On a different note: Time for the Trans-Manchurian

A decade ago, my wife and I travelled from Copenhagen to Beijing by land (click here for the account). It took 10 days and we travelled by train and ship. I have always wanted to do the journey again, although not exactly along the same route (we went via Mongolia).

Now I can. I have never been keen on flying, doing it out of necessity rather than preference. I prefer ships, trains, bicycles and whatnot.

Now that I am retired, I can once again plan such journeys, with a passion. For example, in a couple of months I will travel from Copenhagen to Dalian (in China’s northeast). This entails a train to Stockholm, a ship to Riga, an overnight train to Moscow, and then what is now called the ‘Trans-Manchurian’.

Actually, it is the original route of the Trans-Siberian link. When the Russians were first constructing the railway in the late nineteenth century, they found that the loop north (along the Amur or Heilong River) was somewhat challenging for engineers at the time. So they did a deal with the much-weakened Qing emperor and opened up a corridor through north-eastern China as a short-cut to Vladivostok. This was the origin of towns like Harbin, which still has a Russian core but is now the capital of Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River) province.

 

These days, the route goes through Ulan Ude and Chita to Harbin and then Beijing. I will disembark at Shenyang, south of Harbin, since from Shenyang it is only 2 hours by a high-speed train to Dalian.

I hope to follow the route again later this year, perhaps adding a ship voyage between China and Australia. Or, I could take the Silk Route trains (in yellow in the following map):

Route map - The Silk Route & Central Asia by train

Where do you find information about all of this? There is a great website, which I have used on many occasions, called ‘The Man in Seat 61‘. Run by a former station master in the UK, it is simply a treasure, with information and links concerning every train service in the world. Click on the ‘Trans-Siberian‘ page for more information, or on the ‘Silk Route‘ page. The website had its initial heyday a decade ago, with a bunch of awards, and then went quiet for a while. But it now has a new lease of life.

Is this a ‘product endorsement’? Not really, since ‘seat 61’ remains a hobby. But if you want to find everything you need to know about the great country of Russia, which is with China a force of stabilisation and peace in a troubled and fearful time for some in the ‘West’, you can get all you need at Real Russia.

Those who undertake such a journey do it perhaps once in a lifetime. I hope to make it a regular journey.

 

Liberating Thought, Part 3: Seeking Truth From Facts

This is the third part of a draft concerning the philosophical basis of Deng Xiaoping Theory. In the previous two parts I dealt with liberating thought as the correct theoretical line and with democratic centralism. The topic here is a crucial feature of Deng theory, seeking truth from facts, which also has an element that must be understood in light of contradiction analysis.

(Deng Xiaoping on his famous ‘Southern Tour’ of 1992)

Comrade Mao Zedong wrote the four-word motto ‘Seek truth from facts’ for the Central Party School in Yan’an, and these words are the quintessence of his philosophical thinking (Deng 1977a, 67; 1977c, 80; see also 1977e, 45; 1977b, 58).

The third contradiction brings us to truth from facts. It is a typical four-character phrase that deploys three homonymic characters. Shís (实事)1 refers to what is an actual happening, a fact, but the word also includes the senses of action and what is practical. Qiúshì (求是) joins the character for ‘seek [qiú]’ with another shì (), now with the meaning of what is and thus what is true. Thus, one must seek truth from actual conditions, what is actually taking place, from – as a breakthrough article in Guangming Daily (Hu 1978) put it – social practice.2

Although the centrality of the slogan is usually attributed to Deng Xiaoping, it actually goes back to Mao Zedong, who first wrote it on a wall in Yan’an during the immensely creative period in the second half of the 1930s. In his published texts, Mao refers to this principle not infrequently, although the focus tended to be on ‘a “seeking-truth-from-facts” work style’ (Deng 1962b, 299; 1962a, 296). Again and again, we find an emphasis on the style of commendable party work by cadres: hard work and plain living, upright and honest in word and deed, able to co-operate with others and resist undesirable practices, acting boldly and resolutely in an experienced and professional manner, and seeking truth from facts through keeping in close contact with the masses. This is, as Deng points out, the ‘Party spirit’ (Deng 1977f, 75; 1977d, 88),3 so much so that it continues today to embody what it means to be a comrade, a member of the Communist Party.4

