The idea that the Chinese state’s so-called Marxism holds political promise is a really problematic proposition. Marxism is a strategy and theory of the self-emancipation of working-class and oppressed people. To tie that to a state that’s so obviously exploitative and oppressive is going to raise all sorts of problems.
There may be a contradictory byproduct of that state teaching Marxism to students. They may take Marx and Marxism seriously and see that the Chinese state is a capitalist one that must be overthrown in a workers’ revolution. That could cultivate opposition to the state. But the state teaching Marxism also functions to incorporate students into a nationalist ideology, as Yige points out, that has little to do with actual Marxism.
My bigger concern is what it means geopolitically to have the Chinese state associated with Marxism, say, in Hong Kong, where the Chinese state is the main agent of social repression and curtailing of democratic freedoms and liberties. When Marxism gets identified with that practice, it makes Marxism not seem to be an alternative for the people in the struggle.
The same is true in Xinjiang, Tibet, or outside the immediate sphere of Chinese influence, say, in the Thai democratic uprising, where you have an emerging alliance between the Thai state and the Chinese state. And that will make it harder to develop a Marxist current within the Thai movement. The association of Marxism with the Chinese state will similarly discredit it in Myanmar, where the Chinese state has backed the military coup and repression of workers and oppressed people’s struggle for liberation.
This association will also make it more difficult to build a current of Marxists in the U.S. The Chinese state’s oppressive and exploitative nature will turn US workers and oppressed people away from Marxism as an alternative to American capitalism. Thus, “official Marxism” is going to make it harder to develop a popular theory and strategy of liberation internationally.
For a number of years, I had this dream that you’re operating within the hegemony of Marxism, and so that at least gives us a language of class. And a whole series of experiences that I’ve had in recent years has made me much more pessimistic. For one, I was actually in a Capital reading group that was shut down by the authorities, because it was seen as too politically sensitive, and this left a deep impression.
And folks may be familiar with the Jasic movement that happened in 2018. This was a movement where you had students at elite universities who were taking Marxism very seriously and even framing themselves as Maoist. They went and they organized with workers and the consequence was the state cracked down on them much harder, precisely because they were employing that language, since the state has to monopolize it. And that was a very clear indicator to me that using Marxist language does not provide more political space.
In fact, they treat Marxists more severely than they would neoliberals. If you had a group of students who were out there saying, “we should liberalize financial markets,” you can do that at a Chinese university, that’s not a problem. But taking Mao too seriously, taking Marx too seriously is a political problem. Official Marxism has excised class struggle, worker self-organization, and social emancipation from the analysis, which leaves you with a pretty useless theory.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we want to intervene on the left outside of China. Part of what is happening is that people are constructing a political other, an imaginary, that we then use to pursue certain agendas that we have at home.
I’ve looked at this dynamic in the Mao era. There were Americans going to China, including some radicals, as well as mainstream scientists, all of whom were able to come back with a way to prod their colleagues because they saw something exciting that China was doing, that they thought people should learn from. The insect control scientists went to China and said, “See, when you don’t have corporations running science, you can have rational approaches to pest control that don’t just enrich chemical corporations at the expense of ecology.” That’s what people want to do now as well. They want to embrace ecological civilization, or say that China’s actually Marxist, that China actually upholds these political values that we want to encourage here.
We can see why it’s often in our interest to hold China up as a model, or at the very least, not to allow the right wing to discredit these projects. And yet, does that do justice to the experiences of people in China?
No, it really doesn’t. And so as much as we want to be able to look for these political others to pursue these very noble ends, it is profoundly an injustice to the people who are experiencing oppression at the hands of the state. Can we encourage people to have a political imagination that’s big enough and bold enough and creative enough so that we don’t have to simplify the actual situation in other countries so we can use them as models?
I think maybe our intervention needs to be challenging people to be more imaginative and at the same time to recognize that they are participating in an injustice if they use another country as an example to stand in for their own political imagination.
On the discussion of Marxism in China: since the late nineties, the New Left and neo-Maoist vision of Marxism was also problematic, giving a sort of alternative with a very simplistic reading of world systems theory in which they would place China there as the proletariat against United States as capitalists.
And I think that reading is still quite prevalent in China as well. And one of the things that comes out of it is also a lack of analysis of what imperialism is today. So along with thinking about what the state is today, we have to think about what imperialism is and China’s relationship to U.S. imperialism, and China’s not outside of it. Imperialism here is more of a broader system, though the United States is obviously central to it. So, analysis of imperialism and China’s position within it, I think, is absolutely necessary as well.
Things might be contradictory: The Marxist/Maoist groups at the elite Chinese universities were incredibly vibrant spaces. These were students who were entirely uninterested in the mandatory courses on the socialist classics, which you have to do at the university, but were meeting on a regular basis and engaging in open discussions on articles and books they chose themselves.
And in addition to that, they would not only have reading groups, but they would also go to the construction sites, show movies and provide books to migrant workers and do research as well on their own. So, this was a really a very vibrant space, and the crackdown on these students in the context of the Jasic protest says a lot about what kind of Marxism is being promoted in China.
The other point: I recently had a conversation with a colleague in the United States, an economist. She was making the point that if you look at placements of young heterodox economists, recent PhDs from universities in the US, many of them would get positions at leading universities in China. I am not an economist myself, but according to this, it seems that at the economics departments at those universities in China there is space for such heterodox economists – maybe much more so than in the U.S. or at European universities. If this is correct, then I wonder how we should evaluate that.