A Dialectical Leap?

Is China undergoing a historical dialectical leap?

This question has been at the forefront my thoughts of late, for reasons I am still formulating. It comes from the experience, each time I arrive in China, of stepping into a future society. I have written of that feeling elsewhere, so here I want to analyse the question of the leap itself.

A common perception among many Chinese is that China needs to ‘catch up’ to other countries deemed more ‘advanced’. It matters little what the catching up might mean, whether technology, medicine, social security, scholarship, social morality and so on. The model may be the United States (for reasons that puzzle me), Germany, Scandinavia or even – believe it or not – Australia. True, the perception is less common today, but it used to be pervasive not so many years ago.

But as more and more Chinese go overseas, for travel, work or study, they are beginning to experience a dislocation. If it is one of countries I have mentioned, the bewilderment is due to the sense that the country they perceived as ‘advanced’ has in many respects slipped ‘behind’. Many of the daily realities to which they have become accustomed in China simply do not exist in such places, or if they do, they are piecemeal and disorganised.

As for my own experience, it is quite astonishing to find that so much has changed, so much has become the new normal, so much creativity has burst forth. The way I am beginning to describe it is in terms of a dialectical leap.

Let me make a few philosophical points. The initial idea of the ‘leap’ comes Lenin’s notebooks on Hegel (1914-1915). In response to the crisis of the Second International at the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin retreated to the library in Berne, Switzerland, to rediscover Marx’s dialectic. And where did he go? To Hegel! Lenin dug deep into Hegel’s The Science of Logic. He was wary at first, anticipating an idealist at work, where one would find theology at every turn. Instead, he found a materialist at the core, one that advocated a dialectic of ruptures, breaks and leaps. At one point, Lenin exclaims in his marginal notes: ‘Leaps! Breaks in gradualness. Leaps! Leaps’.

Mao Zedong would take up Hegel’s notes later, especially in developing his unique and creative intersection of Marxism and Chinese dialectics on his lectures in Yan’an in 1937, but especially in the essay drawn from the lectures, ‘On Contradiction’. In his own way, Mao saw what Lenin saw: the crucial role of the dialectical leap (bianzhengfa feiyue).

Now. both Lenin and Mao had in their sights a communist revolution, which is indeed such a leap. But can this central philosophical idea be applied to China today, especially since the ‘reform and opening up’ is being described as China’s second revolution? (I leave aside the point that after a communist revolution, reform is necessary, but always in light of revolution.)

Perhaps history can help us. In the nineteenth century in Europe, the German states were in many respects the most backward in Europe – economically, politically and culturally. It was precisely in this context that Marx and Engels grew up and developed what became Marxism. But what happened in the German states? Did they ‘catch up’ to the more ‘advanced’ states such as France, England and the Netherlands? Not at all, it was precisely the unique backwardness of the German states that enabled a dialectical leap. Germany became and remains the economic, political and, in many respects, intellectual powerhouse of Europe.

My sense is that an analogous process is happening in China today. Of course, the specificities of each situation are different, but my aim to discern a deeper pattern based on Marxist analysis. It seems to me that the dialectical leap is underway as I write. And this is not some leap into a capitalist system, with associated patterns of politics and culture. Not at all, for becoming a ‘strong modern socialist country’ by 2050 requires a dialectical leap of the sort happening now.


7 thoughts on “A Dialectical Leap?

  1. That reminds me of the time when so many East Europeans went into West Germany after the Berlin Wall came down. They realised that it wasn’t that great after all.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. The Chinese should not envy the “more advanced” Western countries. I hate to be a negative Nelly, but I get the distinct impression that, owing to the peasant nature of the Chinese revolution, there is a strong tendency to think in peasant / petty bourgeois nationalist terms. I think there may have always been a strong faction in the CPC that was essentially more nationalist than socialist and just went with the best game in town to achieve their goal of restoring China’s former glory and becoming a great power again. Maybe a “peasant socialism” was considered to be the best means to that end. I wonder if China has at times lost sight of the primary goal of socialism being the liberation of the international working class, and not just a clash of East vs. West or all about the national liberation movements of Asia, Africa and Latin America devoid of the fundamental contradiction of class struggle.

    1. I am not sure that a distinct type of nationalism and socialism are opposites, since the insight first elaborated by Stalin is that a communist revolution is also in many places an anti-colonial revolution – hence the support by the Soviet Union of anti-colonial movements around the world. In many ways, this was the development in a new direction of the global movement (which belies the idea that ‘socialism in one country’ gave up on the project of global revolution). I am writing a piece at the moment on the Chinese version of this, which is not only working closely with formerly colonised or newly colonised countries, but also appears in the unique Belt and Road Initiative, which it would be a mistake to understand as another form of colonisation – as too many are quick to do.

      As for peasants/farmers, the Russian communists always struggled to include them within the project, adding them to the workers. Mao’s insight was to see peasants as workers too, with a distinct shift (he was also deeply influenced by Sunzi’s The Art of War). The catch is that this emphasis means that workers are often added to farmers, with the former at times struggling to find a way to fit. A careful balance is needed, but really hard to achieve.

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