China


Welcome to China, where hammers and sickles are everywhere:


 

Before and during the 19th congress of the CPC (shijiuda), banners, signs and slogans were all over the country;

Apart from following events very closely, I took myself to the local Xinhua Bookshop, to find a huge number of Xi Jinping’s books for sale – carrying on the tradition of communist leaders who actually think and write:

Almost 20 books to read over the southern summer, along with Mao’s works:

In many places, I also came across signs reminding one of the achievements of Chinese socialism:

And these days Xi Jinping is known as ‘comrade [tongzhi]’, a term that has come back into wide use:

Small though it may be, I also try to make my own contribution:

Advertisements

Despite my best intentions, I had first come to China some eleven years ago with a pile of preconceptions and ways of understanding socialism. One by one they have been challenged, undermined and then crumbled. Since then, I have been rebuilding my understanding virtually from scratch.

Some of these preconceptions were superficial, although I was not aware I held them until after arrival. For example, I had been warned that a paranoid communist party would send spies to watch my every move. Even though I found this somewhat ludicrous, I caught myself, despite my best intentions, wondering if I was indeed being tailed. Another was the oft-repeated comment that no-one in China ‘believes’ in Marxism anymore, indeed that Chinese people barely talk about it. This particular fib took about 24 hours to undo, since I found not only that people freely talk about Marxism and socialism as everyday matters, but that everyone has studied these subjects at school.

Other preconceptions were more deeply ingrained: the idea that socialism can be reduced to economic matters; that China had embraced capitalism somewhere between 1979 and 1989; that Mao Zedong was the good boy and Deng Xiaoping the bad boy; that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ had little to do with socialism; indeed, that a ‘socialist market economy’ is a meaningless term; as for any form of democracy or ‘human rights’, forget it, since the communist party is not interested. I should add that I had a number of ways of understanding socialism that had developed during a long immersion in European Marxism, with its specific assumptions concerning philosophy and ways of looking at the world.

To have these assumptions dismantled has been a disconcerting process, to say the least. But it has also been exhilarating and full of new insights. By this time, more than a decade later, I hold none of the positions I have mentioned. However, the process has often involved constructing a new position that turned out to be a half-way house, a transitional point to something else. In short, I continue to dismantle nearly all of the categories that I had assumed as givens and have been working hard to construct new ones based on extensive exposure to Chinese Marxism.

Where to begin?

Human Rights

Perhaps ‘human rights’ was the easiest one to dismantle. I had always been suspicious of the very idea of human rights, given that it was first proposed by the Dutch philosopher and jurist, Hugo Grotius, in the sixteenth century. Grotius made a crucial shift, from a singular ‘Right’ characteristic of the Middle Ages (and inescapably connected with God) to plural ‘rights’. Already he saw these rights – such as life, freedom and so on – as commodities that could be acquired or sold. So I did not pay much attention to the routine use of ‘human rights’ in international efforts to denigrate China and its supposed ‘abuses’.

However, while filming for an online course (MOOC) on Chinese Marxism, I travelled to Ruijin, where the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet was established in the early 1930s. Here developed what may be called the ‘Ruijin ethos’: focus first on the people’s need for food, shelter, clothing and security, and then they will become communists. This opened the door to understanding a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights. Yes, such rights are universal, but they are rooted in specific situations and histories. Thus, the European tradition focuses on individual political and civil rights, but it neglects the crucial right to economic wellbeing (with significant consequences). It is precisely this right that emerged with the Ruijin ethos, with a distinctly collective focus. And it continues to be expressed in any number of government policies, ranging from the minority nationalities policy to the Belt and Road Initiative. So there is a Chinese Marxist tradition of human rights, arising in a very different situation, with different emphases. This is not to say that political and civil rights are neglected, but they must be understood in this broader framework.

Socialist Democracy

As for ‘democracy’, on this matter too I had earlier suspicions. I mean here suspicions about bourgeois democracy and the claim that this particular form of democracy is ‘democracy’ as such, without any qualifiers. I had experienced and studied enough to know the vacuousness of such claims, that bourgeois democracy based on parliamentary parties was only one historical manifestation of democracy, with its significant limitations. But I did have some idea of what an alternative might be, with direct participation by all, election and revocation, a search for a collective will – a little like Marx on the Paris commune. This is socialist democracy, I thought to myself. That my perception had significant doses of anti-statism goes without saying, for is not the state an alienated entity out of touch with the people? That it was also deeply informed by a (neo-)liberal framework was not so clear to me at the time, a situation that I now realise feeds into the popularity of anarchism in those parts of the world where liberalism is the dominant framework. With these preconceptions in mind, China was not going to manifest any form of socialist democracy.

The breakdown of this preconception began with the discovery that elections happen all the time in China. In local elections, whether in the countryside or city regions, one can elect the local government representatives. They can be communist party candidates or non-party candidates. What about the process of electing people for the two houses of parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)? The process begins in villages and in the local people’s assemblies, which may elect as many people as they wish. However, the number elected is usually no more than fifty percent over the number of places available. From there, elections continue through a number of layers until the provincial people’s assembly, from which the final number of delegates are elected. Once elected, a delegate serves for five years. In other words, the process is one of direct and indirect elections. A similar process applies for electing delegates to the Communist Party’s congress.

Clearly, this is a democratic exercise. But the question remains: what about the Communist Party itself? Can it be voted in or out of power? For many, this question is the test of ‘real democracy’. The problem is that the question itself betrays the hegemony of bourgeois democratic assumptions, in which multiple parties which look rather like one another vie for power, without questioning the overall framework. Obviously, this does not apply in China, which is not a bourgeois democracy. However, the role of the Communist Party in democracy took me a while longer to determine.

In short, a Communist Party must be in power for socialist democracy to function. This may initially seem like a paradox, but it is not. Let me put it this way, using the category of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. When first used by Marx and Engels and then developed by Lenin and Stalin, the proletarian democracy was a centralised and repressive force, in which the majority – workers and peasants – made use of the machinery of state to absorb and crush their opponents, who had once constituted the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’. The key here is the majority, which is able to express its will. Yet, this is only the beginning. In a Chinese situation, Mao Zedong transformed this category into ‘democratic dictatorship’, which he saw as ‘democracy for the people and dictatorship over the reactionaries’ (1949). Note the shift: the proletariat have become ‘the people [renmin]’ and they are the ones who rule. In fact, the Chinese minzhu reminds us of the core meaning of ‘democracy’, the people are in charge, are masters. All of this would be fully expressed by Deng Xiaoping in his four cardinal principles, of which the second is ‘upholding the people’s democratic dictatorship [renminminzhuzhuanzheng]’. But who are the people here? They are the workers, farmers and what may be called a socialist middle class, although ‘middle class’ is really not the best term here, since it evokes the specifics of the European history of the bourgeoisie. Instead, these are the people who have been lifted out of poverty and find the socialism has in fact improved their lives. The import of Deng Xiaoping’s formula is that the ‘people’ includes everyone. And who leads and represents them, through complex patterns of elections, public opinion, feedback from other political parties and policy? The next item in Deng’s principles provides the answer: leadership of the Communist Party.

Contradiction Analysis

Now I am digging into material that required and continues to require much more rethinking. So it is a good time to pause and identify a key experience. It concerns what may at first seem like a rather abstract idea: contradiction. But this idea has profound and very concrete implications.

The first moment of this experience was a discussion with a Chinese colleague over ‘utopia’. In a European context, utopia is of course both a non-place (utopia) and a good place (eutopia), but it entails some idea of perfection. Here tensions and conflicts are overcome, harmony and peace are achieved. Isn’t this the same as the Chinese datong, the ‘Great Harmony’? I asked. Well no, my colleague pointed out. This ancient Confucian idea, which has subsequently been reshaped in the tradition as a future state and then appropriated and reinterpreted by the communists (Mao was fond of it), actually does not mean ‘perfection’ as I had understood it. Instead, it means that opposites and indeed contradictions are still present, but they are not in conflict with one another. Think of yin-yang, she said: not only are the opposites entwined with one another, but if you look closely, you will see one side in the middle of the other.

The second moment was an extraordinary seminar, in which we read Mao’s ‘On Contradiction’ very carefully over six weeks. I had been struggling for some time concerning the presence of contradictions under socialism. According to a certain ‘Western’ approach, contradictions are supposed to disappear: swept away would be classes, economic exploitation, ideological conflict, if not the state itself. Through my work on the Soviet Union, especially in light of its achievement of socialism in the 1930s (my awareness of this reality also took time), I had begun to realise that contradictions do happen under socialism. So I was in the process of painstakingly tracking how Marxist thought came to terms with this reality.

Some of the other participants in the seminar were somewhat impatient with me. Of course, contradictions appear with socialism! Mao’s essay makes this very, very clear. But what sort of contradictions? Are not contradictions meant to indicate struggle and conflict? Many parts of the essay address the nature of contradictions and their relations to one another. But one of the most significant is the last part, concerning ‘non-antagonistic contradictions’. Here Mao picks up an idea that had begun to be explored in the Soviet Union, where classes were present under socialism, as well as tensions between the forces and relations of production. But Mao took it much further in light of Chinese philosophy. At one point, he quotes a four-character Chinese saying: xiangfan xiangcheng, ‘things that oppose each other also complement one another’. Thus, contradictions can always become antagonistic, leading to conflict, as one finds with events leading to a communist revolution. But they can also be non-antagonistic if they are handled properly. This is precisely Mao’s emphasis in an essay from 1957, in the early days of beginning to construct socialism. It is called ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’, in which he advises the party to focus on ensuring that the contradictions that exist should not become antagonistic.

The third moment made me realise how important this ‘contradiction analysis’ is in China today. I happened to be in Beijing during the nineteenth congress of the CPC in October 2017. The anticipation in China was palpable and more global attention was focused on this congress than any of the earlier ones. In a major speech of more than three hours, in which Xi Jinping outlined the shape of a whole new phase of Marxism in China, he identified a new primary contradiction: between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life. Not only did this approach straight out of Mao’s approach, but it also invoked a traditional four-character saying, meihua shenghuo, a beautiful and good life. It was now being claimed from a long tradition and being reinterpreted in a Marxist framework. By now my sense of what contradiction means in a Chinese context had a little depth, especially in light of the aim to become a great modern socialist country by the middle of the twenty-first century.

Socialist Market Economy

Over the years that I have been discussing, thinking about and studying the question of contradiction, I have also found myself pondering economic questions.

I initially tried to bring the two together – contradiction and economics – once I realised that socialism does have a distinct place in China rather than some rampant and unbridled form of capitalism. Still I relied on European categories to try to understand this situation, especially the Marxist who has influenced me in so many ways – Ernst Bloch. I began to argue that the primary contradiction (under Mao’s influence) is in fact socialism and capitalism. I explored a number of ways in which this might work, ending with the suggestion that subsequent modes of production do not cancel out the preceding ones. Instead, they absorb the contradictions of the earlier ones and transform them in the new context. If you can see this with capitalism, you could also argue that this dialectical process also takes place with socialism. So you would expect to see all manner of mechanisms and forms of capitalism appearing under socialism, especially in terms of unleashing the forces of production, but they would be transformed in the new framework. I still think that this particular point about modes of production holds and that it is a very Marxist approach. In many ways, it makes sense of what happened in the Soviet Union and it assists in understanding the process through which China is going – well beyond the Soviet Union.

However, I still could not make sense of a ‘socialist market economy’. Why? I assumed that a market economy is the same as capitalism and that if China had some form of market economy it must have some form of capitalism. This assumption is so ingrained among so many people, specialists or not, that it is difficult to challenge. For me, the penny dropped very slowly. I realise now that this assumption is actually a manifestation of what is called ‘economics imperialism’. This means that neoclassical economics – a major tradition for understanding capitalism – managed to forget its history and its social location. It became individualised and universalised, making claims about human nature as such. Human beings, they assume, are rational and self-interested actors, who will always make the best economic decision for themselves. Armed with this universal doctrine, they set about describing everything from psychology to religion as manifestations of economic activity. In short, we are capitalists by our very nature. This ‘economics imperialism’ also meant that you could use universal terms: neoclassical economics became simply ‘economics’, and a capitalist market economy became a ‘market economy’. Thus, wherever and whenever you can espy a market economy, you have capitalism in some form. This is a pervasive assumption that is simply wrong.

It certainly took a while for me to realise why. The first real step was actually historical. I had been engaged in research on the ancient world, specifically ancient Southwest Asia (often called the Ancient Near East) and the Greco-Roman world. I was seeking to develop a new economic model for understanding some four and a half thousand years of economic history. On the way, I discovered that markets had spread significantly under the Persians in the first millennium BCE and then under the Greeks and Romans. What sort of markets? Debate rages among those who are interested in such matters. Many simply assumed that they were capitalist markets – a little crude and primitive, but still capitalist. In this club, you find assumptions concerning the primacy of profit, supply and demand, the independence of the market economy, and so on. Others argued against this approach, pointing out that states played a determining role, that prices were not determined by supply and demand, and that such markets were socially embedded.

At a crucial point, I realised that this debate is futile, or rather, that it misses the mark. The reason: they were certainly market economies, but they were different beasts from capitalist market economies. Thus, the one fostered by the Persians can be called a logistical market economy, or perhaps a tax market economy. The Persians developed their particular market economy to deal with a logistical problem: how to provision armies. At some point, they hit on the idea of paying soldiers in coin (newly invented) and demanding taxes in coin. But how could the people get hold of the coins to pay taxes? Sell food, clothing and what have you to the soldiers on the move. If someone made a little profit on the side, then that was a secondary benefit.

The Greeks and then the Romans developed a different market economy. When ‘classical’ Greece emerged from the centuries-long period of so-called economic ‘collapse’ (if one assumes a ruling class perspective), they had developed a slave economy. Surplus for the ruling class was primarily generated through slaves, which every respectable Greek male citizen owned. But they had to get hold of slaves, which were sources in all manner of ways. For this purpose, slave markets developed, with massive market concentrations in the eastern Mediterranean. The Romans ‘perfected’ – if I can use such a term – this system so that we can speak of a slave market economy. The whole market economy was geared and shaped for the purpose of finding, transporting and selling slaves.

Here were two types of market economy that were clearly not capitalist, because profit was not the main driver and the whole capitalist surplus value certainly did not apply. This awareness led me to realise that most market economies throughout history have been anything but capitalist. Indeed, a capitalist market economy as we know it first began with the Dutch Empire in the sixteenth century.

By now the implications should be obvious for a socialist market economy. It too can develop in a way that is not capitalist, even in a global framework that can be seen as largely capitalist. How so? My thoughts on this are at the beginning stage, but I can indicate a number of features beyond my earlier musings.

To begin with, the old opposition between public (or state) and private ownership does not apply. This opposition has become a leitmotiv of those who try to determine whether an economy is more or less ‘socialistic’, so much so that a ‘socialist’ turn involves ‘nationalising’ key industries. This model is simply unusable in China, of not misleading. Thus, the percentage of public or private ownership is not a marker of whether a national economy is more or less socialistic. It takes some effort to get beyond this opposition, but let us try. In China, the fabled state-owned enterprises – the backbone of the economy – are undergoing a process of eradicating old inefficiencies by learning from ‘private’ enterprises and even entering into partnerships with those enterprises. At the same time, every enterprise, whether ‘private’ or ‘public’ – or rather the many enterprises with are part ‘private’ and ‘public’, village or local government owned enterprises, ‘new economic organisations’, start-ups and so on – with more than three CPC members must have a party organisation with an elected party secretary. This means that every enterprise with more than 100 employees must have a core CPC unit within it, exercising a managerial role. Even more, every foreign enterprise or multinational must also have a CPC unit at its core. If I add that the CEOs of China’s biggest companies are also members of the CPC, then we are beginning to understand what may be called ‘enmeshment’ – as is showing up significantly with the Belt and Road Initiative. Much more could be said on this topic (and it needs further research), but it is leading to creative efforts to rethink the situation in terms of a ‘commons’ that is far from any notion of a bourgeois civil society, or indeed the very idea of a socialist market economy itself that moves well beyond the bourgeois distinction of public and private ownership.[1]

Further, the capitalist ‘law’ of value does not apply to a socialist market economy.[2] The production of surplus value is not the determining feature of this market economy, or – if one wishes to put it in other terms – profit for the sake of profit, based on the autonomous dynamic of a ‘market, is not primary by any means (even with foreign influence since China has to deal with capitalist market economies). We might put it this way: under the law of value, ‘unprofitable’ industries would be shut down in favour of ‘profitable’ ones. But this is not the best way of putting it. Instead, the very idea of profitability is transformed. Instead of short-term analyses of whether a particular venture will return a profit, a longer view prevails in which a project is assessed in terms of its larger and long-term benefit – or ‘social surplus’. Again and again, I have been told by Chinese people involved in all manner of businesses that they must meet a whole series of criteria for business reporting. Of these, profit is only secondary. Of course, they must viable in terms of efficiency, paying employees and having resources for future activity, but the whole aim in not based on returns to shareholders. Instead, they are assessed in terms social benefit, environmental improvement, education, contribution to socialism with Chinese characteristics, among others.

The test-case here is the Belt and Road Initiative. This initiative is really an extension of the Chinese focus on infrastructure. As many know, China has been constructing new roads, bridges, schools, universities, accommodation, the world’s best rail network (including but not limited to the massive high-speed network), world-class internet, share economy, and so on. The Belt and Road Initiative is the global manifestation of this drive. It contrasts sharply with the ‘neoliberal’ emphasis on trying the produce money out of money through speculation. Anyone who visits the USA today can see the contrast, where infrastructure is literally crumbling. As one wit put it to me recently: North Korea has recently built a new international airport in Pyongyang, while the USA has not built a new one for a long time. Indeed, a neo-liberal assessment of infrastructure investment argues that it does produce ‘returns’ on investment in perhaps a ten-year period. This kind of analysis completely misses the point of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is long term and focused not merely on China’s benefits, but all those involved.[3]

A final note on what will no doubt be a much longer analysis. Much has been made in some quarters of the Chinese billionaires and the relatively high Gini coefficient (although it has been falling for a decade). This is one of the new contradictions – among others – that has arisen in the process of the reform and opening up. Chinese economists tell me that the approach followed is that the reform and opening up by no means complete, so this tension should be resolved with further reform. Three recent signs are telling. The first is the directive to Chinese companies investing abroad to shift their focus to the BRI, which they are now doing. This may be coupled with the fact that it is simply expected in Chinese culture that those who have benefitted will contribute to the wider social good, so we see a massive scale of contributions and systemic investment in education, medicine and so on. The second is the identification of the new contradiction at the nineteenth congress. The initial part of the contradiction speaks of ‘unbalanced and uneven development’. While this includes problems between city and country, and between east and west, part of this situation is relative wealth disparity. Finally, the renewed focus on the poverty alleviation program, which has been ongoing for forty years, is another signal of a concentration of attention on this problem.

Socialism is More Than Economics

I have spent quite some time with the socialist market economy. In doing so, I have fallen into the trap of economism. By this I mean that so many Marxists assume that the definition of socialism turns on economic matters. Or to use the base-superstructure model, the base is all that counts. This is simply vulgar Marxism.

By contrast, I have learned that socialism is far more than economics.

It includes culture, which has a long history indeed in China. Is Marxism simply a political ideology in China that has little bearing on people’s day-to-day lives? Not at all. This reality came home to me when speaking with some students about contradiction (yes, contradiction once again). They told me how they had been taught about contradiction analysis, implicitly in primary school and then explicitly in middle and high schools. But they also said that they lived their lives according to contradiction. This is how they understand the world, how they comprehend and interpret what happens in their lives. This was one manifestation of the away socialism has entered into the fabric of Chinese culture, so much so that the claim that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has a 2,000-year history gains some meaning. In other words, the CPC and the socialism it fosters is the nurturer and bearer of Chinese culture today.

What about society? I could mention the development of a whole new dimension of Chinese society that has benefitted from the poverty alleviation program of the last forty years (700 million lifted out of poverty and counting). Some might call this a ‘middle class’, but this is really a place-holder until we find a better term. I could also mention the new problems that have arisen in terms of city and countryside, with a massive and controlled movement of people to the cities (some 250 million country people work regularly in the cities). But I will focus here on what are called ‘core socialist values’. This shows up particularly in the intersection between traditional Chinese ethics and socialist ethics, or rather, in the transformation of the former in light of the latter. Thus, a communist party member, or indeed anyone in a responsible role in society, has a higher ethical expectation. One must focus on the good of others rather than seek personal gain, be scrupulously honest and direct, living a simple life. This is what ‘communist’ means in China. No wonder that the problem with corruption not five years ago was such a deep problem, until the thorough and ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has restored the standing of the CPC among the people. No wonder that the fall for someone who does meet these expectations is so great. And no wonder that the expectations of the CPC are so high.

Ideology is also crucial, but since the term can have negative connotations for some, perhaps I should speak of theory. On this score, the last five years have been particularly important. Compulsory education for all students in schools and universities is undergoing a complete overhaul so that the courses on Marxism and socialism with Chinese characteristics are relevant to the daily lives of students. I must admit that I am intrigued by the fact that even when they are taught badly they still influence the lives of students in ways that even they do not expect (see above on contradiction) But if they are taught well, as in increasingly the case, the impact is even greater. You also find that all party members (dangyuan) must meet monthly to study an essay from Xi Jinping. The purpose is obvious: to raise the theoretical knowledge of party members. They also need to undertake regular refresher courses in the party schools dotted about the country. On this matter my colours come out more clearly (if they are not already clear). I think this is a fantastic development, especially in light of the old communist saying: without theory we are dead.

Political matters are also important, but this should be obvious. The CPC is the ruling party of the country. But it now has a radically increased theoretical level, a strict disciplinary emphasis, and a distinct confidence and strength that was not so evident five or more years ago.

These many dimensions of socialism, of which I have gradually become aware in China, indicate that one needs to be more comprehensive in assessing socialism itself. Recently, I was asked by China’s leading political economist whether I think the Soviet Union was a socialist society. I pondered the question and mentioned that one needs to assess the many facets I have outlined – economics, culture, society, ideology, politics. If we weigh these factors up, then yes, the Soviet Union was socialist. The implication: China today is socialist, far more than I ever anticipated.

The New Era

Not a few weeks before writing this piece (November 2017), the nineteenth congress of the CPC took place in Beijing. I was in China at the time and followed the congress very closely. Among its many features, ranging from Xi Jinping Thought becoming part of the constitution of the CPC, through identifying a new primary contradiction, to setting a target for becoming a great modern socialist country by 2050, I was struck by the way Marxism was front and centre of Xi Jinping’s presentation. This was simply not a problem for Chinese people. Chinese socialism was identified as entering a new era, so people set about discussing what this means.

Perhaps it is best to go back to Deng Xiaoping’s insight. To be sure, the designation of Xi Jinping Thought evokes Mao Zedong Thought – sixiang, thought, only attaches to two of China’s communist leaders. But the genius of Deng lies behind it. He was the one who picked up the threads after Mao’s deviation and the great forgetting during the Cultural Revolution. What is socialism? For Deng it is not some liberal notion of equality – what Engels’s calls gleichheitskommunismus, or egalitarian communism – in which everyone is equally poor. Instead, socialism is about the unleashing of the forces of production so that everyone’s lives improves. Improvement not merely in economic terms, but also culturally, spiritually, socially, ideologically and politically. This is the meaning of socialism with Chinese characteristics (zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi), of Marxism transformed in a Chinese situation (Makesizhuyi zhongguohua), and the desire for a better life (meihua shenghuo).

Of course, the problem with writing a piece such as this is that I may be seen as a mouthpiece of the CPC. But then people who work for Confucius Institutes are also called such names. That aside, it is clear that an immense amount of effort and research on these questions continues in China. And it is clear that the CPC is absolutely serious about its project.

[1] There is much debate about how a socialist market economy has come about. Proposals include: distinct planning by the CPC; clear distinction from Yugoslav ‘market socialism’; shifting policies in response to new developments; and – intriguingly – happenstance as the by-product of other policies.

[2] A useful starting point for the law of value under socialism is Stalin’s ‘Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’ from 1952. He has a brief discussion of value, although China’s situation has developed well beyond the Soviet Union and is much more complex.

[3] As Michael Roberts puts it: ‘This also lends the lie to the common idea among some Marxist economists that China’s export of capital to invest in projects abroad is the product of the need to absorb ‘surplus capital’ at home, similar to the export of capital by the capitalist economies before 1914 that Lenin presented as key feature of imperialism. China is not investing abroad through its state companies because of ‘excess capital’ or even because the rate of profit in state and capitalist enterprises has been falling’.

 

An article of faith among some ‘Western’ Marxists is that the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76) expressed the core communist position of Mao Zedong, indeed when communism itself began to be realised. Subsequently, the ‘revisionist’ Deng Xiaoping undid Mao’s legacy, engineered an about-turn and set out on the road to capitalism. After all, did not Mao dub him a ‘bourgeois’ and a ‘capitalist roader’? Case closed …

What if this is a misreading of the situation, part of the myopia or narrative of betrayal characteristic of much European-derived historiography?

After some fascinating discussions and much rethinking as a result, I have come to change my mind on this period. I used to argue that the Great Cultural Revolution was a necessary process that shook up China from top to bottom so that the reform and opening up could happen afterwards. I thought this was enough of a challenge to misguided ‘Western’ efforts, but every Chinese person to whom I have mentioned this theory has looked doubtful indeed. Instead, I have come to appreciate the carefully argued position of the vast majority of my Chinese interlocutors. Thus, in his old age Mao lost his way and it was only after the turmoil and destruction of the time that the line he had developed earlier was taken up again. In other words, the continuity was from Mao’s earlier thought, up the early 1960s, to Deng Xiaoping and afterwards. In between was the deviation.

There are a number of ways to understand this proposal.

One is to deploy a conventional communist approach and call it a phase of revisionism or perhaps opportunism. I do not need to go into the details of what revisionism entails, suffice to note that it marks a departure from the main line that had been agreed upon before. So it was with Mao in the mid-1960s. There is some merit to such an argument, since it counters the ‘Western’ claim that Deng Xiaoping was the revisionist. However, the catch with using such a category is that the main line itself shifts depending on the situation, so what counts as ‘revisionist’ also shifts. And it depends on who is deciding what counts as the core, for each side in crucial debates will call each other revisionist.

A second suggestion is that Mao fell into the trap of becoming a quasi-emperor (huangdi). After all, it had barely been more than 50 years earlier that the imperial system itself was finally abolished, a system with a long history indeed in China, with its associated cultural assumptions. Thus, during the Cultural Revolution the deference to Mao, the belief that he could make no mistakes, indeed the ‘faith [xinxin]’ in him all indicate such a development. And there was also the reality that Mao, the revolutionary leader, would not hand over the near solitary power he had attained in his old age until he died.

A third approach is to point out that the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism took over during this time. This is an absolutely necessary feature of Marxism, with its focus on the ‘heart’, on feelings and emotions, on idealism and hope. But it should always be in close connection with the ‘cold stream’, the one of rational and scientific analysis of any situation. At their best, we find such combinations in Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin and the communist party the latter two led. And we find it with Mao before the mid-1960s. But after that, the warm stream dominated, revolutionary fervour leapt ahead of careful analysis of the situation, disaster loomed and much suffering ensued.

A fourth suggestion concerns the tension between old and new. A revolutionary movement like communism obviously seeks to abolish the old and replace it with what is new, for otherwise one would not undertake revolutionary action. The problem, however, is how one relates to what has gone before. One side seeks to abolish everything related to the old order: its economics, politics, ideology, culture. After a revolutionary period, one begins completely anew. Another side argues that one cannot simply build from scratch, but one must build on the foundations of the old. Indeed, all that is best in the old order needs to be taken up and transformed dialectically within the new. This debate raged after the Russian revolution, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks eventually siding with the second approach and one finds it also in its own way in relation to the Chinese revolution. Mao evinces both dimensions in his thoughts and actions. At times, he argues that Marxism cannot be understood without the concrete situation in China, in terms of its long history and its culture – from ‘Confucius to Sun Yat-sen’ he observes in 1938, ‘we must sum it up critically, and we must constitute ourselves the heirs to this precious legacy’. This is the basis for the sinification of Marxism (Makesizhuyi zhongguohua) that would be taken up again after the Cultural Revolution by Deng Xiaoping. Obviously, the period of the Cultural Revolution was a break from this approach, giving vent to Mao’s tendency at times to abolish all that had gone before.

A fifth angle is to point out that Mao lost sight of some of his crucial earlier insights. I think in particular of the category of ‘non-contradictory contradictions [feiduikangxing maodun]’. Mao picked up this idea from Soviet debates during the intense period of study at Yan’an in the 1930s. The Soviet communists had begun developing the idea to deal with the question of contradictions under socialism. Mao seized upon it in his lectures on dialectical materialism at the time and it became the final section of his crucial essay ‘On Contradiction’. Why? The idea of non-antagonistic contradictions connected with a long tradition in Chinese philosophy, which gave Mao the opportunity to develop the theoretical foundations of sinified Marxism. Twenty years later, he developed the idea much further in the essay, ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’. Here he pointed out that contradictions under socialism would certainly continue, but they need to be addressed so that they do not become antagonistic and lead to struggle and conflict. This essay appeared in 1957, after the revolution and in the early stage of beginning to construct socialism. However, a decade later he clearly forgot this key insight, instigating antagonistic contradictions in the name of inner-party class struggle.

As I mentioned at the beginning, these different angles – which are not mutually exclusive – arose from a series of intense and very open discussions about the Cultural Revolution. And I have found that it a very rare person indeed in China who wishes to defend Mao’s mistake in his last years.

Perhaps Xi Jinping expressed it best in 2013: ‘Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings. We cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great; neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes’.

What a time to be in China! What a time indeed.

Happenstance would have it that I was in Beijing for the nineteenth congress of the Communist Party of China. Usually, such events barely raise interest outside China, except perhaps for the rare Marxist actually interested in the place or – that ambivalent term – a ‘China hand’. And if some foreign commentator happens to notice, they will trot out some rusty formulae concerning arcane language, obtuse signals and look for signs of a ‘totalitarian’ state – without trying to find out much real information.

Not this time.

Something big was afoot. Everywhere I went in China in the weeks leading up the congress I encountered banners, signs and posters. ‘Welcome to the 19th congress of the CPC’, one said. ‘Study carefully Xi Jinping’s writings’, said another. ‘The 19th congress will lead to a better life [meihua shenghuo]’, said a third, invoking an ancient Chinese saying.

Security was tight, very tight. Internet systems were down or slow. Foreigners found themselves asked for passports and even urine samples if they happened to frequent expat bars (I avoid them). Almost one million citizen groups in Beijing were mobilised to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Let alone the party members in town who had plain-clothes guard duty rosters for the lead-up and duration of the congress. Even social networking was tightened up: you could not change any item on your profile on wechat until the end of October.

In this buzz I zeroed in on the many levels of information available.

On the 18th of October, the congress began, with Xi Jinping slated to give a speech. And what a speech it was: 205 minutes non-stop, or 3 hours and 25 minutes. Clearly, the most important speech in his 63 years.

But what did he say?

Marxism has roared back to the centre of Chinese thought, policy and direction for the future. Not a mean achievement, especially after it seemed to be somewhat soft-pedalled not five years or more ago, before Xi became chairman (zhuxi, also translated as ‘president’). Marxism would be – no, is – the guiding light, the beacon to the future.

Marxist political economy is setting the agenda for a very different economic approach. This is called a socialist market economy – and the Chinese are very serious about what is an increasingly clear alternative to a capitalist market economy. The speech outlined five main factors: 1) furthering supply-side structural reform; 2) fostering innovation at all levels to increase China’s global leadership; 3) rural revitalisation; 4) coordinated regional development; 5) further opening up on all fronts. And the institutional mechanisms for each are already established.

But let me emphasise the following dimensions underlying this socialist market economy. The model clearly being followed is an alternative to neo-liberalism, which loves financial speculation and estimates based on short-term profit yields. Instead, the Chinese model takes the long view. Infrastructure is the key, within China and without. Think of the Belt and Road Initiative, already to reshape the world, let alone seeking to reshape the uneven development of China internally (focused on the western parts).

Further, the simplistic opposition between ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors of the economy is now obsolete. For example, any ‘private’ company of over 100 employees has a core communist party cell. Each multinational company that wishes to engage with China – and so many do – must have a communist cell within it. What do we call this approach? I prefer to call it an ‘enmeshed’ economy, in which the CPC is interwoven with an equally interwoven ‘public’ and ‘private’ sector. What appears initially to be a ‘private’ economic project is inescapably enmeshed with the CPC, while the ‘public’ companies (SOEs) are being revitalised by active interaction with the ‘private’ ones. Even more, the mighty SOEs, revamped and more efficient, are starting to become multi-nationals themselves through many projects. Obviously, this has significant global implications.

But Marxism is much more than economics. Let me give a few examples.

1. The speech calls for an ‘ecological civilisation’, drawing deeply on cultural assumptions concerning the harmony of nature as ‘shanshui’, ‘mountain-water’, but also modern Marxist approaches.

2. ‘Core socialist values’ is a key, stressing the fact that ethics is a crucial component of Chinese Marxism, which should permeate all levels of society even more.

3. Strengthening the mechanisms by which the people run the country, which means developing further a distinctly Marxist tradition of socialist democracy.

4. A ‘socialist rule of law’ (shehuizhuyi fazhi), in which everyone is subject to the law. Obviously, this has affinities with a European-derived ‘rule of law’, although that tradition really means a whole structure developed to buttress capitalism. This is why the speech emphasised a socialist rule of law. It is being developed as system to ensure the development of socialism, while at the same making it clear that no-one is above this law within this framework.

5. Bold innovation by artists, writers, journalists, philosophers, social scientists and scientists, so that they not only contribute decisively to the country but also to the world.

Apart from the details in the speech, one of the more fascinating aspects for me was that it followed in its structure a familiar pattern from the Marxist tradition. Look back at Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Deng and others, and you will find that important speeches like this begin with an assessment of achievements (this one since the eighteenth party congress five years ago). While it identifies significant achievements, it also stresses – in the tradition of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ – where problems have arisen. The next two parts deal with national and international concerns. Xi’s speech on this occasion focused more on internal concerns, which is to be expected. But he certainly did not neglect the international picture: the armed forces would continue to be modernised for the country’s own security in an international context and China would continue to pursue the peaceful policy of a ‘shared future for humanity’.

In all these speeches, the last part deals with the communist party itself. Xi’s tenure began with a strong desire by party leaders that he would deal with significant problems: corruption, factionalism, brewing coups, lack of unity, inadequate theoretical knowledge. On all fronts, Xi has driven through major reforms, so that his statements concerning the party’s ability to govern and lead, and the need for full, rigorous and strict governance over the party were certainly not empty phrases. More work obviously needs to be done, which he stressed, but the communist party has begun to emerge as stronger, more disciplined, unified and confident. It will be even more at the centre of power. As Xi put it, the ‘defining feature’ and ‘greatest strength’ of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the communist party. The party is the ‘highest force for political leadership’.

For some time now, Xi Jinping has been emphasising the ‘two centenary goals’ (2021 and 2049), the ‘Chinese dream’ and its concrete manifestation in global projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. These were in the speech as well, but with greater clarity. The first centenary goal – of the CPC itself – is still there, of building a xiaokang shehui, an old Confucian term infused with Marxist meaning and translated as ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’. Given that this is around the corner, Xi’s sights are set further in the future. To achieve the second centenary goal, he laid out two steps.

2020-2035: Full ‘socialist modernisation [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua]’, or more fully a ‘socialistically modernised country’ [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua guojia]. This phrase captures all of the policies outlined in the speech, but it also marks a shift from his earlier pronouncements. He used to speak of socialist modernisation being achieved by the second centenary goal, marking 100 years since the establishment of the people’s republic. Now the aim has been brought forward to 2035.

