Recently published is a new book by the stakhanovite, Domenico Losurdo, called: Western Marxism: How It Was Born, How It Died and How It Can Rise Again.


The brief description (found here) reads:

Western Marxism was afflicted by a sort of myopia: it didn’t realize that the wind of the revolution was blowing  from Russia to China and the Third World, joining with the national revolutions against Western imperialism.

There was a time when Marxism was an obligatory point of reference for any philosophical and political debate: those years saw the biggest victories for ‘Western Marxism’, which presented itself in stark contrast to its Eastern counterpart, accused of being a state ideology that propped up ‘Socialist’ regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Although at first the October revolution was viewed with hope, 20th century Communism contributed to the disintegration of the global colonial complex rather than creating a radically new social system. An extraordinary result that Western Marxism failed adequately to understand or appreciate. Hence its crisis and collapse. If it is to be revived, it must examine the anticolonial revolution and answer three key questions: What has the global anticolonial uprising meant in terms of freedom and emancipation? How is the clash between colonialism and anticolonialism played out today? What relationship was there between the anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles?

Losurdo puts these questions to the great authors of the 20th century – Bloch, Lukács, Adorno and Foucault – and of today – Agamben, Badiou and Žižek – in a heated debate that combines historical reconstruction and philosophical enquiry.

Exactly! For it was the Soviet Union that developed a thoroughly anti-colonial policy (arising from its ‘affirmation action’ nationalities policy). This policy enabled arms, personnel and know-how to support most of the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century as part of the global undermining of imperialist capitalism. Indeed, what is now called ‘post-colonialism’ could not have arisen – temporally and theoretically – without the anti-colonial theory and practice developed in the Soviet Union (especially by you-know-who).

From a stall in Xi’an

Lunli, they call it in these parts, or Gongchanzhuyi daode – ethics or communist moral principles. These are by no means abstract terms, debated by philosophers with little connection to real life. I encounter it day to day in a very concrete fashion.

Here Chinese tradition meets Marxism in a way that continually amazes and bewilders me. To begin with, the dushuren or xuezhe, the intellectual (literally ‘book reading person’) and scholar has a venerable place in Chinese society. The intellectual is simultaneously expected to devote significant time to reading, thinking and writing – whether scholarly works, moral maxims, poetry, or a range of other genres – and to the good of public life. This expectation is embodied in part in the word yiwu, which means both to volunteer and a duty. One volunteers to contribute in some way to the greater good of society, but this is simultaneously a duty or obligation. Although it is manifested at many levels of social relations, for an intellectual it means service in or for the government, or perhaps work that contributes to solving a commonly recognised problem.

Further, the first character in yiwu is yi (义), a significant aspect of Confucianism. Its literal meaning is ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, but it also includes ‘human relationships’ and ‘meaning’. Thus, yi involves the intertwining of justice and relationships, in a moral framework of doing good and the understanding of how to do so in a sensible and fit manner. In other words, one must know the underlying reason for such righteousness and not simply follow precepts.

For a scholar, this means that one is engaged and not engaged. Or rather, when one is engaged directly, one longs to be disengaged, to find the tranquillity to think and write and identify the deeper framework. But even in this situation, one does so with the public good always in mind.

By now it should be obvious that the ethics of a scholar are somewhat high.

What about communist moral principles? By now, they have been etched into Chinese culture, distinct and yet meshed with Confucian ideas. A communist is expected to be honest, direct and trustworthy, not concerned with personal gain and focused on the public good.

This morality appears at many levels. For instance, an ethos first developed at Ruijin in the early 1930s – during the first Chinese soviet – focused on providing poor peasants not with communist ideas, but with enough food, clothing, and shelter. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental desire of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Or it can be seen in Mao Zedong’s urgings for party members (cadres) after achieving power. In 1949, Mao wrote: ‘I hope that the revolutionary personnel of the whole country will always keep to the style of plain living and hard struggle’. Again, in 1957, he wrote that party members must not lose the revolutionary spirit of wholeheartedly serving the people. Instead, they must ‘persevere in plain living and hard struggle’, ‘maintaining close ties with the masses’.

Chairman (or president) Xi Jinping has been consistently evoking these admonitions from Mao over the last few years, especially in terms of uniting and strengthening the party through the ‘tigers and flies’ anti-corruption campaign – the most thoroughgoing and pervasive in modern Chinese history. As he does so, he and the leadership evoke the deep chords of communist morality.

Already five years ago, a new ‘eight rules’ were promulgated, echoing the ‘eight points for attention’ from 1927. The new eight rules focus on how leaders and party members should reject extravagance and reduce bureaucratic visits, meetings and empty talk. Crucially, the purpose is to strengthen ties between the people and officials, which had been eroded through corruption and power abuse.

That this approach resonates deeply with people shows up in complex surveys, with 80 percent or more of people supporting the measures. Why? Communist morality has become deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and society. If one is a communist, which means a party member, one is expected to live up to these ideals. If one fails, the fall is even greater.

What if you are a Marxist and a scholar? By now it should be obvious that the ethical standards are higher still. The combination of Confucian and Marxist ethics entails an expectation of almost impeccable morality – speaking plainly and directly, being honest, living simply, avoiding any sign of personal gain, and substantially focused on the public good.

This project – involving Chinese and international researchers – seeks to provide the philosophical and historical framework for understanding the realities of socialism in power. Taking China, Cuba and the former Soviet Union as the principal case studies, it focuses on the crucial questions of the nature of the socialist state, democracy, civil society, and the role of the communist party. It also elaborates on the more abstract theoretical issues of contradiction, justice and human rights – issues that have significant practical implications. Since these topics remain relatively unexamined at a philosophical level, the task of this project is to take the first steps in a rigorous theoretical analysis.

The method is as follows: theoretical reflection on practice. The actual practice of socialism in power is rich in a century’s worth of primary material: from the 1917 October Revolution to ‘Socialism for the 21st Century’. This material arises from specific problems, which have resulted in policies, pronouncements and laws. However, the task of systematic philosophical and historical reflection concerning socialism in power remains to be done.

This is very much an international project, with key Marxist critics in China, Europe, Russia and Australia engaged for the long term.


Part A: Political Realities

1. Socialist State

While there has been considerable practice in relation to such a state, relatively little attention has been paid to philosophical, historical, scientific and literary analysis. Indeed, while it easier to say what this state is not (federation, empire, colonising power, or bourgeois nation-state), the question remains as to what form of the state it might be. Some have suggested they may be characterised as a developmental or contender state, but this neglects the distinctive socialist dimension. The experience and practice of the state in China, the Soviet Union and Latin America provide ample material for constructing a theory of such a state – well beyond the initial formulations of Engels and Lenin. The major features of this analysis may include: whether the state is an instrument used by one or more classes, or whether the state changes its deeper structures in light of capitalism or socialism; the role of class in analysing the state; the agency of a strong state; the relationship between power and apparatus, as well as the specific structures of governance; the role of the communist party in governance; specific policies, such as those relating to nationalities (or ‘preferential policies’, youhui zhengce), anti-colonial struggles, education, and so on.

2. Socialist Democracy

Crucial to a socialist state is socialist democracy, which must be understood in a very different way from other forms of democracy. It stands in contrast to Greek democracy, liberal (bourgeois or – as it sometimes called – ‘deliberative’) democracy, illiberal democracy, or indeed a warmed over bourgeois democracy championed by Social-Democrats and indeed some Marxists. By contrast, socialist democracy includes the majority of the population – workers, peasants and intellectuals. It is a constantly evolving process and may include, but is not restricted to, stages of new democracy, authoritarian communism, democratic dictatorship and democratic centralism. The history of socialism in power provides ample material for analysing these forms of socialist democracy, although the project also seeks to delineate the possibilities of yet other forms.

3. Socialist Civil Society

In a socialist state we examine whether a socialist civil society arises. This is in contrast to bourgeois civil society, which entails a basic alienation between private individual and the state, as well as a systemic exclusion of the majority. The constant danger of bourgeois civil society is that it easily becomes a lynch mob. Instead of this type of civil society, socialist civil society operates in a different way. This takes place in terms of a recalibrated dialectic of collective and individual. In alternative terms, this civil society appears in the space between official communist policy and individual expression. Indeed, socialist civil society is based on a redefinition of freedom, which provides a new universal based on the open particularity of the majority. In sum, this freedom is a freedom from bourgeois civil society and freedom for the socialist project.

4. The Communist Party

Integral to the socialist state and indeed socialist democracy is the communist party, which the project examines in light of a thoroughly reshaped dialectic of immanence and transcendence. This dialectic has both ontological and temporal dimensions. Ontologically, it suggests that the focus on immanence in the development of European modernity misses the way transcendence has been reworked in the political sphere. Further, the project draws upon Chinese philosophical reflections on transcendence and immanence, understood in light of Marxist contributions. All of this leads to a reconsideration of the relations between ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ in relation to socialist consciousness and the relations between the party and the people. Temporally, transcendence becomes the goal of communism itself, with the resultant distinction between socialism and communism. Such transcendence in turn has a proleptic effect on the immanence of the presence, being creatively active and yet awaiting fulfilment.

5. Socialist Market Economy

Instead of the assumption that a ‘market economy’ is inherently capitalist and thereby universal, this topic examines the different forms of market economies. While its focus is a socialist market economy, it situates such an economy within the history of markets. This historical examination reveals that markets throughout history have been of different types, often generated by states to solve specific logistical problems. In these cases, profit is at best a secondary phenomenon. Analysis of a socialist market economy itself focuses on the following areas: the differences with the ‘market socialism’ of Yugoslavia; the nature of a preliminary socialist market economy in the Soviet Union; the realities of working within capitalist market economies; the detailed structures of a socialist market economy in China and how it differs markedly from a capitalist market economy.

Part B: Theoretical Considerations

1. Contradiction

The crucial question here is whether contradictions continue to exist under socialism, and, if so, how. Pre-revolutionary Marxist theory tended to hold that the contradictions of capitalism would be overcome with communism. However, the actual experience of the exercise of power by communist parties indicates otherwise. This situation first became apparent in the Soviet Union, although the preference was to restrict contradictions – such as between the forces and relations of production – to the period of socialism. They would disappear, it was held, in the era of communism (which was now a distinct period). It fell to Mao Zedong to argue that contradictions would indeed by a constituent feature of socialism, if not communism (see ‘On Contradiction’, from 1937, and ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’, from 1957). Contradiction and the dialectic are, of course, constituent features of Marxist analysis and practice, but the step forward was to apply them to the long period of socialist construction. However, this is not merely a historical question, for one may argue (following Ernst Bloch) that contradictions are actually exacerbated under socialism, especially today. So this project seeks to identify the main contradiction today in China, with a view to explicating its features and proposing a possible solution. A major feature of this analysis is to draw upon Chinese philosophical approaches to contradiction, which have remoulded the question in a Chinese situation.

2. Justice

Contradictions in China, especially between socialism and capitalism, have increased in the context of the all-important reform and opening (gaige kaifeng). This period has also raised the urgent philosophical problem of justice (and equality). Debate continues as to whether the reform and opening up has created the conditions under which such considerations are necessary, or whether the problems faced are due to the incomplete nature of the reform process. The problems include, in the context of the unleashing of the forces of production, the gap between rich and poor, access to education and medicine, and environmental factors. In this context, the question of justice is crucial. However, our approach draws not so much on European liberal traditions, but on Marxist thought and China’s specific historical experience – in which justice and equality are major concerns. As a result, such a theory of justice will seek to make a new contribution to China’s current situation and to international Marxist theory.

3. Human Rights

The third area of theoretical deliberation concerns human rights. Key features of this analysis include the following points. First, the origins of the plural ‘rights’ in European thought with Hugo Grotius (sixteenth century), who first proposed plural ‘rights’ in contrast to the medieval singular of ‘Right’. Grotius clearly saw such rights as commodities and private property. Second, the tension between universal and particular, in which one may – with qualifications – agree to a universal category of human rights, but be wary of universalising from a particular situation. Further, the particular historical situations of different countries indicate specific emphases. For example, European and indeed Atlantic history has led to an emphasis on political rights at the expense of economic rights. By contrast, countries with different histories and Marxist influences have found that economic rights are paramount – the right to economic wellbeing. Third, each particular situation offers a different approach to the complex relations between collective and individual. In a European context, the individual tends to be paramount, although the collective is by no means absent even if is mediated through the individual. In other situations, such as China, the relation is different and exceedingly complex. One may initially suggest that the individual (and indeed the issue of privacy) finds expression through the collective, but this is merely the first step in analysis. Once again, a Marxist approach to human rights is crucial.

Part C: Comparison: Socialism with ‘National’ Characteristics

In order to make best use of the rich history of socialism in power, the project includes an important comparative dimension. This we call an examination of socialism with ‘national’ characteristics, which draws its inspiration from the Chinese characteristics of Marxism. Such comparison draws upon the theories and practices of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Obviously, it will require collaboration with specialists in these areas. This area of research raises two types of distinctions. The first concerns the differences between socialism seeking power, socialism in power, and socialism after power. Thus, some forms of socialism fall into only one category, such as in Western Europe and North America. Others have experienced socialism both seeking and in power, especially in Asia. And some have experienced all three, as we find in Eastern Europe. These differences will be able to produce distinct insights into the particular varieties of socialism. The second distinction concerns unity and diversity. Marxism may have core theoretical principles and topics, but the actual experiences of socialism in power have produced new developments.



To sum up, the concern of this long project is with the theoretical implications of socialism in power. This means the complexities, developments and changing conditions of socialism after it has achieved power in a revolution. As both Lenin and Chairman Mao pointed out repeatedly, it is one thing to win power through a revolution; it is a much more difficult and complex task to construct socialism in a global context. Today, China provides the richest example of this process, so it is the task of philosophers, political theorists and social scientists to develop theories by examining the realities and facts and perhaps point the way forward for Marxist theory in the context of socialism in power.

A ‘market’ is an economic mechanism, distinct from the state and primarily geared for profit and is thereby essentially capitalist. This is an extremely common assumption, but fortunately it is wrong.

We have been too conditioned by Adam Smith’s effort to define human nature as the desire to ‘truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another’. This slogan has – for some strange reason – come to be seen as a self-evident truth, neglecting how it was part of the immense struggles to redefine human nature from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

One unfortunate outcome of the slogan is that has generated an assumption that all markets throughout human history have been – to a greater or lesser extent – capitalist. This assumption is simply untenable.

Let me explain. The earliest markets were local affairs, operating between village communities usually within eyesight (2-4 kilometres away). Here one could acquire a few things not available in one’s local village community. It was simply untenable and indeed unimaginable – due to the friction of distance – to obtain anything in bulk from further away. And the few preciosities that did travel longer distances were desired by rulers and despots, for whom the cost and risk for the sake of acquisition were deemed to be worth it.

In the first millennium BCE, another type of market arose. They may be called tax markets, for the following reasons. One of the abiding problems for ancient rulers was provisioning armies on the move. An army of 5000 would require the same number of additional people to provide for the army. The invention of coinage – simultaneously in China, India and Lydia – changed the whole dynamic. Rulers or their advisors hit on the novel idea of paying soldiers in coin and demanding taxes in coin. How were rural labourers to get hold of coins? Sell various items to the soldiers – foodstuffs, alcohol, sexual services, and so on. Rural people then had the coinage to pay taxes, should the hated tax collectors come knocking with their armed thugs. As a result, a whole new range of markets arose. But the crucial point is that they solved to some extent a logistical problem of ancient states. For this reason they can be called tax markets. Making a profit from such processes was clearly a secondary affair.

Fast forward to the emergence and spread of capitalist markets in the sixteenth century – when the Dutch established the first capitalist empire. In this case, profit became a primary dimension of markets. The Dutch not only took over the routes of the Hanseatic League in the Baltic, but they thoroughly reformed their manufacturing basis so they could process raw materials more cheaply and efficiently than anyone else. For example, the Dutch were able to buy wool from England and produce garments more cheaply than the English. That the Dutch also levied a fee on any ships passing through from the Baltic to the Atlantic also helped matters.

The outcome of this brief historical sketch is that markets arose and functioned for specific purposes. Indeed, capitalist markets are a relatively late development.

The logic of this process leads to the possibility of socialist markets. Let me begin with the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. As a result of the massive and incredibly disruptive process of industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture in the ‘socialist offensive” of the 1930s, a situation developed in which the agricultural and industrial sectors engaged in commodity exchange. But these commodities were socialist commodities. Agricultural collectives sold produce to the cities, while industrial centres sold products to the rural communities. We should really call this the first – and rudimentary – version of a socialist market.

But now a complication arises. Yugoslavia, in its break with the Soviet Union, developed what they called ‘market socialism’. In this case, enterprises were collectively owned but they sold products – internally to Yugoslavia and externally to a capitalist Europe – in a capitalist framework. Hence ‘market socialism’. Some suggest that the Chinese borrowed this model for their own approach in the massive process of the ‘reform and opening up [gaige kaifang]. This is actually not the case.

Instead, the Chinese studied the situation in the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia and came up with their own approach. They call this a ‘socialist market economy’. What does this mean? (I should say that my research on this topic is only at the early stages, but it is predicated on taking seriously the Chinese claim that they have such a market).

The key is that the structures of the state are intimately involved with the market at all levels. This is not a version of ‘state capitalism’, which is usually used as a dismissal of socialist market economies. Instead, it means:

  1. You have state-owned, collectively-owned (in rural areas) and private enterprises.
  2. The state-owned sector should always remain the dominant part of the economy, although it should be ready to learn from the non-state-owned sector.
  3. Private companies and start-ups are directly fostered – in many ways – by the government to encourage innovation.
  4. Many of the heads of private companies are members of the communist party, so they see their role as developing the socialist market economy. For example, Chinese billionaires are expected – and do – contribute to key causes such as education. This is a far cry from American philanthropy, for it is enmeshed with Chinese assumptions: if one has benefitted from a particular situation or opportunity, one simply must –without question – contribute to the greater good.
  5. Annual reports for both state-owned and non-state-owned companies have to include far more than profits made. Instead, they need to include items that relate to community concerns, ecological incentives, government directives, and how they contribute to socialism with Chinese characteristics.
  6. Foreign companies wishing to engage with China at times find themselves in unfamiliar territory. They cannot buy land (for there is no private property in land) but must rent. And they cannot engage in the usual practice of inter-company espionage, for in a Chinese situation this is also espionage against the state. From time to time, those engaged in such espionage find themselves arrested.

Many more items could be added to this collection, which I will do in due course. But let me finish with a specific example. Research into the development of the internet in China – which is in many respects more advanced than elsewhere – shows clearly that it has been and continues to be driven by incentives and directives from the state. This is in stark contrast to the growth of the internet elsewhere.

In closing, I should say that my research thus far has not been primarily in terms of the literature available. Instead, it has taken place in discussions with people involved in the non-state sector of the market. They are very much aware of the fact that the way this particular market works is very different from other places. In other words, they know that this is neither a capitalist market economy nor a ‘distorted’ version thereof. Instead, it is a socialist market economy, albeit one that has to survive and indeed engage with a capitalist market economy elsewhere.

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