With a great deal of razzle-dazzle, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is celebrating its centenary this month. Looking back on a century of party history, Chinese and foreigners alike emphasize themes of success, competence, ideological agility (or adaptability), and ruthlessness—or resolve. A hundred years ago, meeting in a small house in Shanghai in July 1921, a tiny handful of men intrigued by the little bit of Marxism that they knew and impressed by the success of the Russian Revolution agreed that China needed a proletarian revolution. They faced long odds and several near-extinction events, but their heirs rode China’s revolutionary tides to power in 1949.
But a century later, one of the striking accomplishments of the CCP is the degree to which it has fulfilled not Karl Marx’s dreams but those of Sun Yat-sen. Sun, a leader of the Revolution of 1911 who briefly became first president of the Republic of China in 1912, was no communist. But over his long career as a professional revolutionary, he sketched out many plans for how a strong government would develop China’s economy, achieve independence from the imperialist powers, and lead society toward democracy.
For the CCP, Sun Yat-sen is a “Forerunner of the Revolution.” He was one of Mao Zedong’s first political heroes, while in the official historiography of the People’s Republic of China, Sun has long been remembered as a “bourgeois revolutionary” who helped set the stage for the Communist Revolution. In essence, a backward, feudal China at the beginning of the 20th century needed the kind of bourgeois revolution Marx saw in 19th-century Europe. Sun thus played a more or less progressive role in the unfolding of history in China, but a limited one. By the 1940s, Mao had concluded that China’s bourgeois revolution had failed because the bourgeoisie was weak and, worse, in cahoots with the imperialist powers occupying China.
In the early years of the 20th century, Sun envisioned a lively role for markets and entrepreneurs in China’s modernization, while he expected the state to control the economic heights, such as finance, heavy industry, and infrastructure. Reform-era China since the 1980s has, at least roughly speaking, headed in this direction. Sun thought poverty, not class exploitation, lay at the root of China’s problems. Today’s CCP cannot publicly renounce the Marxist-Maoist principle of class struggle, but it has made building a “prosperous society” (xiaokang shehui) a core goal and source of legitimacy.