The Socialist Market Economy: Philosophical Foundations (updated)

This is the text of a paper, to be delivered at a conference in 2019. It is the fullest expression of my thoughts on a socialist market economy, forming the framework for an eventual monograph.

Let me begin with a personal narrative for a moment: my background is steeped in the Western European tradition. Apart from personal circumstances, as a child of Dutch immigrants, this includes the study of the European Classics, theology, and Marxist philosophy, all premised on the core principle that one must study such traditions in their original languages. Yet, as I develop a rather large project called ‘Socialism in Power’, I find increasingly that the frameworks that derive from the anomalous historical and cultural context of the western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass (also known as Western Europe) are unhelpful at least and misleading at worst.

On Dismantling False Universals

A few examples. Currently, I am working on a couple of books concerning the socialist state. I soon found that much of the ‘state theory’ that derives from a Western European context is unhelpful. These categories include:

  • The separation between state and society and the consequent category of ‘civil society’ (or more properly bürgerliche Gesellschaft, bourgeois society, of which the ultimate expression is the lynch mob (Losurdo 2011)).
  • The framework of bourgeois or liberal democracy that is so often assumed to be a universal ‘democracy’, with its strange notion of ‘democratisation’.
  • The consequent categories of party-state, authoritarianism and dictatorship.

Related but distinct are a number of other near useless frameworks:

  • Ontological transcendence and immanence, a distinction which shapes European cultural assumptions to the core.
  • The Western European tradition of human rights, with its focus on civil and political rights, which simply cannot make sense of alternative traditions of human rights (such as a Chinese Marxist one).
  • Identity politics as a logical absurdity of liberalism, in which one can choose one’s gender, sexual preferences, ethnicity and now even age.
  • The notion of sovereignty, which arose in the struggle between European states (Westphalia) and applied – mostly – to each other, but had no bearing on colonised countries.

The list could go on, which is based on extensive prior research, but let me focus on the shortcomings of the tradition of neo-classical economics:

  • The separation of ‘state’ and ‘the market’, assuming that the latter is a distinct entity with a life of its own.
  • The related category of government ‘interference’ with ‘the market’ from time to time.
  • Whenever one finds ‘market relations’, one has a form of capitalism (even 6,000 years ago).
  • The tendency among some Western Marxist economists to retreat from the initial wide historical framework of Marx and Engels and restrict themselves with analysing the workings of the capitalist market economy.[1]

Why are they less than helpful? As Igor Diakonoff (1999), the Soviet-era specialist on ancient Southwest Asia observed, European history is in many respects an anomaly. However, the history of European colonialism has made this anomaly a norm, which we are still struggling to discard. But this does not lead us to sheer relativism (with its attendant opposite, the universal). Instead, it is necessary to distinguish between false and rooted universals. A false universal neglects or forgets its specific origin and context, asserting that it is absolute and singular. By contrast, a rooted universal, or contextualised commonality, always remembers its specific context, for only in this way can the history, promises and limitations of the universal be kept in mind. This means that universals can and do arise in different contexts and cultures, and that they may apply with different emphases to all peoples.[2]

In light of the above, the following analysis of the socialist market economy constitutes another effort at constructing an approach from the ground up, one that is not beholden to frameworks and categories derived from the western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass. It seeks primarily the underlying patterns or philosophical foundations, albeit with relevant historical and empirical data. This task entails a number of steps, beginning with Marx’s third volume of Capital, moving through some historical examples of market economies, to principles of the Chinese socialist market economy.[3]

History: From Marx in Capital III to Economics Imperialism

As Chinese political economists do, we begin with Marx (not least because neo-classical economics is woefully inadequate). Over a few important pages in the third volume of Capital, Marx examines the market economy of ancient Rome (Marx 1894 [1998], 588-605; 1894 [2004], 583-99). His concern is to trace the effects of ‘usurer’s capital’. Found in the ‘most diverse economic formations of society’, in Rome a portion of this capital leads to commodities, money, trade, borrowing, surplus and profit. In other words, we have some of the core components of a ‘market economy’. But is it a capitalist market economy? Not at all. It is a slave market economy, for its primary purpose was to find, transport and buy the labour of others as slaves. The whole market economy of ancient Rome (and indeed ancient Greece) was geared for and subordinated to this purpose. Marx subsequently outlines the way some of these components worked: usury, interest, surplus, money, labour and so on, were arranged quite differently and functioned in ways that are far from a capitalist market economy.[4] Or, if they do at times seem similar, they function in ‘altered conditions’, without a capitalist market economy (Marx 1894 [1998], 592, 595; 1894 [2004], 587, 590). Marx moves on to outline how some elements of feudal market economies worked, and then how the different constellation of a capitalist mode of production overturned and reconfigured many of these earlier features (especially usury), but the point should now be clear.

