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Marx and Confucius
The intersection between communism and datong
By Josef Gregory Mahoney | NO.19 MAY 10, 2018


President Xi Jinping joins students for a discussion at the School of Marxism of Peking University in Beijing on May 2, 2018 (XINHUA)

It is sometimes argued by critics of Marxism that China today is and perhaps has long been more Confucian than Marxist. Contrarily, some have joked that Confucius was the first Chinese Marxist, and that the "socialist market" conditions we see today in China fit logically into both classical Marxist and Confucian notions of necessary developmental stages in human progress.

Marxism appealed to Chinese sensibilities in uniquely Chinese ways. Three of these deserve special mention.

First, the vision of social justice conveyed by Karl Marx spoke directly to the Chinese concept of a datong shehui, translated as a society of the "Grand Course" or "Great Unity." This expresses the fundamental teleological goal of humanity described in the Confucian classic Li Ji or The Book of Rites.

Second, this vision, deeply influenced by Taoism according to scholars, requires a long term, dialectical struggle with the world as it is now—a world requiring order, stability and development—to develop as a threshold for change. According to Marxism, this is partly the responsibility of capitalism and partly the responsibility of an interim socialistic society that is building toward communism, but in Confucianism, this is expressed as establishing a xiaokang shehui, translated as a "moderately prosperous society."

Third, the concepts of datong and xiaokang shehui have provided a conceptual means for advancing in tandem with the defining feature of Chinese consciousness, yinyang thought. This has found its useful but less idealistic corollary in the Marxist concept of dialectical materialism, which in turn was further developed by Mao Zedong. Under economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping, it guided political and economic development, including the commitment to establishing a xiaokang shehui by 2020, and a fully modern socialist nation by 2049.

Of course, early Chinese Marxists were quite familiar with the concept of datong as a key concept advanced by Sun Yat-sen, the Nationalist leader and founder of the Republic of China who is also recognized by Chinese communists as one of the primary architects of modern China. Datong was also the subject of an influential book of political philosophy by the erstwhile reformer, Kang Youwei, which was published entirely for the first time in 1935, but was a matter of public discussion in China since 1884, titled Datong Shu.

During the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) National Congress in October 2017, followed by the Third Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee and the first sessions of the 13th National People's Congress and the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the establishment of a xiaokang shehui by 2020 and a fully modern socialist nation by 2049. Furthermore, official calls for advancing Marxist development and dissemination have increased and are accompanied with funding, as schools of Marxism are revitalized in universities and journals are calling for more Marxist content. Additionally, with the bicentennial of Marx's birth on May 5, 2018, there are many activities and commemorations at hand and many articles across different media, as well as events taking place around China.

In this spirit, given the commemoration and the standing goals set forth by Chinese communist leaders, a review of Confucius' text on datong and Marx's statements on communism are apropos.

Beginning with Confucius, the chapter titled Li Yun in the Li Ji sets the scene with Confucius pacing back and forth upon observing the rituals of a small state during the Spring and Autumn Period, leading to the Warring States Period. When a follower questioned his unease, Confucius responded that he regretted not living to see the Grand Course pursued, which he then described as follows:

"When the grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky; they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability; their words were sincere, and what they cultivated was harmony. Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children their only sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. Males had their proper work, and females had their homes. They accumulated articles of value, disliking that they should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep them for their own gratification. They labored with their strength, disliking that it should not be exerted, but not exerting it only with a view to their own advantage. In this way selfish schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers, filchers, and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. This was the period of what we call the Grand Union." (James Legge translation)

This paragraph is richly descriptive. Although Marx references the subject of communism more than Confucius discusses datong, Marx's descriptions of communism are surprisingly bare, with most appearing in works that were unpublished, including special musings in his private notebooks. This is attributable in part to his desire to avoid utopian speculation and his contention that the people who will create a communist society will be those with a more developed and advanced social consciousness than in current society and more advanced than his own understanding. To assert that his ideas about the future would prove suitable in some specific way would violate the Marxist principle of avoiding the deterministically asserting of idealism over materialism.

In fact, the older and more scientific Marx became, the less he talked about communism and the more he developed his criticism of capitalism. Nevertheless, Marx did provide a number of accounts of communism, especially in his writings between 1844-48. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, for example, he wrote:

"Communism is the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for man. It is the complete restoration of man to himself as a social, i.e., human, being, a restoration which has become conscious and which takes place within the entire wealth of previous periods of development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature, and between man and man, the true resolution of the conflict between existence and being, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be the solution."

Later, in The German Ideology, written with Friedrich Engels in 1846 but first published posthumously in 1932, almost 15 years after the October Revolution of 1917, the conditions of communism are described in part:

"This 'alienation' can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an 'intolerable' power, i.e., a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity 'propertyless,' and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the propertyless mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones."

Consequently, Marx and Engels argued: "Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples 'all at once' and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers—the utterly precarious position of labor—power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life, presupposes the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a 'world-historical' existence. World-historical existence of individuals means existence of individuals which is directly linked up with world history."

Again in The German Ideology, they wrote: "Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence."

And finally, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote: "Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is deprives him of the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of such appropriations… In bourgeois society, living labor is but a means to increase accumulated labor. In communist society, accumulated labor is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the laborer… In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

As we remember Marx and his place in China past and present, we should consider well the basic ideas that first fired the imaginations of such progress. As Chinese leaders advance new visions of social progress and development and the dream of a fully modern socialist nation in our children's lifetime, we must hope that we realize these ideas while pursuing the Chinese dream. And beyond that, we should hope for this dream for humanity as a whole, insomuch as each become the other.

The author is professor of politics and director of the International Center for Advanced Political Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai 

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo 

Comments to zanjifang@bjreview.com

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