This image (sent by SD) at Amazing Lookalike! reminded me of a childhood fantasy.


The figure on the right is the Mekon, the arch-enemy of sci-fi hero Dan Dare. Are they related? Asks Amazing Lookalike!

Probably not, but what about that childhood fantasy? At times I imagined that I was a massive social experiment by superior alien beings. They were trying to create a completely different environment to breed a new kid of species – less intelligent and capable than they were. So everything around me was a construct, a fabrication by these aliens. My parents, my siblings, the trees and animals, the towns and cities, language, and so on. I even tried to see glimpses of the alien presence, when they let their guard down and showed the reality beneath the fabrication.

Just a little narcissistic, of course, since I was the sole focus of this immense experiment. But I have been told that in some form or another it is not an uncommon childhood fantasy.

Christina sent me this great quotation from William Pietz’s prescient article, ‘The “Postcolonialism” of Cold War Discourse’ (Social Text 19/20, 1988):

​This [a 1951 book which lent an academic respectability to the new theoretical discourse about totalitarianism] was The Origins of Totalitarianism by the reactionary political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Her theory of totalitarianism must be understood in the context of Arendt’s lifelong Heideggerian project of destroying every category basic to leftist political thought (above all, the concept of labor) according to a reactionary nostalgia for the political life of the Greek city-state (at least, as the world of the polis was conceived in the fantasies of thinkers such as herself and Leo Strauss).​

Fredric Jameson used to argue for what may be called a dialectic of totalisation. In some cases, a universal master narrative actually fosters a diversity of voices, which in some way gain the possibility to speak. Jameson was countering the postmodern ban on master narratives, but I am interested in another dimension of this dialectic, which relates to Stalin. I am working on a detailed argument concerning Stalin and anti-colonialism, as a development from his extensive formulations of the ‘national question’ in the USSR. In the midst of my study, I came across this intriguing observation, in response to Kautsky’s argument for a universal proletarian language:

Until now what has happened has been that the socialist revolution has not diminished but rather increased the number of languages; for, by stirring up the lowest sections of humanity and pushing them on to the political arena, it awakens to new life a number of hitherto unknown or little-known nationalities. Who could have imagined that the old, tsarist Russia consisted of not less than fifty nations and national groups? The October Revolution, however, by breaking the old chains and bringing a number of forgotten peoples and nationalities on to the scene, gave them new life and a new development (Works volume 7, p. 141).

He goes on to weaken his insight a little, suggesting some mutual benefit between proletarian culture and local cultures. But he tries to get across the point that the process is dialectical, with each side, or, rather, many sides engaging in the process. More to the point, some forms of the universal, in this case the proletarian universal, actually enable diversity rather than stifling it. Of course, if you no longer buy into the universal in question and opt for another, such as when an enemy appears on the doorstep, then you fall outside the process.

Stalin and minorities 01a

Stalin and minorities 02a

How does one come to understand China? Many are those who wish to do so, especially in light of China’s growing global influence. I am not so interested in the motivations for seeking to understand China, ranging all the way from the personal to the geopolitical, although that motivation may colour one’s approach. Instead, I am interested in the ways such understanding is sought.

For some, language is the key that opens the door. With Chinese language, one is able to enter a people and their culture, opening up communication, literature, philosophy, belief and much more. To a limited extent, this is true, for engaging and studying in translation always presents a barrier to understanding. But language is not enough.

For others, the Chinese classics provide the way to understand the place. You may focus on the traditional ‘four books and five classics’ (四书五经) , from before the unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BCE), or on the many texts gathered until the end of the last dynasty, the Qing, in 1912. Again, there is some truth in this approach, especially in light of the way the Classics are restudied and reinterpreted at every important turn in Chinese history – as is the case now.

For others still Confucius provides the way into China, if not each country deeply influenced by Confucianism. ‘The four books and five classics’ are themselves from this tradition, with the former containing some material attributed to Confucius along with subsequent commentary and elaboration, and the latter containing other material in the tradition. Once again, such study is important, but does not provide the sole key to modern China.

Yet more possibilities are proposed, whether Daoism, or some mystical notion of the ‘East’, or kinship, or the metaphysics of yin-yang (阴-阳), which found its way into nearly every tradition or school of Chinese thought.

On a different note, some eschew language, culture, philosophy or belief and focus on economics. In this case, the economic models of the ‘Asian Tigers’ – Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – provide the template for China. Here export focused economies, industrialisation and state intervention led to rapid growth, high incomes and now economic specialisation. Or perhaps Japan provides the model, with its rise to economic pre-eminence under patronage from the United States. This is perhaps the least persuasive option.

Yet, the missing item is Marxism. China remains a socialist country, with the Communist Party being the largest political party in the government. Many continue to dismiss Marxism in China, whether in terms of a repressive and inadequate ideology or as empty words in which no-one ‘believes’ any longer. This is a great a mistake and risks neglecting what is arguably one of the most important factors for understanding China.

Mao Zedong is the point at which one should begin, although it helps to understand Marx, Engels and Lenin, let alone the history of successful socialist revolutions from Russia onwards. Mao’s thought remains the focus of intense study and debate in China today – so much so that the current Chinese president quotes Mao frequently in national and international contexts. Indeed, Xi Jinping has a PhD in Marxism and has recently directed even more resources to the study and fostering of the Marxist tradition and the work of Mao Zedong, so much so that Marxism is now a distinct discipline.

More controversially, Mao Zedong’s acts as a leader are also vital for understanding China. Most debate turns around the role of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which he fostered over the last decade of his life. Was it an aberration, an outburst of revolutionary enthusiasm, or perhaps an effort to restore his sliding power? The semi-official narrative is that the Cultural Revolution set China back in terms of economics, politics and society. The aberration was thus corrected after Mao’s death, when the path of reform was undertaken. However, another and persuasive argument is that it was precisely the Cultural Revolution that set China on its current path. Thoroughly shaking up vested interests in society, from top to bottom, it cleared the ground for China’s rapid rise to becoming the leading global power. This was the shakeup needed to unsettle centuries, if not millennia of social assumptions and cultural norms. And against the orthodoxy that the economy came to a standstill during the Cultural Revolution, it has become clear that the economy actually forged ahead as though released from its shackles.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find a ‘mainstream’ foreign commentator who is even partly aware of the nature of Chinese Marxism. Obviously it entails careful study and a feel for the subject matter. It requires some sense of the meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in all its complexity and apparent paradoxes. And it entails the understanding that in China a ‘Marxist entrepreneur’ is not a contradiction.

Languages, the classics, Confucius – these and more are obviously important for understanding China. But they neglect the crucial factor of Marxism. Many may aspire to becoming a Zhongguotong (中国通) – one who understands and senses at a much deeper level how China ticks. But without Marxism, such an aspiration is mere pretence.

In his extended struggle with Trotsky, Stalin turned to a detailed study of Lenin. Both sought to claim the legacy of Lenin, in what may be called a ‘scriptural dialectic’, in which the texts interpreted can lead to both positions. It was also part of the growing veneration of Lenin (rather sought to negate any veneration of himself). Repeatedly in those arguments, Stalin sought to counter Trotsky’s argument that socialism would be successful only with a world, or at least European, revolution. So Stalin argued that socialism in one country is indeed possible, yet that does not remove the threat of international intervention, if not the potential destruction of socialism. He writes:

The point at issue is not complete victory, but the victory of socialism in general, i.e., driving away the landlords and capitalists, taking power, repelling the attacks of imperialism and beginning to build a socialist economy. In all this, the proletariat in one country can be fully successful; but a complete guarantee against restoration can be ensured only by the ‘joint efforts of the proletarians in several countries’ … for as long as capitalist encirclement exists there will always be the danger of military intervention. (Works, volume 7, pages 122-23).

A foreboding of 1991, or perhaps a warning concerning events he hoped would never come to pass?

Almost 20 years ago I actually used a diary for a while. It was given to me by some friends in an activist group who felt that I was forgetting too many things. The friend who had the idea used to have a massive diary, into which he put all sorts of things. He could not imagine his life without it. For me, my brief experience with such a thing felt: a) like a prison, since my life was seemingly organised and ordered by something else; b) my life was too busy – the diary was not a solution, but a sign that I had to simplify things.

So for years, I have used a scrap of paper:


Each morning, I take a minute or two to write down what I want to do for the day, and then in the bottom corner I note the things that are coming up over the next few days. The emptier the paper, the better. But now I have been given this tome as a diary, with the gentle point that at my age I am no longer mentally able to remember what I need to do:


So I am not sure whether to make the switch. Initially, I resist, preferring my scrap of paper.


It’s now official: In the Vale of Tears is listed as the winner of the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize at the prize website (see also the announcement at the Historical Materialism page and at the University of Newcastle). The award was for the book and for the whole Criticism of Heaven and Earth series, which is just as well, since I have always been a little ambivalent about In the Vale of Tears. All the same, I am somewhat gobsmacked by the fact that the other short-listed books were Frederic Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, Costas Lapavistas, Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, and John Saul and Patrick Bond, South Africa – The Present as History.

In the Vale of Tears 02

In the Vale of Tears 01