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By Robert Ware
University of Calgary
Posted on April 5, 2014
Socialism and Democracy Online / sdonline.org
Few outside China would think of China as a socialist, or Marxist, society. Inside China the views vary widely, but few would say, without qualifiers, as the Constitution does, that China is socialist. No one – anywhere – now sees China as a model for socialism. Nevertheless, socialism is a strong force in China and Marxism a subject of continuing investigation. Just how significant a role socialism and Marxism play is not easily determined, but the importance of that role and some of its complexity is well worth considering.
Recently I have taught Marxism in Beijing and have had occasion to see some of the strengths and weaknesses of the theory and its application. After some remarks on my experiences there, I will discuss my observations about the nature of Marxism in China in theory and practice. Whatever one says about China’s problems and about how Marxism is discussed there, a large role for studying, developing, and applying Marxism in China remains.
I argue here that the significance of Marxism in China can be compared to that of democracy in the west, especially in North America. In both settings, the relevant practices are dysfunctional in significant ways, but both Marxism and democracy give a rationale and a tissue of support – and, consequently, a locus of struggle – for efforts to improve life for the majority. Their actual influence can be depressingly weak, but both are worthy of investigation, for political as well as intellectual reasons. I will consider some questions about the kinds of socialism and Marxism that prevail in China, but also, importantly, what topics are rejected or simply ignored.
Visits, courses, and socialists
Teaching Marxism in China is fascinating, although the same can probably be said for teaching most other subjects there, primarily because of China’s great development and energy, as well as its complexity and chaos. My observations here come largely from recent visits to China, including three weeks in the fall of 2007 (accompanied by my wife, Dr. Diana Hodson), a month at Renmin University in Beijing in July 2010, and two months at Peking University (again with my wife) in September-November 2011. I have also learned much from many helpful correspondents and subsequent contacts, both inside China and out.
In 2007, I visited five academic institutions in Beijing and Shanghai, lecturing on analytical Marxism and libertarian socialism and discussing Marxism and democratic theory, in China and abroad. (I was revisiting universities, where I had taught analytical philosophy in 1984-85 [Fudan University in Shanghai] and 1986-87 [Peking University and the Institute of Philosophy in Beijing]. In the 1980s, I also lectured on analytical Marxism at a variety of universities and institutes throughout the country.) I also participated in a conference in 2007, at a Communist Party university in Shanghai, celebrating the 140th anniversary of Marx’s Capital with over a hundred economists, mostly Chinese, and a few theorists from other disciplines. In 2010, I taught a summer course at Renmin University of China (RUC) in Beijing and served as a commentator at a conference at the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (CCTB) celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Grundrisse.1
At Peking University in the fall of 2011, I taught a small undergraduate philosophy course on analytical Marxism and a graduate philosophy seminar on Marxism and radical politics. G.A. Cohen’s philosophically acute and influential studies were the central texts for the seminar. We looked at new approaches to historical materialism, the core of Marxist studies in China, and at equality and freedom, which are generally not discussed as Marxist topics.
The first reading assignment I gave for my summer course in 2010 on analytical Marxism at RUC2 was Albert Einstein’s “Why I am a Socialist” and two introductions to analytical Marxism. The first short writing assignment was to answer the question “Why I am a socialist,” or alternatively “Why I am not a socialist.”3 From the start, I had a good opportunity to learn about young people’s views in contemporary China through this small group of university students in Beijing. Of the thirty students, twenty gave reasons for why they were socialists and ten gave reasons for why they were not. In the twenty, I include one who became socialist later, after reading the Communist Manifesto (I assume again) in English. I also include two who said they were not socialists because they were communists.
Given what I had heard previously in China, I was surprised that two-thirds of my students were socialist, but of course I could not conclude anything in general about young people from that exercise. Certainly, that the course was on Marxism would be a factor, although there were students in the course who were there for the credits, out of curiosity, and for the opportunity to develop their English. After the assignment was handed in, we talked about what young people in universities and in the country generally think about socialism. Before telling them the results, I asked them to guess the division of the class in the exercise. There was a fair amount of variation about the class and greater variation for figures about the views of other groups. Afterwards, I learned, through quizzing many friends and contacts, that there is little idea of how many people, young or old, are socialists.
I know of no good studies of the number of Chinese who are socialists, but it is also difficult to know what a good study would be. Much depends on how the question is asked and what the meaning of socialism is in the relevant context. The same is true for understanding what significance to give to the 2009 Rasmussen poll that ‘found’ that one third of US young people under 30 believe that socialism is superior to capitalism. What do the people polled think socialism is? In the case of the Chinese, young people would naturally think of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought or socialism with Chinese characteristics.
The reasons that people give, however, tell something about what they mean when they think of socialism. Quite a few of my students explained their allegiance in terms of their beliefs about human nature. Several said that they were socialists because it is human nature to be altruistic or collectivist, and a similar number were not socialists because, they said, people are self-interested by nature. Of course, this was a good topic for discussion in the class on a topic that is usually given short shrift in Chinese Marxist studies.
Many students were socialists because of parents or grandparents who were members of the Communist Party or had fought in Korea or the War of Liberation. And there were a variety of personal reasons, including moral reasons. An interesting rhetorical question was: if not a socialist, what would you be? The suggestion was that capitalism is not a viable alternative. The dominant question is what kind of socialism should there be.
With even cursory contact, it is obvious that there are millions of socialists in China. There were twenty in my class, and if two thirds of the adult population were socialists, China would have about 500 million socialists. That surely wildly overestimates the numbers, even for a country with a constitution that proclaims its socialism. For a more plausible estimate, consider first that the Communist Party of China has about 80 million members. There is certainly a lot of opportunism and cynicism amongst them, but on the basis of my private queries of many members, I cannot imagine that more than a quarter of them would actually reject socialism, even in their hearts.4 That leaves at least 60 million socialists in the Party.
Then there are surely several million socialists outside the Party. Many people are principled Maoists – some who see positive aspects of the Cultural Revolution – for example those involved with the Utopian Bookstore in Beijing, which has a wide variety of socialist and anarchist books in translation, where lectures are given, and with a widely followed Chinese website – until early 2012 when it was closed down after the detention of Bo Xilai. Bo, the former mayor of the megacity, Chongqing, is thought to have had millions of socialist followers because of popular social policies with Maoist trappings. These days there are also many “Marxologists” and other socialist theorists who do not want to be Party members. Some committed Marxists reject membership for principled reasons. Some socialists prefer not to undergo the strictures and discipline of the Party. Many lack the enthusiasm and happily go on with their own private lives. I would add another 10 million socialists outside the Party.
Thus, my very rough guess is that there are at least 70 million socialists in China. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who observes the intellectual scene in universities, institutes, and the media. Socialism is a known ideology that many take seriously and many more are curious about. (I also heard of many who scoffed at fellow students studying Marxism and socialism.5 There is a lively diversity of opinion.)
This is not to deny that there is also strong interest in capitalism and ideas of neoliberalism in some circles, although there are ways in which such interests are against the grain, historically and politically. Economic decisions might favor private ownership and individual entrepreneurs, but rarely would they be justified on the basis of capitalist ideology or neoliberal theory. Occasionally, ideas are drawn from western “capitalist” thinkers, but almost always in support of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
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Youth rebellion in the ‘banlieues’ of Paris
Interview by Filippo Del Lucchese and Jason Smith
FILIPPO DEL LUCCHESE and JASON SMITH: We would like to begin by asking you to clarify the relation between philosophy and politics. What do you mean when you speak, for example, of a militant philosophy?
ALAIN BADIOU: Since its beginnings, philosophy’s relationship to the political has been fundamental. It’s not something invented by modernity. Plato’s central work is called The Republic, and it is entirely devoted to questions of the city or polis. This link has remained fundamental throughout the history of philosophy. But I think there are two basic ways of structuring this relationship.
The first way assigns philosophy the responsibility for finding a foundation for the political. Philosophy is called upon to reconstruct the political on the basis of this foundation. This current argues that it is possible to locate, for every politics, an ethical norm and that philosophy should first have the task of reconstructing or naming this norm and then of judging the relation between this norm and the multiplicity of political practices. In this sense, then, what opens the relation between philosophy and politics is the idea of a foundation as well as an ethical conception of the political. But there is a second orientation that is completely different. This current maintains that in a certain sense politics is primary and that the political exists without, before, and differently from philosophy. The political would be what I call a condition of philosophy. In this case, the relation between philosophy and politics would be, in a certain sense, retroactive. That is, it would be a relation in which philosophy would situate itself within political conflicts in order to clarify them. Today, in the extremely obscure situation that is the general system of contemporary politics, philosophy can attempt to clarify the situation without having any pretense to creating it. Philosophy has as its condition and horizon the concrete situation of different political practices, and it will try, within these conditions, to find instruments of clarification, legitimation, and so on. This current takes seriously the idea that politics is itself an autonomy of thought, that it is a collective practice with an intelligence all its own.
It is quite clear that today the question is particularly difficult because we are no longer in a situation in which there is a clear distinction between two opposed political orientations—as was the case in the twentieth century. Not everyone agreed on what the exact nature of these opposed politics was, but everyone agreed there was an opposition between a classical democratic bourgeois politics and another, revolutionary, option. Among the revolutionaries, we debated spiritedly and even violently what, exactly, the true way was but not the existence itself of this global opposition. Today there is no agreement concerning the existence of a fundamental opposition of this sort, and as a result the link between philosophy and politics has become more complex and more obscure. But, fundamentally, it’s the same task. Philosophy tries to clarify what I call the multiple situation of concrete politics and to legitimate the choices made in this space.
DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: So you see your own philosophical interventions as taking place within this new situation that you describe as “more complex and more obscure” than the classical confrontation between two opposed political orientations?
BADIOU: Definitely. As a result, I see my philosophy as an inheritor of the great contestatory movements of the sixties. In fact, my philosophy emerged out of these movements. It is a philosophy of commitment, of engagement, with a certain fidelity to Sartre, if you like, or to Marxism.
What counts is that the intellectual is engaged in politics and commits to or takes the side of the people and the workers. I move in that tradition. My philosophy tries to keep alive, as best it can (it is not always easy), the idea that there is a real alternative to the dominant politics and that we are not obliged to rally around the consensus that ultimately consists in the unity of global capitalism and the representative, democratic state. I would say, then, that I work under the condition of the situation of political actuality, with the goal of keeping alive, philosophically, the idea of the possibility or opening of a politics I would call a politics of emancipation—but that could also be called a radical or revolutionary politics, terms that today are debatable but that represent all the same a possibility other than the dominant one.
DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: You mention Sartre in this context where the name Althusser might have been expected. What is your relation to the Althusserian tradition?
BADIOU: The Althusserian tradition is extremely important, and I’ve devoted several texts to Althusser. If I mention Sartre it is simply because my philosophical youth was Sartrean before my encounter with Althusser. I think the Althusserian current was a particularly important one because it gave a new life and force to the link between philosophy and politics and in a less idealist mode—that is, a relation that no longer passed through the form of consciousness. In Sartre, of course, we still find the classical model of the intellectual understood primarily in terms of consciousness—an intellectual must make contact with the struggle and the workers’ organizations, be they the unions or the communist parties. Althusser’s greatness is found in the fact that he proposed a new schema in which the relation between philosophy and politics no longer passed through the psychology of the form of consciousness as it still did with Sartre. Althusser begins with the conviction that philosophy intervenes in the intellectual space of politics. When he proposes the formula “philosophy is the organization of class struggle in theory,” what does he mean? That class struggle exists and that philosophy certainly didn’t invent it. It exists and cuts across intellectual choices. Within the struggle between these choices, philosophy has a special role. It is to intervene and therefore to name, norm, classify, and finally choose in the field of intellectual or theoretical class struggle. Sartre and Althusser are very different, even opposed. But you can reconcile them on one point, namely, that philosophy is nothing if it is not linked to political commitment.
