Non-political elections

In Engels’s key work, ‘Dell’ Autorità’, which was originally published in Italian in the midst of the struggle with the Anarchists (who were popular in Italy) and their ‘anti-authoritarian’ push. Engels writes: ‘All socialists are agreed that the political state [Stato politico], and with it political authority [l’autorità politica], will disappear [scompariranno] as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions [funzioni pubbliche] will lose their political character [carattere politico]’. But what, exactly, does political character mean?

The answer is simple enough: by political character both Engels and Marx mean the reality of class struggle and its manifestation in the state. Thus, the manifesto observes, immediately after mentioning the political character of public Gewalt absorbed into the state: ‘Political Gewalt, properly so called, is merely the organised Gewalt of one class for oppressing another’. I do not need to reiterate the details of Engels’s work on the state as a separated public power here (emphasis on separated), except to point out that if public Gewalt – with the senses of power, force and even violence – loses its political character, it ceases to be a manifestation and instrument of class struggle and thus coercion. Clearly, public Gewalt is not necessarily separated from society, for it may take other forms.

The formulation may be relatively simple, but the implications are far-reaching. On this matter at least, Marx offers a couple of hints, of which the second is the most interesting.

In his cryptic notes on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy, Marx refers to what may be called non-political elections. How is this possible? Are not elections inherently political? This is so for those who have been indoctrinated by the Western liberal tradition, in which elections are the manifestation of regulated class conflict within the bourgeois state. So let us see what Marx suggests, all too briefly. He begins by pointing out that the character of an election depends in its ‘economic foundation [ökonomischen Grundlage]’, on the ‘economic interrelations [ökonomischen Zusammenhängen] of the voters’. That is, if economic relations are antagonistic, and if classes have formed and are engaged in class struggle, then elections will be ‘political’. What if this situation does not apply and economic relations are not antagonistic? Then ‘the functions have ceased to be political [die Funktionen aufgehört haben, politisch zu sein]’.

Marx then specifies the sense in which he uses politisch, or, rather, its absence. First, there are ‘no ruling functions [keine Regierungsfunktion]’. I have stressed the sense of rule and reign that are part of the semantic field of Regierung, since ‘government’ or even ‘administration’ (also senses of the word) are too weak and do not capture Marx’s sense. This meaning appears in the second point: ‘the distribution of general functions has become a routine matter [Geschäftssache] which entails no domination [keine Herrschaft]’. By this point, Marx is not speaking about the period of the proletarian dictatorship, but afterwards, when antagonistic contradictions have ceased. Now we come to third point, where he observes: ‘elections have nothing [hat nichts] of today’s political character [politischen Charakter]’. If political character means what pertains to antagonistic economic relations and class conflict, characteristic of the bourgeois state and its electoral system, then without that context, elections will lose, will have nothing of the political character of today – not only in Marx’s context where the bourgeois state was gradually being implemented across Western Europe, but also in those parts of the world today that are influenced by this tradition, either in Europe itself or in some of its former colonies.

Do non-political elections already take place today? Let me offer an example drawn from elections in China. Elections are held more regularly than in bourgeois states, both direct and indirect. Thus,  elections internal to the Communist Party are held at all local branches. In a village, in a small company, in a school – wherever there are three or more party members a branch is formed and elections are held for local posts, especially the local branch secretary. Why three? Only then can you have elections to such a post. In society as a whole, elections are held for the local National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC). These elections are held annually, are direct and include candidates from all nine political parties.

At higher levels – from the provincial to the national – elections are indirect. That is, people are elected from the lower and local bodies, and are subject to assessment as to whether they have the appropriate skills and experience. Thus, the national NPC and CPPCC require significant electoral processes each year. Thousands of representatives from across the country, from all classes, minority nationalities, religious groups and other sectors of society, are elected to the two bodies. I cannot go into more detail here, but the question remains: do these elections have a political character? No, for the system is known as a ‘multi-party cooperation and political consultative system [duodang hezuo he zhengzhi xieshang zhidu]’, which designates that the system of elections that is not based on class conflict but on non-antagonistic relations among the different groups and their representatives.

Thus, in many respects elections have already lost their political character in China.

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Xi Jinping on Marxism: Reading the Speech from Marx’s 200th Anniversary

Xi Jinping’s most important speech to date was delivered at the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth (5 May, 2018). Xi’s many other writings address a range of issues, but this one – as yet untranslated – goes to the heart of Chinese Marxism, or more properly, the sinification of Marxism. Given that the speech is not yet available in other languages,[1] the following provides primarily an exposition of the speech, although my perspective emerges at certain points. In particular, my interest is in the way Xi Jinping clearly claims Chinese communism as a major phase of the living tradition of Marxism.

One is initially struck by how much Xi Jinping quotes from Marx, Engels and Lenin. Of course, one may think, Xi is a Marxist and he knows this material well. But let us step back for a moment: here is a leader not merely of the strongest communist party in the world, but also the leader of a major global power, quoting extensively from the founders of the Marxist tradition. It is indeed some time since this has happened, but Xi continues in the tradition of communist leaders: they are also thinkers and philosophers, who develop a substantial body of writings that can be studied in their own right.

The speech itself has three sections, after an introduction that elaborates briefly on Marx’s continued influence on the world. Here Xi already identifies a recurring theme: the world may have changed much since Marx’s time, but this context makes Marxism not less but more relevant than ever. The first section focuses on Marx’s biography, which is both appropriate but also significant in a Chinese context. The second section introduces the basic premises before leading to the situation in China. The third and final section is the longest and most significant, for it develops nine topics concerning the importance of Marxism for China. Each topic begins by quoting texts from Marx and Engels, which are then used to explicate the developments of Chinese Marxism. Notably, it is an interpretation that takes place after 70 years of socialism in power; as Lenin and Mao said repeatedly, it is relatively easy to gain power through a communist revolution, but the task of constructing socialism, let alone communism, is infinitely more complex. This is Xi’s perspective.

The Biography of an Engaged Intellectual

Marx’s biography takes up a reasonable part of Xi’s speech. Xi hits the main points of Marx’s ideas, the meeting with Engels, the development of the first outline of historical materialism in The German Ideology, the profound influence of the communist manifesto and the detailed labour involved in Capital. So much is well-known, even to drawing on Engels and Lenin for additional perspectives on Marx’s genius.

But I am intrigued by a particular emphasis: Marx came from a situation – a lawyer’s family of Jewish background in southwest German town of Trier – that may have set him up for a comfortable and unremarkable life. But he and Jenny (who is explicitly mentioned) did not do so. They found themselves exiles and pariahs, mostly through circumstances beyond their control but also due to the direction of their thought and action. Xi stresses the hardship of a life on the run, all for the sake of what became the communist cause.

Xi’s emphasis plays off two themes in Chinese culture, themes that stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, one desires a life of good fortune and opportunity, not least for the benefit of the children, but also so that one may care adequately for one’s parents in their dotage. On the other hand, one’s calling is not merely to the family, however wide it may be. It is ultimately and more importantly to society as a whole. Security and stability should be put aside for the sake of the greater good. Thus, even though one may aspire to a quiet and secure life, Karl and Jenny’s path is by far the more admirable calling.

Let me go further: the idea of an intellectual in the proverbial ‘ivory tower’ is anathema in China. Selfishness is the only way to describe it, so much so that it is difficult indeed to find an intellectual who disdains to engage with social problems. In other words, the ‘engaged intellectual’ is the norm, even if it entails significant sacrifice. Marx is precisely such an intellectual, forsaking all for the sake of a greater and common good.

Given the way Marx’s life resonates so deeply with Chinese assumptions, it should be no surprise that by far the most visitors to the tiny two-room apartment in Dean Street, Soho, should be Chinese. Or indeed that Trier, Marx’s birthplace, should be a prime destination for Chinese people in 2018. It is not merely because the stunning new statue in Trier was created by Wu Weichan, the famed Chinese sculptor, and donated to the town, but because this is where the hard life began.

Theory and Practice

As a prelude to his engagement with Marx’s thought and practice, Xi emphasises its basis in careful historical and scientific study so as to become a material force for liberation. Five statements set the scene for what follows:

Basic Premises

Marxism is a scientific theory: in contrast to utopian socialism,[2] Marx developed a thorough explanation of historical material, the theory of surplus value, the specific dynamics of capitalist development, the nature of social development and the means for liberation.

Marxism is a theory of the people: in contrast to ruling class theories, Marxism arises from and expresses the common people’s hope for a society without oppression and exploitation, and with equality and freedom.

Marxism is a theory of practice: rather than knowledge created in a study, Marxism was formed out of the practice of liberation and this becomes a guide for such liberation.

Marxism is an open and developing theory: here we find the refrain that Marxism is not a dogma (jiaotiao) but a guide to action. Times, practices and knowledge change and develop, so new questions arise to which new responses need to be formed. In this light, the tradition begun by Marx becomes important, full as it is with examples of how Marxism has developed. Thus, Marxism remains forever young and suitable for ever new situations.

The scientific and practical dimensions are understandable emphases, but the focus on the people and openness have distinct resonance for a Chinese situation. A signature feature of Xi Jinping’s writings and speeches is a constant focus on the importance of work and the people. He has emphasising for some time the centrality of labour,[3] of both the rural and urban varieties: labour is a glorious activity; everyone should roll up their sleeves and get to work; workers and trade unions have a distinct and foundational role in the construction of socialism. This is what Xi means by observing that Marxism arises from the people and is for the people. Further, the tradition is vital. Marxism is not an ossified body of thought, determined forever by the letter of the founder’s texts. Instead, it provides a framework and a guide for new situations that Marx could hardly have imagined, let alone analysed scientifically. We will return to some of these points in what follows.

Marxism and Anticolonialism

With this point – concerning a guide for action rather than fixed dogma – Xi moves into the Marxist tradition, which he identifies as beginning with ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’. The way he presents it is crucial: initially, the theory of Marx and Engels inspired global workers’ movements and political parties, which took hold of their own destiny; with Lenin and the October Revolution, there was a crucial shift from theory to practice, in revolution and the construction of socialism; after the Second World War, more revolutions – such as China – developed yet another level of global socialist development; crucially, Marxism through Lenin inspired national liberation movements in colonised and semi-colonised countries, with more and more countries achieving liberation from colonial masters in the second half of the twentieth century.

Let me dwell on this point for a moment, since a number of foreign Marxists have unfortunately forgotten or neglected this important point. Implicit in Marx and Engel’s concerns with colonised and semi-colonised areas of the world and in Lenin’s concerns with imperialism and the ‘national question’ (minority nationalities within the state) in Russia, the breakthrough came in the 1930s with Stalin. It became clear that not only was the October Revolution also a national revolution, but that the global anticolonial struggle was the logical outcome. In other words, Marxism in its focus on overthrowing capitalist imperialism was also a deeply anticolonial project. As Xi Jinping puts, the Marxist-inspired anticolonial struggles and the liberation that followed ‘completely disrupted the imperial colonial system’. In many respects, China today – with other socialist states – carries on this project.

Marxism in China

This point brings us to the next topic, which concerns the central role of Marxism in China. Indeed, Marx foresaw (yujian) the birth of Chinese socialism itself, if not the People’s Republic. Xi reiterates a common narrative in China, from ancient civilisation, through brutal semi-colonial subjection to foreign powers, through the inspiration of the October Revolution, to liberation and the construction of socialism in China, which are leading to the rejuvenation of China. Let me pick up a number of emphases in this section.

To begin with, Xi makes it very clear that the Chinese project is inescapably a Marxist project. This emphasis not only reminds those in China who a decade or more ago were entertaining other possibilities – whether a liberal bourgeois path (despite Deng Xiaoping’s warnings in the 1980s), a revived Confucian path, or indeed a return to the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, Marxism is core and centre of the path China continues to take.

How so? The key is a combination of the basic principles of Marxism with the concrete realities of the Chinese context. One finds this emphasis right through from Mao and Deng to Xi. These basic principles – philosophy, political economy and scientific socialism – are a major feature of study and policy guidance in China. But they cannot be applied as a fixed and ossified dogma, for they are – as already mentioned – a guide to action. This emphasis is also expressed as ‘seeking truth from facts’, which has a distinct sense in a Chinese context: the specific historical, economic and cultural situation of China presents new problems which require new solutions, albeit always in light of the basic principles of Marxism. Or as Xi emphasises again and again – drawing directly on Mao – practice is the test.

All of this leads Xi to assert that ‘only socialism can save China’, indeed that the historical path of China has led to the ‘iron fact’ that only Marxism could provide the practical and ideological basis for struggle, standing up and becoming prosperous. Or, in Xi’s favoured phrases, only the communist party can lead China to the ‘great rejuvenation [fuxing]’ and a ‘strong socialistically modernised country’.

Let me say a little more concerning this notion of rejuvenation. Another significant term Xi uses is ‘leap [feiyue]’, especially in terms of three historical periods. Thus, he speaks of the ‘great leap [weida feiyue]’ China undertook, under communist party leadership, from being the ‘sick man [bingfu]’ of Asia to a liberated country; the ‘great leap’ of the reform and opening up, which has led to China becoming a country of abundance; and the ‘great leap’ of the new era, which has led to China being not only abundant, but also strong. Here the ‘great leap’ is equated with ‘rejuvenation [fuxing]’. Initially, we may be reminded of Mao’s controversial ‘great leap forward [dayuejin]’, but Xi’s usage is different. The key is his thrice repeated use of the ‘ironclad factual proof’ of Marxism that has enabled these leaps. In other words, we need to understand the usage of leap in terms of the Marxist tradition: Xi is indicating in his own way that China is undergoing yet another dialectical leap (bianzhengfa feiyue). It is not simply a case of ‘catching up’ with the rest of the world, but of undertaking a dialectical leap into the future.

Study Marx

The next part of the speech is the longest and most crucial, for here Xi stresses the reasons why Marx should be studied and practiced today. Urging all party members, as well as the common people, to study Marx once again in the new era, he does so with nine propositions. Each begins with the phrase ‘study [xuexi] Marx’ and a quotation or two from Marx and Engels, which is then elaborated in light of the Chinese situation.[4]

  1. Development of Human Society (renlei shehui fazhan)

The first quotation comes from the manifesto, where Marx and Engels speak of a future society, beyond bourgeois society, which will be an ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.[5] And in the words of the final flourish of the manifesto, ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win’.[6] The Chinese translation of ‘Assoziation’ is ‘lianheti’, which designates an organic whole, a connectivity of all parts. It is, of course, another way of speaking of communism.

Is the communism Xi mentions a utopian and transcendent ideal, forever delayed because it is ultimately unachievable? This may be a western European understanding, but it is certainly not a Chinese one. Xi speaks of the inevitable process of human history, of mastering the development of human society, of confidence in and adherence to the ideals and beliefs of communism. He does not shy away from the core goal of the communist movement and the necessary development of human society.

Let us see how this works. Some key phrases provide an insight: Xi speaks of realising the goal ‘step by step [yibuyibu]’; the constantly changing ‘actual movement of the existent [xiancun] situation’; and that the historical process of actualising communism entails ‘one-by-one phased goals [yigeyige jieduanxing mubiao]’ and is ‘reached [dacheng]’ progressively or ‘step by step [zhubu]’. In other words, communism is always a work in progress, rather than a reality achieved by fiat.

We should also understand this concrete and practical approach in light of the Chinese tradition, which Xi Jinping has – once again – been actively reframing in light of Marxism. From the Book of Rights (third to second century BCE) and especially the commentary by He Xiu (129-82 CE) on the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals,[7] we find that the much-desired society of ‘Great Peace’ is not one that is beyond our knowledge and expertise, not an imagined utopia or ‘no-place’ about which we can know only by rumour and hearsay (suochuanwen).[8] Instead, it is a verifiable (suojian) and recorded (suowen) society; one can see it and read about it in reliable records. In other words, it is an empirical reality. To get there, we need careful planning, much testing, trial and error, considerable effort – in short, it entails ‘struggle for all one’s life [fendou zhongshen]’, as Xi puts it at the close of this first point.

  1. Sticking to the People’s Standpoint (jianshou renmin lichang)

On this point, the key quotation comes from The Holy Family: ‘Historical activity is the activity of the masses’,[9] which becomes the basis for a resolute focus on the people and the mass line. The point should be clear: the people’s standpoint (lichang) is basic and foundational (genben). Three times does Xi use genben – foundational – to indicate the party’s stand, mission and purpose. What mission? The people’s wellbeing and happiness. What purpose? Serving the people with whole heart and whole mind (quanxin quanyi). This is followed by the invocation not only of Mao – in terms of the mass line and keeping flesh-and-blood ties (xuerou lianxi) – but also of a slogan Xi had already stressed at the nineteenth congress of the CPC (November 2017): ‘forget not the original desire, keep in mind the mission [bu wang chuxin, laoji shiming]’.

Notably, this point concerning the people’s standpoint comes high up in the list of nine points, since (as indicated earlier) the focus on the common people (laobaixing), on urban and rural workers, has been one of Xi’s signature emphases. So effective has been the focus that they increasingly feel – as has been said to me on a quite a number of occasions – that Xi is ‘pretty good [bucuo]’, by invoking Mao and having their interests at heart.

  1. Productive Forces and Relations of Production (shengchanli he shengchan guanxi)

The quotation around which this important point turns comes from Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology: ‘the amount of productive forces accessible to human beings determines the condition of society’.[10] This is a well-known feature of dialectical and historical materialism: not only is the ‘base [jichu]’ determinative, but the means and relations of production, the economic base and superstructure, act in a dialectical manner of mutual constraint and advance, so as to become the motor of development. This much Xi Jinping reasserts.

But now he makes a fascinating move: it also provides the basis for socialist construction in terms of liberating (jiefang) and advancing (fazhan) the productive forces. Too many Marxists have taken the method – in relation to forces and relations of production – from Marx and Engels and applied it mostly to the capitalist market economy. But this move is actually a retreat from their work: thus, it is not for nothing that Xi quotes from the (edited) opening section of The German Ideology, for here we also find the first real outline of the history of modes of production until the European feudal period.[11] And if this works for earlier history, it also works for future history, namely, the construction of socialism. In particular, Xi stresses the insight from Deng Xiaoping, that the liberation of the productive forces is the core project of socialism, let alone communism. Deng did so repeatedly, pointing out that such a liberation had been relatively neglected until it became the focus of the reform and opening up from 1978. The result: in an astonishingly short period of time, China has lifted itself up from being one of the poorest countries in the world to being a serious global economic force. But the process is by no means over, for – as he does on many occasions – Xi stresses that further liberation is needed, that the relations between base and superstructure need constant refining and adjusting, and that the reform and opening up – as a revolutionary socialist project – must be deepened.

  1. People’s Democracy (renmin minzhu)

Not only has Xi Jinping for some time been emphasising socialist democracy, but he has also given the implicit go ahead – in light of the urging to tell China’s story well internationally – for Chinese speakers to address this question directly in international contexts. On this occasion, he quotes two texts by Marx and Engels, the first from the manifesto: ‘The proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority’.[12] And: ‘The working class, once come to power, could not go on managing with the old state machine’, for it requires a ‘replacement by a new and truly democratic one’.[13] The first text is the more obvious, for communism has always held that its form of democracy – in contrast to ancient Greek, liberal bourgeois and illiberal types – enables the vast majority, workers and peasants, to rule. It is the people who rule; this is what ‘demokratia’ or ‘minzhu’ means.

The second quotation is more intriguing and extremely important. It comes from Engels’s 1891 introduction to the third edition of Marx’s The Civil War in France. Why this text and not the one we find in The Civil War in France, which has – in the original English – ‘But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’?[14] Why indeed, for they seem to say largely the same? Let me briefly set the context. In the 1890s, Engels was struggling against both the moderating trend of the German Social-Democratic Party and the entrenched anarchist position (first clearly articulated in the 1870s). The moderates wanted to dispense with any notion of violent revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat after such a revolution, while the anarchists insisted that the first act after the seizure of power should be an active ‘abolition [Abschaffung]’ of the state. Thus, the moderate right-wing sought to work within the structures of the bourgeois state and the anarchists trenchantly asserted that any type of state was an evil. Engels would have nothing of either position: in a series of crucial texts,[15] he argued, on the one hand, that the Paris commune was also very much the proletarian dictatorship, and, on the other, that the ensuing structure would have many governing functions. One feature of this new structure was that it would be ‘truly democratic’.

Given its importance, Engels’s text needs some more attention, especially the second sentence from which Xi Jinping quotes. Engels writes: ‘This shattering [Sprengung] of the former state power [Staatsmacht] and its replacement by a new and truly democratic one [eine neue, in Wahrheit demokratische] is described in detail in the third section of The Civil War.[16] Understanding this sentence is crucial. In light of Engels other works at the time, the following points are clear: 1) The new structure includes both commune and proletarian dictatorship as one and the same, which must exercise force (Gewalt) to get rid of the old bourgeois regime and transform economy and society; 2) The old form of the state, as a ‘separated public power’ (as defined in Origin of the Family), will undergo a ‘gradual dissolution and ultimate disappearance [allmähliche Auflösung und endlich das Verschwinden]’ as ‘one of the final results of the future proletarian revolution’[17] – this is the sense of the fabled ‘dying away’ of the state, a term coined in the third edition of Anti-Dühring;[18] 3) The eventual form of governance will not be a ‘separated public power’, but one that ‘stands in the midst of society [steht eben mitten in der Gesellschaft]’[19] – that is, state and society are thoroughly enmeshed with one another, in a dialectical transformation of ‘pre-state’ forms of governance; 4) This is the sense in which socialist democracy should be understood, which is ‘for those concerned [der Betheiligten]’, that is, the vast majority of workers and peasants who had thus far been excluded from the exercise of power.[20]

Back to the sentence on which we have been focusing: its logic leads to the position that a new and truly democratic form of governance, if not a new state standing in the midst of society, will arise – as some English translations and the Chinese translations make clear.[21] From this basis, Xi argues that China must continue to build ‘socialist democratic politics [shehuizhuyi minzhu zhengzhi]’. What does this mean? It entails that – using one of the many four-character sayings (chengyu) beloved by Xi – that the people are masters in the house (dengjia zuozhu), supervising the servants of society (shehui gongpu) through the socialist rule of law and institutional guarantees. All of this, of course, take place in the ‘organic unity [youji tongyi]’ of all parts, especially in terms of the communist party’s leadership and people’s supervision. In short, it entails a constant process of implementing people’s democracy ever more effectively.

  1. Cultural Construction (wenhua jianshi)

Here Xi Jinping does not quote Marx or Engels directly. Instead, he points out that Marx ‘held that in different [butong] economic and social environments, people produce different thoughts [sixiang] and cultures’. This awareness actually entailed some struggle on Marx’s part, for he assumed that the positions he had developed in a Western European context were universal. Only late in life, as he engaged more with developments in other parts of the world, did he come to realise that his insights were in many cases ‘expressly limited [expressément restreinte] to the countries of Western Europe’.[22] This comes from a letter to Vera Zasulich, which was finally sent after four drafts, the first three much longer than the final letter.[23] In these drafts, we find a Marx struggling in light of his growing awareness of different histories and developments. Like a good old German philosopher, he had assumed that German philosophy, if not Western European philosophy, was ‘philosophy’ per se. Now he finds increasingly that this is not the case. So, in the drafts Marx elaborates further on the theme, dealing with the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the role of private property and the potential of the Russian agricultural commune (a topic Engels was exploring more deeply and widely at the time). The point is obvious: economic and social conditions, in light of their histories, are in fact not the same. This means that their potential paths to socialism will also have distinct differences.

These letter drafts and the letter itself are the subject of continuing study in China,[24] since there has always been a great awareness of the distinctness of Chinese history, political development and culture.[25] At so many levels, they are not the same as other parts of the world, for which the phrase ‘Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese]’ – already emphasised by Mao Zedong – functions as the shorthand.

In order to explicate how China’s context works for the sake of cultural construction, Xi draws on a Marxist staple, which runs from Marx and Engels through the whole tradition. While ideology and culture are ultimately determined by the economic base, they also respond to and influence the base. Marxist theory is the obvious example, for it comes – through the communist party – to grip the masses and become a material force. But only advanced theory, advanced Marxist philosophy and culture, can become such a force. By contrast, if culture and ideology are backward, they become fetters on social development.

But what culture? Here we need to pause for a moment, since the Chinese term wenhua, culture, is a much broader concept that ‘culture’ in English. It embraces the all dimensions of what may be called the ‘superstructure’, but also history and politics. In this light, it is common to distinguish Chinese traditional culture and Marxist culture, but Xi has been responsible what is now known as a renewed symbiosis between them. Thus, we find emphases on continual in-depth study of Marxism by all party members (monthly), ‘core socialist values [shehuizhuyi hexin jiazhiguan]’,[26] socialist ‘spiritual civilisation [jingshen wenming]’ – in short, ‘advanced socialist culture’. But are they distinct from traditional Chinese culture? Not for Xi and many others, for socialist culture is increasingly seen as central to a ‘creative transformation’ and ‘innovative development’ of this long-standing and constantly changing culture. It is not for nothing that Xi has often observed that socialism with Chinese characteristics has a two thousand year history.

  1. Social Construction (shehui jianshe)

On the question of social construction – as distinct from but obviously related to productive forces, political structures and culture – Xi Jinping quotes from three texts. Note the emphasis in these quotations: for all, of all, by all, and to all.

The first comes from Marx’s economic manuscripts of 1857-1858 (also known as the Grundrisse), where Marx observes that ‘production will now be calculated to provide wealth for all’.[27] The second is a well-known text in China – Engels’s communist catechism, which formed a major basis for the later manifesto. Here Engels observes that a communist society would enable ‘the participation of all in the enjoyments created by all’.[28] The third text sums up the direction of the previous two, if not the aims of communism itself: a socialist society should ‘give healthy and useful labour to all, ample wealth and leisure to all, and the truest and fullest freedom to all’.[29]

As mentioned earlier, the emphasis is clearly on all people – suoyouderen – which is repeated in each quotation. Or as Xi puts it in terms of the new primary contradiction in China, people long for a beautiful and good life (meihua shenghuo).[30] What does this mean? Abstractly, it means improving livelihood, social justice and better education; practically, Xi identifies adequate income for labour, medical care for the sick, support for the aged, housing in which to live, and support for the frail. In short, it entails not so much a ‘welfare safety net’ found in some capitalist market economies, but ‘common prosperity [gongtong fuyu] for the whole people’ and not merely for a few. I would add that one needs a strong economic situation to ensure such a system, for the liberation of the productive forces (see above) is the key, leading to the current situation in which 700-800 million urban and rural workers have been lifted out of poverty since the beginning of the reform and opening up.[31]

  1. Human-Nature Relationship (ren yu ziran guanxi)

Xi Jinping has been promoting for some time the concept and practice of ‘ecological civilisation’ and he does not neglect the theme here. The relevant text quoted here comes from Marx’s ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ of 1844. Simply put: ‘Human beings live on nature’.[32] Alluding to the rest of this sentence from Marx,[33] Xi observes that it is an interactive (huodong) relationship: if human beings treat nature well (shandai), nature will present gifts (kuizeng) of food – an old agricultural assumption. But – and here Xi quotes a text by Engels well-known in China, ‘On Authority’ – ‘if human beings, by dint of their knowledge and inventive genius, have subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon them’.[34] All of this requires not simply the protection of the natural environment, as though human beings are separate from it, but working in terms of ‘harmonious symbiosis [hexie gongsheng]’ and ‘ecological civilisation [shengtai wenming]’. It is not for nothing that China is emerging as a world leader in green technology and ecological design.

  1. World History (shijie lishi)

As for world history, Xi quotes from The German Ideology: ‘the more the original isolatio[n of the separate nationalities is destroyed by the advanced mode of production, by intercourse and by the natural division of labour between various nations arising as a result, the more history becomes world history’.[35] For Xi, this prediction has already come about today in an integrated world, where the one who rejects such a world will be rejected by it. Here we find phrases and slogans that have become common parlance: ; win-win (gongying) cooperation, and community of common future or destiny (renlei mingyun gongtongti).

Nonetheless, let me focus on a few items from this point. The first concerns Xi’s observation: ‘neither dependent [yifu] on others, nor plundering [lüeduo] others’. This is of course an allusion not only to the era of European colonialism, but also to efforts by some countries today to harness others in the world their yoke (the United States being the obvious example). In reply, Xi draws on and maps further the long anticolonial project (see above), which was from the 1930s deeply Marxist in many parts of the world. It may be seen today in the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, if not also BRICS. Some may ask: but is not China engaged in a new form of colonialism, a ‘creditor colonialism’ if you will? Apart from observing that it is little rich for former colonisers to accuse China of colonialism, I am reminded of the Danish proverb: a thief always thinks everyone else is a thief. Others may ask: what about the ‘global’ opposition to China, so much so that today it has few if any friends? It all depends on what one means by ‘global’? Somewhere between 12 to 15 ‘Western’ countries – former colonisers all – have been ramping up the ‘China threat’. But the number is small indeed. The reality is that the vast majority of countries in the world see a distinct benefit – ‘win-win’ – in accepting China’s offer of friendship.

The second point that arises is somewhat different. It concerns the sentence: ‘All things are nourished together without their injuring one another [wanwu bing yu er bu xiang hai, dao bingxing er bu xiangbei]’. This saying has been used by Xi on a number of occasions, but it is not original to him. Instead it comes from the Confucian Book of Rites, in the ‘Zhongyong’ section.[36] This is by no means the first, nor will it be the last time, Xi has quoted from the Chinese classics. Indeed, such is his liking for doing so, along with his love of four-character sayings, that two volumes explaining the origins and uses of these texts have been published thus far.

  1. Marxist Party Building (makesizhuyi zhengdang jianshe)

What do Marx and Engels have to say about Marxist party building? More than one might initially expect, especially in the second section of the manifesto. Xi offers no less than four quotations: 1) ‘In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they [the Communists][37] always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole’;[38] 2) ‘They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole’;[39] 3) The party works ‘in the interest of the immense majority’;[40] 4) And the communist party has ‘‘to set up bench marks [Marksteine] for all the world to see, whereby it may gauge how far the party has progressed’.[41]

In following Xi Jinping’s interpretation, let me begin with a small but significant linguistic point: the Chinese for ‘Communist’ – the noun – is ‘gongchandang ren’. Literally, it means a ‘Communist Party person’. In other words, to be a Communist is not so much an existential political choice or an individual faith. It means primarily that one is a member of a Communist Party. Indeed, one is able to call someone else a genuine ‘comrade [tongzhi]’ if that person is also a party member. Of course, one also needs the element of ‘faith [xinyang]’ – as Xi has been emphasising for some time – but it takes place within the collective context. Conversely, the idea that one can ‘be’ a Communist as a matter of existential choice without party membership is a very ‘Western’ idea, where the primacy of the autonomous individual has wreaked havoc with culture, politics and even religion. Instead, the Chinese approach primarily concerns belonging to the collective – hence ‘Communist Party person’.

Further, in each of the quotations from Marx and Engels, the emphasis is clearly on the interests of the proletariat and movement as a whole, if not the interests of the immense majority. Xi has not chosen these quotations at random, for they emphasise that the basis of the Communist Party, and indeed its difference from other political parties, is that it works with and fights for the people. Everything flows from this primary premise. But it also raises the crucial question as to how the party maintains such a focus and continues to have the trust and confidence of the people after seven decades in power.

Before Xi Jinping became chairman (zhuxi), there were grave concerns that the party was losing this trust. Party discipline was relatively lax, corruption was a real problem, companies and enterprises were regularly flouting the law, exploiting workers and dispossessing the collectively-owned land of villages, and factional strife led to what is now recognised as the beginnings of a coup. As one old Politburo member admitted recently, if Xi did not fix the party, many felt they were doomed. That the party has not fallen apart and that trust in government and public institutions is now between 84 percent and 89 percent,[42] indeed that confidence in the direction China is headed stands at an average of 90 percent,[43] is testament to the effect of Xi Jinping’s reforms. It should be no surprise that we find here a summary of emphases found on many other occasions: party unity and strength, strict management, correcting mistakes, political and ideological knowledge of Marxism, and the unity of the party’s central authority – these have produced a Communist Party in China that is now stronger than it has been for a very long time. In typical fashion, Xi uses two four-character sayings to conclude this point: ‘tested by wind and waves [fenglang kaoyan]’ and ‘full of youthful spirit and vitality [zhaoqi pengbo]’. These are the characteristics of the Marxist party in power.

Conclusion: Marxism at the Centre

Everyone in China might have known right from the beginning that Xi Jinping is absolutely serious about Marxism, but – as is typically the case – the rest of world has taken some time to realise this reality. Indeed, some sleepy and lazy observers had concluded that China had abandoned Marxism, so much so that they are increasingly scrambling to make sense of what is happening under Xi Jinping’s leadership. If nothing else does so, this speech makes it perfectly clear that Marxism is core and centre of the Chinese socialist project. I have attempted to present as carefully as possible the important features of the speech, offering more of an exposition rather than a critique. No doubt, others may want to assess Xi Jinping’s interpretation of Marx and Engels in a Chinese context. My perspective may have emerged at certain points, but I have deliberately identified the sources of all the important quotations to indicate how extensively Xi cites and elaborates upon the classic texts.

As for the centrality of Marxism, Xi stresses that it applies to both theory and practice. On the one hand, the speech urges party members and indeed all Chinese people to make the study of Marx a ‘life habit’ and even a vigorous and ‘spirited [jingshen] pursuit’. Why? As a ‘powerful theoretical weapon [qiangda sixiang wuqi]’, ‘Marxism has from beginning to end been the guiding thought [sixiang] of our party and country’. Or, in terms of yet another four-character saying, Marxism is China’s special skill, or the skill with which one looks after the house (kanjia benling). But it is not merely thought, for in providing the means to understand the world, it enables one to ‘transform [gaizao] the world’. The echo of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach should be obvious.

Here Engels is even more direct. Xi quotes Engels’s letter to Werner Sombart in 1895: ‘Marx’s whole way of conceptualising [Auffassungsweise] is not so much a doctrine [Doctrin] as a method. It provides, not so much ready-made dogmas [Dogmen], as reference points [Anhaltspunkte] for further investigation and the method for such investigation’.[44] This is a well-known text, which became in Lenin’s hands the slogan that Marxism is ‘not a dogma, but a guide for action’. It is difficult to find a communist who would not agree with this slogan, for no-one wishes to be seen as a dogmatic Marxist.[45] But now Xi Jinping challenges us with his second quotation from Engels, from Dialectics of Nature: ‘In every epoch, and therefore also in ours, theoretical thought is a historical product, which at different times assumes very different forms and, therewith, very different contents’.[46]

We need to be careful to avoid a wilful misinterpretation of Xi’s reason for quoting this second text. Engels is speaking of the history of scientific thought, but if one assumes that Marxism too is a science, a historical science, then the point applies to historical and dialectical materialism as well. But how? Here Xi follows Mao: the basic principles of scientific socialism can never be lost, but at the same time they cannot become an immutable and frozen (yicheng bubian) dogma. Thus, the complex process of the construction of socialism is neither an ‘original edition’ of Chinese history and culture, nor a ‘template’ applied from the classic Marxist texts, nor a ‘second edition’ of efforts to construct socialism in other countries, nor a ‘reprint’ of the process of modernization elsewhere.[47] Instead, one must take into account a country’s specific conditions, its history and culture, and always be aware of concrete requirements of the present.

In other words, Marxism is a work in progress. Not any Marxism, but the Marxism at the core of an ongoing project in the construction of socialism, with a communist party in power. In the context of such construction – which is simply beyond the experience of most foreign Marxists – Marxism is a living tradition and not locked in the past. Now Xi comes to his arresting conclusion: all this means that Marxism is even more important now! And it should be developed in new, creative and energetic ways. To do so is the ‘sacred duty [shensheng zhize]’ of every communist. To quote Engels one last time: ‘The prospect[48] of a gigantic revolution, the most gigantic revolution that has ever taken place, therefore presents itself to us as soon as we pursue our materialist thesis further and apply it to the present time’.[49]

To finish on a slightly different note: throughout the text and especially when Xi is elaborating on the nine core points, he begins each point with ‘study Marx’. The Chinese word for ‘study’ is ‘xuexi’. This usage has led to a pun used frequently today: the character xi is the same as the family name for Xi Jinping. So now it is common to use ‘xuexi’ to mean ‘study Xi’. Indeed, a whole section of the CPC newspaper, the People’s Daily, is entitled ‘study Xi [xuexi]’. Needless to say, the most important statement by Xi Jinping concerning Marxism has not only been a major impetus for renewed study – and practice – of Marxism in China, but is also the subject itself of much study.

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Endnotes

[1] My engagement with the speech was part of my ongoing study of Chinese language, which has included important works by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in the original texts. One may find the text of Xi Jinping’s speech on http://www.xinhuanet.com/2018-05/04/c_1122783997.htm, where a video is also provided.

[2] The Chinese for ‘utopian’ is kongxiang, bearing the senses of fantasy, daydream and empty wish.

[3] The terminology of ‘work [gongzuo]’, ‘worker [gongren]’ and ‘working class’ or ‘proletariat [wuchan jieji]’ appears 29 times in this speech.

[4] Given the importance of the quotations and their interpretation, the sources are given in the footnotes: first the English translation, then the original language citation, and then the Chinese translation. Where necessary, I indicate where Xi quotes from the Chinese Selected Works of Marx and Engels and where he uses the Complete Works or the more recent (2009) 10-volume Collected Works. The Selected Works are a fascinating collection, produced only in a Chinese context. The selections of relevant material and the narrative thereby produced witness to a significant focus on the realities of socialism in power.

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 6, 1848 [1976]), 506; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, vol. 4, 1848 [1974]), 482; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 4, 1848 [1972]), 491.

[6] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 519; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 493; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 504.

[7] He Xiu, Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu, 28 vols. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980), 2200.

[8] For He Xiu and this tradition, the ‘rumoured’ place is one of decay, disorder and chaos, where skulduggery, assassination and intrigue abound.

[9] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Shensheng jiazu, huo dui pipan de pipan suo zuo de pipan, bo bulunuo·baowei’er ji qi huoban (jiexuan)’, in Makesi Engesi wenji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1845 [2009]), 287. Xi opts for the more recent translation in the Marx Engels Collected Works. This text differs slightly from the earlier version in the Complete Works. See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Shensheng jiazu, huo dui pipan de pipan suo zuo de pipan, bo bulunuo·baowei’er ji qi huoban, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 2, 1845 [1972]), 104. The quotation is actually the first part of an effort render a somewhat difficult sentence in the original German, which may be translated as: ‘Together with the thoroughness of the historical action [geschichtlichen Aktion], the size of the mass whose action it is [der Masse … deren Aktion sie ist] will therefore increase’. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 4, 1845 [1975]), 82; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Die heilige Familie oder Kritik der kritischen Kritik, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 2, 1845 [1974]), 86.

[10] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 5, 1845-1846 [1976]), 43; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie. Kritik der neuesten deutschen Philosophie in ihren Repräsentanten Feuerbach, B. Bauer und Stirner und des deutschen Sozialismus in seinen verschiedenen Propheten, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 3, 1845-1846 [1973]), 30; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Deyizhi yishi xingtai. Dui Feierbaha, Bu·baowei’er he Shidina suo daibiao de xiandai deguo zhexue yiji ge shi ge yang xianzhi suo daibiao de deguo shehuizhuyi de pipan, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 3, 1845-1846 [1972]), 33. English translation modified. The Chinese translation for ‘Menge’, ‘amount’ or ‘quantity’, is ‘zonghe’, with the senses of ‘sum’ and ‘sum total’. Further, the German ‘zugänglichen’, ‘accessible’ or ‘attainable’, is translated as ‘dadao’, meaning ‘reach’ or ‘achieve’.

[11] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 32-35; Marx and Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie, 21-25; Marx and Engels, Deyizhi yishi xingtai, 24-28.

[12] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 495; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 472; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 477.

[13] Friedrich Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 27, 1891 [1990]), 189-90; Friedrich Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.32, 1891 [2010]), 14-15; Friedrich Engels, ‘Falanxi neizhan de 1891 danxingben daoyan’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 3, 1891 [2003]), 12-13. Xi quotes from the translation in the Chinese Selected Works. The translation in the Complete Works has a slight difference: it translates Macht as quanli (power) rather than zhengquan (political power). Xi uses the latter. See Friedrich Engels, ‘Makesi “Falanxi neizhan” yishi daolan’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 22, 1891 [1972]), 228.

[14] Karl Marx, ‘The Civil War in France’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 22, 1871 [1986]), 328; Karl Marx, ‘Falanxi neizhan’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 17, 1871 [1972]), 355.

[15] This material is the focus of a monograph, called Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance, to be published in 2020. For those who are interested, the key texts from the 1890s should be consulted: Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Conrad Schmidt in Berlin, London, 27 October 1890’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 49, 1890 [2001]); Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Conrad Schmidt in Berlin, London, 27.Oktober 1890’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 37, 1890 [1974]); Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’; Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”‘; Engels, ‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891’; Engels, ‘Zur Kritik des sozialdemokratischen Programmentwurfs 1891’; Friedrich Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 27, 1895 [1990]); Friedrich Engels, ‘Einleitung (1895) zu Karl Marx’s “Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850″‘, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.32, 1895 [2010]).

[16] Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’, 189-90; Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”‘, 14-15; Engels, ‘Makesi “Falanxi neizhan” yishi daolan’, 227-28.

[17] Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Philipp Van Patten in New York (Draft). London, 18 April 1883’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 47, 1883 [1995]), 10; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Philip Van Patten in New York (Entwurf). London, 18. April 1883’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 36, 1883 [1979]), 11.

[18] In this light, it is a quasi-anarchist misreading to assume that state structures will fade away immediately after a communist revolution.

[19] Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 26, 1884 [1990]), 270; Friedrich Engels, Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staats, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 21, 1884 [1962]), 166.

[20] Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”‘, 15.

[21] For example, English translations have either ‘new and truly democratic one’ or ‘new and really democratic state’. The Chinese translations offer, in the Selected Works, ‘xin de zhenzheng minzhu de guojia zhengquan [political power]’, and, in the Complete Works, ‘xin de zhenzheng minzhu de guojia quanli [power]’.

[22] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Vera Zasulich, Geneva, 8 March 1881’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 46, 1881 [1992]), 71; Karl Marx, ‘Lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch résidant à Genève, Londres, le 8 mars 1881’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]), 241.

[23] Karl Marx, ‘Drafts of the Letter to Vera Zasulich’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 24, 1881 [1989]); Marx, ‘Premier projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]); Marx, ‘Deuxième projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]); Marx, ‘Troisième projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]); Marx, ‘Quatrième projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]).

[24] Karl Marx, ‘Gei wei·yi·chasuliqi de fuxin caogao: chugao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]); Karl Marx, ‘Gei wei·yi·chasuliqi de fuxin caogao: ergao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]); Marx, ‘Gei wei·yi·chasuliqi de fuxin caogao: sangao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]); Marx, ‘Wei·yi·chasuliqi de xin, 1881 nian 3 yue 8 ri yu lundun xibei lu, meitilan gongyuan lu 41 hao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]).

[25] Even today, Chinese history follows its own path. It may be influenced by events elsewhere, but – as a signal example – the four decades of reform and opening up have their own historical logic.

[26] The core socialist values, which have now been assiduously promoted for the last few years, are: prosperous and strong (fuqiang); democratic (minzhu); civilised (wenming); harmonious (hexie); free (ziyou); equal (pingdeng); just (gongzheng); rule of law (fazhi); love of country (aiguo); dedicated (jingye); honest and trustworthy (chengxin); friendly (youshan). Their tendency to be adjectival should be noted.

 

[27] Karl Marx, ‘Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft of 1857-1858) [Second Instalment]’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 29, 1857-1858 [1987]), 94; Karl Marx, ‘Ökonomische Manuskripte 1857/1858’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. II.1, 1857-1858 [2006]), 584; Karl Marx, ‘Zhengzhijingjixue pipan (1857-1858 nian caogao) [shougao houban bufen]’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 46b, 1857-1858 [1972]), 222. This is an intriguing quotation, for Marx is analysing the exacerbation of contradictions under the capitalist market economy, but as he does so, he provides glimpses of the potential of socialist society. This and other texts from the 1857-1858 manuscripts, which offer comparable glimpses, have been analysed in detail by Chinese scholars.

[28] Friedrich Engels, ‘Principles of Communism’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 6, 1847 [1976]), 354; Friedrich Engels, ‘Grundsätze des Kommunismus’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 4, 1847 [1972]); Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchanzhuyi yuanli’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1847 [2003]), 243. Xi quotes from the Selected Works, which has a small difference from the Chinese Complete Works, albeit one without effect on the meaning Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchanzhuyi yuanli’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 4, 1847 [1972]), 371.

[29] Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels’ Amendments to the Programme of the North of England Socialist Federation’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 26, 1887 [1990]), 620; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engesi dui yingguo beifang shehuizhuyi lianmeng gangling de xiuzheng’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 21, 1887 [1972]), 570. Intriguingly, this text is not directly from Engels’s hand, but from the program of the North of England Socialist Federation. Engels was asked to comment on the program, which he did at some points while approving the rest. Xi quotes from one part that Engels approved.

[30] The new primary contradiction (an emphasis stemming from Mao’s deeply influential ‘On Contradiction’ essay from 1937) was identified at the nineteenth congress of the CPC in 2017: ‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’. See Jinping Xi, Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era: Report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017 (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2017), 9-10; Jinping Xi, Juesheng quanmian jiancheng xiaokang shehui, duoqu xinshidai zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi weida shengli (2017.10.18) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2017), 11.

[31] Elsewhere, I have addressed the charge that the CPC abandoned the old ‘iron rice bowl’ and exploited workers. The simple answer is that lifting 700-800 million urban and rural workers out of poverty since the beginning of the reform and opening up provides a far better basis for the social construction mapped out here by Xi Jinping.

[32] Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 3, 1844 [1975]), 276; Karl Marx, ‘Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte (Erste Wiedergabe)’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.2, 1844 [2009]), 240; Karl Marx, ‘Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte (Zweite Wiedergabe)’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.2, 1844 [2009]), 368; Karl Marx, ‘1844 nian jingji zhexue shougao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 42, 1844 [1972]), 95. Translation modified, since Marx uses the generic Mensch.

[33] The fuller text, in the old MECW translation has: ‘Man lives on nature – means that nature is one’s body, with which one must remain in continuous interchange if one is not to die. That a human being’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for a human being is a part of nature’.

[34] Friedrich Engels, ‘On Authority’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 23, 1873 [1988]), 423; Friedrich Engels, ‘Dell’ Autorità’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.24, 1873 [1984]), 85; Friedrich Engels, ‘Lun quanwei’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 18, 1873 [1972]), 342.

[35] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 50-51; Marx and Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie, 45; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Deyizhi yishi xingtai (jiexuan)’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1845-1846 [2003]), 88. Xi quotes from the translation of the Selected Works on this occasion, which has a number of minor variations in comparison with the translation in the Complete Works. See Marx and Engels, ‘Deyizhi yishi xingtai. Dui Feierbaha, Bu·baowei’er he Shidina suo daibiao de xiandai deguo zhexue yiji ge shi ge yang xianzhi suo daibiao de deguo shehuizhuyi de pipan’, 51.

[36] The online version, with James Legge’s translation, may be found at https://ctext.org/liji/zhong-yong.

[37] As is the tendency in Chinese, the translation clarifies ‘they’ with ‘Communist Party people [gongchandang ren]’.

[38] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 497; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 474; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 479.

[39] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 497; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 474; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1848 [2003]), 285. A minor variation in the Chinese translation indicates that Xi is once again quoting from the Selected Works.

[40] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 495; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 472; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 477.

[41] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Wilhelm Bracke in Brunswick, London, 5 May 1875’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 45, 1875 [1991]), 70; Karl Marx, ‘Marx an Wilhelm Bracke in Braunschweig, London, 5.Mai 1875’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 34, 1875 [1973]), 138; Karl Marx, ‘Zhi Weilian Bailake, Bulunruike, 1875 nian 5 yue 5 ri yu Lundun’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 34, 1875 [1972]), 130.

[42] Edelman, ‘2018 Edelman Trust Barometer: Global Report’, (Los Angeles: Edelman, 2018).

[43] Ipsos, ‘What Worries the World – July 2017’, (Paris: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2017), 4; Ipsos, ‘What Worries the World – September 2018’, (Paris: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2018), 4.

[44] Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Werner Sombart in Breslau, London,11 March 1895’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 50, 1895 [2004]), 461; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Werner Sombart in Breslau, London, 11.März 1895’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 39, 1895 [1973]), 428; Friedrich Engels, ‘Zhi Weinaer·Sangbate, Bulesilao, 1895 nian 3 yue, 11 ri yu Lundun’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 39a, 1895 [1972]), 406. I have been very careful with this important observation by Engels, modifying the standard English translation to bring out more clearly the sense of the German. Thus, ‘Auffassungsweise’ means way of conceptualising, or mode of conceptualisation – as an active process. Here, the Chinese translation renders the term as ‘shijieguan’, which means more here than ‘world outlook’: it designates a way of observing the world. Further, ‘Anhaltspunkte’ is specifically reference points, which the Chinese renders as ‘chufadian’, the ‘point of departure’ for the next step of investigation.

[45] Although this does not prevent the odd foreign Marxist, who likes to suggest that China has at some point abandoned Marxism. This hypothesis may take various forms: the leadership is all talk and no action, or they are hypocrites who pay lip service to Marxism but act entirely differently, or – in stronger versions – they have betrayed Mao and Marxism and been engaged in a vast conspiracy, with coded language, for the last forty years. Xi Jinping’s resolute focus on Marxism as theory and practice has made such superficial hypotheses untenable (not that they ever were really tenable). But here it is also pertinent to note Engels’s related observation on some Marxists from North America. In a letter to Friedrich Adolf Sorge, he writes: ‘they themselves do not for the most part understand the theory and treat it in doctrinaire and dogmatic fashion as something which, having once been learnt by rote, is sufficient as it stands for any and every need. To them it is a credo, not a guide to action’ Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge in Hoboken, 29 November 1886’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 47, 1886 [1995]), 531-32; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Friedrich Adolph Sorge in Hoboken, London, 29.November 1886’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 36, 1886 [1973]), 578.

[46] Friedrich Engels, ‘Dialectics of Nature’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 25, 1873-1882 [1987]), 338; Friedrich Engels, ‘Dialektik der Natur’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 20, 1873-82 [1973]), 330; Friedrich Engels, ‘Ziran bianzhengfa (jiexuan)’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 4, 1873-1882 [2003]), 284. Once again, Xi Jinping quotes from the translation in the Selected Works, which differs in minor details from the translation found in the Complete Works. Compare Friedrich Engels, ‘Ziran bianzhengfa’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 20, 1873-1882 [1972]), 382.

[47] I have tried to render Xi’s complex wordplay here: ‘original edition [muban]’, ‘template [moban]’, ‘second edition [zaiban]’ and ‘reprint’ [fanban]’.

[48] The Chinese translation of ‘Die Perspepktive’ is ‘yuanjing’, a long-range view, prospect or even vision.

[49] Friedrich Engels, ‘Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 16, 1859 [1980]), 469-70; Friedrich Engels, ‘Karl Marx, “Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie”‘, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 13, 1859 [1974]), 470; Friedrich Engels, ‘Ka’er·makesi “Zhengzhijingjixue pipan. Diyi fence” ‘, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 2, 1859 [2003]), 38. Xi quotes the version in the Chinese Selected Works, which differs slightly from that in the Collected Works Friedrich Engels, ‘Ka’er·makesi “Zhengzhijingjixue pipan” ‘, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 13, 1859 [1972]), 526-27.

On myths propogated by the bourgeois press

First posted in 2014, this observation is pertinent today to all manner of items, especially the press in some ‘Western’ countries in relation to China.

To set the scene, Marx had been accused of many misdemeanours, from being a bourgeois swindler of workers to master-minding global revolts, especially the Paris Commune. He reflects in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann (1871):

Up till now it has been thought that the growth of … myths during the Roman Empire was possible only because printing was not yet invented. Precisely the contrary. The daily press and the telegraph, which in a moment spreads inventions over the whole earth, fabricate more myths (and the bourgeois cattle believe and enlarge upon them) in one day than could have formerly been done in a century (MECW 44: 176-77).

A Marxist Trap? The Danger of Economics Imperialism, or, How to Understand a Socialist Market Economy

I am slowly thinking through a framework for understanding a socialist market economy. Historical investigation reveals that market economies have appeared at earlier points in human history, such as ancient Southwest Asia and the ancient Mediterranean. In these contexts there were market economies, but not capitalist market economies (or a capitalist mode of production, as Marx puts it). Instead, the Persians had what may be called a military market economy, while the Greeks and Romans had a slave market economy.

The obvious point from this historical work is a profound mistake in current debates, which is to equate ‘market economy’ with ‘capitalism’. Let me change the terms to indicate how serious the mistake is: it as though one were equating ‘mode of production’ with ‘capitalism’. In fact, the danger – especially for Marxists economists – is that if you make this equation, you end up with a version of economics imperialism.

To explain: this imperialism first arose from the context of neo-classical economics, in which the specific history of the emergence of this particular branch of economic analysis, if not the history of its topic (capitalist mode of production), was conveniently erased. The result was a universalisation of the specific assumptions of capitalist market economics so that you could apply these assumptions to human economic activity throughout history. Thus, if you have markets in the ancient world, they must be capitalist. Or if you have markets in a socialist economy, they must be capitalist.

I have encountered a number of Marxists who make a similar mistake. They assume that ‘marketisation’ and ‘market economy’ mean capitalism. They use this assumption to hypothesise that China is a capitalist economy because it has markets. By now the trap is obvious: it might be described as a Marxist version of economics imperialism.

While thinking through some the implications of this move, I decided to reread a crucial section of the third volume of Capital. In chapter 36, entitled ‘Precapitalist relationships’ (pages 588-605), Marx examines markets in their earlier forms. He writes of a range of features found in ancient markets, whether Greek or Roman or European feudalism. Here we find commodities, money, capital, merchants, industry and usury, but Marx is very careful to point out that all of these individual components did not make up a capitalist mode of production, or – as I am putting it – a capitalist market economy. Why? The relationship between these various items and their social determination meant that they may have comprised components of a slave or feudal mode of production, but certainly not a capitalist one – which requires a very different organisation.

Extrapolating from this historical work, this means that you may find some or more of these items under socialism in power, but this does not mean you have a capitalist market economy. It is a very different reality, for which ‘socialist market economy’ is the best name.

The next step in thinking through a socialist market economy is to analyse the distinction between a ‘planned economy’ and a ‘socialist market economy’ (a crucial change made in the Chinese constitution in 1982). Currently, my sense is that a planned economy is one phase of the wider reality of a socialist market economy, but I have more work to do on this question. The mistake in this case is to equate a planned economy with a socialist economy.

Narratives of Betrayal: A ‘Western’ Trope

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.

Alternatives

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), http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/boer081011.html; Roland Boer, “The ‘Failure’ of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative,”  Philosophers for Change(2014), http://philosophersforchange.org/2014/10/28/the-failure-of-communism-a-fall-narrative.

[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).

Different ways to interpret the Marxist tradition

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

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

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

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

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

Can a religious person join the communist party?

Can a religious person join the communist party?

One would expect that the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Is not Marxism a materialist philosophy and political movement, with no time for the mystifying effects of religion or indeed for reactionary religious institutions? The catch is that communist parties around the world have actually permitted religious people to join and be members.

Let us go back to the First International. It was accused by the reactionary right and indeed by former comrades of requiring atheism for its members. On the other side, the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. What was the response of Marx and Engels? While Marx asserted that he was an atheist,[1] he made it quite clear that the International itself did not make atheism a prerequisite for membership – ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’[2] As for Engels, he repeatedly pointed out that anyone who suggests that the International ‘wants to make atheism compulsory’ is simply guilty of a lie.[3]

Why did they take this position? The first reason was that they saw religion as a secondary phenomenon, arising from alienated socio-economic conditions. Any direct attack on religion would divert the movement from its main task. Second, ‘atheism, as the mere negation of, and referring only to, religion, would itself be nothing without it and is thus itself another religion’.[4] The third reason is that they would simply be copying a bourgeois anti-religious program, which would – and this is the fourth reason – split the workers from the prime task of overcoming socio-economic oppression.