In light of subsequent research (Boer and Petterson 2017), we may add that in light of the slave market economy, the Romans invented in the late second century BCE the legal-economic category of ‘absolute private property [dominium]’. The primary reference was the ownership of thing (res), except that the object in question was a slave. The category would later be lost and recovered in a fascinating history, becoming eventually a core component of the very different arrangements of a capitalist market economy and indeed of the Western European tradition of human rights.

One could make similar points regarding other market economies throughout history, such as the tax market economy of the ancient Persians in the first millennium BCE (Boer 2015), or the feudal market economy with its prime focus on the estate’s own production, to which peasants were bound (Kula 1976 [1962]). By contrast, a capitalist market economy is geared for the production of surplus value, to which all is subordinated.

Now for the philosophical point that arises from these historical analyses: a market economy – without an epithet – is not to be equated with a capitalist market economy. To divest ourselves of this assumption, fostered as it is in so many ways, is a most difficult task. But if we do not so divest ourselves, we end up with ‘economics imperialism’, in which the assumptions of a capitalist market economy (and its attendant neo-classical economic theory) are de-historicised, de-socialised, universalised and superimposed on any historical market economy, thereby skewing analysis (Milonakis and Fine 2009; Fine and Milonakis 2009).

Instead, market economies have appeared in different forms throughout much of human history, each with a distinct focus or purpose. They may have some common components, but the way they are arranged and how they function depends upon the purpose in question. It may be tax, slaves, estate production or profit (surplus value): all else is subordinated to the purpose. This historical reality raises the possibility of a market economy under socialism, one that is geared to yet another purpose distinct from those mentioned thus far.

Principles of a Socialist Market Economy

In analysing a socialist market economy (with Chinese characteristics), let elaborate on a number of proposition.[5]

  1. The enmeshment of state and economy, to the extent that one cannot distinguish between these two realms.

It has become increasingly clear that state and economy cannot be separated from one another in China. This is not a case of state ‘interference’ in the economy (as the EU interprets ‘socialist market economy’), but that the idea of distinct and autonomous realms does not work. Instead, they are enmeshed with one another in many complex ways.[6]

A significant philosophical reason for this reality reason may be found in the Chinese tradition of dialectics, which may be summarised with the common saying, ‘things that oppose each other also complement one another [xiangfan xiangcheng]’. This rich tradition was appropriated and transformed by Mao Zedong (1937 [1965], 1937 [1952]), with the eventual elaboration not only of ‘contradiction analysis’ that is even more relevant today (Xi 2017b, 2017a), but also of the crucial role of non-antagonistic contradictions (Mao 1957 [1992], 1957 [1999]). This approach applies at many levels, including the reality of classes under socialism: that classes such as workers and farmers, or urban and rural workers, would continue under socialism is obvious, from the Soviet Union to the DPRK (which includes intellectuals in its three classes). However, the key is that the relations between such classes should – ideally – develop in a non-antagonistic and constructive fashion.

This situation has led to immense frustration among a small number of other countries, which thought that China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 would push China towards a capitalist market economy (which they interpreted as a ‘market economy’). But China will not be moved from its own path, insisting that it is a market economy, albeit a socialist market economy in which state and economy are enmeshed with one another.

  1. The increasing disappearance or dying away of the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’ enterprises.

The old opposition between public (or state) and private ownership is dying (or withering) away – the allusion to Engels should be clear. This opposition has been for some time a leitmotiv of those who try to determine whether an economy is more or less ‘socialistic’, so much so that a ‘socialist’ turn involves ‘nationalising’ key industries. This model is simply unusable in China, if not misleading. Thus, the percentage of public or private ownership is not a marker of whether a national economy is more or less socialistic, nor indeed is the percentage of economic output by state-owned or private enterprises.[7]

In China, the fabled state-owned enterprises – the backbone of the economy – are undergoing a process of eradicating old inefficiencies by learning from ‘private’ enterprises and even entering into partnerships with those enterprises. At the same time, every enterprise, whether ‘private’ or ‘public’ – or rather the many enterprises which are part ‘private’ and ‘public’, village or local government owned enterprises, ‘new economic organisations’, start-ups and so on – with more than three CPC members must engage in party building. This means that they develop a party organisation with an elected party secretary. The larger the company, the larger the party membership. For example, the world’s leading online retailer, Alibaba, has more than 7,000 CPC members, with significant party building as part of its core mandate. At one level, these party organisations do not interfere with management decisions, but at another level ensure that the company adheres to CPC principles. Further, every foreign enterprise or multinational working in China must also have CPC workers and a unit within. If I add that the CEOs of China’s biggest companies are often members of the CPC (for example, Ma Yun or Jack Ma of Alibaba), then we begin to see that the distinction of ‘public’ and ‘private’ no longer works. This situation is leading to a number of creative efforts to rethink a socialist market economy, to the point of appropriating and transforming the European notion of the ‘common’ in terms of a reality that is fostered by and part of governance itself.

A further example concerns the rise of what is at times called a ‘middle class’ in China. This is an unfortunate term, since it is redolent with the anomalous history of the bourgeoisie in Europe: there it grew initially in the towns, developing a different agenda (what became known as the pernicious tradition liberalism) from the existing European states and eventually seizing power through a series of revolutions and transformations (in Germany through Bismarck). Instead, the Chinese ‘middle class’ is a socialist middle class (with ‘middle class’ functioning as a place holder until a better term is found). By this I mean the 700-800 million urban and rural workers who have been lifted out of poverty over the last forty years of the reform and opening up. Often described as the greatest human rights achievement in the twentieth century, it is a direct result of government initiative, which continues today. In other words, this group simply does not have a class consciousness comparable to the European middle class, for it is inseparable from the core government policy of poverty alleviation.[8] Or, to use a Chinese way of framing this development, it constitutes the second great leap – to economic wellbeing (fuqilai de weida feiyue), which is the core Chinese Marxist human right.[9]

  1. Instead of being an alternative to a planned economy, a socialist market economy may be seen as another form of a planned economy, in which parameters are set.

Another opposition that is losing traction in China is between a planned economy and a socialist market economy. In its old form, a planned economy was seen as a distinct and socialist alternative to a capitalist market economy. With careful and rational planning, the chaos, vagaries and crises of a capitalist market economy would be overcome with a planned economy. If one follows this suggestion, then a socialist market economy is a betrayal of the planned economy. This is not the case.

Two approaches may be distinguished in determining their relationship. The first proposes that both planned and socialist market economies are two possible forms of economies under socialism. Depending on conditions, a more planned economy may be needed at some points, while at others a socialist market economy is required. The second – and more preferable – approach is to see the two working together. Thus, while China moved only a few years ago to identifying market mechanisms as the foundational logistic reality of economic activity, it continues to set five-year plans. In their current form, these plans set parameters for the socialist market economy – most notably in in the last couple of years to focusing foreign investment in countries that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.[10]

  1. A central role in the continued unfolding of the anti-colonial project.

The socialist market economy must also be seen as part of the much larger anti-colonial project, which may be dated in China from the efforts in the nineteenth century to repel colonial powers. Many components may be adduced, from a distinct approach to sovereignty (which entails a rejection of foreign interference at any level), through China-Africa cooperation (for almost two decades), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Let me take the BRI as a test-case. Instead of seeing it as a form of ‘creditor colonialism’ (concerning this type of propaganda the old Danish saying is pertinent: a thief always thinks everyone else is a thief), the BRI should be seen as the latest unfolding of the anti-colonial project (Losurdo 2013). How so? First, it offers a distinctly different model of international engagement, in which the construction of infrastructure – from rail and roads to telecommunications – is central. To be added here is the simple fact that Chinese technology increasingly outstrips that found elsewhere. This approach contrasts sharply with the old model of aid, which was essentially bribery to a ruling class in exchange for compliance and altering internal political and social structures to suit neo-colonial agendas. The BRI approach – even as it deals with inevitable problems such as avoiding local corruption – has become distinctly popular in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, Eastern and Southern Europe and the Pacific, so much so that the old colonial cabal (including Australia)[11] has changed its tune and is now offering ‘Western aid with Chinese characteristics’ – which is welcomed by China.

Why focus on infrastructure? I cannot go here into the Chinese tradition or the Marxist tradition in which liberating the forces of production is the core component of socialism in power. Instead, let us ask: what is the purpose? Is it to make these countries subservient to a new master? On the contrary, it is predicated on the position that one needs to develop basic and advanced infrastructure to improve the socio-economic condition of those involved. Or, as the Chinese Marxist approach to human rights would have it, the basic human right is the right to economic wellbeing (Sun 2014; Boer In press-b).

  1. Embodying the core Chinese Marxist human right to economic wellbeing (which may – with qualifications – also be found in ‘all under heaven is as common [tianxia wei gong]’).

The previous point brings us to the basic purpose of a socialist market economy, concerning which two concepts are pertinent. The first is a four-character phrase (chengyu): all under heaven is as common (tianxia wei gong). It comes from none other than the Confucian Book of Rites (1885, 364-66).[12] Subsequently, it became a favourite phrase of Sun Zhongshan (Yat-sen) and the CPC.

However, tianxia wei gong may also contain a problem to be avoided, for it was developed in an early imperial context and potentially gives a ruling-class perspective. It may be appropriated, but only through the core Chinese Marxist human right: the right to socio-economic wellbeing. This distinct tradition of human rights (which differs from the Western European tradition) has developed in its own way and may be compared to a tree. At its roots is anti-colonial sovereignty, the trunk is the right to socio-economic wellbeing, and the leaves are civil, political, cultural and environmental rights.[13] Not only is the right to socio-economic wellbeing embodied in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1976),[14] but it also remains a key driver for minority nationalities policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the socialist market economy.

How does this focus work? Many are the aspects, but let me focus here on two. The first concerns company aims and reports. Of course, they need to be economically viable to ensure their continued functioning, but profit is not the primary purpose. Instead, the companies focus on social benefit, poverty alleviation, environmental improvement, education, guidance and improvement of public opinion, core socialist values,[15] party construction, and contribution to socialism with Chinese characteristics. These are now known as ‘social responsibility reports’ and are core to any enterprise’s activities.[16]

The second example is initially more mundane, for it concerns my pay in China and restrictions on moving money out of China. When I mentioned this situation to someone in Australia, he exclaimed, ‘but it is your money; you have a right to do with it what you want’. But when I mentioned it to a colleague in China, pointing out that I would prefer to spend the pay in China, she said: ‘of course, so you should’. In other words, even one’s pay is not simply a private matter, for it should be spent in a way that contributes to the right for socio-economic wellbeing for all, or ‘all under heaven is as common’. The larger point here is that the components of a market economy (which are also not constant) are arranged in quite distinct constellations depending on its prime purpose. Thus, money, commodities, labour, even stock markets,[17] and so on, relate to one another and function quite differently.

Summary and Conclusion: How Did the Socialist Market Economy Arise?

Let me summarise the argument in terms of a number of theses:

1. Market economies may be found throughout human history, taking the form – to name a few – of tax, slave, feudal, capitalist and socialist market economies.

2. Thus, it is a form of economics imperialism to equate ‘market economy’ (minus the epithet) with a ‘capitalist market economy’.

3. The purpose of the market economy in question is crucial, for this determines the arrangement of its components.

3. A socialist market economy entails:

a. The need to develop a Marxist economic analysis, since neo-classical economic theory is inadequate.

b. The enmeshment of state and economy, to the extent that one cannot distinguish these two realms.

c. The increasing disappearance or dying away of the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’ enterprises.

d. Instead of being an alternative to a planned economy, a socialist market economy may be seen as another form of a planned economy, in which parameters are set.

e. A central role in the continued unfolding of the anti-colonial project.

f. Embodying the core Chinese Marxist human right to economic wellbeing (which may – with qualifications – also be found in ‘all under heaven is as common [tianxia wei gong]’).

By now it should be obvious that a number of approaches to the Chinese economy are superficial and mistaken. These include categories such as ‘state capitalism’, ‘neo-liberalism with Chinese characteristics’, ‘authoritarian capitalism’, a version of the Soviet Union’s ‘New Economic Program’, a borrowing from Yugoslavia’s ‘market socialism’,[18] if not simple hypocrisy in which one can ignore the very sophisticated debates in China today (Kluver 1996; Harvey 2007; Amin 2006, 30-34; Huang 2008). Not only are such hypotheses empirically wanting, but they are also philosophically untenable (leading to betrayal narratives, conspiracy theories and versions of Orientalism).

Instead, let us consider a number of Chinese proposals as to how the socialist market economy arose. These are samples of the extensive debate in China, upon which I have drawn for this paper.

The first suggests that the market economy in China differs little from capitalist market economies, save in one important respect: the role of the government in the economy. It should be clear by now that this suggestion does not hold up in light of further analysis.

The second is to resort to Deng Xiaoping’s breakthrough proposal that a market economy is a neutral instrument and can be used for the construction of socialism. This proposal was based on the understanding that socialism is of no worth if everyone is equal in poverty, but that it must liberate the forces of production to improve everyone’s socio-economic wellbeing.

The third draws upon the old adage, ‘seek truth from facts’. Conditions change, new problems arise for which new solutions must be sought – hence the reform and opening up, and the socialist market economy.

The fourth is that the socialist market economy draws on the increasing symbiosis (especially with Xi Jinping) of Chinese traditional cultures and Marxism. I have addressed a number of features of this symbiosis earlier, including the approach to non-antagonistic contradictions and the Confucian four-character saying, ‘all under heaven is as common’.

The fifth is intriguing: the development of a socialist market economy is as much accidental as it was planned. Thus, it arose out of the period (first decade of the twenty-first century) when neo-liberal economic policies seemed to be gaining traction. Many were the debates in China at the time, as Marxist economists warned of a drift to a capitalist market economy (against which Deng Xiaoping warned many times). That decade is decisively over with Xi Jinping’s clear rearticulation of Marxist political economy as the basis for China’s development. But the response is intriguing: instead of reverting to an outmoded planned economy, the contours of a socialist market economy arose.

The final proposal is that market economies have historically taken very different shapes and forms, determined by a primary purpose. This has been the preferred approach of this paper, although each of the preceding proposals (barring the first) also has merit. In this light, a socialist market economy constitutes a distinctly new form of a market economy.

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———. 2017. Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power. Beijing: Springer.

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———. In press-a. ‘Sovereignty and the Right to Economic Wellbeing: An Anti-Colonial Project’. In Sovereignty, Religion, and Secularism: Interrogating the Foundations of Polity, edited by Robert Yelle and Yvonne Sherwood. London: T & T Clark.

———. In press-b. ‘The State and Minority Nationalities (Ethnic Groups) in China’. In The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity, edited by Steven Ratuva. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.

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———. 2018. What Worries the World – September 2018. Paris: Ipsos Public Affairs.

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Xi Jinping. 2017a. Juesheng quanmian jiancheng xiaokang shehui, duoqu xinshidai zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi weida shengli (2017.10.18). Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.

———. 2017b. 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.

Notes

[1] For the sake of reference, some of the earlier works where these matters have been analysed may be cited (Boer 2014, 2018, 2017, In press-b, In press-a, 2015; Boer and Petterson 2017).

[2] Thus, as Sun points out (2014, 132-35), the idea of ‘rooted universals’ moves past the facile distinction between relative and absolute (Foot 2000, 155-57).

[3] The present paper provides a basic outline of a monograph to be written on the socialist market economy. Some areas are based on earlier research (especially the historical material), while other areas have slowly developed over the last few years. Obviously, most topics require further in-depth research, predicated on taking Chinese scholarship on such matters seriously.

[4] Or, as Kula points out: ‘in the pre-capitalist economy, market phenomena are governed by completely different laws in many cases, and … these phenomena have an altogether different effect on the remaining sector of the economy’ (Kula 1976 [1962], 17).

[5] Although comparisons with the practices of the Soviet Union are helpful to some extent, they are also fraught with traps, not least because of the different historical and cultural context of China, as well as the fact that China has developed well beyond what happened in the Soviet Union.

[6] The same can be said for developments of the socialist state (see above).

[7] In his occasional posts on China, the Marxist economist, Michael Roberts, pursues this line. See https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com.

[8] This group forms the backbone of surveys which consistently register, in international surveys, 90 percent expressing confidence in the direction China is headed (Ipsos 2017, 2018), and 84-89 percent expressing trust in the government (Edelman 2018).

[9] The three great leaps are: standing up (zhanqilai); economic wellbeing (fuqilai); strength (qiangqilai). A recent articulation may be found in Xi Jinping’s speech commemorating the 200th anniversary since Marx’s birth (5 May, 2018).

[10] This point arises from a private conversation with Ken Surin, of Duke University.

[11] This old colonial club, made up of about a dozen countries, has been fostering a ‘China threat’ line for the last few years, all the way from Huawei as a ‘security threat’ to deliberate misinformation concerning the highly successful de-radicalisation programs in Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The vast majority of countries in the world – including Muslim-majority countries – are singularly unimpressed with this effort.

[12] The text may also be found at https://ctext.org/liji/li-yun.

[13] It is possible to give only a brief sketch here, but the research behind this point may found in other papers (currently available at https://www.humanities.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/AAH-SYMP18-BOER-Chapter.pdf; https://www.humanities.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/AAH-SYMP18-BOER-Paper.pdf).

[14] Article 11(1) is relevant here, which mentions that state parties ‘recognize the rights of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions’.

[15] As part of party rebuilding under Xi Jinping, as well as society as large, the core socialist values continue to be assiduously promoted at all levels. They appear in adjectival form: 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). Needless to say, they should be understood within a socialist framework and not twisted in terms of liberalism.