However, in the late 1970s there was a distinct shift, when truth from facts was raised from being a feature of a cadre’s work-style to a central principle of not only the Reform and Opening-Up, but also the Chinese spirit (jingshen). The moment that marks the shift was a speech at an all-army conference on political work, on 2 June, 1978 (six months before the important speech on liberating thought). Here, Deng (1978h, 113–18; 1978e, 124–29) elaborates precisely on what is meant by truth from facts, and he does so by digging deep into Mao Zedong’s earlier material.5 In a slightly later speech, Deng goes further and provides specific historical examples of how Mao applied truth from facts, whether changing tactics to encircle the cities from the countryside (following Lenin’s principle of the weakest link), or shifting from a struggle against imperialism, colonialism and racism, to focusing in peaceful coexistence and working with other countries to ensure peace, or the shift in focus from class struggle as the key to liberating the forces of production (Deng 1978b; 1978c). A major reason for engaging so extensively with Mao’s writings and his actual practice was a struggle over the legacy of Mao Zedong Thought. Would it be letter or spirit? Would it be the ‘two whatevers [liangge fanshi]’, as in ‘‘we will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave’.6 For Deng and others this was a betrayal of Mao Zedong’s thought, for he was always resolutely opposed to ‘book worship’, including his own work. Instead, argued Deng, the key is seeking truth from facts, for Marxism is not a dogma, as Engels already observed, but a guide to action.

There are a number of layers to Deng’s argument, the first of which is the scientific: socialism is also a scientific endeavour. It is nothing less than scientific socialism, as Engels first formulated it (Engels 1880b; 1880a; 1891). Thorough investigation of the data, formulation of a theoretical framework in response, and then further investigation. Nothing remarkable here, one might think: does not all modern science operate in the same way? The answer is yes and no, for everything turns – and this is the second layer – on the theoretical framework one uses to interpret the scientific data, and indeed on how the framework is transformed in the process. For Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Deng, the framework is of course Marxism. By now it should be obvious that the charge of unreconstructed empiricism, occasionally directed at Mao Zedong at least, is unfounded (Bulkeley 1977; Womack 1982, 32, 77; see the reply by Knight 1990, 24–30). As for the third layer: the method entails a constant dialectical interaction between facts and truth, between data and theory, between practice and philosophy. The ‘integration [xiang jiehe] of theory with practice’ entails that the theories developed in order to solve problems should be ‘tested by being applied in social practice’, even to the extent that instructions from higher units – up to the Central Committee – should be integrated with ‘actual conditions’ (Deng 1978h, 116–18; 1978e, 127–28). In sum, this is a process of ‘proceeding from reality and of integrating theory with practice in order to sum up past experience, analyse the new historical conditions, raise new problems, set new tasks and lay down new guidelines’ (Deng 1978h, 118; 1978e, 128–29).

A further level entails inveighing – as did Mao – against the constant danger of ‘book worship [benbenzhuyi]’ (Mao 1930a; 1930b), which in another parlance may be called ‘Marxology’. The image of those who are fond of trotting out selected texts from Marx, Engels, or even Mao himself instead of actually engaging in some serious investigation of the situation in question may seem like a caricature, but let us pause for a moment and ask: how often does a ‘Western’ Marxist like to cite Marx’s euphoric description of the Paris commune and use it to judge the supposed ‘failure’ of Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese or North Korean socialism? Not only is this habit selective and ignorant of Engels’s important contribution (in which the commune is equated with the hard edge of the proletarian dictatorship), and not only is it made by those with no concrete experience in the hard work of constructing socialism, but it so often falls into the utopian and well-nigh messianic tenor of ‘Western’ Marxism (Losurdo 2017). For those who would peremptorily dismiss China’s effort at constructing socialism, Deng’s invocation to seek truth from facts has a distinct pertinence. Or, as Mao put it in 1930: ‘no investigation, no right to speak’ (Mao 1930a, 109).

