Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Revolution Continues

"The End of the Revolution – China and the Limits of Modernity,” by Wang Hui, 2011

China contains the largest working class in the world, and is still a main fulcrum for the future of class struggle.  What happens there can determine the future in large part.  

Wang Hui has been identified with the ‘new left’ in China, a new left that has gone beyond waving the ‘red book.’  He is a critic of neo-liberalism, ‘developmentalism’ and corporate ‘modernity’ from a theoretical background that seems to include left sociology, soft Maoism, ‘morality’ and certain Western Marxists like Althusser and Gramsci.  The key chapters here are about the 1989 ‘Tiananmen’ movement and the collapse of the USSR, modernity as a concept, the rise of neo-liberalism in China and the subsequent de-politicization of society.

Hui is the author of a seminal history of Chinese philosophy, “The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought,” which he supplements in this volume.  The latter chapters concerning this book are mostly of interest to specialists, as they don't deal very much with Marxist or proletarian influences and more with, at least to Western eyes, idiosyncratic Chinese intellectual currents, although some concepts were certainly adopted by Mao.  The broad outlines are differences with respect to modernity and the ‘collective.’  However, Hui's favortie is Lu Xun, an 'organic' intellectual who left academe, and believed in permanent revolution and a cultural 'war of position' ala Gramsci.  Lu Xun was harsh and believed in conflict, not peace, nor forgiveness of social crimes.

Hui is a theoretically indistinct but detailed analyst.  He does not identify the class character of current China, though his running description is not complimentary.  He seems to indicate that the Chinese state peacefully transformed from proletarian to bourgeois as it went backwards, starting in the 1970s, but this is not clear.  He approves of Mao’s “Three Worlds Theory,’ even though a very good case could be made for it being the first significant theoretical step towards Western capital and away from class struggle.  This would be something he’d ostensibly oppose.  Hui was a supporter of the left movements around Tiananmen and clearly delineates the progressive from reactionary forces that were involved.  He gives actual breadth to a portrait that is stupidly pictured as ‘all counter-revolutionary’ or ‘all democratic.’ He debates various pro-government neo-liberals who do not question China’s path of development, which is increasingly capitalist and anti-popular.  The fact that some Chinese are reading and using Hayek, the famous libertarian reactionary, says something about the intellectual character of present debates.  Hui supports ‘markets’ but insists these are separate from capitalism, much as some anarchists do. 

What is most interesting is how heavily influenced the Chinese are by Western philosophy and ideas, starting in the early 1900s and the May 4th Movement, and continuing to this day.  Hui is not a ‘Chinese’ nationalist who believes in rejecting all ‘foreign’ ideas, but he does understand that China has ideas of its own, like ‘nationalism,’ that pre-date those of the West, or are contemporaneous.  Hui himself references many European thinkers.

Within China, the practical dividing line for Hui is how people stand on the ‘cultural revolution.’  From my perspective, the cultural revolution was an ultra-left and ultimately sectarian attempt to gain working-class democracy and control over the bureaucratization of China.  Unfortunately sectarian because it was used by a wing of the Chinese bureaucracy for their own power.  It ended in violence and chaos because it did not have a real solution to propose – actual control devolving to the ‘commune,’ or in the western term, workers and peasants councils, or in the Russian phrase, Soviets. Or the freedom to have various working-class parties and independent unions. In essence, working class / farmer democracy.  Yet it involved millions of workers, peasants and students in wresting control of factories, offices and land from the hierarchy for a time.  Any sympathy with the cultural revolution is verboten in official China. The bureaucracy and capitalist elements were permanently scarred by this experience.  Hui himself sympathizes with aspects of it, and so puts himself outside this consensus.  He clearly understands that ‘voting’ is not a sufficient form of democratic involvement, but larger structures need to be involved.  The cultural revolution now plays much the same role in China as Stalin plays in the U.S. – an automatic shutoff to debate about socialism.

The Chinese took note of the cataclysmic version of capitalist privatization that the Russians and others in east and central Europe went through, and were determined not to go that route.  They also noted the disastrous role that the 1990s Asian financial crisis brought to those economies, as capital fled overnight from Asian countries, resulting in a collapse in their finances, and resolved to have some controls on capital.  Hui observes that the 1989 Tienanmen events actually predated the collapse of the decayed workers states across eastern Europe, and might have helped propel them. 

Hui describes the ‘Tiananmen’ movement – which was a national movement - as involving students, a wing of government bureaucrats and propagandists, ‘intellectuals,’ neo-liberal capitalists and proletarians and farmers.  The various class strata each emphasized different aspects of ‘democracy’ – some wanting more freedom for capital and some more freedom for labor.   Hui notes that the precise state of the troubled Chinese economy at that moment had an effect on the working classes, and actually propelled Tiananmen into being.  It was not some ethereal event played out only in the realm of ideas, as portrayed in the press.  As in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Poland and Solidarnosc in 1980, this event also had a dual character.  I would mention that the concept of ‘intellectuals’ does not exist in the U.S.  We have either paid professors or paid think-tank members, and not much else.  Being paid inhibits their actual 'intellectualism' as they are in the orbit of whatever institution is paying the bills - in spite of 'academic freedom.' Hui  believes that any link between 'intellectuals' in China and the masses has been broken.  

Hui has great chapters on the ideas of ‘modernity’ and ‘developmentalism’ which infuse many growing capitalist areas across the world, and especially China.  While not clearly connecting them to capitalist mechanisms like advertising, planned obsolescence and profiteering, he asserts that ‘modernity’ and ‘development’ are false without taking the needs or control of the majority of the population into account.  As he says, “The modernity of the elites is primarily …one… in which they play the heroes of history.”  He also explores the goal of all neo-liberal policies – the de-politicization of society.  Politics in China is to be made invisible, and not desirable for people to be involved in.  It becomes an automatic process, above the heads of most everyone.  Commercialism is its replacement.  Americans are very familiar with this process – starting from the dull adage that one cannot talk about politics, sex or religion in mixed company.  (These are almost the only topics to talk about!)  Cultural figures who are left-political suddenly become invisible.  Take Russell Brand’s recent turn to the left after leaving pop princess Katy Perry, and his subsequent invisibility on American talk shows. 

De-politicization is at the heart of what Americans now face, and Hui has done a good job of showing it as essential to the functioning of neo-liberalism.  The inability of people to conceive of having power or a role outside their own small family or individual self, or their tiny job, and being relegated to bystanders ‘watching the news’ is at the heart of the problem.  As Hui, and every leftist understands, it is when the population becomes engaged in social life that change happens.  This is what the present power systems will do everything to prevent.

(Other reviews on China include a Monthly Review on Bo Xilai by Yeuzhi Zhao and the "Rise of China" by Minq Li.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

And I bought it at Waterstones, in Bloomsbury, London, UK.
Red Frog
July 12, 2014

No comments: