Time and Agency in the Global Thought of Li Dazhao
Li Dazhao (1888-1927) is well-known as “China’s first Marxist” and founder of the Chinese Communist Party, but he also offers one of modern China’s most sophisticated understandings of human agency, which he understands as a capacity to transform human and non-human environments through the orientation of one’s self to the dynamic passing of time. This paper uses his thought in two ways. First, I show how Li justifies revolutionary action in an understanding of time as an ontological, non-human force that shapes, but also makes possible, human efforts to change their political and social worlds. Li focuses specifically on transforming whole epochs of shared history through the narration of selective pasts, the mobilization of present energies, and the propulsion of human will through progressive time. Second, following Li’s insistence on the capacity of present action to confound entrenched cultural and historical boundaries, I take Li’s work as a precedent for my own theorizing. Li draws on ancient Chinese cosmology, Daoism, contemporary social Darwinism, the materialism of Henri Bergson, and Marxist historical materialism to show how action in the present has the power not only to shape future outcomes but also to reorder the way we view and use past thought. His eclecticism chastens attempts to ascribe to him a classically Marxist worldview, even as it offers a new way of situating his own work within a refigured, global trajectory of thought that generates its own modes of inquiry. I therefore hope to establish Li as both theorist and example of a truly cross-cultural temporal ideology, which resists identification with parochial Western lineages to orient us toward future possibilities of hybridization.
Leigh Jenco (BA, Bard College; MA and PhD, University of Chicago) since 2012 has been Lecturer in Political Theory at the Department of Government of the London School of Economics and Political Science. She was born near Pittsburgh, PA, USA but has since lived for extended periods in Nanjing, Chicago, Taipei, and Singapore. Before joining LSE she was appointed Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Political Theory Project, Brown University, USA (2007-2008); and Assistant Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (2008-2012). She situates her research and much of her teaching at the intersection of contemporary political theory and modern Chinese thought, emphasizing the theoretical and not simply historical value of Chinese discourses on politics. To that end, she has given talks in English and Mandarin across Asia and North America, and has published articles in journals such as the American Political Science Review, Political Theory, Journal of Asian Studies, and Philosophy East and West.
Keywords: Chinese political thought, comparative political theory, global political theory
from our workshop on Power, Time and Agency held in Manchester, January 2013