Book outline: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

This book arises from a contradiction in our time: Chinese scholars and indeed most people in China are well aware of the key arguments and developments that form the basis of socialism with Chinese characteristics (zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi); non-Chinese scholars are largely ignorant, even though I find that more and more want to know at least something. In China, many of the topics presented in this book were settled quite a few years ago, so much so that one finds relatively little debate today. Other topics have a renewed vigour – such as contradiction analysis and rule of law – but these rely on earlier debates. By contrast, one struggles to find even remotely adequate treatment of these topics in foreign materials – if they are studied at all. I will examine some of the reasons in the introduction to the book, but three may be identified here: first, some have a tendency to say they prefer to look at the practice and ignore the theory, but this is a profound abdication of not only proper research, but Marxism itself (where theory along with practice is crucial); second, the material that does appear stops with the death of Mao Zedong (some, especially by Knick Knight, is excellent); third, the vast bulk of available scholarship is in Chinese. Obviously, one needs to be able to research this Chinese-language material.

Even so, the primary purpose of this book not to engage in polemics (lunzhan – fighting theories), but to make available for a non-Chinese audience the sophisticated debates and conclusions in China concerning socialism with Chinese characteristics. Without knowing this material, one can come to superficial perceptions and profound misunderstandings; knowing it, one begins the first steps in understanding and thereby trust. The following begins with a careful philosophical analysis of Deng Xiaoping, and the implications of his core ideas and practices. This study is the basis of what the rest of the book: contradiction analysis; the Marxist philosophy of the Reform and Opening Up; the basis and nature of the socialist market economy; socialist modernisation; rule of law; sovereignty and human rights; minority nationalities and the anti-colonial project; and Xi Jinping’s thorough Marxism in a Chinese situation. I should say that I have about a year of further in-depth research before me, so some of the material below will be revised as the project develops.

Introduction

The introduction begins by tracing the idea that while Marxism has core principles, or sets of problems, the way it develops in different locations has distinct characteristics. While there are global commonalities, each region has its distinct history, culture and philosophical tradition. As a result, in each situation the problems are somewhat unique and require new answers – hence the specific ‘characteristics’ of Marxism in such a location. We may trace this idea back to the late writings of Marx and Engels, as they faced developments of socialism in other parts of the world. But it begins to appear more clearly with Lenin and Stalin, and of course with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Obviously, the idea is not original to Deng, although he gave it a particular resonance in China.

The introduction also attempts to explain why there is precious little treatment in non-Chinese material of the Marxist basis of the Reform and Opening Up, with which ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has been most closely associated. In order to understand this situation, I elaborate on the distinction between ‘before’ and ‘after’ October. In other words, a crucial divide in analysis appears between those who take the perspective of ‘before October’, before the communist revolution, and those who analyse Marxism ‘after October’, after the revolution and in the difficult period of the construction of socialism. As Lenin and Mao said repeatedly, gaining power in a communist revolution is relatively easy; by contrast, constructing socialism is infinitely more complicated. Obviously, this study is concerned with ‘after October’, with the project of constructing socialism.

Finally, the introduction presents the main features of Chinese scholarship on socialism with Chinese characteristics. This material is immense, so I introduce the main resources, journals and themes – with a distinct focus on the philosophical foundations as they are manifested in practice.

Chapter 1. Reading Deng Xiaoping

‘Less talk, more deeds’ – Deng Xiaoping is mostly remembered as a leader of concrete acts rather than extensive theoretical reflection. In non-Chinese works, one may find biographies, studies of foreign policy, and scattered quotations taken out of context (albeit usually within a western European liberal framework). Few indeed are the studies of ‘Deng Xiaoping theory [lilun]’. Apart from Domenico Losurdo, no-one outside China has credited Deng with a sophisticated and insightful theoretical basis.

Through a careful study of Deng’s speeches and writings, along with relevant Chinese scholarship, I analyse the philosophical basis in two related ideas: liberating thought, and seeking truth from facts. While the terms seem simple enough on the surface, at a deeper level they identify the need to escape from the trap of Marxist dogmatism (as Mao also urged) and the need for careful analysis of the particular conditions of China in order to develop new answers in light of the Marxist tradition. From these two core ideas flow many of Deng’s positions: liberating the forces of production (see further the chapter on the socialist market economy), seeking a moderately well-off (xiaokang) society, to each according to work, and of course socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Chapter 2. Contradiction Analysis

Deng Xiaoping presented less of a break with Mao or indeed the Marxist tradition and more of a creative continuity within that living tradition. A significant element of this continuity was ‘contradiction analysis [maodun fenxi]’. This topic requires an initial step back to Mao Zedong (‘On Contradiction’) and how he developed a whole new phase in the Marxist tradition of dialectical analysis, via Lenin and Chinese conditions. Crucial for the construction of socialism is the idea of non-antagonistic contradictions: contradictions will appear under socialism, but the focus should be in ensuring they are non-antagonistic. Subsequently, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, we find contradiction analysis at the basis of philosophical thought and government policy. For example, it appears in: class analysis in the primary stage of socialism; socialist market economy; poverty alleviation; education: medicine; workplace realities; core socialist value; and – of course – the crucial need to identify a primary contradiction as the basis of all policy (as Xi Jinping did at the nineteenth congress of the CPC in 2018).

Chapter 3. The Marxist Basis of the Reform and Opening Up

It is perhaps less realised than it should be that the Reform and Opening Up is not a compromise, but a distinctly Marxist project. As Deng Xiaoping pointed out repeatedly, the Reform and Opening Up provides a distinct path to socialism (and not, as some misguided foreigners suggested, to capitalism). To understand this emphasis, we need initially to go back to Lenin and his insight into the relationship between revolution and reform. Instead of seeing these two terms as an either-or, Lenin argued that reform is absolutely necessary, but it should always be undertaken in light of the communist revolution. During the era of constructing socialism, this means that reform must be undertaken by a communist party in power. In a Chinese context, I would like to focus on the following issue (until more have been identified in research): the tension between equality-justice and improving the quality of life for all. In many respects, the Reform and Opening Up may be seen as an effort to keep the two sides of the contradiction in a productive and non-antagonistic relationship. Finally, this chapter offers a brief survey of the leading Marxist philosophers during the forty years of the Reform and Opening Up.

Chapter 4. Socialist Market Economy

With the socialist market economy, we come to a question that was settled in China 25 years ago, but of which foreigners remain noticeably ignorant. After immense debates in the 1980s and early 1990s, the following was seen as the solution. First and following Stalin, the core contradiction of socialism is between the forces and relations of production. How is this manifested? It can be – and often is – seen in terms of the ownership of the means of production. Thus, workers and peasants need to seize ownership of the means of production from the former bourgeois and landlord owners. But what happens after such a seizure and the destruction of the former ruling class? The contradiction shifts to one between the underlying socio-economic system (zhidu) and its specific components (tizhi). In the first category, we find – for example – a capitalist system and a socialist system; in the second, there are political, social and economic components. Here the productive forces also appear, of which one manifestation is a market economy. To summarise a more detailed analysis: a market economy may form part of a larger socio-economic system, including socialism; a market economy is not  always the same and is not inherently capitalist, but is shaped and determined by the system in question (as found already in Marx and in historical analysis); the overall system not only determines the nature of a market economy, but also its purpose, whether profit (capitalist system) or social benefit and meeting the needs of all people (gongtongti fuwu) as in a socialist system. Finally, this approach to a socialist market economy entails a recalibration of the question of ownership. Initially, the ownership of the means of production was related to secondary status, with a mix between public and private ownership, albeit with the state owned enterprises (SOEs) as the drivers of the economy. However, since the 2010s, one may identify a new development: the very distinction between public and private has begun to ‘die away’ (to parse Engels). How this works is the focus of the final part of the chapter.

Chapter 5. Socialist Modernisation: Seeking a Xiaokang Society

Since Zedong and Zhou Enlai, ‘socialist modernisation [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua]’ has been a major feature of government policy and action.[1] But what does it mean? Let us begin with Deng Xiaoping’s famous observation in 1979: ‘By achieving the four modernizations, we mean achieving a “moderately well-off family [xiaokang zhi jia]” … a moderately well-off country [xiaokang de guojia]’. For Deng, this is modernisation with Chinese characteristics.

To understand this statement, we need to go back and forward in the Chinese tradition. Deng was the first to pick and reinterpret the old Confucian category – from the Books of Rights and Book of Songs – of xiaokang in light of Marxism, with the sense of being moderately well-off, healthy and peaceful. It is a more achievable aim than datong, the ‘Great Harmony’, at least in the foreseeable future, although both terms (through He Xiu and Kang Youwei) are intimately connected. If we move forward in the more recent tradition, Deng’s insightful move led to a ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’ becoming central to the Chinese socialist project under Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping. Indeed, the end of 2020 – following hints from Deng – was set as the ambitious but achievable goal for a xiaokang society. But what are the benchmarks? Xi Jinping has identified three: managing profound risks, poverty alleviation and environmental health. The last section of the chapter considers each of these items, with a focus on the impact of lifting 750 million rural and urban workers out of poverty since 1978 and the noticeable advances in achieving an ‘ecological civilisation’.

Chapter 6. Socialist Rule of Law

‘Governing the country according law [yifazhiguo]’ – this four-character phrase encapsulates a range of permutations, from the new Social Credit system, through core socialist values, to religious policy. However, it also has a distinct history that enables us to understand what it means in China, specifically as a socialist rule of law. Although traces of usage appear in much older texts, the key development is precisely during the Reform and Opening Up.

Initially (1978-1996), most of the debate centred around the opposition between ‘rule of human beings [renzhi]’ and ‘rule of law [fazhi]’, after which the latter became the agreed-upon position. Subsequently (1997-2011), the relationship between ‘rule of law’ and ‘legal system [fazhi]’ (sometimes misleadingly translated as ‘rule by law’) was debated, with the two clearly demarcated. Thus, while ‘legal system’ is the basis and concrete manifestation of ‘rule of law’, ‘rule of law’ is itself the ultimate framework and goal of the legal system. During this time, ‘governing the country according to law’ entered the 1999 revision of the Constitution. Finally (2012 to the present) we find increasing clarity of more and more aspects of rule of law, along with its consistent and impartial application. Tellingly, in 2018, the Constitution was revised further, replacing ‘improve the socialist legal system’ with ‘improve the socialist rule of law’.

Theory is crucial, but so is practice. The final part of the chapter examines some concrete manifestations of the rule of law in China: the Social Credit System as an effective and creative way to ensure rule of law at all levels; core socialist values as the positive side of the anti-corruption campaign; and ensuring that the long-standing laws on freedom of religion are strictly observed, especially in light of the revised Regulation on Religious Affairs (2018) and its emphases on self-government, self-support and self-propagation. In all of this, it should re remembered that we are speaking of a socialist rule of law, which is a crucial bulwark of China’s socialist system and is distinct from a capitalist rule of law.

Chapter 7. Sovereignty and Human Rights

This chapter offers a comparison between two traditions concerning human rights, through the prism of state sovereignty: the Western European liberal tradition and the Chinese Marxist tradition. It does so as follows. The first part introduces the distinction between false and rooted universals. A false universal forgets the conditions of its emergence and asserts that its assumptions apply to all irrespective of context, while a rooted universal is always conscious of and factors into analysis contextual origins, with their possibilities and limitations. With this distinction in mind, the next part deals with state sovereignty. In a Western European context, the standard narrative of this development has two main phases: the initial Westphalian definition (1648) and its significant restriction after the Second World War. The main problem with this narrative it that it largely neglects what drove the shift: the success of anti-colonial struggles in the first half of the twentieth century (the last phase through the United Nations under the inspiration of the Soviet Union). In light of this global perspective, it becomes clear that in formerly colonised and semi-colonised countries the very definition of sovereignty is transformed into an anti-colonial and non-theological definition. It is not simply an extension of the Westphalian definition, an assumption that entails a false universal. The next two parts of the argument deal directly with human rights. Initially, it focuses on the Western European tradition, which is predicated on the identification of human rights as private property and their restriction to civil and political rights. Here is the risk of another false universal: the assertion that this specific tradition applies to all, irrespective of context and of anti-colonial sovereignty. The final topic is the Chinese Marxist tradition of human rights, which arises from the intersections of Confucianism and Marxism. In this tradition, anti-colonial sovereignty is a prerequisite but does not determine human rights, and the core human right is the right to socio-economic wellbeing, through which civil, political, cultural and environmental rights arise.

Chapter 8. Minority Nationalities and the Anti-Colonial Project

The main topic of this chapter – minority nationalities policy –arises from the Chinese Marxist approaches to human rights. In brief, the comprehensive minority nationalities (which are sometimes called ‘ethnic groups’) emphasises the core human right to socio-economic wellbeing. Before we get to that point, we need to engage in historical analysis. The Soviet Union was the first socialist country to develop a comprehensive minorities policy, so much so that it was crucial in the very formation of the Soviet Union and was embodied in government structures. Much was learned, from both successes and failures. The Soviet Union was also the first country to see the intrinsic connection between an internal minorities policy and the international anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle. It supported most of them, from logistics and weapons to initiating declarations in the United Nations (especially the 1960 ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’, which forced France, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands, among others, to give up their colonies for the sake of independence).

But what did the minority policy entail? Here I turn to China, which – like other socialist countries – adopted the Soviet policy, adapting it and strengthening it in light of their own conditions. This ‘preferential policy [youhui zhengce]’ fosters minority languages, cultures, education, governance, and – above all – economic development as the basis for all the others. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s the policy was strengthened in a dialectical manner; minority rights and incentives were enhanced significantly, precisely as way of ensuring the inviolability of China’s borders. To give a sense of how this policy works, I deal with two pertinent case studies: Tibet and Xinjiang. In both cases, we find short-term and long-term programs. Short-term: enhanced fostering of security (anquan), stability (wending) and harmony (hexie), in order to counter the effects of separation, extremism and terrorism. Long-term: renewed and revised projects to improve the socio-economic wellbeing of all who live in Tibet and Xinjiang. At this point, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plays a significant internal role, with marked results in the six years or so of its implementation.

The BRI brings us finally to the question of international relations. Here we find a distinct development: while material from the 1950s and 1960s still used the terminology of anti-colonial struggle, it substantially disappears from use thereafter. Why? Already in the late 1950s, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had proposed the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’, which was taken up with enthusiasm by Deng Xiaoping as China sought not confrontation but peaceful development (although he was also quite clear that China would always have closer connections with formerly colonised countries due to a shared common history). The more recent manifestation of this emphasis appears with Xi Jinping’s promotion of a ‘community of shared future for humankind [renlei mingyun gongtongti]’, concretely manifested in the BRI, and the policy – as an alternative to the Western European liberal emphasis on ‘zero-sum’ – of ‘both win, many win, all win’. Or simply, ‘win-win’.

Chapter 9. Xi Jinping on Marxism

Xi Jinping has confounded those international observers who ignored much of what I have discussed in the previous chapters and concluded that China had abandoned Marxism. But Xi Jinping’s resolute emphasis on Marxism makes perfect sense if we keep these developments of socialism with Chinese characteristics in mind. At the same time, it is true that Xi Jinping has also re-emphasised Marxism at its many levels, so much so that the CPC has been noticeably strengthened. Older members are once again proud of the party and what it has achieved, while young people are once again keen to join and study Marxism.

How did this happen? While Xi Jinping’s many writings and speeches (in the good tradition of communist leaders, he is also a thinker and writer) cover a wide range of topics, my focus is on his direct engagement with Marxism. The core piece for analysis is his major speech on the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, delivered on 5 May, 2018. While the speech deals with Marx’s biography (as an engaged intellectual), the basic premises of Marxism, its history as a living tradition and its emergence to sustained leadership in China, the main part of the speech elaborates on nine topics of relevance to China’s situation. Calling on all the ‘study Marx’ once again, he begins each sub-section with quotations from Marx and Engels and then elaborates on what they mean for the time after the communist revolution, during the complex and often difficult process of constructing socialism. The topics are: development of human society; sticking to the people’s standpoint; productive forces and relations of production; people’s democracy; cultural construction; social construction; human-nature relationship; world history; and Marxist party building. These topics open out to a series of other dimensions of Xi Jinping’s writings, with which I deal when analysing each section.

Conclusion

Given that most of the material in this book concerns material already known in China, it may be of interest to Chinese readers who wish to see what a foreigner engaged with and working in China thinks about socialism with Chinese characteristics. But I anticipate that it will mostly be of use to non-Chinese readers whose minds may already be open, or perhaps should be opened, to what such a socialism actually means in theory and practice.

Note

[1] The original four modernisations are: shaking off China’s poverty and backwardness [pinqiong luohou]; gradually improving the people’s living standards; restoring a position for China in international affairs commensurate with its current status; and enabling China to contribute more to humankind.

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Chinese Trust in the Government

The overwhelming majority of Chinese people trust their government like no other country on earth. This may seem strange to some foreigners who routinely mistrust their government. Yet the statistics speak for themselves. For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2019 notes a rise in the general public’s trust of the government and public institutions to a staggering 86 percent. Meanwhile, the monthly Ipsos surveys indicate that on average 90 percent of people have confidence in the direction in which China is headed. And in the five-yearly World Values Survey, the vast majority trust the government to promote human rights in China and throughout the world.

Why is this the case? One reason is of course the effect of Xi Jinping’s leadership, with effective rule by law and its closely associated Social Credit System, anti-corruption campaign and recovery of both traditional Chinese and Marxist values.

Yet, this is only part of the story. The assumption of trust in governance runs deep in Chinese society – assuming of course that the government in question has earned that trust. To understand how this works at a deeper cultural and social level, we need to go back a few centuries.

He Xiu’s Three Worlds

Important here is a certain He Xiu, who lived from 129 to 182 CE. He Xiu wrote a commentary on a commentary; more precisely, he wrote a commentary on the Gongyang commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (reputedly edited by none other than Confucius). This particular history is not so important here. Instead, He Xiu[1] introduced a crucial distinction between three terms:

  1. What is ‘rumoured [suochuanwen]’.
  2. What is ‘heard [suowen]’ and thus reliably recorded.
  3. What is ‘seen [suojian]’ and therefore verifiable.

The importance of this distinction can hardly be underestimated. What is rumoured concerns words and indeed a world that is ‘decayed and disordered [shuailuan]’. This is a world of chaos in which the heart is ‘course and unrefined [cucu]’, the country is broken up into small warring states and the records virtually non-existent. Rumours abound of skulduggery, assassination, intrigue and inappropriate behaviour in light of established rituals. In other words, hearsay and gossip are highly unreliable, to be mistrusted at every turn.

By contrast, the world that is reliably reported is one that has written records, which enables the unity of the many different Chinese peoples. It is clearly better that rumour, hearsay and chaos, but it still has its problems. The best is the world that is ‘seen’ and therefore empirically verifiable. One has first-hand evidence, or what is now called scientific evidence, truth from facts (shishi qiushi), as Deng Xiaoping said on many occasions. This verifiable world is united, whether distant or nearby, large or small, and even the heart (xin) or inner being is now deep and thoroughly known (xiang).

In Chinese history, the prime body responsible for reliable records and verified facts is of course the government. Indeed, these are signs of good governance and thereby one that can be trusted.

He Xiu’s distinction has many further ramifications today, whether the refusal of newspapers to engage in gossip, the scepticism concerning oral traditions, the transparency of political statements, or the need for any government statistics to be based on solid research. Let me focus on three examples.

Mao Zedong’s Works

The first concerns editions of Mao Zedong’s works. In China, there are two main editions, The Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong Wenji) and The Selected Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong xuanji). Apart from these two, there are a number of other small collections, relating to early writings or those on specific topics. These have all been carefully produced by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, which is fully resourced and responsible for reliable editions of all works in the Marxist tradition.

At the same time, there are a number of other editions of Mao’s works, the most notable being Mao Zedong ji, published in 20 volumes in Japan. While most Chinese scholars have copies of this edition, they are also suspicious. Why? An individual scholar has edited the works rather than a major institution funded by the government. Is it reliable? Can it be cited? Not sure. One has to wary indeed when relying on such material. And the five volume collection, Mao Zedong Thought Lives Forever, published without a place, date or editorship during the Cultural Revolution, is way beyond any form of reliability.

Number of Christians in China

The second example concerns the number of Christians in China. This has been the subject of what are now called the ‘Internet Wars’. The official government figure is 38 million, which foreigners interested in such matters disregard since they suspect that the government wishes to downplay the numbers. Instead, they postulate more than 100 million, based on an anecdote: supposedly Ye Xiaowen, the former director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, mentioned in a closed-door meeting at Peking University in 2006 that there were more than 100 million Christians in China. The problem here is that those who like to cite this anecdote provide no source for the statement, third-party evidence or indeed check with Ye Xiaowen himself. It turns out that – according to scholars who were actually present at the event – Ye Xiaowen had never said that there were more than 100 million Christians in China, but he did say that there were at that time more than 100 million religious believers. The difference is obvious, and the foreigners who like to peddle this number draw on unreliable rumour.

By now I am drawing on an article published in early 2019,[2] based on a long-term project at Peking University: the ‘China Family Panel Studies’. Carefully calibrated so as to be relevant to Chinese conditions, relying on a vast survey sample with multiple follow-ups, this sociological survey found in 2016 that there were 39.69 million Christians in China (about 2.8 percent of the population), of which 28.29 were ‘open Christians’ and 11.67 million ‘hidden Christians’. The ‘open Christians’ can mostly be attributed to the many legal forms of Christianity in China, such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches (Protestant) and the recently united Roman Catholic Church, while the ‘hidden Christians’ are mostly from the illegal ‘house churches’.

While these figures are derived from a completely independent sociological survey, it is scientifically based and relies on the assumption that one can only trust what is recorded and verifiable. Tellingly, it is very close to the government figures for Christians in China, for the government does not release figures unless they are based on what can be verified.

As for the speculative foreigners, they are simply relying on hearsay and rumour.

Concept of (U)topia

The third example concerns utopia, which in the Western European tradition refers to both a no-place and a good-place. Typically, writings about utopia postulate a world yet to be realised, on a distant island (Thomas More’s Utopia), in the distant future (William Morris’s News From Nowhere), or even on another planet. The accounts are typically imaginative, hearsay upon hearsay, if not rumour itself. Obviously, if the world in question does not exist and therefore cannot be experienced, one must rely on nothing more than rumour and imagination. In other words, it is a transcendent world, much better than ours, but one that we cannot know empirically.

Let us go back to He Xiu, for his threefold distinction of rumoured, recorded and verified is actually the background to a major contribution to the Chinese tradition concerning what is often known as ‘utopia’. But his proposal is completely opposed to Western European assumptions. In more detail, He Xiu proposed three worlds:

  1. The ‘decayed and disordered world [shuailuan]’, which is characterised by rumour and gossip (suochuanwen).
  2. The world of ‘rising peace [shengping]’, which is determined by what is heard and recordable (suowen).
  3. The world of ‘great peace [taiping]’, which can only be known by seeing and is therefore verifiable (suojian).

By now you can see what has happened. What in the Western tradition is called ‘utopia’, based on rumour, is actually the world of decay and disorder. What cannot be known is highly undesirable, with plots, skulduggery and lack of unity.

By contrast, the world of rising peace can be recorded, leading to unity at least within the country and relative stability and security. But the most verifiable world is precisely that of the ‘Great Peace’ or what is also called the ‘Great Harmony [datong]’. This world can hardly be connected with the Western tradition of utopia, although not a few have tried to do so. Why? It is not a world of rumour and innuendo, but one that can be verified empirically and through scientific investigation.

Thus, ‘utopia’ is a particularly bad term to use in this context. If we stay with the Greek origins of the terms, the best term would be topos, a definite place, and the Chinese tradition concerning the Great Peace and the Great Harmony would have to be called ‘Topian Thought’.

Trusting the Government

Let us return to question of trust in governance. As mentioned earlier, throughout Chinese history, the body responsible for recording and verifying information has been the government itself. Given the size of the country, government has always been a somewhat large affair, and in this respect at least the communist government carries on a long tradition. Of course, it has a distinct trajectory determined by Marxism, but it is still responsible for the most reliable information, for it has the best resources to ensure such information.

I would like to close with an unexpected contribution from He Xiu, a contribution carried through in the later tradition via Kang Youwei’s Book of Datong and Deng Xiaoping’s evocation – in a communist framework – of the old Confucian category of a xiaokang society (one that is moderately well-off, healthy and peaceful). For Deng Xiaoping and even more those who followed – Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and especially Xi Jinping – this xiaokang society is the goal of the initial socialist phase of the new China, to be achieved by 2020.

This xiaokang society is equivalent now with what He Xiu called the world of ‘rising peace’. Most importantly, it is a world that about which one has reliable knowledge and is therefore able to provide reliable records. What does this mean for the core political program of achieving a xiaokang society in all respects by 2020? Is it merely political spin, a vague promise with little content? Not at all: it entails detailed and innovative planning, targeted projects, scientific analysis and rigorous assessment of results. For example, Xi Jinping has identified a peaceful and law-abiding country, environmental protection, and poverty alleviation as the three greatest challenges. Massive resources and initiatives have gone into each, with the Social Credit System, a wholesale shift away from environmentally destructive practices, and a last great push to lift the final 10 million people out of poverty (850 million since 1978).

Will these targets be achieved? Final assessment will tell. But one thing is clear: without them, a xiaokang society in unachievable; with them, it will be achieved. But such a society must be thoroughly recordable and verifiable. Trust in government turns on this fact.

Notes

[1] He Xiu. 1980. Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu. 28 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, p. 2200. Many editions of this work exist, in 28 volumes. It may also be found at https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=642006&remap=gb.

[2] Lu Yunfeng, Wu Yue, and Zhang Chunni. 2019. ‘Zhongguo daodi you duoshao jidutu? Jiyu zhongguo jiating zhuizong diaocha de guji’. Kaifang shidai zazhi 2019 (1):1-14. http://www.wyzxwk.com/Article/shehui/2019/01/398823.html.

Why I am in favour of brainwashing

Every now and then, I need to address an audience with brains that have been saturated with all types of liberal and bourgeois rubbish. So I have decided to begin my talks as follows:

I am in favour of brainwashing … it is a very, very good practice.

