Introduction: Friedrich Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance

With some intense work over the last few weeks, this book will be complete by the weekend. It is called Friedrich Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance and will be published initially in Chinese as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Engels’s birth, which happens to be next year, 2020.

What follows is the introduction to the book.

This work began as a larger project on socialist governance. The study of Engels was to be its second chapter, after Marx and before Lenin. Stalin, Mao and others. However, as I began to write the chapter it became apparent that Engels has far more to offer than Marx’s relatively cryptic formulations. As I read further, particularly in relatively unstudied material of the 1880s, I began to realise it was Engels, rather than Marx, who provided the main groundwork for a historical and dialectical materialist theory of the state. More than the state, which he defines as a separated public power, for he also provides the basic philosophical principles for what may be called socialist governance. The result was a book in itself, focused on Engels. Indeed, so important is Engels on this matter that I have reversed the usual order of referring to ‘Marx and Engels’ to speak of ‘Engels and Marx’ when it comes to co-authored material. This is not to disparage Marx’s contribution, for it remains very important (Boer 2019) and much of the material that came from Engels’s pen arose from discussion between them over such matters. But when it comes to socialist governance, Marx left us with an unresolved contradiction, between the Paris commune and the dictatorship of the proletariat. He made some tentative moves to resolve the contradiction, but his energy was on other projects rather than the state as such. It fell to Engels to develop such a theory, especially when Marx’s energy had waned and after he died in 1883. This book is an effort to explicate this theory in light of all the relevant material.

Rather than leaving the question begging to the very end, let me state here what Engels proposes concerning socialist governance. It entails that public power (Gewalt – a term we will meet frequently) loses its political character and focuses on the administration of the stuff of life and conduct of the economy for the good of the whole community (Gemeinwesen). This means that such a public power stands in the midst of society, rather than separate from and opposed to it. Far from being simpler and local (as the Anarchists would have it), this approach is even more complex and detailed than anything we have seen before, so much so that it constitutes a whole new level of authority, sovereignty and power. This is not all, for in extensive research later in life, especially into the German ‘Mark’, Engels argued for a dialectical transformation, an Aufhebung to a whole new qualitative level of original or baseline communism and its democracy. These concise points require a significant amount of explanation and exegesis of Engels’s texts in order to show how he arrives at such formulations.

In a moment, I will offer an outline of the arguments of each of the four chapters of the book, but first a word on secondary literature. It is quite sparse, particularly work that focuses on Engels’s distinct contribution.[1] Most of the material available focuses on Marx, with either dismissals of Engels’s contribution or at most deploying Engels to fill in some gaps. Further, the works referenced here tend to be highly selective in the range of texts discussed, with the result that the conclusions reached are somewhat skewed. This is particularly so with the ‘dying away’ of the state, which is seen as either an expression of the core ‘anarchist’ position of Marxism itself (Kelsen 1949, 12; Tucker 1967); or somewhat of a fig leaf for ‘authoritarianism’ (Bloom 1946; Adamiak 1970); or as a dismantling of the structures of governance very soon after a proletarian revolution (Medalie 1959; Hunt 1984, 231-46). At times, the selection emphasises one feature at the expense of others – the most notable being a liking for the Paris commune and a down-playing of the proletarian dictatorship, let alone socialist Gewalt (Miliband 1965; 1991, 151; Avineri 1968, 202-20; Johnstone 1971; Balibar 1977, 58; Jessop 1978; Hunt 1984; Draper 1986, 175-306; Paolucci 2007, 233-37; Van Ree 2015, 77, 115; Ware 2019, 161-63). In other words, there is very little that engages with the important material Engels produced in the late 1870s and especially the 1880s. There are one or two exceptions, although now somewhat dated: the first is the work of Hal Draper, especially those relevant to the current study (Draper 1970, 1977, 1986, 1990). While Draper has worked with much of the relevant material and his work is helpful as a beginning point of research, like many others he focuses overwhelmingly on Marx and sidelines Engels. Further, his conclusions have a tendency to confirm his presuppositions and are not always so helpful. The second is Richard Hunt (Hunt 1984), whose exhaustive study does at least deal with some of the relevant texts by Engels, although not crucial ones such as ‘The Mark’ or ‘The Role of Force in History’. Yet, Hunt’s study is vitiated by an assumption found in much of the material mentioned above, namely, that subsequent historical experiences of socialism in power and the arduous task of constructing socialism somehow departed from what Engels and Marx had thought. This book should go at least part of the way to show how erroneous such an assumption is.

Now for a synopsis of the content to come. The first chapter deals initially with Engels’s programmatic observations on hitherto existing states, which would set the subsequent agenda not only for Marxist studies of such states, but also the Weberian tradition (Weber’s definition of the state borrows heavily from Engels). Apart from noting the key features of this analysis, which involves the core idea of the state as a ‘separated public power’, the chapter focuses on Engels’s shifts between seeing such states state as semi-autonomous, as instruments of a particular class in power, or as shaped in their very nature by the class in question. Engels moves between these three overlapping approaches, depending on the point he seeks to make, but he tends in more detailed work to opt for the third: that the nature of the state is determined by the class in power. This position emerges particularly in a relatively ignored work, ‘The Role of Force in History’ (1887-1888). Here Engels offers an analysis of Bismarck in Germany that is a close companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’ (1852), with the specific point that the bourgeoisie was able to shape the state in its image indirectly, even when it did not hold the reins of power. Even more important is the emergence of a core category, Gewalt. The word is difficult to translate; its semantic field includes the senses of force, power and violence, so I leave the word untranslated. This provides a rather new angle, not only on his proposal that hitherto existing states may be defined as a ‘separated public Gewalt’, that a ‘public Gewalt’ exists that is not so separated, and that it is necessary for the workers’ movement to exercise socialist Gewalt.

This point leads to the second chapter, concerning socialist Gewalt and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The key finding of this chapter is Engels’s emphasis on proletarian Gewalt, in both the revolutionary process and in the early stages of the construction of socialism when power is gained through a revolution. The concrete manifestation of this socialist Gewalt is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Engels (like Marx) defines carefully not as an individual dictatorship (as with Bakunin) or by a small band (Blanquist), but as a collective dictatorship by the majority, the workers. On this basis, Engels’s important contribution was to go beyond Marx in identifying the Paris commune with the proletarian dictatorship. The context was a struggle with the moderates of the increasingly large German Social Democratic Party, which tried to dispense with the dictatorship of the proletariat in its program and work within bourgeois democracy. In light of later tendencies in European communism to downplay the proletarian dictatorship and idealise the Paris commune (for example, with ‘Eurocommunism’ and the tendency among some European Marxists), Engels explicit argument that the commune was the exercise of the proletarian dictatorship, even that it did not go far enough in exercising such a dictatorship, is a timely warning. The chapter concludes by analysing Engels’s explicit usage of ‘socialist Gewalt’ itself, both before and after a revolution. Crucially, Engels points out that political power also has economic influence and potency (Potenz).

The third chapter focuses on the ‘dying away’ of the state, in contrast to its ‘abolition’ as promulgated by Bakunin and the Anarchists in the late 1860s and 1870s. Given the many misunderstandings that surround the idea of the ‘dying away’ of the state, this is the longest chapter in book since it analyses in significant detail all of the relevant material. It begins by studying the wider context in the 184os among German socialists, finding that while they spoke of the abolition (Abschaffung), annihilation (Vernichtung) and dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of private property, money and inheritance, they rarely, if ever, spoke of the state as such. Instead, they envisioned alternative structures, either of a new state or of a new form of social organisation. This is true even of Proudhon, who deeply influenced these early German socialists. There is one notable exception: Max Stirner in his liberal anarchist work, The Ego and Its Own (1845), urged that the state should be abolished and annihilated. Thus, only when Engels and Marx (and others like Moses Hess) engage with Stirner do they speak of the abolition of the state, finding Stirner’s proposals wanting since its focus on an act of pure will.

