Different ways to interpret the Marxist tradition

In recent discussion in China, I have become more aware of different ways the Marxist tradition can be interpreted. You can take any core feature, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the distinction between socialism and communism, the nature of the socialist state, and many more.

For example, Marx uses the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ 11 times, where he means a coercive force of the state that crushes class opponents. This is in tension with his treatments of the Paris commune, where he praises the diminishment of state power and its continuance only as apparatus. Engels, by contrast, does not use dictatorship of the proletariat, but coins the phrase (only in 1894), the dying or ‘withering away of the state’. Lenin develops the argument further, distinguishing between two phases, the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the state’s withering. He pushes this into a distant future, but Stalin argues that it would take place only after global communism had been achieved and communism had become second nature – which may take 1000 years or more. And in Chinese Marxism, dictatorship of the proletariat becomes ‘democratic dictatorship’ in Mao’s hands and then ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ with Deng Xiaoping, now as an inclusive category operating in terms of non-antagonistic contradictions.

What about socialism and communism? This distinction is not in Marx and Engels. Only in the late notes, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, does Marx distinguish an initial stage of communism and a further stage. He leaves open the possibility of more. Lenin then distinguishes these as socialism and communism, with socialism still bearing many features, such as state, classes, law and so on. Only with communism will the earlier prescriptions of Marxism begin to appear. Stalin takes this further, pushing communism into a very distant future, while socialism has a strong multi-national state, tensions between forces and relations of production continue, people are rewarded according to work, equalisation (a petty-bourgeois idea) has no place, and the state’s domestic responsibilities, affirmative action and fostering of anti-colonial struggles play huge roles. In a Chinese situation, they take an even longer view, with the preliminary stage of socialism lasting 100 years, after which a next stage emerges, the moderately prosperous, peaceful and stable society. During this process, a whole spate of new approaches emerge.

How do we interpret these developments? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A narrative of betrayal. Engels betrays Marx; Lenin betrays Marx and Engels; Stalin betrays all of the former; Mao betrays them; Deng betrays Mao … Pick your place, but betrayal of Marxism happens at some point. I find this approach quite common among ‘western’ Marxists.
  2. Continuity, sometimes radical. A smaller number take this line, arguing that all of the ideas found in Stalin, Mao or Deng have precursors in the Marxist tradition.
  3. Clarification. Each stage of the tradition and each of its different branches constitutes a clarification of some idea or practice that was not so clear before. This is a more common Chinese approach.
  4. Changing historical circumstances, which may be connected with the first or third approach. Obviously, specific circumstances, cultural histories, political realities and so on produce new problems, which require new solutions. This is what the Chinese call ‘seeking truth from facts’ (drawn from Mao).
  5. The differences between socialism seeking power and socialism in power. As Lenin and Mao pointed out repeatedly, winning a revolution is relatively easy; infinitely more complex is the effort to construct socialism. This is obviously connected with the fourth point, but plays a crucial role.

Enmeshment: An Effort to Understand Chinese Socialism

In the aftermath of a workshop on the Socialist State, I have been thinking about the category of enmeshment in order to understand Chinese socialism. It came up at various points in the workshop.

For example, in a discussion over the issue of public and private ‘ownership’ in economic matters, one of the Chinese participants pointed out that the opposition does not make sense in a Chinese context. Instead, the reality of a ‘socialist market economy’ is one way to think about the situation differently.

What does this mean? To begin with, it indicates that ‘market economy’ does not necessarily mean ‘capitalism’ or indeed a ‘capitalist market economy’. As I have pointed out earlier, most market economies throughout history have not been capitalist. So the possibility arises that a socialist market economy is different from a capitalist market economy – even in the context of a global dominance of a capitalist market economy.

