Socialism with Chinese characteristics
On the washing of Western and Westernized brains
Roland Boer is a Marxist philosopher from Australia based in China. He is Professor of Philosophy at the School of Marxism at the Dalian University of Technology in China and Visiting Professor at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was a panelist at the December 11 Summit for Socialist Democracy, a webinar sponsored by the Friends of Socialist China and the International Manifesto Group. My commentary today is based on Boer’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: A Concise Guide,” which is available on his Website.
Boer begins with a quotation from Mao. “Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After joining the revolution, it was slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education.”
Boer maintains that a person brought up in a country deeply entrenched in Western liberal tradition needs to undertake a thorough washing of the brain in order to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics. Of course, many Western and Westernized intellectuals have not had their brains washed, and their writings on China are not helpful, and they often include misrepresentations. Boer notes that the Chinese have a name for the phenomenon, yixi jiezhonf, meaning using Western categories and frameworks in trying to understand China.
I have much respect for Boer and his lifelong effort to understand China on its own terms, taking seriously the writings of Chinese leaders and intellectuals; and I am in essence in agreement with the need for Westerners to have their brains washed. But I would like to express the issue in a somewhat different way. My understanding of understanding is grounded in a youthful encounter with black nationalism and a subsequent study of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan, as I explain in my intellectual autobiography.
In my view, the road to correct understanding and truth involves listening to others, discerning their insights, appropriating their insights for one’s own understanding; yet criticizing the defects of the other’s understanding from one’s own perspective, in the context of serious listening. It is a lifelong road, consuming a person for years, taking priority over other desires, such as the desires for status attainment, recognition, fame, or fortune. Moreover, and this is a critical point, the road takes you to nations and cultures different from your own. It is a life-long process of personal encounter with persons of other cultures and other horizons, taking seriously their understandings. This is what Boer has done with respect to the Chinese Revolution, which means that his understanding merits our appreciation and serious attention.
There is a further epistemological detail. Boer observes that analysts from powerful Western countries are accustomed to “the reality that a political career attracts the self-interested with limited abilities, [who are] not given and indeed not able to think deeply about matters of state.” As a result, Western intellectuals tend to assume that the most advanced understanding in a particular national context is expressed by intellectuals who for the most part are independent of and not allied with the state; and they tend to assume that heads of state do little more than offer half-truths, pretexts, justifications, and rationalizations.
However, as Boer notes, the history of communism has been different, in that political leaders have been among the leading thinkers. He mentions Lenin, Mao, Deng, and Xi. In my study of Third World revolutions, I have encountered many examples of the phenomenon: Toussaint, Martí, Mella, Ho, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Fidel, Allende, to name some. This phenomenon emerges from the system of domination, a situation that provokes and cries out for anti-systemic social movements that must be led, if they are to succeed, by persons capable of both discerning the necessary road and leading the people toward that road.
Such dynamics imply that our search for understanding has to include taking seriously the understandings of the leaders of a revolution, understandings that often are expressed in speeches as well as writings, given the practical exigencies of leadership. With appreciation of this, Boer has rooted his understanding in the speeches and writings of Mao, Deng, and Xi. In my view, the epistemological method that Boer has followed with respect to China ought to be followed by Western intellectuals with respect to the Third World revolutions and social movements. It is a question of taking seriously the insights of revolutionary leaders, even after, perhaps especially after, the revolution has seized power. It is the key to liberation from those Western ideas that fell under the distorting influence of the need to justify Western domination of the world. Taking seriously the insights of revolutionary leaders empowers us to understand on the basis of the universal experience of humanity.
I suspect that for intellectuals brought up in China and the Third World, it is a question of not being blinded by the ideologies of the national bourgeoisie, and of permitting oneself to be formed by the patterns of thought that are rooted in the history of the people’s struggles. And I suspect that, in studying in Western universities and universities under the influence of Western assumptions, it is a question of appropriating from the insights of the West, transforming them in accordance with the colonial, neocolonial or semi-colonial situation of one’s own people; never losing a sense of belonging and commitment to one’s own people. It seems to be that this appropriation of Western insights without losing one’s own identity has been the key to the great insights of the outstanding leaders and intellectuals that the Third World and China have produced.
The journey for understanding is a collective process, which is illustrated by the International Manifesto Group that has been initiated by the Geopolitical Economy Research Group of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. The intellectuals and activists affiliated with the initiative represent all regions of the world, and they include all age groups. With few exceptions, they take seriously the revolutions that have emerged for the past one hundred years in the Third World plus China. They tend to defend the socialist revolutions of the Third World, including the revolutions of China, Cuba, DPRK, and Venezuela, as representing the most advanced expressions of human understanding and political practice.
Although still small, the International Manifesto Group is significant. It is not surprising that such a group would emerge as the civilizational crisis of humanity deepens, with the increasingly rapid fall of imperialism into decadence and the simultaneous emergence of a possible alternative international order based on cooperation among equal and sovereign nations, a process that is led by China. Taking into account the technical capacities of communication today, it is likely that the group will continue to grow. I suspect that similar collective efforts have emerged and will emerge in the near future.
The epoch of Mao
Using the sound epistemological method of taking seriously what Chinese Marxists have written about their revolution, Boer utilizes the schema that they themselves have developed, which divides the revolution since 1949 into three stages, each with its particular characteristics, but with continuity through the three stages. This evolutionary process has been continually consistent with Marxist analysis and with the principles of socialism, although with two lapses that later were rectified.
The theoretical foundation for the subsequent economic development of the New China was forged from 1935 to 1937, during the brief interlude between the end of the Long March and the beginning in earnest of the guerrilla war against Japan. Mao and his comrades created study groups, presented lectures, and emitted publications at a stunning pace, with Mao himself actively reading and critically engaging the studied texts, further developing ideas and insights.
Boer writes that Mao was particularly interested in contradictions in societies, which are not always antagonistic, such as the contradiction between workers and peasants, which will not become antagonistic if it is managed well. At the same time, there were in China in the 1930s multiple antagonistic contradictions: between Chinese nationalist orientations and the Japanese imperialist occupation; between the political projects of communist and nationalist parties; and between the goals of the communist revolution and the interests of the parasitic landlord class and the comprador bourgeoisie. During World War II, the contradiction between China and Japanese imperialism had primacy, and the communists and nationalists were allies. But during the Long March and the post-World War II Civil War, the antagonistic contradiction between the nationalists and the communists had primacy.
Mao maintained that socialism evolves through the unfolding of its contradictions. Inasmuch as each country has particular contradictions, it follows that socialism will have different characteristics in different countries. Thus, Mao recognized early that socialism in China would evolve with characteristics different from those of the Soviet Union. In 1938, Mao appealed to Chinese communists to develop an understanding of Marxism that is appropriate for the particular conditions of China.
“A Communist is a Marxist internationalist, but Marxism must take on a national form before it can be put into practice. There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used. If a Chinese Communist, who is a part of the great Chinese people, bound to his people by his very flesh and blood, talks of Marxism apart from Chinese peculiarities, this Marxism is merely an empty abstraction. Consequently, the Sinification of Marxism – that is to say, making certain that in all its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese characteristics, using it according to Chinese peculiarities becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay.”
Following the victory of the communist revolution in 1949, the interests of the bourgeoisie and the remnants of the landlord class were in antagonist contradiction with the goals of the revolution. “A Communist Party in power,” Boer writes, “should solve the contradiction by socializing the ownership of the forces of production [and by] abolition of bourgeois property, . . . collectivization of agriculture, and a fully planned economy.”
This approach led to the “first economic miracle” in China, in which “there were great improvements in socioeconomic well-being, population growth (in numbers and life expectancy), significant developments in science and technology, an independent industrial and national economic system, [and] development of education, culture and health.”
However, in spite of gains of the period 1949 to 1978, poverty continued to be a major problem in rural areas and in regional cities. The economy was stagnating. The Party responded by seeking alternative ways to liberate productive forces, resulting in what came to be known as the Reform and Opening.
Reform and Opening, 1978 to 2012
In order to expand productive capacity, the state expanded space for market institutions, but in the context of state planning of the economy. Incentives were established for innovation and for work, in accordance with the socialist principle of “to each according to work,” emphasizing that “to each according to need” pertains to the subsequent stage of communism. With these adjustments, Boer observes, “China launched itself on a path that has led to it becoming a global economic power.” Its industrial output and foreign exchange reserves are now the highest in the world, and it has the world’s largest internal market.
Boer maintains that the use of state power to increase productive capacity is a Marxist concept. Marx and Engels had maintained that socialism entails not only state ownership of the productive forces, but also the liberation of the productive forces, increasing the productive capacity of the society. The expansion of productive capacity is necessary for establishing the material base that can respond to the needs and protect the social and economic rights of the people.
Deng Xiaoping, a lifelong communist and longtime comrade of Mao, was the architect of the Reform and Opening. In a key speech in 1978, Deng was critical of the disruptive deviation of the cultural revolution, when people stopped thinking and were led by ideological taboos. Deng maintained that thinking is the basis of liberation, if it is rooted in a correct understanding of Marxism-Leninism. Liberating thought, Deng maintained, involves “seeking truth from facts.” The actual socio-economic conditions must be analyzed in detail, so that appropriate, realistic plans can be developed. Liberating thought is the basis for innovation and new ideas. Liberating thought is the key to liberating the forces of production and for the development of market structures, alongside planning, in a socialist system.
Boer maintains that in seeking to understand China’s economy, we must first put aside the mistaken view that equates socialism with a planned economy and capitalism with a market economy. He maintains that a market economy is not by definition capitalist; and a planned economy is not by definition socialist. He mentions examples in human history of market economies that were not capitalist, such as the Roman slave market economy. And he notes that there have been proposals for markets in socialist systems since the early twentieth century.
