marxism


Way back in 1945, Stalin was told of the first nuclear test in the USA. He was sceptical. Why? You may have all the firepower in the world, he pointed out, but it is the quality of ground troops that makes all the difference. Stalin’s insights are still very relevant. The USA loves firing missiles and dropping bombs – more bombs were dropped in North Korea in the early 1950s than in the whole of the second world war. But as soon as ground troops go in, they are clearly inferior. The recent history of failures reveals this all too clearly: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya … One wonders how long the US war machine can keep on failing.

And – as a footnote – I am afraid I was wrong about Trump on the international scene. He is no different from the Bushes, Clinton and Obama, acting like drunken cowboys, trying to provoke one country after another.

Might it possibly be the case that we will begin to hear more of the DPRK’s view? Perhaps it is the recklessness of that rogue state known as the USA, perhaps it is the destabilising drive from South Korea’s conservative government, perhaps it is a newly belligerent Japan – all of these may be forcing a few people to ask: what is the DPRK’s position?

A hint may be found in an extraordinary interview on the BBC, of all places. In response to some rather aggressive questions, the Vice-Foreign Minister of the DPRK, Han Song-ryol, offers carefully considered and calm responses. It is worth watching.

Apart from the obvious point that the DPRK has been forced into a weapons program to defend itself from external aggression, especially by the USA, I am taken with the point that the DPRK has taken a particular path of socialism and they do not appreciate being told by others how to live. So also have you taken a path, says Han to the journalist, and you would not take kindly to someone else telling you what to do.

Since the DPRK (North Korea) is in the corporate news, and full of the usual misrepresentation, I thought I would reprise a section of an article I wrote a couple of years ago on Korean reunification – from the perspective of the north.

Reunification been a consistent policy of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now. Perhaps an opening up from the south may be possible once again if Moon Jae-in wins the elections this year. Who knows.

But the north Koreans I have met continue to hope ardently for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

As part of my research on the socialist state, I have found that many indeed cite, rely upon and try to modify the influential definition given by Max Weber: ‘the state is the form of human community [Gemeinschaft] that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence [Gewalt] within a particular territory’ (The Vocation Lectures, p. 33). From Charles Tilly, through Norbert Elias, to Pierre Bourdieu, many assume that Weber inaugurated the modern tradition of the analysis of the state – in contrast to the classical tradition (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) that saw the state in quasi-theological terms as arising from a state of nature and providing the necessary limits on human society for the sake of the common good.

There is profound problem with this assumption. Weber is actually dependent on an even more influential definition that was first proposed by none other than Friedrich Engels. In a crucial section of The Origin of the Family, Engels writes of the state arising from within the dynamics of a society riven with class conflict (a point that would be taken up by Lenin) and that the state divides its subjects ‘according to territory’ and ‘establishes a public power [Gewalt]’ that is separate from the population organising itself as a military force (Origin of the Family, p. 269). Here are two crucial terms in Weber’s definition: power (or violence) and territory.

For some strange reason, Weber neglects to mention Engels. Is this a Foucault moment, when an influential thinker prefers not to refer to sources of thought since people will simply assume that the thought is new? Or did Weber forget, or perhaps even not know, that Engels had proposed this position first. Given the influence of Marxism at the time, Weber’s ignorance is really not an option.

The conclusion: the modern tradition of reflection the European nation-state (the limitation is deliberate) begins with Engels, as indeed does the Marxist tradition via Lenin.

Over a quiet stretch in Beijing, I was able to read Xi Jinping’s first volume as president of China. As one would expect, it is a series of selected statement on key issues, called The Governance of China (Tan zheguolizheng), published in 2014.

It is, I must admit, an extraordinary read. To begin with, it carries on the venerable Marxist tradition in which state leaders are also thinkers, whose thoughts appear in writing. Think of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping. Chairman Xi clearly thinks and writes in a similar vein. So the genre is alive and well! Further, it is distinctly Chinese. Xi has a fondness for Chinese sayings and proverbs, peppering his speeches and writings with many a traditional saying, but also many a communist saying, for the two now form part of a long tradition of Chinese wisdom.