It is only in 1850 that Engels (and Marx) speak directly of the ‘abolition [Abschaffung]’ of the state for the first time. Notably, this is a critical response to what had become a popular slogan in all manner of circles, including bourgeois ones where such an ‘abolition’ entailed a bourgeois order in which they would be left alone to pursue their private gain. Crucially, this piece – which borrows the language of the slogan – identifies Stirner as the source and introduces the need for a delay in such an abolition. This delay is an early result of the method hammered out in the years before and expressed clearly for the first time in the manifesto of 1848: the primary concern should be socio-economic matters. Thus, a communist revolution would have these as its main task, while any ‘abolition’ of the state would follow as an outcome of such activity. This would be the position, refined and sharpened, that both Engels and Marx would hold in the struggle with Bakunin, who first formulated a somewhat coherent Anarchist position in the late 1860s and particularly in 1870s.

For Bakunin, the state was the prime cause and foundation of all exploitation and oppression, whether political or economic. Thus, the first task of a revolutionary movement upon attaining power should be to abolish (Abschaffung) the state, as a willed and conscious act. Bakunin struggled to show why the state should have this foundational role, at times connecting its quasi-sacred status with the role of the Christian church. But for Engels and Marx, this approach simply did not make sense: in light of their approach, the state was a secondary phenomenon, arising from economic conditions and class struggle. Thus, a communist revolution would need to enact wide-sweeping changes to the means and relations of production before aspects of the superstructure, such as the state, could be addressed. In this context, we find an increasing emphasis that one of the final results of the process of constructing socialism, after other tasks had been achieved and the counter-revolution had been defeated, would be not the ‘abolition’ of the state, but its falling away, disappearance, going to sleep – the terms all appear in works of this time. Finally and as a way to sum up this position, Engels coined in the third edition of Anti-Dühring of 1894 the famous slogan: ‘the state is not abolished, it dies away’. The influence of this slogan is due to its appearance in the extracted material that appeared as ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, which was read and studied by all communists of the second and third generations.

The final chapter begins by addressing a contradiction that has arisen in light of the previous two chapters: between socialist Gewalt and the dying away of the of the state. The initial narrative of the former passing to the latter, which is part of Engels’s approach, addresses neither how authority and Gewalt would continue, nor the nature of governance in a communist society. Dealing with these questions is the focus on this chapter, although I undertake the task with an important caveat: Engels, and indeed Marx, never experienced the actual exercise of power after a communist revolution. They were fully aware of this reality, warning to such analysis can be undertaken only scientifically, only from actual experience. As Engels points out on a number of occasions, he and Marx were not in the business of creating utopian systems for the organisation of future of society.

The chapter has two main sections. The first part analyses a number of brief statements by Engels and Marx that may be collated as follows: public Gewalt loses its political character and becomes the administration of things and conduct of forces and relations of production, for the genuine good of society. The statements are notably brief, even formulaic, for the good reason that they had in their context no extensive data on the actual practice of socialist governance. There was, however, an abundance of information from another source: pre-state forms of social organisation that existed in many parts of the world. It was precisely to this source of information that Engels devoted considerable energy in the 1880s. Here he found complex and many-layered types of what he carefully called ‘social organisation’, which was not separated from but stood ‘in the midst of society’. They were not separated from society, not manifestations and means of class struggle, and thus did not constitute a state. Here, I seek to develop a terminology based on Engels, which speaks of the ‘enmeshed governance’ of ‘baseline communism’, with its attendant and indeed first form of human democracy. This is all very well, based as it was on the available historical anthropological material of the time, but what relevance does it have for the enmeshed governance of socialism, let alone communism? To answer this question, I focus on the remarkable work from 1882, ‘The Mark’. Here Engels outlines his research into this feature of German social life, from its earliest days to the present. The point – directed explicitly at peasant farmers – is that the communism of the future would entail a dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of this baseline communism. Far from a hankering for the rural socialism of the European Middle Ages, or for an idealised ‘primitive communism’, or even for a secularised version of the religious return to Paradise, this dialectical transformation would both negate this baseline communism and transform its core features into a qualitatively different reality. Given that such a form of governance would stand in the midst of society, it cannot be called a ‘state’; indeed, we reach the limits of the language derived from the Western European tradition, for with this type of enmeshed governance it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of the separation of state and society.

The conclusion to the book outlines the way Engels’s contributions provide the philosophical basis for future developments of the historical reality of socialist governance. These insights include: the need for socialist Gewalt in constructing socialist society and economics; the dying away of the state – understood as a separated public Gewalt – as a secondary, long-term and gradual process; the development of de-politicised governance, which means that class struggle in no longer a feature of social and economic life, even if non-antagonistic contradictions persist; the enmeshment of governance within society, so that it is becomes increasingly impossible to distinguish between state and society or between state and economy. That this would entail new forms of governance is obvious, but at this point a question arises concerning continuity and discontinuity. On this matter it is important to strike a realistic balance: to suggest that Engels and indeed Marx foresaw, or perhaps should have foreseen, all of the developments in later efforts to construct socialism is simply unrealistic; to propose – as some of the literature mentioned earlier does – that later historical realities departed significantly from the original thoughts of the founders is even more extreme and simply not sustained by the evidence. Far better is a balanced approach. Thus, there is clearly significant continuity, much more than one might expect, between the initial philosophical foundations and the historical realities of socialism in power. At the same time, in the actual construction of socialism, from the Soviet Union to China, one would expect to face new problems for which new solutions were and are needed – albeit based on the initial principles and the method through which they were derived.. As Engels put it in 1890, ‘So-called “socialist society” is not, in my view, to be regarded as something that remains crystallised for all time, but rather being in process of constant change and transformation like all other social conditions’.

Finally, a word on the approach to citations. In all possible cases the primary citation is to the original language text by Engels (and Marx where relevant). These are in German, French and Italian, mostly available in the standard collections (Gesamtausgabe and the Werke), but at times they are not, since neither collection is complete. Where necessary, I have found the original language source outside such collections. In most cases, I provide my own translation to highlight particular features of the text, or at least a modification of the standard English translation found in the Collected Works. At the same time and for ease of reference for readers, I provide a reference to the English version, even if the translation offered does not conform to this version.

[1] In this work, I do not engage with Chinese language material, for that is the main focus on another work called Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

Increasing international (and Muslim) support for China’s human rights achievements in Xinjiang (updated)

Update: the letter mentioned below initially had 28 signatories, but it now includes 50 signatories, from countries whose population totals 2 billion. Of these, 28 are Muslim-majority countries.

‘No investigation, no right to speak [meiyou diaocha jiu meiyou fanyanquan]’.

This Chinese saying is particularly relevant for some in a small number of former colonising countries who like to make unfounded statements about China. That they have been used to seeing the world in their image is obvious; that they misunderstand much of the rest of the world is also obvious. But times are changing fast, for the voices from precisely such parts are increasingly strong and being heard.

Xinjiang and its highly successful counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation programs are a case in point. In contrast to the former colonisers, many foreign delegations and journalists from other countries have visited Xinjiang and undertaken proper investigation. Notably, this includes investigators from Muslim-majority and developing countries, which support China’s approach.

One recent result of this process of investigation is a joint letter from the ambassadors of 51 countries (and counting), which was sent to the UN’s human rights council. The letter indicates strong support for China’s successes in Xinjiang and its promotion of a Chinese Marxist approach to human rights.

Why Is Chinese Governance Better?

Recently, Martin Jacques observed that Chinese governance under the CPC is a better, more efficient and higher form of governance than we have seen thus far. To begin with, Jacques is correct. This is particularly obvious if we compare it with bourgeois (liberal) democracy, which is now obsolete and quite clumsy. The latter arose in a specific context, in eighteenth and nineteenth century Western Europe, and may have been appropriate in that part of the world in the wake of the bourgeois revolutions. It has also been transplanted to some former colonies in North America, Australia and New Zealand. But the system is rather crude, with nearly every feature of public life politicised, with antagonistic political engagement in which one policy is promulgated by a particular political party only to be undone by the next. Chaotic, clumsy and outdated.

As is usually the case with Martin Jacques, he tries to explain this reality by going back into China’s more distant past. Strangely, he skips past the central role of Marxism in shaping the current practice of governance in China. So let us see what such a focus indicates (this article is also useful).

Here I draw on a book I am writing on Engels, for it is precisely Engels (more than Marx) who provides the philosophical basis for socialist governance. The book has taken longer than expected, since I need to work carefully through material few consider. In the final chapter, I examine Engels’s ideas concerning what a socialist form of governance might be.

There are two main points.

First, the organs of governance ‘stand in the midst of society’. Engels draws this insight from his careful study in the 1870s and 1880s of what he calls ‘pre-state’ societies, but which may also be called ‘base communism’ and ‘base democracy’. Why ‘pre-state’? For Engels, the state is a ‘separated public power’, which arises from class conflict and stands over against society. By contrast, base communism does not have this separation. All the various organs of governance – and there are many – stand in the midst of society. They are woven within social structures, being part and parcel of society as a whole. In my book, I have developed the category of ‘enmeshment’ to understand how this might work: society, state and economy are not separated from one another, but rather enmeshed within one another.

One might respond: but Engels is dealing with ancient societies, in a historical and anthropological way, so these insights are not relevant for how socialism today functions. The answer: in a crucial but under-studied piece called ‘The Mark’, Engels points out that this type of base communism would be dialectically transformed under socialism, so as to become the type of society and governance that would be appropriate.

This point I have realised for some time, but the second is relatively new: ‘public functions will lose their political character and be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society’. This text is quoted from Engels’s 1873 piece, ‘On Authority’, in which he castigates the impractical proposals of the Anarchists, especially under Bakunin’s leadership. But the core idea of political character disappearing and being replaced by an efficient administration focused on the public good is crucial (it appears elsewhere in Engels’s work and is voiced by Marx).

Let us begin with political character. Under bourgeois democracies, a whole spate of areas are political footballs: education, health, environment, public transport, immigration and refugees, economic policy, and so on. They are the subject of election campaigns, of bewildering changes in policy with changes in the party in power, of implementation and winding back. But if they lose their political character, they cease to be tossed back and forth depending on the whims of political parties.

In place of this political character is efficient administration focused on the public good. Let me give three examples drawn from China. In education, the long-term plan is to improve the already impressive educational system in all respects. This entails careful research, significant funding, trials of new methods in some areas before extending them to the rest of the country, and so on. For this reason, people with whom I speak in China find it unbelievable that the Australian government – as one example – has been reducing funding for education for quite some time now.

Another example concerns public transport, which is reasonably well-known internationally. Simply put, the Chinese rail system is now the best in the world. Three levels of high-speed train operate across the country, while the slower ‘green skin’ trains ply local routes. In cities across China, world-leading metro systems are being implemented at a breath-taking pace. One that I know well is in Beijing, where they are working towards increasing the total kilometres covered from about 500 km to 1,000 km. Currently, it caters for 6 billion passenger trips per year, but this will increase. Again, this is seen as a public good, requiring long-term planning and efficient implementation.

Finally, environmental policy and action, which is called in China ‘ecological civilisation [shengtai wenming]’. The term refers to the modes of life and their relation to the environment: only when this is sorted out can we speak of wenming, which is not so much ‘citification’ (as the Latin origins of ‘civilisation’ suggest) but the just, peaceful, healthy and stable nature of culture. In China, the realities of climate change are not politicised; instead, they needs to be addressed directly. I have seen this with my own eyes, in what may be called the greening of China. The country leads the world in reafforestation, the water, plants and air of major cities have been improving year on year, and green technologies are leaping ahead. Again, this is efficient administration for the public good.

So yes, Chinese governance is clearly the highest form we have seen thus far, precisely because of the CPC and the socialist road. We should of course be careful: Engels’s formulations are not the final word on the matter. He had never experienced the actual process of constructing socialism, let alone a successful communist revolution. But it is rather striking how he and Marx provide the philosophical basis of socialist governance in terms of the disappearance of its political character and the development of efficient and careful administration for the public good. That the Chinese have developed these much further, in light of their conditions and the actual experience of constructing socialist governance, should be clear.

Colonial Policy by Other Means: Losurdo on Hong Kong’s Supposed ‘Self-Determination’

A small number of former colonial powers are fond of trotting out the mantra of ‘self-determination’ for parts of the world they would like to control. Hong Kong and Taiwan are good examples (even though the USA has the world’s strongest measures against self-determination of its own states). In the last few days, deliberate misinformation concerning Hong Kong has been peddled in a small number of places. If you want to get a fuller picture, see the reports here, here, here, here and here.

So it is worth recalling Losurdo’s observations on such a matter. The first comes from his essay, ‘Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy’ (2007):

Colonial domination has left its mark: on the economic level, the inequality of development among different regions has been accentuated; while the hegemonic presence at every level of the great powers and the policy of ethnic engineering, often promoted by them, has accentuated cultural, linguistic, and religious fragmentation. Secessionist tendencies of every kind are once again lying in wait, regularly fed by the ex-colonial powers. When it wrested Hong Kong from China, Great Britain certainly did not conceive of self-determination, and it did not remember it even during the long years in which it exercised its dominion. But, suddenly, on the eve of Hong Kong’s return to China, to the motherland, the governor sent by London, Chris Patten, a conservative, had a species of illumination and improvised conversion: he appealed to the inhabitants of Hong Kong to claim their right to ‘self-determination’ against the motherland, thus remaining within the orbit of the British Empire.

Analogous considerations are true for Taiwan. When, at the beginning of 1947, the Kuomintang, which had fled from continental China and the victorious People’s Army, let loose a terrible repression that provoked about ten thousand deaths, the United States was careful not to invoke the right to self-determination for the inhabitants of the island; on the contrary, it sought to impose the thesis according to which Chiang Kai-shek’s government was the legitimate government not only of Taiwan but also of the whole of China. The great Asian country had to remain united but under the control of Chiang Kai-shek, reduced to a simple pro-consul of Washington’s sovereign imperialism. As the dream of reconquering the mainland slowly faded away, and the stronger became the aspiration of the whole Chinese people to achieve full territorial integration and independence, ending the tragic chapter of colonial history, so the presidents of the United States experienced an illumination and a conversion similar to that of Chris Patten. They too began to caress the idea of ‘self-determination’. Incoherence? Not at all: ‘self-determination’ is the continuation of imperial policy by other means. If it was not really possible to get their hands on China as a whole, it was, meanwhile, convenient to secure control of Hong Kong or Taiwan (249-50).

 

And as he writes in one his last books, Class Struggle (2016):

 

Perhaps it would be better to learn the lesson of old Hegel, who, with the Sanfedista and anti-Semitic agitation of his time in mind, observed that sometimes ‘courage consists not in attacking rulers, but in defending them’. The populist rebel who would be bound to consider Hegel insufficiently revolutionary could always heed Gramsci’s warning against the phraseology of ‘primitive, elementary “rebellionism,” “subversionism” and “anti-statism,” which are ultimately an expression of de facto “a-politicism”’ (337).

China will not be humiliated again

More than two centuries ago, high quality Chinese goods were in heavy demand. Back then, the goods were porcelain, silk and tea, which the peoples of North America and Western Europe were unable to produce. Gold and especially silver flowed into China, including most of the stuff extracted from mines in Central and South America.

Back then, capricious Western regimes began decrying the ‘trade imbalance’ with China, saying it was the result of ‘unfair’ practices and ‘despotic’ restrictions on ‘legitimate’ Western trade.

From that point on, these same regimes began trying all sorts of tricks to force the Chinese to act ‘fairly’. The British began smuggling opium to China, against which China resisted, especially under Lin Zexu in 1839, who seized and burnt more than 20,000 chests of opium in Guangzhou. The British then initiated the first of the two Opium Wars (1840-1842), providing not only a textbook example of  ‘gunboat diplomacy’, but also the first of a series of unequal treaties. This was the Treaty of Nanjing of 1842, which was not so much a treaty as a unilateral imposition of British imperial demands on the Chinese (including, among other items, the occupation of Hong Kong).

For the Chinese, this was the beginning of a century of humiliation.

Sound familiar?

It should, since the United States is trying the same tactics now. The specifics might be different. Back then it was high quality goods such as porcelain, silk and tea; now it is high-technology, railway expertise, navigation equipment, quantum communication and so on. Back then, the Chinese were accused of using ‘unfair’ practices to develop a ‘trade imbalance’. And back then, a more powerful empire imposed its arbitrary will on the Chinese.

With this kind of history, you can see why China simply will not accept the unilateral and arbitrary demands of the United States in the so-called ‘trade war’. China will not be humiliated again.

Why? One crucial factor is now different: China is strong enough to resist, fight back and insist on its own integrity. Or rather, two factors are different: now the United States is a drug-addled country, tearing itself apart internally and in noticeable decline.

China leads the world in re-afforestation

On one or two occasions, I have written about the greening of Beijing, as well as ‘ecological civilisation‘ as one of the core features of the drive to a xiaokang (moderately well-off) society by 2021. But these are not merely recent developments. Many environmental projects require a long-term approach, stable planning and determined governance – precisely what a communist party in power is able to provide.

Here is another fact that is not so well known internationally: China leads the world in re-afforestation. This has been an ongoing project for several decades, as the following graphic from the People’s Daily shows:

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.

China’s poverty alleviation: One of the greatest human rights achievements

One of the greatest human rights achievements in human history is China’s forty years of poverty alleviation – given the fundamental right to socio-economic wellbeing. The World Bank estimates that 850 million people have been lifted out of poverty, but still some remain in poverty. Given that one of the three great challenges for a xiaokang society is absolute poverty elimination, there is a resolute focus to achieve the target. A useful background article can be found in Xinhua News.

The Silk Road is active again: Thousands of trains now run the route

Many centuries ago, the routes of the ‘Silk Road’ used camels and whatnot for covering the thousands of kilometres between east and west on the Eurasian landmass. In more recent times, when Chinese planners were thinking about the reincarnation of the Silk Road – what is now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – they took into consideration a number of factors: trains, even slower ones, are faster than ships; the US navy likes to bully others on the high seas; Central Asia, Russia and Europe will become more and more keen on Chinese products as the latter move to high quality production. One of the key solutions was actually a relatively old one: trains.

I am a great lover of trains, taking them whenever possible. And China is now the world leader in train innovation, technology and implementation. But the development of long distance cargo trains on the Eurasian landmass has largely gone under the radar. From a modest beginning back in 2011, when the first cargo train left Chongqing in China for Duisburg in Germany, it was the beginning of a monumental shift. Back then, there were perhaps a couple of routes trains could follow. Now there are many indeed and they keep increasing exponentially.

Every few days in the Chinese newspapers (for example, here and here), I read of yet another service that has opened, so much so that now there are now 65 routes between 48 cities in China and 40 in Europe. For example, in 2108 alone, 6300 trains with cargo made the journey to Europe, an incease of 70 percent from the previous year.

More detail in this recent article from Xinhua News, the largest and most reliable news service in the world.