The idea of ‘socialism with national characteristics’ is usually attributed to Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement concerning Chinese characteristics. And it is often dismissed as an excuse to do anything, whether Marxist or not. But the idea actually stems from Lenin and Stalin. In 1917, Lenin wrote:

Our business is to help get everything possible done to make sure the “last” chance for a peaceful development of the revolution, to help by the presentation of our programme, by making clear its national character, its absolute accord with the interests and demands of a vast majority of the population (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 26, p. 60).

The main theoretician of the ‘national question’, Stalin, went a step further in 1927:

In its content the culture of the peoples of the U.S.S.R. which the Soviet Government is developing must be a culture common to all the working people, a socialist culture; in its form, however, it is and will be different for all the peoples of the U.S.S.R.; it is and will be a national culture, different for the various peoples of the U.S.S.R. in conformity with the differences in language and specific national features (Stalin, Works, vol. 10, pp. 72-73).

In 1939, Mao Zedong wrote:

A Communist is a Marxist internationalist, but Marxism must take on a national form before it can be put into practice. There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used. If a Chinese Communist, who is a part of the great Chinese people, bound to his people by his very flesh and blood, talks of Marxism apart from Chinese peculiarities, this Marxism is merely an empty abstraction. Consequently, the sinification of Marxism – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay (Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 6, p. 539).

So by the time Deng Xiaoping made his famous statement in 1982, he was following in this tradition:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history (Selected Works, vol. 3, p. 2)

When I was in Beijing, a somewhat aristocratic Englishman was asked what he thought of Australia. ‘I have been there only once he said’, with evident disdain, ‘but it struck me as very British?’ I was somewhat nonplussed, wondering what Australia he had visited. I am by nature a generous person, assuming the best of people. So after pondering his odd comment for a few moments, I actually managed to say, ‘Every now and then, the odd person arrives with such an expectation. The intelligent ones soon learn how mistaken they are’.

I awaited Kotkin’s biography on Stalin – the first of three volumes – with much anticipation, since the blurb promises a balanced and humanised Stalin, which goes against standard accounts. It claims the book is nothing less than the definitive work of Stalin, even redefining the art of history itself.

To say I was profoundly disappointed is an understatement. Kotkin’s endless pages are nothing less than an ideological rant of the first order. He fails to understand Marxism at all and champions a clear liberal agenda that condemns Stalin as a dictator hungry for power and control. If only Stalin had seen the benefits of capitalism, much evil would have been avoided! The book is yet another work in the dreary list of efforts to demonise Stalin, rather than analysing the dynamic of veneration and demonisation itself. It may well be the first ideological salvo in a new Cold War.

Is it possible that one may have special insight into the soul, whether living or dead? The ‘deep’ thinker is able to plumb the depths of truth, of the human condition, of life itself. When discussing a philosopher’s complex and controversial reasoning, the thinker barely pauses to observe, ‘he was an evil man’. All discussion stops, stunned by the revelation – or perhaps flabbergasted, for I can never tell. Immediately, the philosopher’s thought is worthless. Or in a debate over different cultural traditions, their intersections and alternative paths, the thinker comes straight the point and says with utmost gravity, ‘we’re all different’. Strange how no-one had thought of that before. No need for further debate. Or when discussing the fundamental issues of how to bake bread, when to take out the garbage, whether the windows need cleaning, or whether picking one’s nose or blowing it is better, she will point out: ‘there is a little goodness within’. Yes, of course; somehow I had not realised such a truth until now.

I must admit that I am slower than most in divining the nature of the ‘deep’ thinker. At first, I too am taken in by such insight, such wisdom. But eventually I too realise it is all a sham. The thinker attempts to mask stunning superficiality with the pretence of thought. Forget scholarly tomes, careful study, the struggle with formulating one’s thought. A cliché will do, anytime and every time. Such a cliché is particularly useful when discussion reaches a level – usually rather quickly – in which the thinker feels out of depth. Thus, Plato or Adorno or Lenin or Mao can be summed up in a one-liner, without ever reading a word they wrote. The thinker need not write anything, for he or she already knows the truth and can impart it, like a guru, in pithy statements. Others will of course pick up these morsels of wisdom and convey them to the masses.

The ‘deep’ thinker aspires to be a guru. No, he is certain that he really is a guru. The paradox of the guru is that in the very act of eschewing the trappings of superficiality, the guru is the most obsessively superficial of all.

Many critics seem to assume so, for some strangely polemical reason. Saint Joe simply points out:

Nobody in our Party is absolutely “infallible.” Such people do not exist. (Works, volume 9, p. 78).

Intriguing what unites people across the political spectrum: the deeply corrupt decision to cut the railway line to Newcastle. The corruption is obvious: the line is supposed to be cut by two stations, a total of about three kilometres. It will be replaced by a light rail line. The total cost is currently put at about $250 million. Add a ‘secret council’ that included the former lord mayor, politicians and developers, who are set to reap millions from the move. So we were out in force today, thousands of us expressing the view of the vast majority of people in town:



An allusion to the clunky slogan of the corrupt state government:


This one is a reference to the former lord mayor, who liked to dole out brown paper bags stuffed with cash. He described himself as both Mother Teresa and a walking ATM:


To put an end to it, the unions were out in force:



But the most heart-warming site was the CPA flag:



Not according to comrade Joseph:

What is the economic essence and economic basis of socialism? Is it the establishment of a “paradise” on earth and universal abundance? No, that is the philistine, petty-bourgeois idea of the economic essence of socialism. (Works, volume 9, page 23).