China’s significance to the history of Marxism-Leninism cannot be overstated. Despite Turkey and Kurdistan’s extreme cultural and geographic distance from China, China and its neighbours played and continue to play a large role in political discussions by communists in the Republic of Turkey. While few communists in the Republic of Turkey are intimately familiar with Chinese history and philosophy, the 20th century history of struggle in China left many footprints, both positive and negative, in our political discourse. This paper seeks to explain the role played in Chinese politics by pre-modern political philosophical trends in China, with reference to figures within the Chinese Communist Party and their interactions with their neighbours.
Pre-modern Chinese history is likely the most influential of any culture east of the Himalaya mountains. Over the course of diverse states’ conflicts with one another, the “middle country” (“中國”1, “zhōng guó”) became a meeting point for diverse cultures, with important dynasties being ruled by North Asian nomads, and the local religious traditions being greatly influenced by South Asian buddhism. The Han people (the nationality most of us think of when we say “Chinese”) are very proud of Chinese history, which, in a familiarly nationalistic sense, they claim as a history of their having taught civilisation to the barbarians (the non-Han peoples, whether they live in “China” or not) in various directions. 20th century Chinese history is replete with literary, philosophical, and political reference to thousands of years of Chinese history which came before it. Despite the efforts of the Cultural Revolutionaries, in China too, the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).
Despite the unfamiliarity of many readers with pre-modern Chinese history, modern Chinese history, and the interplay between the two, there is one example with which we are almost all familiar which may be used to illustrate the importance of pre-modern Chinese history’s role in our collective present. “The Art of War” is a well-known work on military strategy and tactics by Sun Tzu, which articulated many of the ideas later articulated by Carl von Clausewitz in the 19th century, who in turn was widely read by Lenin. In East and Southeast Asia, “the Art of War” was widely read by guerrillas, including in Vietnam (a country where such pre-modern “Chinese” literature is also considered a part of the local literary culture, much as Turks draw on Persian and Arab literary tradition). Due to the inspiration many Turkish and Kurdish Marxists felt from struggles in Vietnam and China, “the Art of War” is also read and referenced by revolutionaries in the Turkish Republic today.
In East Asia, there are many works from the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period which, like “the Art of War”, have a decidedly political bent and are often referenced by intellectuals and political figures of various backgrounds. By reading and understanding some of these, we may begin to understand some of the politics of a far-off region, and see in it some reflection of ourselves, and learn important lessons about the dynamics and contradictions of human society over a vast history.
Taoism and Cultural Revolution
“Taoism” is a relatively contemporary term for a philosophical-religious tradition which began in China with Lao Tzu, purported author of the Tao Te Ching, a text which describes “a way that cannot be named” as “the absolute way”. “The way”, (“道”, “dào” in Chinese), is an all-encompassing understanding of the universe, which has been equated often with the Hegelian understanding of “the dialectic”. Like dialecticians, Taoists understand all of existence as being predicated on a duality of forces, down to the understanding of existence and inexistence from the other, co-emerging and co-penetrating, as illustrated in the famous yin-yang symbol. Dialecticians understand changes in quality to be predicated on changes in quantity (and vice versa), Taoists emphasize that individual will does not create change, but that through understanding trends (in a way we might conceive of as “quantitative”), one may effect a change in quality as if not intervening at all, a concept articulated as “無爲” (“wú wéi”, “effortless action”).
Is Taoism an ancient precursor to the Hegelian method? Hegel certainly recognised some commonality, being particularly taken with the quote from the Tao Te Ching (related to the concept of opposition as it relates to quantity): “The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things. All things leave behind them the Obscurity (out of which they have come), and go forward to embrace the Brightness (into which they have emerged),” (Tao Te Ching 42)
However, Hegel was also sharply critical of Taoism’s over-determination by negation, writing: “to the Chinese what is highest and the origin of things is nothing, emptiness, the altogether undetermined, the abstract universal, and this is also called Tao or reason. When the Greeks say that the absolute is one, or when men in modern times say that it is the highest existence, all determinations are abolished, and by the merely abstract Being nothing has been expressed excepting this same negation, only in an affirmative form” (Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Oriental Philosophy, the Sect of the Tao-See).
