On Chinese Marxism

Among other things, I am reading a book called Chinese Marxism by Adrian Chan (20o3). It is a bit thin in parts, especially in terms of the Russian Revolution, but the core of the book is excellent. In a devastating chapter, he demolishes what has become a standard position among Sinologists and ‘authorities’ on Chinese Marxism: the early theorists and members of the CCP were deluded and did not understand Marx properly. And since those early leaders became the teachers of Mao, he too misinterpreted Marx. That is, the adoption of Marxism was opportunist and that approach was used as a convenient screen for nationalist and specifically Chinese concerns. Sound familiar?

Let us have a closer look at Chan’s points. The key text here is Benjamin Schwartz’s Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Harvard, 1951), which set the agenda and became an ‘authority’. In discussing the key early figures Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, Schwartz proposes that they were opposed to socialism until quite late, they were ‘Manchester Liberals’ even after founding the communist party, they read little Marx, what they read they misunderstood (focusing on peasants rather than workers), their late turn to a misunderstood Marxism was inspired by nationalist resentment after the May 4th Movement, as well as direct Comintern intervention, and they passed on this distorted approach to Mao. That is, they simply used Marxism as a convenient screen for their own political agenda and lust for power. Schwartz’s basic position soon became authoritative, adopted by others, such as Maurice Meisner, Carrère d’Encausse and Schram, and even Arif Dirlik’s The Origins of Chinese Communism (1989). And we see it today in the common position among the Left that Chinese communists are that in name only, using Marxism as a convenient ideology for their own very different agenda.

Chan thoroughly demolishes Schwartz’s position, showing that he was highly selective in what he used from these early Chinese Marxists, altered their texts, left out crucial sections of those texts and attributed works to them that they had not written. And as Chen points out, Schwartz had been appointed to Harvard by both the Departments of Government and of East Asian Studies. The head of the latter department, John King Fairbank, made it quite clear that the purpose of Asian Studies at Harvard was to train ‘capable’ intelligence officers, who would ‘contain’ and resist the ‘disaster’ of ‘modern Asian totalitarianism’. That sounds strangely familiar today, echoed in quarters as apparently different as Rick Santorum and Slavoj Žižek.

Dirlik is particularly interesting, since he at least claims to be a Marxist. Yet his 1989 book makes many of the same Cold War assumptions: the Chinese turn to communism was a direct result of intervention by the Comintern (based in Moscow and decidedly Bolshevik); they misunderstood communism as social democracy; they did not understand Marxism ‘in its totality’. Apart from the fact that Marxism is not a total philosophical system, Chan also points out that in the early decades of the 20th century some key texts by Marx and Engels had not even been published (Grundrisse and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), so no-one would have been able to know it in its ‘totality’.

Here I would add Eagleton’s recent Why Marx Was Right (2011), which carries on this venerable tradition. Holding to a romantic Marxism, in which the true revolution is yet to come, Eagleton argues that the Chinese communist revolution – along with all of the others from Russia to Vietnam – was deluded and misdirected. Why? A proper communist revolution should take place only in an advanced capitalist context. Given that the Chinese revolution occurred in a largely pre-capitalist, agricultural country, it was both a travesty of Marxism and bound to ‘fail’. Obviously, it has been a while since Eagleton seriously read Marx.

Back to those early Chinese communists: the reality is, of course, quite different, for Chen and Li and others engaged in intensive study of Marx and Engels well before 4 May 1919, using the library under Li’s direction with over 70 works by our good friends, engaging in active translations, and publishing items on Marxism in very influential journals from 1915. They worked closely with texts such as The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Capital, The Civil War in France and the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. And they were particularly interested in the points made by Marx and Engels that there was never a ‘master-key’ based on a supra-historical and ‘general historico-philosophical theory’. Rather, the path to communism will take very different forms, depending on particular historical, social and economic factors, or, in their words, ‘on the historical conditions for the time being existing’.


35 thoughts on “On Chinese Marxism

    1. Who said anything about a scientific progression of epochs? Marx certainly didn’t. But Chan and Hart-Landsberg-Burkett have this in common: they follow a tired old ‘fall narrative’. Once upon time there was a true socialist revolution, but it gave into temptation and sinned. You see it with the Russian Revolution first. Chan does this at the end of his book as well. Some at MR are particularly guilty of this, with Foster et al holding up a romantic, ideal Marxism to which no one has thus far attained. Good approach if you are a Western Marxist, since then you avoid the uncomfortable fact that no successful revolution has happened in the West.

      1. You so easily take Marx at his word when he says he’s not providing a master narrative, but only examining actual conditions “as they really were”. Why do you think it is that you accept Marx’s “empiricism” by faith, but are critical of everybody else’s? A blind-spot, perhaps?

