I have recently participated in a Marxist conference in China. Many are such conferences in this part of the world, and they are increasing. But this one was a little different, for it involved a group of visitors who may be described as international Trotskyites. Some, but not all, appeared to feel that they were coming here to teach the Chinese a lesson or two about Marxism. They might be called ‘chauvinistic Marxists’, without any experience of actually being part of socialism in power.
However, their positions simply did not make sense to the Chinese participants. The whole history of struggle between Lenin and Trotsky, or indeed Stalin and Trotsky, still informs and shapes many parts of the international Left today. But it did not register with the Chinese Marxists present, so much so that they were puzzled when it came to the surface on the second day.
Why? I suggest three reasons. First, it turns on how one responds to Stalin. For many influenced by Trotsky, Stalin constitutes the betrayal of Marxism, and Trotsky is the true Marxist. This one-sided response does not appear in China. Tellingly, Chinese Marxists take a dim view of Khrushchev’s ‘secret report’ demonising Stalin. It is not that Chinese Marxists are ‘Stalinists’ (a curious term), but that they see the report as a one-sided and perverse response. Instead, one should assess the insights and achievements and criticise the mistakes made. This is precisely what they do with Chairman Mao.
Second, Trotsky was never in power. He was crucial to the October Revolution and was instrumental in founding and building up the Red Army, as Lenin fully acknowledged. He was even for a time part of the government, but he never exercised real power. This enabled a comfortable position of opposition. It is easy not to have power and to criticise the exercise of power. Everything changes when you have power. This is the situation of Chinese Marxism.
Third, many of the international Left have themselves never been in power, never been part of socialism in power. This reality creates an immense chasm of understanding between Chinese Marxists and many of the international Left. Crossing this chasm requires much listening and extensive dialogue. Many of the categories with one operates need to be reformulated so that one begins again.