The Greening of Beijing

For the past two weeks I have walked well over 100 kilometres – in Beijing.

Until now I have regarded my little corner of the city as an oasis, outside of which is the bewildering maze of one of the largest cities in the history of human civilization. To be sure, I am accustomed to taking the massive metro system to all corners of the city. But this practice makes no difference to the sense of living in a maze. One speeds along underground, emerging at one’s destination in another part of town.

Walking is completely different.

Initially, I simply set out to find a bicycle shop for local supplies for my new Brompton foldup bicycle. Before I knew it, I had checked my Baidu map (much better than the woeful Google maps) to locate another bicycle shop. By the time I found it and returned home, I had walked in a south-westerly loop of about 10 kilometres.

I was hooked in a way that I had not expected. The next day I walked north to a church and bookshop, ambling back via another route. Soon enough I was off again, walking north again to find the old Summer Palace grounds, known in these parts as Yuanmingyuan. Having been inside before and knowing the ruins (a result of one of the European colonial rampages in the nineteenth century), I preferred to walk there and find another way home.

Now it was time for a serious hike. To the west of where I live begin the mountains that encircle Beijing. A favourite is Xiangshan, Fragrant Mountain, which I have climbed in the past. But now I decided I would walk to Xiangshan, a distance of some 14 kilometres. On the way I found the Beijing Green Belt, a carefully designed strip that runs along the western reaches of town. Soon enough I was striding along, absorbing the trees and the first blossoms of spring. Few were enjoying them at the time, for people were flocking to Xiangshan and its fabled spring flowers. By the time I reached the village itself, at the foot of the mountain and outside the city, I was done, so I took the new metro back home.

More walks followed, to the massive Yuyuantan Park, south of where I live and full of people out and about and celebrating spring. But I was most thrilled by Xizhuyuan Park, or Black Bamboo Park. It had been a chance discovery on another walk, a green space that set a whole new standard for such spaces.

Originally it had been a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) minor palace area, but it had been closed for many a long year. What had they been doing in the meantime? It turns out that the Beijing City government had been working on a new plan for the greening of the city. Black Bamboo Park would be one of the model green spaces. It had opened only recently.

Inside I was amazed. The old buildings had been restored, but more importantly trees and birds and plants were everywhere.  As I walked along the lake, a ranger with much excitement pointed to the water. There was a turtle – an amphibian that is most sensitive to environmental conditions since it moves between water, land and air – enjoying the clean water of the lake.

After my first visit to this particular park, I was able to map out an ideal walk. Initially I would head west along Wanquanzhuang Road, deep in the outer regions of Beijing where few foreigners tread and where locals do their thing. Then I would pick up the western Green Belt, along the Nanchang River, which was yet another new development. The river itself had been cleaned up and its environs were full of trees, blossoms and recreational spaces. It led me to the Black Bamboo Park, where I once again relished the breakthroughs in green planning and implementation. For the final leg, I walked along some four kilometres of the major Zhongguancun Road, but I did so by walking through one green space after another.

By now I had walked in all directions of the compass, east, north, west and south. I had hiked into the centre of the city, to its outskirts and the mountains, to historic sites of colonial humiliation, and along the ever greater number of green spaces.

Above all, I was most struck by the greening of Beijing. Not so long ago Beijing was a leitmotiv of the worst of city living. Row upon row of high-rise building, with an air quality that had become proverbial. Indeed, some foreigners and Chinese people from other parts assume that Beijing is still like that.

Not any more: the city government has been fully aware that residents would no longer put up with such conditions, so it had set about for many a long year to clean up the city. Some of the strictest environmental laws in the world are enforced ever more strongly, but this is only a beginning. Whole new standards have been set for a greening of the city. The air quality would be tackled through many policies that has seen it gradually improve year upon year. Green spaces would abound, with designer planning and implementation, as only the Chinese know how. And water quality would be at a level where sensitive animals would feel at home, whether turtles or the fabled ducks – not the type of Beijing Duck that you eat at a restaurant.

How is all this possible, especially in a city that had become a parable for environmental degradation?

Long-term planning is the answer. A stable government that is able to implement five-year plans. This is of course a communist local government that is committed to a green Beijing. Forget the ‘Greens’ of bourgeois democracies, with their liberal policies that have become political footballs. Only a communist government committed to ‘ecological civilisation’ can achieve what I experience here in Beijing.


Chinese Trust in the Government

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

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

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

He Xiu’s Three Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mao Zedong’s Works

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

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

Number of Christians in China

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

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

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

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

Concept of (U)topia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trusting the Government

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

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

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

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


[1] He Xiu. 1980. Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu. 28 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, p. 2200. Many editions of this work exist, in 28 volumes. It may also be found at

[2] Lu Yunfeng, Wu Yue, and Zhang Chunni. 2019. ‘Zhongguo daodi you duoshao jidutu? Jiyu zhongguo jiating zhuizong diaocha de guji’. Kaifang shidai zazhi 2019 (1):1-14.

Demystifying the Chinese Social Credit System (and Why Everyone Likes It)

Late last year I was travelling on one of the newest high-speed trains (the Fuxian, which cruises at 350 km per hour). At one point during the journey, an announcement was made: if anyone has not yet purchased a ticket, please contact a conductor. Failure to do so would register as a negative on the Social Credit System, with potential restrictions on travel.

This was my first real-life introduction to the new Social Credit System (shehui xinyong tixi) being rolled out across China. Much has been the misinformation concerning this system in a small number of formerly colonising countries, with evocations of George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ and the usual belief in ghosts – that is, communist parties are paranoid outfits terribly afraid of their people.

Let us set the record straight. Not so long ago hereabouts there was the law and then there was everyday practice. In between was a significant grey zone. For example, outside of the gates where I work was the place to buy China’s best fake student identity cards. These would enable you to travel at student discounts, especially during the major festivals. The police knew perfectly well what was going on, but as long as it was kept somewhat low-key, there was no problem. Once, I actually inquired about a fake identity card for myself and managed to get the price down to 100 RMB, before smiling and walking away.

This was only one example of a rampant fake ID business. But it was characteristic of what happened nearly everywhere. Under a hotel room door, a prostitute would slip a card. In a phone call, a fraudster would call and try to sell something. Disabled people would be paraded through metro trains in order to sequester cash. Contracts would not be honoured, debts could be avoided, and it was common to receive an envelope full of cash for work done. Unhealthy ingredients were mixed with food (even baby formula) and companies could exploit workers with impunity – as long as the companies in question lined the pockets of the inspectors. Needless to say, corruption at nearly all levels of government was common. The examples could be multiplied, but you get the picture.

Do not get me wrong: it was chaotic, exciting, a free-for-all; nearly everything could happen. But it was not an environment that bred trust and stability.

Enter Xi Jinping, a cleanskin and an old-fashioned communist hardman. He was not elected out of the blue, since the CPC knew something had to be done. Xi Jinping was the man to do it.

Among many initiatives, Xi Jinping began to advocate rule of law – a socialist rule of law (which I have discussed earlier). But it is one thing to make announcements concerning rule of law; it is quite another to make it work.

Inside the CPC, the task was relatively easy: the most thorough and wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign since Mao Zedong, the promotion of communist values, monthly study sessions, the recovery of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ sessions, party unity … these and more are commonplace today. The result has been that the CPC has risen in popular consciousness from an embarrassment to a party of which people are proud and which they trust.

But among the rest of the population, the task was much tougher. Communist billboards and placards make a small impression, although they are a welcome part of the urban landscape these days. The many levels of police, from citizen watch groups, through the local ‘public peace’ officers, to serious crime investigation are more comprehensive.

But the question remained: how really to breakthrough and effect fundamental change in daily behaviour? Think laterally, as is the custom, and consider China’s world-leading technology sector – hence the Social Credit System.

First trialled in 2013, officially announced in 2014, tested through the big tech companies like Alibaba, expanded to more and more places, the Social Credit System is now a reality in ever more parts of everyday life.

By early 2019, the results of the system have become quite clear. The big focus until now has been debt defaulters. It could be anyone, from those trying to skip paying tax, avoiding train fares, or a business trying to slip away from a bigger debt. As a result, a staggering 17.46 million people have been banned from taking flights since 2013, with a further 5.47 million people banned from boarding high-speed trains. A loss of revenue? Maybe, but like the anti-corruption campaign, it is popularly seen as more than worth it. On a positive side, 3.51 million had repaid their debts and fines within the time limit to avoid a negative score on social credit.

While we are on the negative side, let me add that in Beijing alone 5,028 people had been banned from taking planes by the end of January, 2019. Why? 70 percent of them had carried or consigned dangerous and prohibited goods, and almost 23 percent – believe it or not – had fabricated identification for flights.

The old way of doing things is very quickly passing. Thus far, about 150 penalties apply, including prohibitions on violators holding public office, taking air and high-speed train travel, making property purchases, seeking certain jobs and educational opportunities. There is widespread agreement that penalties need to be developed further to be more effective.

There is, of course, a positive side: you can easily exit the list of defaulters by simply paying your overdue tax, fine, debt or fee. And if you build up good social credit by following the rule of law, you can get more favourable treatment for job applications, education, government support for start-ups, social security, and – for foreigners – work visas.

At a deeper level, what has been the result? Back in 2010, a magazine conducted a survey and found that more than 70 percent of the respondents said that they did not trust their local governments. Anecdotally, I used to find a decade ago that old party members were embarrassed about the party itself. Fast forward to 2019 and the results are telling. In the monthly Ipsos survey, Chinese citizens average 90 percent confidence in the direction the country of heading. Further, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer noted that trust in the government and its institutions continues to rise among the general public: 86 percent of them have such trust, while it is even higher among educated younger people. As for party members, they are now keen not only on the CPC, but also to promote its value internationally. How things change.

It should be no surprise that the vast majority of Chinese people are firmly in favour of the Social Credit System. After all, trust and honesty are not merely traditional Chinese values, but they are also hallmarks of communist ethics.

Let us go back to the fake ID peddlers near where I work. They have completely gone by now. This is not merely because the local police have cracked down on them, but more because no-one wants to buy a fake ID only to get busted at the train station or airport. This once lucrative business has simply dried up. As have more and more of the dodgy practices I mentioned earlier.

In short, socialist rule of law has found an extraordinarily effective means of implementation.

Top ten issues for this year’s parliamentary sessions in China

On Sunday, 3 March, 2019, the annual ‘two sessions’ will meet once again in Beijing. They are the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the highest legislative and advisory bodies in the country. Too little is known outside China about these core structures of Chinese governance, which involves more than 5,000 legislators and avisors, so here is a summary of results from a survey conducted by the People’s Daily. The survery, which asked people to list the top ten issues of public concern, garnered more than 4.4 million responses.

Xi Jinping on Marxism: Reading the Speech from Marx’s 200th Anniversary

Xi Jinping’s most important speech to date was delivered at the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth (5 May, 2018). Xi’s many other writings address a range of issues, but this one – as yet untranslated – goes to the heart of Chinese Marxism, or more properly, the sinification of Marxism. Given that the speech is not yet available in other languages,[1] the following provides primarily an exposition of the speech, although my perspective emerges at certain points. In particular, my interest is in the way Xi Jinping clearly claims Chinese communism as a major phase of the living tradition of Marxism.

One is initially struck by how much Xi Jinping quotes from Marx, Engels and Lenin. Of course, one may think, Xi is a Marxist and he knows this material well. But let us step back for a moment: here is a leader not merely of the strongest communist party in the world, but also the leader of a major global power, quoting extensively from the founders of the Marxist tradition. It is indeed some time since this has happened, but Xi continues in the tradition of communist leaders: they are also thinkers and philosophers, who develop a substantial body of writings that can be studied in their own right.

The speech itself has three sections, after an introduction that elaborates briefly on Marx’s continued influence on the world. Here Xi already identifies a recurring theme: the world may have changed much since Marx’s time, but this context makes Marxism not less but more relevant than ever. The first section focuses on Marx’s biography, which is both appropriate but also significant in a Chinese context. The second section introduces the basic premises before leading to the situation in China. The third and final section is the longest and most significant, for it develops nine topics concerning the importance of Marxism for China. Each topic begins by quoting texts from Marx and Engels, which are then used to explicate the developments of Chinese Marxism. Notably, it is an interpretation that takes place after 70 years of socialism in power; as Lenin and Mao said repeatedly, it is relatively easy to gain power through a communist revolution, but the task of constructing socialism, let alone communism, is infinitely more complex. This is Xi’s perspective.

The Biography of an Engaged Intellectual

Marx’s biography takes up a reasonable part of Xi’s speech. Xi hits the main points of Marx’s ideas, the meeting with Engels, the development of the first outline of historical materialism in The German Ideology, the profound influence of the communist manifesto and the detailed labour involved in Capital. So much is well-known, even to drawing on Engels and Lenin for additional perspectives on Marx’s genius.

But I am intrigued by a particular emphasis: Marx came from a situation – a lawyer’s family of Jewish background in southwest German town of Trier – that may have set him up for a comfortable and unremarkable life. But he and Jenny (who is explicitly mentioned) did not do so. They found themselves exiles and pariahs, mostly through circumstances beyond their control but also due to the direction of their thought and action. Xi stresses the hardship of a life on the run, all for the sake of what became the communist cause.

Xi’s emphasis plays off two themes in Chinese culture, themes that stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, one desires a life of good fortune and opportunity, not least for the benefit of the children, but also so that one may care adequately for one’s parents in their dotage. On the other hand, one’s calling is not merely to the family, however wide it may be. It is ultimately and more importantly to society as a whole. Security and stability should be put aside for the sake of the greater good. Thus, even though one may aspire to a quiet and secure life, Karl and Jenny’s path is by far the more admirable calling.

Let me go further: the idea of an intellectual in the proverbial ‘ivory tower’ is anathema in China. Selfishness is the only way to describe it, so much so that it is difficult indeed to find an intellectual who disdains to engage with social problems. In other words, the ‘engaged intellectual’ is the norm, even if it entails significant sacrifice. Marx is precisely such an intellectual, forsaking all for the sake of a greater and common good.

Given the way Marx’s life resonates so deeply with Chinese assumptions, it should be no surprise that by far the most visitors to the tiny two-room apartment in Dean Street, Soho, should be Chinese. Or indeed that Trier, Marx’s birthplace, should be a prime destination for Chinese people in 2018. It is not merely because the stunning new statue in Trier was created by Wu Weichan, the famed Chinese sculptor, and donated to the town, but because this is where the hard life began.

Theory and Practice

As a prelude to his engagement with Marx’s thought and practice, Xi emphasises its basis in careful historical and scientific study so as to become a material force for liberation. Five statements set the scene for what follows:

Basic Premises

Marxism is a scientific theory: in contrast to utopian socialism,[2] Marx developed a thorough explanation of historical material, the theory of surplus value, the specific dynamics of capitalist development, the nature of social development and the means for liberation.

Marxism is a theory of the people: in contrast to ruling class theories, Marxism arises from and expresses the common people’s hope for a society without oppression and exploitation, and with equality and freedom.

Marxism is a theory of practice: rather than knowledge created in a study, Marxism was formed out of the practice of liberation and this becomes a guide for such liberation.

Marxism is an open and developing theory: here we find the refrain that Marxism is not a dogma (jiaotiao) but a guide to action. Times, practices and knowledge change and develop, so new questions arise to which new responses need to be formed. In this light, the tradition begun by Marx becomes important, full as it is with examples of how Marxism has developed. Thus, Marxism remains forever young and suitable for ever new situations.

The scientific and practical dimensions are understandable emphases, but the focus on the people and openness have distinct resonance for a Chinese situation. A signature feature of Xi Jinping’s writings and speeches is a constant focus on the importance of work and the people. He has emphasising for some time the centrality of labour,[3] of both the rural and urban varieties: labour is a glorious activity; everyone should roll up their sleeves and get to work; workers and trade unions have a distinct and foundational role in the construction of socialism. This is what Xi means by observing that Marxism arises from the people and is for the people. Further, the tradition is vital. Marxism is not an ossified body of thought, determined forever by the letter of the founder’s texts. Instead, it provides a framework and a guide for new situations that Marx could hardly have imagined, let alone analysed scientifically. We will return to some of these points in what follows.

Marxism and Anticolonialism

With this point – concerning a guide for action rather than fixed dogma – Xi moves into the Marxist tradition, which he identifies as beginning with ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’. The way he presents it is crucial: initially, the theory of Marx and Engels inspired global workers’ movements and political parties, which took hold of their own destiny; with Lenin and the October Revolution, there was a crucial shift from theory to practice, in revolution and the construction of socialism; after the Second World War, more revolutions – such as China – developed yet another level of global socialist development; crucially, Marxism through Lenin inspired national liberation movements in colonised and semi-colonised countries, with more and more countries achieving liberation from colonial masters in the second half of the twentieth century.

Let me dwell on this point for a moment, since a number of foreign Marxists have unfortunately forgotten or neglected this important point. Implicit in Marx and Engel’s concerns with colonised and semi-colonised areas of the world and in Lenin’s concerns with imperialism and the ‘national question’ (minority nationalities within the state) in Russia, the breakthrough came in the 1930s with Stalin. It became clear that not only was the October Revolution also a national revolution, but that the global anticolonial struggle was the logical outcome. In other words, Marxism in its focus on overthrowing capitalist imperialism was also a deeply anticolonial project. As Xi Jinping puts, the Marxist-inspired anticolonial struggles and the liberation that followed ‘completely disrupted the imperial colonial system’. In many respects, China today – with other socialist states – carries on this project.

Marxism in China

This point brings us to the next topic, which concerns the central role of Marxism in China. Indeed, Marx foresaw (yujian) the birth of Chinese socialism itself, if not the People’s Republic. Xi reiterates a common narrative in China, from ancient civilisation, through brutal semi-colonial subjection to foreign powers, through the inspiration of the October Revolution, to liberation and the construction of socialism in China, which are leading to the rejuvenation of China. Let me pick up a number of emphases in this section.

To begin with, Xi makes it very clear that the Chinese project is inescapably a Marxist project. This emphasis not only reminds those in China who a decade or more ago were entertaining other possibilities – whether a liberal bourgeois path (despite Deng Xiaoping’s warnings in the 1980s), a revived Confucian path, or indeed a return to the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, Marxism is core and centre of the path China continues to take.

How so? The key is a combination of the basic principles of Marxism with the concrete realities of the Chinese context. One finds this emphasis right through from Mao and Deng to Xi. These basic principles – philosophy, political economy and scientific socialism – are a major feature of study and policy guidance in China. But they cannot be applied as a fixed and ossified dogma, for they are – as already mentioned – a guide to action. This emphasis is also expressed as ‘seeking truth from facts’, which has a distinct sense in a Chinese context: the specific historical, economic and cultural situation of China presents new problems which require new solutions, albeit always in light of the basic principles of Marxism. Or as Xi emphasises again and again – drawing directly on Mao – practice is the test.

All of this leads Xi to assert that ‘only socialism can save China’, indeed that the historical path of China has led to the ‘iron fact’ that only Marxism could provide the practical and ideological basis for struggle, standing up and becoming prosperous. Or, in Xi’s favoured phrases, only the communist party can lead China to the ‘great rejuvenation [fuxing]’ and a ‘strong socialistically modernised country’.

Let me say a little more concerning this notion of rejuvenation. Another significant term Xi uses is ‘leap [feiyue]’, especially in terms of three historical periods. Thus, he speaks of the ‘great leap [weida feiyue]’ China undertook, under communist party leadership, from being the ‘sick man [bingfu]’ of Asia to a liberated country; the ‘great leap’ of the reform and opening up, which has led to China becoming a country of abundance; and the ‘great leap’ of the new era, which has led to China being not only abundant, but also strong. Here the ‘great leap’ is equated with ‘rejuvenation [fuxing]’. Initially, we may be reminded of Mao’s controversial ‘great leap forward [dayuejin]’, but Xi’s usage is different. The key is his thrice repeated use of the ‘ironclad factual proof’ of Marxism that has enabled these leaps. In other words, we need to understand the usage of leap in terms of the Marxist tradition: Xi is indicating in his own way that China is undergoing yet another dialectical leap (bianzhengfa feiyue). It is not simply a case of ‘catching up’ with the rest of the world, but of undertaking a dialectical leap into the future.

Study Marx

The next part of the speech is the longest and most crucial, for here Xi stresses the reasons why Marx should be studied and practiced today. Urging all party members, as well as the common people, to study Marx once again in the new era, he does so with nine propositions. Each begins with the phrase ‘study [xuexi] Marx’ and a quotation or two from Marx and Engels, which is then elaborated in light of the Chinese situation.[4]

  1. Development of Human Society (renlei shehui fazhan)

The first quotation comes from the manifesto, where Marx and Engels speak of a future society, beyond bourgeois society, which will be an ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.[5] And in the words of the final flourish of the manifesto, ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win’.[6] The Chinese translation of ‘Assoziation’ is ‘lianheti’, which designates an organic whole, a connectivity of all parts. It is, of course, another way of speaking of communism.

Is the communism Xi mentions a utopian and transcendent ideal, forever delayed because it is ultimately unachievable? This may be a western European understanding, but it is certainly not a Chinese one. Xi speaks of the inevitable process of human history, of mastering the development of human society, of confidence in and adherence to the ideals and beliefs of communism. He does not shy away from the core goal of the communist movement and the necessary development of human society.

Let us see how this works. Some key phrases provide an insight: Xi speaks of realising the goal ‘step by step [yibuyibu]’; the constantly changing ‘actual movement of the existent [xiancun] situation’; and that the historical process of actualising communism entails ‘one-by-one phased goals [yigeyige jieduanxing mubiao]’ and is ‘reached [dacheng]’ progressively or ‘step by step [zhubu]’. In other words, communism is always a work in progress, rather than a reality achieved by fiat.

We should also understand this concrete and practical approach in light of the Chinese tradition, which Xi Jinping has – once again – been actively reframing in light of Marxism. From the Book of Rights (third to second century BCE) and especially the commentary by He Xiu (129-82 CE) on the Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals,[7] we find that the much-desired society of ‘Great Peace’ is not one that is beyond our knowledge and expertise, not an imagined utopia or ‘no-place’ about which we can know only by rumour and hearsay (suochuanwen).[8] Instead, it is a verifiable (suojian) and recorded (suowen) society; one can see it and read about it in reliable records. In other words, it is an empirical reality. To get there, we need careful planning, much testing, trial and error, considerable effort – in short, it entails ‘struggle for all one’s life [fendou zhongshen]’, as Xi puts it at the close of this first point.

  1. Sticking to the People’s Standpoint (jianshou renmin lichang)

On this point, the key quotation comes from The Holy Family: ‘Historical activity is the activity of the masses’,[9] which becomes the basis for a resolute focus on the people and the mass line. The point should be clear: the people’s standpoint (lichang) is basic and foundational (genben). Three times does Xi use genben – foundational – to indicate the party’s stand, mission and purpose. What mission? The people’s wellbeing and happiness. What purpose? Serving the people with whole heart and whole mind (quanxin quanyi). This is followed by the invocation not only of Mao – in terms of the mass line and keeping flesh-and-blood ties (xuerou lianxi) – but also of a slogan Xi had already stressed at the nineteenth congress of the CPC (November 2017): ‘forget not the original desire, keep in mind the mission [bu wang chuxin, laoji shiming]’.

Notably, this point concerning the people’s standpoint comes high up in the list of nine points, since (as indicated earlier) the focus on the common people (laobaixing), on urban and rural workers, has been one of Xi’s signature emphases. So effective has been the focus that they increasingly feel – as has been said to me on a quite a number of occasions – that Xi is ‘pretty good [bucuo]’, by invoking Mao and having their interests at heart.

  1. Productive Forces and Relations of Production (shengchanli he shengchan guanxi)

The quotation around which this important point turns comes from Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology: ‘the amount of productive forces accessible to human beings determines the condition of society’.[10] This is a well-known feature of dialectical and historical materialism: not only is the ‘base [jichu]’ determinative, but the means and relations of production, the economic base and superstructure, act in a dialectical manner of mutual constraint and advance, so as to become the motor of development. This much Xi Jinping reasserts.

But now he makes a fascinating move: it also provides the basis for socialist construction in terms of liberating (jiefang) and advancing (fazhan) the productive forces. Too many Marxists have taken the method – in relation to forces and relations of production – from Marx and Engels and applied it mostly to the capitalist market economy. But this move is actually a retreat from their work: thus, it is not for nothing that Xi quotes from the (edited) opening section of The German Ideology, for here we also find the first real outline of the history of modes of production until the European feudal period.[11] And if this works for earlier history, it also works for future history, namely, the construction of socialism. In particular, Xi stresses the insight from Deng Xiaoping, that the liberation of the productive forces is the core project of socialism, let alone communism. Deng did so repeatedly, pointing out that such a liberation had been relatively neglected until it became the focus of the reform and opening up from 1978. The result: in an astonishingly short period of time, China has lifted itself up from being one of the poorest countries in the world to being a serious global economic force. But the process is by no means over, for – as he does on many occasions – Xi stresses that further liberation is needed, that the relations between base and superstructure need constant refining and adjusting, and that the reform and opening up – as a revolutionary socialist project – must be deepened.

  1. People’s Democracy (renmin minzhu)

Not only has Xi Jinping for some time been emphasising socialist democracy, but he has also given the implicit go ahead – in light of the urging to tell China’s story well internationally – for Chinese speakers to address this question directly in international contexts. On this occasion, he quotes two texts by Marx and Engels, the first from the manifesto: ‘The proletarian movement is the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority’.[12] And: ‘The working class, once come to power, could not go on managing with the old state machine’, for it requires a ‘replacement by a new and truly democratic one’.[13] The first text is the more obvious, for communism has always held that its form of democracy – in contrast to ancient Greek, liberal bourgeois and illiberal types – enables the vast majority, workers and peasants, to rule. It is the people who rule; this is what ‘demokratia’ or ‘minzhu’ means.

The second quotation is more intriguing and extremely important. It comes from Engels’s 1891 introduction to the third edition of Marx’s The Civil War in France. Why this text and not the one we find in The Civil War in France, which has – in the original English – ‘But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’?[14] Why indeed, for they seem to say largely the same? Let me briefly set the context. In the 1890s, Engels was struggling against both the moderating trend of the German Social-Democratic Party and the entrenched anarchist position (first clearly articulated in the 1870s). The moderates wanted to dispense with any notion of violent revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat after such a revolution, while the anarchists insisted that the first act after the seizure of power should be an active ‘abolition [Abschaffung]’ of the state. Thus, the moderate right-wing sought to work within the structures of the bourgeois state and the anarchists trenchantly asserted that any type of state was an evil. Engels would have nothing of either position: in a series of crucial texts,[15] he argued, on the one hand, that the Paris commune was also very much the proletarian dictatorship, and, on the other, that the ensuing structure would have many governing functions. One feature of this new structure was that it would be ‘truly democratic’.

Given its importance, Engels’s text needs some more attention, especially the second sentence from which Xi Jinping quotes. Engels writes: ‘This shattering [Sprengung] of the former state power [Staatsmacht] and its replacement by a new and truly democratic one [eine neue, in Wahrheit demokratische] is described in detail in the third section of The Civil War.[16] Understanding this sentence is crucial. In light of Engels other works at the time, the following points are clear: 1) The new structure includes both commune and proletarian dictatorship as one and the same, which must exercise force (Gewalt) to get rid of the old bourgeois regime and transform economy and society; 2) The old form of the state, as a ‘separated public power’ (as defined in Origin of the Family), will undergo a ‘gradual dissolution and ultimate disappearance [allmähliche Auflösung und endlich das Verschwinden]’ as ‘one of the final results of the future proletarian revolution’[17] – this is the sense of the fabled ‘dying away’ of the state, a term coined in the third edition of Anti-Dühring;[18] 3) The eventual form of governance will not be a ‘separated public power’, but one that ‘stands in the midst of society [steht eben mitten in der Gesellschaft]’[19] – that is, state and society are thoroughly enmeshed with one another, in a dialectical transformation of ‘pre-state’ forms of governance; 4) This is the sense in which socialist democracy should be understood, which is ‘for those concerned [der Betheiligten]’, that is, the vast majority of workers and peasants who had thus far been excluded from the exercise of power.[20]

Back to the sentence on which we have been focusing: its logic leads to the position that a new and truly democratic form of governance, if not a new state standing in the midst of society, will arise – as some English translations and the Chinese translations make clear.[21] From this basis, Xi argues that China must continue to build ‘socialist democratic politics [shehuizhuyi minzhu zhengzhi]’. What does this mean? It entails that – using one of the many four-character sayings (chengyu) beloved by Xi – that the people are masters in the house (dengjia zuozhu), supervising the servants of society (shehui gongpu) through the socialist rule of law and institutional guarantees. All of this, of course, take place in the ‘organic unity [youji tongyi]’ of all parts, especially in terms of the communist party’s leadership and people’s supervision. In short, it entails a constant process of implementing people’s democracy ever more effectively.

  1. Cultural Construction (wenhua jianshi)

Here Xi Jinping does not quote Marx or Engels directly. Instead, he points out that Marx ‘held that in different [butong] economic and social environments, people produce different thoughts [sixiang] and cultures’. This awareness actually entailed some struggle on Marx’s part, for he assumed that the positions he had developed in a Western European context were universal. Only late in life, as he engaged more with developments in other parts of the world, did he come to realise that his insights were in many cases ‘expressly limited [expressément restreinte] to the countries of Western Europe’.[22] This comes from a letter to Vera Zasulich, which was finally sent after four drafts, the first three much longer than the final letter.[23] In these drafts, we find a Marx struggling in light of his growing awareness of different histories and developments. Like a good old German philosopher, he had assumed that German philosophy, if not Western European philosophy, was ‘philosophy’ per se. Now he finds increasingly that this is not the case. So, in the drafts Marx elaborates further on the theme, dealing with the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the role of private property and the potential of the Russian agricultural commune (a topic Engels was exploring more deeply and widely at the time). The point is obvious: economic and social conditions, in light of their histories, are in fact not the same. This means that their potential paths to socialism will also have distinct differences.

These letter drafts and the letter itself are the subject of continuing study in China,[24] since there has always been a great awareness of the distinctness of Chinese history, political development and culture.[25] At so many levels, they are not the same as other parts of the world, for which the phrase ‘Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese]’ – already emphasised by Mao Zedong – functions as the shorthand.

In order to explicate how China’s context works for the sake of cultural construction, Xi draws on a Marxist staple, which runs from Marx and Engels through the whole tradition. While ideology and culture are ultimately determined by the economic base, they also respond to and influence the base. Marxist theory is the obvious example, for it comes – through the communist party – to grip the masses and become a material force. But only advanced theory, advanced Marxist philosophy and culture, can become such a force. By contrast, if culture and ideology are backward, they become fetters on social development.

But what culture? Here we need to pause for a moment, since the Chinese term wenhua, culture, is a much broader concept that ‘culture’ in English. It embraces the all dimensions of what may be called the ‘superstructure’, but also history and politics. In this light, it is common to distinguish Chinese traditional culture and Marxist culture, but Xi has been responsible what is now known as a renewed symbiosis between them. Thus, we find emphases on continual in-depth study of Marxism by all party members (monthly), ‘core socialist values [shehuizhuyi hexin jiazhiguan]’,[26] socialist ‘spiritual civilisation [jingshen wenming]’ – in short, ‘advanced socialist culture’. But are they distinct from traditional Chinese culture? Not for Xi and many others, for socialist culture is increasingly seen as central to a ‘creative transformation’ and ‘innovative development’ of this long-standing and constantly changing culture. It is not for nothing that Xi has often observed that socialism with Chinese characteristics has a two thousand year history.

  1. Social Construction (shehui jianshe)

On the question of social construction – as distinct from but obviously related to productive forces, political structures and culture – Xi Jinping quotes from three texts. Note the emphasis in these quotations: for all, of all, by all, and to all.

The first comes from Marx’s economic manuscripts of 1857-1858 (also known as the Grundrisse), where Marx observes that ‘production will now be calculated to provide wealth for all’.[27] The second is a well-known text in China – Engels’s communist catechism, which formed a major basis for the later manifesto. Here Engels observes that a communist society would enable ‘the participation of all in the enjoyments created by all’.[28] The third text sums up the direction of the previous two, if not the aims of communism itself: a socialist society should ‘give healthy and useful labour to all, ample wealth and leisure to all, and the truest and fullest freedom to all’.[29]

As mentioned earlier, the emphasis is clearly on all people – suoyouderen – which is repeated in each quotation. Or as Xi puts it in terms of the new primary contradiction in China, people long for a beautiful and good life (meihua shenghuo).[30] What does this mean? Abstractly, it means improving livelihood, social justice and better education; practically, Xi identifies adequate income for labour, medical care for the sick, support for the aged, housing in which to live, and support for the frail. In short, it entails not so much a ‘welfare safety net’ found in some capitalist market economies, but ‘common prosperity [gongtong fuyu] for the whole people’ and not merely for a few. I would add that one needs a strong economic situation to ensure such a system, for the liberation of the productive forces (see above) is the key, leading to the current situation in which 700-800 million urban and rural workers have been lifted out of poverty since the beginning of the reform and opening up.[31]

  1. Human-Nature Relationship (ren yu ziran guanxi)

Xi Jinping has been promoting for some time the concept and practice of ‘ecological civilisation’ and he does not neglect the theme here. The relevant text quoted here comes from Marx’s ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ of 1844. Simply put: ‘Human beings live on nature’.[32] Alluding to the rest of this sentence from Marx,[33] Xi observes that it is an interactive (huodong) relationship: if human beings treat nature well (shandai), nature will present gifts (kuizeng) of food – an old agricultural assumption. But – and here Xi quotes a text by Engels well-known in China, ‘On Authority’ – ‘if human beings, by dint of their knowledge and inventive genius, have subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon them’.[34] All of this requires not simply the protection of the natural environment, as though human beings are separate from it, but working in terms of ‘harmonious symbiosis [hexie gongsheng]’ and ‘ecological civilisation [shengtai wenming]’. It is not for nothing that China is emerging as a world leader in green technology and ecological design.

  1. World History (shijie lishi)

As for world history, Xi quotes from The German Ideology: ‘the more the original isolatio[n of the separate nationalities is destroyed by the advanced mode of production, by intercourse and by the natural division of labour between various nations arising as a result, the more history becomes world history’.[35] For Xi, this prediction has already come about today in an integrated world, where the one who rejects such a world will be rejected by it. Here we find phrases and slogans that have become common parlance: ; win-win (gongying) cooperation, and community of common future or destiny (renlei mingyun gongtongti).

Nonetheless, let me focus on a few items from this point. The first concerns Xi’s observation: ‘neither dependent [yifu] on others, nor plundering [lüeduo] others’. This is of course an allusion not only to the era of European colonialism, but also to efforts by some countries today to harness others in the world their yoke (the United States being the obvious example). In reply, Xi draws on and maps further the long anticolonial project (see above), which was from the 1930s deeply Marxist in many parts of the world. It may be seen today in the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, if not also BRICS. Some may ask: but is not China engaged in a new form of colonialism, a ‘creditor colonialism’ if you will? Apart from observing that it is little rich for former colonisers to accuse China of colonialism, I am reminded of the Danish proverb: a thief always thinks everyone else is a thief. Others may ask: what about the ‘global’ opposition to China, so much so that today it has few if any friends? It all depends on what one means by ‘global’? Somewhere between 12 to 15 ‘Western’ countries – former colonisers all – have been ramping up the ‘China threat’. But the number is small indeed. The reality is that the vast majority of countries in the world see a distinct benefit – ‘win-win’ – in accepting China’s offer of friendship.

