Chinese Marxist ethics

Lunli, they call it in these parts, or Gongchanzhuyi daode – ethics or communist moral principles. These are by no means abstract terms, debated by philosophers with little connection to real life. I encounter it day to day in a very concrete fashion.

Here Chinese tradition meets Marxism in a way that continually amazes and bewilders me. To begin with, the dushuren or xuezhe, the intellectual (literally ‘book reading person’) and scholar has a venerable place in Chinese society. The intellectual is simultaneously expected to devote significant time to reading, thinking and writing – whether scholarly works, moral maxims, poetry, or a range of other genres – and to the good of public life. This expectation is embodied in part in the word yiwu, which means both to volunteer and a duty. One volunteers to contribute in some way to the greater good of society, but this is simultaneously a duty or obligation. Although it is manifested at many levels of social relations, for an intellectual it means service in or for the government, or perhaps work that contributes to solving a commonly recognised problem.

Further, the first character in yiwu is yi (义), a significant aspect of Confucianism. Its literal meaning is ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, but it also includes ‘human relationships’ and ‘meaning’. Thus, yi involves the intertwining of justice and relationships, in a moral framework of doing good and the understanding of how to do so in a sensible and fit manner. In other words, one must know the underlying reason for such righteousness and not simply follow precepts.

For a scholar, this means that one is engaged and not engaged. Or rather, when one is engaged directly, one longs to be disengaged, to find the tranquillity to think and write and identify the deeper framework. But even in this situation, one does so with the public good always in mind.

By now it should be obvious that the ethics of a scholar are somewhat high.

What about communist moral principles? By now, they have been etched into Chinese culture, distinct and yet meshed with Confucian ideas. A communist is expected to be honest, direct and trustworthy, not concerned with personal gain and focused on the public good.

This morality appears at many levels. For instance, an ethos first developed at Ruijin in the early 1930s – during the first Chinese soviet – focused on providing poor peasants not with communist ideas, but with enough food, clothing, and shelter. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental desire of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Or it can be seen in Mao Zedong’s urgings for party members (cadres) after achieving power. In 1949, Mao wrote: ‘I hope that the revolutionary personnel of the whole country will always keep to the style of plain living and hard struggle’. Again, in 1957, he wrote that party members must not lose the revolutionary spirit of wholeheartedly serving the people. Instead, they must ‘persevere in plain living and hard struggle’, ‘maintaining close ties with the masses’.

Chairman (or president) Xi Jinping has been consistently evoking these admonitions from Mao over the last few years, especially in terms of uniting and strengthening the party through the ‘tigers and flies’ anti-corruption campaign – the most thoroughgoing and pervasive in modern Chinese history. As he does so, he and the leadership evoke the deep chords of communist morality.

Already five years ago, a new ‘eight rules’ were promulgated, echoing the ‘eight points for attention’ from 1927. The new eight rules focus on how leaders and party members should reject extravagance and reduce bureaucratic visits, meetings and empty talk. Crucially, the purpose is to strengthen ties between the people and officials, which had been eroded through corruption and power abuse.

That this approach resonates deeply with people shows up in complex surveys, with 80 percent or more of people supporting the measures. Why? Communist morality has become deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and society. If one is a communist, which means a party member, one is expected to live up to these ideals. If one fails, the fall is even greater.

What if you are a Marxist and a scholar? By now it should be obvious that the ethical standards are higher still. The combination of Confucian and Marxist ethics entails an expectation of almost impeccable morality – speaking plainly and directly, being honest, living simply, avoiding any sign of personal gain, and substantially focused on the public good.


Judith Butler’s vulnerable openness, or lack thereof

These days Judith Butler is turning down invitations to some places such as Germany. The reason is not so much that’s she’s busy, but that she is concerned about her ‘own person’, especially in light of the brouhaha surrounding the awarding of the Adorno prize and her anti-Zionist stand. Fair enough, you might say. But that becomes a little more difficult in light of her engagement in that form of moralizing, of telling others what to do, known as ‘ethics’.

In Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), Butler seeks to do precisely that. Here she argues that every account is an address, directed to ‘you’ in particular. Ethics is therefore a thoroughly relational activity, arising in dialogue, that is, discursively: ‘the scene of address, what we might call the rhetorical condition for responsibility, means that while I am engaging in a reflexive activity, thinking about and reconstructing myself, I am also speaking to you and thus elaborating a relation to an other in language as I go’ (p. 50). The key to Butler’s argument is that the accounts given are limited, broken, incoherent and incomplete. Here ethics begins. If my account is limited, then that should lead me to patience for an interlocutor caught in the same bind. Patience, tolerance and an effort to understand – these flow from the awareness that both interlocutors struggle with comparable incoherencies.

That is, one opens up to the ‘other’ (whatever that is) in vulnerability, in openness … or as she puts it at times, in permeability. Nicely liberal, really. But it is a little difficult to see how one may be vulnerable or even permeable if one doesn’t engage in the first place for fear of one’s person.

For an unethical and unmoral politics

Given that my opposition to ethics is not as yet clearly understood, a summary of a very long argument that will appear soon:

Picture the following situation. It may be a discussion over global warming or environmental politics and someone will say, ‘ethically speaking …’ Or it may the question of asylum seekers and refugees and another will say, ‘if we approach this ethically …’ Or I may acquire some spare toilet paper from my work place, a pair of scissors perhaps; a moral warrior will look at me sourly and pronounce, ‘that’s not ethical.’ Or I may be talking with an apostate lefty over a beer and she will suggest I become involved in that oxymoron, ‘ethical investment’.

The invocation of ‘ethical’ effectively seeks a closure to argument by means of an unassailable position with which we must agree, for it really seems to mean what is ‘good’, or more often ‘I think this is correct and you had better not disagree, for my position invokes a higher order before which your position counts for nothing’. After all, who does not want to be ethical?

All such approaches are actually moralising, telling people what they should or should not do. I have always been quite suspicious of ethics, a suspicion shared by a varied but fascinating collection – such as Marx for whom ethics is a mystifying ideology that justifies the status quo and keeps the ruling class in position, or Calvin, for whom ethics is a form of salvation by works, or Adorno for whom any moral philosophy ultimately comes to grief on the rocks of the false universal, or even Badiou, for whom the ‘ethical ideology’ of the other is merely a justification for the ‘state of the situation’.

Why the negative reaction? Is not politics inherently ethical? And does not the left seek to take a better ethical approach to economics, society and politics? Do we all not want apply the ethical grease to our social relations, and indeed our sense of connectedness to nature, so that they may work better than they do? That is, do we not wish to connect with those multiple others with whom and between whom social relations are problematic, seeking to overcome those problems in order to make social relations operate in a more improved manner?

A long chapter from In the Vale of Tears, due out early next year, outlines the reasons for my suspicions (a taster will appear in Rethinking Marxism). A brief outline of the main points:

1. A critique of some of the key forms that ethics takes today, as either,

a) ‘care of the self’, focusing on Foucault, who is rather close to Alain de Botton here.

b) relations to the ‘other’, with a focus on Butler and Eagleton, who end up quite close to one another, urging that we should simply be nice, loving and good to one another while recognising our failings.

2. Producing the other. I ask a preliminary question: how is the ‘other’, a given of so much ethics, produced in the first place? The answer is that the discourse of ethics does so, but in the process it obfuscates its arrogation of other discourses that also produce others, as well as concealing the socioeconomic connections that enable such productions. The result is that ethics gives the impression that the other is a given upon which ethics may set to work.

3. Chosen people. That concealment requires further interrogation, specifically in terms of its biblical and class dimensions. On the biblical side, the ‘other’ trails the dust of the pernicious theme of the chosen people. The process of claiming to be chosen requires the production of all manner of ‘others’, of strangers who are not part of that select group.

4. Goodness. By this time, someone may well object that ethics is not so much an issue of self, other, stranger, neighbour, social relations or chosen people, but actually of goodness. In response, I tackle goodness in terms of its problematic theological associations. The problem here is that one ends up in all manner of theological knots attempting to distinguish good from evil. The most consistent theological position, but one that few theologians or indeed biblical scholars wish to touch is that God is responsible for both good and evil.

5. Class. Goodness and ethics ultimately have inescapable class associations. When Plato asked, ‘What is good?, it was not an abstract question. Goodness was applicable only to the well-born, wealthy, propertied, lucky ruling class. And Aristotle, who coined the term ethics (ta ethika), states bluntly that ethics is appropriate not for persons of low tastes, who are the vast majority: ‘The utter vulgarity of the herd of men comes out in their preference for the sort of existence a cow leads’. In other words, only ruling class males are capable of ethical lives, as well as philosophical reflection, rhetorical training and political leadership. It certainly does not include all those class others, such as slaves, peasants, artisans and women – even though the ruling ideology is applicable to them. The purpose of ethics is thereby to ensure that existing custom and habit (ethos and mos) remain in place, get some much-needed lubrication and work a little better.

The very structure of the discourse of ethics, whether framed in terms of ‘self’, ‘other’, goodness, an ‘ought’, has ever since borne these implicit class assumptions. As soon as we use it, we play the same game.

6. Unethics. Can the term can be appropriated, emptied and refilled by those opposed to the ruling classes? Many have tried and failed, for a form inevitably trails the dust of its former associations. That is, the enmeshment of form and content ensures that a term such as ethics is never quite free of its ruling class dimensions. So I suggest that a position opposed to ruling class custom and habit be pursued, that is, aēthēs and praeter morem, an unethical and unmoral politics.

It may be objected that these terms too are part of ruling class discourse, designating the class other, that they are still within that framework. In response, I suggest that the valorisation of the realm of those opposed to the ruling class then becomes an act of subverting the very ideology of ethics and its class associations. That is, such a position may be regarded as a taking of sides, for these terms indicate what is disruptive, unwelcome, what shakes up the customary and comfortable social order – unethical and unmoral politics. It seizes ruling class ideology and turns it against itself. In the end, even these terms should be understood as place-holders for an entirely other terminology that may be more appropriate, a terminology that maybe found among the masses silenced in the elite literature of ethics.

Quote of the day: Fat Cowboys of Texas

Badiou may have his shortcomings, but he can turn a phrase. This one on ethics, difference and the other:

What we must recognise is that these differences hold no interest for thought, that they amount to nothing more than the infinite and self-evident multiplicity of humankind, as obvious as the difference between me and my cousin from Lyon as it is between the Shi’ite “community” in Iraq and the fat cowboys of Texas (Ethics, p. 26).

Latest publications: Nick Cave, Ethics and Islamic Perspective

Three publications in the last couple of weeks:

First, a study of Nick Cave and Christology:

2010    ‘Jesus of the Moon: Nick Cave’s Christology’, In The Bible In/And Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter. Eds. Elaine Wainwright and Philip Culbertson. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, pp. 127-39.

Second, a full study of Eagleton on ethics, with a blast at the possibility of ethics itself, especially by left-wing scholars:

2010    ‘Quailing Before the Real: Terry Eagleton and Ethics’. The Hobgoblin, 1 December.

And third, a piece in a fascinating journal, called Islamic Perspective, Number 4, 2010.

More details:

The Fourth volume of the Journal of Islamic Perspective has been published by the London Academy of Iranian Studies’ Centre for Sociological Studies. The journal is comprised of 14 articles, 2 Books Reviews and one Interview in 322 pages.

The Journal of Islamic Perspective is a peer reviewed publication of the Center for Humanities and Sociological Studies, affiliated to the London Academy of Iranian Studies (LAIS) and aims to create a dialogue between intellectuals, thinkers and writers from the Islamic World and academics, intellectuals, thinkers and writers from other parts of the Globe. Issues in the context of Culture, Islamic Thoughts & Civilizations, and other relevant areas of social sciences, humanities and cultural studies are of interest and we hope to create a global platform to deepen and develop these issues in the frame of a Critical Perspective. Our motto is homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto. Contributions to Islamic Perspective do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or the Center for Humanities and Sociological Studies. To order a hard copy of the journal email

To download the electronic version of the Journal click here



Interview on Globalization
Judith Blau 15

Deconstructing Global Education
Sayyed Mohsen Fatemi 23

AreWe Now “Post-Secular”? A critique of some of the recent claims
Bill Cooke 39

Faith and Science: Juan Luís Segundo On Religion and Science
Richard Curtis 54

The Swastika and The Crescent – “Islamofascism”: Reality or Political Syllogism
Dustin Byrd 73

The Paradoxes of the Secular State
Roland Boer 92

Religion as Worldview: Its Primordial, Perennial, and Practical Significance
John Herlihy 109

Johannine Christianity and Secularisation
Matthew Del Nevo 142

The Vatopedi Monasteri Scandal:What does the media coverage of the scandal show about the contemporary social and political role of Greek Orthodox Church?
Despina Chronaki 161

Soroush, Sufi Hermeneutics and Legitimizing a Hybrid Muslim Identity
Banafsheh Madaninejad 183

The Semantic Potential of Religion in Habermas’ Struggle for Modernity: Something’s Missing
Michael R. Ott 198

Next challenge: Community Development and Superintelligence
Ali Akbar Ziaee 243

Religion and Social Theory in the Frommesque Discourse
Seyed Javad Miri 254

Towards an Index of global tolerance: A quantitative analysis, based on the “World Values Survey” data
Arno Tausch 263

The Qur’an as a Criterion for Hadith-Text Examination
Israr Ahmad Khan 280

Book Reviews

Yoginder Sikand, ed., Madrasa Reforms—Indian Muslim Voices, Mumbai: Vikas Adhyayan Kendra
Nasir Khan 314

M.L.Bhatia, The Ulama, Islamic Ethics and Courts Under the Mughals—Aurangzeb Revisited
Yoginder Sikand 318

Korean translation of my Eagleton piece

I must admit I get a buzz out of this – when an item of mine is translated into another language. It gets better when the first I hear of it is that at some point the translator or publisher or whoever says to me, ‘Oh by the way, we translated this into …’ Or when I doscover it on a blog somewhere. The latest is Marishin’s translation of my MR piece on Eagleton’s ethical failure, now up on the lefty Korean blog, Jinbo – in Korean. Marishin tells me it’s generated a fair bit of traffic among the Korean left, where Eagleton is widely if somewhat uncritically read.