Marxism and Imperialism
A Dialogue Between Critical China Scholars and Spectre
August 3, 2021
It is no secret that the US left is confused about how to respond to the rise of China. There is broad and justified opposition to Biden’s continuation of Trumpian efforts at containment, most obviously represented by mobilizing fears of China to justify astronomical Pentagon budgets. But opposition to US empire need not lead to siding with China. The Communist Party has embraced capitalism, in reality if not in rhetoric, while engaging in brutal repression of labor and feminist activists, Muslim minorities, and critical intellectuals, among others.
A group of Critical China Scholars and editors from Spectre got together to talk through the complexity of responding to the intensifying US-China rivalry, with an eye towards formulating anti-capitalist and liberatory politics on both sides of the Pacific. Our conversation has been slightly edited and split into two parts. This second part addresses Marxism and theories of imperialism. In the first part, we discussed views of China on the US left.
I would like to raise the issue of Marxism. How does it matter to the international left that China is an avowedly socialist state? We have a Communist Party that over the last few years has doubled down specifically on the teaching of Marx. What do we make of that?
I’ve seen the way that Marx gets taught in the classroom in China. And I’m very cynical about it, but do others think there is some kind of opportunity at re-appropriating the official discourse and turning it back on capital and the state?
When they teach Marx, what are they teaching? What are people reading and what are the official state schools saying? Because in these sorts of regimes, historically, Marxism has been reshaped to fit particular needs of state ruling classes. The Cuban state rediscovered Trotsky, but it’s not the Trotsky who advocates democracy; it’s someone who advocates central planning against those who are advocating for the market.
So, can you give us some sense of what this Marxism looks like? I mean, I know what Maoism and the sixties look like, but I’m not sure what Xi’s version of Marxism looks like today.
I can share my perspective as someone who grew up in China in the eighties and nineties. So first, the “good” news: everybody has developed a very cynical attitude towards official Marxism. We all know it’s a kind of lip service and nobody takes it seriously. They teach the Stalinist version of Marxism: there are five stages of social development. And the end point is to prove that the Chinese Communist Party is the vanguard of this evolutionary view of the stages of history, and to prove it’s more advanced than the rest of the world, with socialist states at the top of this rank.
They also canonize the Chinese revolutionaries. For instance, China’s version of Marxism is presented as a Confucianist-socialist synthesis, where they combine Confucius as someone like a saint and show that Marx should be treated as a classic text among other culturally Chinese things. So, there’s no rupture, no contradictions in the so-called 5000 year-long history – it’s very teleological. The end point is Xi Jinping: he will be the one to rejuvenate the greatness of the Chinese nation.
When I was at the Marxist theory conference in Nanjing around 2012, it was very revealing to understand the context for the so-called return to Marx because there were explicitly pro-American papers being given by Chinese intellectuals.
In other words, there were intellectuals getting up there and essentially saying our turn to the market is great, but it’s only half baked. We need to go fully down the American road. This is the road that leads to development and democracy. And so, the Party is operating at different levels, freaking out and trying to reestablish this version that Yige was talking about, Stalinized Marxism as state ideology to contain what appears to be a growing fascination with U.S.-style liberalism.
Having said that, I’ll just add two other notes. One is that the graduate students are completely absorbed in stuff that’s now feeling very old and stale in the American academy. So, they were all into Foucault and Lacan, for instance, because this seemed to offer some ways of criticizing society that was non-Marxist. But the other side of it is that I ended up in a class of undergraduates with no chaperone, no party officials, nobody with me. And I was giving a lecture on Occupy, and these students questioned me for an hour: could Occupy happen here?
So, there is this doctrinaire attempt to reconsolidate a certain kind of ideology necessary for the Party. But the reality is that there’s fermentation all over the place: towards neoliberalism, towards ideas of much more popular democracy, and so on. That was my experience in any case.
I think there’s always this fear on the part of the Chinese state that young people will actually take Marxism seriously. As Yige alluded, I think in reality most high school and then university students in China see it as a required course. Nobody wants to learn, and it’s not taught seriously. Everyone is going through a ritual. In a way, it’s a loyalty test. If people can go through the ritual, it’s a testament to their loyalty to the system.
But when China’s political economy deviates so far from whatever version of socialism is presented by the state, and the gulf is growing, I do wonder when it will reach a breaking point where people, especially young people, will think it’s so far from reality that they actually will challenge the sanctioned and sanitized version of Marxism as a state ideology.
I do see a very small number of people who actually are inspired, and at least take up the language of Marxism – of exploitation, for example – in their own struggles against employers. I do wonder if it leaves an impression in some people’s mind and creates a language that some people use, even if they don’t necessarily believe the content the way it’s taught.
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.
I’m always just surprised by how little the left in many places know about China. I am hard-pressed to find more than a few people in left groups who have really dedicated time to understand China. I think there are many reasons, but I want to take this point a bit further to say, it’s also up to us to explain or to describe what’s at stake to understand China and their country’s relationship with China. And that’s something that we don’t always do well.
It’s one thing to highlight all the social struggles, workers’ struggles, and class contradictions in China. But it’s another thing to explain how it is relevant to the U.S. left, for example, what does it mean to care about what workers’ struggles in China? Beyond just an abstract notion of solidarity, we are still struggling with how to make it relevant for the left in many places.
There are two things we can do. One is to just describe in really clear terms the various relationships. There is interpenetration, if you will, between say Chinese capital and American capital. To make it clear that China is not some far off place that doesn’t affect us in any real way. So that’s the first thing at the analytical level.
But there’s also another very concrete way, and that is to engage the many Chinese international students and the Chinese American communities in the U.S. and their struggles. These are a couple of ways that we can do a better job of laying out what’s at stake for people in the international left and why they should care about China.
I think we have two problems. One is that in terms of the transformation of class relations, class struggles, and feminist struggles, for instance, we do have a lot of excellent analyses, both by Chinese researchers and by researchers abroad. However, it is a bit different when it comes to the Chinese state, and in my opinion, we still need to develop a more theoretically grounded, class-based analysis of the party-state in China.
And the second problem I would say is that it has become increasingly difficult to connect to actual struggles in China. If we want to make a convincing argument that we have a socialist or communist perspective on social struggle, we will have to focus even more on those connections, on the dialogue with progressive researchers and the civil society in China, but this has become hugely more difficult in the last five to ten years.
To return to Kevin’s point from a moment ago, the reality is that there is so much interweaving and interpenetration of the elites of China and the U.S. A key example is that the world’s most valuable corporation, Apple, is only possible with the cooperation of American, Taiwanese, and Chinese capitalists and states. So, taking a single state as the unit analysis is inadequate for explaining how you have a company that is valued at more than $2 trillion.
And it’s often overlooked that far and away the largest recipient of Chinese overseas capital is the United States. We hear a lot about Africa, but it’s not even close. And so, that begs explanation, and presents us as internationalists and socialists a point of entry. We can ask, what does Chinese capital do here? What does American capital do in China? And whose interests are you aligned with?
Sasha has already raised the critical issue of imperialism, so let’s deal with it in a bit more detail. We can all agree the United States is an imperial power, but is China one? And for me anyway, the more interesting question is, does it matter or what are the stakes for those of us in the U.S. from a practical standpoint of designating China as imperialist or not? Does that change how we engage in politics to make it not simply a theoretical question?
I just wonder if that is the right question. Let’s look at China’s relationship to Africa, and I think there are important things to look at there, but what ends up happening is that just makes it kind of comparative with U.S. imperialism instead of looking at the actual relationship with U.S. imperialism. And I think that’s maybe the first or more central question.
I think it’s important for us to say on a very broad level, China is a serious competitor for economic, political, and military domination to the U.S. That makes it different from Iraq and many other societies in the so-called global South. China is a player on the world stage. There are theoretical questions about how we understand this without falling into what I think is a very sloppy formulation of dual dynamics of the relationship between economic competition and political-military competition, which I don’t think any Marxist has given an adequate answer to at the moment.
Even more importantly, what does economic competition look like with two economies that are very, very interpenetrated where U.S. capital has significant presence within Chinese society, and within the Chinese national market? And Chinese capital has a very significant presence within the U.S. How does that play out in terms of mitigating against what we saw in the early part of the last century of self-contained trading blocs? What does this mean for the economic rivalry and how does it then shape, or limit the political-military rivalry?
I think all we have to say is the Chinese state and ruling class are competitors for the U.S. The U.S. ruling class and state recognizes that, and the Chinese state and ruling class recognizes that. What we need to do then is to be able to disentangle what is the concrete shape of that competition, which I don’t have any answers to.
I think that Charlie’s describing inter-imperial rivalry. I’m more from the Lenin-Bukharin tradition than Charlie. At least heuristically this view enables you to describe the development of a dynamic within the system without just transposing what the classical theory said in its time in a kind of simplistic fashion.
Obviously, there are new developments that we have to understand, most importantly the internationalization of the system that binds capital together across state boundaries. That is a major development of the neoliberal period of the last 40 years. And especially the interconnection between Chinese capital, both state and private, and U.S. capital, as well as European and Japanese capital.
So, you don’t have a simple rivalry between states that are economically segregated. They’re deeply economically interpenetrated, but the thing that’s different is the Chinese state still has control of huge sections of capital, its state capital, that makes it different from a lot of the other states and corporations that U.S. state and capital competes with.
And the other thing is that China’s moving up the value chain. It is no longer just an export platform for multinational corporations. And that means that it’s becoming not just a geopolitical rival, but a potential economic competitor – especially in high-tech. That’s what the U.S. is extremely worried about because that high tech development is tied to the Chinese state and its military. If you read the most recent national intelligence council document, the defense establishment is worried about their military dominance being challenged by China.
So, I think we’re seeing the emergence of an inter-imperial rivalry that’s asymmetric. The U.S. is vastly more powerful, but the Chinese state and capital are rising. This rivalry is not playing out in a simple rerun of World War I, World War II, or the Cold War. It has its own particular dynamics that we have to theoretically think through and empirically investigate in greater detail.
I find a lot of the writings at a theoretical and empirical level about questions of imperialism pretty unconvincing right now. I think Hardt and Negri’s Empire is not useful for understanding this. I don’t think Panitch and Gindin’s analysis of imperialism is convincing because they dismiss the possibility of rivalry. And then I think the kind of simplistic, and I would say Third Wordlist, distortion of Lenin’s theory of imperialism downplays inter-imperial rivalry and reduces the world system to the global North’s domination over the global South.
These theoretical positions are simply at odds with the reality of the rivalry, and also the thinking of the state managers in China and the U.S., who have developed their strategies based on the rivalry. The left should be able to deal with that both theoretically and empirically. And more importantly than that, we need to develop a strategy to build an international resistance from below against both states.
I found it useful to think through the difference between empire and hegemon. China’s definitely imperialistic in a variety of ways, but I think it hasn’t reached the stage of becoming a hegemon. The state definitely has the idea to change unilateral, global U.S. dominance, it’s definitely there. And the processes by which China challenges the hegemon could produce a lot of problems.
I’d like to make just two points. The first is I don’t think we have any adequate theory of imperialism for the age in which we’re living. And so, I found myself in agreement with lots of Ashley’s description, but I don’t know if it fits as well with the World War I theory as we might want it to, and that’s an ongoing challenge. We had these early 2000s interventions. Ashley mentioned Panitch and Gindin. In addition to those, Ellen Wood wrote Empire of Capital, Harvey wrote The New Imperialism, but interestingly, for all kinds of reasons, that discussion just stalled.
I think we need to return to some of that and work through what were the strengths and weaknesses of those interventions, if the theory is going to move forward. The one point though that I really take on board coming out of what Sasha was saying is that we do need to be able to talk about imperialism as a world system, as opposed to a set of nation state policies, because what’s happened in so much of the discussion, is imperialism becomes a single state actor, to go back to Yige’s point, it becomes the hegemon and then nothing else that any other nation state does can be imperialist. And so, we do need a much richer global theory. But interestingly, I think in all kinds of ways we’re not there, so I think this is an issue that we really need to interrogate moving forward.