Following on his statement that philosophy and the social sciences should flourish in China, Chairman Xi Jinping has made a major statement on the nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics (you can use the automatic translator in some search engines if needed).

On 12 July, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague made a non-binding ruling concerning the Law of the Sea. The former regime of the Philippines (under Aquino) had made a unilateral application to have the Nanhai Zhudao (South China Sea Islands, known in English as the Spratley Islands) declared rocks rather than islands and therefore solely under its jurisdiction. The tribunal found in favour of the Philippines, which has led to the inevitable flurry of arguments back and forth. China indicated from the beginning that a ruling either way would have no impact or force. Taiwan has rejected the finding as well, since it lays claim to some of the islands, as does Vietnam. Of course, spokespersons in the USA and Australia are huffing and puffing about the ‘law of the sea’ and ‘freedom of navigation’.

So let us backtrack a little to get some perspective on the so-called ‘freedom of the seas’. The argument dates back to the ingenious Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). He was called upon by the Dutch East India Company to find some way of justifying the capture of the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina by the Dutch captain, Jabob van Heemskerck, on February 25, 1603. The seized cargo was sold in Amsterdam later that year for no less than three million Dutch guilders. It increased the coffers of the Company by fifty percent.

Obviously, much was at stake. Grotius musters all his legal, philosophical and theological to pen De jure Praedae (Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty). Two elaborate and key arguments were made with relevance to the current situation.

First, using all his Eurocentric assumptions, Grotius argues that possession of land and sea could only be claimed if there was evidence of human activity involving construction or the definition of boundaries. Wharves and jetties on shore may be fine, but on the open seas it is another matter entirely. Crucially, this argument is part of a much longer effort to retell the story of Genesis 1-3 so as to show that God willed and ordered private property and a universal ‘natural law’.

Second, he argues – good Armenian theologian that he was – that an individual is responsible for good and evil. This also means that an individual can punish evil and recompense good, subject of course to the universal principles established by God. Thus, Dutch mariners on their gunboats-cum-merchant ships were justified in seizing Portuguese ships. He does not mean a fleet of Dutch war ships under the direction of the government but individual captains working for a private company in the distant seas of the Indies, far from the practices of Western European customs and laws. As rational, free-willing actors, the Portuguese had willingly violated the laws of nature by claiming the seas as their own, but the Dutch captain also acted in accordance with those principles by punishing them for such an act.

What did the hard-headed directors of the Dutch East India Company make of all this? They were somewhat nonplussed by the deft philosophical, theological and legal arguments, peppered with quotations from classical Greek and Roman authors. Instead, they seized on a section and published it in 1609, with the title Mare Liberum (On the Freedom of the Seas). Another 250 years had to pass before the whole text was accidentally discovered.

These directors saw clearly that all of Grotius’s complex arguments were really propaganda. ‘Freedom of the seas’ really meant that the gunboats of the Dutch East India Company could sail where they wanted and seize who they wanted. A convenient argument that has been used ever since, whether by the British Empire or now the declining American Empire.

To return to the current situation concerning the South China Sea. Back in 1603, the Santa Catarina had been on its way from Macau to Malacca, laden with Ming porcelain, Chinese silk, musk and so on. Heemskerk seized the ship just off Singapore, after it had passed through the South China Sea. Further, the ship may have been Portuguese, but at the time Portugal was part of the Spanish Empire. And it was the Spanish who colonised the Philippines in 1565.

In 2016 we have China, a former Spanish colony (the Philippines), and the South China Sea, where a significant portion of the world’s shipping once again can be found. And the ‘arbitration’ takes place in The Hague, the Netherlands, where the Dutch East India Company first sought to develop the international law of the ‘freedom of the seas’ for its own purposes.

I cannot help thinking of Marx’s observation, ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce‘.

Haven’t been blogging here as regularly as I would have liked, so I hope to be in form from now on. One of the great things about having Marxism as the state position, as well as having it as part of one’s culture, is the way it shows up regularly even in the dictionary. Nearly every second word I look up has a distinctly Chinese Marxist moment. Let me give ope or two examples.

Correct (xu) leads to yishudaishi: ‘Let correct ideology guide practical work’. Or we have bupianjiubi, ‘rectify a deviation and correct an error’.

Reform (gaige) yields gaige kaifeng: ‘reform and opening up’.

Look (kan) ends up with ba renmin de liyi kan de gaoyu yiqie: ‘put the interests of the people above all else’.

And step or walk (zou) gives us zou shihuizhuyi daolu, ‘take the socialist road’, or indeed zou qunzhong luxian, ‘follow the mass line’.

Many, many more …

Amidst all the brouhaha over Brexit, it might be worth getting some perspective. Some preach doom, while others point out that the island off the western peninsula of the Eurasian land-mass means little for places like Australia (a couple of percentage points on the trade register). So it’s worth checking out a few other places for their angle on things. Needless to say, Sputnik is full of gleeful analysis – not surprising since the Russians have been providing assistance to the anti-EU parties across Europe. Before we read this as some sinister project, it may be worth recalling the ‘color’ revolutions, which marked the outsourcing by Washington of regime change to NGOs et al. As Losurdo points out (in Non-Violence: A History Beyond Myth), they first tried their hand in China in 1989, but failed there due to the patience and restraint of the Chinese government (so also with Tibet). Since then, the ‘color’ project has refined its skills and toppled popularly supported governments where desired. So the Russians have learned a thing or two and have been busy seeking to undermine the EU and NATO in their own way.