The final level of Deng’s extended treatment is embodied best in Mao’s observation: ‘Our party has a tradition of seeking truth from facts, which is to combine the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism with China’s reality’ (Mao 1961, 237; see also 1940, 662–63; 1955, 498; 1960). In other words, truth from facts is a basic tenet of socialism with Chinese characteristics. I will have more to say on this question in the conclusion, save to point out here that this central point – around which much speculation has arisen – is simple and easy to understand: Marxism embodies a universal method and truth, but it is meaningless unless one takes the specific conditions, the particular, history, culture and social conditions into account (Deng 1978h, 113; 1978e, 125). These ‘characteristics’ apply to any concrete practice of Marxism. But now we find Deng’s arresting conclusion: this is not merely an ‘application’ of Marxism; instead truth from facts is ‘the basis [jichu] of the proletarian world outlook [wuchan jieji shijieguan] as well as the theoretical basis [sixiang jichu] of Marxism’ (Deng 1978d, 143; 1978a, 153).7 It the point of departure (chufadian), the most fundamental point (genbendian) of Mao Zedong Thought and thus of Marxism.

In earlier posts, I suggested that Deng’s arguments should be seen in light of contradiction theory (as espoused by Mao Zedong). But how does truth from facts relates to the matter of contradictions. Let me put it this way, connecting it with liberating thoughts: if seeking truth from facts means to integrate theory with reality, then liberating thought entails ensuring that thought conforms with reality. Some may ask: how can integrating theory with reality mean the liberation of thought? It sounds like another way of restraining thought: instead of being tied to dogmatism and book worship, it is now bound to reality, to facts. Not only is such an objection framed by an idealist and individualist approach, but it also misses the crucial point: thought needs to be liberated from dogmatism and for creative engagements with factual reality.

By now it should be obvious that the separation of liberating thought and truth from facts into two parts is actually somewhat artificial, for Deng is always keen stress their intimate interconnection. He may have said that liberating thought is ‘primary [shouxian]’, but he also connects it closely with seeking truth from facts. For example, Deng says: ‘Only if we liberate thought, seek truth from facts, proceed from reality [shiji] in everything and integrate [lianxi] theory with reality [shiji]…’. Three of the four phrases concern what is actually happening, reality and practice (shiji can mean both). This intimate connection is expressed even more clearly in another text:

Liberating thought means making our thinking conform [xiangfuhe] to reality – making the subjective [zhuguan] conform to the objective [keguan] – and that means seeking truth from facts. Henceforth, if in all our work we want to seek truth from facts, we must continue to liberate thought (Deng 1980a, 364; 1980b, 359).

The real problem, then, is to be locked into old ways, old dogmatisms developed under different circumstances. One might study carefully – always a useful undertaking – the texts of Marx and Engels, or indeed Lenin, Stalin and Mao, but the risk is that one takes them as iron-clad prescriptions for all situations. Deng’s point here is that such an approach is actually a betrayal of Marxism, for the key is the method itself rather than the specific results arising from the method in specific situations. Marx and Engels sought to analyse the situation in Europe of the second half of the nineteenth century, while Lenin and Stalin did so in Russia (and then the Soviet Union) in the first half of the twentieth century. Mao’s extensive writings responded to and analysed the situation in China in the early to mid-twentieth century. On the way, all of them developed not only solutions to specific problems, but also a robust method that may be described as a historical and dialectical materialist approach of seeking truth from facts.

Bibliography

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———. 1980b. “Implement the Policy of Readjustment, Ensure Stability and Unity (25 December, 1980)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 2:350–68. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

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———. 1980d. “The Present Situation and the Tasks Before Us (16 January, 1980)”. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 2:241–72. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1995.