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The Hotel El-Djazair, formerly known as the Hotel Saint-George, is an oasis of calm in the tense city of Algiers. A labyrinth of paved pathways winds through beds of hibiscus, cactuses and roses, shaded by palm and banana trees. In the lobby, bellhops in white tunics and red fezzes escort guests past Persian carpets and walls inlaid with mosaics. Beneath the opulence, violence lurks. During the week I was there, diplomats descended on the El-Djazair to repatriate the bodies of dozens of hostages killed in a shootout at a Sahara natural-gas plant between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Algerian Army.
Violence was in the air as well in January 1956, when the celebrated writer Albert Camus checked into the Hotel Saint-George. The struggle against French colonialism was escalating, with civilians becoming the primary victims. Camus was a pied-noir—a term meaning “black foot,” perhaps derived from the coal-stained feet of Mediterranean sailors, or the black boots of French soldiers, and used to refer to the one million colonists of European origin living in Algeria during French rule. He had returned after 14 years in France to try to stop his homeland from sliding deeper into war. It was a perilous mission. Right-wing French settlers plotted to assassinate him. Algerian revolutionaries watched over him without his knowledge.
The Casablanca-style intrigue—freedom fighters, spies and an exotic North African setting—seemed appropriate. Camus, after all, was often thought of as a literary Humphrey Bogart—dashing, irresistible to women, a coolly heroic figure in a dangerous world.
Camus is regarded as a giant of French literature, but it was his North African birthplace that most shaped his life and his art. In a 1936 essay, composed during a bout of homesickness in Prague, he wrote of pining for “my own town on the shores of the Mediterranean…the summer evenings that I love so much, so gentle in the green light and full of young and beautiful women.” Camus set his two most famous works, the novels The Stranger and The Plague, in Algeria, and his perception of existence, a joyful sensuality combined with a recognition of man’s loneliness in an indifferent universe, was formed here.
In 1957, Anders Österling, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, acknowledged the importance of Camus’ Algerian upbringing when he presented him with the Nobel Prize in Literature, a towering achievement, won when he was only 43. Österling attributed Camus’ view of the world in part to a “Mediterranean fatalism whose origin is the certainty that the sunny splendor of the world is only a fugitive moment bound to be blotted out by the shades.”
Camus is “the single reason people outside Algeria know about this country,” says Yazid Ait Mahieddine, a documentary filmmaker and Camus expert in Algiers, as we sit beneath a photograph of the writer in the El- Djazair bar, alongside images of other celebrities who have passed through here, from Dwight Eisenhower to Simone de Beauvoir. “He is our only ambassador.”
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Reviewed By Dinesh Sharma
Sept 27, 2013 – What is international law and who owns it? Why has China become the symbol of a lawless nation after the Cold War? Why is the US seen as the law-enforcer-in-chief while China as the law-breaker? Historically, how is it that the US is invariably seen as the chief exporter of law to the emerging BRICS economies by the international business and legal community?
In an era of globalization, we are all asking these questions. Teemu Ruskola, Professor of Law at Emory University, reveals in Legal Orientalism: China, the United States, and Modern Law that this association of China with lawlessness has a long historical trail. He defines "Legal Orientalism" as consisting of political and cultural narratives about the law, which invariably associate the law with Western institutions (the European Union, the United States) and lawlessness with the non-Western societies (Asia, Africa and the rest). Analyzing the history and global impact of these cultural narratives, Ruskola demonstrates how legal Orientalism continues to shape the law and politics in remarkable ways – in China, in the US, and globally.
Ruskola claims that China has a history of corporation law by reinterpreting Confucian family law as a kind of corporate law. He asserts that the rise of extraterritorial jurisdiction in the nineteenth-century by the US into Asia-Pacific region was a form of legal imperialism. He traces its culmination in the establishment of a "US Court for China," an all-but-lawless tribunal where the constitution held no sway. The present-day reforms of Chinese law, Ruskola claims, are a kind of self-Orientalism. These and other fascinating exegeses help the reader understand the history and consequences of legal Orientalism, and to envision a new conception of global justice.
When I asked Ruskola why he relied on Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism to interpret international law, he said, "The literary scholar Edward Said used the term ‘Orientalism’ to describe the way in which Europe has historically defined itself against Oriental ‘Others’ – so while Europeans are free individuals, Orientals are enslaved masses; the West is dynamic, the East stagnant; etc. I use the term ‘legal Orientalism’ to refer to the narratives we tell about what is and isn’t law, and who has it and who doesn’t."
China, he argued, historically has been seen as the home of Oriental despotism and, thus recently, it has been seen as the chief human-rights violator.
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By Adam Kirsch
The New Republic | July 19. 2013
Peter Sloterdijk has been one of Germany’s best-known philosophers for 30 years, ever since the publication of his Critique of Cynical Reason in 1983—a thousand-page treatise that became a best-seller. Since then Sloterdijk has been at the forefront of European intellectual life, contributing to public debates over genetic engineering and economics and hosting a long-running discussion program on television, all while publishing a steady stream of ambitious philosophical works.
The Critique of Cynical Reason appeared in English many years ago, but it is only recently that Sloterdijk has begun to emerge on the American horizon. Bubbles, the first volume in a trilogy called Spheres, his magnum opus, appeared here in 2011. Now it is followed by You Must Change Your Life, another wide-ranging and challenging book. Along with Rage and Time, which appeared in English in 2010, these volumes make it possible to begin to come to grips with Sloterdijk as a stirring and eclectic thinker, who addresses himself boldly to the most important problems of our age. Above all, he is concerned with metaphysics—or, rather, with what to do with the empty space that is left over when metaphysics disappears—along with religion, faith in revolution, and the other grand sources of meaning that long gave shape and direction to human lives.
Sloterdijk was born in 1947, making him just the right age to participate in the student movement of the 1960s. By the early 1980s, when he wrote Critique of Cynical Reason, the idealism and the world-changing energy of that movement had long since dwindled into splinter-group violence, on the one hand, and accommodation to the realities of capitalism and the Cold War, on the other. In that cultural moment, Sloterdijk’s diagnosis of “cynicism” was very timely. “The dissolution of the student movement,” he wrote, “must interest us because it represents a complex metamorphosis of hope into realism, of revolt into a clever melancholy.”
Despite its parodic Kantian title, Sloterdijk’s Critique is not a work of theoretical abstraction; it is a highly personal confession of this generational world-weariness. As a philosopher, Sloterdijk is especially struck by the way he and his peers were able to master the most emancipatory and radical philosophical language, but utterly unable to apply its insights to their own lives and their own political situations. Coming after Critical Theory, whose post-Marxist diagnoses of social ills are a key reference point and antagonist for Sloterdijk, younger thinkers have found themselves brilliant at diagnosis and helpless at cure. “Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference,” Sloterdijk observes. The result is cynicism, which he defines in a splendid paradox as “enlightened false consciousness”: “It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice.”
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Translated by Enda Brophy,
Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2011.
194pp., $69.50 HB.
Reviewed by Dave Mesing
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
July 26, 2013 – After the death of neoliberal politics, Gigi Roggero argues, contemporary capitalism finds itself in a state of crisis in which the possibility exists for an autonomous organization of labor against capitalist command. When put this way, Roggero’s argument sounds too utopian for a context in which academic laborers face increasing precariousness, anxiety and pressure, at the same time as a decrease in compensation, influence and control. However, Roggero’s opening salvo that neoliberalism is finished is not a naïve profession of faith in the prospects for the struggle against capital; he is critically attuned to the possibilities and limits of the contemporary conjuncture. In positing the death of neoliberalism at the outset of his study, Roggero does not mean that specific instances of neoliberal politics or its effects no longer exist. Instead, he argues that a fundamental point of analysis necessary for an accurate understanding of the current political situation in both Europe and North America is that neoliberalism is no longer able to constitute itself as a coherent system.
Roggero refers to this situation as a double crisis: both the global economy and the western university are in trouble. For Roggero, crisis is no longer a stage in an economic cycle, but rather the contemporary form of capitalist accumulation, and the university is undergoing a similar crisis which he claims is intimately connected to the economic crisis. This is because Roggero takes his point of departure from the fact that ‘it is impossible to understand the transformations of the university if they are not connected to the transformations of labor and production.’ (3) In order to explore the commonalities between the crisis in capitalism and the crisis in the university, Roggero reads the conflicts within the university in terms of class struggle, power relations and production. He argues that the production and management of knowledge is central to contemporary relations of production, but notes that this thesis does not mean that there is an alternative between intellectual and manual labor, or that manual labor is disappearing.
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Walter Benjamin: "The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule" Photograph: EPA
By Peter Thompson
The Guardian, UK April, 22, 2013
Quoting Hegel, Walter Benjamin reminds us that before all philosophy comes the struggle for material existence: "Secure at first food and clothing, and the kingdom of God will come to you of itself – Hegel, 1807", or as Brecht – Benjamin’s greatest and closest friend – put it "first bread, then morality". But this precisely did not mean that abstraction, speculation and thought per se had to be rejected in favour of an entirely mechanistic historical materialism. What sets all of the thinkers in this series apart from many of their more orthodox Marxist contemporaries is precisely their concern with those issues which cannot be measured, tested and decided upon but which remain undecided and undecidable.
As Benjamin puts it in his On the Concept of History: "The class struggle, which always remains in view for a historian schooled in Marx, is a struggle for the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual. Nevertheless these latter are present in the class struggle as something other than mere booty, which falls to the victor. They are present as confidence, as courage, as humour, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time. They will, ever and anon, call every victory which has ever been won by the rulers into question. Just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does that which has been turned, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history. To this most inconspicuous of all transformations the historical materialist must pay heed."
On this reading, history escapes a linear or teleological path around a fixed point and becomes a mixture of points at which possibilities are either realised or rejected but never disappear completely. Again, this continues the theme that Marx took up in his 1844 letter to Ruge, which I have quoted before, about the realisation of a long-held human dream. Benjamin calls this "messianic time" in which historical possibility is resurrected over and over again in order to inform our choices at specific historical junctures. For this reason his historical materialism called upon the services of theology, which, however, had to be kept well-hidden from public view even though it was often pulling the strings. To those who criticise communism and Marxism as "merely" a new form of religious belief, Benjamin’s position – as with Ernst Bloch, whom I shall look at next week – was that religion was actually a vessel that contained within its authoritarian history and structures the spark of liberation which could only be fully realised through historical materialist transformation. In that sense religion is "merely" an old form of a future and as yet unrealisable dream.
Until this unrealisable future becomes realisable its traces have to be read into the symbolic forms of human expression in various different historical epochs. To return to Adorno’s take on history in Negative Dialectics, Benjamin’s position is that we find the solution to the apparent non-identity of the material and the transcendental within the symbolic. We can see here quite clearly another point of contact between Marx and Freud where transcendental thoughts exist not as something separate from material reality but as something both produced by and also affecting and influencing that material reality. In Marx this is the interpenetrating relationship between base and superstructure, to put it at its simplest, and in Freud it exists in the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious realms. In Freud the symbolic plays the role of expression of that which is unknown to us but which we secretly know; namely, the unconscious. In Marx this symbolic expression is present in ideology, which, far from being a straightforward linear relationship between base and superstructure is constantly in flux and which can be captured and changed by the attempted realisations of human possibility. Ideas change as society changes but ideas also create social change.
For Benjamin the role of the symbolic in art thus takes on a transitional historical role. His work on the Baroque, for example, posits it as the turning point between medieval religiosity and renaissance secularisation and the Trauerspiel (Mourning-Play) of that period, with its obsession with violence and death, reflects the growing yet still largely unconscious realisation that there is no happy end in heaven and that – as Bloch puts it – death becomes the harshest of all anti-utopias. Art and culture in his era though, in the era of what he hoped was the transition from capitalism to socialism, had to grasp the dual possibilities of technology so that it could be harnessed not to master nature but to master the relationship between humanity and nature.