The Second International took an even more explicit position. It followed the Erfurt Program of 1891, of the German Social-Democrats: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’.[5] A key question debated at the time was whether a priest or minister could join the party: the answer was yes, but if the minister found the party program conflicted with his own positions, then that was a matter for him to resolve.

Even the far Left that became the Spartacus Group in Germany held to this position. For example, Rosa Luxemburg asserted in Socialism and the Churches from 1905:

The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience [Gewissen] and personal opinion [Überzeugung] as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrats.[6]

Perhaps Lenin and the Bolsheviks provide us with a clear example of demanding atheism from party members. Here too we will be disappointed, for Lenin – as a good ‘Erfurtian’ – took the position of the Erfurt Program.[7] To be sure, Lenin argued for a radical separation of church and state, and that the party must not leave religion alone in propagating its position – so that religion was also very much a public affair. Yet this did not lead Lenin to propose that party membership applications should include a question on religion and atheism. Even though a socialist may espouse a materialist worldview in which religion is but a medieval mildew, even though the party may undertake a very public and unhindered program of education against the influence of the church, and even though one hoped that the historical materialist position would persuade all of its truth, the party still did not stipulate atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Even more, no one would be excluded from party membership if he or she held to religious belief. As Lenin stated forcefully: ‘Organisations belonging to the R.S.D.L.P. have never distinguished their members according to religion, never asked them about their religion and never will’.[8]

Surely the Cuban Communist Party bans religion for its members. It did so initially, but even then many of the members professed atheism while maintaining religious observance at home. So at the fourth congress of 1991 it decided to remove ‘religious beliefs’ as an ‘obstacle’ anyone who sought to become a member. Indeed, in the Central Committee’s Report to the sixth congress of 2011, it was noted that ‘congruence between revolutionary doctrine and religious faith is rooted in the very foundations of the nation’. To back this up, a statement from none other than Fidel Castro (in 1971) was used: ‘I tell you that there are ten thousand times more coincidences of Christianity with Communism than there might be with Capitalism’.[9]

It is becoming difficult to find a communist party that requires atheism of its members – at least until we come to the Chinese Communist Party. Here at last is a party that officially bans religious belief among those seeking to become members. Indeed, in the process of becoming a member, a candidate is asked whether he or she has professed any religious beliefs. Anyone found to have done so is called upon to rectify such beliefs. According to Professor Li Yunlong, from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a Party member’.[10] At last we have a communist party that is explicitly atheist, banning aspiring members who might be otherwise.

Yet, there is a typical Chinese twist: one must be an atheist upon entry to the party, but should one become religious at a later point, then little is usually done – at least if one keeps such beliefs discreet and exercises them along officially recognised channels.

[1] ‘Record of Marx’s Interview with The World Correspondent’, 1871, MECW 22, p. 605.

[2] Marx, ‘Remarks on the Programme and Rules of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy’, 1868, MECW 21, p. 208.

[3] Engels, ’ Account of Engels’s Speech on Mazzini’s Attitude Towards the International’, 1871, MECW, p. 608.

[4] Engels, ‘Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich, London, July 1884’. 1884, MECW 47, p. 173.

[5] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Erfurt Program. In German History in Documents and Images: Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War, 1890–1918. Available at  www.germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/513_Erfurt%20Program_94.pdf.

[6] Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Walters, New York: Pathfinder, 1970, p. 132.

[7] Lenin, ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards Religion’, Collected Works 15, p. 404.

[8] Lenin, ‘Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an “Independent Political Party”?’ 1993, Collected Works 6, p. 331 fn.

[9] See http://www.cuba.dk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=229:central-report-to-the-6th-congress-of-the-communist-party-of-cuba&catid=49:politik-og-historie&Itemid=50.

[10] http://en.people.cn/n/2015/0202/c90785-8844565.html.

Spirit versus Letter: On interpreting Marx

One of the more fascinating aspects of reading carefully through Stalin’s writings is what may be called the scriptural dynamic of spirit and letter. As 2 Corinthians 3:6 puts it, ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’. Stalin is clearly on the side of the spirit through the letter in interpreting the texts of Marx and Lenin. Thus, Marx’s thought applies to emerging capitalism, while Lenin’s thought is Marxism in the age of imperialism. To emphasise his approach, he tells a story provided by Swedish socialists:

It was at the time of the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt in the Crimea. Representatives of the navy and army came to the Social-Democrats and said: “For some years past you have been calling on us to revolt against tsarism. Well, we are now convinced that you are right, and we sailors and soldiers have made up our mints to revolt and now we have come to you for advice.” The Social-Democrats became flurried and replied that they couldn’t decide the question of a revolt without a special conference. The sailors intimated that there was no time to lose, that everything was ready, and that if they did not get a straight answer from the Social-Democrats, and if the Social-Democrats did not take over the direction of the revolt, the whole thing might collapse. The sailors and soldiers went away pending instructions, and the Social-Democrats called a conference to discuss the matter. They took the first volume of Capital, they took the second volume of Capital, and then they took the third volume of Capital, looking for some instruction about the Crimea, about Sevastopol, about a revolt in the Crimea. But they could not find a single, literally not a single instruction in all three volumes of Capital either about Sevastopol, or about the Crimea, or about a sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt. They turned over the pages of other works of Marx and Engels, looking for instructions—but not a single instruction could they find. What was to be done? Meanwhile the sailors had come expecting an answer. Well, the Social-Democrats had to confess that under the circumstances they were unable to give the sailors and soldiers any instructions. “And so the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt collapsed.” (Works, volume 9, pages 97-98)

Was ik maar weer in Bommel: I wish I was back in Bommel (Marx)

Karl Marx ‘was half Dutch [half Nederlands was]’, wrote his daughter Eleanor in 1893. Why? The first hint begins with her recipient, who was none other than Franc van der Goes, a family member. But the full story is that Marx’s mother was Henriette Pressburg, and her sister Sophie was married to Lion Philips. The Philips family – which provided the basis of Philips electronics – lived in Zaltbommel. Even more, Marx’s father, Heinrich (Herschel) was connected with a number of Dutch Jewish families.

So the genealogical link was close, but so was the personal. More than fifty letters survive of the correspondence between Marx and his Dutch relatives, letters that are very open in discussing politics, philosophy, culture, personal matters and so on. Lion’s brother, Auguste, also assisted Marx with the publication of the French translation of Capital. With all these connections, it is not surprising that Marx visited the family in Holland on a regular basis, and that Lion helped him out with money when he was short (a frequent occurrence for a man who was hopeless in personal finances). Indeed, Lion’s son Eduard, remembered that Marx wrote part of Capital while he was there. He would walk back and forth furiously, smoking away, until an idea came to him. Then he would leap on the chair and write away. Of course, there is also the intriguing ‘closeness’ with his cousin, Nanette Philips, leading come to speculate on a possible affair. Probably not, but they did enjoy each other’s company.

All this and more can be found in J. Gielkens (red.), ‘Was ik maar weer in Bommel’, Karl Marx en zijn Nederlandse verwanten, Een familiegeschiedenis, bezorgd en ingeleid door Jan Gielkens, uitg. Stichting beheer IISG, Amsterdam 1997. You can also find a summary by Jasper Schaaf.

Lenin’s approach to writing

Marx, for one, would pace up and down the room. Paul Lafargue notes that Marx would rest by doing so, while Henry Hyndman observes: ‘Marx had a habit when at all interested in the discussion of walking actively up and down the room, as if he were pacing the deck of a schooner for exercise’. Engels had the same habit. Imagine the scene, especially after Engels managed to escape the ‘huckstering’ of the family firm in Manchester: Marx would pace in one direction, puffing on a cigarette, Engels would pace parallel to Marx but in the opposite direction, puffing on a pipe, while both would engage in animated discussion.

As for Lenin, Krupskaya notes: ‘When writing, he would usually pace swiftly up and down the room, whispering what he was going to write’. Then he would leap into the seat at his desk and rapidly write down what he had just whispered to himself. 45 volumes of Collected Worksthat’s a lot of whispering.