by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: EPA
RENEWED EMPHASIS on Marxism after China’s 19th National Congress is not too surprising, seeing as China has never fully distanced itself from its purported claims to embrace Marxism as an ideology. Nevertheless, despite the fact that China may claim to be Marxist, China has long since embraced a free market economy while clinging to Marxism as a justification for a high degree of state involvement in the economy and the primacy of the state over political affairs.
But why a renewed emphasis on touting China as a Marxist power now? Namely, Chinese nationalism has continued in past decades since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms to refer to China as Marxist, as a way of justifying China’s system of government. Yet China, in the meantime, did not play up this side to the outside world, preferring to embrace the claim that China has integrated into the international community not so different from other capitalist nation-states.
It may be that with the rise of the Trump administration and the attendant shake-ups in American global power, China has seen an opportunity for itself to stake out a rival ideological claim to America. In claiming “Marxism” as an alternative value system to the capitalism of America and other countries of the western world, China can build credibility for its economic model and its global economic influence as an alternative value system to America-led capitalism.
Ironically, this comes at a time in which America has grown inscrutably insecure about its power increasingly comes to behave in international affairs as China once did. For example, to cite a prominent recent example, America’s withdrawal from UNESCO to defend its ally Israel is reminiscent of China’s use of its position in international bodies such as the UN security council and its veto privileges to defend the human rights abuses of its diplomatic allies. China, then, sees an opportunity to step into the position of global power that the US currently seems to be on the retreat from and touting Marxism as an alternative value system to American capitalism is part and parcel of that.
Unsurprisingly, this only continues the long history of Marxism used as a cipher for nationalism in nation-states in which a supposedly “Marxist” or “socialist” revolution was deeply bound up with uneven conditions of development relative to the western world. The most prominent example of the 20th century, apart from China, was the Soviet Union under Stalin and beyond.
And, as China seeks to step into the position of global imperial power formerly occupied by America, the Soviet Union offers a precedent as to how China will justify imperial projects with the claim that this is international leftist solidarity or “south-south” cooperation against western imperialism. The claim to combat western imperialism, then, will be used to justify Chinese imperialism and “anti-capitalism” will be used as the justification for Chinese capitalist exploitation the world over. In this, China will step into the path prepared for itself by western imperialism beforehand, attempting to largely mimic the actions of western imperialism but claiming an essential difference in terms of that this is done as part of “socialism” or with intrinsic, inalienable “Chinese characteristics.”
First as tragedy, then as farce then. As for the projection onto China and Russia of international leftists during the 20th century, one wonders if this will once again take place, with supposedly international leftists uncritically embracing China or even acting as its global apologists. This will probably occur most often among western leftists who feel a guilty conscience from hailing from the imperialist, capitalist west. This, too, is nothing new, having a long history in western Third Worldism.
But it may also be that China has seized on something in embracing “Marxism” at this present moment and at this present political juncture. The demand for an alternative to capitalism is on the rise globally and the Chinese party-state correctly perceives this. Of course, while the Chinese party-state simply wants to yoke this demand back into its own capitalist project, it remains to seize upon this growing desire and to construct alternatives to capitalism, both in its western and Chinese variants. Figuring out how this is to be accomplished may be the task of what is to be done in the present moment.