But all this misses what is really going on, since it assumes Europe is in some way still a global centre. A look at the two main Chinese newspapers gives a hint. Xinhua news on 2016.06.24 has three feature stories: on the most recent meeting between Chairman Xi Jinping and President Putin regarding the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; an article on Putin regarding the revitalised Silk Road; an hour-long exclusive interview with Putin by the head of Xinhua news. Meanwhile, the People’s Daily features the meeting between Xi Jinping and Putin ahead of the Brexit news. In other words, there is much more of importance going in the world than the decision of a small island to leave the EU. I suggest that this is (along with Donald Trump – who really embodies the truth of US-style bourgeois democracy) yet another a signal of the substantial shift, which has been underway for at least a decade, in economic and political power from the Atlantic to Asia.

But I have more important things to consider, since on the same day as the Brexit vote happened, my second grandson was born. Felix Hendrik Boer is his name – and what a fantastic name it is, full of grandeur.

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I am developing a sustained research project with some leading Marxist scholars in China – at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Renmin University and Fudan University. It is simply called ‘Socialism in Power’ and reflects a major development of my recent work. We seek to provide the philosophical framework for some underdeveloped categories of Marxist analysis in the crucial period of socialism in power, or what may be called ‘After October’. This is very much an international project, with key Marxist critics in China, Europe, Russia and Australia engaged for the long term.

The project also arises from an initial project called ‘The International Discourse on Chinese Marxism’. The conference in April 2016 gained major news coverage in China in the leading newspapers.

At this early stage of our thought, the project involves the following topics.

1. Contradiction

Chairman Mao’s works, ‘On Contradiction’ (1937) and ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’ (1957) remain very relevant, if not more relevant for today. Contradiction theory is a central feature of Marxism, running through the thought of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Mao and beyond. In particular, Chairman Mao’s contribution was to show how contradictions would continue under socialism. Reinterpreted for today, this has profound implications for understandings the contradictions between socialism and capitalism, as well as with other modes of production. (Note: in March-April of 2017 I will be running a postgraduate seminar at Renmin University on contradiction.)

2. Justice

The period of the reform and opening (gaige kaifeng) in China has has not only intensified the contradictions between socialism and capitalism, but it has also raised the crucial question of justice (and equality) for China today. This should be understood in light of both 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 make a new contribution to China’s current situation and to international Marxist theory.

3. Socialist State

Relatively little systematic work has been undertaken on the theory of the socialist state, which differs significantly from the bourgeois nation-state, or indeed any other form of the state. The experience of the socialist state in China provides ample material for constructing a theory of such a state – well beyond Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917). The major features of this analysis will include: whether the state is a neutral tool used by one or more classes, or whether the state changes its deeper structures in light of capitalism or socialism; the primacy of class in analysing the state; reinterpreting the category of ‘dictatorship of proletariat and peasants’; nationalities policies (here the question of justice is central); reconsidering the cultural effect of Marxism; the role of a socialist state in anti-colonial struggles; the need to deal with the ever-changing nature of anti-socialist forces; the integral role of the communist party in governing a socialist state; the need for a strong state.

4. Socialist Civil Society

In a socialist state we find the growth of socialist civil society. 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 new way, in the dialectical space between official discourse and individual expression, in which the individual finds freedom through the collective. Indeed, socialist civil society is based on a redefinition of freedom, which provides a new universal based on the particularity of the majority, in an explicitly open way. This freedom is a freedom from bourgeois civil society and freedom for the socialist project. Eventually, the category of freedom itself will become an everyday habit.

5. Socialist Democracy

A socialist state develops socialist democracy, which must be understood in a very different way from other forms of democracy. It stands in contrast to Greek democracy, liberal (or bourgeois) or 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, as Mao Zedong pointed out, include – among others – stages of new democracy, authoritarian communism, democratic dictatorship and democratic centralism.

6. The Party

Integral to socialist democracy is the communist party, which should be understood in light of the dialectic of immanence and transcendence. Against a common Marxist (and indeed liberal) tendency to focus on immanence in the modern era, this project investigates the role of transcendence within the dialectic. At the same time, we also distinguish between ontological and temporal transcendence in seeking to reconfigure the importance of the party.

7. Need for Comparison

It will become necessary to undertake historical comparisons between different types of Marxist socialist theory. While the core principles of Marxism remain the same, their expression, language and practice develop different types of Marxism with national characteristics. Thus, comparison with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe will be helpful, as also comparison with Latin American socialism. This will require specialists in these areas. We envisage that the first step in comparison will be to include specialists in Soviet-Chinese studies, who will form a distinct part of the larger project.


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 belated farewell from a place that has really become my second home. We paid our respects to Chairman Mao (me for the second time) and had a bon voyage party. But I will be back in September, with a fancy title (distinguished research professor) and a new project with some of China’s leading Marxist scholars on socialism in power.

This is a photograph of Mao at al, acquired after visiting the mausoleum in the centre of Chinese communist power in Tiananmen Square:

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And these are some of the students at the bon voyage party:

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Many of them will become the leaders of China in the future.

This is arguably the most interesting sign I have seen in my many travels in China. I found it over a urinal while walking the back streets of Nanjing in search of yet another section of the 700 year old city wall (do not ask me why I was in a urinal with a camera …).

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