‘Speaking of your health, as we were not, judging from this evening you seem to be in good condition.’
Mao Tse-tung smiled wryly and replied that there was perhaps some doubt about that. He said again that he was getting ready to see God very soon. Did I believe it?
‘I wonder if you mean you are going to find out whether there is a God. Do you believe that?
No, he did not, but some people who claimed to be well informed said that there was a God. There seemed to be many gods and sometimes the same god could take all sides. In the wars of Europe the Christian God had been on the side of the British, the French, the Germans, and so on, even when they were fighting each other. At the time of the Suez Canal crisis God was united behind the British and the French but then there was Allah to back up the other side.
At dinner Mao had mentioned that both his brothers had been killed. His first wife had also been executed during the revolution (1930) and their son had been killed during the Korean war. Now, he said that it was odd that death had so far passed him by. He had been prepared for it many times but death just did not seem to want him. What could he do? On several occasions it had seemed that he would die. His personal bodyguard was killed while standing right beside him. Once he was splashed all over with the blood of another soldier but the bomb had not touched him.
‘Was that in Yenan?’
In Yenan, too. His bodyguard had been killed during the Long March. There had been other narrow escapes. According to laws of dialectics all struggles must finally be resolved, including man’s struggle for life on this earth.
‘Accidents of fate which spared you have made possible perhaps the most remarkable career in Chinese history. In all China’s long annals I cannot recall any man who rose from rural obscurity not only to lead a successful social revolution but to write its history, to conceive the strategy of its military victory, to formulate an ideological doctrine which changed the traditional thought of China, and then to live out the practice of his philosophy in a new kind of civilization with broad implications for the whole world.’
After a moment of reflection Mao said that I knew he had begun life as a primary school teacher. He had then had no thought of fighting wars. Neither had he thought of becoming a Communist. He was more or less a democratic personage such as myself. Later on — he sometimes wondered by what chance combination of reasons he had become interested in founding the Chinese Communist Party. Anyway, events did not move in accordance with the individual will. What mattered was that China had been oppressed by imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism. Such were the facts. . . .
Mao’s voice dropped away and he half closed his eyes. Man’s condition on this earth was changing with ever increasing rapidity. A thousand years from now all of us, he said, even Marx, Engels, and Lenin would probably appear rather ridiculous.
Before I rose to leave the Chairman sent his greetings to the American people and said simply that he wished them progress. If he wished them liberation weren’t some people bound to disagree? Wouldn’t they say that they already had the right to vote? But to those among them who were not really liberated, and desired liberation, to them he wished his best.
Mao Tse-tung walked me through the doorway and, despite my protests, saw me to my car, where he stood alone for a moment, coatless in the sub-zero Peking night, to wave me farewell in the traditional manner of that ancient cultured city. I saw no security guards around the entrance nor can I now recall having seen even one armed body guard in our vicinity all evening …
Mao shook hands and gave me a precautionary word, to take care, quoting a Chinese maxim: ‘Unpredictable high winds and misfortunes are in the skies!’
As the car drove away I looked back and watched Mao brace his shoulders and slowly retrace his steps and re-enter the great Hall of the people.
The CPC has ‘repressed’ Mao’s writings – or so the myth would have us believe. I am never quite sure whether this sort of observation is an article of unquestioned faith, myth, or simply a ‘fact’ that is believed by many due to thousands of repetitions. To wit, since some of Mao’s texts are too explosive, they have – so some believe – been hidden by a CPC keen to keep a lid on how Mao is studied and interpreted. Indeed, if you want a full collection of Mao’s writings you have to go to the series published in Japan, called Maozedong ji.
There is one small problem: you can easily get all of Mao’s material and more in China. For example, this website has pretty much everything. In this collection, have just discovered a wonderful 700 page manuscript, concerning Mao’s study notes and talks about Stalin’s study of economic problems under socialism, as well as material concerning political economy in the Soviet Union and China.
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:
A characteristic feature of European-derived, or North Atlantic 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. And it was inescapable in much of the secondary literature when I was engaging deeply with Stalin. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 Roland Boer, Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power (Beijing: Springer, 2017).
 Domenico Losurdo, Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera (Rome: Carocci editore, 2008).
 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).
An article of faith among some ‘Western’ Marxists is that the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76) expressed the core communist position of Mao Zedong, indeed when communism itself began to be realised. Subsequently, the ‘revisionist’ Deng Xiaoping undid Mao’s legacy, engineered an about-turn and set out on the road to capitalism. After all, did not Mao dub him a ‘bourgeois’ and a ‘capitalist roader’? Case closed …
What if this is a misreading of the situation, part of the myopia or narrative of betrayal characteristic of much European-derived historiography?
After some fascinating discussions and much rethinking as a result, I have come to change my mind on this period. I used to argue that the Great Cultural Revolution was a necessary process that shook up China from top to bottom so that the reform and opening up could happen afterwards. I thought this was enough of a challenge to misguided ‘Western’ efforts, but every Chinese person to whom I have mentioned this theory has looked doubtful indeed. Instead, I have come to appreciate the carefully argued position of the vast majority of my Chinese interlocutors. Thus, in his old age Mao lost his way and it was only after the turmoil and destruction of the time that the line he had developed earlier was taken up again. In other words, the continuity was from Mao’s earlier thought, up the early 1960s, to Deng Xiaoping and afterwards. In between was the deviation.
There are a number of ways to understand this proposal.
One is to deploy a conventional communist approach and call it a phase of revisionism or perhaps opportunism. I do not need to go into the details of what revisionism entails, suffice to note that it marks a departure from the main line that had been agreed upon before. So it was with Mao in the mid-1960s. There is some merit to such an argument, since it counters the ‘Western’ claim that Deng Xiaoping was the revisionist. However, the catch with using such a category is that the main line itself shifts depending on the situation, so what counts as ‘revisionist’ also shifts. And it depends on who is deciding what counts as the core, for each side in crucial debates will call each other revisionist.
A second suggestion is that Mao fell into the trap of becoming a quasi-emperor (huangdi). After all, it had barely been more than 50 years earlier that the imperial system itself was finally abolished, a system with a long history indeed in China, with its associated cultural assumptions. Thus, during the Cultural Revolution the deference to Mao, the belief that he could make no mistakes, indeed the ‘faith [xinxin]’ in him all indicate such a development. And there was also the reality that Mao, the revolutionary leader, would not hand over the near solitary power he had attained in his old age until he died.
A third approach is to point out that the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism took over during this time. This is an absolutely necessary feature of Marxism, with its focus on the ‘heart’, on feelings and emotions, on idealism and hope. But it should always be in close connection with the ‘cold stream’, the one of rational and scientific analysis of any situation. At their best, we find such combinations in Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin and the communist party the latter two led. And we find it with Mao before the mid-1960s. But after that, the warm stream dominated, revolutionary fervour leapt ahead of careful analysis of the situation, disaster loomed and much suffering ensued.
A fourth suggestion concerns the tension between old and new. A revolutionary movement like communism obviously seeks to abolish the old and replace it with what is new, for otherwise one would not undertake revolutionary action. The problem, however, is how one relates to what has gone before. One side seeks to abolish everything related to the old order: its economics, politics, ideology, culture. After a revolutionary period, one begins completely anew. Another side argues that one cannot simply build from scratch, but one must build on the foundations of the old. Indeed, all that is best in the old order needs to be taken up and transformed dialectically within the new. This debate raged after the Russian revolution, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks eventually siding with the second approach and one finds it also in its own way in relation to the Chinese revolution. Mao evinces both dimensions in his thoughts and actions. At times, he argues that Marxism cannot be understood without the concrete situation in China, in terms of its long history and its culture – from ‘Confucius to Sun Yat-sen’ he observes in 1938, ‘we must sum it up critically, and we must constitute ourselves the heirs to this precious legacy’. This is the basis for the sinification of Marxism (Makesizhuyi zhongguohua) that would be taken up again after the Cultural Revolution by Deng Xiaoping. Obviously, the period of the Cultural Revolution was a break from this approach, giving vent to Mao’s tendency at times to abolish all that had gone before.
A fifth angle is to point out that Mao lost sight of some of his crucial earlier insights. I think in particular of the category of ‘non-contradictory contradictions [feiduikangxing maodun]’. Mao picked up this idea from Soviet debates during the intense period of study at Yan’an in the 1930s. The Soviet communists had begun developing the idea to deal with the question of contradictions under socialism. Mao seized upon it in his lectures on dialectical materialism at the time and it became the final section of his crucial essay ‘On Contradiction’. Why? The idea of non-antagonistic contradictions connected with a long tradition in Chinese philosophy, which gave Mao the opportunity to develop the theoretical foundations of sinified Marxism. Twenty years later, he developed the idea much further in the essay, ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’. Here he pointed out that contradictions under socialism would certainly continue, but they need to be addressed so that they do not become antagonistic and lead to struggle and conflict. This essay appeared in 1957, after the revolution and in the early stage of beginning to construct socialism. However, a decade later he clearly forgot this key insight, instigating antagonistic contradictions in the name of inner-party class struggle.
As I mentioned at the beginning, these different angles – which are not mutually exclusive – arose from a series of intense and very open discussions about the Cultural Revolution. And I have found that it a very rare person indeed in China who wishes to defend Mao’s mistake in his last years.
Perhaps Xi Jinping expressed it best in 2013: ‘Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings. We cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great; neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes’.
A useful piece for those interested in the central function of Marxist contradiction analysis in a Chinese situation. Xi Jinping recently announced that the primary contradiction has now changed, ushering in a new era. And if you are still interested, it is worth reading (again) Mao’s two pieces, ‘On Contradiction‘ and ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People‘. Crucial here is managing contradictions so that they remain non-antagonistic.
In recent discussion in China, I have become more aware of different ways the Marxist tradition can be interpreted. You can take any core feature, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the distinction between socialism and communism, the nature of the socialist state, and many more.
For example, Marx uses the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ 11 times, where he means a coercive force of the state that crushes class opponents. This is in tension with his treatments of the Paris commune, where he praises the diminishment of state power and its continuance only as apparatus. Engels, by contrast, does not use dictatorship of the proletariat, but coins the phrase (only in 1894), the dying or ‘withering away of the state’. Lenin develops the argument further, distinguishing between two phases, the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the state’s withering. He pushes this into a distant future, but Stalin argues that it would take place only after global communism had been achieved and communism had become second nature – which may take 1000 years or more. And in Chinese Marxism, dictatorship of the proletariat becomes ‘democratic dictatorship’ in Mao’s hands and then ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ with Deng Xiaoping, now as an inclusive category operating in terms of non-antagonistic contradictions.
What about socialism and communism? This distinction is not in Marx and Engels. Only in the late notes, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, does Marx distinguish an initial stage of communism and a further stage. He leaves open the possibility of more. Lenin then distinguishes these as socialism and communism, with socialism still bearing many features, such as state, classes, law and so on. Only with communism will the earlier prescriptions of Marxism begin to appear. Stalin takes this further, pushing communism into a very distant future, while socialism has a strong multi-national state, tensions between forces and relations of production continue, people are rewarded according to work, equalisation (a petty-bourgeois idea) has no place, and the state’s domestic responsibilities, affirmative action and fostering of anti-colonial struggles play huge roles. In a Chinese situation, they take an even longer view, with the preliminary stage of socialism lasting 100 years, after which a next stage emerges, the moderately prosperous, peaceful and stable society. During this process, a whole spate of new approaches emerge.