The second point that arises is somewhat different. It concerns the sentence: ‘All things are nourished together without their injuring one another [wanwu bing yu er bu xiang hai, dao bingxing er bu xiangbei]’. This saying has been used by Xi on a number of occasions, but it is not original to him. Instead it comes from the Confucian Book of Rites, in the ‘Zhongyong’ section.[36] This is by no means the first, nor will it be the last time, Xi has quoted from the Chinese classics. Indeed, such is his liking for doing so, along with his love of four-character sayings, that two volumes explaining the origins and uses of these texts have been published thus far.

  1. Marxist Party Building (makesizhuyi zhengdang jianshe)

What do Marx and Engels have to say about Marxist party building? More than one might initially expect, especially in the second section of the manifesto. Xi offers no less than four quotations: 1) ‘In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they [the Communists][37] always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole’;[38] 2) ‘They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole’;[39] 3) The party works ‘in the interest of the immense majority’;[40] 4) And the communist party has ‘‘to set up bench marks [Marksteine] for all the world to see, whereby it may gauge how far the party has progressed’.[41]

In following Xi Jinping’s interpretation, let me begin with a small but significant linguistic point: the Chinese for ‘Communist’ – the noun – is ‘gongchandang ren’. Literally, it means a ‘Communist Party person’. In other words, to be a Communist is not so much an existential political choice or an individual faith. It means primarily that one is a member of a Communist Party. Indeed, one is able to call someone else a genuine ‘comrade [tongzhi]’ if that person is also a party member. Of course, one also needs the element of ‘faith [xinyang]’ – as Xi has been emphasising for some time – but it takes place within the collective context. Conversely, the idea that one can ‘be’ a Communist as a matter of existential choice without party membership is a very ‘Western’ idea, where the primacy of the autonomous individual has wreaked havoc with culture, politics and even religion. Instead, the Chinese approach primarily concerns belonging to the collective – hence ‘Communist Party person’.

Further, in each of the quotations from Marx and Engels, the emphasis is clearly on the interests of the proletariat and movement as a whole, if not the interests of the immense majority. Xi has not chosen these quotations at random, for they emphasise that the basis of the Communist Party, and indeed its difference from other political parties, is that it works with and fights for the people. Everything flows from this primary premise. But it also raises the crucial question as to how the party maintains such a focus and continues to have the trust and confidence of the people after seven decades in power.

Before Xi Jinping became chairman (zhuxi), there were grave concerns that the party was losing this trust. Party discipline was relatively lax, corruption was a real problem, companies and enterprises were regularly flouting the law, exploiting workers and dispossessing the collectively-owned land of villages, and factional strife led to what is now recognised as the beginnings of a coup. As one old Politburo member admitted recently, if Xi did not fix the party, many felt they were doomed. That the party has not fallen apart and that trust in government and public institutions is now between 84 percent and 89 percent,[42] indeed that confidence in the direction China is headed stands at an average of 90 percent,[43] is testament to the effect of Xi Jinping’s reforms. It should be no surprise that we find here a summary of emphases found on many other occasions: party unity and strength, strict management, correcting mistakes, political and ideological knowledge of Marxism, and the unity of the party’s central authority – these have produced a Communist Party in China that is now stronger than it has been for a very long time. In typical fashion, Xi uses two four-character sayings to conclude this point: ‘tested by wind and waves [fenglang kaoyan]’ and ‘full of youthful spirit and vitality [zhaoqi pengbo]’. These are the characteristics of the Marxist party in power.

Conclusion: Marxism at the Centre

Everyone in China might have known right from the beginning that Xi Jinping is absolutely serious about Marxism, but – as is typically the case – the rest of world has taken some time to realise this reality. Indeed, some sleepy and lazy observers had concluded that China had abandoned Marxism, so much so that they are increasingly scrambling to make sense of what is happening under Xi Jinping’s leadership. If nothing else does so, this speech makes it perfectly clear that Marxism is core and centre of the Chinese socialist project. I have attempted to present as carefully as possible the important features of the speech, offering more of an exposition rather than a critique. No doubt, others may want to assess Xi Jinping’s interpretation of Marx and Engels in a Chinese context. My perspective may have emerged at certain points, but I have deliberately identified the sources of all the important quotations to indicate how extensively Xi cites and elaborates upon the classic texts.

As for the centrality of Marxism, Xi stresses that it applies to both theory and practice. On the one hand, the speech urges party members and indeed all Chinese people to make the study of Marx a ‘life habit’ and even a vigorous and ‘spirited [jingshen] pursuit’. Why? As a ‘powerful theoretical weapon [qiangda sixiang wuqi]’, ‘Marxism has from beginning to end been the guiding thought [sixiang] of our party and country’. Or, in terms of yet another four-character saying, Marxism is China’s special skill, or the skill with which one looks after the house (kanjia benling). But it is not merely thought, for in providing the means to understand the world, it enables one to ‘transform [gaizao] the world’. The echo of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach should be obvious.

Here Engels is even more direct. Xi quotes Engels’s letter to Werner Sombart in 1895: ‘Marx’s whole way of conceptualising [Auffassungsweise] is not so much a doctrine [Doctrin] as a method. It provides, not so much ready-made dogmas [Dogmen], as reference points [Anhaltspunkte] for further investigation and the method for such investigation’.[44] This is a well-known text, which became in Lenin’s hands the slogan that Marxism is ‘not a dogma, but a guide for action’. It is difficult to find a communist who would not agree with this slogan, for no-one wishes to be seen as a dogmatic Marxist.[45] But now Xi Jinping challenges us with his second quotation from Engels, from Dialectics of Nature: ‘In every epoch, and therefore also in ours, theoretical thought is a historical product, which at different times assumes very different forms and, therewith, very different contents’.[46]

We need to be careful to avoid a wilful misinterpretation of Xi’s reason for quoting this second text. Engels is speaking of the history of scientific thought, but if one assumes that Marxism too is a science, a historical science, then the point applies to historical and dialectical materialism as well. But how? Here Xi follows Mao: the basic principles of scientific socialism can never be lost, but at the same time they cannot become an immutable and frozen (yicheng bubian) dogma. Thus, the complex process of the construction of socialism is neither an ‘original edition’ of Chinese history and culture, nor a ‘template’ applied from the classic Marxist texts, nor a ‘second edition’ of efforts to construct socialism in other countries, nor a ‘reprint’ of the process of modernization elsewhere.[47] Instead, one must take into account a country’s specific conditions, its history and culture, and always be aware of concrete requirements of the present.

In other words, Marxism is a work in progress. Not any Marxism, but the Marxism at the core of an ongoing project in the construction of socialism, with a communist party in power. In the context of such construction – which is simply beyond the experience of most foreign Marxists – Marxism is a living tradition and not locked in the past. Now Xi comes to his arresting conclusion: all this means that Marxism is even more important now! And it should be developed in new, creative and energetic ways. To do so is the ‘sacred duty [shensheng zhize]’ of every communist. To quote Engels one last time: ‘The prospect[48] of a gigantic revolution, the most gigantic revolution that has ever taken place, therefore presents itself to us as soon as we pursue our materialist thesis further and apply it to the present time’.[49]

To finish on a slightly different note: throughout the text and especially when Xi is elaborating on the nine core points, he begins each point with ‘study Marx’. The Chinese word for ‘study’ is ‘xuexi’. This usage has led to a pun used frequently today: the character xi is the same as the family name for Xi Jinping. So now it is common to use ‘xuexi’ to mean ‘study Xi’. Indeed, a whole section of the CPC newspaper, the People’s Daily, is entitled ‘study Xi [xuexi]’. Needless to say, the most important statement by Xi Jinping concerning Marxism has not only been a major impetus for renewed study – and practice – of Marxism in China, but is also the subject itself of much study.


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Xi Jinping. Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era: Report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2017.


[1] My engagement with the speech was part of my ongoing study of Chinese language, which has included important works by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in the original texts. One may find the text of Xi Jinping’s speech on, where a video is also provided.

[2] The Chinese for ‘utopian’ is kongxiang, bearing the senses of fantasy, daydream and empty wish.

[3] The terminology of ‘work [gongzuo]’, ‘worker [gongren]’ and ‘working class’ or ‘proletariat [wuchan jieji]’ appears 29 times in this speech.

[4] Given the importance of the quotations and their interpretation, the sources are given in the footnotes: first the English translation, then the original language citation, and then the Chinese translation. Where necessary, I indicate where Xi quotes from the Chinese Selected Works of Marx and Engels and where he uses the Complete Works or the more recent (2009) 10-volume Collected Works. The Selected Works are a fascinating collection, produced only in a Chinese context. The selections of relevant material and the narrative thereby produced witness to a significant focus on the realities of socialism in power.

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 6, 1848 [1976]), 506; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, vol. 4, 1848 [1974]), 482; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 4, 1848 [1972]), 491.

[6] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 519; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 493; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 504.

[7] He Xiu, Chunqiu gongyangzhuan zhuxu, 28 vols. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980), 2200.

[8] For He Xiu and this tradition, the ‘rumoured’ place is one of decay, disorder and chaos, where skulduggery, assassination and intrigue abound.

[9] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Shensheng jiazu, huo dui pipan de pipan suo zuo de pipan, bo bulunuo·baowei’er ji qi huoban (jiexuan)’, in Makesi Engesi wenji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1845 [2009]), 287. Xi opts for the more recent translation in the Marx Engels Collected Works. This text differs slightly from the earlier version in the Complete Works. See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Shensheng jiazu, huo dui pipan de pipan suo zuo de pipan, bo bulunuo·baowei’er ji qi huoban, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 2, 1845 [1972]), 104. The quotation is actually the first part of an effort render a somewhat difficult sentence in the original German, which may be translated as: ‘Together with the thoroughness of the historical action [geschichtlichen Aktion], the size of the mass whose action it is [der Masse … deren Aktion sie ist] will therefore increase’. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 4, 1845 [1975]), 82; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Die heilige Familie oder Kritik der kritischen Kritik, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 2, 1845 [1974]), 86.

[10] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 5, 1845-1846 [1976]), 43; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie. Kritik der neuesten deutschen Philosophie in ihren Repräsentanten Feuerbach, B. Bauer und Stirner und des deutschen Sozialismus in seinen verschiedenen Propheten, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 3, 1845-1846 [1973]), 30; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Deyizhi yishi xingtai. Dui Feierbaha, Bu·baowei’er he Shidina suo daibiao de xiandai deguo zhexue yiji ge shi ge yang xianzhi suo daibiao de deguo shehuizhuyi de pipan, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 3, 1845-1846 [1972]), 33. English translation modified. The Chinese translation for ‘Menge’, ‘amount’ or ‘quantity’, is ‘zonghe’, with the senses of ‘sum’ and ‘sum total’. Further, the German ‘zugänglichen’, ‘accessible’ or ‘attainable’, is translated as ‘dadao’, meaning ‘reach’ or ‘achieve’.

[11] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 32-35; Marx and Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie, 21-25; Marx and Engels, Deyizhi yishi xingtai, 24-28.

[12] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 495; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 472; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 477.

[13] Friedrich Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 27, 1891 [1990]), 189-90; Friedrich Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.32, 1891 [2010]), 14-15; Friedrich Engels, ‘Falanxi neizhan de 1891 danxingben daoyan’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 3, 1891 [2003]), 12-13. Xi quotes from the translation in the Chinese Selected Works. The translation in the Complete Works has a slight difference: it translates Macht as quanli (power) rather than zhengquan (political power). Xi uses the latter. See Friedrich Engels, ‘Makesi “Falanxi neizhan” yishi daolan’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 22, 1891 [1972]), 228.

[14] Karl Marx, ‘The Civil War in France’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 22, 1871 [1986]), 328; Karl Marx, ‘Falanxi neizhan’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 17, 1871 [1972]), 355.

[15] This material is the focus of a monograph, called Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance, to be published in 2020. For those who are interested, the key texts from the 1890s should be consulted: Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Conrad Schmidt in Berlin, London, 27 October 1890’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 49, 1890 [2001]); Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Conrad Schmidt in Berlin, London, 27.Oktober 1890’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 37, 1890 [1974]); Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’; Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”‘; Engels, ‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891’; Engels, ‘Zur Kritik des sozialdemokratischen Programmentwurfs 1891’; Friedrich Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 27, 1895 [1990]); Friedrich Engels, ‘Einleitung (1895) zu Karl Marx’s “Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850″‘, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.32, 1895 [2010]).

[16] Engels, ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’, 189-90; Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”‘, 14-15; Engels, ‘Makesi “Falanxi neizhan” yishi daolan’, 227-28.

[17] Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Philipp Van Patten in New York (Draft). London, 18 April 1883’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 47, 1883 [1995]), 10; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Philip Van Patten in New York (Entwurf). London, 18. April 1883’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 36, 1883 [1979]), 11.

[18] In this light, it is a quasi-anarchist misreading to assume that state structures will fade away immediately after a communist revolution.

[19] Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 26, 1884 [1990]), 270; Friedrich Engels, Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staats, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 21, 1884 [1962]), 166.

[20] Engels, ‘Einleitung zur dritten deutschen Auflage (1891) von Karl Marx, “Der Burgerkrieg in Frankreich”‘, 15.

[21] For example, English translations have either ‘new and truly democratic one’ or ‘new and really democratic state’. The Chinese translations offer, in the Selected Works, ‘xin de zhenzheng minzhu de guojia zhengquan [political power]’, and, in the Complete Works, ‘xin de zhenzheng minzhu de guojia quanli [power]’.

[22] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Vera Zasulich, Geneva, 8 March 1881’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 46, 1881 [1992]), 71; Karl Marx, ‘Lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch résidant à Genève, Londres, le 8 mars 1881’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]), 241.

[23] Karl Marx, ‘Drafts of the Letter to Vera Zasulich’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 24, 1881 [1989]); Marx, ‘Premier projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]); Marx, ‘Deuxième projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]); Marx, ‘Troisième projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]); Marx, ‘Quatrième projet de la lettre à Vera Ivanovna Zassoulitch’, in in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.25, 1881 [1985]).

[24] Karl Marx, ‘Gei wei·yi·chasuliqi de fuxin caogao: chugao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]); Karl Marx, ‘Gei wei·yi·chasuliqi de fuxin caogao: ergao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]); Marx, ‘Gei wei·yi·chasuliqi de fuxin caogao: sangao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]); Marx, ‘Wei·yi·chasuliqi de xin, 1881 nian 3 yue 8 ri yu lundun xibei lu, meitilan gongyuan lu 41 hao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 19, 1881 [1972]).

[25] Even today, Chinese history follows its own path. It may be influenced by events elsewhere, but – as a signal example – the four decades of reform and opening up have their own historical logic.

[26] The core socialist values, which have now been assiduously promoted for the last few years, are: prosperous and strong (fuqiang); democratic (minzhu); civilised (wenming); harmonious (hexie); free (ziyou); equal (pingdeng); just (gongzheng); rule of law (fazhi); love of country (aiguo); dedicated (jingye); honest and trustworthy (chengxin); friendly (youshan). Their tendency to be adjectival should be noted.


[27] Karl Marx, ‘Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft of 1857-1858) [Second Instalment]’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 29, 1857-1858 [1987]), 94; Karl Marx, ‘Ökonomische Manuskripte 1857/1858’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. II.1, 1857-1858 [2006]), 584; Karl Marx, ‘Zhengzhijingjixue pipan (1857-1858 nian caogao) [shougao houban bufen]’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 46b, 1857-1858 [1972]), 222. This is an intriguing quotation, for Marx is analysing the exacerbation of contradictions under the capitalist market economy, but as he does so, he provides glimpses of the potential of socialist society. This and other texts from the 1857-1858 manuscripts, which offer comparable glimpses, have been analysed in detail by Chinese scholars.

[28] Friedrich Engels, ‘Principles of Communism’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 6, 1847 [1976]), 354; Friedrich Engels, ‘Grundsätze des Kommunismus’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 4, 1847 [1972]); Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchanzhuyi yuanli’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1847 [2003]), 243. Xi quotes from the Selected Works, which has a small difference from the Chinese Complete Works, albeit one without effect on the meaning Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchanzhuyi yuanli’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 4, 1847 [1972]), 371.

[29] Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels’ Amendments to the Programme of the North of England Socialist Federation’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 26, 1887 [1990]), 620; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engesi dui yingguo beifang shehuizhuyi lianmeng gangling de xiuzheng’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 21, 1887 [1972]), 570. Intriguingly, this text is not directly from Engels’s hand, but from the program of the North of England Socialist Federation. Engels was asked to comment on the program, which he did at some points while approving the rest. Xi quotes from one part that Engels approved.

[30] The new primary contradiction (an emphasis stemming from Mao’s deeply influential ‘On Contradiction’ essay from 1937) was identified at the nineteenth congress of the CPC in 2017: ‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’. See Jinping Xi, Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era: Report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017 (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2017), 9-10; Jinping Xi, Juesheng quanmian jiancheng xiaokang shehui, duoqu xinshidai zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi weida shengli (2017.10.18) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2017), 11.

[31] Elsewhere, I have addressed the charge that the CPC abandoned the old ‘iron rice bowl’ and exploited workers. The simple answer is that lifting 700-800 million urban and rural workers out of poverty since the beginning of the reform and opening up provides a far better basis for the social construction mapped out here by Xi Jinping.

[32] Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 3, 1844 [1975]), 276; Karl Marx, ‘Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte (Erste Wiedergabe)’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.2, 1844 [2009]), 240; Karl Marx, ‘Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte (Zweite Wiedergabe)’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, vol. I.2, 1844 [2009]), 368; Karl Marx, ‘1844 nian jingji zhexue shougao’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 42, 1844 [1972]), 95. Translation modified, since Marx uses the generic Mensch.

[33] The fuller text, in the old MECW translation has: ‘Man lives on nature – means that nature is one’s body, with which one must remain in continuous interchange if one is not to die. That a human being’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for a human being is a part of nature’.

[34] Friedrich Engels, ‘On Authority’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 23, 1873 [1988]), 423; Friedrich Engels, ‘Dell’ Autorità’, in Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz, vol. I.24, 1873 [1984]), 85; Friedrich Engels, ‘Lun quanwei’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 18, 1873 [1972]), 342.

[35] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 50-51; Marx and Engels, Die deutsche Ideologie, 45; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Deyizhi yishi xingtai (jiexuan)’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1845-1846 [2003]), 88. Xi quotes from the translation of the Selected Works on this occasion, which has a number of minor variations in comparison with the translation in the Complete Works. See Marx and Engels, ‘Deyizhi yishi xingtai. Dui Feierbaha, Bu·baowei’er he Shidina suo daibiao de xiandai deguo zhexue yiji ge shi ge yang xianzhi suo daibiao de deguo shehuizhuyi de pipan’, 51.

[36] The online version, with James Legge’s translation, may be found at

[37] As is the tendency in Chinese, the translation clarifies ‘they’ with ‘Communist Party people [gongchandang ren]’.

[38] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 497; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 474; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 479.

[39] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 497; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 474; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 1, 1848 [2003]), 285. A minor variation in the Chinese translation indicates that Xi is once again quoting from the Selected Works.

[40] Marx and Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 495; Marx and Engels, ‘Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei’, 472; Marx and Engels, ‘Gongchandang xuanyan’, 477.

[41] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Wilhelm Bracke in Brunswick, London, 5 May 1875’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 45, 1875 [1991]), 70; Karl Marx, ‘Marx an Wilhelm Bracke in Braunschweig, London, 5.Mai 1875’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 34, 1875 [1973]), 138; Karl Marx, ‘Zhi Weilian Bailake, Bulunruike, 1875 nian 5 yue 5 ri yu Lundun’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 34, 1875 [1972]), 130.

[42] Edelman, ‘2018 Edelman Trust Barometer: Global Report’, (Los Angeles: Edelman, 2018).

[43] Ipsos, ‘What Worries the World – July 2017’, (Paris: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2017), 4; Ipsos, ‘What Worries the World – September 2018’, (Paris: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2018), 4.

[44] Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Werner Sombart in Breslau, London,11 March 1895’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 50, 1895 [2004]), 461; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Werner Sombart in Breslau, London, 11.März 1895’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 39, 1895 [1973]), 428; Friedrich Engels, ‘Zhi Weinaer·Sangbate, Bulesilao, 1895 nian 3 yue, 11 ri yu Lundun’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshi, vol. 39a, 1895 [1972]), 406. I have been very careful with this important observation by Engels, modifying the standard English translation to bring out more clearly the sense of the German. Thus, ‘Auffassungsweise’ means way of conceptualising, or mode of conceptualisation – as an active process. Here, the Chinese translation renders the term as ‘shijieguan’, which means more here than ‘world outlook’: it designates a way of observing the world. Further, ‘Anhaltspunkte’ is specifically reference points, which the Chinese renders as ‘chufadian’, the ‘point of departure’ for the next step of investigation.

[45] Although this does not prevent the odd foreign Marxist, who likes to suggest that China has at some point abandoned Marxism. This hypothesis may take various forms: the leadership is all talk and no action, or they are hypocrites who pay lip service to Marxism but act entirely differently, or – in stronger versions – they have betrayed Mao and Marxism and been engaged in a vast conspiracy, with coded language, for the last forty years. Xi Jinping’s resolute focus on Marxism as theory and practice has made such superficial hypotheses untenable (not that they ever were really tenable). But here it is also pertinent to note Engels’s related observation on some Marxists from North America. In a letter to Friedrich Adolf Sorge, he writes: ‘they themselves do not for the most part understand the theory and treat it in doctrinaire and dogmatic fashion as something which, having once been learnt by rote, is sufficient as it stands for any and every need. To them it is a credo, not a guide to action’ Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge in Hoboken, 29 November 1886’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 47, 1886 [1995]), 531-32; Friedrich Engels, ‘Engels an Friedrich Adolph Sorge in Hoboken, London, 29.November 1886’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 36, 1886 [1973]), 578.

[46] Friedrich Engels, ‘Dialectics of Nature’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 25, 1873-1882 [1987]), 338; Friedrich Engels, ‘Dialektik der Natur’, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 20, 1873-82 [1973]), 330; Friedrich Engels, ‘Ziran bianzhengfa (jiexuan)’, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 4, 1873-1882 [2003]), 284. Once again, Xi Jinping quotes from the translation in the Selected Works, which differs in minor details from the translation found in the Complete Works. Compare Friedrich Engels, ‘Ziran bianzhengfa’, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 20, 1873-1882 [1972]), 382.

[47] I have tried to render Xi’s complex wordplay here: ‘original edition [muban]’, ‘template [moban]’, ‘second edition [zaiban]’ and ‘reprint’ [fanban]’.

[48] The Chinese translation of ‘Die Perspepktive’ is ‘yuanjing’, a long-range view, prospect or even vision.

[49] Friedrich Engels, ‘Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, in Marx and Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 16, 1859 [1980]), 469-70; Friedrich Engels, ‘Karl Marx, “Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie”‘, in Marx Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, vol. 13, 1859 [1974]), 470; Friedrich Engels, ‘Ka’er·makesi “Zhengzhijingjixue pipan. Diyi fence” ‘, in Makesi Engesi xuanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 2, 1859 [2003]), 38. Xi quotes the version in the Chinese Selected Works, which differs slightly from that in the Collected Works Friedrich Engels, ‘Ka’er·makesi “Zhengzhijingjixue pipan” ‘, in Makesi Engesi quanji (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, vol. 13, 1859 [1972]), 526-27.

Book Outline: Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance

This work began as a chapter in my book, The Socialist State: Philosophical Foundations, but it eventually became a monograph in its own right. Why? Engels provides some of the key bases for understanding later developments of socialist governance. This is the outline of the book:

Friedrich Engels and the Basis of Socialist Governance

The argument of this book is that Friedrich Engels (more than Marx) provides the philosophical seeds for understanding the later development of socialist governance, if not the socialist state as such. The process of discovering these insights moves from reasonably familiar texts concerning states as they have existed thus far to quite unfamiliar and unstudied texts – especially from Engels’s later writings. The book covers the following topics: the state as a ‘separated public power’; socialist force (Gewalt) and the dictatorship of the proletariat; from abolition to the dying away of the state; the enmeshed apparatus of socialist governance.

The proposed work is significant not only because it will assist in identifying the philosophical origins of the historical reality of socialist governance, but also because such a detailed analysis of all the relevant texts by Engels has not – surprisingly – been undertaken before now. The closest that one finds is Hal Draper’s somewhat biased and incomplete five-volume work, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (1977-2005). While Draper’s work is the most thorough in relation to textual analysis (as such material was available at the time), it is driven by an agenda that not only dismisses actual historical socialist states, from the Soviet Union to China, but also by a studied avoidance of important features of the texts. It also has a tendency to downplay the contribution of Engels and thus material that actually provides the philosophical basis for such forms of governance.

Other works on Marxist approaches to the state not only focus on Marx and largely ignore Engels, but do so with an agenda that stresses the Paris commune and ignores material on dictatorship of the proletariat and the use of force. Further, many such works assume – based on partial and selective reading – that both Engels and Marx held to the view that immediately after a communist revolution, the state would wither or ‘die away’, with the consequent assumption that the historical development of socialist governance goes against the theoretical view of Marx and especially Engels. This book begins to show that such a view is partial and thus mistaken.

The method deployed is simple but profound: careful and close attention, in original languages and translation, of all the relevant texts. Only by this method is one able to develop a complete analysis.

Chapter Outline


The introduction has two main tasks. The first is to provide an overview of Marx’s reflections on the Paris Commune and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Based on an earlier study (Boer, ‘Marx’s Ambivalence: State, Proletarian Dictatorship and Commune’. International Critical Thought), it presents a tension in Marx’s thought between the two, a tension he began to resolve in terms of a narrative from the dictatorship of the proletariat to the commune. He began to do so, but never resolved it, so the task fell to Engels. The second task of the introduction outlines the argument of the four chapters of the book.

Chapter 1: From ‘Separated Public Power’ to Gewalt

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’. Here Engels offers an analysis of Bismarck in Germany that is a close companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’, 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, so a study of Engels’s texts reveals the senses of force, power and violence. This provides a rather new angle, not only on his proposal that hitherto existing states may be defined as a ‘separated public power [Gewalt]’, but that ‘The Role of Gewalt in History’ is vitally important.

Chapter 2: 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. Although suggested in the early 1870s, he does so clearly in the 1890s. 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).

Chapter 3: From Abolition to the Dying Away of the State

Engels is responsible – in the third edition of Anti-Dühring – for coining the phrase, ‘dying away’ of the state (often translated as ‘withering away’). This chapter analyses how this emphasis arose, an emphasis that is also described as the eventual dissolution or gradual disappearance of the state as a spearated public power. The chapter has three parts. To begin with, it examines how Engels (like Marx) shared the view of ‘primitive anti-statism’: the idea that the state would need to be actively ‘abolished [abschaffen]’ as one of the first acts after a revolutionary seizure of power. The second part analyses the life-and-death struggle with Bakunin and the Anarchists, whose position was clarified only in the 1870s. A key component of their platform was the abolition of the state as the first revolutionary act, which Bakunin attempted in Lyons in 1870. Indeed, the incident at Lyons – in which Bakunin decreed the abolition of the state only to be arrested shortly after and bundled out of town – was a key moment when both Engels and Marx realised that such abolition was futile. Thus, the third part of the chapter examines how the emphasis on the dying away of the state arose, with Engels clearly indicating that it would be one of the final outcomes of socialism in power, after the proletarian dictatorship had transformed economic and social structures. Only then – eventually and gradually – would the state as a separated public power dissolve as a natural process. This may take a long time indeed.

Chapter 4: The Enmeshed Apparatus

The final chapter analyses how Engels envisaged the construction of socialist governance – with the caveat that he had never experienced this process directly and could draw only from the brief experiment of the Paris commune. It begins by studying Engels’s extensive work on ‘pre-state’ formations, where he identifies complex structures of governance, elections, representative bodies, sovereignty and Gewalt. Further, the chapter offers a careful analysis of the important text, ‘The Mark’, which dealt with the German tradition of the Markgenossenschaft. This tradition influences German law today, in which common rights still apply to farmland. For Engels, this practice is a relic of ‘pre-state’ formations, in which land was held in common, although it was modified in light of subsequent developments. The important argument – directed at peasant farmers – is that the communism of the future would entail a dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of what is sometimes called ‘primitive communism’. But what should this organisation of the future be called? Given Engels’s definition of the state as a ‘separated public power’, he cannot call it a ‘state’. Instead, he uses the terminology of ‘social organisation’ and ‘administrative functions’, which may also be called the ‘enmeshed apparatus’. In other words, many functions of governance would be needed, a situation that can be described as the need for the apparatus of governance without separation from society. Or, as Engels puts, the organs of social organisation and governance ‘stand in the midst of society [steht eben mitten in der Gesellschaft]’. This means that a socialist state would not be alienated from society but thoroughly enmeshed within it, so much so that one cannot speak of ‘state’ and ‘society’ as distinct elements. In this light, the term ‘socialist governance’, or perhaps ‘enmeshed state’, are to be preferred.


The conclusion to the book outlines the way Engels’s contribution provides the philosophical basis for future developments of socialist governance, or what is now called the ‘socialist state’. This process entails drawing out philosophical insights from historical and anthropological studies, which has been the concern of the book as a whole. These insights include: the need for socialist Gewalt (dictatorship of the proletariat, which is one with communist society) in constructing socialist society and economics; the dying away of the state as a long-term and gradual process; the enmeshment of the apparatus of governance within society, so that it is no longer possible to distinguish state from society or indeed from the economy. Implicit in these points is a progression, with a strong socialist Gewalt as the means for transforming economic and social realities, as well as providing the basis for beginning the process of the dying away of the state as a separated public power. This process is gradual and long-term, entailing that as hitherto known forms of the state fade away, new types of governance arise, types that are enmeshed within society rather than separated from it. This may be seen as a socialist Aufhebung of the state. Subsequent historical developments in actual constructions of socialism – from the Soviet Union to China – would be faced with new problems, for which new solutions were and are needed. But Engels’s contribution was to provide some important bases for such developments. Or, 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’.

Important Texts by Engels

Note: For the sake of rapid identification, English titles are provided here, although the book works with original texts.

1872. ‘The Congress of Sonvillier and the International’. MECW 23: 64-70.

1872. ‘The General Council to All Members of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 205-10.

1872. ‘The Congress at The Hague (Letter to Enrico Bignami)’, MECW 23: 271-76.

1872-1873. ‘The Housing Question’. MECW 23: 317-91.

1873. ‘On Authority’. MECW 23: 422-25.

1873. ‘The Bakuninists at Work: An Account of the Spanish Revolt in the Summer of 1873’. MECW 23: 581-94.

1873-1874. ‘Varia on Germany’. MECW 23: 599-610.

1877-1878. Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. MECW 25: 3-309.

1880. ‘The Socialism of Mr. Bismarck’. MECW 24: 272-80.

1880. ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’. MECW 24: 281-325.

1882. ‘On the Early History of the Germans’. MECW 26: 6-57.

1882. ‘The Frankish Period’. MECW 26: 58-107.

1882. ‘The Mark’. MECW 24: 439-56.

1883. ‘Engels to Philipp Van Patten in New York (Draft). London, 18 April 1883’. MECW 47: 9-11.

1883. ‘On the Death of Karl Marx’. MECW 24: 473-81.

1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan. MECW 26: 129-276.

1884. ‘The Decline of Feudalism and the Emergence of National States’. MECW 26: 556-65.

1887-88. ‘The Role of Force in History’. MECW 26: 453-510.

1891. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France’. MECW 27: 179-91.

1891. ‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891’. MECW 27: 217-32.

1894. ‘On the Association of the Future’. MECW 26: 553.

1894. ‘The Peasant Question in France and Germany’. MECW 27: 481-502

1895. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France’. MECW 27: 506-24.

Works by Marx and Engels:

1872.  ‘Preface to the 1972 German Edition of The Manifesto of the Communist Party’. MECW 23: 174-75.

1872. ‘Fictitious Splits in the International. Private Circular from the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 79-123.

1872. ‘To the Spanish Sections of the International Working Men’s Association’. MECW 23: 211-13.

1872. ‘Resolutions of the General Congress held at the Hague from the 2nd to the 7th September, 1872’. MECW 23: 243-253.

1873. ‘The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the International Working Men’s Association. Report and Documents Published by Decision of The Hague Congress of the International’. MECW 23: 454-580.

Surveillance and Its Uses (Updated)

At a recent Sinology conference here in Beijing, I met again a very interesting person. He was for decades the Danish consul-general in Beijing, with access to the highest levels of government. After retirement, he became active in research centres and speaking to many audiences around the world. These presentations focus on outlining a much fuller picture of the situation in China to audiences who have a piecemeal and often distorted view. He also takes a longer historical perspective on such matters.

At one point in his presentation, he raised the question of surveillance. He did so in light of some rather strange efforts to paint recent developments in China as dystopian, as the ultimate effort by the government to control its citizens. Specifically, he was concerned with facial recognition cameras, the unrolling of the social credit system and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. I can affirm that all of these and more are realities in China today.

Then came the crucial point: in accusing China of the ultimate form of citizen surveillance and control, some external critics are actually imposing categories and experiences from the Euro-American context. That is, many forms of surveillance have existed for a long time. The most recent technologies are simply another dimension of this longer history. Governments in the ‘Western’ tradition have typically used these forms of surveillance to monitor their own citizens. Obviously, you can see how this history is applied uncritically to China.

But what is the experience in China with surveillance: it has historically been used to monitor external and internal threats to the state, to social stability, harmony and security. Chinese authorities have been wary indeed to use such mechanisms to monitor their own citizens going about their everyday lives. Again, this is the reality today.

For example, the government is currently rolling out a foreigner rating card, with various categories such as education level, skills, language ability, and employment. Your rating (A, B, C etc) is determined by all these factors. I do not have one as yet, but my next residency and work permit will include this new card. It is, in other words, a social credit system for foreigners. Why? Many reasons, but the main one is to weed out those who are in China under dodgy pretences. Used to be more of those in the past, but there are already fewer now.  Clearly, this is the use of surveillance to counter foreign intervention.

There is, of course, one exception: if some citizens (for example, in Xinjiang or other places) become radicalised through external influences, then they too come under surveillance, re-education, vocational training and reintegration within the community.

As a result, there has not been a terrorist attack in China for some years now, unlike the United States or Germany, which have experienced them in the last few months.

Footnote: in another presentation a scholar from Turkey pointed out that some of the efforts to irritate China in regard to Xinjiang have a distinct geopolitical agenda. From a Turkish perspective, they seek to drive a wedge between China and Turkey and slow down developments in the Belt and Road Initiative. Given that Turkey is aware of such an agenda, it should be no surprise that they are wary of what some ‘Western’ countries are seeking.

Concerning the Taiwan Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (updated)

We need to get used to a simple fact: Taiwan is part of China. It is not a separate state and virtually no country or international body in the world recognizes it as such. Everyone you ask on the mainland simply assumes that Taiwan is part of China. We should do likewise.

The Chinese government has been exceedingly patient on this one, allowing for a long time a type of double-speak. On the one hand, people speak of ‘Taiwan’ as though it were a state, and yet governments around the world, as well as the UN, recognize the ‘one China’ principle. But time is up and the double-speak needs to wind down.

To get a handle on the situation, it is useful to return to some observations by the man-of-few-words, Deng Xiaoping.

The first is ‘An Idea For the Peaceful Reunification of the Chinese Mainland and Taiwan’, from 1983. Deng observes:

The most important issue is the reunification of the motherland … The idea is not that one party should swallow up the other. We hope the two Parties will work together for national reunification and both contribute to the Chinese nation.

We do not approve of “complete autonomy” for Taiwan. There must be limits to autonomy, and where there are limits, nothing can be complete. “Complete autonomy” means two Chinas, not one. Different systems may be practised, but it must be the People’s Republic of China alone that represents China internationally. We recognize that the local government of Taiwan may have its own separate set of policies for domestic affairs. And although, as a special administrative region, Taiwan will have a local government, it will differ from local governments of other provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions. Provided the national interests are not impaired, it will enjoy certain powers of its own that the others do not possess.

A year later, Deng made the following observations during talks in Hong Kong and in preparation for its long overdue return to China. This is from his famous ‘One Country, Two Systems’ piece:

We are pursuing a policy of “one country, two systems”. More specifically, this means that within the People’s Republic of China, the mainland with its one billion people will maintain the socialist system, while Hong Kong and Taiwan continue under the capitalist system. In recent years, China has worked hard to overcome “Left” mistakes and has formulated its policies concerning all fields of endeavour in line with the principle of proceeding from reality and seeking truth from facts. After five and a half years things are beginning to pick up. It is against this background that we have proposed to solve the Hong Kong and Taiwan problems by allowing two systems to coexist in one country.

The concept of “one country, two systems” has been formulated according to China’s realities, and it has attracted international attention. China has not only the Hong Kong problem to tackle but also the Taiwan problem. What is the solution to these problems? As for the second, is it for socialism to swallow up Taiwan, or for the “Three People’s Principles” preached by Taiwan to swallow up the mainland? The answer is neither. If the problem cannot be solved by peaceful means, then it must be solved by force. Neither side would benefit from that. Reunification of the motherland is the aspiration of the whole nation. If it cannot be accomplished in 100 years, it will be in 1,000 years. As I see it, the only solution lies in practising two systems in one country. The world faces the choice between peaceful and non-peaceful means of solving disputes. One way or the other, they must be solved. New problems must be solved by new means. The successful settlement of the Hong Kong question may provide useful elements for the solution of international questions. Has any government in the history of the world ever pursued a policy as generous as China’s? Is there anything recorded in the history of capitalism about any Western country doing something similar? When we adopt the policy of “one country, two systems” to resolve the Hong Kong question, we are not acting on impulse or playing tricks but are proceeding from reality and taking into full account the past and present circumstances of Hong Kong.

Update: Intriguingly, the 2018 local elections (apart from president), have comprehensively rejected the anti-mainland position of the Democratic Progressive Party. The pro-mainland Guomindang, which recognises the one-China policy, has been swept into power at all levels of local governance. For example, the Guomindang won 15 of 22 mayoral positions, while the margins at lower levels were even higher. Information can be found here, here, here and here.

An Effort to Understand the DPRK (North Korea) in Light of the Marxist Tradition

This year (2018) the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or DPRK – celebrated 70 years. This is no mean feat, given the challenges it has faced. These include Japanese imperialism, United States imperialism, and what they call the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the web of connections with the Communist Bloc of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed. Through all this they have persevered through what they see as a struggle, for they define the transition period of socialism as a long process of struggle.

I was fortunate enough to visit the DPRK for the second time in early October of 2018, soon after the celebration of 70 years of struggle. We managed to catch a late episode of that unique creation, the ‘mass games’ which were in this year called ‘The Glorious Country’. It recounted through dance, music, song and gymnastics, the history of struggle and achievement. The experience, along with an intense week of in-depth engagement at many levels, has led to an effort to understand the DPRK within the longer Marxist tradition. It begins with the tension between old and new, in which a revolution is meant to usher in a qualitatively new society that at the same time stands in a complex relationship with what has gone before. This leads to the second topic, which concerns the relationship with the Marxist tradition, which may now be seen in its own way as an element of the old. In this case, the DPRK has been undergoing a process of claiming a distinct autochthony and gradually dispensing with reference to the tradition. Third, I investigate this development in light of anti-colonialism, which had an initial emergence within the Soviet Union but took on a whole new phase on the Korean Peninsula. Here the desire to rid this part of the world of foreign interference runs strong, so much so that Korean independence and sovereignty not only determine the nature of socialism in this part of the world, but also the drive towards reunification. At the same time, I remain intrigued by a unique feature of DPRK socialism, which is the role played by the leadership. It is very clear that the glue of the Korean project is the Kim family with its socialist succession and that the majority of people in the DPRK genuinely believe in the power and tradition of the family. How to understand this feature? I want to suggest that it ties in closely with the constituent feature of inheritance, according to which the actual figure of the revolutionary leader is embodied in the son and grandson of Kim Il Sung. Finally, I approach the whole situation in light of the ‘Western’ Marxist trope of the qualitatively different nature of socialist society.

Between Old and New

A constituent feature of revolutionary movements like Marxism is a tension between the old and the new. A revolutionary seizure of power is predicated on dispensing with the old and beginning the process of constructing a new society. The particular modulations of such a construction – the stages of socialism and communism, the use of contradiction analysis in the new situation, the development of new philosophical positions in light of circumstances, and so on – are merely part of this more fundamental question.

From the Russian Revolution inwards, this tension appears. Thus, in what became the Soviet Union, we find a significant push to discard all that had gone before, for it was part of the corrupt and exploitative old order of autocracy and nascent capitalism. Everything was to be destroyed and the new constructed from the ground up. On the other side were those – such as Lenin and Lunacharsky – who felt that this was impossible. It was not only that socialism had many precursors that it would be foolhardy to dismiss, but also that a dialectical relationship with what had gone before should be taken up and transformed in the context of the new. All that was best of the past should be appropriated and thoroughly sublated through the process of socialist construction. The second approach ended up becoming the basis of the Soviet Union’s construction of socialism, although it was always  in tension with the desire for creation ex nihilo.

Let us move forward to the second great communist revolution of the twentieth century. In China, the reality of a complex and very long pre-history was far greater than in Europe or Russia. How to deal with this old tradition? While Mao Zedong argued for the need to make Marxism concrete in Chinese conditions, running all the way from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, and while he deployed much from this tradition in his own thinking and action, he tended towards a desire to begin anew. Perhaps the most significant manifestation of this tendency was during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when the whole tradition that had gone before was to be wiped out. That the excessive trauma of this period runs deep in China even today is witness to the presence of a strong sense that one needs to engage dialectically with the past.

How is all this relevant for Korean socialism? In this case we find not so much a continuing tension, with now one and now the other approach coming to the fore in relation to constructing socialism. Instead, the DPRK is a qualitatively new society, unlike any other country on earth. The challenge is to understand this different in light of the Marxist tradition. This means that the old is understood at two levels. The first is in terms of imperialism and colonialism, which Korean experience has been and continues to be capitalist imperialism. At the same time, the ‘old’ is very much present through the internal tension with the south of the peninsula and the continued occupation of United States troops. In response, the DPRK has set itself in stark contrast to the capitalist south.

The second level in which the old operates is a rather unique development, for it concerns the Marxist tradition itself.

The Marxist Tradition

With its 200 year history, Marxism has developed a rich tradition, full of experiences in seeking power and exercising state power. On this road, the philosophical developments have become significant indeed. How does the DPRK relate to this tradition? Curiously, the Marxist tradition has come to be seen as part of the old. Thus, there has been a steady process of stressing the originality, if not the autochthonous nature, of Korean socialism. If we study the extensive writings of Kim Il Sung – a 50-volume ‘Works’ exists, but the ‘Complete Works’ is still under way, with who knows how many volumes – we find a clear identification with the Marxist-Leninist tradition. Texts are cited, names mentioned, core elements of the tradition are developed further. Indeed, on one of the earlier monuments in Pyongyang devoted to the construction of socialism, one can still find the inscription ‘Uphold Marxism-Leninism’.

However, Kim Il Sung also stressed other features and floated the beginnings of an alternative terminology. So we find the first mention of ‘Juche’, that human beings are masters of their destiny, as well as a core principles of reunification, which is to be undertaken independent of foreign powers. These and other ideas would provide the seeds for his successor, Kim Jong Il, to stress more and more the autochthonous nature of his father’s thought. ‘Juche’ began to replace Marxism-Leninism, and the new security policy of ‘Songun’ was seen as originating with Kim Il Sung. Gradually, more and more of the traditional Marxist vocabulary began to disappear. The latest casualty – I am told – is the term ‘dialectics’. To be sure, they still speak of the stage of constructing socialism as one of struggle, which will eventually lead to communism. And one notices many features that come from earlier experiences of constructing socialism, such the planned economy (although there is a careful shift underway to a socialist market economy), education, socialist culture, and the history of art. The latter is intriguing: after the revolution and liberation of Korea, one finds first a period of socialist realism that then becomes Juche art, or realism with social features.

At the same time, if one studies the literature from the late 1990s until now, one finds less and less of the conventional Marxist terminology. Indeed, one may gain the impression that the socialism in question was created by Kim Il Sung and elaborated later. Indeed, under Kim Jong Un (since 2011), there has been a further shift, speaking of Kimilsungism and Kimjongilism as the body of theory and practice.

So we find a gradual and studied move from the old to the new – to keep the terminology I have been deploying. Korean socialism may have begun with a clear awareness of its debts to the old, maintaining close links with countries in the Communist Bloc. But it has moved ever more clearly into the new, stressing the sheer autochthony of this socialism.


As I have elaborated elsewhere, I am not inclined the deploy a ‘betrayal narrative’, especially since such a narrative is a Western European product with heavy debts to the biblical story of ‘The Fall’. Instead, I seek to understand this relationship to the Marxist tradition.

An important factor in this shift to an autochthonous Korean socialism is the anti-colonial project. The connection between socialism and anti-colonialism was initially made – theoretically – in the Soviet Union. In the immensely creative 1930s, they began to realise that the internal affirmative action policy in relation to minority nationalities (sometimes erroneously called ‘ethnic groups’) had implications for anti-colonialism. If the internal policy was to foster such nationalities at all levels so that they gained autonomy within the Soviet Union, then the same applied to other places in the world seeking to throw off the colonial yoke.

The intrinsic connection between Marxism and resisting capitalist imperialism appeared again and again in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. Practically, this meant substantial support – albeit not without occasional friction – from the Soviet Union. Politically, it meant that some newly independent countries established themselves on a socialist basis. We see this situation clearly in China, where even today the anti-colonial project unfolds with extraordinary consequences. Think of the Belt and Road Initiative, the heavy investment of China in African infrastructure and economic development, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In Korea, the anti-colonial struggle was initially directed at Japan, which had unilaterally annexed the peninsula in 1910. Brutal was the regime and intense was the struggle. The effort to develop a united front against Japanese imperialism meant that ‘patriotism’ was often the key determining factor. For example, in Kim Il Sung’s writings, we encounter all manner of groups and individuals who were not necessarily communists. Some were of a religious background, others were not, but as long as they worked to overthrow Japanese domination, they were seen as part of the same project.

Soon after the defeat of Japan, with the crucial role of the Soviet Red Army after it had defeated Hitler, a new imperialist force appeared on the peninsula. Keen to get a foothold on the Asian landmass, United States troops scurried to occupy part of the peninsula. Ignoring Korean requests to determine their own future, the United States Commander installed the well-known anti-communist hitman, Syngman Rhee, as the ruler of the south. A state was quickly declared in the south (with the north reluctantly following with it sown declaration), tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in crackdowns on uprisings, and United States troops remain on the peninsula.

For the DPRK, the Korean War – or what they call the Fatherland Liberation War – was an effort by the United States to impose its imperialism on the whole peninsula. Resisting this effort was an extraordinary achievement at an extraordinary cost. Twenty percent of the population was slaughtered, every building and piece of infrastructure destroyed, with more napalm and biological weapons used on the north than in Vietnam. Everything one sees in the DPRK today had to be built again or, very often, anew. Pyongyang is perhaps the best example of a completely new city. One or two former buildings (such as Chilgol Church) might have been rebuilt, but the city as a whole has been built from scratch.

As they like to say in the DPRK, Kim Il Sung managed to defeat two imperialisms in his lifetime. Not a bad effort at all.

All of this means that independence from foreign forces is close to hearts of those in the DPRK, as well as a good number of those in the south. Sovereignty here has a distinct sense: no interference from outside forces. This understanding of sovereignty the DPRK shares with China and other formerly colonised countries. It also shapes the policy of reunification, which the north has consistently promulgated. The three principles for reunification are that it should be determined by Koreans and not outside powers, that it should be peaceful, and that it should result in a federated Republic of Koryo, with a socialist north and a capitalist south.

While these developments constitute a worthy topic in their own right, I am also interested in the implications for the autochthonous socialism that I discussed above. Given the strength of the desire for the sovereign independence of the whole peninsula, it should be no surprise that this desire also influences the relationship with the Marxist tradition. Marxism is, of course, originally a foreign and indeed Western European body of theory and practice. But it took root in what at first seemed to be unexpected places, such as Russia, China and Korea. However, instead of acknowledging this tradition and the specific form it has developed in Korea – socialism with Korean characteristics – the preference is to efface the tradition itself. If they did acknowledge it and see themselves as part of it, they would in some way undermine the sheer emphasis on independent sovereignty.

Lest I steer too much in this direction, let me add a caveat: I have found Korean students very knowledgeable about Marx, Engels, Lenin and others, so much so that I have been asked what Marx and Engels would think if they visited the DPRK today. At the same time, this remains at the level of education and discussion, not officially stated positions.

Inheritance and Leadership

Let me now shift my underlying framework of old and new to a slightly different register: the type of socialism found in the DPRK is the most qualitatively different I have found anywhere in the world. One can, of course, identify specific features that one recognises from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. But the way the pieces come together and how they have developed is quite distinct.

What holds them together? It is a feature that many foreigners find most difficult to understand: the leadership. President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshal Kim Jong Un provide the inescapable cohesion of the whole project. As one person put it me when were discussing the recent developments towards reunification: ‘as long as we have our marshal, everything will be fine’. The vast majority genuinely hold to this position. The respect and veneration given takes place every day. For example, at the Palace of the Sun (mausoleum), one shows absolute respect, bowing low at three points of each leader’s preserved body (not the head). Or whenever one comes before a statue, one bows low in respect. Images of the leaders are not to be reproduced for commercial purposes, and one always uses their titles when speaking of them.

The question is how this might be understood from a Marxist approach. Those foreign Marxists who are sympathetic to and even supportive of the DPRK project usually bracket out the leadership. Apart from the inherited leadership, they say, they can support what the DPRK is doing. Obviously, this approach will not work, for the leadership is absolutely central for understanding the DPRK.

Alternatively, one can draw on various non-Marxist examples to gain some perspective. It may be the reverence given to the Thai king, with prison sentences for any act that shows disrespect. Or it may be the development of absolute monarchy in Europe, during its transition from feudalism to capitalism. Or it may be due to the old Korean imperial tradition, with its dynasties and indeed representations of large rulers. These suggestions may help a little, but they do not get us very far.

Other approaches draw nearer to Marxism, at times arising from within as internal criticisms. These include the ‘cult of the personality’, especially surrounding the one who leads the party to power through a revolution, or the well-worn trope of a quasi-religion, with the rituals and reverence for the alternative communist tradition and its practices likened to religion. I have written enough about such dubious suggestions elsewhere, so will not repeat those points here, save to indicate that they are decidedly unhelpful in the DPRK.

I would like to suggest another approach, which arises from the complex laws of inheritance in the DPRK. In the statement on family law (published most recently in 2018), we find a very strong emphasis on family continuity. Someone in the family must inherit the property of the one who dies, even when no spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, brothers or sisters can be found. Even a will written by the testator can be declared invalid if it ‘prejudices the interests of one who has been supported by the testator’. In other words, anyone in the family who has even remotely been supported by the testator can apply to have a will overturned. On the other hand, an inheritor can lose the right to inheritance if they ill-treated the deceased, did not take of the deceased properly or even ‘created conditions for inheritance’. Both conditions are sweeping and reciprocal.

Two questions arise from this feature of family law. First, the document is clear that it refers primarily to property, but one may wander what private property is doing in a socialist country. Here the constitution (revised in 2016) can provide some insight. Articles 21 to 24 stipulate three types of property: state owned, cooperatively owned, and private property. The first two are familiar from other socialist systems and ideally work together. Private property, however, also clearly exists. It is ‘property owned and consumed by individual citizens’. It may arise from socialist distribution according to work (as developed by Stalin in the Soviet Union), from ‘sideline activities’ and ‘other legal economic activities’ – rather broad, to say the least. Crucially the state guarantees this private property and the right to inherit it. Is this an innovation in light of the thriving DPRK economy, which deftly manages to negate economic sanctions (as was abundantly clear on our recent visit)? Not at all, already in the Soviet Union it became clear that only under socialism can everyone enjoy full access to their private property.

The second question concerns what may be inherited beyond property, or indeed whether property includes items that are not material. Some may want to refer to the ‘songbun’ system, in which all families are classified – in many subcategories – as ‘core’, ‘wavering’ or ‘hostile’, depending on family history and loyalty. The catch with this analysis is that it has never been outlined by the DPRK, but rather by CIA operatives, lousy ‘evidence’ from defectors and creative interpretations of Kim Il Sung’s texts. So I prefer not to deploy it here. Instead, what is important is family history and tradition, with a distinct focus on those from anti-imperialist fighters, peasants and workers. The nature of a family continues through the generations, being embodied in each generation. This too, I suggest, counts as inheritance.

By now the implications for understanding the central role of the leadership should be clear. Marshal Kim Jong Un inherits the family tradition of being a revolutionary leader. Let me add one further ingredient: it has become clear by now that the revolutionary leader is crucial not merely for the success of the revolution, but even more so for the construction of socialism. This complex process of veneration first developed with Lenin, but has been repeated in each effort to construct socialism. Lenin died only a few years after the October Revolution, but he lived on in so many ways. Leaders like Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were fortunate enough to live long after the revolution, leaving their imprint on the new societies they led. In many respects, the leader embodied the revolution, so much so that the body itself was preserved and continues to be venerated (I, for one, have paid my respects to Lenin, Mao, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il).

If we connect this history of veneration of the revolutionary leader with the strong emphasis on inheritance in the DPRK, we are led to the following conclusion: Kim Jong Un today inherits the role of revolutionary leader from his father and grandfather. But he is not merely the descendent; he is the revolutionary leader. It is not for nothing that he is represented much like his grandfather at the same age, with similar clothing, bearing, and even hair.

Conclusion: A Qualitatively Different Society

In closing, I would like to return to the underlying tension between old and new. A visit or two to the DPRK can be a disconcerting experience, for it is simply like no other society on earth. Some of the elements I have outlined above, but let me use the example of Pyongyang. It has the advantage of having been thoroughly destroyed during the Korean War. In doing so, the United States did the city an unexpected favour. It could be planned and designed anew. And it has been.

Without going into detail concerning the city lines and unique architecture (a new building boom continues as I write), one way of putting it is that Pyongyang is what many cities in eastern Europe tried to become. Perhaps Minsk, also completely destroyed, comes closest, but Pyongyang is far beyond Minsk. What I mean is that Pyongyang is the world’s first truly socialist city. The very construction of space is different, a socialist space at once monumental and collective. The vast majority of the buildings are for the people – sport institutes, cultural venues, performance venues, reading houses, and so on. And now, with the economy moving along at a good clip the streets are full of people and traffic, although most prefer to use the trams, trolley buses and metro to get about – in the newly designed and manufactured vehicles from the DPRK. Many are the foreigners who find it disconcerting, unable to find a way to be in it. I find it one of the most amazing cities on earth.

But it is utterly and qualitatively different, as is the society of the DPRK. Here we may deploy an element of ‘Western’ Marxism. It has been the wont of some ‘Western’ Marxists to stress the qualitatively different nature of socialism, let alone communism. So different will it be, they suggest, that we can barely imagine what it will be like. This approach has many negative dimensions (idealism, romanticism, perpetual putting off of socialism, myopia regarding actual socialist states), but here it may provide an unwitting insight. If you want a qualitatively different socialist country, then the DPRK is it.

Do I like it? I admire it, I enjoy many elements within it, but I am not sure if I like it. This essay is one effort among a number to understand it and come to terms with this sense. Let me put it this way: I am not an admirer of much of ‘Western’ Marxism, especially its emphasis on the new and the qualitatively different. Too many are the negatives with this approach. Instead, I can say that of the socialist countries (past and present) in which I have lived or which I have visited, I prefer socialism with Chinese characteristics, with its complex dialectical relationship with the past – including a clear sense of the Marxist tradition.

China’s socialist model enriches global governance philosophy

I rather like this piece from the Global Times yesterday:

The most discussed challenge to liberal democracy in the West nowadays is the perceived threat of China’s rise and the “Chinese model.” That China has rapidly risen in a development model different from that of the West has startled and upset the West. Does China attempt to overthrow the Western liberal order? Would it spread its development ideas, values and political system to other countries? Such worries haunt many Western scholars, politicians and media outlets.

To figure out whether China is a threat to liberalism, the Economist initiated a debate “Should the West worry about the threat to liberal values posed by China’s rise?” as if liberal values are paramount standards that couldn’t be challenged.

After the Cold War, Western liberal democracy and the market economic system, which are built on core liberal values such as individual freedom, equality and capitalism, gained their momentum. Francis Fukuyama, an acclaimed American political scientist, even declared free-market liberal democracy would become the world’s “final form of human government.”

However, it’s absurd to hold Western liberal democracy was the “end of history.” Since the 2008 financial crisis, the Western world has undergone serious economic, political and social turbulence. Political polarization in the US, the European migrant crisis, Brexit and the rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic all indicate the West has been mired in a liberalism crisis.

Fukuyama was compelled to revise his original opinion and turned to fear for the future of liberal democracy. He called to examine the deep structural reasons for dysfunctional democracy. Unfortunately, a more prevailing view is to blame external threats for the fall of liberal democracy, regardless of what deserves more attention is not threat from outside, but from within.

The West should make self-introspection for the liberalism crisis. Liberal ideas and institutions failed to solve the problems facing developing countries. Many developing governments found it hard to govern their country well after copying Western political systems and were plagued by political and social woes. More newly emerging countries have become skeptical about the Western model. In sharp contrast, the Chinese model is gaining popularity and giving hope to those countries longing for rapid development while maintaining independence.

The Chinese model has undoubtedly raised questions over liberal values, but it also enriches development philosophy. There is neither “end of history” nor “end of evolution” for development model. Now it’s the time for the West to seriously reflect upon its own problems and reconsider its values. What it needs to do is to improve and move forward, rather than be obsessed with past success. If it continues to defend its internal decay by fabricating external threats, liberal democracy and institutions will face a bigger crisis.

If you wish to read further, there is also an intriguing article about a Nigerian proposal to change to a one-party system and socialist economy in Nigeria.