here the differences between anarchists become really
important Ė thereís a feeling that nationalism opens up new
questions that prepare the ground for anarchism, if you like, but
also created new kinds of threats. For example, someone like Liu
Shipei, could see correctly that for all the theoretical despotism of
the Imperial State, nationalism promised far greater and far more
intensive intrusion in society than had been the case under the
imperial state. At this point, anarchism becomes a way of asserting
the autonomy of the society against an intrusive nationalist society.

And, while I donít want to generalize too much, this may be a
fruitful way of thinking about other circumstances. This notion of
nationalism - representing a new kind of politics, raising new
questions, calling for new solutions, and playing some part in the
emergence of socialism and anarchism - may be relevant to more
than China.

Was there something unique about circumstances in China at this
time that made Kropotkin - as opposed to other anarchist theorists
Ė most pertinent or influential?

There are probably two reasons. First, Kropotkinís anarchism is
thoroughly tied to a program of social transformation and, given the
concern among Chinese radicals with the question of social
revolution, one can see why they would find Kropotkin more
relevant than some of the other anarchists. Another interesting
element is the importance of Social Darwinism in Chinese
intellectual circles around the turn of the century. Chinese Social
Darwinists almost adopted the Euro-American idea that the
so-called progressive societies are progressive because they had
won in the conflict for survival, and through this there was an
element of the new world as a world of competition and conflict,
where those who didnít succeed might in fact perish. They
were very preoccupied with the examples of the American-Indians
and Africans, and some Chinese were convinced that those two
groups, the black and red races as they called them, were doomed
to extinction.

So, this called for a strengthening of China to struggle in this new
world, but the counter-part to this was a dissatisfaction with this
world view based on conflict. And, the discovery of Kropotkin under
these circumstances - with his argument that it was not conflict and
competition but rather mutual aid that served human progress -
served as a significant antidote to this and also resonated with the
utopian strain to which I referred earlier.

Kropotkin and Reclus were very important to Chinese anarchists
and also quite Eurocentric thinkers, at least in their conception of
world history. Did the Chinese anarchists take issue with this or
attempt to develop alternatives?

I donít think so. It was really not of much concern to the Paris
anarchists. And the form in which Kropotkin and Reclus reached
the Tokyo people did not really suggest a Eurocentric interpretation
of Asia or China.

Although we are presently very sensitive to questions of
Eurocentricism, the Chinese anarchists in Paris were much more
down on Chinese traditions than anybody in Europe at the time.
These are people who were calling for a revolution against
Confucius. So, if they learned any of this in Europe, they were
much more enthusiastic about the repudiation of the Chinese past
for its backwardness than Europeans themselves.

In the case of Liu Shipei, who had very high opinions of Chinese
past, I think it was somewhat different. There the influence of
Tolstoy may have been quite important. Liu Shipeiís objection
was not so much to Europe as to a new idea of politics and the idea
of economic developmentalism that came with Europeans.

The anarchists took a strong stand against the anti-Manchu racism
implicit in the Revolutionary Allianceís arguments against the
Manchu government. Was there an attempt to develop an anarchist
theory of ethnicity?

Iím not aware of any such attempt. I think they took a stand
against anti-Manchu racism because they thought it was a
distraction from the whole issue of politics. In other words, it was
not the Manchus that were the problem, but the centralized political
state system and, to the extent that racism was raised as an issue, it
distracted from this more fundamental problem of the state.

Feminism and anarchism have had a difficult and complicated
relationship in Europe and America, yet feminism was apparently
integral to Chinese anarchism and not even a contentious issue
within the anarchist movement. Is there a reason why feminism
was so easily integrated into the anarchist movement in China?

Iím going to make a distinction between a concern for women
and feminism in answering this question. The description of the
Chinese anarchists, including people like He Zhen, as feminists
may be somewhat misleading: it fits in with current fashions, but I
think the concern was more with the oppression of women and
what could be done about it than with a specifically feminist

The anarchist involvement in the question of women, when we
rephrase the problem in that manner, followed almost automatically
from their concern with the family as an oppressive institution.
They were concerned with that throughout, and I think this brought
them to the question of women, which was also a diffuse concern
in Chinese society around 1920.

You write that you wanted to facilitate the emergence or
re-emergence of a more democratic socialism by recalling and
examining the history of Chinese anarchism. Did you also intend to
assist in the revitalization or reemergence of anarchism?

When I began working on Chinese anarchism I sensed that there
was a renewal of interest in anarchism, in a very broad sense, and I
hoped to write this book as a contribution to that. And, by the
1980ís the failure of the promise of the Chinese revolution was
becoming more and more evident, and I found that anarchism
provided an interesting critical perspective on what had gone wrong.
Also, to the extent that anarchism is laden with such valuable
insights, obviously it is important to revive it and bring it to the
forefront of discussions.

You are a unambiguously radical scholar of Chinese revolutionary
movements and a full professor at a capitalist university in America,
the center of world imperialism. How could you be employed in
such a setting? Have you been pressured to de-radicalize or
depoliticize your work? If not, what does this reveal about the
relationship between the university and radical social criticism?

