Why China embraced Marxism but not other Western thinking
- In the early 20th century, the Chinese understood that the rebuilding of China after the collapse of the old order would be a monumental task
- Marx provided historical and political perspectives on how capitalism would evolve, and a concept of dialectics that was almost Chinese
Why is Marxism thriving in China and not Marx’s place of birth? Why is Buddhism practised more in East Asia than India? Why does Islam have more followers outside Saudi Arabia?
Ideas and religion spread through globalisation, but it was really their localisation that created more believers and followers. What succeeded was not globalisation but glocalisation, the internalisation of universal ideas and beliefs by the many and not just the few.
Economist Meghnad Desai, in his book Marx’s Revenge, notes that the Chinese Communist revolution in the 20th century was very different from the French and American revolutions in the 18th century.
The French revolution was a rebellion against the monarchy, while the American revolution was against foreign British domination. By contrast, the Chinese Communist revolution was simultaneously a struggle against foreign invasion and a struggle against the Nationalist government that favoured the capitalist and landed classes.
The Communist Party prevailed because it represented the rural peasantry instead of adopting the Communist International strategy of starting the revolution from the cities. In short, the party localised communism.
By the time the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, Chinese thinkers struggled to replace the old order. The country fell into warlordism. The Nationalist Party under Sun Yat-sen struggled to balance the conservative wing that represented the capitalists and landlords, and the left wing influenced by communism and socialism.
Chinese revolutionaries followed closely the Russian Revolution in 1917 because it was then the most recent model of social transformation. The Chinese elite understood that the rebuilding of China after the collapse of the old order would be a monumental task.
The country was backward and the uneducated masses were unprepared for modernity, vulnerable to foreign conquest. The Chinese felt the burden of history, and also understood that the scale of transformation required had no parallel in history.
Chinese leftists took to Marxist thinking because Marx gave historical and political perspectives on how capitalism would evolve, as well as a philosophical tool in terms of Hegelian dialectics: specifically, the insight that transformation comes from contradictory factors, so change – the destruction of the old and the emergence of the new – will happen not in a smooth line but through revolution or discontinuity.
This was music to the ears of those seeking a path to New China.
Furthermore, the fundamental idea of dialectics is similar to the Chinese yin-yang conceptualisation of the universe. As Lenin put it, “Dialectics is the study of the contradiction within the very essence of things ... it is the ‘struggle’ of opposites.”
In other words, make fact-based decisions, always try or test something out when uncertain and, above all, be practical and have an open mind. Change is a process between contradictions. There is no absolute black and white.
Historian Ray Huang, one of the finest Sinologists of his generation and a former Nationalist soldier, wrote in the preface to his classic China: A Macro-History: “Chinese history differs from the history of other peoples and other parts of the world because of an important factor: its vast multitudes. ... In the imperial period as well as in the very recent past, practical problems had to be translated into abstract notions in order to be disseminated. In turn, at the local level the message had once again to be rendered into everyday language.”
It is the reduction of very complicated policies into simple language that has allowed the Chinese people to understand them, own them and buy into the transformation of China, despite the huge sacrifices required at the individual and community levels. The people’s eyes are clear.
As for the rivalry between the United States and China, it is a clear case of very contrasting world views. When the West preaches about values and the rules-based order, its assumption is that its values – freedom, democracy, individual rights – are absolute. This is essentially a zero-sum formulation, “my way or the highway”.
Globalisation, as understood by the West, is the universalisation of Western values and standards. But the fact remains that these standards and rules were imposed historically by conquest, colonisation and force.
So it is that when China, Russia, India or any other country deviates from or disagrees with that, they must be contained, confronted or sanctioned. Localisation is almost being seen as deviance, rather than celebrated as diversity.
Civilisations reach their highest levels through tolerance and openness. When they become inward-looking and fundamentalist, fragility and decay set in. The world is simultaneously becoming more global in terms of connectivity, even as regionalisation, fragmentation and localisation speed up.
Glocalisation, the simultaneous process between globalisation and localisation, is to be welcomed rather than feared. The future will always be open, uncertain and contradictory. Embrace it.
Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective