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."
By Prabhat Patnaik
At first sight no two persons could have been more dissimilar. One was a Cambridge don, with more than one foot in the British government; a supporter of the Liberal Party, staunchly opposed to the Bolshevik Revolution; an aesthete and a member of the Bloomsbury Group; a life peer in imperial Britain, and a solid, if sensitive, member of the British establishment. The other was a Russian revolutionary, spending years in exile in acute penury, immersed in bitter conflicts among the émigrés, until suddenly confronted with a revolutionary uprising whose strivings and possibilities he comprehended with such clarity that he came to lead it, facing a civil war, a typhus epidemic, and an assassination attempt that ultimately claimed his life.
The secure tranquillity of the life of the one contrasted sharply with the tempestuous violence that continuously haunted the life of the other. What could these two have in common?
For a start each felt a deep intellectual respect for the other, despite their political differences. In his report to the second congress of the Communist International, having called John Maynard Keynes “a British bourgeois pacifist”, “a petit bourgeois philistine” and “an implacable enemy of Bolshevism”, V.I. Lenin went on to base his entire thesis about why conditions were ripe for a world revolution on Keynes’s analysis in The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He even paid Keynes the compliment that “nobody had written about the condition of capitalism better than Keynes”. Keynes, on his part, not only referred in several places to Lenin’s “brilliance”, but, in this same book, said apropos of inflation: “Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency; . . . Lenin was certainly right.”
But mutual intellectual respect among bitter adversaries is neither unusual nor particularly remarkable. What is really common to both these thinkers is their belief that the hegemony of finance in the period of maturity of capitalism had brought about a denouement where it became impossible for the system to go on as before. Of course each had his own understanding of why finance had made capitalism impossible, and each had his own reading of where to go from there. But the belief that a sheer continuity of the existing order was no longer possible was common to both.
Keynes saw the hegemony of finance as saddling capitalism with such extraordinarily high levels of unemployment that people, he feared, would not for long tolerate such an inhumane system. Under this hegemony, speculation was no longer a mere bubble on a steady stream of enterprise, but became a torrent that buffeted enterprise around.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*[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.]
‘How was it, Marcuse asked, that the totalizing administered state, which he saw at work in western societies, got away with it?’ Photograph: Associated Press
By Peter Thompson
The Guardian, UK
April 15, 2013 – When the student generation took off in the 1960s across Europe, in Germany at least it was Herbert Marcuse who had the greatest influence. This is because whereas Adorno, with his highly pessimistic philosophical statements about historical development, could talk about a negative progression of humanity from the "slingshot to the megaton bomb", Marcuse continued to maintain a more optimistic view of what could be achieved. Indeed, when 1968 happened, Marcuse said that he was happy to say that all of their theories had been proved completely wrong. Also, Marcuse wrote in a far more accessible way about the ways in which philosophy and politics were intertwined.
Whereas the French structural Marxist philosopher Lois Althusser had been at pains to draw a clear dividing line between early and late Marx, Marcuse maintained that the themes of the early works of Marx, concerned as they were with estrangement and alienation, were carried over and indeed deepened in the later, more economic texts. As he puts it: "if we look more closely at the description of alienated labour [in Marx] we make a remarkable discovery: what is here described is not merely an economic matter. It is the alienation of man, the devaluation of life, the perversion and loss of human reality. In the relevant passage, Marx identifies it as follows: ‘the concept of alienated labour, ie of alienated man, of estranged labour, of estranged life, of estranged man.’"
Marcuse linked economic exploitation and the commodification of human labour with a wider concern about the ways in which generalised commodity production (Marx’s basic description of a capitalist society) was at one and the same time creating a massive surplus of wealth through economic and technological development and an acceleration of the process of reducing humanity down to the level of a mere cog in the machine of that production.
How was it, Marcuse asked, that the totalising administered state, which he saw at work in western societies, got away with it? It did this through what he called "repressive tolerance". This is the theory that in order to control people more effectively it is necessary to give them what they need in material terms as well as to let them have what they think they need in cultural, political and social terms.
Parliamentary democracy, he maintains for example, is merely a sham, a game played out in order to give the impression that people have a say in the way that society works. Behind this facade however, he maintained that the same old powers were still at work and, indeed, that through their tolerance of dissent, debate, apparent cultural and political freedom had managed to refine and increase their exploitation of human labour power without anyone really noticing.
Constitutional liberty and equality was all very well, he argued, but if it simply masked institutionalised inequality then it was worse than useless. As he put it in One-Dimensional Man: "Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear – that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls."
This instrumentalisation of humanity could only be reversed, Marcuse maintained, by challenging the social processes which had led the governing value system to change from pleasure, joy, play and receptiveness to delayed satisfaction, the restraint of pleasure, work, productiveness and security.
Drawing on Freud, he maintained that this switch from the pleasure principle to the reality principle was stunting human potential just at the point where the objective economic conditions for human liberation had reached their high point. Again, this is where Marxist historical materialism is married up with the dialectic – and he sees the two as inseparable – by pointing out that the switch from the pleasure principle to the reality principle was absolutely necessary for the development of civilisation but that, in the process, the Eros of human fulfilment had to be sublimated.
