Agence France Presse asked me recently about at item making the rounds in some quarters. It concerns a small group of Maoist sectarians who had travelled south to take part in some worker protests. Coming from a few universities in Beijing, some were put under house arrest upon return. I am told that Cornell University in the United States terminated a cooperative program with Renmin University of China over the issue.
Of course, all of this gains its inevitable spin and the full context is lost. The question is asked: why would a Marxist government seek to restrain a Marxist movement? Here is my response to AFP, although I am not sure they will do it justice:
These types of groups have been in existence for quite some time. One could, for example, outline earlier forms such as the ‘Utopia’ movement of more than a decade ago, which championed the corrupt mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xilai. There are also loose connections with what has been called China’s ‘New Left’, although the latter keep clear of these groups. Today one could perhaps say they are within the broad spectrum of Marxism in China, but they are really quite minor and on the fringe in relation to the vast reality of Chinese Marxism.
A brief outline of their main positions may be useful. Rather than simply calling them ‘Marxists’, they should really be seen as Maopai, Maoist sectarians. The phenomemon is in fact common in the history of Marxism and communist movements. A sectarian group typically assumes it is the bearer of truth, while other groups are heretics or betrayers.
The Maoist sectarians are no different. They believe that they witness to the truth of the last real expression of communism in China with Mao Zedong, especially during the Cultural Revolution. As any careful study of Mao’s extensive writings and acts indicates, their reading is quite selective, suiting their own agenda. For example, they stress a ‘break’ between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, suggesting that the latter ‘betrayed’ Mao and took China on the road to capitalism. However, if one studies Deng Xiaoping, it soon becomes clear that the continuities are equally strong, if not stronger. Further, their perception of the Cultural Revolution is rather idealistic and starry-eyed, instead of seeing it as the complex and traumatic reality that it was: a trauma that still runs deep in Chinese society.
Their focus on some workers also indicates a difficulty in dealing with Mao’s emphasis on peasants as the core of the communist movement at the time. Here they disagree among themselves: some recognize the importance of peasants/farmers, while others dismiss them and assert that ‘true’ communism focuses on workers. It is also worth noting on this matter that when workers do strike in China (as happened more in the past but less so today), it is normally in relation to bosses breaking the law. Workers typically invoke communist slogans in their protests, which is a point where the Maoist sectarians can make a connection.
More significantly, their approach runs into severe problems when examined further. They hold to a rather stunning conspiracy theory, which has been running for the 40 years of the reform and opening up. Thus, they see the CPC now as ‘fake’, as using deceptive speech when stressing Marxism, and so on. They also dismiss 40 years of very sophisticated Marxist developments.
They are also rather astute in feeding into a particular form of Western European Marxism, which has – especially after 1989 – felt that no authentic form of socialism could develop elsewhere in the world, especially in China. Thus, they position themselves as the ‘authentic’ voice of Marxism in China. For example, the French Marxist philosopher, Alain Badiou, has been promoting this perspective and is used by some of these Maoist sectarians in their work in China. The problem with Badiou is that he seriously misunderstands Marxism in China today. He has to my knowledge never been in China where he would see a strong communist party, with Marxism promoted everywhere, even to the point where it is becoming part of Chinese culture.
Why have such groups stepped up their activities of late, becoming more open? Xi Jinping is the key here. Everyone in China has known for quite some time that Xi Jinping is very serious about Marxism, directing the development of China’s economy, reforming the communist party (it was in relatively bad shape some years ago), shaping academic developments, art and literature, and so on. Only this year – since the CPC’s 19th congress in late 2017 and Xi Jinping’s major speech in May 2018 commemorating 200 years since Marx’s birth – has the rest of the world begun to notice. These events are beginning to lead to significant reassessment in other parts of the world. In the process, Xi Jinping has successfully claimed Mao’s mantle – as the majority of common people (laobaixing) clearly sense. But this development is quite disconcerting for the Maoist sectarians, for it seriously risks undermining their approach and indeed their conspiracy theory.
A specific event can also be connected to this activity. On 29 October, 2018, Xi Jinping gave a major speech to new trade union leaders on the relationship between workers, trade unions and the communist party. Again, this was a very Marxist speech with a clear articulation of how workers and unions function in building a new China under socialism in power. The challenge to the Maoist narrative should be obvious.
Lenin would have called them ‘left-wing communism, an infantile disorder’. However, one usually grows up and gains some wisdom. I have witnessed a number of people do precisely that: entertain a sectarian perspective for a while but then realise there is a greater and richer Marxist reality reality with which to engage constructively.