One might point to the fact that most of the franchises for KFC in China are government owned. Or to the fact that many of the leaders of ‘private’ companies are members of the CPC. Or that the fostering of ‘start-ups’ have government backing. Or that the development of the internet in China is inescapably tied to governmental involvement. Or to Deng Xiaoping’s statement that there is no necessary contradiction between socialism and capitalism. Or indeed Mao’s quotation of an old Chinese proverb: ‘Things that oppose each other also complement one another’. The list goes on.

But this is only a beginning. Enmeshment has many other levels, well beyond economic matters. A key feature on a political level is the enmeshment between state and civil society. The problem here is that this is a rather perverse and very European way of putting it. Why? In a European – or, rather, North Atlantic – mode of understanding, the state is alienated from civil society, something ‘out there’ that imposes its will from time to time, intervening in society and the economy. On this understanding, civil society becomes the focus of new ideas and possible opposition to the state.

But what if you have a very different situation in which these features are enmeshed with one another in all manner of complex ways? This means that the very idea of ‘civil society’ is a very bourgeois invention. Indeed, the original German is ‘bourgeois society’ and not ‘civil society’. This would mean that civil society in this sense does not exist in China, which is a good thing.

A further feature of enmeshment is what is called non-antagonistic contradictions. The term originally arose in the Soviet Union, especially in the 1930s with the achievement of socialism, albeit in ways that were not expected. Mao for one found the idea extremely useful in the context of socialism in power (as we see in his crucial essay, ‘On Contradiction’). For example, classes will continue to exist under socialism, but now in a non-antagonistic fashion. In the Soviet Union, this meant workers, farmers and intellectuals. In China, this means workers, farmers and a ‘middle class’, although we need a new term here. Why? These are the vast number of people that have benefitted from the 40-year anti-poverty campaign. Their lives have become secure (anquan) in a way not imagined before. But they realise very well that their situation is due to the long project of the CPC.

The upshot: Deng Xiaoping’s category of the ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ (one of his four Cardinal Principles) includes this new class. A very new interpretation of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and peasants’ that includes everyone in what can only be called socialist democracy. Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents’ (2002) is the clarification of this position.

My thoughts are only at their early stage of thinking about enmeshment, but let me add one more point. The appropriation of the idea of ‘the common’ in China now takes a distinct turn. In a North Atlantic situation, ‘the common’ is an effort to rethink communism, even though it comes from a very theological idea in which the world was created by God, with everything in common. In a Chinese situation, the common includes the crucial role of governance. The government is involved in and directs the common, not in the sense of censorship but in the sense that any function of the common is enmeshed with governance.

My perception is that all of this makes sense of the old Confucian category of datong, the Great Peace or Great Harmony, which has been reinterpreted in terms of communism. Datong is not an overcoming of contradictions but rather a form of existence in which contradictions function in a non-antagonistic fashion. Of course, a datong society lies in the distant future, perhaps 500 or 1000 years away. Meanwhile, the aim for 2021 is for a xiaokang shehui, a moderately prosperous, peaceful and secure society.

China’s new Ordinance on Religious Affairs

This one has been on the way for some time. Last week the new Ordinance on Religious Affairs was published, which is to take effect on 1 February 2018. To publicise the new rules, we find Yu Zhengsheng, a senior political advisor, making the following points:

Conflicts and disputes involving ethnic and religious factors should be dealt with in accordance with the law concerned to safeguard social harmony and stability.

We must resolutely resist overseas infiltration via religious means and prevent missionary activities in educational institutions.

Apart from promoting traditional Chinese culture and national unity, Yu also stressed that “socialist core values should guide and educate religious figures and their followers.” I love that one.

But what is the background to these new ordinances? The Institute for World Religion Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has been engaged in research for some time (I have played a modest part in the process). So we find Liu Guopeng, from the institute, observing that Protestant groups have been growing and – due to conservative tendencies among some – have been condemning Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. And external influences have radicalised some elements among the Xinjiang Uyghur and Ningxia Hui nationalities.

