Global Review had the honor of interviewing Prof. Van Ess, sinologist and President of the Max Weber Foundation, about China, the CPC and their relationship to communism, Marxism-Leninism and nationalism..
Prof. Dr. Hans van Ess
Global Review: Prof. Dr. van Ess, you claim that the CPC is a communist party for which the guidelines of Marxism-Leninism are its objectives. Now the CPC speaks of a socialism with Chinese characteristics. What distinguishes the CCP from conventional Marxism-Leninism and what are these special features?
Prof. von Ess: The guidelines of Marxism-Leninism refer to the general direction of Chinese socialism, which is congruent with socialism in its pure Marxist-Leninist version. The CPC invented the theory of Chinese characteristics at the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up policy, because in 1978 – significantly earlier than most other communist parties – it realized that with a rigid adherence to pure doctrine, it would probably soon be shipwrecked and would have suffered. Therefore, it included in its program the goal of the four modernizations (agriculture, industry, defense and science and technology), the necessity which Zhou Enlai had already described in 1963. These modernizations required a departure from the pure doctrine of Marxism / Leninism, because help from the capitalist West was needed. This was justified ideologically by the fact that China needed a kind of catching-up capitalism, the phase of which, according to historical materialism, it had not gone through as an agricultural country without industry, unlike other Marxist states. Special features resulting from Chinese history mean that the country deviates from the direct development path and has to take a kind of capitalist detour, at the end of which, however, stands the socialist goal of a classless society.
Global Review: Marxism includes promoting workers‘ revolutions up to and including the world revolution (Marx / Lenin / Trotsky). There was already a dispute between Stalin and Trotsky as to how far Stalin’s socialism in one country was a deviation or even the abandonment of the goal of the world revolution. Trotsky also called for the Communist International to be freed from the “poison of nationalism”. Today’s CPC no longer supports revolutions, certainly not workers‘ revolutions, it seems to be more of a ruling class itself, nor does it have the goal of a world revolution, seems to exploit the workers and migrant workers themselves and to be more on the side of capitalism- It is also not known that the CPC, like the USA, would promote colored or other revolutions. What is there still Marxist-Leninist in the classical sense? Isn’t China just a simple development dictatorship with some cosmetic red slogans?
Prof. van Ess: The Chinese chaacteristics in socialism also mean that the country does not see itself in a position to support workers revolutions, because they are something that China itself has hardly had. At the moment it is more likely to support regimes of African states that are in a similar situation to what it was after the Cultural Revolution – or during the collapse of the Empire. These are states that also first have to go through a capitalist phase. The difference that China sees between itself and most of these states and which leads back to the topic of Chinese characteristics is the several thousand years of Chinese history, in the course of which special Chinese characteristics have developed. While these were branded as feudal at the time of the Cultural Revolution, there has been a tendency since the reform and opening-up policy to view larger parts of the cultural heritage as something positive and to present Chinese peculiarities such as diligence and zeal for education as exemplary for the world. This also results in a strong Chinese patriotism, which is seen in the West as identical to nationalism. In China, however, the word “nationalism” is frowned upon as anti-socialist, also because it harbors the risk of incalculable escalation.
I believe that the “red slogans” are sometimes a bit deeper than they can be dismissed as simple cosmetics. For example, I believe that the PR China is actually not just about a “China First”, but that the idea is actually that the good of China should also lead to the good of others, so there is a thoroughly internationalist ideology. However, it is also clear that the CPC believes that China has to do well so that it can help others, and that other countries are trying to slow down China, which has to fight back. Basically, China is trying internationally what it is doing nationally: Some are allowed to go ahead if that later helps the collective – at least that’s the theory. What is Marxist-Leninist about China’s model is that it consistently subordinates individual to collective human rights. This means that while individuals have room for maneuver, they have to be very careful not to expand it in a way that the CP believes is at the expense of the general public or that shakes the party’s claim to leadership.
