Marx in China (2006)
From: Jeff Weintraub
Re: Marx in China (2006)
Marshall Berman in Dissent (SPRING 2006)
[This article is adapted from a paper given at a conference (July 8-10, 2005) on “Cultural Imaginaries of Modernity: China on the Global Stage Since the Late 1970s,” at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, PRC. The authorities did not allow it to be published as part of the proceedings. As we go to press, the Dissent Web site, which had been blocked in the PRC, has been unblocked for the time being. —Eds.]
Marx in China: Modern Arts, Modern Conflicts, Modern Workers
By Marshall Berman
In our day everything seems pregnant with its contrary . . . .Some parties may wish to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts . . . .We know that to work well, the new-fangled forces of society [need only] to be mastered by new-fangled men—and such are the working men. They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself.
—Karl Marx, Speech on the Anniversary of the People’s Paper, 1856
THE GREAT DEMONSTRATIONS in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were powerful arguments with a government that celebrated the fall of Maoist authoritarianism but never recognized its people as free people or citizens. Today’s Chinese government seems as adamant as yesterday’s in keeping closed the doors to democracy and human rights. But today’s government has been brilliantly successful in opening up the nation’s economy and in enabling China to participate in global economic life. In the last decade, China’s economy has become the most dynamic in the world. The factories of southern China are now the world’s leading producers not only of relatively simple articles such as clothing and shoes, but of increasingly sophisticated machines: personal computers, DVD players, photocopiers, digital cameras. Not only has China mastered techniques of mass production; it has shown an impressive flair for high finance. In the summer of 2005, the state-controlled China National Offshore Oil Company made an $18.5 billion cash-in-hand takeover bid for Unocal, one of the largest oil companies in America. The deal was blocked by political pressures in the United States. But a whole new deference has now appeared in Western discussions of China. “A New China Rises,” said a Time magazine headline in June 2005, as it noted, “The People’s Republic has embraced the modern world as never before. Is that cause for celebration or anxiety?”; “Chinese Strength, U.S. Weakness,” proclaimed the New York Times in the same month, while in July 2005 it asked, “Who’s Afraid of China, Inc?” and described “The New Power Brokers, Born in China, Closing Deals for U.S. Firms” and “The China Syndrome on Wall Street.” Meanwhile, China has developed a brilliant film culture, a cinema reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realism, which has brought the world a vision of both the marvelous expanse of Chinese streets and the internal pressures that drive Chinese lives. China’s power surge and rapid development form one of the most exciting stories of the late twentieth century.
Twenty years ago, Deng Xiaoping erected huge billboards throughout China that proclaimed, “Development is the Irrefutable Argument.” The way Deng’s slogan is translated today, China’s spectacular growth rates not only win the argument, they end the argument. The government speaks in a triumphalist discourse that is actually a remarkable echo of the language of nineteenth-century England, in the heyday of what historians later learned to call “the Industrial Revolution.” England was enjoying tremendous industrial growth and taking over more and more of the world each year. Its mass media were united in an orgy of self-celebration. And yet its level of human suffering was alarmingly high. So much of its prosperity depended on the energy of its industrial working class, yet so much of this class lived in poverty and squalor. Victorian England was the world leader in productive power, but also in human misery. Plenty of people were aware of this mass misery. But most of them, when they thought critically, denounced the whole of modern life: they wished “to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts.” Marx was more complex: he wanted to affirm and to celebrate human progress, but also to confront its outrageous human costs. His thinking could be called a discourse of contradiction.
In our day everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character.There are good reasons to say that “everything is pregnant with its contrary” in China today and to look for a language that can grasp and penetrate its inner contradictions. It is ironic that, for decades, a travesty of Marxism was imposed on a backward, peasant China that couldn’t possibly digest it. It is only now, as China goes through dramatic and explosive development, that Marx’s discourse of contradiction can be a powerful critical vision of its real life.
When I make this argument, I speak as one formed by the American and European New Left. Our movement, post-Stalin and anti-Stalinist, was born in 1956, when I was young. Today, half a century later, maybe we should be called the Used Left. There may not be many of us today; probably there never were many of us. But we have something fruitful to say. For us, Marx’s vision of modern subjectivity is his central theme. He shares Hegel’s idea that the “principle of the modern world is freedom of subjectivity.” We argue that Marx builds on this idea and deepens it. Freedom of subjectivity is the vital center of Marx’s critique of modern capitalism. On his honeymoon in Paris in 1844, he imagined communism as the culmination of bourgeois humanism. In “Private Property and Communism,” he conceives his historical subject as “the rich human being”: “established society produces man in the entire richness of his being, produces the rich man profoundly endowed with all the senses, as its enduring reality.” This “being in need of a totality of human life-activities” is bound to feel alienated and crushed by capitalism; he is bound to demand a better life than this. In the Communist Manifesto, he defines communist society as one where “the free development of each is the basis for the free development of all.”
MARX PRESUPPOSES the Enlightenment and its central ideas, universal human rights and political democracy. He presupposes the English, the American, the French revolutions; he sees communism as a way to make good on their broken promises of democratic citizenship and human rights. Among the generations that made the Russian and Chinese revolutions, there were millions of men and women who imagined the triumph of those revolutions, in 1917 and in 1949, as a chance to fulfill those promises in their own lives. But the state and party elites that took control of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were at best indifferent to those freedoms and more often aggressively hostile to them. Masses of Soviet and Chinese people yearned for fulfillment of the promises of modern life. But the new elites denied that any such promises had ever been made. The political models that meant most to them were peasant communes, religious monasteries, military empires, all of them overpowering collectivities that crushed the individual self. The communism of the rulers was formulated most clearly and crudely in Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book of the 1960s: “The self is nothing, the collective is everything.” What Marx meant by communism can’t even be imagined until Stalinism and Maoism are overthrown. Only then can modern subjects emerge and act.
Marx’s vision of modern life is saturated in irony. His sense of irony is built into the way he uses that word contradiction. From the moment that modern subjects start to act, he says, their actions are loaded with irony and contradiction. Marx’s first great irony is tragic: Modern capitalism promises subjective freedom, but it alienates people from themselves. The pressures of market society twist the self into a cash machine. (Some of these machines bring forth a lot more cash than others.) However, it turns out that the workers have the power to overcome their alienation, thanks to Marx’s second great irony, which is comic. In the Manifesto, he writes,
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society . . . .Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships . . . are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is forced to face . . . his real conditions of life and his relations with his fellow men.Capitalism is the one social system that oppresses people in a way that actually makes them smarter and stronger. Growing up and trying to live in the midst of uninterrupted disturbance, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, everything melting, all workers get a compulsory free education in what old American slang calls “the school of hard knocks.” For workers to organize, to create radical unions, is not just a political triumph, but a triumph of subjectivity. The great civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome” tells us we can build a new world if only we can remain united and stay true to ourselves. That song began its life in the eighteenth-century “Great Awakening” and lived nearly two centuries, as an American Protestant hymn called “I Shall Overcome.” Somehow, in the radical ferment of the 1930s, “I” became “We,” and the song became a hymn of collective yearning. Just as Marx had hoped, the free development of each blended into the free development of all.
Among Chinese intellectuals today, there seems to be a great melancholy and nostalgia for China’s all too brief “Enlightenment,” from the fall of the Gang of Four to the great demonstrations at Tiananmen Square and a sense of helpless bitterness toward the post-Tiananmen crackdown on thought. People often mention the 1990s slogan—and directive—“Farewell to Utopia.” They feel the pressure of cultural bullying directed at any sort of independent thought. Authority figures and mass media convey a message something like this: “China’s boom will go on forever; it is its own justification. It is dangerous to think about what it means or about how its benefits should be shared or about how men and women should live. Brains have an important function, to design technical improvements and arrange policy implementation, not to worry about the meaning of life. You had dialogues about all the great ideas in the 1980s, and you know where they led. We do not want any more of that.” This language reminds me a lot of the “McCarthyism” in which I grew up, an age of cultural repression in the midst of an economic boom, when intellectuals were told they had better Shut Up and Keep Off the Grass.
What has this to do with Karl Marx? The Communist Manifesto has a couple of trenchant sentences that can help us see the connection. “The bourgeoisie,” Marx says, “has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers.”
In this vision intellectuals are still there, but they are demoted, deskilled, disabled, pushed down into the proletariat, where they live by selling their brains for purely technical uses. But for Marx, to recognize yourself as a proletarian, a member of “the modern working class,” is just the first chapter in a dialectical story. In his narrative, just as in some of the greatest works of world literature (Oedipus, King Lear), the hero is thrown down from the top to the very bottom of society, only to rise again. The man who is “stripped of his halo,” of his power over old ideas, develops a power to generate new ideas. It is a dreadful fate to be “proletarianized.” And yet, capitalism has the ironic power to oppress people in a way that makes them smart and strong. So the declassed intellectual can learn a new way to see society as a whole, to establish connections among human beings that have a wider horizon and mobilize deeper emotions than bankers or bureaucrats can conceive. As he “gets his head together,” nourishes his bruised subjectivity, he can learn a new solidarity with other subjects who are as bruised as he. Together, they can reach a point where they can say, “We shall overcome.” They can imagine a world where “the free development of each is the basis of the free development of all.” Can they, can anybody, actually create such a world? I don’t know. But the power to at least imagine a world where people are free subjects together instead of cash machines can nourish and enrich the world we live in now. As China becomes covered with cash machines, the story of Karl Marx in China may be just beginning.
MANY SPEAKERS in our conference told us about various polarizations between China and “the West,” and about China’s experience as a “latecomer” to modernity. This body of discourse goes back to the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution. It makes up a great deal of modern German and Russian culture, Chinese and Japanese culture, Indian and Latin American culture as well. But it seems to me that in a China that has become not only “factory to the world” but global dealmaker of the world, this discourse has worn out. China has arrived. Its tremendous dynamism makes it the world’s outstanding example of modernity. Like England in Marx’s time, like the United States in 1945, China today IS the modern. To say this is just a beginning, but we can’t reach understanding without it. If we take Karl Marx as our guide to modernity, he will encourage us to focus on every society’s inner contradictions. The inner contradictions of Chinese society today are extensive and impressive. Its creativity is built on a working class that is freer than ever, and yet enslaved. It seems to combine some of the worst features of capitalism and of communism, exposing the masses to the ever greater risks and insecurities of a global market, even as it paralyzes them from organizing and acting for themselves through an overpowering state. No social system quite like this has ever existed. When will Chinese intellectuals explore the mysteries and contradictions at the heart of their own social order? A good start for them might be to recognize that they are in the modern working class themselves.
Marshall Berman is the author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Adventures in Marxism, and, most recently, On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. He teaches at the City College of New York and the City University of New York. All quotations by Karl Marx are taken from the Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert Tucker.