Boer informs us that after considerable debate in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Deng and others argued that in China there is an overall socialist system, within which there are two institutional forms, a market economy and a planned economy. A market economy distributes on the basis of the law of value, prices, and competition; and a planned economy organizes on the basis of regulation and calculation of challenges and resources. The two can be complementary within an overall system. Inasmuch as both are shaped by the socialist system, it is logical to speak of a socialist market economy. A socialist market economy is not an independent entity; it is a market economy that is shaped by the socialist system of which it is a part.
Deepening of reform, 2012 to the present
The Reform and Opening, launched in 1978 and continuing for three decades, generated problems. As expressed by Boer, these problems include:
“decline in conditions for workers and consequent labour unrest; appropriation of collectively owned village lands by corrupt city officials; a growing gap between rich (mostly eastern) regions and poor (mostly western) regions; lack of welfare in the countryside; environmental degradation; ideological confusion, with all manner of proposals ranging from a recovery of Confucianism to bourgeois liberalisation; and a significant gap between the common people and the CPC, leading to corruption. These realities were most notable in what may be called the ‘wild 90s,’ although they spilled over into the first decade of the new millennium.”
Many Marxists, Boar observes, thought that China was going down the capitalist road. But for Chinese Marxists, Western Marxists erroneously thought that the problems were systemic, rather than incidental, unintended problems that had emerged from the reform process, which was in essence a reform headed in a socialist direction. The Chinese response, Boer maintains, was clearly Marxist: deepen the reform so that the contradictions would be addressed, rather than retreating to an earlier revolutionary period.
The Deepening of the reform, from 2012 to the present, has included a program for the eradication of absolute poverty; the expansion of the number of middle income workers; the development of ecological production; a campaign against corruption; expansion of the welfare system; reform of the state-owned enterprises, so that they can be more innovative and more capable of playing their role as the backbone of the economy; strengthening of structures of worker’s control; and improvement in the structures of people’s power through the development of “whole process democracy,” which I reviewed in my December 21 commentary.
Xi Jinping has been the leading force in the Deepening of the reform. Boer stresses that Xi teaches that Chinese Marxism is Marxism, and Chinese Socialism is Socialism. In a recent speech on the basic principles of the method developed by Marx and Engels, Xi stresses that Marx and Engels formulated a scientific theory, not utopian, which nonetheless offered hope to the oppressed and exploited; and a theory of political practice seeking liberation, guiding action rather than imposing dogma. Xi further maintained that communism is a long-term process, undertaken step-by-step; and that it is people-centered, developing structures of people’s democracy. He maintained that communism seeks to liberate and advance the productive forces, while at the same time developing an ecological civilization in which human beings have a “harmonious symbiosis” with the natural environment. Xi also noted that Chinese Marxism must be integrated with China’s actual conditions and with Chinese cultural traditions. And he expressed the importance of understanding the common destiny of humanity and respecting the sovereignty and equality of nations, without imposing hegemony or interfering in the affairs of other nations.
In the socialist projects that seized political power in the midst of the unfolding of the global contradictions of the middle of the twentieth (Vietnam, China, DPRK, and Cuba), communist parties have played a leading role. But the communist parties lead; they do not decide. If one of these parties were to move in a direction that ignores the concrete needs and the aspirations of the people and the long-term interests of the nation, it would lose legitimacy in the eyes of the people. And without legitimacy, it could not sustain itself in power, because its actual constitutional and legal authority is limited.
Therefore, communist parties are compelled by the systems that they created to develop their capacities for leadership. As is logical, decades of this situation have created communist parties with an advanced capacity to understand the problems that confront humanity and to lead their peoples. This reality contrasts with the limited understandings and leadership capacities of the political parties that have been systemically created in the representative democracies of the West, where scoring political points in the short term against political rivals is more important than following the road of true leadership.
In reflecting on the socialist projects of China, Cuba, DPRK, and Vietnam, we must keep in mind the systems of people’s democracies that the communist parties have developed in theory and practice. These systems ensure the power of the people and at the same time favor the emergence of capable leadership. If a communist party were to violate the established norms and procedures of people’s power, the people have well developed structures of mass organization, forged by the communist parties, that would enable them to mobilize against the usurping of power by the party.
At the same time, we have to keep in mind that a socialist economy is not defined simply as state ownership or collective ownership of the means of production, but as state direction of the economy, with priority given to balancing immediate human needs with the long-term development of economic productivity, in which various forms of property are developed in accordance with calculated possibilities.
Here we have the essence of socialism. (1) People’s democracy, with a state in the hands of the people. (2) A state that directs the economy in accordance with the needs of the people, the nation, and humanity; an economy that includes space for private property, to the extent that it unleashes the productive forces.
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