Why the Trotsky Debate is Irrelevant in China

I have recently participated in a Marxist conference in China (in Shanghai – not the one in Beijing mentioned in an earlier post). 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.

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9 thoughts on “Why the Trotsky Debate is Irrelevant in China

  1. Likewise, a clear majority within China’s Politburo Standing Committee applauds Calvin’s actions in Geneva, and treats Sebastian Castellio’s so-called humanitarian objections with the disdain they so clearly deserve. Semper reformanda!

  2. I am pleased to see the point well-made, that so many leftist thinkers operate in societies where there would never be the possibility of a socialist system becoming a reality. To go to China and attempt to lecture them on socialist and communist theories is patronising indeed.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. The problem with Trotskyites is not so much that they have never been in power. Most communist parties in the world have never been in power. The problem is that Trotskyites have always been a marginal current in left wing politics and an even more marginal current within the actual labour movement which has always defined itself in explicit opposition to any of the concrete historical manifestations of socialist power. Trotskyites groups do nothing but criticise the compromises necessary for taking and keeping power, usually in the name of some catchphrase devoid of content like ‘the world revolution’ or ‘workers’ democracy’. They are therefore inherently anticommunist and it is no surprise that whenever they have deigned to enter the world of real politics they either ended up as neocons or joined social-democratic parties to ‘change them from within’.

  4. So, why is there so much academic writing and discussion inside China about Trotsky and the Chinese Trotskyist movement? This includes publication of Trotsky’s writings in Chinese, academic theses on Trotsky and members of the Chinese movement. etc. These materials are available openly. It is a curious phenomenon and should be included when folks attack so-called “Trotskyites”.

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