November 2017

Following on from an earlier post, the latest update on China’s toilet revolution from Xinhua news. Although this is usually the topic of light-hearted commentary, the article makes it clear that this is part of the larger poverty alleviation program that has so far lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty and is focused on the last 40 million. Rural areas in the western parts of China are now the focus, with Xi Jinping on his many visits to rural areas always asking about the state of the toilets. This not necessarily all new, since traditional Chinese medicine puts great emphasis on examining the condition of one’s stool.

Although I do hope that these truly communal toilets find a place in the revolution:


‘How do you deal with slavery in the ancient world?’ Someone asked the person who had just given a paper on class as a ‘reductionist’ category.

‘Well’, came the reply. ‘You need to consider the situation of each individual slave. One slave may be in the mines under brutal conditions, while another may be a slave in a wealthy household, or another may be a skilled artisan. Each individual situation is different, with many determining factors that need to be analysed. So it is not helpful to consider slaves as a class, which is a reductionist category …’

At this moment, I realised once again that liberalism really does mess with people’s minds. The presenter in question had skipped through a number of European philosophers such as Deleuze, Latour and Balibar, claiming some vaguely ‘Marxist’ credentials so as to show how even Marxism had given up on the ‘crude’ category of class. I was waiting to see Margaret Thatcher quoted as well: ‘there is no society’. With this conjuring trick, class had apparently disappeared.

Obviously, class was a real bogey for this person. It had to be fought off and denied any validity. The context of course was the return of class as a way of understanding and acting in the world. We can identify a a wide range of causes: the rise of a range of left-wing movements, even in bourgeois democracies (from Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders), the strength of angry forces on the right, the decline of the United States and the increasing strength of socialist China with a very different vision for the world. In this context, it should be no surprise that class had returned with a vigour not seen for a while, even in the fraying and disintegrating hegemony of Euro-American practice and thought. Thus, as a desperate rear-guard action, class must be denied any validity, even in the cocoon of intellectual inquiry. It is a ‘reductionist’ category, it is argued, slotting people arbitrarily into ‘boxes’ – standard rhetorical moves you will encounter again and again.

Let me give another example, again in discussions about ancient slavery. Now the emphasis was on manumission and freed persons. In slavery, it was argued, the promise of manumission held a powerful ideological force, ensuring that many slaves ‘behaved’ themselves so as to keep alive the possibility of manumission. And freed persons contributed greatly to ancient Roman society and economics.

Then came the question: ‘But why did the Roman ruling class still see them in terms of slavery?’ I would add that they also viewed peasants, under tenure or not, and even the later coloni (when all were tied to land rather than masters or landlords) in terms of slavery. The answer: you have to consider the individual situations of freed persons. Some became relatively rich and owned houses, while others ended up being poor day labourers. Their individual situations and status differed greatly … By now, the strategy should be obvious: negate class through a thousand qualifications in favour of the private individual. And one can even add a little bit of Max Weber, suggesting that status, if not Weber’s great love of the role a ‘free labour’ (conjured out of thin air), played a role.

This effort to deny class in the name of a pernicious liberalism has a number of levels, not least of which is denying class all round you (I was in the United States, believe it or not, where Trump was president and homeless people crowded the streets). But I would like to stress one point that is directly connected to the examples given: modern liberalism arose in the context of slavery. In other words, liberalism is based on a constitutive unfreedom, the exclusion of many from the category of the free and private individual. The first ideologues of liberalism were either slave owners or strong supporters of slavery. Think of the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, or Hugo Grotius, John Stuart Mill or John Locke.[1] Indeed, they saw what came to be called liberalism as a sober and reasonable position, so much so that abolitionists were regarded as fanatics and extremists who would tear society apart. All in the name of the private individual.

In other words, the power of liberalism is to deny and negate the exclusion and oppression at its heart. If you stress the complexity of each individual situation, class dissipates and you can get on with your individual life in blissful ignorance. Liberalism really does screw your mind.

[1] Tellingly, liberalism arose first and was strongest in three contexts: the revolution of the Dutch against Philip II of Spain (1655-1648), the Glorious Revolution in England (1688) and the American Revolution (1765-83). In each place, the slave trade provided the basis for wealth and power.

Welcome to China, where hammers and sickles are everywhere:


Before and during the 19th congress of the CPC (shijiuda), banners, signs and slogans were all over the country;

Apart from following events very closely, I took myself to the local Xinhua Bookshop, to find a huge number of Xi Jinping’s books for sale – carrying on the tradition of communist leaders who actually think and write:

Almost 20 books to read over the southern summer, along with Mao’s works:

In many places, I also came across signs reminding one of the achievements of Chinese socialism:

And these days Xi Jinping is known as ‘comrade [tongzhi]’, a term that has come back into wide use:

Small though it may be, I also try to make my own contribution:

Despite my best intentions, I had first come to China some eleven years ago with a pile of preconceptions and ways of understanding socialism. One by one they have been challenged, undermined and then crumbled. Since then, I have been rebuilding my understanding virtually from scratch.

Some of these preconceptions were superficial, although I was not aware I held them until after arrival. For example, I had been warned that a paranoid communist party would send spies to watch my every move. Even though I found this somewhat ludicrous, I caught myself, despite my best intentions, wondering if I was indeed being tailed. Another was the oft-repeated comment that no-one in China ‘believes’ in Marxism anymore, indeed that Chinese people barely talk about it. This particular fib took about 24 hours to undo, since I found not only that people freely talk about Marxism and socialism as everyday matters, but that everyone has studied these subjects at school.

Other preconceptions were more deeply ingrained: the idea that socialism can be reduced to economic matters; that China had embraced capitalism somewhere between 1979 and 1989; that Mao Zedong was the good boy and Deng Xiaoping the bad boy; that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ had little to do with socialism; indeed, that a ‘socialist market economy’ is a meaningless term; as for any form of democracy or ‘human rights’, forget it, since the communist party is not interested. I should add that I had a number of ways of understanding socialism that had developed during a long immersion in European Marxism, with its specific assumptions concerning philosophy and ways of looking at the world.

To have these assumptions dismantled has been a disconcerting process, to say the least. But it has also been exhilarating and full of new insights. By this time, more than a decade later, I hold none of the positions I have mentioned. However, the process has often involved constructing a new position that turned out to be a half-way house, a transitional point to something else. In short, I continue to dismantle nearly all of the categories that I had assumed as givens and have been working hard to construct new ones based on extensive exposure to Chinese Marxism.

Where to begin?

Human Rights

Perhaps ‘human rights’ was the easiest one to dismantle. I had always been suspicious of the very idea of human rights, given that it was first proposed by the Dutch philosopher and jurist, Hugo Grotius, in the sixteenth century. Grotius made a crucial shift, from a singular ‘Right’ characteristic of the Middle Ages (and inescapably connected with God) to plural ‘rights’. Already he saw these rights – such as life, freedom and so on – as commodities that could be acquired or sold. So I did not pay much attention to the routine use of ‘human rights’ in international efforts to denigrate China and its supposed ‘abuses’.