        No successful revolution in the West? But the weasel-word here is “successful”, making the whole meaningless or infinitely malleable.

        In any case, you have never explained why humans should organise production along communist lines as opposed to, say, free-market capitalist lines, or feudal lines. So why? Mere whim? Why should your average Ocker care?

      2. Nice sleight of hand there: master narrative is definitely not the same as ‘scientific progression of epochs’. And where, pray tell, was there a successful communist revolution in the West?
        Seriously, though, you should actually read Marx and at least some of the rich Marxist tradition, for you are beginning to sound a little too much like a romantic Western Marxist.

      3. Hair-splitting and question avoidance! I still have no idea why you prefer communism to feudalism or capitalism, except out of pure whim.

        Paris, of course. “Look at the Paris Commune—that was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

        I have read Marx and “some of the rich Marxist tradition” – from antiquarian interest. I also read Phrenology and Theology for the same reason. (Is there a Marxist Phrenology? Future book series?)

      4. The old trap of ethics. As soon as you begin playing that game, you are in dangerous territory – an article in Rethinking Marxism soon to appear deals with that. In order to step outside such a ruling class discourse, you may wish to ask the Greeks or the Spaniards about their preferences.

        But perhaps a more apt series would be Critical Phrenology, as that pertains to historical critical approaches to the Bible. But hey, what’s wrong with phrenology? It’s day is yet to come. A possible successor to Remnants of Giants? You could even set up a practice. post thesis…

      5. “you may wish to ask the Greeks or the Spaniards about their preferences”

        Ah – being a Marxist is just whimsy for you, then. I thought as much when I saw that bump in Region 14 of your cranium.

      6. Deane, you really need to watch that ‘ethical unconscious’, aka, the assumed bourgeois dominance of ethical discourse. It will rot your brain and your soul.

        But no, it ain’t phrenology, Marxism is genetic.

      7. Genetic? That is really your basis for preferring communism to other modes of production? Please, as the Americans say, could you expand on this? But I’ll be less lazy, and ask real questions. Three obvious ones, first: (1) To clarify, you’re saying that the human or perhaps the human in society is naturally communist and not naturally capitalist, etc, right, or what precisely? (2) Is this, in some sense, a return to “primitive communism”, a shedding of an (empirically determined) history that has lost its natural way? (3) How do you get from the purported genetic fact of homo communistarum to a basis for somebody, like your average Ocker, to support communism?

      8. Deane, I’m sorry but I don’t understand the imperative to approach marxism from the standpoint of ‘your average Ocker’? Why not your average African peasant? Or your average Indian call-centre worker? Or your average Japanese fisherman? Or even the former student of Louis Althusser?

        Surely the requirement is to avoid confining oneself to one of these perspectives, but to submit one’s positions to scrutiny from the others, while adhering to one’s own standpoint?

        As for why I prefer communism/socialism to capitalism, I have to quote someone much more eloquent than myself, my favourite (British) Labour leader, the late Michael Foot:

        “We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer ‘To hell with them.’ The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do.”

        With this insight, the choice between being a socialist/communist as opposed to being a follower of Tony Blair or Michael Howard becomes clear to me…..

      9. Much that Deane writes is a mystery even to himself.

        But thanks, Ken, for the words of Michael Foot. I’d put such an answer, less eloquently, in terms of the democracy embodied in the dictatorship of the proletariat. And I wouldn’t leave ‘the top’ around for long.

      10. Thank you, Ken. Now that’s a reason I can agree with, based on a clear ethical imperative.

        For some odd reason, which he shies away from explaining – even when asked direct questions – Chairman Boer eschews any ethical reason for communism as “bourgeois”. It’s something to do with his philological bent: he’s always committing etymological fallacies, or rather always a committed to etymology fella. In Chairman Boer’s philological world, therefore, “ethical” must necessarily everywhere on earth mean something to do with Plato. And in biblical studies, “historical criticism” must be restricted to something Germans did in the nineteenth century. And “reception history” must necessarily have something to do with Gadamer. And the present political situation in China must necessarily have something to do with the collected works of Lenin. I could go on, but you get the picture.

        So, in place of what you and I and an Indian call-center worker might call an ethical reason for communism, Chairman Boer has fallen back on some odd essentialism which he calls “genetic” reasons. Obviously he’s trying to avoid some ethical consequence by this convolution.

        I don’t think it’s fooling your average Ocker (by whom I mean the esteemed Mr Berlusconi Youth, now finished with education and working in an Indian call center).

      11. I feel sorry for you, Deane, if you can’t escape the ethical straightjacket, not necessarily bourgeois, but very much ruling class.