In this dialectical sense, civilisation is both a negative and a positive step forward. However, the positive civilising process cannot be seen as the end of the dialectic, what Francis Fukuyama later called "the end of history", as long as the dialectic of human liberation was incomplete. As he puts it: "the true positive is the society of the future and therefore beyond definition and determination, while the existing positive is that which must be surmounted."
It is easy to see how this forward-looking and optimistic philosophy could appeal to the political radicalism of the 1960s generation, and how the call for the liberation of humanity as both individual and collective could help to unleash new social movements who no longer had any faith in the ability of the traditional and conservative parties of the left to bring about significant political change in either east or west.
Next week I shall track back to take a look at the work of Walter Benjamin, the lost prophet of the Frankfurt School.
Theodor W Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightment is ‘perhaps the central text of the Frankfurt school’. Photographs: Getty Images
By Peter Thompson
The Guardian, UK
April 8, 2013 – The Frankfurt school came together and developed its theories in a world left shattered by the first world war. The Weimar Republic was essentially a shell-shocked society in which many of the old certainties had been smashed to pieces. Worse than that, nothing had arisen from the ruins to give anyone any hope for the future.
As liberal democracy failed and Weimar spiralled down into Nazism, this school of almost entirely Jewish-Marxist intellectuals were forced to flee a country which had turned against them for reasons of both race and politics. One of their most cherished members, Walter Benjamin, killed himself in 1940 on the French-Spanish border, an act which threw many of the remaining members into even greater depression.
Changing their country more often than they changed their shoes, as Bertolt Brecht put it, they ended up in the US during the Hitler years and although this was a refuge for them, it was not a society they felt had anything to offer humanity. Ernst Bloch described the US as "a cul-de-sac lit by neon lights" – almost a template for a David Lynch film – and they felt that a society obligated to the pursuit of individualised happiness was the epitome of a world of shallow and inauthentic surfaces and insincerity. In one of the most famous aphorisms from Minima Moralia, published in 1951, philosopher Theodor W Adorno says that it is not possible to live a true life in a false system.
Most important in this context, the thinkers of the Frankfurt school did not draw a great distinction between various forms of capitalism, be they consumerist democracies or fascist dictatorships. Although the surface appearance of oppressive mechanisms were obviously different, for them, the underlying rule of capital was the same.
Dialectic of Enlightenment, perhaps the central text of the Frankfurt school, was written by Adorno and Max Horkheimer during these years in exile. It arrives at a pessimistic view of what can be done against a false system which, through the "culture industry", constantly creates a false consciousness about the world around us based on myths and distortions deliberately spread in order to benefit the ruling class.
‘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.
‘Anders Behring Breivik is the perfect example of the authoritarian personality Theodor Adorno wrote about.’ Photograph: Heiko Junge/AFP/Getty Images
By Peter Thompson
The Guardian, UK, March 25, 2013
When Anders Breivik launched his murderous attack in Norway in July 2011, he left behind a rambling manifesto which attacked not only what he saw as Europe’s Islamicisation but also its undermining by the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt school. So what is the Frankfurt school? Has its influence has been as deep as Breivik feared and many of the rest of us have hoped?
Many will have heard of the most prominent names from that tradition: Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, but its reach goes much further, taking in many of the 20th century’s most important continental philosophers and socio-political developments.
The Frankfurt school was officially called the Institute for Social Research and was attached to the University of Frankfurt but functioned as an independent group of Marxist intellectuals who sought, under the leadership of Felix Weil, to expand Marxist thought beyond what had become a somewhat dogmatic and reductionist tradition increasingly dominated by both Stalinism and social democracy. Most famously they sought to marry up a combination of Marxist social analysis with Freudian psychoanalytical theories, searching for the roots of what made people tick in modern consumer capitalist society as well as what made people turn to fascism in the 1930s.
The Frankfurt school went back to Marx’s early theoretical works from the 1840s and tapped into his more humanist impulses found in the German-French Annals and in his correspondence with Arnold Ruge. It is in these early writings that we find many of Marx’s most important writings on the role of religion in history and society. His ideas about the way materialism worked in the world were still being formulated and he had not yet become the economic theoretician he was later known as. It is not that Marx left ideas of religion behind after these early years, but he felt he had dealt with them properly and could move on to more tangible affairs. In a letter to Arnold Ruge in 1842 he wrote:
"Our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work."
But the idea that what was required was a reform of consciousness which had become unintelligible to itself is the central working principle of the Frankfurt school. Religious thought, which Marx saw as a part of false consciousness, was to be combated not by a full frontal attack in some sort of Dawkins-like crusade, but by removing the social conditions that created it. Marx was, therefore, not an atheist. Indeed he said of the term atheism that it "reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogey man". But the Frankfurt school did not believe that this reform of consciousness could come about simply by changing the socio-economic base of capitalist society. Religion was, for them, not only the opium of the people, but also a repository of hope that had become unintelligible to itself.