Global Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution differed from the Soviet Revolution and doctrine in that it was a peasant revolution that relied on guerrilla warfare and not on the working class and conventional general strikes and control of urban centers and factories. To what extent was the CPC a workers‘ party at all, both in terms of its official claim and membership. The CPC apparently didn’t have a council system in mind either, was it?
Prof. van Ess: In its beginnings, the CPC was certainly not a workers‘ party, but was founded and led by intellectuals. But of course, it has that in common with other communist parties. But since national socialism every socialism has followed the principle of the “worker of the brain and the fist” because the matter would not work otherwise. In China, this was particularly unproblematic because the Confucian thinker Mengzi (Mencius) already spoke in the third century of the duality of those who toil their minds and those who do it with their physical strength. I don’t even know whether the Nazis in Germany might have read Richard Wilhelm’s translation.
The fact that the CPC did not rely on the cities but on the peasants was certainly because it was not strong enough in the cities. That changed later when there were state-owned companies in which the engineering class that has led China since the reform and opening-up policy had found a home. Today I would say that the main focus is on the cities: You have to keep the people living there under control or gather them behind you.
Global Review: Did Stalin support Mao from the start or did Mao’s peasant guerrilla line only slowly assert itself after the Shanghai massacre of 1927, when the CPC was almost crushed? What was the relationship like between the CPSU and the CPC? Did Mao initially accept their claim to international leadership and why not later?
Prof. van Ess: No, Stalin didn’t take Mao very seriously in the beginning. In the KP, completely different people had the say, it is even more than doubtful whether he was really there when the CPC was founded in 1921. Apparently it was only retouched into some photos afterwards. For a very long time Stalin relied on Chiang Kai-shek who had a son who studied in Moscow. He also made a significant contribution to the fact that the Communist Party had to accept the Guomindang’s claim to leadership for a long time. Basically, his support for the Communist Party only became clear when the Communist Party won the race for the arsenals that the Japanese occupation forces had to leave behind in Manchuria and northeast China, and then the tide turned in Mao’s favor.
Global Review: Since Khrushchev at the latest, there have been considerable ideological differences with the CPSU, which were also expressed in the general polemic of the CPC against the CPSU, in which it denounced the CPSU as revisionists and social-imperialists: on the doctrine of contradiction, the model of revolution, the inevitability of war, the role of the party, planned economy, revisionism, etc. The CPSU also had ideological reservations about the industrialization model of Maoism and its mass lines, be it the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. To what extent was Maoism still perceived as traditional Marxism-Leninism? What were the biggest differences in terms of content and also in practice?
Prof. van Ess: I am not particularly competent in this area so that I can answer everything well. In fact, Mao apparently admired Stalin ardently for turning peasant-structured Russia into an industrial state, regardless of losses. He had similar plans. When the Stalinist development path was called into question under Khrushchev, Mao saw this as a threat to his own development model. That is why he threw the Russian technicians out of the country from 1959 in the wake of the Great Leap Forward (1958), during which he had organized the rural population into people’s communes in order to be able to force industrialization in the countryside as well. These had previously provided a lot of construction assistance, probably also for the construction of the great Yangtze Bridge in Nanjing, the construction of which China has always claimed for itself. Khrushchev’s Russia was simply a step further than China: It had to be recognized that the brutal industrialization had consequences that were dangerous for the CPC itself. In China, this insight came only after the Great leap forward, when Mao had to surrender large parts of the power in the state bureaucracy to Liu Shaoqi from 1959 until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution that was precisely instigated for this reason.
Of course, there were also differences because Russia had already contractually guaranteed large parts of the territory in the Far East and in today’s Kazakhstan, over which the Manchurian Qing dynasty had nominally ruled. That was a thorn in the flesh of many Chinese communists, even if these areas were never really influenced by Chinese or Manchurian and were also of little strategic importance.