This means that art had to take on a political role in increasing the awareness of what was at long last the real human potential for the realisation of the old dreams. It could go either way though; down the Adornian route from the slingshot to the megaton bomb or onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands of social liberation. Art and technology therefore become interlinked and politicised, predominantly in film. The "aura" of traditional art may have been destroyed by modernity but the future "aura" of liberated humanity as a living work of art had to take its place. If fascism represented the aestheticisation of politics then the fight against fascism had to involve the politicisation of aesthetics and the active creation of the aura of potential.
This is why Benjamin states that "the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realise that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism." In other words, all class society is a permanent state of emergency in which the rulers are always under threat. Fascism is thus not some sort of breakdown of tradition but a continuation of traditional class rule by other means. Overcoming it thus requires not just anti-fascist attitudes but also a destruction of its roots in class oppression. Or, as Horkheimer put it in 1939: "If you don’t want to talk about capitalism then you had better keep quiet about fascism."
Posted on March 12, 2011 by Socialism and Democracy Online
There are many points of interest pertaining to the development of Marxist philosophy in contemporary China. This paper will focus on the following areas and problems: the debate about the criterion of truth; Marxist philosophical textbook reform; the inquiry into the human agent and subjectivity; Marxism and Confucianism; Deng Xiaoping’s theory; and the socialist market economic system. Let’s start with the debate about the criterion of truth, for this is the historical starting-point of contemporary Marxist philosophy in China.
1. The Debate about the Criterion of Truth
Academically, the real development of Marxist philosophy in contemporary China started in 1978. In that year, China’s intellectual life witnessed a great event. People in every walk of life were engaged in a debate: What is the criterion of truth?
Initially, the debate was related to the political struggle and the ideological debates within the Chinese Communist Party. Chairman Mao Zedong died in 1976, and the Cultural Revolution was officially declared to be ended. However, in ideology nothing seems to change much. The Chair of the Communist Party at that time was handpicked by Mao. As a way to maintain his position, he insisted on the doctrine of the “two whatevers”: (1) whatever policy decisions Mao had made must be firmly upheld; (2) whatever instructions Mao had given must be followed unswervingly. Hence, for the opposite faction, led by Deng Xiaoping (who was purged by Mao in 1975) to come back to power, it was necessary to break these “two whatevers.”
On May 11, 1978, a prominent Chinese newspaper, the Guangming Daily, published an article entitled “Practice Is the Only Criterion for Judging the Truth,” signed by “the Special Commentator.” The article argued that for all forms of knowledge, including Marxism, the nature of their truth must be judged and proved by practice. All scientific knowledge, including Marxism, should be amenable to revision, supplementation, and development in practice, in accordance with the specific conditions under which it is to be applied. This paper was widely echoed and provoked lively discussions throughout China. These led to a consensus that it is practice, not Mao’s words, that can tell us what is right and what is wrong. The immediate consequence of this great debate was that the advocates of the “two whatevers” lost their power, and Deng Xiaoping regained his power and started the Chinese economic reform. In contrast to the “two whatevers,” Deng’s motto is, “It does not matter whether a cat is black or white; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.”
However, the debate has had a far-reaching influence on Chinese social science, in particular, on the study of Marxism itself. Since the Communist party came to power in 1949, Marxism, and its Chinese representative, Mao Zedong’s thought, has been regarded as the absolute and as a completed truth system. The only role philosophers could play¾and were required to play¾was to prove the rightness or truth of Marxism and Mao’s theory. Only political leaders, actually only Mao himself, could establish new truth and develop Marxism. Just as philosophy was the handmaiden of theology in the medieval West, so in China philosophy became the servant of Mao’s politics. Any question or criticism put to Marxism and Mao’s theory was regarded as a political challenge. For Mao, the most important thing that Marxist philosophy can teach is its theory of class struggle and the theory of proletarian dictatorship. Mao’s philosophy actually became a kind of “Struggle Philosophy.”
Now the debate about the criterion of truth and the establishment of practice as that criterion broke this myth of Marxism and of Mao’s theory. Marxism became a subject that could be reflected upon, examined, renewed, and developed. The truth-criterion discussion of 1978 was indeed a movement of enlightenment, a movement of thought liberation. It paved the way for contemporary China’s economic development, and it also paved the way for any possible new contributions to Marxism. It used to be the case that one could only “insist” on Marxism; now we could “develop” Marxism, and many now believed that only by developing Marxist philosophy could one really insist on it. It used to be the case that academic philosophy was always subordinate to the leaders’ thought and did not have any independent status. Since 1978, however, philosophical research has won a relatively independent academic position.
2. Reform of the Philosophical Textbook
The immediate effect of these developments for Chinese Marxism was the publication of new editions of the Marxist textbook. One would think that a new edition of a textbook is a matter of pedagogy, of the teaching of philosophy, rather than a matter of philosophical development, or development in philosophical thought. This is not the case in China, however. For, generally speaking, it is only the Marxism embodied in the textbook that is regarded as the orthodox Marxism, the “true” Marxism that should be learned. A change in the textbook means therefore a change of attitude towards Marxism. To a great extent, the changes of the textbook mirror the situation of Marxist philosophical research. To get a new edition of the Marxist textbook published, what is essential is not the approval of the referees, but that of the government. Now the situation has changed significantly, yet the reform and reconstruction of the official textbook is still regarded as an important aspect of the progress of Marxist philosophy.
Until 1978, the main textbook of Marxist philosophy in China was Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism (edited by Ai Siqi, the former leader of the Party School of the Communist Party). Its contents and structure were basically transplanted and transferred from the textbook of Marxist philosophy in the former Soviet Union, and it was deeply influenced by Stalinist dogmatism. Though political relations between the Soviet Union and China were broken in the early 1960s, this type of official philosophical textbook had remained unchanged.
Since 1978, Chinese philosophers have introduced important modifications or re-formulations to different aspects and levels of Marxist philosophy.