Indeed, Taoism’s emphasis on trends and opposites do not reflect a preoccupation with development (conceptual or material), with Taoist “cultivation” being centred on the idea of casting aside everything and merging with a sort of primordial energy, a more nature-oriented version of the concept of “nirvana” as articulated in Buddhism (a non-Chinese religion which interacted greatly with Taoism as the latter developed in China):
“In a little state with a small population, I would so order it, that, though there were individuals with the abilities of ten or a hundred men, there should be no employment of them; I would make the people, while looking on death as a grievous thing, yet not remove elsewhere (to avoid it).
Though they had boats and carriages, they should have no occasion to ride in them; though they had buff coats and sharp weapons, they should have no occasion to don or use them.
I would make the people return to the use of knotted cords (instead of the written characters).
They should think their (coarse) food sweet; their (plain) clothes beautiful; their (poor) dwellings places of rest; and their common (simple) ways sources of enjoyment.” (Tao Te Ching, 80)
As Marxists, this represents to us a clear call to what Marx termed “primitive communism”. It is my claim that by no coincidence did Mao romanticise village life, much like his Cambodian equivalent Pol Pot, both of whom emphasised socialism’s superiority not as something transcending capitalism, reaching a higher stage of human existence, but as something which embraced, more or less openly, pre-capitalist methods of production and socialisation, with the exploiting classes of feudalism done away with and the social relations rendered benevolent by the party and its leadership.
The constant reference to negativity in both Taoism and “Mao Zedong Thought” is not a spurious parallel I am putting forward to make up some claim that Mao opposed the Hegelian method at some stage. Mao clearly stated his preference for a very “negative dialectics” of the sort espoused by Adorno (lest I be spuriously accused of “orientalism”, Adorno is as “western” a Marxist as one might ask for, this is an ontological error, regardless of the cultural connections which I might use to explain it):
“Engels talked about the three categories, but as for me I don’t believe in two of those categories. (The unity of opposites is the most basic law, the transformation of quality and quantity into one another is the unity of the opposites quality and quantity, and the negation of the negation does not exist at all.) The juxtaposition, on the same level, of the transformation of quality and quantity into one another, the negation of the negation, and the law of the unity of opposites is ‘triplism’, not monism. The most basic thing is the unity of opposites. The transformation of quality and quantity into one another is the unity of the opposites quality and quantity. There is no such thing as the negation of the negation. Affirmation, negation, affirmation, negation . . . in the development of things, every link in the chain of events is both affirmation and negation. Slave-holding society negated primitive society, but with reference to feudal society it constituted, in turn, the affirmation. Feudal society constituted the negation in relation to slave-holding society but it was in turn the affirmation with reference to capitalist society. Capitalist society was the negation in relation to feudal society, but it is, in turn, the affirmation in relation to socialist society.” (Talk On Questions Of Philosophy)
More to the point, Mao made explicit reference in the same talk to Zhuang Zi, one of the most famous Taoist thinkers after Lao Tzu to explain his understanding of dialectics:
“I approve of Chuang-tzu’s approach. When his wife died, he banged on a basin and sang. When people die there should be parties to celebrate the victory of dialectics, to celebrate the destruction of the old.” (ibid.)
None of this is to say that Mao was uniquely deviant among Marxist-Leninists at the time. Indeed, in some sense he was uniquely close to Hegel, Marx, and Lenin in his historical context. By the time of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, most ruling parties had more or less begun to abandon talk of dialectics and contradiction after the revolution. These important theoretical considerations were replaced with an almost single-minded focus on outproducing the great imperialist powers, as if socialism was simply a competing form of capitalism, and not a new set of social relations predicated upon tearing down the profit motive to which capitalist ideas of production and efficiency are tethered. Mao was one of the great strugglers against revisionism, regardless of his own errors (much like Rosa Luxemburg), and alongside Enver Hoxha, deserves credit for recognising the continuation of contradictions into socialist society (particularly with the hegemony of the increasingly state capitalist Soviet Union) and taking aim at his own ruling party in the pursuit of defending the people’s gains.
However, unlike the Cultural and Ideological Revolution of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China assumed a negative relationship to past history, instead of assuming the reaching of a higher stage. The smashing of the “four olds” was the primary means of struggle during the Cultural Revolution, with the aim of producing an entirely new society from the rubble.
While the Cultural Revolution did not spare religious Taoism, it is worth noting that its primary target was Confucianism, another indigenous Chinese philosophical tradition to which Taoism is often counterposed by scholars of comparative religion and Chinese history alike. Where Taoism saw an ethics in retreat from society towards an idealised primitive life, Confucianism sought to create an ethical society on the terms of civilisation as it exists. Where Taoism preaches meditative stoicism, Confucianism preaches active state intervention. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism has seen a resurgence in China. While Taoism was never an active part of the Mao era, Confucianism has played an extremely active role in the post-Mao era, encouraged by the revisionist Communist Party of China.
Confucius, Mencius, Deng Xiaoping
It is worth noting that Mao made positive reference to Confucius for his inquisitive attitude on several occasions. For example, despite the later attacks on Confucius’s texts, Confucius himself was given as a model for a critical, material thinker:
“’inquire into everything’ as Confucius did, and then you will be able to solve the problems, however little is your ability” (Oppose Book Worship)
Yet by the height of the Cultural Revolution, when Lin Biao was under attack, the Gang of Four and Mao conjured up Confucius as the figure to whom the former ought to be compared.
One can hardly blame Mao Zedong for vilifying a figure associated with thousands of years of a feudal status quo during an intense period of revolutionary struggle in the 20th century. Even in his own time, Confucius and his followers were seen as conservative reformists. They believed Chinese society had had a more stable, benevolent structure at an earlier stage, and they sought to educate the leadership of Chinese society in the ethics of that time so as to build a harmony among social classes conducive to the interests of the ruling elite.
One follower in particular, Mencius, might be compared to a prototypical social democrat. Mencius’s writings are, after Confucius’s, some of the most treasured in the Confucian canon. It is worth noting the positive qualities in his writings, just as it is worth noting positive trends, even when articulated by social democrats: Mencius scolded a king who would patronise him for trying to determine the “profit” in his teachings, explaining that a profit-obsessed leadership would bring about its own downfall for discontent of the exploited classes. Mencius believed that humans generally have compassion for each other, but material conditions alienate us from our surroundings and cause us to behave unethically. Finally, Mencius insisted that a good leader ought to provide for his people, not only in terms of the basic necessities of life, but in terms of spiritual development, asking why the king ought to have splendid pleasure gardens, when the people who served him did not.
Was Mencius a revolutionary? He was certainly more materialist than was normative for his period in history, and his ideas would find their echo in the glorious bourgeois revolutions of the past few centuries. However, from the standpoint of the 21st century, we have also seen the limitations of this thinking, and it is hard to paint even the most populist Confucianism found in Mencius’s writings as anything more than the least offensive status quo class society has to offer. Simply because a leader is not obsessed with profit does not mean that the profit motive has disappeared. The fact that since the 80s, the new, explicitly revisionist Chinese leadership has embraced Mencius is no coincidence: Mencius in some ways represents the guilt-ridden social democrat, trying desperately to preserve class society through concessions to various parties who, in the final instance, have contrary interests.
The fact that the Chinese state today pours immense funds and energy into spreading the teachings of Mencius to the popular classes (as they were spread in China in the 19th century, when industrial capitalism penetrated Chinese markets most saliently) shows that the Chinese leadership are a particularly far-sighted sort of capitalists. As the crisis deepens, we know that the bourgeoisie will need to make concessions to preserve its status and class society as such. As the crisis deepens, the “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, a socialism which is traded on the stock market, which is host to McDonalds, and which is rapidly expanding its imperialist reach in Sub-Saharan Africa, becomes an increasingly popular model for the most far-sighted capitalists in other imperialist countries.
Was Mao correct to take particular aim at Confucianism during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution? No simple answer can be provided here. On the one hand, Confucianism, particularly of the populist variety preached by Mencius, grew in popularity together with modernising trends in China. Despite Confucianism’s conservatism being the regular scapegoat for China’s relative backwardness at the cusp of the 20th century (not unlike Islam’s role as scapegoat for the Ottoman State), in some sense it held aloft very important ideas about community and the interests of the lower classes. It also held aloft values of patriarchy and was an extremely useful tool for the feudal classes. The legacy of Confucianism in China therefore is not something that can be held up as something outside of history, with purely positive or negative features. It was necessarily to be sublated in modern China in some form, no matter the idealistic stance taken by revolutionaries for or against it.
At the same time, it is clear that, no matter the many positive features of Confucianism or Taoism that might be appropriated by Marxist-Leninists (in China or elsewhere) to articulate contradictions within the established order, both lack in their understanding of dialectics important truths. Confucianism’s explicit conservatism means that it cannot look beyond class society, that, like China itself since the failure of the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism can at best provide a social contract with which to facilitate a(n in fact quite high) rate of exploitation. Confucian logic, even at its furthest left, is the logic of charity, not of overcoming the relationship in human society between oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited.
Likewise, while Taoism (like Buddhism) preaches to the enlightened to give up on worldly things, more or less, to de-class themselves, it fails to understand development in terms of affirmations built atop negations of negations, in terms of sublation. Mao Zedong himself shared this error, to an almost nihilistic result during the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution (and, I would argue, in the Pol Pot years of Cambodia, to whom the Chinese served as close allies against Vietnam, later joined by western imperialist powers when Mao made peace with US imperialism). The chaotic and negatively determined quality of these years explain the rush ordinary Chinese felt to embrace Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. Deng Xiaoping idealised the capitalist market which has again made homelessness and unemployment common sights in Chinese streets, and which has stirred up new levels of chauvinism between the Han and minorities in China, much as was the case in the later Soviet Union (“Some Manifestations of National Oppression in the Soviet Union Today” by Natasha Iliriani), and otherwise rendered hollow all premise of “socialism” in China.
When the Gang of Four defended the ferocity of their struggle, their pleas largely fell on deaf ears, not because the masses could identify with Deng’s economic policies (which benefitted a narrow elite relative to the rapidly increasing exploitation of the majority in China), but because they could identify with Deng’s position as victim of what at the time seemed like random political violence, as warring factions of Red Guards turned on each other in a struggle to root out individuals who showed signs of formalistic disloyalty. As dialecticians, we must understand that formalism itself is an untenable position, and that neither an embrace of new cults nor an attack on old cults are a substitute for our essential struggle: to build from our existing social struggles and relations a new set of conditions which reflects our needs and our essential control of our own lives, to pass beyond necessity into true freedom.
1 This is the first of three places in the text where I use Chinese characters. As the Chinese literature referenced in the text is associated with traditional Chinese characters, I considered it appropriate to use these characters. From the middle of the twentieth century on, a simplified version of Chinese characters has been in use. In particular I direct the attention of those interested in the Chinese language to this.
Iliriani (1987), “Some Manifestations of National Oppression in the Soviet Union Today”, https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/albania/al-national-opp-87.pdf, accessed: September 17 2017.
Lao Tzu (2008), Tao Te Ching, trans. J. Legge, the Floating Press (floatingpress.com)
Mao Z. (1930), “Oppose Book Worship”, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-6/mswv6_11.htm, accesssed: September 17 2017.
Mao Z. (1964), “Talk On Questions Of Philosophy”, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-9/mswv9_27.htm, accessed: September 17 2017.
Marx, K. (1852), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm, accessed: September 24 2017.