The key in these cases is that all religions should stick to independence and self-governance and not be controlled by any foreign entity – whether Christian, Muslim or indeed Buddhist. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), set up with the work of the Chinese Christian communist, Yu Yaozong, and Zhou Enlai, is perhaps the best example of this, which is one of the largest Protestant organisations in the world.



United States War Crimes in Korea

With the Korean peninsula in the daily news, it is worth recalling a few facts behind the situation today.

Let us begin with the Korean War, with none other than an observation from the U.S. air force. General Curtis LeMay, head of the U.S. Strategic Air Force Command, openly admitted in an interview in 1984:

So we went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too …. Over a period of three years or so, we killed off – what – twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure.

Or as Dean Rusk, later U.S. secretary of state, put it: we bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops. To do so, the U.S. dropped 650,000 tons of bombs, including 43,000 tons of napalm bombs (more napalm than they subsequently dropped on Vietnam).

But did the Korean War actually begin in 1950, with an “invasion” from the north? To begin an answer, on my visit to the DPRK, they maintained strongly that it was in fact the U.S. forces in the south that attacked first.

So who is correct? The situation is complex, of course, but as this article points out:

The attack by North Korea came during a time of many border incursions by both sides. South Korea initiated most of the border clashes with North Korea beginning in 1948. The North Korea government claimed that by 1949 the South Korean army committed 2,617 armed incursions. It was a myth that the Soviet Union ordered North Korea to attack South Korea.

But a fuller answer would point out that the Korean War actually ran from 1945 to 1953, coming to a crescendo in 1950. And that means war crimes extend throughout this period.

At this point, two useful accounts may be read. I copy here from one of them:

On August 15,1945, the Korean people, devastated and impoverished by years of brutality from Japanese occupation forces, openly celebrated their liberation and immediately formed the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CKPI). By August 28, 1945, all Korean provinces on the entire Peninsula had established local people’s democratic committees, and on September 6, delegates from throughout Korea, north and south, created the Korean People’s Republic (KPR). On September 7, the day after the creation of the KPR, General Douglas MacArthur formally issued a proclamation addressed “To the People of Korea.” The proclamation announced that forces under his command “will today occupy the Territory of Korea south of 38 degrees north latitude.”

The first advance party of U.S. units, the 17th Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division, actually began arriving at Inchon on September 5th, two days before MacArthur’s occupation declaration. The bulk of the US occupation forces began unloading from twenty-one Navy ships (including five destroyers) on September 8 through the port at Inchon under the command of Lieutenant General John Reed Hodge. Hundreds of black-coated armed Japanese police on horseback, still under the direction of Japanese Governor-General Abe Noabuyki, kept angry Korean crowds away from the disembarking US soldiers.

On the morning of September 9, General Hodge announced that Governor-General Abe would continue to function with all his Japanese and Korean personnel. Within a few weeks there were 25,000 American troops and members of “civil service teams” in the country. Ultimately the number of US troops in southern Korea reached 72,000. Though the Koreans were officially characterized as a “semi-friendly, liberated” people, General Hodge regrettably instructed his own officers that Korea “was an enemy of the United States … subject to the provisions and the terms of the surrender.”

Tragically and ironically, the Korean people, citizens of the victim-nation, had become enemies, while the defeated Japanese, who had been the illegal aggressors, served as occupiers in alliance with the United States. Indeed, Korea was burdened with the very occupation originally intended for Japan, which became the recipient of massive U.S. aid and reconstruction in the post-war period. Japan remains, to this day, America’s forward military base affording protection and intelligence for its “interests” in the Asia-Pacific region.

Seventy-three-year-old Syngman Rhee was elected President of “South Korea” on May 10, 1948 in an election boycotted by virtually all Koreans except the elite KDP and Rhee’s own right-wing political groups. This event, historically sealing a politically divided Korea, provoked what became known at the Cheju massacre, in which as many as 70,000 residents of the southern island of Cheju were ruthlessly murdered during a single year by Rhee’s paramilitary forces under the oversight of U.S. officers. Rhee took office as President on August 15 and the Republic of Korea (ROK) was formally declared. In response, three-and-a-half weeks later (on September 9, 1948), the people of northern Korea grudgingly created their own separate government, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with Kim II Sung as its premier.

Korea was now clearly and tragically split in two. Kim Il-Sung had survived as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese occupation in both China and Korea since 1932 when he was twenty years old. He was thirty-three when he returned to Pyongyang in October 1945 to begin the hoped-for era of rebuilding a united Korea free of foreign domination, and three years later, on September 9, 1948, he became North Korea’s first premier. The Rhee/U.S. forces escalated their ruthless campaign of cleansing the south of dissidents, identifying as a suspected “communist” anyone who opposed the Rhee regime, publicly or privately. In reality, most participants or believers in the popular movement in the south were socialists unaffiliated with outside “communist” organizations.

As the repression intensified, however, alliances with popular movements in the north, including communist organizations, increased. The Cheju insurgency was crushed by August 1949, but on the mainland, guerrilla warfare continued in most provinces until 1959-51. In the eyes of the commander of US military forces in Korea, General Hodge, and new “President” Syngman Rhee, virtually any Korean who had not publicly professed his allegiance to Rhee was considered a “communist” traitor. As a result, massive numbers of farmers, villagers and urban residents were systematically rounded up in rural areas, villages and cities throughout South Korea. Captives were regularly tortured to extract names of others.

Thousands were imprisoned and even more thousands forced to dig mass graves before being ordered into them and shot by fellow Koreans, often under the watch of U.S. troops.

The introduction of U.S./UN military forces on June 26,1950 occurred with no American understanding (except by a few astute observers such as journalist I.F Stone) that in fact they were entering an ongoing revolutionary civil war waged by indigenous Koreans seeking genuine independence after five years of U.S. interference. The American occupation simply fueled Korean passions even more while creating further divisions among them.

In the Autumn of 1950, when U.S. forces were in retreat in North Korea, General Douglas MacArthur offered all air forces under his command to destroy “every means of communication, every installation, factory, city and village” from the Yalu River, forming the border between North Korea and China, south to the battle line. The massive saturation bombing conducted throughout the war, including napalm, incendiary, and fragmentation bombs, left scorched cities and villages in total ruins. As in World War II, the U.S. strategic bombing campaign brought mass destruction and shockingly heavy civilian casualties. Such tactics were in clear violation of the Nuremburg Charter, which had, ironically, been created after World War II, largely due to pressure from the U.S. The Nuremburg Tribunal defined “the wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages” to be a war crime and declared that “inhumane acts against any civilian population” were a crime against humanity.

From that fateful day on September 8, 1945 to the present, a period of 72 years, U.S. military forces (currently numbering 37,000 positioned at 100 installations) have maintained a continuous occupation in the south supporting de facto U.S. rule over the political, economic and military life of a needlessly divided Korea. This often brutal occupation and the persistent U.S. support for the repressive policies of dictatorial puppets continues to be the single greatest obstacle to peace in Korea, preventing the inevitable reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

Until 1994, all of the hundreds of thousands of South Korean defense forces operated under direct U.S. command. Even today, although integrated into the Combined Forces Command (CFC), these forces automatically revert to direct US control when the US military commander in Korea determines that there is a state of war.

This account is really the short version. For the most insightful analysis, it is worth reading carefully Steven Gowans’s detailed account (I was drawn to this piece by Prole Center).

All of this makes sense of one of my initial impressions when I visited the DPRK. Time and again, they referred to the “brazen American imperial aggressors.” While this initially may have seemed like hyperbolic propaganda, our visit to the DMZ was revealing. We were free to walk about, joke and take photographs from the northern side. By contrast, on the southern side were but two forlorn South Korean soldiers. They were surrounded by numerous U.S. soldiers.