Focus-field versus the alienated public sphere

Part of the ongoing debate in Western bourgeois states is the role and status of the public sphere. All the recent commentators I have been able to check attempt to widen the public sphere by including those that have been excluded in some fashion. Most recently this involves religion. The problem is that the public sphere is built on what Tim dubbed the other day as the ‘myth of secular inclusion’. That is, it’s an exclusive universal, gate-keeping who counts as part of that universal. It is simply unable to include all. Ultimately, the identification of this problem goes back to Hegel, who identified the basic alienation of the bourgeois state in the rupture between the state and civil society (the realm of social, economic, religious activity, etc). So if the public sphere is constituted by civil society, then it is built on a structural alienation. The zone that is supposed to foster debate, ‘freedom’ of the press, new thoughts and political directions, even ‘democracy’, is actually a warped and twisted space. All of which shows up in the myth of secular exclusion.

As a result, I have been fascinated by what Tien Chenshan calls ‘focus-field’ in Chinese communism, in which civil society or the public sphere is rather meaningless. I wonder whether this limited description by Edgar Snow captures some of this, when he writes of  the Red government of northwest China in the 1930s:

The structure of representative government was built up from the village soviet, as the smallest unit: above it were the district soviet, the county soviet, the provincial and central soviets. Each village elected its delegates to the higher soviets clear up to the delegates elected for the Soviet Congress. Suffrage was universal over the age of sixteen, but it was not equal [favouring tenant peasants, handicraft worker, and rural workers].

Various committees were established under each of the district soviets. An all-powerful committee, usually elected in a mass meeting shortly after the occupation of a district by the Red Army, and preceded by an intensified propaganda campaign, was the revolutionary committee. It called for elections or re-elections, and closely cooperated with the Communist Party. Under the district soviet, and appointed by it, were committees for education, cooperatives, military training, political training, land, public health, partisan training, revolutionary defense, enlargement of the Red Army, agrarian mutual aid, Red Army land tilling, and others. Such committees were found in every branch organ of the soviets, right up to the Central Government, where policies were coordinated and state decisions made.

Organization did not stop with the government itself. The Communist Party had an extensive membership among farmers and workers, in the towns and villages. In addition there were the Young Communists … organization for women … adult farmers … partisan brigades … The work of all these organizations was coordinated by the Central Soviet Government, the Communist Party, and the Red Army. Here we need not enter into statistical detail to explain the organic connections of these groups, but it can be said in general that they were all skilfully interwoven, each directly under the guidance of some Communist, though decisions of organization, membership, and work seemed to be carried out in a democratic way by the peasants themselves.


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