Friday, April 03, 2009


As comebacks go, the return of Karl Marx has been pretty impressive. Sales of Capital have increased exponentially in recent months and in November many German bookshops sold out completely. In Japan, too, there has been a fictional revival in Marxist thought. But the most interesting place for this resurgence is China, where academics are rediscovering the works of Marx and Mao and where Capital: the Musical is hitting the big stage.

Since Mao's death, the PRC’s economy has undergone a revolutionary restructure. Given the size of the country and its population, this transformation from rural-collectivist to urban-capitalist is barely comprehensible. The four faces on the cover of David Harvey's Brief History of Neoliberalism are Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Augusto Pinochet and Deng Xiaoping, and Deng is perhaps the greatest cheerleader of them all (his reputation for pragmatism glosses over his steely determination to marketise China).

Politically, the CCP's rejection of Marxism has been more gradual and more subtle. On the one hand, since Hu Yaobang’s admission in 1984 that Marxism could not solve all of China's problems, politicians have renounced Marx's critique of capitalism outright (though they have kept the Leninist party structure). Yet, if China is arguably now the most extreme capitalist country in the world, why is Mao still defended and excused? Why does his portrait still stand in Tiananmen Square? And why does most of the Chinese government still consider itself Marxist?


Zizek suggests that, just as the Maoist call for young Red Guards to rebel paved the way for capitalism, Marxism is promoted in order to anchor the Chinese state, to provide a theoretical platform for capitalist development. This is not Zizek being perverse - when Deng launched his reform programme in the early 1980s, he placed it within an explicitly Marxist framework ("Our experience in the twenty years from 1958 to 1978," he said in 1985, "teaches us that poverty is not socialism, that socialism means eliminating poverty. Unless you are developing the productive forces and raising living standards, you cannot say that you are building socialism."). His successor Jiang Zemin followed the same line, arguing that China needed rapid economic development to reach a higher state of socialism.

OPPOSE ECONOMISM (Shanghai, 1967)

The reformers eventually (in the early 1990s) seized power by portraying themselves as the true heirs of Karl Marx, playing on the belief that the Chinese people had been cheated out of genuine Marxism-Leninism, and claiming that elements within the Party itself were the main obstacles to achieving socialism. While Mao rejected Deng's economic determinism and opted for perpetual social and cultural revolution, his methods were similar: he, Mao, was the true socialist, and the only way for the Chinese people to live in a truly socialist society was to purge the Party of the germs (known as the Four Olds) which infected it. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution may have a lot to answer for, but one of its most positive legacies is a real search for "genuine Marxism-Leninism" which persists to this day.

In his superb book on modern China, The Changing Face of China, John Gittings describes the influence of the Cultural Revolution on the Democracy Movement of the late 1970s. The Movement itself was sparked by Deng’s defence of the protests which followed Zhou Enlai’s funeral in 1976. These had been put down by the Gang of Four and Mao’s anointed successor, Hua Guofeng, and the Movement’s belief that Gang elements still existed throughout all tiers of government helped Deng to portray himself as the purger of the Party.

The Cultural Revolution had produced two truly influential texts: the Shengwulien group's programme for a People's Commune of China entitled "Whither China" and the Li Yizhe group's "On socialist democracy and legality," which accused the Party of acting like a "feudal social-fascist dictatorship". These critiques of the Party's monopoly of power, and China’s consequence plunge into Stalinism were the starting point for the Democracy Movement and provided a critical framework which, unlike the disparate programmes of the late 1980s, was explicitly Marxist. Revolutionary dazibaos (large character posters) and pamphlets began to appear across Beijing, all hanging on the question: which Marxism?

The Classical Marxists – Lu Min, Gao Jimin, Gong Ren, and Wang Xizhe from the Li Yizhe group – said that it was a mistake to attack individual bureaucrats, as the Left had done, without tackling the hierarchical structures which alienated public officials from the people they were supposed to serve. The old cadre system had survived the Communist takeover, but had severely compromised the Communist vision. The Chinese people had become rudderless, and the Party had become a bureaucratic husk.

Other neo-Marxists drew together a synthesis of historical materialism and bourgeois liberalism by arguing that China, by missing an historic stage in its leap from the war-torn feudalism of the Kuomintang to the all-out socialism of the Communists, had failed to benefit from the progressive institutions of democracy.


Drawing on Marx and Lenin, they proposed a new political system along the lines of the Paris Commune where officials are publicly elected and receive salaries correspondent to those of the workers. The very ordinariness of these proposals – where elections ensure that holders of official posts are competent and answerable, rather than select representational governments – were at odds with the personality cults of the Mao era. Indeed, their orthodoxy suggested that they offered a corrective to the counter-revolutionary Leftist deviation. Referring to Leftists, sacred Maos and more contemporary leaders, the Kexue Minzhu Fazhi journal even demanded the Chinese people’s right to recall:

Strictly speaking from legal point of view, all leaders, Chairman Mao, Premier Zhou, Chairman Hua, Deng Xiaoping… all could be recalled from office. Please comrades, do not get agitated. It just is like this in theory without any possibility of confusion. If it would not be like this, the people would lose its sole weapon in the struggle, as the Cultural Revolution demonstrated.

- Kexue Minzhu Fazhi, “On modernisations”, 1979


Of course, this was too much for Deng, who in any case had achieved his objective of out-manoeuvring the Maoists. In 1980, Deng cancelled the right to displays dazibaos, and not long after the Wall was moved from the centre of the city to a quiet suburb in the West, it was closed down altogether. Many dissenters were arrested, charged as being counter-revolutionary elements, and imprisoned. John Gittings tells the story of Xu Wenli, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail on the back of duff evidence.

Xu’s generation still believed in the power of selfless action: in his “self-defence” he quoted the last words of the Copernican Giordano Bruno before being burnt at the stake for denying the myth of the Deluge. [His account] ends appropriately with Xu’s invocation of the first dissenting martyrs of the Cultural Revolution: Yu Luoke, Zhang Zhixin, and Wang Shenyou. “In comparison with the great figures, these household names,” he wrote, “I am merely a minor counter-revolutionary element – uninformed, and of little learning or scholarship.” But he hoped that his would be the last generation which needed to join their struggle. It was certainly the last to engage in a struggle still grounded ideologically in Marxist thinking and with the declared intention of defending and improving socialism in China.

Gittings's book was published in 2005, when China's export-driven economy was at its peak, and when capitalism's victory over socialism appeared definitive. But, in the words of the dazibao at the G20 demo the other day, you spend decades trying to destroy capitalism, and then it goes and destroys itself. If growth falls beneath the magic figure of 8%, and unemployment rises much above 4.5%, and if Chinese workers can link up with each other and their comrades around the world (a very, very, very big "if" indeed, since China's labour organisation is crippled), the yawning gap of alienation which still characterises the Party's relationship with the people could become untenable.

In years ending in 9, there is a long tradition of revolutionary unrest in China (the Boxer Rebellion of 1899, the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the Communist takeover in 1949, the Tibetan uprising in 1959, the Democracy Movement in 1979, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and massacre in 1989). What will 2009 hold for the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people?


Blogger Snowball said...

Interesting stuff - we should meet up when am next down your way...

A few quick points - you should perhaps be more careful in your use of language - throwing words like 'Marxism' 'classical Marxism' etc etc around when what you are describing are manouvres for power among state bureaucrats in a country that has sadly never known socialism. When such figures talk of 'building socialism' they actually mean 'the primitive accumulation of capitalism' - a bloody business at the best of times.

For example, you write that 'Politically, the CCP's rejection of Marxism has been more gradual and more subtle.' It has not - the Chinese CP was sadly taken over by Stalinists early on and its best chance of making a revolution in 1925-7 was destroyed because of the criminal policy dictated to it by Stalin (read Harold Isaacs, 'The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution' available at the Marxists Internet Archive). Since that moment it quickly moved away from the Marxism of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky under Mao - with a focus on peasant revolution as opposed to workers power.

There are undoubtedly a few revolutionary Marxists in China today, but these individuals have to operate undercover in a clandestine fashion as they are operating under a brutal dictatorship.

1:10 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

Thanks very much Snowball - v good to hear from you.

Firstly, the various strands of Marxism (classical, neo etc) that I talk about in the post were held by dissidents, not state bureaucrats. Deng's (and later Jiang's) socialist rhetoric was clearly a foundation for the accumulation of capital - but I don't think this was the intention of the Democracy Wallers (not the majority of them, anyway).

I think to say that China has never known socialism suggests that it has never had any socialist elements at all, which I don't think is true - perhaps the collectivisation of land was not done primarily to reward the peasants, but to achieve rapid economic growth (not so different to what happened 30 years), but this means it was a very mangled and misdirected socialism, rather than not being socialist at all.

I must admit, my knowledge of pre-1949 China is woeful (post-1949, it ain't all that either), so thanks for the Isaacs link.

But why does the CCP still use Marx as a political tool when Chinese people (especially those of our age) have discarded Marx as an historical relic? Why can't they simply say "We are a full-blown market economy, and look at the results! We have got XXX people out of poverty, and if the gap between the rich and the poor has grown, well that's the price we have to pay for being a world superpower." That might appeal to a sense of Chinese nationalism and would be far less contradictory than the "socialism with Chinese characteristics" line.

When are you next down? I read "Germinal" (Zola) while I was away - I'm sure you've read it, but if not I'll lend you my copy.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Snowball said...

Paddington - actually I need to apologise really - my knowledge of China after 1949 is incredibly piss poor - and you are right some of the dissident strands you mention were genuine socialists. You should come to Marxism and have a chat with Charlie Hore at some point about China - he has written loads for the ISJ on the topic - such as this guide to reading you might find interesting.

I think I have a copy of Germinal somewhere - but yes, I need to get round to reading it certainly...

2:27 PM  
Blogger Snowball said...

That said, in answer to your questions, 'collectivisation of the land' is not socialism if the state simply take the land from the peasants.

I guess the CCP still hang onto 'Marxism' as an official ruling class ideology as switching over openly to capitalism would open the floodgates in terms of democratic reform - and when a ruling class begins reform from above it can very quickly spiral into revolution. Think of Gorbachev and perestroika leading to 1989. But I badly need to do more reading on modern China...

2:38 PM  
Anonymous A Very Public Sociologist said...

Dear Paddington

I didn't have an email address for you, so I hope you don't mind me leaving this here.

I'm writing to you inviting you to take part in the Carnival of Socialism. The Carnival has been bringing a fortnightly round up of everything that's going on in the global socialist blogosphere for the last three years, and draws from a wide and eclectic mix of blogs. It has had the added bonus of helping the blogging left become a more cohesive and welcoming place, as well as delivering more audiences to the blogs that have already taken part.

But the Carnival needs your help. We are looking to expand the number of volunteers beyond a core group of 'usual suspects'. Previous Carnivals are located on its dedicated blog at to give you an idea of what hosting a carnival entails. We have sessions booked up until 26th April but need volunteers for dates after then.

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Phil BC (A Very Public Sociologist)

5:25 PM  
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