First, breaking away from the constraint of the traditional textbook, they returned to the original works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Many concepts have been redefined, such as matter, consciousness, existence, spirit, static, motion, ideals, struggle, social existence, social consciousness, knowledge, truth, practice. Various basic views and positions were re-evaluated, such as, “the basic problem of philosophy,” “the challenge of epistemological skepticism,” “the relationship between dialectics and metaphysics,” “the relationship between materialism and idealism,” “the basic contradictions in human society,” “epistemological methods,” and so on. Some Marxist theories were abandoned, whereas others were re-formulated.
Second, many new concepts and views, mainly derived from Western philosophy and/or sciences, were introduced into the Marxist philosophic textbook, including concepts such as: subject and subjectivity, object and objectivity, medium, element, structure, function, information, feedback, control, social system, social organism, purpose, emotion, will, cognitive model, thinking world, value, evaluation, and so on; and views such as: “the idealist way and the practical way of human understanding of the World”; “the interactive law between subject and object”; “the farsightedness, selection, and creativity of human cognition”; “subjective principle and the system principle in cognition”; “the unity of truth and value”, “the concrete and historical unity among Truth, Good, and Beauty.” Some new research methods were transplanted, and applied to Marxist philosophical research, for example, the methods of genetic theory, atomic analysis, constructive explanation, and functional analysis.
Third, many new domains have been explored, and many new branches have been introduced and developed, for example, axiology, theory of practice, philosophical methodology, philosophical anthropology, the theory of social organisms, the theory of social control, the genetic theory of cognition, the theory of cognitive evolution, philosophy of man, philosophy of science, philosophy of humanities and social science, scientific epistemology, social epistemology, philosophy of daily life, feminist philosophy, philosophy of environment and ecology, and so on.
These philosophical achievements provided the new foundation to the textbook reform and reconstruction of Marxism in China. There are many textbooks with different outlooks. I would like to mention briefly the following four that are the most influential.
a. Dialectic Materialism and Historical Materialism, editor-in-chief, Xiao Qian, a professor at the People’s University of China. The book maintains the main structure of Ai Siqi’s textbook but thoroughly absorbs the new achievements of the sciences. It includes sub-divisions such as materialism, dialectics, and epistemology, theory of society and history, and methodology. It is the most influential textbook of Marxist philosophy in China. The problem of this book is that some of the new contents of the philosophy could not find their suitable place in the old system.
b. The Basic Principles of Marxist Philosophy, chief editor, Gao Qinghai, a professor at Jilin University. It is based on the historical development of Western philosophy and of Marxist philosophy. The major strength of the book lies in its attempt to locate the historical sources of the main philosophical concepts and its emphasis on understanding Marxist philosophy historically. The problem of this book is its difficulty in distinguishing the content of Marxist philosophy from that of Western philosophy. The other problem is that it is too historical, and somewhat weak in the construction of philosophical arguments.
c. Professor Huang Danshen, of Beijing University, tries to compile a system of Marxist philosophy according to his understanding of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks. The structure of his textbook system is based on 36 pairs of concepts. Since Lenin’s philosophical notebooks are his reading notes on Hegel’s Logic, Huang’s plan carries the obvious influence of Hegel’s philosophy. The other problem of his system is that 36 pairs of concepts are not enough to include all aspects of philosophy.
d. Professor Xia Zhentao of the People’s University of China, and Ouyang Kang [the present author], a professor at Wuhan University, have created another new system of Marxist philosophy according to their understanding to Karl Marx’s “Practical Materialism.” We understand that the major characteristic of Marxist philosophy is its emphasis on “practice.” This is also the basic point of difference between Marxist and non-Marxist philosophy. It is a fact that Karl Marx never called his philosophy dialectical materialism or historical materialism; instead he referred to it as “Practical Materialism” in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844). His most famous sentence was the one that appeared on his tombstone: “Philosophers only explain the world, but the problem is to change it.” Based on Marx’s ideas, we developed a comprehensive understanding of the concept of “practice” and redefined the nature of Marxist philosophy as a kind of Dialectical, Historical, Humanistic, and Practical Materialism. Marxist philosophy is a philosophy of the relationship between Man and the World. The highest function of Marxist philosophy is to help people to recognize, to understand, to evaluate, to control, to develop, and to deal with this relationship more rationally and more efficiently. The new outlook of Marxist philosophy will be a kind of new Subjective-Methodological system.
At the present time, the reform and the reconstruction of the textbook of Marxist philosophy is still going on. We believe that further developments of Marxist philosophy in China should be individualized and personalized, rather than following a unified pattern. Different Marxist philosophers should be encouraged to develop their own philosophical systems based on their own understanding of Marxist philosophy, and they should use their special research methodology.
3. Exploring the Human Agent and Subjectivity
In the past, human beings had little standing in Chinese Marxist philosophy. Even when the notion of man was mentioned occasionally, it mainly referred to the collective, group, class and nation, but not to the individual. This has been criticized as “stressing nature but forgetting man” – i.e., stressing the collective man but forgetting the individual person. Now it is agreed that the individual human being should be the main topic of Marxist philosophy.
With the publication of Marx’s newly discovered Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,* Chinese philosophers have become more interested in the problems of humanism and alienation. Some claim that the individual human being should be the starting point of Marxist philosophy. Others think that problems of the individual human being should be the highest target, the primary task, the central subject-matter and the final destination of Marxist philosophy. Still others suggest that humanism can be included in Marxism if it is defined as a basis for ethical consideration. The discussion, however, suffered a setback in the anti-liberalism movement of 1984.
Another related topic is subjectivity. Both subject and object are new concepts of Chinese Marxist philosophy that did not appear in the old philosophical textbook. In the 1980s, discussion of this issue was not limited to Marxist philosophy, but was also found in the literatures of critical theory, ethics, aesthetics, and so on. Why were Chinese intellectuals so interested in the problems of subject, subjectivity, and the subjective principle? The answer is that in discussing subjectivity, the central philosophical position of the individual human being could be established. There are many different positions in the inquiry into subjectivity. Some argue against it on the ground that to emphasize subjectivity would lead to the denial of cognitive objectivity. Others, on the other hand, push the subjective principle to the extreme of advocating an absolute free will. My M.A. thesis is entitled “On Subjective Ability,” and I have published many papers on this topic. I believe that the subjective movement in contemporary Chinese philosophy was actually a thought liberation movement.
