Enmeshment: An Effort to Understand Chinese Socialism

In the aftermath of 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.

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4 thoughts on “Enmeshment: An Effort to Understand Chinese Socialism

    1. Weird way to approach the question. Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism are part of the complex web of Chinese culture, and Mao was deeply informed by this cultural matrix, even to the point of briefly considering becoming, as a teenager, a Buddhist monk when on a hike with friends. But to ask whether he believed in ‘God’ by considering his poetry and stories is a strange way to proceed.

  1. Some of this I get, but some of it I don’t get. I understand and agree with the part about how distinguishing between “civil society” and the state is kind of a bourgeois artificial construct. I also understand that contradictions are a normal fact of life in general and will exist for quite some time on the long, hard road to communism, but I don’t understand “non-antagonistic contradictions” – that seems like an oxymoron to me.

    When it comes to contradictions, I feel like we have to be concerned about the degree of contradiction, and at some point we need to work to resolve them over time. At what point does a seemingly minor contradiction become just rank opportunism and hypocrisy?

    1. I haven’t got to the bottom of non-antagonistic contradictions as yet. It became a popular category in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, especially in light of Lenin’s marginal note on Bukharin’s 1920 book, The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period. Lenin writes: “Antagonism and contradiction are not at all the same thing. In socialism, the first will disappear, but the latter will remain.” This comment was first published in 1929 and provided the authority to develop non-antagonistic contradiction, in relation to socialism in one country and the tensions between forces and relations of production under socialism (as distinct from communism). The Chinese communists found this immensely useful during their intense period of study in Yan’an from 1935 onwards. It linked up with a whole tradition of Chinese thought that could be be transformed in light of Marxism. So the last section of Mao’s ‘On Contradiction’ deals with it and it is a key feature of his piece from 20 years later, ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People’.

      You also see it in Deng Xioaping’s reinterpretation of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat (and peasants)’. It now becomes the ‘democratic people’s dictatorship’ (the seeds are already in Mao). But it now means workers, farmers, intellectuals and the entrepreneurial class ( a term I prefer to ‘middle class’) – in other words pretty much everyone!

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