How do we interpret these developments? Here are some possibilities:
- A narrative of betrayal. Engels betrays Marx; Lenin betrays Marx and Engels; Stalin betrays all of the former; Mao betrays them; Deng betrays Mao … Pick your place, but betrayal of Marxism happens at some point. I find this approach quite common among ‘western’ Marxists.
- Continuity, sometimes radical. A smaller number take this line, arguing that all of the ideas found in Stalin, Mao or Deng have precursors in the Marxist tradition.
- Clarification. Each stage of the tradition and each of its different branches constitutes a clarification of some idea or practice that was not so clear before. This is a more common Chinese approach.
- Changing historical circumstances, which may be connected with the first or third approach. Obviously, specific circumstances, cultural histories, political realities and so on produce new problems, which require new solutions. This is what the Chinese call ‘seeking truth from facts’ (drawn from Mao).
- The differences between socialism seeking power and socialism in power. As Lenin and Mao pointed out repeatedly, winning a revolution is relatively easy; infinitely more complex is the effort to construct socialism. This is obviously connected with the fourth point, but plays a crucial role.
‘Understanding the world in terms of Mao’s contradiction method is part of our culture’, she said. ‘We have learnt this since “middle” school.’
For me, this was enough of a stunning discovery.
Then I asked, ‘But have you read Mao’s “On Contradiction”’?
They admitted they had not read it.
‘Let’s read it then’, I said.
So we set about studying Mao’s text from 1937. It was originally presented as part of the lectures on ‘Dialectical Materialism’, delivered in Yan’an in 1937. Later, he drew the material on contradiction from the lectures and thoroughly revised it for publication. Clearly, Mao felt that the essay was vitally important, not merely for the breakthrough it entailed in revolutionary theory – leading all the way to 1949 – but also for framing a way to interpret and indeed change the world.
Our study became a seminar, running over six three-hour sessions. All of the participants were Chinese people who had grown up in China – except for me.
I learnt more from them than they learnt from me, especially in terms of contemporary Chinese culture. Of course, traditional Chinese culture is a complex mix of Confucian influences, Daoist principles, folk wisdom, and indeed some Buddhist factors suitably sinified – to mention but a few items. But tradition changes and adapts. Culture never remains the same.
Contradiction method (the Chinese term) is a telling example. Stemming from the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, reinterpreted in light of socialism in power in the Soviet Union, it was concretely reshaped by Mao in terms of the Chinese situation. Since then, it has been taught consistently in schools for 80 years.
To find out the effect of this process, let me return to the responses from the seminar participants.
One said, ‘This is common sense for us’. Another said, ‘I live my life according to this approach. It is part of who I am’. And another: ‘I just use this principle like a law of truth for my life, never thinking more deeply about how it comes about and where it stands’.
Contradiction is not merely a political ideology (although one person felt it was), but woven into the fabric of personal and collective lives. Most people do not see it as a theory one might study, but rather as common sense, as a framework for understanding daily life itself. This is the result of more than education: as one put it, ‘I feel like I was born with it’. It is as though parents pass it onto children even before they begin school.
A little later, another said, ‘I find it difficult to think about this further. It is too familiar for me, so I can hardly think critically about it’.
Thinking about what is really second nature is a difficult task. No matter how much one may engage in ‘criticism and self-criticism [piping ziwo piping]’ – another socialist feature of daily life – it requires significant effort to analyse such matters. Perhaps this effort will undermine the structure of one’s life, rearrange the narrative according to which one has been living. At the same time, the way contradiction method has become part of daily life is through unexamined key terms and ideas. The effort to think philosophically about it – as participants admitted – can sharpen one’s understanding.
Another said, ‘Of course there is contradiction under socialism. This is obvious. We know this’.
Not only did they find it strange that the European philosophical tradition tended to see contradictions as either-or, as cancelling one or the other out, they also could not see a problem with contradictions under socialism. This is a given; they experience it every day. But they were also keen to emphasise the sheer complexity of contradictions. Principle contradictions become secondary, new contradictions arise, secondary contradictions become primary, and the principal and non-principal aspects are constantly shifting. This is a reality of political and economic planning, but also of their cultural experience. Nothing new here.
The seminars continued. One or two may have demurred, but the majority made it very clear to me that contradiction method is a ‘basic knowledge of our worldview’ – all the way from mundane realities to political life.
What was I to make of all of this?
Could Marxism become common sense, integral to the way people live their lives? Obviously, it could. Obviously, it has.
But could Marxism also become part of Chinese culture in all its complexity? Before the seminar, I had heard rumours to this effect, but I was still unsure. This seminar taught me otherwise: Marxism already has become part of this culture.
There is significant misunderstanding of the term ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi]’.
Many foreigners – Marxists included – think it is a code for capitalism. Others think it means the complex intersections between Marxism and Chinese culture, while others think it is an empty term that can be filled with whatever content you want.
The Chinese understanding is different but actually very clear.
The specific term comes from Deng Xiaoping in 1982:
In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities [zhongguo de shiji]. 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 [zhongguo tese de shehuizhuyi] – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history.
Further, the specific meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ entails the ‘reform and opening up [gaige kaifang]’, which has been underway since 1978. Again, this is not a ‘reform’ away from socialism, but something quite different. This is reform after a revolution, undertaken in light of the revolution (as Lenin already argued).
Above all, let me stress that Deng Xiaoping’s genius was that he understood that socialism is not about everyone being equal, which really means that everyone is equally poor. Instead, it entails unleashing the forces of production, as Marx and Engels already argued. In other words, socialism is about improving the social and economic lives of everyone.
So this is the specific Chinese characteristic of socialism.
But the question remains, as some seem to think, whether Deng Xiaoping marks a significant departure from Mao on this matter (another version of the betrayal or ‘Fall’ narrative’). As one would expect, there are different stresses and emphases in their approaches, depending in the specific circumstances involved in constructing socialism. But on this matter, we can identify the broader framework of Deng Xiaoping’s approach (and that of later Chinese leaders) already in Mao’s thought.
This initial idea already appears in Mao’s work from 1938:
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 [zhongguo tedian], and not Marxism abstractly used … consequently, the sinification of Marxism [makesizhuyi de zhongguohua] – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo texing], using it according to Chinese peculiarities [zhongguo tedian] – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole party without delay.
To begin with, we find the idea of Chinese characteristics, which may also be translated as distinguishing features (zhongguo tedian) or distinguishing properties (zhongguo texing).
Equally important is the crucial phrase, sinification of Marxism (makesizhuyi de zhongguohua). This phrase is usually translated as ‘Chinese Marxism’, but as is the case with translations, some of the meaning is lost and other meanings attach to it. ‘Chinese Marxism’ tends miss the crucial meaning of the word hua: to transform. Mao’s text is talking about Marxism transformed in light of a Chinese situation, or in terms of Chinese characteristics. So it is better to translate as ‘sinification of Marxism’.
Obviously, the general idea derives from Mao, but what fascinates me is the way Deng Xiaoping interprets the term. It refers not so much to the influence of Chinese culture and history, but to unleashing the forces of production in light of the specific, historical conditions of China.
All of this means that transforming Marxism in light of Chinese conditions – that is, socialism with Chinese characteristics – actually comes out of the Marxist tradition. As Engels, Lenin and others were fond of saying, ‘Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action’.
One of the great myths concerning socialist collectivisation of agriculture is that it produced ‘man-made’ famines, since it is supposedly less ‘efficient’. This story is perpetrated by friend and foe alike.
Example 1: The famine of 1932-33 in the Soviet Union, which is supposed to have been ‘man-made’.
Let me set the context. During the ‘socialist offensive’ of the late 1920s and 1930s in the Soviet Union, a massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation took place.
The Soviet Union did not have access to and did not want to use capitalist modes of accumulating funds, namely, colonial expansion (dispossession of others) and international loans. So the industrialisation process had to rely on internal, or socialist accumulation. In order to generate such accumulation, the government set higher prices for the increasing abundance of manufactured goods, as a type of super-tax that would flow back into industry. Meanwhile, prices on agricultural goods were set lower, albeit with fluctuations depending on seasonal shortages and in light of the constant efforts at speculation. This tensions of this ‘scissors’ method of generating revenue for further industrialisation generated obvious problems, but these were exacerbated by a famine in 1927-28, requiring enforced requisitions of grain in response to some peasants withholding agricultural produce for speculation (Withholding of grain for the sake of raising prices was an old practice, appearing not only during the NEP of the mid-1920s, but also much earlier). Obviously, something had to be done, since the ‘scissors’ method could not continue – it was always conceived as a temporary measure.
Another persistent problem was that traditional Russian farming methods were inadequate in light of new developments and a rising population. I mean not the subsistence survival agriculture practised in many parts of the world for millennia, but the practice of landlords extracting food necessary for survival by farmers. In fact, rural famines were endemic to Russian life. In more recent memory, famine hit in 1890-91, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 had taken place in the context of widespread famine, which added to socio-economic chaos. Famines also blighted 1918-20 and were exacerbated during 1920-21.
So the process of collectivisation was at one level an effort to deal with endemic famine.
Many of course will point to the famine of 1932-33, with some even suggesting it was a deliberate policy of ‘genocide’ focused on the Ukraine (the ‘Holodomur’). But the famine also affected Northern Caucasus, Volga Region and Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. Enough research has been done to show that the famine was the result of significant weather conditions (drought), low harvest, international blockade, and the profound turmoil and frequent violence of the 1930s.
Were there famines later? Yes. One could argue that the food shortage during the siege of Leningrad was a famine, but the reasons are obvious here. And after the devastation of war and the effort to defeat Hitler, a famine took place after a drought in 1947. Most importantly, despite the drought cycle, no further famines were experienced.
Obviously, collectivisation had a distinct result in dealing with the endemic problem of famines. Why? Collectivisation enabled mechanisation and increase in the amount of land under cultivation, so much so that in 1932 many farmers worked harder to ensure greater crop yield and overcome the famine by the next year.
Example 2: The Chinese famine of 1959-61, during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, is also described as ‘man-made’, a result of the ‘foolhardy’ effort at collectivisation.
Once again, famine was endemic to Chinese agriculture (see Losurdo’s War and Revolution, pp. 271-72). Restricting ourselves to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, famines occurred in 1810-11, 1846, 1849, 1876-79 (9-13 million died), 1896-97, 1907, 1911, 1920-21 (again in northern China), 1928-30 (3 million people died), 1936 (5 million), 1940-41 (2-3 million). In famine was a persistent problem.
If we add the semi-colonisation of China, invasions, insurrections, along with droughts, the deaths in China between 1850 and 1950 were by far the highest in the world.
Again, something obviously had to be done. Having seen the long-term success of the collectivisation in the Soviet Union in overcoming the persistent cycle of famine, collectivisation was also undertaken in China.
The problem now was not only the devastation of decades of civil war and Japanese occupation, but a deliberate policy of economic warfare and strangulation by the Truman regime. This included schematic bombing from Taiwan of any industrial facilities built on the eastern seaboard. The deliberate aim was to keep the new communist country below subsistence level so as to produce a catastrophic economic situation, if not disaster and collapse.
We need to add Mao’s impatience. Seeing the dire situation of the country in light of economic devastation and US policy, he sought to leap over stages of development in order to escape from the desperate trap. Again, the US regimes made the most of situation, seeking to exacerbate the situation and cause widespread devastation. By the early 1960s, the Kennedy regime, looking back on the famine of 1959-61, gloated that they succeeded in retarding Chinese economic development by decades.
Were there famines after this time in China? Again, no. The long history of endemic famine and the tragic lesson of 1959-61 meant that China has managed to put famine behind it.