Global Review: At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the CPC was faced with a crossroads: Jiang Qing met with Pol Pot and considered evacuating the Chinese cities, introducing agrarian communism like Cambodia, and abolishing money. But traditional CPs wanted industrialization, urbanization, although Chinese communism appeared to be more of a rural character. Was there ever a danger that China would have become a huge agrarian communist Cambodia? Was Pol Pot’s agrarian communism a result of Maoism?
Prof. van Ess: I’m not really competent in this area either. Of course, Pol Pot took a role model from the people’s commune movement in China, but the radical form he introduced had little to do with China, as far as I can judge in an amateur way. I believe that the forces in the Communist Party, which were based in the cities and in industrialization, were too strong to have conditions like in Cambodia, even in the short period during which Jiang Qing was able to dominate politics. In addition, China had the devastating famine behind it after the Great Leap Forward, in which at least ten to twenty million people died. I think recent studies that want to push the numbers much higher are questionable, but the damage was bad enough as it was. This disaster was not discussed, but it was deeply rooted in the collective memory.
Due to the population explosion that then took place during the years of the Cultural revolution, the level of nutrition of the Chinese people, i.e. the number of calories they could eat every day, had been drastically reduced: Deficiency was palpable everywhere. The country faced the real danger that the disaster would repeat itself, and there was great fear in the CP that it would not survive this. Therefore, the only way out was “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, which basically followed Khrushchev, but was ideologically oriented more towards the Hungarian or Yugoslav model.
Global Review: To what extent is Marxism still being taught in schools and universities and elsewhere in society? Is there a kind of civic education like in the GDR or compulsory courses in Marxism that you have to or should take? In the GDR this was perceived as an unpleasant duty rather than that ideologically stable communists emerged from such indoctrination courses.
Prof. van Ess: Marxism / Leninism is part of both school and university education. Every Chinese student completes compulsory courses in Marxism / Leninism, which is a problem with the internationalization of Chinese universities, because students who did not grow up in China naturally have considerable difficulties with Marxist terminology and corresponding content. You are prepared to make certain compromises, but for a full degree at a Chinese university this training is part of the process. Just as it was often the case in the GDR, Chinese students usually say that these things go in one ear and out the other and have no effect (at least I have heard that often in the past, since Xi Jinping is in power, I have had such conversations less often), but it still imperceptibly steers thinking into certain paths.
Even if you don’t believe the theory, there are certain preconfigurations of how to approach something. It is not so easy to come up with other approaches. That is the goal of the CPC, but it is also one of the big stumbling blocks because creativity is throttled in this way; and that’s one of the reasons why you don’t hear the word “breakthrough” so often in China in any country in the world – because the lack of breakthroughs is the big problem. By the way, don’t think that I think that everything would be better here in Germany. The young people are now also crammed with a lot of ideological guidelines that later massively hinder free thinking. But it’s still not that bad. Freeing yourself from these initial configurations that are repeated like a prayer wheel in the media here and there, formulated according to natural law, is one of the most important efforts that one has to undertake if one wants to understand how people in other countries and cultures think and why that is so.
Global Review: What does economic theory or business studies look like in China? Do they still teach The Capital with the theory of labor values, the organic composition of capital and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the theory of surplus value from the exploitation of workers, crisis theory, or does one also or above all have western economic theories of Keynesianism, neoliberalism, monetarism, etc. ? Or are there several schools or mixed forms and if so, which ones should be mentioned as the most important?
Prof. van Ess: The Capital is still important, but numerous Western theorists have been translated since the 1980s and they also play a central role. Max Weber is an important person especially for intellectuals, not only because his first name sounds exactly like the last name Marx in Chinese. Keynes is of course also well known, economics have become an important subject in China too, and in many areas it has made it to Western universities. Chinese business students now have much translated material on the major Western economic theorists. It is important for the CPC to retain the sovereignty of interpretation. This sparked the dispute over the textbooks mostly coming from the USA, which one should no longer use in class. One should learn and know the individual theories, but not the ideology that is often included in such textbooks.