However, while filming for an online course (MOOC) on Chinese Marxism, I travelled to Ruijin, where the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet was established in the early 1930s. Here developed what may be called the ‘Ruijin ethos’: focus first on the people’s need for food, shelter, clothing and security, and then they will become communists. This opened the door to understanding a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights. Yes, such rights are universal, but they are rooted in specific situations and histories. Thus, the European tradition focuses on individual political and civil rights, but it neglects the crucial right to economic wellbeing (with significant consequences). It is precisely this right that emerged with the Ruijin ethos, with a distinctly collective focus. And it continues to be expressed in any number of government policies, ranging from the minority nationalities policy to the Belt and Road Initiative. So there is a Chinese Marxist tradition of human rights, arising in a very different situation, with different emphases. This is not to say that political and civil rights are neglected, but they must be understood in this broader framework.

Socialist Democracy

As for ‘democracy’, on this matter too I had earlier suspicions. I mean here suspicions about bourgeois democracy and the claim that this particular form of democracy is ‘democracy’ as such, without any qualifiers. I had experienced and studied enough to know the vacuousness of such claims, that bourgeois democracy based on parliamentary parties was only one historical manifestation of democracy, with its significant limitations. But I did have some idea of what an alternative might be, with direct participation by all, election and revocation, a search for a collective will – a little like Marx on the Paris commune. This is socialist democracy, I thought to myself. That my perception had significant doses of anti-statism goes without saying, for is not the state an alienated entity out of touch with the people? That it was also deeply informed by a (neo-)liberal framework was not so clear to me at the time, a situation that I now realise feeds into the popularity of anarchism in those parts of the world where liberalism is the dominant framework. With these preconceptions in mind, China was not going to manifest any form of socialist democracy.

The breakdown of this preconception began with the discovery that elections happen all the time in China. In local elections, whether in the countryside or city regions, one can elect the local government representatives. They can be communist party candidates or non-party candidates. What about the process of electing people for the two houses of parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)? The process begins in villages and in the local people’s assemblies, which may elect as many people as they wish. However, the number elected is usually no more than fifty percent over the number of places available. From there, elections continue through a number of layers until the provincial people’s assembly, from which the final number of delegates are elected. Once elected, a delegate serves for five years. In other words, the process is one of direct and indirect elections. A similar process applies for electing delegates to the Communist Party’s congress.

Clearly, this is a democratic exercise. But the question remains: what about the Communist Party itself? Can it be voted in or out of power? For many, this question is the test of ‘real democracy’. The problem is that the question itself betrays the hegemony of bourgeois democratic assumptions, in which multiple parties which look rather like one another vie for power, without questioning the overall framework. Obviously, this does not apply in China, which is not a bourgeois democracy. However, the role of the Communist Party in democracy took me a while longer to determine.

In short, a Communist Party must be in power for socialist democracy to function. This may initially seem like a paradox, but it is not. Let me put it this way, using the category of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. When first used by Marx and Engels and then developed by Lenin and Stalin, the proletarian democracy was a centralised and repressive force, in which the majority – workers and peasants – made use of the machinery of state to absorb and crush their opponents, who had once constituted the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’. The key here is the majority, which is able to express its will. Yet, this is only the beginning. In a Chinese situation, Mao Zedong transformed this category into ‘democratic dictatorship’, which he saw as ‘democracy for the people and dictatorship over the reactionaries’ (1949). Note the shift: the proletariat have become ‘the people [renmin]’ and they are the ones who rule. In fact, the Chinese minzhu reminds us of the core meaning of ‘democracy’, the people are in charge, are masters. All of this would be fully expressed by Deng Xiaoping in his four cardinal principles, of which the second is ‘upholding the people’s democratic dictatorship [renminminzhuzhuanzheng]’. But who are the people here? They are the workers, farmers and what may be called a socialist middle class, although ‘middle class’ is really not the best term here, since it evokes the specifics of the European history of the bourgeoisie. Instead, these are the people who have been lifted out of poverty and find the socialism has in fact improved their lives. The import of Deng Xiaoping’s formula is that the ‘people’ includes everyone. And who leads and represents them, through complex patterns of elections, public opinion, feedback from other political parties and policy? The next item in Deng’s principles provides the answer: leadership of the Communist Party.

Contradiction Analysis

Now I am digging into material that required and continues to require much more rethinking. So it is a good time to pause and identify a key experience. It concerns what may at first seem like a rather abstract idea: contradiction. But this idea has profound and very concrete implications.

The first moment of this experience was a discussion with a Chinese colleague over ‘utopia’. In a European context, utopia is of course both a non-place (utopia) and a good place (eutopia), but it entails some idea of perfection. Here tensions and conflicts are overcome, harmony and peace are achieved. Isn’t this the same as the Chinese datong, the ‘Great Harmony’? I asked. Well no, my colleague pointed out. This ancient Confucian idea, which has subsequently been reshaped in the tradition as a future state and then appropriated and reinterpreted by the communists (Mao was fond of it), actually does not mean ‘perfection’ as I had understood it. Instead, it means that opposites and indeed contradictions are still present, but they are not in conflict with one another. Think of yin-yang, she said: not only are the opposites entwined with one another, but if you look closely, you will see one side in the middle of the other.

The second moment was an extraordinary seminar, in which we read Mao’s ‘On Contradiction’ very carefully over six weeks. I had been struggling for some time concerning the presence of contradictions under socialism. According to a certain ‘Western’ approach, contradictions are supposed to disappear: swept away would be classes, economic exploitation, ideological conflict, if not the state itself. Through my work on the Soviet Union, especially in light of its achievement of socialism in the 1930s (my awareness of this reality also took time), I had begun to realise that contradictions do happen under socialism. So I was in the process of painstakingly tracking how Marxist thought came to terms with this reality.

Some of the other participants in the seminar were somewhat impatient with me. Of course, contradictions appear with socialism! Mao’s essay makes this very, very clear. But what sort of contradictions? Are not contradictions meant to indicate struggle and conflict? Many parts of the essay address the nature of contradictions and their relations to one another. But one of the most significant is the last part, concerning ‘non-antagonistic contradictions’. Here Mao picks up an idea that had begun to be explored in the Soviet Union, where classes were present under socialism, as well as tensions between the forces and relations of production. But Mao took it much further in light of Chinese philosophy. At one point, he quotes a four-character Chinese saying: xiangfan xiangcheng, ‘things that oppose each other also complement one another’. Thus, contradictions can always become antagonistic, leading to conflict, as one finds with events leading to a communist revolution. But they can also be non-antagonistic if they are handled properly. This is precisely Mao’s emphasis in an essay from 1957, in the early days of beginning to construct socialism. It is called ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’, in which he advises the party to focus on ensuring that the contradictions that exist should not become antagonistic.

The third moment made me realise how important this ‘contradiction analysis’ is in China today. I happened to be in Beijing during the nineteenth congress of the CPC in October 2017. The anticipation in China was palpable and more global attention was focused on this congress than any of the earlier ones. In a major speech of more than three hours, in which Xi Jinping outlined the shape of a whole new phase of Marxism in China, he identified a new primary contradiction: between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life. Not only did this approach straight out of Mao’s approach, but it also invoked a traditional four-character saying, meihua shenghuo, a beautiful and good life. It was now being claimed from a long tradition and being reinterpreted in a Marxist framework. By now my sense of what contradiction means in a Chinese context had a little depth, especially in light of the aim to become a great modern socialist country by the middle of the twenty-first century.

Socialist Market Economy

Over the years that I have been discussing, thinking about and studying the question of contradiction, I have also found myself pondering economic questions.

I initially tried to bring the two together – contradiction and economics – once I realised that socialism does have a distinct place in China rather than some rampant and unbridled form of capitalism. Still I relied on European categories to try to understand this situation, especially the Marxist who has influenced me in so many ways – Ernst Bloch. I began to argue that the primary contradiction (under Mao’s influence) is in fact socialism and capitalism. I explored a number of ways in which this might work, ending with the suggestion that subsequent modes of production do not cancel out the preceding ones. Instead, they absorb the contradictions of the earlier ones and transform them in the new context. If you can see this with capitalism, you could also argue that this dialectical process also takes place with socialism. So you would expect to see all manner of mechanisms and forms of capitalism appearing under socialism, especially in terms of unleashing the forces of production, but they would be transformed in the new framework. I still think that this particular point about modes of production holds and that it is a very Marxist approach. In many ways, it makes sense of what happened in the Soviet Union and it assists in understanding the process through which China is going – well beyond the Soviet Union.

However, I still could not make sense of a ‘socialist market economy’. Why? I assumed that a market economy is the same as capitalism and that if China had some form of market economy it must have some form of capitalism. This assumption is so ingrained among so many people, specialists or not, that it is difficult to challenge. For me, the penny dropped very slowly. I realise now that this assumption is actually a manifestation of what is called ‘economics imperialism’. This means that neoclassical economics – a major tradition for understanding capitalism – managed to forget its history and its social location. It became individualised and universalised, making claims about human nature as such. Human beings, they assume, are rational and self-interested actors, who will always make the best economic decision for themselves. Armed with this universal doctrine, they set about describing everything from psychology to religion as manifestations of economic activity. In short, we are capitalists by our very nature. This ‘economics imperialism’ also meant that you could use universal terms: neoclassical economics became simply ‘economics’, and a capitalist market economy became a ‘market economy’. Thus, wherever and whenever you can espy a market economy, you have capitalism in some form. This is a pervasive assumption that is simply wrong.

It certainly took a while for me to realise why. The first real step was actually historical. I had been engaged in research on the ancient world, specifically ancient Southwest Asia (often called the Ancient Near East) and the Greco-Roman world. I was seeking to develop a new economic model for understanding some four and a half thousand years of economic history. On the way, I discovered that markets had spread significantly under the Persians in the first millennium BCE and then under the Greeks and Romans. What sort of markets? Debate rages among those who are interested in such matters. Many simply assumed that they were capitalist markets – a little crude and primitive, but still capitalist. In this club, you find assumptions concerning the primacy of profit, supply and demand, the independence of the market economy, and so on. Others argued against this approach, pointing out that states played a determining role, that prices were not determined by supply and demand, and that such markets were socially embedded.

At a crucial point, I realised that this debate is futile, or rather, that it misses the mark. The reason: they were certainly market economies, but they were different beasts from capitalist market economies. Thus, the one fostered by the Persians can be called a logistical market economy, or perhaps a tax market economy. The Persians developed their particular market economy to deal with a logistical problem: how to provision armies. At some point, they hit on the idea of paying soldiers in coin (newly invented) and demanding taxes in coin. But how could the people get hold of the coins to pay taxes? Sell food, clothing and what have you to the soldiers on the move. If someone made a little profit on the side, then that was a secondary benefit.

The Greeks and then the Romans developed a different market economy. When ‘classical’ Greece emerged from the centuries-long period of so-called economic ‘collapse’ (if one assumes a ruling class perspective), they had developed a slave economy. Surplus for the ruling class was primarily generated through slaves, which every respectable Greek male citizen owned. But they had to get hold of slaves, which were sources in all manner of ways. For this purpose, slave markets developed, with massive market concentrations in the eastern Mediterranean. The Romans ‘perfected’ – if I can use such a term – this system so that we can speak of a slave market economy. The whole market economy was geared and shaped for the purpose of finding, transporting and selling slaves.

Here were two types of market economy that were clearly not capitalist, because profit was not the main driver and the whole capitalist surplus value certainly did not apply. This awareness led me to realise that most market economies throughout history have been anything but capitalist. Indeed, a capitalist market economy as we know it first began with the Dutch Empire in the sixteenth century.

By now the implications should be obvious for a socialist market economy. It too can develop in a way that is not capitalist, even in a global framework that can be seen as largely capitalist. How so? My thoughts on this are at the beginning stage, but I can indicate a number of features beyond my earlier musings.

To begin with, the old opposition between public (or state) and private ownership does not apply. This opposition has become a leitmotiv of those who try to determine whether an economy is more or less ‘socialistic’, so much so that a ‘socialist’ turn involves ‘nationalising’ key industries. This model is simply unusable in China, of not misleading. Thus, the percentage of public or private ownership is not a marker of whether a national economy is more or less socialistic. It takes some effort to get beyond this opposition, but let us try. In China, the fabled state-owned enterprises – the backbone of the economy – are undergoing a process of eradicating old inefficiencies by learning from ‘private’ enterprises and even entering into partnerships with those enterprises. At the same time, every enterprise, whether ‘private’ or ‘public’ – or rather the many enterprises with are part ‘private’ and ‘public’, village or local government owned enterprises, ‘new economic organisations’, start-ups and so on – with more than three CPC members must have a party organisation with an elected party secretary. This means that every enterprise with more than 100 employees must have a core CPC unit within it, exercising a managerial role. Even more, every foreign enterprise or multinational must also have a CPC unit at its core. If I add that the CEOs of China’s biggest companies are also members of the CPC, then we are beginning to understand what may be called ‘enmeshment’ – as is showing up significantly with the Belt and Road Initiative. Much more could be said on this topic (and it needs further research), but it is leading to creative efforts to rethink the situation in terms of a ‘commons’ that is far from any notion of a bourgeois civil society, or indeed the very idea of a socialist market economy itself that moves well beyond the bourgeois distinction of public and private ownership.[1]

Further, the capitalist ‘law’ of value does not apply to a socialist market economy.[2] The production of surplus value is not the determining feature of this market economy, or – if one wishes to put it in other terms – profit for the sake of profit, based on the autonomous dynamic of a ‘market, is not primary by any means (even with foreign influence since China has to deal with capitalist market economies). We might put it this way: under the law of value, ‘unprofitable’ industries would be shut down in favour of ‘profitable’ ones. But this is not the best way of putting it. Instead, the very idea of profitability is transformed. Instead of short-term analyses of whether a particular venture will return a profit, a longer view prevails in which a project is assessed in terms of its larger and long-term benefit – or ‘social surplus’. Again and again, I have been told by Chinese people involved in all manner of businesses that they must meet a whole series of criteria for business reporting. Of these, profit is only secondary. Of course, they must viable in terms of efficiency, paying employees and having resources for future activity, but the whole aim in not based on returns to shareholders. Instead, they are assessed in terms social benefit, environmental improvement, education, contribution to socialism with Chinese characteristics, among others.

The test-case here is the Belt and Road Initiative. This initiative is really an extension of the Chinese focus on infrastructure. As many know, China has been constructing new roads, bridges, schools, universities, accommodation, the world’s best rail network (including but not limited to the massive high-speed network), world-class internet, share economy, and so on. The Belt and Road Initiative is the global manifestation of this drive. It contrasts sharply with the ‘neoliberal’ emphasis on trying the produce money out of money through speculation. Anyone who visits the USA today can see the contrast, where infrastructure is literally crumbling. As one wit put it to me recently: North Korea has recently built a new international airport in Pyongyang, while the USA has not built a new one for a long time. Indeed, a neo-liberal assessment of infrastructure investment argues that it does produce ‘returns’ on investment in perhaps a ten-year period. This kind of analysis completely misses the point of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is long term and focused not merely on China’s benefits, but all those involved.[3]

A final note on what will no doubt be a much longer analysis. Much has been made in some quarters of the Chinese billionaires and the relatively high Gini coefficient (although it has been falling for a decade). This is one of the new contradictions – among others – that has arisen in the process of the reform and opening up. Chinese economists tell me that the approach followed is that the reform and opening up by no means complete, so this tension should be resolved with further reform. Three recent signs are telling. The first is the directive to Chinese companies investing abroad to shift their focus to the BRI, which they are now doing. This may be coupled with the fact that it is simply expected in Chinese culture that those who have benefitted will contribute to the wider social good, so we see a massive scale of contributions and systemic investment in education, medicine and so on. The second is the identification of the new contradiction at the nineteenth congress. The initial part of the contradiction speaks of ‘unbalanced and uneven development’. While this includes problems between city and country, and between east and west, part of this situation is relative wealth disparity. Finally, the renewed focus on the poverty alleviation program, which has been ongoing for forty years, is another signal of a concentration of attention on this problem.

Socialism is More Than Economics

I have spent quite some time with the socialist market economy. In doing so, I have fallen into the trap of economism. By this I mean that so many Marxists assume that the definition of socialism turns on economic matters. Or to use the base-superstructure model, the base is all that counts. This is simply vulgar Marxism.

By contrast, I have learned that socialism is far more than economics.

It includes culture, which has a long history indeed in China. Is Marxism simply a political ideology in China that has little bearing on people’s day-to-day lives? Not at all. This reality came home to me when speaking with some students about contradiction (yes, contradiction once again). They told me how they had been taught about contradiction analysis, implicitly in primary school and then explicitly in middle and high schools. But they also said that they lived their lives according to contradiction. This is how they understand the world, how they comprehend and interpret what happens in their lives. This was one manifestation of the away socialism has entered into the fabric of Chinese culture, so much so that the claim that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has a 2,000-year history gains some meaning. In other words, the CPC and the socialism it fosters is the nurturer and bearer of Chinese culture today.

What about society? I could mention the development of a whole new dimension of Chinese society that has benefitted from the poverty alleviation program of the last forty years (700 million lifted out of poverty and counting). Some might call this a ‘middle class’, but this is really a place-holder until we find a better term. I could also mention the new problems that have arisen in terms of city and countryside, with a massive and controlled movement of people to the cities (some 250 million country people work regularly in the cities). But I will focus here on what are called ‘core socialist values’. This shows up particularly in the intersection between traditional Chinese ethics and socialist ethics, or rather, in the transformation of the former in light of the latter. Thus, a communist party member, or indeed anyone in a responsible role in society, has a higher ethical expectation. One must focus on the good of others rather than seek personal gain, be scrupulously honest and direct, living a simple life. This is what ‘communist’ means in China. No wonder that the problem with corruption not five years ago was such a deep problem, until the thorough and ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has restored the standing of the CPC among the people. No wonder that the fall for someone who does meet these expectations is so great. And no wonder that the expectations of the CPC are so high.

Ideology is also crucial, but since the term can have negative connotations for some, perhaps I should speak of theory. On this score, the last five years have been particularly important. Compulsory education for all students in schools and universities is undergoing a complete overhaul so that the courses on Marxism and socialism with Chinese characteristics are relevant to the daily lives of students. I must admit that I am intrigued by the fact that even when they are taught badly they still influence the lives of students in ways that even they do not expect (see above on contradiction) But if they are taught well, as in increasingly the case, the impact is even greater. You also find that all party members (dangyuan) must meet monthly to study an essay from Xi Jinping. The purpose is obvious: to raise the theoretical knowledge of party members. They also need to undertake regular refresher courses in the party schools dotted about the country. On this matter my colours come out more clearly (if they are not already clear). I think this is a fantastic development, especially in light of the old communist saying: without theory we are dead.

Political matters are also important, but this should be obvious. The CPC is the ruling party of the country. But it now has a radically increased theoretical level, a strict disciplinary emphasis, and a distinct confidence and strength that was not so evident five or more years ago.

These many dimensions of socialism, of which I have gradually become aware in China, indicate that one needs to be more comprehensive in assessing socialism itself. Recently, I was asked by China’s leading political economist whether I think the Soviet Union was a socialist society. I pondered the question and mentioned that one needs to assess the many facets I have outlined – economics, culture, society, ideology, politics. If we weigh these factors up, then yes, the Soviet Union was socialist. The implication: China today is socialist, far more than I ever anticipated.

The New Era

Not a few weeks before writing this piece (November 2017), the nineteenth congress of the CPC took place in Beijing. I was in China at the time and followed the congress very closely. Among its many features, ranging from Xi Jinping Thought becoming part of the constitution of the CPC, through identifying a new primary contradiction, to setting a target for becoming a great modern socialist country by 2050, I was struck by the way Marxism was front and centre of Xi Jinping’s presentation. This was simply not a problem for Chinese people. Chinese socialism was identified as entering a new era, so people set about discussing what this means.

Perhaps it is best to go back to Deng Xiaoping’s insight. To be sure, the designation of Xi Jinping Thought evokes Mao Zedong Thought – sixiang, thought, only attaches to two of China’s communist leaders. But the genius of Deng lies behind it. He was the one who picked up the threads after Mao’s deviation and the great forgetting during the Cultural Revolution. What is socialism? For Deng it is not some liberal notion of equality – what Engels’s calls gleichheitskommunismus, or egalitarian communism – in which everyone is equally poor. Instead, socialism is about the unleashing of the forces of production so that everyone’s lives improves. Improvement not merely in economic terms, but also culturally, spiritually, socially, ideologically and politically. This is the meaning of socialism with Chinese characteristics (zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi), of Marxism transformed in a Chinese situation (Makesizhuyi zhongguohua), and the desire for a better life (meihua shenghuo).

Of course, the problem with writing a piece such as this is that I may be seen as a mouthpiece of the CPC. But then people who work for Confucius Institutes are also called such names. That aside, it is clear that an immense amount of effort and research on these questions continues in China. And it is clear that the CPC is absolutely serious about its project.

[1] There is much debate about how a socialist market economy has come about. Proposals include: distinct planning by the CPC; clear distinction from Yugoslav ‘market socialism’; shifting policies in response to new developments; and – intriguingly – happenstance as the by-product of other policies.

[2] A useful starting point for the law of value under socialism is Stalin’s ‘Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’ from 1952. He has a brief discussion of value, although China’s situation has developed well beyond the Soviet Union and is much more complex.

[3] As Michael Roberts puts it: ‘This also lends the lie to the common idea among some Marxist economists that China’s export of capital to invest in projects abroad is the product of the need to absorb ‘surplus capital’ at home, similar to the export of capital by the capitalist economies before 1914 that Lenin presented as key feature of imperialism. China is not investing abroad through its state companies because of ‘excess capital’ or even because the rate of profit in state and capitalist enterprises has been falling’.


A characteristic feature of European-derived, or North Atlantic[1] approaches to communism is the narrative of betrayal: at some point, a communist revolution was betrayed by someone, betrayed itself, ran into the mud, ‘failed’.

I was first struck by this narrative some years ago when I was working intensely on Lenin.[2] And it was inescapable in much of the secondary literature when I was engaging deeply with Stalin.[3] Recently, it has struck me once again while delving into the theory and practice of the socialist state. Let me be clear: the betrayal narrative is one found mostly in European-derived traditions. Although Marxists in these parts are fond of the narrative, it is also common among liberals and conservatives. One can find stray examples other parts of the world too, in the mouths of one or two who have been unduly influenced by this narrative. In what follows, I outline some examples of the narrative, before turning to consider the closely related dimension of pristine origins.

Betrayals, Betrayals Everywhere

If you hold to this type of story, a betrayal can be found almost everywhere you look. The initial example is that Engels betrayed Marx. Being of lesser intellect and not adequately trained – or so the story goes – Engels did not understand Marx. So Engels ‘glossed’ and ‘distorted’ what Marx said, especially in work that he produced on his own or after Marx’s death. It may have been Engels’s immense efforts in editing the second and third volumes of Capital, or his Dialectics of Nature (1873-82) and Anti-Dühring (1877-78) from which Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) was drawn. Thus, the editing efforts botched Marx’s work, while the effort to extend dialectical materialism into the natural sciences was fatally flawed. Given the profound influence of Anti-Dühring on the subsequent tradition – every Marxist of the second and third generations studied this text closely – that tradition was impossibly betrayed at the hand of Engels. It is relatively easy to refute this narrative, but this is not my task here.

Lenin’s putative betrayal is more contested ground, with some seeing Lenin as a purveyor of distorted Marxism from the beginning, others that Lenin betrayed the revolution after October 1917, or that Stalin was responsible for the betrayal. But what is meant by ‘betrayal’ in this case? Let me take the example of Lenin’s betrayal of himself, for this is consistent with the role of Stalin in this case. According to this story, Lenin held to some form of ‘democratic’ position, envisaging the soviets as versions of the Paris commune. The model may have been updated and reshaped a little in light of circumstances, but it held to ‘democratic participation’ by workers and peasants at local and national levels, open and free-wheeling debate within the communist party, and would form the basis of socialism after the revolution. However, what happened very rapidly was an authoritarian move, hollowing out the soviets in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat, if not replacing the proletarian dictatorship with the dictatorship of the party. In short, Lenin moved from a ‘democratic’ commune model to an authoritarian approach. Stalin merely carried this through to its logical conclusion. The examples could be multiplied: economically, ‘state capitalism’ was gradually introduced, a global revolution was abandoned for the sake of socialism in one country, the ‘withering away of the state’ was replaced with an authoritarian state characterised by the secret police, the self-determination of minority nationalities turned into their forced assimilation, and so on. The only difference is where one draws the line, whether within Lenin’s own thought and practice or between Lenin and Stalin. The latter is, of course, the one who began to be systematically demonised not long after he died.[4]

These days, I am most interested in the way a betrayal narrative has been constructed and is now assumed by many in the case of Chinese socialism. I am less interested in the hypothesis that Mao betrayed Marxism himself, whether because he took over unreconstructed Soviet Marxism of the 1930s or whether he did so of his own initiative. I am more interested in how the betrayal narrative has been deployed by self-confessed ‘Maoists’ and how this has influenced a wider misperception from conservatives to radicals.

According to this version, Mao was indeed a true communist, developing a breath-taking version adapted for Chinese conditions. The culmination of Mao’s vision was the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here was full collectivisation, public property, equality in pay and even clothes, idealism, the beginnings of socialist culture …. However, waiting in the wings was Deng Xiaoping, the ‘capitalist roader’. Rising high, deposed, then returning on Mao’s death and dispensing with the ‘Gang of Four’, Deng began – so it is asserted – the process of turning China from a socialist country into a capitalist one. All of this is embodied in the ‘reform and opening up’ from 1979. And Deng began the process of using coded language to indicate the shift: ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was and is a code for rampant capitalism; a ‘socialist market economy’ does equal service; ‘core socialist values’ means liberalism. All this was extremely clever, it is suggested, since the CPC could not give up on the rhetoric of Marxism, so it emptied Marxism of any meaning (perhaps replacing it with nationalism. The purpose: to keep the CPC firmly in power.

This story continues: subsequent presidents – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – played the same game. Now we find the destruction of the ‘iron rice bowl’ (Chinese welfare state), the rise of a ‘middle class’, the ‘suppression’ of the working class – all with a nod and wink while speaking of Marxism. And Xi Jinping has produced his own collection of terms: the ‘Chinese Dream’, the ‘two centenary goals’ and revitalised the term ‘moderately prosperous’ society, all the while clamping down on ‘dissent’ and ‘freedom of speech’ to enhance his hold on power. A communist party has – according to this spectacular story – enabled the transition not from capitalism to socialism, but from socialism to capitalism.

The pieces of this narrative have been laid carefully for two or three decades, trading on half-truths, wilful ignorance and sheer twisting of the facts. Apart from the fact that it faces enormous difficulties in understanding the role of Marxism in Chinese socialism, all the way from culture and education, through society and politics, to economics, it usually entails a pre-judgement that means one does not even need to bother with Marxism as such in China. After all, no-one ‘believes’ in it anymore, do they?

As a final sample of this narrative of betrayal, let me return to Marx. In this case, it is the younger humanistic Marx who betrays the older scientific one. How so? It begins with the late publication of some key materials from the young Marx, such as ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’ in 1927, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ in 1932, and The German Ideology, co-authored with Engels, in 1932. Here is a younger, more ‘humanistic’ Marx, which led and continues to lead some to emphasise this dimension of his thought as a counter to ‘Scientific Socialism’ (whether of the Soviet Union or in other forms). In response, Althusser in particular has argued that this earlier material – published later – was not the true Marx, who is to be found in his later, scientific works. This would have to be the most intriguing betrayal narrative of all, since it operates in reverse.

Pristine Origins

As I have already indicated, I focus here neither on how these specific accounts face immense hurdles on closer scrutiny, nor the motivation for them, but on the nature of the narrative of betrayal itself. Two points are relevant.

First, the story has profound resonances with the biblical story of the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Here a ‘paradise’ – if somewhat flawed due to the forbidden tree(s) – is lost due to the wilful disobedience of the first human beings. Initially, it was a southwest Asian story that has overlaps with others from the same part of the world, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but it eventually became a crucial story in European culture. The story in its biblical form has a distinct political setting, providing the eventual justification for a form of governance (monarchy) and control of wayward human beings (Thomas Hobbes comes to mind as an influential later version of this account). But it has come to be seen in much wider terms, speaking of the human condition, characterised by a mythical account of disobedience, sin and betrayal of an original ideal impulse. In this form, it became part of the wider foundations for European-derived cultures, shaping cultural assumptions, the nature of thought processes, if not historical reconstructions even of the modern variety. Thus, the narrative of Genesis, European assumptions concerning human nature, the way history is so often reconstructed, as well as narratives concerning Marxism seem to have a remarkably similar pattern.

Second and related, the account of betrayal trades on a notion of pristine origins. Time and again, I have found that a purveyor of one or another version of the story assumes a distinct idea of what socialism should be (never what actually exists). They base this idea on some texts of Marx. I write ‘some’ deliberately, for the texts selected form a ‘canon within the canon’: favoured texts that are meant to express the core of Marx’s position. Thus, socialism (which Marx did not distinguish from communism) appears in the Paris commune, concerning which Marx waxed lyrical in ‘The Civil War in France’ (1871). Here workers devolved the functions of parliament, army, police and judiciary to workers’ bodies that were directly elected and subject to recall. The commune was decentralised, removed repression and did away with the ‘state’. Or one may invoke parts of ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, especially in the higher stage of communism, when economic exploitation is removed, classes disappear, even divisions between town and country, if not between mental and physical labour, so that the biblically-derived communist slogan applies: ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’.

Once you have these original and authentic definitions of socialism and/or communism, you can make an easy connection with a betrayal narrative.[5] Before a revolution, or perhaps for a while afterwards, the revolutionaries held to the ideal – think of Lenin in particular, but also Mao. But soon enough, they gave up on the ideal. It may have been force of circumstances, or a turn in the face of imminent failure, or simply a weakness of will. And if Lenin or Mao did not do so themselves, then Stalin or Deng were responsible for overturning the socialist ideal and destroying it. The outcome: socialism has never been realised as yet, for the true moment still awaits us.

Once again, this search for and latching onto a notion of pristine origins has resonances with Christian thought and practice. In this case, the authentic moment may be found somewhere in the biblical texts, preferably in the words of Jesus himself (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is a favoured location). Soon enough, these words and the community they envisaged was adulterated and betrayed. Here the line can be drawn at almost any point: between Jesus and the early church (the Apostle Paul); between the form of the early Christian community and the later betrayal by the institutional church; between the doctrine of justification by faith through grace and the doctrine of salvation by works …

The problem here is that one can find justification for a number of positions in the texts, for these texts are not uniform. So one has to choose some texts, downgrade or ignore the others that contradict one’s choice and then criticise those who latch onto precisely these downgraded texts. The history of Christianity reveals this process again and again. A group or a spokesperson emerges, argues that the institution as it exists has betrayed and sullied the original impulse, and begins a process of reform in the name of an authentic and original ideal based on a selection of texts. Sometimes, these movements were contained and channelled within the institution (think of the medieval orders in the Roman Catholic Church or monastic renewal in the Eastern Orthodox Church). At other times, they were brutally repressed and crushed, as many a radical religious movement in the European Middle Ages. And at other times, due to wider cultural, social and economic shifts, the reform effort became a whole new and enduring movement. The Protestant Reformation is the most notable example.

The analogies with European-derived Marxism should be obvious, if not the struggles between the varieties of socialist, communist and anarchist movements today (as Engels already noted in his ‘On the History of Early Christianity’ from 1895). But we can find it also among non-Marxists and even anti-Marxists. They too assume a certain definition of an ideal socialism, usually based on the very same texts used by Marxists, and then use those to dismiss the actual efforts to construct socialism.


I have focused on European-derived, or ‘Western’ Marxism due to its preference for betrayal narratives and ideas of pristine origins. It can also be found in Russian Marxism, given the comparable cultural dynamics of that part of the world (think of the long-running struggle between Stalin and Trotsky and what their names have come to signify).

Are there alternative approaches that may well do better than the one I have been analysing? Recently, I was having one of my many discussions with a Chinese comrade and we came to the topic in question. In fact, these reflections arose in part from that discussion. She is fully aware of the narrative of betrayal, having devoted much of her working life to studying ‘Western’ Marxism. But she also admitted to not understanding it; or rather, she finds it difficult to understand how it can make sense of actual tradition. Instead, she prefers a process of clarification of previously obscure or unresolved points in each subsequent development. Is that a more Chinese approach? I wondered. Yes, it is, she affirmed. How do mistakes arise, or is every statement a clarification? Mistakes do arise, such as when there is an effort to turn back the clock, to reassert an older and more obscure position that has subsequently been clarified. Or perhaps if someone moves to undermine and dispense with Marxism itself.

I am still working out the implications of this clarifying approach, particularly if it can also incorporate the following possibilities. One is to argue for interpretation in the spirit, rather than the letter of Marxism. Or: instead of invoking the letter of the original text and judging all in its light, one sees Marxism as a method for dealing with every new situation. As Lenin, Stalin and Mao were fond of saying, Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action.

The other approach is related but takes a different approach. Changing historical circumstances produce new problems that must be analysed and solved in new ways. These problems did not face Marx or Engels, while other problems did not face subsequent leaders. The circumstances have been and are many, ranging from unforeseen economic problems, through the development of policies in relation to minority nationalities, to what a socialist culture might actually be. Perhaps the two main changes in circumstances turn on the question of power. Marx and Engels were never in a position to exercise power after a successful communist revolution (as they well knew), so most of the developments in relation to socialism in power had to deal with issues that they simply had not experienced and could not foresee. And none of the previous experiences of socialism in power has prepared us for the moment when China becomes not merely the most powerful socialist country in human history (it already is), but the most powerful economic, political and cultural force in the world.

[1] Or ‘Western’, but this term is loose and impossible-to-pin-down. Chinese has an ideal term, meiou, using the first character for the USA (meiguo) and for Europe (ouzhou), but this is impossible to render into English, except perhaps as ‘Euro-American’. Even this term loses the specificity of the USA and replaces it with a term for the two continents of South and North America.

[2] See especially Roland Boer, “Before October: The Unbearable Romanticism of Western Marxism,”  Monthly Review Magazine(2011),; Roland Boer, “The ‘Failure’ of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative,”  Philosophers for Change(2014),

[3] Roland Boer, Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power  (Beijing: Springer, 2017).

[4] Domenico Losurdo, Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera  (Rome: Carocci editore, 2008).

[5] This search for origins can also be manifested in the whole dynamic of ‘revisionism’ in Marxism itself (I have heard the charge levelled at someone only recently and with some vigour).

An article of faith among some ‘Western’ Marxists is that the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76) expressed the core communist position of Mao Zedong, indeed when communism itself began to be realised. Subsequently, the ‘revisionist’ Deng Xiaoping undid Mao’s legacy, engineered an about-turn and set out on the road to capitalism. After all, did not Mao dub him a ‘bourgeois’ and a ‘capitalist roader’? Case closed …

What if this is a misreading of the situation, part of the myopia or narrative of betrayal characteristic of much European-derived historiography?

After some fascinating discussions and much rethinking as a result, I have come to change my mind on this period. I used to argue that the Great Cultural Revolution was a necessary process that shook up China from top to bottom so that the reform and opening up could happen afterwards. I thought this was enough of a challenge to misguided ‘Western’ efforts, but every Chinese person to whom I have mentioned this theory has looked doubtful indeed. Instead, I have come to appreciate the carefully argued position of the vast majority of my Chinese interlocutors. Thus, in his old age Mao lost his way and it was only after the turmoil and destruction of the time that the line he had developed earlier was taken up again. In other words, the continuity was from Mao’s earlier thought, up the early 1960s, to Deng Xiaoping and afterwards. In between was the deviation.