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———. 1929b. “Zhongguo gongchandang hongjun disi jun dijiuci daibiao dahui jueyi’an (1929.12)”. In Mao Zedong wenji, Vol. 1:78–117. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

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———. 1941d. “Preface to Rural Surveys (17 March, 1941)”. In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Vol. 7:708–10. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2005.

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———. 1942b. “Rectify Our Study Style, Party Style, and Writing Style (Speech Delivered at the Opening Ceremony of the Party School, 1 February, 1942)”. In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, Vol. 8:17–33. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2015.

———. 1942c. “Zhengdun dang de zuofeng (1942.02.01)”. In Mao Zedong xuanji, Vol. 3:811–29. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1950. “Rushi cha bao sunan zhengliang, chungeng he jiuzai qingkuang (1950.05.12)”. In Mao Zedong wenji, Vol. 6:57–58. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1999.

———. 1953a. “Fandui dangnei de zichanjingji sixiang (1953.08.12)”. I Mao Zedong xuanji, Vol. 5:90–97. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1977.

———. 1953b. “Oppose the Bourgeois Ideology in the Party (12 August, 1953)”. In The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, Vol. 1:363–75. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1986.

———. 1955. “Zai zibenzhuyi gongshangye shehuizhuyi gaizao wenti zuotanhui shang de jianghua (1955.10.29)”. In Mao Zedong wenji, Vol. 6:493–503. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1956a. “Reinforce the Unity of the Party and Carry Forward Party Traditions (30 August, 1956)”. In The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, Vol. 2:109–19. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1992.

———. 1956b. “Zengqiang dang de tuanjie, jicheng dang de chuantong (1956.08.30)”. In Maozedong wenji, Vol. 7:86–99. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1958a. “Gongzuo fangfa liushi tiao (cao’an) (1958.01)”. In Maozedong wenji, Vol. 8:344–65. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1958b. “Sixty Points on Working Methods: A Draft Resolution from the Office of the Centre of the CPC (2 February, 1958)”. In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Vol. 8:20–34. Secunderabad: Kranti, 2004.

———. 1960. “Zhudongquan laizi shishiqiushi (1960.06.16)”. In Maozedong wenji, Vol. 8:197–99. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

———. 1961. “Daxing diaocha yanjiu zhifeng (1961.01.13)”. In Maozedong wenji, Vol. 8:233–38. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2009.

Womack, Brantly. 1982. The Foundations of Mao Zedong’s Political Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.

Notes

1 I have added tone markers to indicate how the characters sound.

2 The article was originally published anonymously (‘a special commentator’) and went through many revisions in order to ensure maximum impact. Later revealed to have been written by Hu Fuming, it was framed as a direct challenge to the ‘two whatevers’. Deng refers to the article on a number of occasions as having ‘settled the question’ (Deng 1978d, 152; 1978a, 152–53; 1979a, 190–91; 1979b, 197–98; 1980c, 244; 1980d, 245–46).

3 As Mao puts it already in 1950, it is ‘in accordance with the spirit [jinghshen] of seeking truth from facts’ (Mao 1950, 57; see also 1942a, 458).

4 This emphasis appears throughout Deng Xiaoping’s texts (Deng 1950a, 170; 1950b, 173; 1956a, 247; 1956b, 248; 1961c, 287–88; 1961a, 284–85; 1961d, 293–95; 1961b, 291–92; 1962b, 298, 302, 304, 315; 1962a, 295, 298, 300, 310; 1978g, 106; 1978f, 117; 1978h, 124; 1978e, 134–35).

