And here is a sample video to see how I might go. I must admit I like the second one better.

With the China Road conference over (turned out to be a great event, although it took me a few days to recover – more later), I am turning my attention to producing a MOOC on Chinese Marxism. My paper at the conference concerned precisely this, so I copy the paper below (minus the interviews):

Let me begin with a conversation from earlier this year. I was meeting with the head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Newcastle.

‘The Vice-Chancellor wants to know if are interested in doing something’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘She would like you to put together a MOOC on Chinese Marxism’, she said.

‘A MOOC?’ I asked. ‘Chinese Marxism?’ Both items were a little puzzling for me.

I had no idea what a MOOC is. I do know more about Chinese Marxism, but I was surprised the Vice-Chancellor had asked me to construct a MOOC on this topic.

And so began a steep learning curve, which I would like to discuss today.

Before I proceed, a question may have arisen in some of your minds: how can I speak at all on such a topic on which so many people know so much more than me? I may have a position in China (at Renmin University of China), where I spend 3-4 months a year, but still …

So let me quote from a Chinese poem, written by Su Shi (苏轼) from the Song Dynasty. It is actually called 题西林壁 ( Tí xīlín bì), or ‘Written on the wall of the West Forest temple’.  This was given to me by someone who is present at this conference. In Chinese, it reads (powerpoint):





Héng Kàn chéng lǐng cè chéng fēng,
Yuǎn jìn gāo dī gè bù tóng.
Bù zhī Lúshān zhēn miàn mù,
Zhǐ yuán shēn zài cǐ shān zhōng.

Sideways a mountain range, vertically a peak.
Far-near, soaring-crouching, never the same.
No way to know Lushan’s true face
When you’re in the middle of this mountain!

In other words, Lu Mountain may look different depending on the angle, light, distance, and so on. But you cannot see the whole of Lu Mountain if you are inside it.

Why a MOOC?

My first question concerns a MOOC itself. I tend to avoid such matters and keep myself at a distance from new developments. But I soon found out that MOOC means Massive Open Online Course, but this did not help me that much. Does not the university already record all of thousands of lectures? Why would I engage in producing yet another one to join the mix? I imagined huge amounts of background research, hunting down material, and then hour upon hour of lectures in front of a camera.

But no (and forgive me for covering material that some of you know), a MOOC if far from such a format. To begin with, the course is usually open to anyone and everyone to join. No fees apply to enrol. If a person enrolled does want a certificate for completing the course, then it may be possible to charge a small fee ($20-30).

So what are the purposes of such a MOOC? The purposes are mixed. It seeks to return to an old idea: education should be free for everyone. It should not be restricted by fees, entry examinations, and the many restrictions that seem to apply in our day. With this purpose, I can only agree, given my own social and political preferences. The only prerequisite for such a course should be curiosity and a desire to learn something new.

Another purpose concerns a relatively modern concept – branding. This is to provide a unique identity for a younger university that is making its mark on the world stage. In this case, knowledge becomes a commodity, if not the university itself, a situation I am not so keen on. Then again, as I have said from time to time, Marxism pays.

A third and related purpose is to publicise what the university does. How is the University of Newcastle different from every other university in Australia, let alone the world? Here the Vice-Chancellor was certainly onto something. Outside China, one would be hard put to find a research concentration on Marxism, let alone Chinese Marxism. But this is the case. Indeed, PhD students come from China (and indeed around the world) to study various types of Marxism at the University of Newcastle. Currently, we have students from Samoa, Egypt, Norway, Indonesia, and China, who are here doing exactly that. Yes, students of Marxism come from China to the University of Newcastle to undertake rigorous and sustained research on Marxism.

So a MOOC would be a good idea.

Constructing a MOOC

How does one go about constructing a MOOC? I soon found out that a MOOC involves 5-7 minute presentations rather than hour-long lectures. More like an online how-to video, I thought. I had consulted such videos when I doing some tiling a while back. In 5-7 minutes you can really make only one or two major points.

Would I just get in front of a camera and talk? Again, not really. A MOOC requires a clear topic, a useful prop (visual), key content, and activities. This I learnt from talking with some of the technical experts at the university.

[How to assess the work of a MOOC? It soon became apparent that old-fashioned written assignments would not work. What if 1,000 people enrol, or even 10,000? This would entail endless hours of reading through everything written. Clearly, not an option. It would require types of assessment that could be automated. Or those that made the most of newer approaches to knowledge, in which students contribute as much as the one delivering the course (wiki style). It would need discussion groups, which in turn require a moderator.]

All of these factors entailed a complete rethink as to how I might go about constructing a MOOC.

Where to begin?

I began by setting myself a target of 18 presentations of 5-7 minutes.

Next question: what should be the focus? Here endless possibilities presented themselves. I could focus on Mao Zedong and the early history of Chinese Marxism. I could focus on developments in Marxist philosophy in China (I have recently convened a conference on this topic in Beijing, in April this year). I could focus on the practice of socialism. Or I could focus on the situation in China today.

I decided on the last topic: Marxism in China today.


On more than one occasion, I have been asked: is China really Marxist or socialist today? Does anyone believe in Marxism in China today (strange question, for what does ‘believe’ mean)?

Above all, I have been struck by the lack of knowledge among people outside China concerning Marxism in China today. Many assume it ended with the death of Mao Zedong – if they know about it at all.

All of this raises the question of a potential audience. Who would be interested in such a course? Initially, the thought was that it may be students in China, who may be interested in the perspective of a foreigner. But my experience tells me that many more outside China would be interested, given the lack of knowledge about such matters (and, I would add, the woeful reporting on China in the media outside China). So I penned the following introduction to the course, which will be used in the course description:

‘From Mao to Now’ presents new and little known material on the current situation of Chinese Marxism. It covers 18 lessons in 6 weeks, dealing with current topics that anyone who wishes to engage with China should know.

Target audience: the prime reason for undertaking this course should be curiosity about China and Marxism today. Students inside China and internationally will find the material important and fascinating. Professionals who are working or plan to work in China may also be interested, since they will at some time or other need to deal with government officials, state-owned companies, or be able to understand conversations where these topics arise regularly.

Everyone in China knows about these issues, with many different opinions, so why shouldn’t you?

You may wonder how the title came to be: From Mao to Now. I was meeting with some of the technical wizards at the university. I explained that it was difficult indeed to find useful material on the situation in China since the death of Mao Zedong, so this would be my focus. One of them tossed out an idea: From Mao to Now.


I penned a few early drafts of the course outline with my ideas, and then found out that the course should cover 6 weeks, to be repeated on a regular basis. So I revised the course with the following topics:

Week 1: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

  1. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: What does it mean?
  2. What About Other ‘National’ Characteristics?
  3. Socialism Seeking Power versus Socialism in Power

Week 2: Contradiction

  1. Why is Contradiction Important and Beneficial?
  2. Contradictions in European and Russian Marxism
  3. Contradiction in Chinese Marxism
  4. Socialism and Capitalism in China

Weeks 3 and 4: The Socialist State

  1. What Was the Soviet Union and What Is China?
  2. Class is Primary!
  3. A Multinational State?
  4. An Anti-Colonial State
  5. A New Form of the State?

Week 5: Chinese Democracy

  1. There Is No Such Thing as ‘Democracy’!
  2. Varieties of Socialist Democracy
  3. Is China a Socialist Democracy?

Week 6: Mao Zedong Today

  1. Is Mao Relevant for China Today?
  2. Has Mao Been Betrayed or Reinterpreted?
  3. Mao and the New China (Visiting the Chairman)

An Example

For the final part of my talk, I would like to give some details on one the actual presentations. Or rather, I will provide some material on how the episode is shaping up, instead of the final version. It concerns the first topic, socialism with Chinese characteristics. What does it mean? What are the different opinions concerning this topic? How does one condense the huge amount of analysis of this topic in China, or indeed outside China, concerning socialism with Chinese characteristics? Indeed, how could I provide a reasonable assessment of the different perspectives presented at this conference on the subject? At one level, it is impossible, so how could I possibly go about it?

I decided the begin this one with some sound-bite interviews. Over the last couple of days, I have interviewed random people at the conference, who agreed that I could use the interviews for this presentation (the MOOC will of course require proper permission for use on the internet and I promise not to use any of these for the MOOC itself). I give a few of them here (and I apologise if I have not used them all). I should say that the answers are meant to represent a range of opinions and do not necessarily reflect the actual opinions of the people recorded (I had to prompt a couple for the answers I wanted!).

[Interviews appear here]

Let us see what they have said. When I began I assumed that ‘socialism’ and ‘Chinese characteristics’ are two distinct items and that we are seeking the relationship between them.

  1. The first hints at a common idea: that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is simply a screen or a code for unbridled capitalism. This is a common position among quite a number of people internationally. For example, I have heard it from some involved in the international Left. It is a common position among those involved in the Historical Materialism conferences, in both Australia and elsewhere, where they use the term ‘neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics).
  2. The second emphasises the ‘Chinese characteristics’. (Please note that I was not able to find anyone who would take this position thus far.) Sometimes, this is translated into a form of Chinese nationalism, rather than anything that might be remotely socialist.
  3. The third answer stresses socialism itself, in terms of public ownership and the distribution according to work (or ‘from each according to ability, to each according to work’). I could say much more about this one, but I am unable to do so at this time.
  4. The fourth answer is a little different: socialism with Chinese characteristics means China’s modernisation process. Here the special characteristic is actually socialism itself, which has enabled China’s significant return to economic and political power.
  5. The fifth answer, I suggest, stresses both terms – socialism and Chinese characteristics. It is both socialism (however we understand the term, since this is also open to debate) and a concern with the specific cultural and social histories that profoundly influence what socialism means.

Let us backtrack for a moment. What is the origin of the idea of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’?

This of course alludes to the statement by Deng Xiaoping:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history (1982).

But the first form of this statement actually comes from Mao Zedong (and ultimately Lenin), as many of you will know:

There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used … Consequently, the sinification of Marxism – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay (1938).


So what is socialism with Chinese characteristics? That is for the students of the course to offer their own answers. But I would like to make the following points (apart from issues of history and culture):

  1. It is one thing to position oneself before the revolution. It is entirely another thing to win the revolution and have power. As Lenin and Mao said repeatedly: winning power in a revolution is relatively easy; wielding power is infinitely more complex. Once you have power, everything changes.
  2. Most people seem to assume they know what socialism is and then judge accordingly. But what if we do not yet know and need to develop it as we go along?
  3. One crucial aspect of a Chinese approach is a different way of dealing with contradictions. Instead of qualitative differences (one or the other), the contradictions must learn to live with one another. It is this very presence of contradictions and differences that constitutes unity. Is it possible that this one aspect of socialism with Chinese characteristics?


This is the real story of geopolitics at the moment: the increasing rapprochement between China and Russia. I have seen this at first hand in my own way, but when the two countries that make up the vast bulk of the Eurasian landmass get together, it means something. Apart from the belt-road initiative, on which they are working closely, China has neatly stepped in to supply Russia with items banned through EU sanctions, and in September this year they will hold joint naval exercises in the South China Sea. Pictures like these don’t often appear in the corporate media, but Xi Jinping and Putin have been meeting frequently over the last few years:


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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