2035-2050: building on the previous achievement and developing China into a ‘great modern socialist country’. This country will be strong, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful. Only when this has been achieved can China begin moving beyond the ‘primary stage’ of socialism in which it still finds itself.

A tall and ambitious agenda indeed, but Xi and those around him as ‘the core’ have a reputation for getting things done. Crucial for understanding this revised plan is the observation, ‘based on a comprehensive analysis of the international and domestic environments’. Clearly, the rapidly shifting global situation, with the accelerating decline of the United States and ongoing turmoil and instability in Europe, along with world-shaping projects like the BRI and China’s increasing involvement around the world, the time has been judged right for the emergence of a ‘great modern socialist country’ by the middle of this century. It also means that China would become the most powerful country in the world, and thereby the most powerful socialist country in human history.

This is not to say that road ahead will be easy – far from it!

A crucial part of the speech identified a new primary contradiction: ‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’. This is straight out of the ‘contradiction analysis’ approach that Mao first elaborated in Yan’an in 1937, showing that Marxist dialectics in a Chinese frame is still front and centre of government policies. Not only is there a primary or most important contradiction in any situation, but this contradiction may shift in terms of the weight given to either side, or it may become secondary as a new primary contradiction emerges. Thus, the earlier primary contradiction, articulated by Deng Xiaoping, identified a tension between the people’s social and cultural needs and the backward economic forces. With China’s forty-year reform and opening-up, it has been decided – through careful analysis – that this earlier contradiction has become secondary.

But what does the new primary contradiction mean? Unbalanced and inadequate development signals the complex problems of world-leading development in the more eastern parts of China and the lag in western parts, with resultant gaps between rich and poor, city and countryside. Obviously, the new contradiction targets these issues more directly. And the people’s every growing need for a better life – an old Chinese term meihua shenghuo – applies to everyone, especially in western parts. Hence the targeted poverty alleviation program that has been accelerated, hence the BRI, hence the focus on the full range of what a ‘better life’ means. But the need for a better life also identifies with the core idea that socialism is primarily about improving the economic, social and cultural lives of everyone. Until this contradiction is resolved, China clearly remains in the primary stage of socialism.

At the same time, it signals a profoundly new era. This theme came through again and again in the report: China and its socialism have entered a new era. The trick here is to indicate profound continuity with the past, while also taking it all into a new stage. It is not for nothing that it has been called ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era [xindedai zhongguotese shehuizhuyi sixiang]’.

Or ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ for short. Only Mao’s thought has until now been designated with the description sixiang, thought. Even Deng’s important but briefer reflections were designated only as lilun, theory. Xi Jinping Thought has now been written into the constitution of the Communist Party of China.

At one point, I woke in the middle of the night and realised that this moment, in October 2017, will turn out to be as significant at the moment in Yan’an some 80 years ago when Mao Zedong Thought was first formally identified.

I have spent some time with all of this, not least because foreign ‘China watchers’ have tended to focus on international relations, the strength of the communist party, and above all Xi’s own power. Obviously, this emphasis skews much of what the speech contained, both in terms of continuity with Xi’s earlier elaborations and the new directions. I leave aside the silly tropes of ‘jargon’, ‘coded’ language, or ‘grand theatre’ that are routinely trotted out.

But what was the response of people around China? I could mention the millions that watched the speech live, or the flurry of wechat and weibo posts about it. But one experience said it all for me. I decided to go to the local Xinhua bookshop, the official government one. At the front desk, I asked where Xi Jinping’s works were kept. The woman at the desk smiled and pointed upstairs.

There before me was a massive table laden with Xi Jinping’s publications. And at the forefront were various editions of the speech itself, only days after it was delivered. I struggled to find room to look at the publications, so crowded was the table. Eventually I managed to get hold of one copy, as well as a number of Xi’s other publications. For whatever reasons, people were snapping up the printed form of the speech. I simply could not imagine this happening anywhere else.

The new politburo of the most powerful communist party in human history recently restated the oath of admission to the CPC. This was at the site of the first meeting of the CPC back in 1921.

The English version of the oath:

It is my will to join the Communist Party of China, uphold the Party’s program, observe the provisions of the Party Constitution, fulfill a Party member’s duties, carry out the Party’s decisions, strictly observe Party discipline, guard Party secrets, be loyal to the Party, work hard, fight for communism throughout my life, be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the Party and the people, and never betray the Party.

Stirring stuff.

A video of the event can be found here.

A useful piece for those interested in the central function of Marxist contradiction analysis in a Chinese situation. Xi Jinping recently announced that the primary contradiction has now changed, ushering in a new era. And if you are still interested, it is worth reading (again) Mao’s two pieces, ‘On Contradiction‘ and ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People‘. Crucial here is managing contradictions so that they remain non-antagonistic.

An insightful interview with Yukon Huang in the Global Times, who has recently published Cracking the China Conundrum: Why Conventional Economic Wisdom is Wrong (2017). Crucial here is that neo-classical economic theory is unable to make sense of China’s socialist market economy. So read the interview and then the book. Some excellent points, but also could go further.

Next Page »