In May 1997, Professor Huang Danshen of Beijing University organized a National Association of the Philosophy of Man, which held its first conference in Beijing. The Philosophy of Man has become a very hot topic in China today. One strong feature is to connect this topic with the new outlook of Marxist philosophy. Some claim that the Philosophy of Man is the hallmark of contemporary Marxist philosophy. Others think that the Philosophy of Man is only a part of Marxist philosophy. Nevertheless, the efforts to establish the Philosophy of Man have stimulated much philosophical research and have greatly extended the development of Marxist philosophy in China.
4. Marxist Philosophy and Confucianism
How should Marxist philosophy deal with its relationship to the traditional Chinese value system?
The controversy between traditionalism and anti-traditionalism has been hot in modern China for many decades. Since the New Cultural Movement of May 4, 1919, anti-traditionalism was the main trend. To some, revolution means rejecting traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism. Mao Zedong was deeply influenced by traditional Chinese culture in his early years. But one of the most important aims of his Cultural Revolution was to get rid of Confucianism, and even of all traditional Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese culture is regarded as an obstacle to China’s modernization. Others looked down upon Chinese philosophy, and believed that Chinese philosophy was not mature, and that it lacked logic. They admired only Western civilization and philosophy. Meanwhile, the more traditionally-minded scholars insisted that Chinese culture and philosophy should be the mainstream in China. Now the problem is whether it is possible to combine Marxist philosophy with traditional Chinese culture. Can Marxist philosophy be developed without learning from Chinese culture and philosophy? How can Marxist philosophy become intrinsic to contemporary Chinese culture? How can Marxist philosophy find its foundation and roots in Chinese soil?Almost all Chinese philosophers now realize the necessity of combining Marxist philosophy and traditional Chinese philosophy. Integrating Chinese philosophy and culture into Marxist philosophy is the necessary way to develop Marxist philosophy in China. It is also the necessary way to discover and recognize the contemporary meaning of traditional Chinese culture and philosophy. There are many positive elements in traditional Chinese culture and philosophy that may be profitably absorbed into Marxist philosophy. Here we briefly list some of them:
The idea of the unity of Man and Heaven (Nature)
Now our entire world is deeply involved in the ecological controversy surrounding the relationship between Man and Nature. The sharp opposition between man and nature has been characteristic of much traditional Western culture and philosophy, and Marxism itself is a product of that tradition. To find possible ways to achieve a harmony of man and nature has from the beginning been a basic theme in traditional Chinese philosophy. Chinese philosophers insisted that nature is to be regarded not as the slave of man but as the equal partner in human life and in the formation of humanity. Man should stay on good terms with nature. Human beings should respect and protect nature. To protect nature is to protect the necessary environment of human life. Traditional Chinese philosophy is full of ecological insights and anticipations. The same ecological concerns can be found in Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.
The outlook and method of the Mean (Zhong Yong).
The Mean, also called “the Impartiality” or “the Doctrine of the Mean,” is the Middle Way. Epistemologically, the method of the Mean seeks to master the object in a complete and rounded way by avoiding any kind of extreme, excess, and partiality. In the context of social life, the Middle Way prescribes that each human being should form his own judgment regardless of the opinions of others.
Harmony among peoples
Chinese philosophy emphasizes peace and harmony among peoples and condemns irrational and unnecessary conflicts and unjust wars. Chinese philosophers insisted that human beings should respect and help each other. And their harmonious relationship is to be based on the common understanding of virtues. Rulers should treat their people as they treat their children. To show respect to the old and to protect youth were regarded as the basic virtues in ancient China. Traditional Chinese virtues, such as diligence and filial piety, have their contemporary meanings in today’s human life and should become the intrinsic content of Marxist ethics.
Recently there have been heated discussions on Asian Values in the East and also in the West.. It is generally agreed that Confucianism is the main core of Asian values, which include in particular “Family Values.” Many Chinese philosophers believe that the teachings of traditional Chinese philosophy could still be applicable to human life today. They retain their relevance in contemporary world culture.
5. Deng Xiaoping Theory
Deng Xiaoping theory is regarded as the new stage and new outlook of Marxist philosophy in contemporary China. It is the guiding ideology in building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Deng’s thought has been intensively studied.
I think that the most important contributions of Deng Xiaoping theory lie in the liberation of the human spirit in contemporary China. The core and key point of Deng’s theory is “emancipating the mind” and “seeking truth from facts.” Seeking truth from facts is the quintessence of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Deng emphasized this in 1978 and used it to counter the “two whatevers,” thus opening up a new area for China. It was called the first Spirit Liberation Movement in China. After the political incidents in 1989, there were some arguments about where China should go, especially whether China should continue its reform and open policy. Deng stressed the emancipation of the mind in his trip to South China in 1992. This affirmation cleared up many important misconceptions about Socialism, and advanced the reform to a new stage. This was called the second Spirit Liberation Movement, which initiated the socialist market system in China. After Deng’s death, there have been some debates regarding his theory and practice. Secretary-General Jiang Zemin and the central committee of CPC stressed these two aspects again in its 15th National Congress in September 1997. This was regarded as the third Spirit Liberation in today’s China.
Deng Xiaoping’s other important contribution to Marxist philosophy is to establish a new criterion for socialist theories. He claimed that the fundamental questions we should ask about socialism are what socialism is and how to build it. He raised three fundamental criteria for judging a proposal or a policy: whether it is favorable for promoting growth of the productive forces in a socialist society, whether it is favorable for increasing the overall strength of the socialist state, and whether it is favorable for raising the people’s living standards. The criteria were called the “three favorables.” By these three value criteria, people could actually evaluate all social policy and social administration and could judge between right and wrong and between good and bad.
Deng Xiaoping theory is a system with rich contents. He has greatly contributed to the contemporary development of China. His philosophical ideas give us enlightenment although they do not complete the development of Marxist philosophy in China. Deng’s theory itself should be developed in time.