[16] In some quarters, some noise has been raised concerning Chinese billionaires in a socialist society, with relation to the Gini coefficient. These social responsibility reports should indicate the role of such billionaires, and it is worth noting that the Gini coefficient, or ratio between rich and poor, has been steadily falling in China for over a decade.

[17] A more detailed examination of stock markets in China would reveal that it is common to distinguish between fluctuations on the stock markets and the ‘real economy’. The reason: the Chinese economy is not ‘financialised’, as in the United States, where the ultimate fetish of capitalism may be found – money produces money of its own accord (Marx 1894 [1998], 388-97; 1894 [2004], 380-88). In short, the stock market is not determinative of the enmeshed economic situation as a whole.

[18] Yugoslavia, in its break with the Soviet Union, developed what they called ‘market socialism’. In this case, enterprises were collectively owned but they sold products – internally to Yugoslavia and externally to a capitalist Europe – in a capitalist framework. Hence ‘market socialism’. Some suggest that the Chinese borrowed this model for their own approach, but this is not the case. As is their custom, they studied various approaches and came up with their own.

An effort to understand Australian Sinophobia

Since I spend my holidays in Australia, I find a need to understand the extraordinarily vicious Sinophobia thereabouts. In our time, perhaps New Zealand is the only country where it is worse, but that is not by much. Russophobia is part of the picture as well, but not as bad as in that very weird country, the United States.

So let me suggest the following:

1. The weakness of Australian governance, especially at a national level. No matter what party has been in power over the last decade or more, it has characteristically been weak and torn by inner strife. They spend most of their time turfing out one leader and finding another, so much that elections are a waste of time and money. When a government is weak, it likes to find an external threat.

2. There are two caveats here. To begin with, the general populace is largely positive with regard to China. Survey after survey indicates around 65 percent are positively disposed. Further, the political subclass is split, with significant portions across the limited political spectrum engaging with China. For now, the Sinophobic element is able to set the agenda, making use of a gaggle of rabid ‘commentators’ and ‘advisors’ who do not realise they are being used. Australia also has a compliant corporate and state-owned media (ABC and SBS) playing the same tune.

3. At a deeper level, the Sinophobic narrative – with its distortions and deliberate misinformation – taps into a vast storehouse of Australian racism from the past. This comes form a time when the population was less than 10 million and was largely descended from British immigrants. In this context, the ‘yellow peril’ was invoked, an obviously racist trope and part of the white Australia policy. This is really nasty material, which many of us thought had been left behind.

4. The Sinophobic propaganda is a signal of an ongoing identity crisis. Since 1972 and the end of the white Australia policy, Australia has seen British descendants become a minority. Western European descendants (like myself) will also soon be a minority. Most immigrants come from East Asia, the Subcontinent and Africa. For example, Chinese is the second most spoken language in Australia now. As this shift happens, with about 200,000 immigrants per year, the demographics and culture have been changing. In this context, the racist invocation has become more shrill as Australia makes the transition to a Eurasian nation. That it alienates a significant portion of the population should be obvious.

5. The rampant Sinophobia may also be seen as a symptom of the difficulty of figuring how to deal with a declining United States. That the USA is in decline is obvious to everyone. Asian countries have by and large figured this out and have been working to solve their own problems. But Australia is trapped. It gambled on alliance with the United States after the Second World War, but the governing bodies know full well that the USA today would neither want nor be able to lift a finger to help Australia. Further, for some time now, Australia’s number one economic partner has been China, which has enabled Australia to avoid a recession for 27 years. Australian policy setters, along with the woeful media, are unable to manage this situation. Either break with the United States or break with China. The latter option would have severe economic and social consequences, while the former would simply challenge the whole political culture of the last 70 or more years.

6. At the deepest level, this Sinophobia is part of the long-standing colonial and anti-colonial struggle. The anti-colonial project I have in mind is the one that came to the fore in the twentieth century. As the Soviet Union realised (in the 1930s) that the Russian Revolution was in part an anti-colonial revolution, and as it began to support at many levels the global anti-colonial struggle in the name of opposing capitalist imperialism, the century was determined at many levels by this struggle.

With its immense economic power and socialist political structures, China has now taken the lead in the anti-colonial project. We see this with the world-changing Belt and Road Initiative, Africa-China Cooperation, the Asia Infrastructure Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The latest element of this is the shift away from the US dollar in international transactions and reserves (for example, China plans in March to trade oil in Renminbi, the most significant shift from the last item that is still almost exclusively done in US dollars).

In response, a small number of countries – 15 at most – have made an effort to counter this anti-colonial project. Of course, they are former colonial powers, pushing a tired agenda that is too little, too late. The catch is that some of the former colonies have joined this new colonial bandwagon. These are not the countries that achieved independence in the twentieth century, but earlier. The United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are the culprits. While we may think this is perverse, it is useful to recall that each of them has been a colonial power on their own. Australia, for example, was for long a colonial master of Papua New Guinea and still sees itself as a master. That China has now engaged with Papua New Guinea and is doing what Australia never did – improve the basic infrastructure in Papua New Guinea so that it may actually develop economically – is seen as an affront to Australia’s continuing colonial arrogance.

 

Political weakness, a storehouse of racism, an identity crisis, a declining and angry United States, and the anti-colonial project – these are the factors that seem to be important. There may be more, but none are particularly pleasant. No wonder, then, that in 2017 and 2018, Australia was voted the least friendly country by Chinese surveys.

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.

Anti-Colonialism

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.

Losurdo’s new book on Western Marxism

Recently published is a new book by the stakhanovite, Domenico Losurdo, called: Western Marxism: How It Was Born, How It Died and How It Can Rise Again.

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The brief description (found here) reads:

Western Marxism was afflicted by a sort of myopia: it didn’t realize that the wind of the revolution was blowing  from Russia to China and the Third World, joining with the national revolutions against Western imperialism.

There was a time when Marxism was an obligatory point of reference for any philosophical and political debate: those years saw the biggest victories for ‘Western Marxism’, which presented itself in stark contrast to its Eastern counterpart, accused of being a state ideology that propped up ‘Socialist’ regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Although at first the October revolution was viewed with hope, 20th century Communism contributed to the disintegration of the global colonial complex rather than creating a radically new social system. An extraordinary result that Western Marxism failed adequately to understand or appreciate. Hence its crisis and collapse. If it is to be revived, it must examine the anticolonial revolution and answer three key questions: What has the global anticolonial uprising meant in terms of freedom and emancipation? How is the clash between colonialism and anticolonialism played out today? What relationship was there between the anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles?

Losurdo puts these questions to the great authors of the 20th century – Bloch, Lukács, Adorno and Foucault – and of today – Agamben, Badiou and Žižek – in a heated debate that combines historical reconstruction and philosophical enquiry.

Exactly! For it was the Soviet Union that developed a thoroughly anti-colonial policy (arising from its ‘affirmation action’ nationalities policy). This policy enabled arms, personnel and know-how to support most of the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century as part of the global undermining of imperialist capitalism. Indeed, what is now called ‘post-colonialism’ could not have arisen – temporally and theoretically – without the anti-colonial theory and practice developed in the Soviet Union (especially by you-know-who).

From the National Question to the International Question: The Soviet contribution to the anti-colonial struggle

On the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalin consciously claims his own breakthrough from the ‘national question’ to the international anti-colonial struggle. He probably gets a little carried away with the world-historical importance of the October Revolution, but who can blame him?

Having overthrown the landlords and the capitalists, the October Revolution broke the chains of national and colonial oppression and freed from it, without exception, all the oppressed peoples of a vast state. The proletariat cannot emancipate itself unless it emancipates the oppressed peoples. It is a characteristic feature of the October Revolution that it accomplished these national-colonial revolutions in the U.S.S.R. not under the flag of national enmity and conflicts among nations, but under the flag of mutual confidence and fraternal rapprochement of the workers and peasants of the various peoples in the U.S.S.R., not in the name of nationalism, but in the name of internationalism.

It is precisely because the national-colonial revolutions took place in our country under the leadership of the proletariat and under the banner of internationalism that pariah peoples, slave peoples, have for the first time in the history of mankind risen to the position of peoples that are really free and really equal, thereby setting a contagious example to the oppressed nations of the whole world.

This means that the October Revolution has ushered in new era, the era of colonial revolutions which are being carried out in the oppressed countries of the world in alliance with the proletariat and under the leadership of the proletariat.

It was formerly the “accepted” idea that the world has been divided from time immemorial into inferior and superior races, into blacks and whites, of whom the former are unfit for civilisation and are doomed to be objects of exploitation, while the latter are the only bearers of civilisation, whose mission it is to exploit the former. (Works, vol. 10, pp. 248-49).

That legend must now be regarded as shattered and discarded. One of the most important results of the October Revolution is that it dealt that legend a mortal blow, by demonstrating in practice that the liberated non-European peoples, drawn into the channel of Soviet development, are not one whit less capable of promoting a really progressive culture and a really progressive civilisation than are the European peoples.

Stalin and the origins of post-colonialism

The pleasure increases with age: the discovery of unexpected ideas by means of disciplined and sustained reading. In this case I refer to Joseph Stalin and the origins of the connection between Marxism, anti-colonialism and thereby post-colonialism. Here I can spell out only the outlines of what will become a much longer argument.

As a preliminary note, we need to dispel the image popularised by the Trotskyites. The sneering dismissal of a ‘mediocre provincial’ says more about Trotsky’s own vanity than it does about Stalin.[1] Even preliminary investigation reveals that Stalin was a very bright student, at both the church school he attended and the ‘Spiritual Seminary’ in Tiflis where he studied theology for six years. At the seminary he also wrote poetry, which has entered the anthologies of great Georgian literature. Anyone who studies the poems is struck by the delicate balance and linguistic purity of the writing[2] – features that also show up in his later written work.

However, it was the experience of crude Russification in Georgia that influenced Stalin most deeply on the national question. At the seminary, Georgian was forbidden even in everyday talk among the students. All texts, literature, and instruction were in Russian with a national imperialist focus. These experiences led to one of his early pieces on the ‘national question’, with the position outlined in full some years later in ‘Marxism and the National Question’.[3] Here he outlined what would become the basic position of the Bolsheviks: recognition and fostering of ethnic minorities, in terms of language, culture, literature, government, and religion. By this stage, he had already made clear his position on treatment of the Jews, among other groups, under the tsarist regime: ‘Groaning under the yoke are the eternally persecuted and humiliated Jews who lack even the miserably few rights enjoyed by other Russian subjects – the right to live in any part of the country they choose, the right to attend school, the right to be employed in government service, and so forth’.

All this is easy enough when one is involved in an underground, revolutionary group. What happens when you achieve power? After the October Revolution, Stalin was made People’s Commissar, with a specific focus on the ‘national question’. Now he had to deal with the complexities of the various situations. As the new government began enacting its policy, he found that bourgeois-aristocratic governments began to claim autonomy. So he stipulated that any claim to autonomy and self-determination had to come from a government established by workers and peasants – in Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and so on. In the process of thinking through such matters, he formulated the dialectical position: ‘Thus, from the breakdown of the old imperialist unity, through independent Soviet republics, the peoples of Russia are coming to a new, voluntary and fraternal unity’.[4]

Soon enough he was struck by a crucial insight: this position on the national question also applies to anti-colonial movements throughout the world. So he wrote in 1918 that the October Revolution ‘has widened the scope of the national question and converted it from the particular question of combating national oppression in Europe into the general question of emancipating the oppressed peoples, colonies and semi-colonies from imperialism’.[5] If one supports the emancipation of ethnic minorities within the USSR, then the same should apply to any colonised place on the globe. This insight lay behind USSR’s policy, already from this time, of supporting anti-colonial struggles around the world.

I cannot go into the detail and complexity of these issues here, such as the relationship with the international solidarity of the working class, the way socialism and nationalism come together in a new way in such formulations, the realities of a massive war effort, and so on. But I do need to ask how these insights have a bearing on post-colonialism. As any self-respecting account of the origins of post-colonialism shows, what we now call ‘post-colonialism’ has a longer history in the anti-colonial articulations of Marxism and the struggles it fostered. The names usually listed in such histories include Marx, Lenin, Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. DuBois and C. L. R. James, among others. Missing from this account is of course Stalin. Yet, it was Stalin who developed most fully and in the context of the actual experience of constructing socialism the deeper logic of Marxist anti-colonialism. The sensitivity to such issues may have arisen from his own intimate experiences in Georgia as a young man. But he worked through the complexities of the issue as he dealt with the realities of ethnic minorities in what would soon be called the USSR.

[1] As Lunacharsky observes, Trotsky never did anything without a careful look in the mirror of history. Anatoly Vasil’evich Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes  (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967).

[2] Donald Rayfield, “Stalin the Poet,” PN Review 11, no. 3 (1985).

[3] J. V. Stalin, “The Social-Democratic View on the National Question,” in Works, vol. 1, 31-54 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1904 [1954]); J. V. Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” in Works, vol. 3, 300-81 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1913 [1953]).

[4] J. V. Stalin, “The Government’s Policy on the National Question,” in Works, vol. 4, 233-37 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1919 [1953]), 237.

[5] J. V. Stalin, “The October Revolution and the National Question,” in Works, vol. 4, 158-70 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1918 [1953]), 169-70.