As Mao Zedong said in 1957 to a group of students:

Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After I joined the revolution, [my brain] slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education … At that time, none of us knew anything about how the Chinese revolution was to be promoted!

So I ask you to take a moment to wash your brains, as far as possible. Identify all of the liberal, bourgeois assumptions you might have, especially concerning communism. Only in this way can you begin to understand what socialism with Chinese characteristics is.

The Maopai (Maoist sectarians)

Agence France Presse asked me recently about at item making the rounds in some quarters. It concerns a small group of Maoist sectarians who had travelled south to take part in some worker protests. Coming from a few universities in Beijing, some were put under house arrest upon return. I am told that Cornell University in the United States terminated a cooperative program with Renmin University of China over the issue.

Of course, all of this gains its inevitable spin and the full context is lost. The question is asked: why would a Marxist government seek to restrain a Marxist movement? Here is my response to AFP, although I am not sure they will do it justice:

These types of groups have been in existence for quite some time. One could, for example, outline earlier forms such as the ‘Utopia’ movement of more than a decade ago, which championed the corrupt mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xilai. There are also loose connections with what has been called China’s ‘New Left’, although the latter keep clear of these groups. Today one could perhaps say they are within the broad spectrum of Marxism in China, but they are really quite minor and on the fringe in relation to the vast reality of Chinese Marxism.

A brief outline of their main positions may be useful. Rather than simply calling them ‘Marxists’, they should really be seen as Maopai, Maoist sectarians. The phenomemon is in fact common in the history of Marxism and communist movements. A sectarian group typically assumes it is the bearer of truth, while other groups are heretics or betrayers.

The Maoist sectarians are no different. They believe that they witness to the truth of the last real expression of communism in China with Mao Zedong, especially during the Cultural Revolution. As any careful study of Mao’s extensive writings and acts indicates, their reading is quite selective, suiting their own agenda. For example, they stress a ‘break’ between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, suggesting that the latter ‘betrayed’ Mao and took China on the road to capitalism. However, if one studies Deng Xiaoping, it soon becomes clear that the continuities are equally strong, if not stronger. Further, their perception of the Cultural Revolution is rather idealistic and starry-eyed, instead of seeing it as the complex and traumatic reality that it was: a trauma that still runs deep in Chinese society.

Their focus on some workers also indicates a difficulty in dealing with Mao’s emphasis on peasants as the core of the communist movement at the time. Here they disagree among themselves: some recognize the importance of peasants/farmers, while others dismiss them and assert that ‘true’ communism focuses on workers. It is also worth noting on this matter that when workers do strike in China (as happened more in the past but less so today), it is normally in relation to bosses breaking the law. Workers typically invoke communist slogans in their protests, which is a point where the Maoist sectarians can make a connection.

More significantly, their approach runs into severe problems when examined further. They hold to a rather stunning conspiracy theory, which has been running for the 40 years of the reform and opening up. Thus, they see the CPC now as ‘fake’, as using deceptive speech when stressing Marxism, and so on. They also dismiss 40 years of very sophisticated Marxist developments.

They are also rather astute in feeding into a particular form of Western European Marxism, which has – especially after 1989 – felt that no authentic form of socialism could develop elsewhere in the world, especially in China. Thus, they position themselves as the ‘authentic’ voice of Marxism in China. For example, the French Marxist philosopher, Alain Badiou, has been promoting this perspective and is used by some of these Maoist sectarians in their work in China. The problem with Badiou is that he seriously misunderstands Marxism in China today. He has to my knowledge never been in China where he would see a strong communist party, with Marxism promoted everywhere, even to the point where it is becoming part of Chinese culture.

Why have such groups stepped up their activities of late, becoming more open? Xi Jinping is the key here. Everyone in China has known for quite some time that Xi Jinping is very serious about Marxism, directing the development of China’s economy, reforming the communist party (it was in relatively bad shape some years ago), shaping academic developments, art and literature, and so on. Only this year – since the CPC’s 19th congress in late 2017 and Xi Jinping’s major speech in May 2018 commemorating 200 years since Marx’s birth – has the rest of the world begun to notice. These events are beginning to lead to significant reassessment in other parts of the world. In the process, Xi Jinping has successfully claimed Mao’s mantle – as the majority of common people (laobaixing) clearly sense. But this development is quite disconcerting for the Maoist sectarians, for it seriously risks undermining their approach and indeed their conspiracy theory.

A specific event can also be connected to this activity. On 29 October, 2018, Xi Jinping gave a major speech to new trade union leaders on the relationship between workers, trade unions and the communist party. Again, this was a very Marxist speech with a clear articulation of how workers and unions function in building a new China under socialism in power. The challenge to the Maoist narrative should be obvious.

Lenin would have called them ‘left-wing communism, an infantile disorder’. However, one usually grows up and gains some wisdom. I have witnessed a number of people do precisely that: entertain a sectarian perspective for a while but then realise there is a greater and richer Marxist reality reality with which to engage constructively.

Mao’s Liberation of Tibet

It is useful to keep the whole picture in mind, rather than blindly follow what the ‘vegetarian between meals’ would lead us to believe (see further Sautman). To begin with, there is the simple historical question. Although accounts differ in relation to Tibet, the reality is that this region has been subject to Chinese rule in various ways since at least the eighteenth century under the Qing dynasty (with Chinese claims to de jure rule since the Yuan dynasty in the thirteenth century). Claims to some form of independence hark back to an image of the feudal Tibetan empire from the seventh to the eleventh centuries.

What happened after the liberation of Tibet in 1951 by the PLA, which was supported a wide range of Tibetans? A comprehensive 17-point agreement was reached in 1951, approved by all lamas and the Dalai Lama himself. Subsequent CIA agitation, funding, arms and logistics led to reneging on the agreement and the fateful 1959 uprising, which failed to garner widespread support, especially among those Tibetans who had been abused under the former feudal system. The Dalai Lama and his entourage were assisted by the CIA to flee the Tibetan region. Eventually, the CIA wound up its well-publicised ‘covert’ activities in the 1970s, only to be replaced by the innocuous sounding National Endowment for Democracy in 1984 (instituted under Ronald Reagan). As Elizabeth Davis’s careful study indicates, ‘Allen Weinstein, the NED’s first acting president, observed that “A lot of what we [the NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA’. A range of other western government-sponsored bodies work together with the NED to undermine Chinese sovereignty.

Even more, the factionalism of the Tibetan diaspora is bewildering. Many have not lived in the Tibetan region for two generations and they spend as much time attacking each other as they spend in trying to garner cash and support from states keen to irritate China. This factionalism is by no means new, for the struggles between different groups in Tibet’s history often used torture, violence and displacement to assert their control.

What about China’s position? This boils down to two strategies. The immediate aim is security and peace in the Tibetan autonomous region. Apart from the CIA-sponsored uprising in 1959, another more recent example concerns the deadly 2008 riots in Lhasa, in which some Tibetans burned, looted and killed Han Chinese and Muslims. From a Chinese perspective, these acts are part of the ‘separatism, extremism and terrorism’ continuum.

The long-term aim is socio-economic improvement, a core feature of the ‘preferential policy [youhui zhengce]’ for all minority nationalities. Obviously, this takes time but we can already see the significant improvements in living standards, with massive infrastructure projects, favourable conditions for Tibetan businesses, and a host of other measures. The Tibetan region has one of the highest growth rates in China now, although it is belated in comparison with the eastern regions of China.

As I have observed on a number of occasions before, socio-economic improvement is the basis of a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights, which may be described as the right to economic well-being. While the Euro-American tradition focuses on civil and political rights, and uses these to irritate China, it neglects the whole other dimension of the right to economic wellbeing, which includes the rights to work and to development. The Chinese emphasis goes back in more immediate history to the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet of the early 1930s, with its capital in Ruijin. Here developed what may be called the ‘Ruijin ethos’: focus first on the people’s need for food, shelter, clothing and security; only when these are secured will they become communists. In the longer tradition, the Confucian ethos is strong, particularly with the desire for at least a xiaokang society, meaning that one is moderately well-off, healthy, and peaceful. This basic human right in China has actually been embodied in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1976). Article 11(1) is relevant here, which mentions that state parties ‘recognize the rights of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions’. Notably, the United States has not ratified this covenant.

But does this mean civil and political rights are curtailed for militant Tibetans? If they engage in ‘separatism, extremism and terrorism’, yes. This is a security issue. But as Barry Sautman observes:

The point to stress is that there is no repression of Tibetans simply for being Tibetan. Nor does the Chinese government repress religion per se. Instead, Tibetans receive a range of preferential policies, and authorised religions in China receive state support. Where religious organisations pose no political threat, they are regulated by the state and can generally function openly, especially among ethnic minorities. The relation between religious organisations and the state is informed by longstanding Chinese traditions; separatism is another story. Under international law, states may make separatism illegal. The Chinese government, based on China’s history of cycles of territorial unity and disunity, makes use of that right.

On the matter of culture it is worth noting the most thorough treatment of the issue by Colin Mackarras, who observes, ‘what strikes me most forcefully about the period since 1980 or so is not how much the Chinese have harmed Tibetan culture, but how much they have allowed, even encouraged it to revive; not how weak it is, but how strong’.

Finally, two pieces from none other than the Dalai Lama himself. The first is a telegram sent to Mao in 1951, indicating support of the 17-point agreement, which included the statement: ‘The central authorities will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama‘.

The second is a poem he wrote in 1954 concerning Mao Zedong:

 

 

Mao’s ‘contradiction analysis’ valid more than 60 years later

Back in 1957, Mao gave a long speech called ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People‘ (I am reading it at the moment as part of my Chinese language study). He was thinking about such matters more intensely at the time, since he had been revising part of his lectures on Dialectical Materialism, first given in Yan’an in 1937. That part would become ‘On Contradiction‘, the most important and influential writing on philosophy in China in the twentieth century.

‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions’, has many insights, including the development in a Chinese context of non-antagonistic contradictions’. But I am here interested in his deployment of contradiction analysis to understand developments in international relations.

At one point, he writes:

The United States now controls a majority in the United Nations and dominates many parts of the world – this state of affairs is temporary and will be changed one of these days. China’s position as a poor country denied its rights in international affairs will also be changed – the poor country will change into a rich one, the country denied its rights into one enjoying them – a transformation of things into their opposites. Here, the decisive conditions are the socialist system and the concerted efforts of a united people.

How true this is today, more than 60 years later.

Views from the Common People: Appreciating Xi Jinping

One of the problems of spending time in universities and research institutions is that you lose touch with everyday realities. Think of the nerd at school, who was always top of the class and a complete social misfit – all of them ended up in such places. I am no exception, but I also find the context alienating and weird. So to get a sense of what life is like for the vast majority, I travel on buses, metros, trains, I walk the streets in cities and the countryside, talking at length with workers, cleaners, local administrators – wherever I can find them.

Obviously, I am speaking of China, where I do this frequently.

Let me begin with a simple observation from a cleaner. We talked about many things, but when we came to Xi Jinping, he simply said: ‘Chairman Xi is good guy [bucuo], because he has recovered Chairman Mao’. Wow, I thought, right to the point. He added, ‘Chairman Xi has the common people [laobaixing] at heart’.

More comprehensive was a low-level provincial administrator in the south, working in the countryside. It is not a high-paid job by any means. I told her that every morning I study Mao Zedong’s key works, in Chinese (as part of my language study). She told me that I should also study Xi Jinping.

Why? ‘He is a really good chairman’, she said. ‘He has done a lot for common people like us. My parents like him very much, and all the common people love him’. The term she used was laobaixing, a colloquial term for everyday workers, who have a simple life, work hard because they see it as a great duty for the country, and appreciate someone who takes them to heart.

Our conversation went on, after I indicated that I actually have all of Comrade Xi’s writings (thus far).

The first crucial virtue is obviously a focus on the common people (laobaixing), but the second is his integrity – zhengzhi, which includes the senses of honesty, uprightness, decency and fair-mindedness. Old communist virtues, but also ones that run deep in Chinese culture.

How does this integrity show up in everyday consciousness? More obvious is the most thoroughgoing anti-corruption campaign in living memory, on which I have written elsewhere. For this person, it is the focus on honesty and integrity that comes through most strongly in the campaign. The feeling is that China is back on the right track.

The other example of Comrade Xi’s integrity was somewhat of a surprise: he is not a ‘philanderer (huaxin)’ like Donald Trump. For this woman, the fact that Trump is dealing with multiple accusations of chasing porn stars is a sign of his lack of integrity. By contrast, Chairman Xi’s personal life is also an example of integrity. Honesty, kindness and faithfulness are key virtues in this domain as well.

Examples of such conversations could be repeated time and again. It is one thing to quote international opinion surveys and ‘trust barometers‘, which indicate that up to 87 percent of Chinese people approve of and are confident of the direction in which China is heading. It is another thing entirely to talk with people and get their sense of deep appreciation of what Xi Jinping is doing.

Images from Chinese socialism today

Welcome to China, where communist banners are back in a big way. The latest series concerns the 19th congress of the CPC (shijiuda):

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:

 

 

 

 

 

Narratives of Betrayal: A ‘Western’ Trope

A characteristic feature of European-derived, or North Atlantic[1] approaches to communism is the narrative of betrayal: at some point, a communist revolution was betrayed by someone, betrayed itself, ran into the mud, ‘failed’.

I was first struck by this narrative some years ago when I was working intensely on Lenin.[2] And it was inescapable in much of the secondary literature when I was engaging deeply with Stalin.[3] Recently, it has struck me once again while delving into the theory and practice of the socialist state. Let me be clear: the betrayal narrative is one found mostly in European-derived traditions. Although Marxists in these parts are fond of the narrative, it is also common among liberals and conservatives. One can find stray examples other parts of the world too, in the mouths of one or two who have been unduly influenced by this narrative. In what follows, I outline some examples of the narrative, before turning to consider the closely related dimension of pristine origins.

Betrayals, Betrayals Everywhere

If you hold to this type of story, a betrayal can be found almost everywhere you look. The initial example is that Engels betrayed Marx. Being of lesser intellect and not adequately trained – or so the story goes – Engels did not understand Marx. So Engels ‘glossed’ and ‘distorted’ what Marx said, especially in work that he produced on his own or after Marx’s death. It may have been Engels’s immense efforts in editing the second and third volumes of Capital, or his Dialectics of Nature (1873-82) and Anti-Dühring (1877-78) from which Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) was drawn. Thus, the editing efforts botched Marx’s work, while the effort to extend dialectical materialism into the natural sciences was fatally flawed. Given the profound influence of Anti-Dühring on the subsequent tradition – every Marxist of the second and third generations studied this text closely – that tradition was impossibly betrayed at the hand of Engels. It is relatively easy to refute this narrative, but this is not my task here.

Lenin’s putative betrayal is more contested ground, with some seeing Lenin as a purveyor of distorted Marxism from the beginning, others that Lenin betrayed the revolution after October 1917, or that Stalin was responsible for the betrayal. But what is meant by ‘betrayal’ in this case? Let me take the example of Lenin’s betrayal of himself, for this is consistent with the role of Stalin in this case. According to this story, Lenin held to some form of ‘democratic’ position, envisaging the soviets as versions of the Paris commune. The model may have been updated and reshaped a little in light of circumstances, but it held to ‘democratic participation’ by workers and peasants at local and national levels, open and free-wheeling debate within the communist party, and would form the basis of socialism after the revolution. However, what happened very rapidly was an authoritarian move, hollowing out the soviets in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat, if not replacing the proletarian dictatorship with the dictatorship of the party. In short, Lenin moved from a ‘democratic’ commune model to an authoritarian approach. Stalin merely carried this through to its logical conclusion. The examples could be multiplied: economically, ‘state capitalism’ was gradually introduced, a global revolution was abandoned for the sake of socialism in one country, the ‘withering away of the state’ was replaced with an authoritarian state characterised by the secret police, the self-determination of minority nationalities turned into their forced assimilation, and so on. The only difference is where one draws the line, whether within Lenin’s own thought and practice or between Lenin and Stalin. The latter is, of course, the one who began to be systematically demonised not long after he died.[4]

These days, I am most interested in the way a betrayal narrative has been constructed and is now assumed by many in the case of Chinese socialism. I am less interested in the hypothesis that Mao betrayed Marxism himself, whether because he took over unreconstructed Soviet Marxism of the 1930s or whether he did so of his own initiative. I am more interested in how the betrayal narrative has been deployed by self-confessed ‘Maoists’ and how this has influenced a wider misperception from conservatives to radicals.

According to this version, Mao was indeed a true communist, developing a breath-taking version adapted for Chinese conditions. The culmination of Mao’s vision was the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here was full collectivisation, public property, equality in pay and even clothes, idealism, the beginnings of socialist culture …. However, waiting in the wings was Deng Xiaoping, the ‘capitalist roader’. Rising high, deposed, then returning on Mao’s death and dispensing with the ‘Gang of Four’, Deng began – so it is asserted – the process of turning China from a socialist country into a capitalist one. All of this is embodied in the ‘reform and opening up’ from 1979. And Deng began the process of using coded language to indicate the shift: ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was and is a code for rampant capitalism; a ‘socialist market economy’ does equal service; ‘core socialist values’ means liberalism. All this was extremely clever, it is suggested, since the CPC could not give up on the rhetoric of Marxism, so it emptied Marxism of any meaning (perhaps replacing it with nationalism. The purpose: to keep the CPC firmly in power.

This story continues: subsequent presidents – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – played the same game. Now we find the destruction of the ‘iron rice bowl’ (Chinese welfare state), the rise of a ‘middle class’, the ‘suppression’ of the working class – all with a nod and wink while speaking of Marxism. And Xi Jinping has produced his own collection of terms: the ‘Chinese Dream’, the ‘two centenary goals’ and revitalised the term ‘moderately prosperous’ society, all the while clamping down on ‘dissent’ and ‘freedom of speech’ to enhance his hold on power. A communist party has – according to this spectacular story – enabled the transition not from capitalism to socialism, but from socialism to capitalism.

The pieces of this narrative have been laid carefully for two or three decades, trading on half-truths, wilful ignorance and sheer twisting of the facts. Apart from the fact that it faces enormous difficulties in understanding the role of Marxism in Chinese socialism, all the way from culture and education, through society and politics, to economics, it usually entails a pre-judgement that means one does not even need to bother with Marxism as such in China. After all, no-one ‘believes’ in it anymore, do they?

As a final sample of this narrative of betrayal, let me return to Marx. In this case, it is the younger humanistic Marx who betrays the older scientific one. How so? It begins with the late publication of some key materials from the young Marx, such as ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’ in 1927, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ in 1932, and The German Ideology, co-authored with Engels, in 1932. Here is a younger, more ‘humanistic’ Marx, which led and continues to lead some to emphasise this dimension of his thought as a counter to ‘Scientific Socialism’ (whether of the Soviet Union or in other forms). In response, Althusser in particular has argued that this earlier material – published later – was not the true Marx, who is to be found in his later, scientific works. This would have to be the most intriguing betrayal narrative of all, since it operates in reverse.

Pristine Origins

As I have already indicated, I focus here neither on how these specific accounts face immense hurdles on closer scrutiny, nor the motivation for them, but on the nature of the narrative of betrayal itself. Two points are relevant.

First, the story has profound resonances with the biblical story of the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Here a ‘paradise’ – if somewhat flawed due to the forbidden tree(s) – is lost due to the wilful disobedience of the first human beings. Initially, it was a southwest Asian story that has overlaps with others from the same part of the world, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but it eventually became a crucial story in European culture. The story in its biblical form has a distinct political setting, providing the eventual justification for a form of governance (monarchy) and control of wayward human beings (Thomas Hobbes comes to mind as an influential later version of this account). But it has come to be seen in much wider terms, speaking of the human condition, characterised by a mythical account of disobedience, sin and betrayal of an original ideal impulse. In this form, it became part of the wider foundations for European-derived cultures, shaping cultural assumptions, the nature of thought processes, if not historical reconstructions even of the modern variety. Thus, the narrative of Genesis, European assumptions concerning human nature, the way history is so often reconstructed, as well as narratives concerning Marxism seem to have a remarkably similar pattern.

Second and related, the account of betrayal trades on a notion of pristine origins. Time and again, I have found that a purveyor of one or another version of the story assumes a distinct idea of what socialism should be (never what actually exists). They base this idea on some texts of Marx. I write ‘some’ deliberately, for the texts selected form a ‘canon within the canon’: favoured texts that are meant to express the core of Marx’s position. Thus, socialism (which Marx did not distinguish from communism) appears in the Paris commune, concerning which Marx waxed lyrical in ‘The Civil War in France’ (1871). Here workers devolved the functions of parliament, army, police and judiciary to workers’ bodies that were directly elected and subject to recall. The commune was decentralised, removed repression and did away with the ‘state’. Or one may invoke parts of ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, especially in the higher stage of communism, when economic exploitation is removed, classes disappear, even divisions between town and country, if not between mental and physical labour, so that the biblically-derived communist slogan applies: ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’.

Once you have these original and authentic definitions of socialism and/or communism, you can make an easy connection with a betrayal narrative.[5] Before a revolution, or perhaps for a while afterwards, the revolutionaries held to the ideal – think of Lenin in particular, but also Mao. But soon enough, they gave up on the ideal. It may have been force of circumstances, or a turn in the face of imminent failure, or simply a weakness of will. And if Lenin or Mao did not do so themselves, then Stalin or Deng were responsible for overturning the socialist ideal and destroying it. The outcome: socialism has never been realised as yet, for the true moment still awaits us.

Once again, this search for and latching onto a notion of pristine origins has resonances with Christian thought and practice. In this case, the authentic moment may be found somewhere in the biblical texts, preferably in the words of Jesus himself (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is a favoured location). Soon enough, these words and the community they envisaged was adulterated and betrayed. Here the line can be drawn at almost any point: between Jesus and the early church (the Apostle Paul); between the form of the early Christian community and the later betrayal by the institutional church; between the doctrine of justification by faith through grace and the doctrine of salvation by works …

The problem here is that one can find justification for a number of positions in the texts, for these texts are not uniform. So one has to choose some texts, downgrade or ignore the others that contradict one’s choice and then criticise those who latch onto precisely these downgraded texts. The history of Christianity reveals this process again and again. A group or a spokesperson emerges, argues that the institution as it exists has betrayed and sullied the original impulse, and begins a process of reform in the name of an authentic and original ideal based on a selection of texts. Sometimes, these movements were contained and channelled within the institution (think of the medieval orders in the Roman Catholic Church or monastic renewal in the Eastern Orthodox Church). At other times, they were brutally repressed and crushed, as many a radical religious movement in the European Middle Ages. And at other times, due to wider cultural, social and economic shifts, the reform effort became a whole new and enduring movement. The Protestant Reformation is the most notable example.

The analogies with European-derived Marxism should be obvious, if not the struggles between the varieties of socialist, communist and anarchist movements today (as Engels already noted in his ‘On the History of Early Christianity’ from 1895). But we can find it also among non-Marxists and even anti-Marxists. They too assume a certain definition of an ideal socialism, usually based on the very same texts used by Marxists, and then use those to dismiss the actual efforts to construct socialism.

Alternatives

I have focused on European-derived, or ‘Western’ Marxism due to its preference for betrayal narratives and ideas of pristine origins. It can also be found in Russian Marxism, given the comparable cultural dynamics of that part of the world (think of the long-running struggle between Stalin and Trotsky and what their names have come to signify).

Are there alternative approaches that may well do better than the one I have been analysing? Recently, I was having one of my many discussions with a Chinese comrade and we came to the topic in question. In fact, these reflections arose in part from that discussion. She is fully aware of the narrative of betrayal, having devoted much of her working life to studying ‘Western’ Marxism. But she also admitted to not understanding it; or rather, she finds it difficult to understand how it can make sense of actual tradition. Instead, she prefers a process of clarification of previously obscure or unresolved points in each subsequent development. Is that a more Chinese approach? I wondered. Yes, it is, she affirmed. How do mistakes arise, or is every statement a clarification? Mistakes do arise, such as when there is an effort to turn back the clock, to reassert an older and more obscure position that has subsequently been clarified. Or perhaps if someone moves to undermine and dispense with Marxism itself.

I am still working out the implications of this clarifying approach, particularly if it can also incorporate the following possibilities. One is to argue for interpretation in the spirit, rather than the letter of Marxism. Or: instead of invoking the letter of the original text and judging all in its light, one sees Marxism as a method for dealing with every new situation. As Lenin, Stalin and Mao were fond of saying, Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action.

The other approach is related but takes a different approach. Changing historical circumstances produce new problems that must be analysed and solved in new ways. These problems did not face Marx or Engels, while other problems did not face subsequent leaders. The circumstances have been and are many, ranging from unforeseen economic problems, through the development of policies in relation to minority nationalities, to what a socialist culture might actually be. Perhaps the two main changes in circumstances turn on the question of power. Marx and Engels were never in a position to exercise power after a successful communist revolution (as they well knew), so most of the developments in relation to socialism in power had to deal with issues that they simply had not experienced and could not foresee. And none of the previous experiences of socialism in power has prepared us for the moment when China becomes not merely the most powerful socialist country in human history (it already is), but the most powerful economic, political and cultural force in the world.

[1] Or ‘Western’, but this term is loose and impossible-to-pin-down. Chinese has an ideal term, meiou, using the first character for the USA (meiguo) and for Europe (ouzhou), but this is impossible to render into English, except perhaps as ‘Euro-American’. Even this term loses the specificity of the USA and replaces it with a term for the two continents of South and North America.

[2] See especially Roland Boer, “Before October: The Unbearable Romanticism of Western Marxism,”  Monthly Review Magazine(2011), http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/boer081011.html; Roland Boer, “The ‘Failure’ of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative,”  Philosophers for Change(2014), http://philosophersforchange.org/2014/10/28/the-failure-of-communism-a-fall-narrative.

[3] Roland Boer, Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power  (Beijing: Springer, 2017).

[4] Domenico Losurdo, Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera  (Rome: Carocci editore, 2008).

[5] This search for origins can also be manifested in the whole dynamic of ‘revisionism’ in Marxism itself (I have heard the charge levelled at someone only recently and with some vigour).