6. Marxism and Chinese Socialist Market System
One special and current problem facing Chinese Marxist philosophers is how Marxist philosophy answers the challenges of constructing a socialist market economic system in China. In the past 20 years, the economic system in China has been changed from the central planning system via planned commercial system to a socialist free market system. The economy has developed rapidly. The new market system has thrown all traditional disciplines, such as philosophy, literature, and history into turmoil. As everyone knows, Marxism in China had a privileged political position in the planning of the social system. Now Marxist philosophical research has become a kind of academic research. The authority of Marxist philosophy can only be based on its content and function, depending on whether it is recognized by society. Marxist philosophers stand on the same level as other scholars. It is not only a kind of challenge but also a fair competition. This situation forces and stimulates Marxist philosophers in China to do their work better than ever. It is the motivating force underlying the development of Marxist philosophy as an academic discipline.
The socialist market economy, as a part of Chinese Marxism, is both a heritage and a development of Marxist economics. In our prior understanding of Marxism, socialism is the opposite of capitalism. The basic nature of capitalism is private ownership, free market economic system, and wealth distribution according to the ownership of capital. As the opposite of capitalism, the basic nature of socialism lies in the public ownership of capital, planned economic system, and wealth distribution according to work. The former Soviet Union, some Eastern European countries, and China had tried for many years to follow these criteria for socialism, and the consequence is not good at all. This situation led the Chinese Communist Party to re-think and re-understand Marx and Engels, especially the ideas of their later years. If one inquires more deeply into why they contrasted socialism with capitalism, one will discover that in their understanding, the highest goal of socialism is to create the higher productive forces, to get rid of social inequality, to destroy poverty, and to make all social groups richer. Socialism is thus a more advanced system than capitalism. But these ideas are not easy to actualize. Each country has to find its own effective and possible way according to its own history and reality. Only when your socialist theory succeeds can it be proved to be true socialism, and only then can your practice be accepted and followed by your people. Otherwise socialism will have no reason and no power to attract the people. Here we should insist that practice is the only criterion to judge the truth of socialism and of Marxism.
The Chinese socialist market economic system is based on following arguments.
1). Marxist socialism is not a kind of dogma but an active and practical movement. The highest goal of socialism is to develop productive forces in the most effective way. The basic doctrine of socialism is to enrich all members of society. To meet its goals, the development models of socialism in the world are not universal and unique but variable and multiple. In different countries, socialism requires different models and different ways. This is a necessary way to realize and to develop socialist theory.
2). The market, as an economic form, is neutral in relation to political and ideological systems. The market system does not belong only to capitalism but can also be used by socialism. Today’s world is basically a global market economic system. Any individual country should consciously join in the world market system if they want to become a member of international society rather than being isolated. This also applies to China.
3). It is impossible to complete the transition from capitalism to communism in one step. There are some middle stages between them. Socialism is a middle stage in the transitional process. It should contain the characteristics of these two societies.
4). The Socialist free market system with Chinese Characteristics is a new development of Chinese Marxism. On the one hand, it insists that the highest aims of socialism are to develop the productive forces and to enrich people’s lives to the greatest extent. On the other hand, it fits with the down-to-earth situation of contemporary China.
5). It has been proven through many years’ unsuccessful practice in China before 1978 that the pure central planning economic system was a way neither to develop productive forces nor to raise the people’s living standard. The fastest continuous economic development in China since 1978, especially since 1992, has strongly proved the benefits of the socialist market system.
Ai Siqi ed.: Dialectic Materialism and Historical Materialism, People’s Press, Beijing, 1970.
The Special Commentator: “Practice Is the Only Criterion for Judging the Truth”, Guang-ming Daily, May 11, 1978.
Gao Qinghai: The Basic Principles of Marxist Philosophy, Jilin Press, Changchun 1989.
Xiaoqian etc. ed. The Basic Principles of Marxist Philosophy, The Chinese People’s University Press, Beijing, 1992.
Ouyang Kang: An Introduction to Social Epistemology, China Social Science Press, Beijing, 1990.
Ouyang Kang: The Methodology of Philosophy Research, Wuhan University Press, Wuhan, 1998.
Ouyang Kang: From the Discussion of Truth Criterion to the Construction of the New Morphology of Marxist Philosophy, TIANJING SOCIAL SCIENCES, 1998(6)
The author: Prof. Dr. Ouyang Kang, Dean of the School of Humanities, Head of the Department of Philosophy, Wuhan University, Wuhan, Hubei 430072, P. R. China, Tel/Fax +86-27-87882755 , Email: email@example.com.
*[Ed. note: Although Marx’s 1844 manuscripts were first published in 1932 (in Berlin), it was not until 1979 that they were published in China.]
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‘Adorno criticised Hegel, above, for presenting a positive and affirmative dialectic in which ‘everything that is real is rational’.’
By Peter Thompson
The Guardian, UK
April 1, 2013 – Already in the comments about the first instalment of this series, a problem of traditions has emerged. For a predominantly Anglo-Saxon audience, raised in the empirical and positivist tradition, understanding a group of thinkers schooled in speculative Hegelianism and Marxist dialectics is always going to require a leap of faith. This is also compounded by the fact that the largely monoglot Anglo-Saxon tradition has to work with translations of these thinkers, which are not always the best that can be achieved.
For example, terms such as Wissenschaft and Geist traditionally get translated into "science" and "spirit", apparently irreconcilable opposites, whereas in philosophical terms the difference between the two is much less marked. In fact, you might argue that in the original German they could both be translated as "knowledge", albeit different types of knowledge bounded by speculation. When it comes to the Frankfurt school, the Anglo-Saxon tradition is confronted with all of its worst nightmares in one torrid night of speculative muscle flexing.
Theodor Adorno opens his treatise on negative dialectics with the statement that "[it] is a phrase that flouts tradition. As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of the ‘negation of the negation’ later became the succinct term. This book seeks to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy." In other words, he asks us to reject the idea that the outcome of the dialectic will always be positive but that we do so without leaving the dialectic behind as an explanatory model. We simply have to make it an open rather than a closed process.