There are a number of ways to understand this proposal.

One is to deploy a conventional communist approach and call it a phase of revisionism or perhaps opportunism. I do not need to go into the details of what revisionism entails, suffice to note that it marks a departure from the main line that had been agreed upon before. So it was with Mao in the mid-1960s. There is some merit to such an argument, since it counters the ‘Western’ claim that Deng Xiaoping was the revisionist. However, the catch with using such a category is that the main line itself shifts depending on the situation, so what counts as ‘revisionist’ also shifts. And it depends on who is deciding what counts as the core, for each side in crucial debates will call each other revisionist.

A second suggestion is that Mao fell into the trap of becoming a quasi-emperor (huangdi). After all, it had barely been more than 50 years earlier that the imperial system itself was finally abolished, a system with a long history indeed in China, with its associated cultural assumptions. Thus, during the Cultural Revolution the deference to Mao, the belief that he could make no mistakes, indeed the ‘faith [xinxin]’ in him all indicate such a development. And there was also the reality that Mao, the revolutionary leader, would not hand over the near solitary power he had attained in his old age until he died.

A third approach is to point out that the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism took over during this time. This is an absolutely necessary feature of Marxism, with its focus on the ‘heart’, on feelings and emotions, on idealism and hope. But it should always be in close connection with the ‘cold stream’, the one of rational and scientific analysis of any situation. At their best, we find such combinations in Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin and the communist party the latter two led. And we find it with Mao before the mid-1960s. But after that, the warm stream dominated, revolutionary fervour leapt ahead of careful analysis of the situation, disaster loomed and much suffering ensued.

A fourth suggestion concerns the tension between old and new. A revolutionary movement like communism obviously seeks to abolish the old and replace it with what is new, for otherwise one would not undertake revolutionary action. The problem, however, is how one relates to what has gone before. One side seeks to abolish everything related to the old order: its economics, politics, ideology, culture. After a revolutionary period, one begins completely anew. Another side argues that one cannot simply build from scratch, but one must build on the foundations of the old. Indeed, all that is best in the old order needs to be taken up and transformed dialectically within the new. This debate raged after the Russian revolution, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks eventually siding with the second approach and one finds it also in its own way in relation to the Chinese revolution. Mao evinces both dimensions in his thoughts and actions. At times, he argues that Marxism cannot be understood without the concrete situation in China, in terms of its long history and its culture – from ‘Confucius to Sun Yat-sen’ he observes in 1938, ‘we must sum it up critically, and we must constitute ourselves the heirs to this precious legacy’. This is the basis for the sinification of Marxism (Makesizhuyi zhongguohua) that would be taken up again after the Cultural Revolution by Deng Xiaoping. Obviously, the period of the Cultural Revolution was a break from this approach, giving vent to Mao’s tendency at times to abolish all that had gone before.

A fifth angle is to point out that Mao lost sight of some of his crucial earlier insights. I think in particular of the category of ‘non-contradictory contradictions [feiduikangxing maodun]’. Mao picked up this idea from Soviet debates during the intense period of study at Yan’an in the 1930s. The Soviet communists had begun developing the idea to deal with the question of contradictions under socialism. Mao seized upon it in his lectures on dialectical materialism at the time and it became the final section of his crucial essay ‘On Contradiction’. Why? The idea of non-antagonistic contradictions connected with a long tradition in Chinese philosophy, which gave Mao the opportunity to develop the theoretical foundations of sinified Marxism. Twenty years later, he developed the idea much further in the essay, ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’. Here he pointed out that contradictions under socialism would certainly continue, but they need to be addressed so that they do not become antagonistic and lead to struggle and conflict. This essay appeared in 1957, after the revolution and in the early stage of beginning to construct socialism. However, a decade later he clearly forgot this key insight, instigating antagonistic contradictions in the name of inner-party class struggle.

As I mentioned at the beginning, these different angles – which are not mutually exclusive – arose from a series of intense and very open discussions about the Cultural Revolution. And I have found that it a very rare person indeed in China who wishes to defend Mao’s mistake in his last years.

Perhaps Xi Jinping expressed it best in 2013: ‘Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings. We cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great; neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes’.

What a time to be in China! What a time indeed.

Happenstance would have it that I was in Beijing for the nineteenth congress of the Communist Party of China. Usually, such events barely raise interest outside China, except perhaps for the rare Marxist actually interested in the place or – that ambivalent term – a ‘China hand’. And if some foreign commentator happens to notice, they will trot out some rusty formulae concerning arcane language, obtuse signals and look for signs of a ‘totalitarian’ state – without trying to find out much real information.

Not this time.

Something big was afoot. Everywhere I went in China in the weeks leading up the congress I encountered banners, signs and posters. ‘Welcome to the 19th congress of the CPC’, one said. ‘Study carefully Xi Jinping’s writings’, said another. ‘The 19th congress will lead to a better life [meihua shenghuo]’, said a third, invoking an ancient Chinese saying.

Security was tight, very tight. Internet systems were down or slow. Foreigners found themselves asked for passports and even urine samples if they happened to frequent expat bars (I avoid them). Almost one million citizen groups in Beijing were mobilised to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Let alone the party members in town who had plain-clothes guard duty rosters for the lead-up and duration of the congress. Even social networking was tightened up: you could not change any item on your profile on wechat until the end of October.

In this buzz I zeroed in on the many levels of information available.

On the 18th of October, the congress began, with Xi Jinping slated to give a speech. And what a speech it was: 205 minutes non-stop, or 3 hours and 25 minutes. Clearly, the most important speech in his 63 years.

But what did he say?

Marxism has roared back to the centre of Chinese thought, policy and direction for the future. Not a mean achievement, especially after it seemed to be somewhat soft-pedalled not five years or more ago, before Xi became chairman (zhuxi, also translated as ‘president’). Marxism would be – no, is – the guiding light, the beacon to the future.

Marxist political economy is setting the agenda for a very different economic approach. This is called a socialist market economy – and the Chinese are very serious about what is an increasingly clear alternative to a capitalist market economy. The speech outlined five main factors: 1) furthering supply-side structural reform; 2) fostering innovation at all levels to increase China’s global leadership; 3) rural revitalisation; 4) coordinated regional development; 5) further opening up on all fronts. And the institutional mechanisms for each are already established.

But let me emphasise the following dimensions underlying this socialist market economy. The model clearly being followed is an alternative to neo-liberalism, which loves financial speculation and estimates based on short-term profit yields. Instead, the Chinese model takes the long view. Infrastructure is the key, within China and without. Think of the Belt and Road Initiative, already to reshape the world, let alone seeking to reshape the uneven development of China internally (focused on the western parts).

Further, the simplistic opposition between ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors of the economy is now obsolete. For example, any ‘private’ company of over 100 employees has a core communist party cell. Each multinational company that wishes to engage with China – and so many do – must have a communist cell within it. What do we call this approach? I prefer to call it an ‘enmeshed’ economy, in which the CPC is interwoven with an equally interwoven ‘public’ and ‘private’ sector. What appears initially to be a ‘private’ economic project is inescapably enmeshed with the CPC, while the ‘public’ companies (SOEs) are being revitalised by active interaction with the ‘private’ ones. Even more, the mighty SOEs, revamped and more efficient, are starting to become multi-nationals themselves through many projects. Obviously, this has significant global implications.

But Marxism is much more than economics. Let me give a few examples.

1. The speech calls for an ‘ecological civilisation’, drawing deeply on cultural assumptions concerning the harmony of nature as ‘shanshui’, ‘mountain-water’, but also modern Marxist approaches.

2. ‘Core socialist values’ is a key, stressing the fact that ethics is a crucial component of Chinese Marxism, which should permeate all levels of society even more.

3. Strengthening the mechanisms by which the people run the country, which means developing further a distinctly Marxist tradition of socialist democracy.

4. A ‘socialist rule of law’ (shehuizhuyi fazhi), in which everyone is subject to the law. Obviously, this has affinities with a European-derived ‘rule of law’, although that tradition really means a whole structure developed to buttress capitalism. This is why the speech emphasised a socialist rule of law. It is being developed as system to ensure the development of socialism, while at the same making it clear that no-one is above this law within this framework.

5. Bold innovation by artists, writers, journalists, philosophers, social scientists and scientists, so that they not only contribute decisively to the country but also to the world.

Apart from the details in the speech, one of the more fascinating aspects for me was that it followed in its structure a familiar pattern from the Marxist tradition. Look back at Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Deng and others, and you will find that important speeches like this begin with an assessment of achievements (this one since the eighteenth party congress five years ago). While it identifies significant achievements, it also stresses – in the tradition of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ – where problems have arisen. The next two parts deal with national and international concerns. Xi’s speech on this occasion focused more on internal concerns, which is to be expected. But he certainly did not neglect the international picture: the armed forces would continue to be modernised for the country’s own security in an international context and China would continue to pursue the peaceful policy of a ‘shared future for humanity’.

In all these speeches, the last part deals with the communist party itself. Xi’s tenure began with a strong desire by party leaders that he would deal with significant problems: corruption, factionalism, brewing coups, lack of unity, inadequate theoretical knowledge. On all fronts, Xi has driven through major reforms, so that his statements concerning the party’s ability to govern and lead, and the need for full, rigorous and strict governance over the party were certainly not empty phrases. More work obviously needs to be done, which he stressed, but the communist party has begun to emerge as stronger, more disciplined, unified and confident. It will be even more at the centre of power. As Xi put it, the ‘defining feature’ and ‘greatest strength’ of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the communist party. The party is the ‘highest force for political leadership’.

For some time now, Xi Jinping has been emphasising the ‘two centenary goals’ (2021 and 2049), the ‘Chinese dream’ and its concrete manifestation in global projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. These were in the speech as well, but with greater clarity. The first centenary goal – of the CPC itself – is still there, of building a xiaokang shehui, an old Confucian term infused with Marxist meaning and translated as ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’. Given that this is around the corner, Xi’s sights are set further in the future. To achieve the second centenary goal, he laid out two steps.

2020-2035: Full ‘socialist modernisation [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua]’, or more fully a ‘socialistically modernised country’ [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua guojia]. This phrase captures all of the policies outlined in the speech, but it also marks a shift from his earlier pronouncements. He used to speak of socialist modernisation being achieved by the second centenary goal, marking 100 years since the establishment of the people’s republic. Now the aim has been brought forward to 2035.

2035-2050: building on the previous achievement and developing China into a ‘great modern socialist country’. This country will be strong, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful. Only when this has been achieved can China begin moving beyond the ‘primary stage’ of socialism in which it still finds itself.

A tall and ambitious agenda indeed, but Xi and those around him as ‘the core’ have a reputation for getting things done. Crucial for understanding this revised plan is the observation, ‘based on a comprehensive analysis of the international and domestic environments’. Clearly, the rapidly shifting global situation, with the accelerating decline of the United States and ongoing turmoil and instability in Europe, along with world-shaping projects like the BRI and China’s increasing involvement around the world, the time has been judged right for the emergence of a ‘great modern socialist country’ by the middle of this century. It also means that China would become the most powerful country in the world, and thereby the most powerful socialist country in human history.

This is not to say that road ahead will be easy – far from it!

A crucial part of the speech identified a new primary contradiction: ‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’. This is straight out of the ‘contradiction analysis’ approach that Mao first elaborated in Yan’an in 1937, showing that Marxist dialectics in a Chinese frame is still front and centre of government policies. Not only is there a primary or most important contradiction in any situation, but this contradiction may shift in terms of the weight given to either side, or it may become secondary as a new primary contradiction emerges. Thus, the earlier primary contradiction, articulated by Deng Xiaoping, identified a tension between the people’s social and cultural needs and the backward economic forces. With China’s forty-year reform and opening-up, it has been decided – through careful analysis – that this earlier contradiction has become secondary.

But what does the new primary contradiction mean? Unbalanced and inadequate development signals the complex problems of world-leading development in the more eastern parts of China and the lag in western parts, with resultant gaps between rich and poor, city and countryside. Obviously, the new contradiction targets these issues more directly. And the people’s every growing need for a better life – an old Chinese term meihua shenghuo – applies to everyone, especially in western parts. Hence the targeted poverty alleviation program that has been accelerated, hence the BRI, hence the focus on the full range of what a ‘better life’ means. But the need for a better life also identifies with the core idea that socialism is primarily about improving the economic, social and cultural lives of everyone. Until this contradiction is resolved, China clearly remains in the primary stage of socialism.

At the same time, it signals a profoundly new era. This theme came through again and again in the report: China and its socialism have entered a new era. The trick here is to indicate profound continuity with the past, while also taking it all into a new stage. It is not for nothing that it has been called ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era [xindedai zhongguotese shehuizhuyi sixiang]’.

Or ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ for short. Only Mao’s thought has until now been designated with the description sixiang, thought. Even Deng’s important but briefer reflections were designated only as lilun, theory. Xi Jinping Thought has now been written into the constitution of the Communist Party of China.

At one point, I woke in the middle of the night and realised that this moment, in October 2017, will turn out to be as significant at the moment in Yan’an some 80 years ago when Mao Zedong Thought was first formally identified.

I have spent some time with all of this, not least because foreign ‘China watchers’ have tended to focus on international relations, the strength of the communist party, and above all Xi’s own power. Obviously, this emphasis skews much of what the speech contained, both in terms of continuity with Xi’s earlier elaborations and the new directions. I leave aside the silly tropes of ‘jargon’, ‘coded’ language, or ‘grand theatre’ that are routinely trotted out.

But what was the response of people around China? I could mention the millions that watched the speech live, or the flurry of wechat and weibo posts about it. But one experience said it all for me. I decided to go to the local Xinhua bookshop, the official government one. At the front desk, I asked where Xi Jinping’s works were kept. The woman at the desk smiled and pointed upstairs.

There before me was a massive table laden with Xi Jinping’s publications. And at the forefront were various editions of the speech itself, only days after it was delivered. I struggled to find room to look at the publications, so crowded was the table. Eventually I managed to get hold of one copy, as well as a number of Xi’s other publications. For whatever reasons, people were snapping up the printed form of the speech. I simply could not imagine this happening anywhere else.

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