Contradictions (laughs) Ö No, Iíve never been pressured to
deradicalize or depoliticize my work. If thereís pressure itís
indirect; you know, sometimes people say "what do you do?" and
Iíd say "Iím writing a book on Chinese anarchism" and all
they can say is "oh". Thereís a sense that you are doing
something marginal and playing games. That kind of pressure
doesnít bother me.

I think Iíve been lucky. You know, Iíve had friends who
have suffered for being radicals. There have been hints of slight
discrimination with regard to salaries and things like that, but I do
not know whether to attribute that to the fact that I am a radical
scholar or because Iím of third world origin. There may be a
number of explanations here.

We forget sometimes that elite uni-versities really need their
radicals. Elite universities, committed to giving their students the
broadest education possible and making them function in the world,
cannot afford to produce narrow ignoramuses who have never
heard of Marxism or anarchism. This may be why thereís
probably more tolerance for radicals in the elite universities than in
smaller places. Thatís what I had in mind when I jokingly said

In some ways, this is the strength of the American education
system, in comparison, letís say, to the Chinese education
system where if something was politically un-desirable it was kept
out, with the consequence that you end up with a bunch of people
who didnít know anything about the world other than what
theyíve been fed by way of ideology. We are much more subtle
with our controls and, under current circumstances, so long as you
are not an activist, there are not serious reprisals.

We have a very intelligent power structure here. For example, about
ten years ago somebody came to see me from the CIA. They were
looking for students to recruit and were particularly interested in my
students, because they figured they would know about Marxism,
anarchism, etc., and if you want intelligent analysts you need well
informed people who know about these issues. I think thatís
where the power establishment here differs, say, from the
Peopleís Republic of China or the former Soviet Union, where
undesirable knowledge will simply be cast aside rather than
incorporated into an understanding of the world.

You just published a book on post-colonialism, The Postcolonial
Aura. How does this work relate to your studies on Chinese
anarchism? Also, please explain your discussion of postcolonialism
as post-revolutionary.

In The Postcolonial Aura I tried to raise the question of third world
intellectuals. There has been a preoccupation recently with
Eurocentricism and the Euro-American oppression of other peoples
which sort of sweeps aside the importance of capitalism in shaping
the world and how many of those rejected Euro-American values
are actually transmitted to the rest of the world through capitalism.
It seemed to me, to the extent that capitalism has globalized, it has
globalized through the complicity of third world intellectuals,
professionals, states, whatever, and, therefore, a critique of power
and authority in our day cannot be satisfied with a critique of
Eurocentricism or Euro-American domination of the world, but
rather must include a criticism of third world intellectuals,
professionals, states, power structures, etc.. Thatís what I seek
to do in this work.

As for the post-revolutionary aspect, this grew out of a historical
curiosity about the meaning of postcolonialism: we have been
post-colonials for some time now, why should postcolonialism gain
such currency in the late 1980ís? After all, even when we had
the radical movements of the 1960ís, most third world societies
were already post-colonial or clearly becoming postcolonial, and yet
there was a sustainable radicalism in those years, unlike the
1980ís or 1990ís. The question became: Whatís the
difference? Whatís happening here? Why are we talking about
postcolonialism, all of a sudden, instead of colonialism,
domination, and capitalism, etc?

The tendencies that have gained the greatest popularity, in the
United States especially, are those which tend towards an obsession
with ethnicity, inter-ethnic relations, identity politics, etc.,
tendencies that question and even deny the possibility of collective
identities. To me there is no meaningful political activity, especially
revolutionary activity, without the sense of a collective identity. It is
this undermining of notions of collective identity, combined with
the circumstances I referred to earlier, that led me to assert that
what we are dealing with was really a post-revolutionary, not just
postcolonial, orientation.

How do you see your work developing in the future?

Well, I think any radical has enough reason to be depressed these
days: there doesnít seem to be anything happening and
radicalism has sort of been highjacked by conservatives and liberals,
and rendered into identity politics.

On the other hand, some of the recent work I and others have done
indicates that there is a great deal of resistance and protest going on
which is not visible in the old ways because it isnít happening
in major labor unions or big, visible communist parties, etc.. There
are people fighting for their livelihoods, trying to create new social
forms from the bottom up. Some of it is dangerous, some can be
right wing, but much of this has to do with peopleís efforts at
survival under whatís happening with contemporary capitalism.
And there is a proliferation of these movements: womenís
movements, ecological movements, social justice movements.
They are happening all over and yet contemporary radicals, such as
they are, are unwilling to see them.

These are not movements that you would associate with
conventional left (read: Marxist) politics. They are movements from
the bottom up. Iím not going to call them anarchist - some are
feminist, some are ecological - but if there were anarchist
movements going on, they would be some-thing like that. I think it
is important to draw attention to these movements and theorize
them as much as possible. This is what Iím working through:
how to really conceptualize radical movements from the bottom up.
* Ed. Note, A "prophecy" just before the upsurge
of the rew antiauthoritarian anticapitalist movement.

Perspectives on Anarchist Theory
Vol. 1 - No. 2 Fall 1997

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