Global Review: How does the CPC see its relationship to nation and nation state? Sun Yatsen once said that the national consciousness of the Chinese is like sand in the wind. A US China expert once said that everything that organizationally holds China together is the CPC and the People’s Liberation Army? If the CPC disintegrated, would only the VBA remain and this would again be in danger of splitting into different warlords and warlords – depending on the military regions? What is to be made of these theses? To what extent is the Chinese economy integrated and interwoven with other countries and can it represent its own national core of integration?
Prof. van Ess: Sun Yatsen said his famous word about the Chinese, which were like grains of sand, when he wanted to get his compatriots to develop a national consciousness similar to that of the Japanese at the time. They had inflicted one painful defeat after another on the Chinese. From this fact, Sun derived his knowledge. In fact, nationalism in its present form is a nineteenth-century creation. So it is not surprising that the Chinese were not obliged to him. Like the Habsburg Empire or the Ottomans, it could not fit into the concept of the Manchurians either. Others have capitalized on it. This has had devastating effects, because the nationalist idea was used to create states on the drawing board – and to dismantle others because several peoples lived on their soil.
The Chinese nation is of course extremely important to the CPC, but it cannot easily define what this nation is, because not only Han Chinese live in the area of Chinese territory, and the other peoples have to be integrated into the nation. This is a difficult undertaking, which is why it is true that China is a multi-ethnic socialist state that theoretically has many different traditions. Many people in this country do not like that, because the half-thought-out idea of the right of peoples to self-determination is still haunted in people’s heads or is deliberately kept alive by interested parties, although it has failed, and indeed „cracking“ like German quality journalism translated completely wrong wrongly from English today in an actually amusing way. This failure was a powerful example of twentieth-century European history, and that is why the CPC has divided feelings about „nationalism“.
In fact, the People’s Liberation Army has always been an important factor in keeping the CPC in power. The theory that China might fall apart, however, was popular especially after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s – and it may have sprung from American wishful thinking. In real terms, the regional differences in China are large, which is also expressed in the different dialects, which are actually Sinitic languages of their own, but there is also a grown cultural unit that has been through strong intermingling, especially among the elites, since at the latest the time of the Cultural revolution was once again significantly strengthened. The idea with the warlords resulted from a look back at the short time of the split during the Chinese Republic. However, the Chinese leadership has carefully studied Yugoslavia, and the scenario of a break-up impresses them so much that they have repeatedly carried out military changes and reorganized the military units. At the moment, however, I would rather see at most a medium risk potential.
Global Review: The CPC seems to refer to old empires several times. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao was compared to Qin Shihuang. If you look at the current territorial claims of the CPC against Nepal, Bhutan, India, Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Taiwan, South and East China Sea, which imperial dynasty does this correspond most closely to or how are these claims legitimized? Parag Khanna also claims in his book „The future is Asian“ that China would not behave like the USA or other former great powers, but rather like the Ming or Tang dynasties? What is correct?
Prof. van Ess: The Ming dynasty was a weak empire in terms of foreign policy. The Tang are more suitable because their multinational armies penetrated far into Central Asia, but actually the PR China ties in with its territorial claims to the Qing dynasty, under which the empire reached its greatest extent in the eighteenth century. Mentions in Chinese historical sources and historically clearly documented Chinese presence since ancient times, which go far behind what western historians imagine (such as in Xinjiang), play a central role in the justification of territorial claims, whereby one hardly touches the treaties that one recognizes. The border disputes with Russia were settled during Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in 1989, and the existence of Outer Mongolia, which was once part of the Qing Empire, is not in question.
Territories tend to cause problems where the situation is not clear. This is the case both in the South China Sea and on the Sino-Indian border. There are no clear international treaties there, rather it is said that colonial powers have drawn borders there (Great Britain, which has added parts of Tibetan territory to India so that it could come into its own sphere of influence) or tried to at least keep the area open for itself (South China Sea, where the US long had a naval base in the Philippines). Such western-inspired circumstances have no binding force. In the South China Sea, of course, the fact that the USA was very present there for a long time and that there is competition between two great powers there plays a role.