Main Themes

At a general level, it soon becomes clear that nothing is hidden as far as the goals of the communist party are concerned. China seeks stability and global peace, and continues an independent foreign policy that enhances such a situation. Internally, the main theme running through the volume concerns the two Centenary Goals and the Chinese Dream.

The first goal is 2021, the centenary of the foundation of the communist party, by which time China will be a moderately prosperous society in all respects. This is now widely seen as the transition to the second stage of socialism. The second goal is 2049, the centenary of the founding of the people’s republic. By that point, the goal is to have achieved a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious. By this time, socialism will have matured in a Chinese situation, or to put it in Confucian terms, this entails a fully realised xiaokang.

All of this is wrapped up in the term ‘Chinese Dream’, the many dimensions of which are explained the book. It may include the elimination of poverty (for which extensive measures have been enhanced), the success of the current rectification program, ecological civilisation, and so on. A tall order perhaps, and the road is neither straight nor smooth, but Xi Jinping is making sure he drives it forward as much as he is able. All of this is predicated on the ‘great furnace’ of the reform and opening up (gaige kaifang), which he sees very much in terms of another revolution – one of ‘socialist modernisation’. So crucial is this process that the main position is that the current problems facing China are due to an inadequate realisation of the reform and opening up, which is itself unending. A new version of permanent revolution, if you will.

Much more can be written, but I will focus on an initial collection of gems that caught my eye. They appear in no necessary order.

Scholars

The first comes from a talk with scholars, where Xi invokes a number of figures well-known in Chinese culture. One is Sun Jing, of Han times (206 BCE – 220 CE), who loved reading so much that he tied his hair to a roof beam so he wouldn’t nod off while reading. Another is Kuang Heng, also of Han Dynasty times, who could not afford candles. So he bored a hole in the wall to make use of the neighbour’s candlelight. And another is Che Yin of Eastern Jin times (317-420 CE), who could not afford an oil lamp, so he caught fireflies, put them in a bag of thin white cloth so as to study by the light. And Sun Kang of the Southern Dynasties (420-586 CE), who read by the reflected light from snow on winter nights. These stories are of course used to encourage students, albeit perhaps not to go to such extremes. I must admit that while this type of learning culture produces some of the best students in the world, I often find myself giving a mini-lecture on the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

Ecological Civilisation

On ecological civilisation, Xi points out simply that the total population of the well-off countries is 1 billion. China’s population is 1.3 billion (and is anticipated to peak at 1.45 billion). If all of these people too become well-off in the way to which the others have become accustomed, consuming vast amounts of resources and energy, all of the existing resources in the world would not be enough. The conclusion: the old path is a dead end.

One Country, Two Systems

The definition of ‘one country, two systems’. This is a model for realising Chinese unification and dealing with the issues relating to Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Under this model, the mainland keeps practicing socialism, while Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan retain their capitalist ways of life for a long time while enjoying a high degree of autonomy. This of course means that the Chinese Dream in its own way is applicable to these places as well. It is worth noting that the DPRK (North Korea) has consistently held this approach for achieving Korean reunification.

Peace

Apart from the obvious point that peace is absolutely necessary for the achievement of the two Centenary Goals and the Chinese Dream (even though some countries do their best to disrupt the process), Xi invokes a large number of sayings out of the Chinese tradition of 5,000 years to show that peace is deeply embedded in the culture. These include: ‘a warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually perish’; ‘replace weapons of war with gifts of jade and silk’. But the most telling point for me is that although China was for long one of the most powerful countries in the world, it never engaged in colonialism and aggression. Once again, it one of the most powerful countries in the world.

Beer and Tea

On a comparable note, Xi often invokes the proverb that the ocean is so large because it accepts all rivers. On each invocation, he gives it a slightly different interpretation, such as the need to be aware of the different histories and cultures of each place in determining the best political system. But I am interested here in the anecdote of beer and tea. He writes: ‘the Chinese people love tea, and Belgians love beer. To me, the moderate tea drinker and the passionate beer lover represent two ways of understanding life and knowing the world, and I find them equally rewarding. When good friends get together, they may want to drink to their heart’s content to show their friendship. They may also choose to sit down quietly and drink tea while chatting about their lives. In China we value our ideal of “harmony without uniformity”’ (p. 310).

Faith in Marxism

The importance of faith in Marxism. This is a recurring theme, especially when dealing with the near-crisis of legitimacy when he took over the leadership. The most extensive, pervasive and long-lasting anti-corruption campaign has been the result, explicitly evoking the Yan’an Rectification Campaign of 1942-45. Xi has much to say on this matter, but I focus on the question of ideals and convictions. Two points, the first dealing with the People’s Liberation Army and the second with Party officials.

For the army, faithfulness to Marxism and the leadership of the CPC is paramount, so that the PLA is in lock-step with the party. Indeed, ‘we will apply political convictions as a measure when reviewing and appointing officers to ensure that our weaponry is always in the hands of those who are reliable and loyal to the Party’ (p. 238).

For Party officials: ‘To be firm in their ideals and convictions is the supreme criterion for good officials. No matter how competent an official is, he cannot be regarded as the sort of good official that we need if he is not firm in his ideals and convictions, does not believe in Marxism or socialism with Chinese characteristics, is unqualified politically, and cannot weather political storms. Only those who are firm in their ideals and convictions will adopt an unequivocal approach towards major issues of principle, build “diamond-hard bodies” to withstand any corruption, remain dauntless when facing political storms, firmly resist all kinds of temptations, and act in a reliable and trustworthy manner at any critical moment’ (p. 463). This is pure Mao, if not the model of a communist.

Xi Jinping as a Marxist

Stray items to begin with, but in case there are any doubters, Xi is a convinced Marxist and has instituted a large number of programs to ensure that all Party members know well what Marxism is and what it entails. Further work by me will focus on the nature of the socialist state (plenty of material), and what is meant by Xi’s sincere position that China is a socialist country, with socialist modernisation and a socialist market economy, in which the ‘visible hand’ is strong and determinative.

Throughout it all, Xi Jinping comes through as a gentle but firm man, which is of course what one would expect for such an edition. Yet, he is perhaps tougher than many expected when he first became president, or ‘chairman’ (zhuxi), but the effect has been to gain the appreciation of many who roundly condemned the leadership of the CPC not so many years ago. The fact that he has already stared down Trump only adds to his esteem. At the same time, his resolute emphasis on stability and security (anquan) touches a deep chord in Chinese culture.

This is but the first volume of Xi Jinping’s thoughts. Much has been written and said since it was published in 2014, so I anticipate more volumes. In this respect, the tradition of actual writings and sustained thoughts by an avowed lifelong student carries on a communist tradition since Lenin. The fact that he also leads the most powerful socialist state in human history increases my fascination.

I am working my way through Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China, enjoying especially a piece from 2013 called ‘Hard Work Makes Dreams Come True’. One of a number of statements on the Chinese Dream (which actually means at a minimum the second stage of socialism, or xiaokang as it is called hereabouts), it addresses workers as the backbone of the party and the country. Here we find many good old communist themes – as with the book as a whole – such as the role of the working class, model workers and so forth.

The theme of hard work continues today in Xi Jinping’s statements, most recently in his new year’s address for 2017, where he called on all to ‘roll up your sleeves and get to work’ – sparking lines in pop songs, memes and images.

One of the great myths concerning socialist collectivisation of agriculture is that it produced ‘man-made’ famines, since it is supposedly less ‘efficient’. This story is perpetrated by friend and foe alike.

Example 1: The famine of 1932-33 in the Soviet Union, which is supposed to have been ‘man-made’.

Let me set the context. During the ‘socialist offensive’ of the late 1920s and 1930s in the Soviet Union, a massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation took place.

The Soviet Union did not have access to and did not want to use capitalist modes of accumulating funds, namely, colonial expansion (dispossession of others) and international loans. So the industrialisation process had to rely on internal, or socialist accumulation. In order to generate such accumulation, the government set higher prices for the increasing abundance of manufactured goods, as a type of super-tax that would flow back into industry. Meanwhile, prices on agricultural goods were set lower, albeit with fluctuations depending on seasonal shortages and in light of the constant efforts at speculation. This tensions of this ‘scissors’ method of generating revenue for further industrialisation generated obvious problems, but these were exacerbated by a famine in 1927-28, requiring enforced requisitions of grain in response to some peasants withholding agricultural produce for speculation (Withholding of grain for the sake of raising prices was an old practice, appearing not only during the NEP of the mid-1920s, but also much earlier). Obviously, something had to be done, since the ‘scissors’ method could not continue – it was always conceived as a temporary measure.

Another persistent problem was that traditional Russian farming methods were inadequate in light of new developments and a rising population. I mean not the subsistence survival agriculture practised in many parts of the world for millennia, but the practice of landlords extracting food necessary for survival by farmers. In fact, rural famines were endemic to Russian life. In more recent memory, famine hit in 1890-91, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 had taken place in the context of widespread famine, which added to socio-economic chaos. Famines also blighted 1918-20 and were exacerbated during 1920-21.

So the process of collectivisation was at one level an effort to deal with endemic famine.

Many of course will point to the famine of 1932-33, with some even suggesting it was a deliberate policy of ‘genocide’ focused on the Ukraine (the ‘Holodomur’). But the famine also affected Northern Caucasus, Volga Region and Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. Enough research has been done to show that the famine was the result of significant weather conditions (drought), low harvest, international blockade, and the profound turmoil and frequent violence of the 1930s.

Were there famines later? Yes. One could argue that the food shortage during the siege of Leningrad was a famine, but the reasons are obvious here. And after the devastation of war and the effort to defeat Hitler, a famine took place after a drought in 1947. Most importantly, despite the drought cycle, no further famines were experienced.

Obviously, collectivisation had a distinct result in dealing with the endemic problem of famines. Why? Collectivisation enabled mechanisation and increase in the amount of land under cultivation, so much so that in 1932 many farmers worked harder to ensure greater crop yield and overcome the famine by the next year.

Example 2: The Chinese famine of 1959-61, during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, is also described as ‘man-made’, a result of the ‘foolhardy’ effort at collectivisation.

Once again, famine was endemic to Chinese agriculture (see Losurdo’s War and Revolution, pp. 271-72). Restricting ourselves to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, famines occurred in 1810-11, 1846, 1849, 1876-79 (9-13 million died), 1896-97, 1907, 1911, 1920-21 (again in northern China), 1928-30 (3 million people died), 1936 (5 million), 1940-41 (2-3 million). In famine was a persistent problem.

If we add the semi-colonisation of China, invasions, insurrections, along with droughts, the deaths in China between 1850 and 1950 were by far the highest in the world.

Again, something obviously had to be done. Having seen the long-term success of the collectivisation in the Soviet Union in overcoming the persistent cycle of famine, collectivisation was also undertaken in China.

The problem now was not only the devastation of decades of civil war and Japanese occupation, but a deliberate policy of economic warfare and strangulation by the Truman regime. This included schematic bombing from Taiwan of any industrial facilities built on the eastern seaboard. The deliberate aim was to keep the new communist country below subsistence level so as to produce a catastrophic economic situation, if not disaster and collapse.

We need to add Mao’s impatience. Seeing the dire situation of the country in light of economic devastation and US policy, he sought to leap over stages of development in order to escape from the desperate trap. Again, the US regimes made the most of situation, seeking to exacerbate the situation and cause widespread devastation. By the early 1960s, the Kennedy regime, looking back on the famine of 1959-61, gloated that they succeeded in retarding Chinese economic development by decades.

Were there famines after this time in China? Again, no. The long history of endemic famine and the tragic lesson of 1959-61 meant that China has managed to put famine behind it.

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