        But you have now fallen into another trap: the classic move of a specific disciplinary focus – here historical criticism of the Bible – is to efface its particular location and emergence and claim universal status. ‘We are just operating “critically,” an act the goes back to the dawn of time …’ It’s unimaginative text-book stuff.

      12. Too much essentialism by far, Roland. The historical criticism done by somebody in 2012 is not reducible to the German historical criticism done in the 19th century. The opposite mistake would be to deny the genealogical link to the 19th-century variety of historical criticism. But I don’t accept your implied false dichotomy (that either it’s nineteenth-century German historical criticism or it’s a universalist claim to critical thought, and there ain’t no inbetween). However, things change, evolve, and now and again, as Wittgenstein says, people climb up a ladder and then kick it away from underneath them. Time to embrace your ethics-in-denial without embracing Plato or the ruling class, Roland!

      13. Not quite, Roland, too simple and too utopic by far. All we ever have at best is always only a step in the right direction, from one imperfect place, to another imperfect place (yet hopefully less imperfect in some manner). There are worse and better churches in reality, but utopia is always no place at all. There is nothing “perfectly fine” in all of this.

      14. While Michael Foot’s remarks are couched in moral terms, I myself don’t see it as requiring the anti-capitalist to subscribe to an ethic. In place of the “I ought” of ethics, I prefer “I desire” (Nietzsche’s naturalism)– to hell with rich, that’s my desire.

      15. Ken, I agree again. The basis of my ethical position on social, political, and economic organisation is just that: I like socialism; I dislike capitalism. Actually, that’s my ethical basis for everything.

      16. I think this (from the Communist Manifesto) is a much better reason (for someone objectively petty bourgeois becoming a communist): “The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests; they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.”

      17. It applies to any petty bourgeois who would become a communist/socialist (rather than a petty bourgeois socialist).

  1. Isn’t treating Marxism and Phrenology and Theology with the same antiquarian interest the flip side of disciplinary chauvinism?

    1. It may be, Rod.

      But it would be a fallacy to then conclude that treating Marxism, Phrenology, and Theology as being of antiquarian interest is in any particular case “disciplinary chauvinism” (there are alternatives: the position could derive, for example, from the conclusion that theories such as Marxism, Phrenology, and Theology have ceased to have sufficient explanatory value).

    2. Actually, I take that back. It was uncharacteristically unfair of me. I should have written: In your effort to escape the snare of disciplinary chauvinism, you have merely entangled yourself further in the trap.

      1. To wit: this criticism concerning “disciplinary chauvinism” or boundary protection is typical of the type of Foucauldian-follower reduction to issues of power that you’d expect to find in something written in 1982. It’s unsophisticated, and full of the power-obsession of somebody who’s just discovered power behind everything. The problem then, as now, with such a critique is not that they’re wrong, thatthere isn’t any power claim going on (there always is, of course), but that it doesn’t negate there also being legitimate reasons for rejecting the phrenologists and theologians.

      2. You drinking again, Deane? Who in the world said anything about Foucault or power? Or were you thinking of another blog you read?
        I must admit, I thoroughly enjoy a) the way posts on China seem to fire you up, and b) puzzling over the astonishing, creative and herky-jerky acrobatics of your thoughts, at least as they appear here.

      3. Yes, I enjoy our exchanges, too, Roland. Sure, I have to pick through your ever more common logical fallacies and put up with your self-protective slippery evasions. But that’s show business.

      4. At this dual moment of trying to have the last word and accusing one another of either impossible intellectual acrobatics or illogical arguments, it is worth remembering that what seems logical on Monday after breakfast, does not seem so late on Wednesday and may once again over a beer on Friday. This applies as much to petty thieves, judges in courts, supposedly rational and critical intellectuals, philosophers, PhD students etc.

  2. I think you are spot on about Eagleton and the typical post-war “Western Marxist” (poor LUkcas!) tradition–they definitely live up to the name and appear deeply and happily Eurocentric. Fine, but then let’s leave them in decaying Europe then and read other people. As for Dirlik he is just an anarchist and his Marxism consists entirely of every now and then referring to “capitalism” in a very general way and saying we need to take it more seriously. True enough but not exactly marxist brilliance there. His early books on Party history are pretty good– though colleagues tell me they have been surpassed by new archives, etc. His attempts at being a “theorist” are pretty lame– he is a conventional historicist and not up to the task frankly. He’s now mostly renowned for attacking postcolonial studies in an ad hominem way. Ironically he’s probably more widely read in that field and for that reason than in China studies. He’s also infamous for his treatment of people on the left. I think he tried to savage Chan’s book in a review iirc.

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