5 The texts cited and discussed are, from 1929 to 1958: ‘Draft Resolution of the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party in the Fourth Red Army’; ‘Oppose Bookism’; ‘Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War’; ‘On Practice’; ‘On Contradiction’; ‘Preface and Postscript to Rural Surveys’; ‘Reform Our Study’; ‘Rectify Our Rectify Our Study Style, Party Style, and Writing Style’ (this became ‘Rectify the Party’s Style of Work’); ‘Oppose Party Formalism’ (which became ‘Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing’); ‘Combat Bourgeois Ideas in the Party’; ‘ Strengthen Party Unity and Carry Forward Party Traditions’; ‘Sixty Articles on Working Methods (Draft)’ (Mao 1929b; 1929a; 1930a; 1930b; 1936b; 1936a; 1937d; 1937c; 1937a; 1937b; 1941b; 1941d; 1941c; 1941a; 1941e; 1942c; 1942b; 1953a; 1953b; 1956b; 1956a; 1958a; 1958b).

6 The ‘two whatevers’ were proposed in an editorial that was entitled ‘Study the Documents Well and Grasp the Key Link’. It appeared simultaneously on 7 February, 1977, in three newspapers: Renmin Ribao, Hongqi and Jiefangjun Bao. It may be found at http://www.wendangku.net/doc/bd9fab3f27284b73f24250fc.html.

7 Already in 1956 Deng observed: ‘To proceed from reality and seek truth from facts is our fundamental stand as materialists’ (Deng 1956a, 243; 1956b, 244).

Wang Yi: Lies become truth when the United States is the subject

The quote of the month must go to Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister. At the Munich Security Conference, which is agonising over the decline of the ‘West’, Wang Yi observed in response to the groundless accusations by the cowboys from the United States:

All these accusations against China are lies, not based on facts, but if we replace the subject of the lie from China to America, maybe those lies become facts.

I am reminded of a Danish saying: a thief always thinks everyone else is a thief. Another version: when you point a finger, three fingers are pointing at you.

Sinistra Publishing takes on Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance

This year is of course the 200th anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels (on 28 November). It is also the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of Australia, of which I happen to be a member.

So I am extremely pleased to announce that Sinistra Publishing will publish my book, Friedrich Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance. Who is Sinistra Publishing? It is a small publishing house in Australia that ‘aims to bring original, refreshing socialist perspectives from across the globe to an English-speaking audience’. It shot to fame in the not-so-distant past by obtaining the rights to translate and publish Domenico Losurdo’s great book, Stalin: The History and Critique of a Black Legend (see my earlier review of book here).

But given that this year is an anniversary in honour of Engels, the book will also appear in Chinese with Renmin University Press in China, as well as in the form of four abridged articles in the Turkish journal İştirakî (Socialism). Hopefully, there will be Portuguese versions of these articles as well, to be published in Brazil.

All of this is quite humbling, since as a rather solitary scholar I often find few avenues to speak and to make my research known. Thankyou to all of these comrades.

What country leads the world in science and innovation?

You have probably guessed already: last year (2019) China lodged 1.54 million patent applications at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (see here). Staggeringly, this is about equal to the rest of the world put together.

By comparison, the United States dropped to 597,141, followed by Japan (313,567) and South Korea (209,992).

Simply put, China is now the world’s major scientific and innovation centre (see here).

This leap by China is in some respects a realisation of Deng Xiaoping’s dream: that the socialist system in China would one day prove to be superior to capitalist systems elsewhere.

Wish I was in China now: Leishenshan (Thunder-god Mountain) hospital completed in 12 days

Unfortunately, I am not in China as I write. I am in Australia, which is fast becoming a small-minded and fearful country once again. I remind myself constantly that the vast majority of countries in the world have expressed solidarity with China in light of the coronavirus outbreak, and that many of them have sent much-needed medical supplies. At the same time, China is – as acknowledged by the World Health Organisation, among others – setting a new global standard for dealing with an epidemic. The world is changing fast, almost as fast as the second (click here for the first) specialist hospital built in Wuhan. Called Leishenshan (Thunder-god Mountain) hospital, it was completed in 12 days and will cater for 1500 acute patients. The secret: China’s socialist system.

Here is a time-lapse video: