Some time ago (2001) Michael Löwy and Joel Kovel put together the first Ecosocialist Manifesto. Since then there have been subsequent revisions and versions. However, neither of them have much time for the Chinese Communist Party, which is a shame really. Even the corporate media has been forced to take notice of what can only be called ecosocialism in action, as can be found here. What interests me in all of this is that it is precisely a strong socialist state that can drive through such programs.

Speaking of related matters, especially the 19th congress of the CPC, a few more pieces of interest.

The first is called ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics: 10 ideas to share with the world‘. A long explanatory piece well worth a read.

The second is called ‘Decoding the DNA of the CPC‘, of which the first item concerns a rising focus, ‘faith in Marxism’.

Of course, these are official statements, and I like to analyse maters at another level, but they do seek to provide information to an often ignorant world about crucial issues relating to the future of this very same world.

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There is significant misunderstanding of the term ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi]’.

Many foreigners – Marxists included – think it is a code for capitalism. Others think it means the complex intersections between Marxism and Chinese culture, while others think it is an empty term that can be filled with whatever content you want.

The Chinese understanding is different but actually very clear.

The specific term comes from Deng Xiaoping in 1982:

In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities [zhongguo de shiji]. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo tese de shehuizhuyi] – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history.

Further, the specific meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ entails the ‘reform and opening up [gaige kaifang]’, which has been underway since 1978. Again, this is not a ‘reform’ away from socialism, but something quite different. This is reform after a revolution, undertaken in light of the revolution (as Lenin already argued).

Above all, let me stress that Deng Xiaoping’s genius was that he understood that socialism is not about everyone being equal, which really means that everyone is equally poor. Instead, it entails unleashing the forces of production, as Marx and Engels already argued. In other words, socialism is about improving the social and economic lives of everyone.

So this is the specific Chinese characteristic of socialism.

But the question remains, as some seem to think, whether Deng Xiaoping marks a significant departure from Mao on this matter (another version of the betrayal or ‘Fall’ narrative’). As one would expect, there are different stresses and emphases in their approaches, depending in the specific circumstances involved in constructing socialism. But on this matter, we can identify the broader framework of Deng Xiaoping’s approach (and that of later Chinese leaders) already in Mao’s thought.

This initial idea already appears in Mao’s work from 1938:

There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China [zhongguo tedian], and not Marxism abstractly used … consequently, the sinification of Marxism [makesizhuyi de zhongguohua] that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics [zhongguo texing], using it according to Chinese peculiarities [zhongguo tedian] – becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole party without delay.

To begin with, we find the idea of Chinese characteristics, which may also be translated as distinguishing features (zhongguo tedian) or distinguishing properties (zhongguo texing).

Equally important is the crucial phrase, sinification of Marxism (makesizhuyi de zhongguohua). This phrase is usually translated as ‘Chinese Marxism’, but as is the case with translations, some of the meaning is lost and other meanings attach to it. ‘Chinese Marxism’ tends miss the crucial meaning of the word hua: to transform. Mao’s text is talking about Marxism transformed in light of a Chinese situation, or in terms of Chinese characteristics. So it is better to translate as ‘sinification of Marxism’.

Obviously, the general idea derives from Mao, but what fascinates me is the way Deng Xiaoping interprets the term. It refers not so much to the influence of Chinese culture and history, but to unleashing the forces of production in light of the specific, historical conditions of China.

All of this means that transforming Marxism in light of Chinese conditions – that is, socialism with Chinese characteristics – actually comes out of the Marxist tradition. As Engels, Lenin and others were fond of saying, ‘Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action’.

Following on his statement that philosophy and the social sciences should flourish in China, Chairman Xi Jinping has made a major statement on the nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics (you can use the automatic translator in some search engines if needed).

This always gives me a thrill, breaking into new areas for publishing ideas. Earlier, the People’s Daily in China published an article on the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States. A few days ago, Chinese Social Sciences Today published an article called ‘Contradiction: The Key to Understanding the Sinification of Marxism’. It has now appeared on a number of websites in China (here, here, here and here). This is a short version of my paper to be delivered at the Chinese Marxism conference here at Renmin University, 22-23 April. In case you don’t read Chinese, here is a translation (with some able editing by a comrade, Zang Fengyu):

In 1938, Mao Zedong proposed the “sinification of Marxism,” by which he meant “making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities.” In 1982, Deng Xiaoping pointed out: “we must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Most foreign scholars do not fully understand these claims. I think the Marxist theory of contradiction is the key to understanding the problem.

The internal contradictions of socialism in China have multiple levels of expression. Mao Zedong pointed out in his article that conflicts are manifold, but there is a dominant contradiction in comparison with other contradictions. This key to contradictions is that people should be the main concern. In order better to understand the conflicts, especially in terms of economic, scientific, intellectual and political contradictions, one should continue to develop the theory, and constantly return to seek real improvement in the theory. It is very important to determine at any time the principal contradiction and decide the best way to solve this contradiction in terms the development of this theory.

Mao Zedong’s critical analysis indicates that at all stages of socialism and even communism stage there is ongoing conflict. This suggests that the contradiction between productive forces and production relations in Socialist conditions continues to exist. In fact, in Mao Zedong’s view, “socialist society grows more united and consolidated through the ceaseless process of correctly handling and resolving contradictions.” These contradictions are not antagonistic, but should be resolved through intervention and adjustment.

So, how are contradictions this manifested in a socialist society with Chinese characteristics? First, contradictions still exist between the forces and relations of production. As the forces move ahead, the relations of production may drag behind and therefore need constant readjustment. As the old contradictions are resolved, new ones will arise that require yet further reform and adjustment. Sometimes changes in relations of production can influence the forces or production in moving forward. Further, in China today there is a continued presence of some traditional assumptions about social relations. Many of these have been adjusted in light of the development of productive forces, others have found new expression in light of the rapid changes in production, while others become a drag on further development. The result is that China has a unique conjunction of traditional and very modern social assumptions. As a result, traditional and modern assumptions in China is a unique combination.

Perhaps today, the principal contradiction in Chinese society is a complex dialectical relationship. At a theoretical level one should expect that the contradictions of former modes of production are not resolved in a new mode of production. Instead, the old contradictions reappear in new ways, making the new situation even more complex. Traditionally, Marxism has spoken of the “narrative” of modes of production: tribal society and hunter-gatherer existence are replaced by slavery, or perhaps by the “Asiatic mode of production,” which are in turn replaced by feudalism, which is replaced by capitalism, which is then overcome by socialism and communism. Each mode of production is both enabled by internal contradictions (which are thereby constitutive contradictions), but those same contradictions lead to its undoing. Thus, a subsequent mode of production overcomes those contradictions only to produce new ones that are simultaneously constitutive and disabling.

A new theoretical approach argues that each new mode of production absorbs all those that have come before (this is really a different and perhaps more sophisticated form of dialectical understanding). Thus, we find that the earlier contradictions are now included within the new mode of production, creating multiple contradictions that remain unresolved. At the same time, the functions of those earlier modes of production are altered, so that they work within the new mode of production. Socialism has the potential to absorb all of the previous modes of production at yet a higher level of complexity. Indeed, within socialist theory we find the argument that communism unleashes the forces of production hindered by capitalism. However, if you want to liberate productive forces, it is necessary to use the mechanisms of capitalism – technological innovation, modes of management and organisation for production, industrialised techniques, forms of agriculture, so that they can be further improved.

The author believes that China’s rise on the world stage is the result of many factors: its omnipresent influence around the world; ongoing negotiations; foreign contributions in response to challenges in the China; and especially the cultural persistence of Marxism in China. To this end, and to persist in seeking truth from facts, the truth “is” materialism and the “facts” come from the Socialist economic, political and scientific experiments and construction of practice.

The interpretation of socialism with Chinese characteristics show us the direction of, and also provides a starting point for, further research. For example, maintaining diversity in the Marxist tradition is important. While Marxism may have core principles, they are applied and developed in various ways among different communities. This can also be seen as the dialectic of the universal and particular: universal in order to prevent the degradation of Marxism as a hodgepodge of some irrelevant views; and particular in order to resist outside control and dogmatic understandings of Marxism.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics emphasizes China’s unique historical situation, works according to China’s national conditions, and is creative and flexible in the use of Marxism. This history includes the entire period of revolution, construction and reform. Marxism is needed to emancipate the mind and keep pace with socialism with Chinese characteristics. In this way, Marxism can become a fresh and lively tradition, inclusive of new ideas and concepts. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is inclusive: it involves not only economics and politics, but also all aspects of people’s lives, including culture and Socialist democracy. Socialism with Chinese characteristics emphasizes peaceful socialist modernization, which is different from capitalism, which relies on the modern history of colonialism and exploitation of the oppressed.

Chinese traditional culture and the relationship with Marxism is one of the factors that influences the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics. To talk about Chinese culture now means that one does so in terms of socialist characteristics. But first we need to rethink traditions. Perhaps we can say that, in a certain sense, ancient traditions and realities seem to be unchanging, but in historical terms tradition involves constant changes and remodelling. Without experience and constant reinterpretation in each era, without adjustments in each generation, tradition is no longer “traditional.” Of course, the premise of every reinterpretation is to restore traditional thoughts, and these are usually understood to be the same thoughts. However, in the process of continuously reinterpreting the tradition, in reading texts again in different circumstances, people gain new insights. The relationship between Marxism and the traditions of the past should follow the dialectic of the old and the new. I think that using this Marxist dialectical approach in relation to traditions has driven Chinese cultural development.

 

I have today signed the contract on a new and rather exciting grant. The project is called ‘Chinese Marxism: Concerning the Sinification of Marxism in Chinese Academia’. The project and its grant are significant on a number of counts. First, it is my first completely Chinese grant, in my capacity as being on the staff of Renmin (People’s) University of China – the university first established under Mao Zedong’s influence in Yan’an in 1937. Second, I am learning much about the way Chinese grants and research operate. Granting bodies take an idea and work with you on it, providing advice and guidance on the way. Third, it involved some personal meetings over breakfast to find out if I am a ‘friend’ (Zhongguo pengyou). Fourth, this is their first international grant.

Let me elaborate on the final point. Uniquely for China, they have about 200 city and provincial research institutes. These institutes mediate between government sectors and the research undertaken at universities and elsewhere. I see it as one of the many feedback mechanisms that operate here, in which the movement of ideas between government and researchers is encouraged. In Beijing, the institute in question is the Federation of Social Sciences, which has a number of branches. The branch with which I am engaged is the Centre for Studies on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. They have their own director, staff, book series, journals and so on. Obviously, at a city level, they tend to receive applications for grants from Chinese researchers. My application was the first one from a foreigner and they are excited to be moving into an international arena. One of my main points is that the project will also enable Chinese scholars to engage more regularly in international conferences related to Marxism – apart from international scholars engaging more fruitfully with the unique developments in China. In short, this is the first step in a longer project called ‘Socialism with “National” Characteristics’. I think I’ll be working with these and other people (such as the Academy of Marxism, within the Academy of Social Sciences) for quite some time.

Finally, alongside the obligatory conferences and publications, I am also expected to write a couple of articles for the flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily. The topics: the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics (from the perspective of a foreigner), and the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States. I am busting to get into these pieces.

A few photos from the ceremony for signing the contract. The other scholar is the director of the Centre for Studies on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – an absolutely lovely and helpful woman.

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Some people may already know that I have accepted a position at Renmin University of China, in Beijing. For those interested in fancy titles, I will be the Xin Ao Professor of Literature there. It entails one semester a year in China. But why? Why would I take up a position in China?

To begin with, Renmin (the ‘People’s’) University itself has excellent revolutionary credentials. It was founded in 1937 in the Yan’an soviet (northern Shaanxi province), after the Long March. People were originally taught in the open, in huts, in village houses typically cut into the mountain sides there. Whoever had some experience in a topic would teach it – from literacy through drama to military theory. After the success of the revolution in 1949, Renmin moved to Beijing.

Further, there seems to be still a genuine interest in intellectual life, an immense desire for knowledge. I don’t mean this in some idealistic sense, but rather that knowledge is not seen as part of the ‘innovation industry’, as it has been called elsewhere. The universities aren’t being corporatized, academics are not expected to run around like little businessmen and businesswomen, and your worth is not measured by the latest pay deal you’ve managed to wrangle from the bean-counters.Appropriately, pay for professors is quite modest.

Third, their main desire is for me to be there as a scholar. That’s a teaching load of 3 hours per week, with no administration (that’s only if you head up some big unit). This also is a result of that tradition in which the scholar is one of the highest callings.

Fourth, Marxism is a discipline in its own right. Whole university programs and research centres are devoted to teaching and researching in all aspects of Marxism – as it should be everywhere in the world. Even in everyday conversations, it is still refreshing for me to find that people know what Marxism means, that it’s normal to talk about it. That alone should be enough to recommend the place.

The reason is of course that China is a communist country. I’ve always been immensely interested and somewhat jealous of those places in the world that have had communist revolutions. And in China the government is the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, there are plenty of those outside China – on the left as well as the right – who suggest that China is a communist country only in name. It’s really capitalist, they say, and conveniently dismiss the revolution and the government. I have written enough on that elsewhere and will probably return to it again at some point. But from what I have seen – and that’s a fair bit – it’s far more communist than many realise.

To follow on from that point: China is also at a unique and rare time for any country. Most people I talk to say that the way things are going cannot continue. They feel that the government has taken on too many elements of capitalist economics in order to gain economic strength, and therefore appropriated the problems as well. But these people certainly don’t want a bourgeois democracy, since they can see that it is largely a joke. So there is immense energy in exploring a new way forward, with deep searches in the Chinese classics, in contemporary global thought, and so on. I’ve found that political debate there is far wider and freer than in any place with a bourgeois democracy, where nearly everyone agrees on the general path. They are, as Yermakov once said concerning the Russian Revolution, searching for the correct path to the unknown. I want to be there during this time.

Seventh, Chinese people tend to be a critical bunch. If you mention that whatever university you are at is a great university, they are quick to say it isn’t so. If you say that China is now a world power, they’ll say it’s not. They are not afraid to point out the government’s failings. And they are very good at making sure you don’t get too misty-eyed about the place.

Finally, they have the best rail network in the world (a big plus for me) and some truly great food. Again and again I meet people who say I should travel to such and such a place, since the local food is worth the trip. So far I’ve found that is indeed the case.