The Ming dynasty was seen as a rather inward-looking great power that made little claims to the outside world, so I cannot see the connection. The Tang was a vast empire that began to disintegrate as soon as it reached its greatest extent. So I don’t think the CPC would like to compare itself to these two dynasties. It sees itself rather in the tradition of gradual expansion with long-term integration of peripheral areas into the Chinese cultural sphere – with the idea that this can only use the peripheral areas because China, in contrast to Western powers, promises economic prosperity.
Global Review: What is China’s view of Trotskyism and anarchism? Were there ever any significant groups or currents within the party or were they dealt with along the lines of the Stalinist model? Have Trotskyists and Anarchists ever played a significant role in Chinese history?
Prof. van Ess: There was a brief period at the beginning of the twentieth century when anarchism also excited Chinese intellectuals. But that is over since the PR China was founded. It is similar with Trotsky. Stalin is still one of the socialist classics that you can buy in the central bookstore in Shanghai. Trotsky has little space there.
Global Review: With Western Marxists, especially the Trotskyists, there are differences of opinion as to how the CPC should be assessed. The traditional Trotskyists of the 4th International consider them a socialism with degenerated bureaucracy, the Tony Cliff´s SWP speaks of a „state capitalism“ with a new ruling class and a „sub-imperialism“? What should be made of these descriptions?
Prof. van Ess: I admit that I consider these questions to be a bit remote. It is not up to me to judge the efficiency of the Chinese bureaucracy, but I do believe that I have found competent staff in some areas. What sub-imperialism is supposed to be is not clear to me, of course, there is state capitalism in China. It is justified by the mechanisms outlined above: You need it to develop the country. Then you can see.
Global Review: Bo Xilai borrowed from the Cultural Revolution and Maoism and was deposed. Did the CPC make use of elements of Maoism afterwards and to what extent do neo Maoists still play a role in the CCP?
Prof. van Ess: I believe that the Cultural Revolution – no matter how many Chinese, including members of today’s communist leadership elite or their parents may have suffered from it – aroused nostalgic reflexes in parts of the high-birth generation of today’s fifty to sixty year olds. It goes through the music, songs that you heard and sang back then, and similar cultural things that sometimes only slumber in the subconscious, but can be brought to the surface. Bo Xilai has apparently played quite successfully with it. The question is whether this will still be possible in five to ten years. I don’t really think so, unless it is not possible to implant these subconscious elements in the younger generation as well. It won’t be that easy.
There is a new left among Chinese intellectuals that is quite influential because it takes on social contradictions that have erupted in the last two decades. But they’re not really Maoists. Mao can sometimes be seen dangling from the rearview mirror in Chinese taxis. He is refer3ed to as a strong leader who led the country out of its dependence on the colonial powers (which shows that socialist upbringing certainly works, because it was of course not that simple) – but I really want to get back to him in my opinion after not many.
Global Review: What exactly do the Xi Jinping ideas that have now been incorporated into the party and state constitution say and what are the essential elements? To what extent does it emphasize Marxism-Leninism? And what does “deepening of Marxism” mean in the CPC logic?
Prof. van Ess: Xi Jinping stands for the attempt to reverse the excesses of the reform policy of the Hu Jintao era, which many perceived as negative. This is attributed to an over-emphasis on capitalism, which we now need to capture. Therefore, Marxism should be deepened again. It’s about more social equality. Deng Xiaoping is known to trigger the economic boom because the getting rich of some who managed it earlier than others would be good for the majority of the people in the long term. The time for the majority also to benefit is now within reach of Xi’s ideology. That is why, at the beginning of his term of office, he proclaimed the slogan of the “Chinese dream”, which is supposed to function similarly to the American dream: not just some should get rich, but the dream of prosperity for everyone should now be realized.