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Inheritance and Situation: Interview with New Generation of Revolutionary Marxists in China

Left Voice spoke with Stone Song and Ji Hengge, Trotskyists in China who translated and published the first Chinese edition of The History of American Trotskyism by James P. Cannon

Left Voice

April 6, 2016
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1. You recently published The History of American Trotskyism by James P. Cannon. This is the first time the book was published in Chinese. What was your motivation to translate and publish it in China? What lessons can the Chinese people learn from it and what kind of readership are you aiming at?

Stone Song: Among American Trotskyists and important figures of the Trotskyist movement worldwide, James P. Cannon is distinguished as an organizer and politician. His life’s biggest contribution was to establish a socialist revolutionary party in America, the heart of world capitalism. What The History of American Trotskyism discusses is the history of the early beginnings of American Trotskyism. He collates many useful lessons, including organizing principles, programmatic questions, etc. Today in China, a new generation of revolutionary socialists is confronting the question of constructing something of their own, something we are lacking and need to learn anew, including by learning from history.

The book is aimed towards progressive young people in China so they can understand the conditions of socialist organizations and how to construct them. For example, a normal organization should have the right to factionalize internally, to allow for the internal democracy that allows discussion of different opinions; this is the first principle for establishing a healthy organization.

What you can also understand from this book is that for a socialist organization, programmatic questions are of chief importance. After having the correct program, you have to decide how to realize it according to the development of circumstances.

2. Is this part of a larger project? What other publications do you plan to translate and/or publish and when?

Stone Song: Translating The History of American Trotskyism is only the beginning. We plan to translate other canonical texts of the revolutionary Marxist tradition, for example, Trotsky’s The Spanish Revolution, In Defense of Marxism, The Transitional Program and Discussions on the Program, the Selected Writings and Speeches of James P. Cannon, and others. This selection of books is called the “collected renditions of the revolutionary Marxist tradition.” We have decided to publish one to two every year, to gradually introduce these works.

Apart from translating these canonical works, we plan to address present questions (for example, on the present situation in Greece) by publishing collected works of discussions.

3. How difficult is it to find writings by Trotsky in mainland China? Is the Russian revolutionary leader known at all?

Stone Song:

Before the 1949 revolution, to represent the first generation of Trotskyists, comrades of Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀) translated some of Trotsky’s works. In the 1960s, during the debates between China and the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party authorities organized people to translate Trotsky’s The Revolutionary Betrayed, The Third International After Lenin, and other works known as the “Gray Books” that were circulated internally. Only government cadres and specialized researchers were allowed to read them.

With the establishment of the Internet in the 1990s came the advancement of the promotion of Trotskyism. The two works I mentioned earlier could be seen in translation and this caused a small amount of reflection from young people who turned toward believing in revolutionary Marxism. In today’s China, it is no longer forbidden to publish Trotsky’s works; openly published works include The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky on the Struggle Against Fascism, Trotsky on the Chinese Revolution, and others. The work with the most published editions is My Life. These books are openly sold in bookstores and people can easily buy and read them.

But works written by Trotskyist scholars, if they are critical of the Mao period or Deng period, are restricted. Even if published, you have to delete the relevant sections. The clearest examples of this are the Chinese translations of Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy by Ernest Mandel and Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton.

As a result, after 1949, China’s politics and culture turned towards – and had a one-sided special historical relation with – the Soviet Union and the average person is not unfamiliar with the leaders of the Russian Revolution. The average person knows the names of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, but has absorbed the historical distortions of Stalinism towards revolution and leadership. The older generation views Trotsky as an opportunist and revisionist, and the number one enemy of socialist revolution. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with the exchange of information and the publication of the Trotsky’s works, his leadership role in the Russian Revolution was gradually understood in a new light by people. During the course of this, Beijing non-government affiliated scholars such as Shi Yongqin (施用勤)and some older Trotskyists in 1999 translated and openly published the three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher. For a new generation of young people, this had a very large effect on their understanding of Trotsky and revolutionary Marxism.

But scholars with a government background belittled the worth of Trotskyist thought, believing he and Stalin both advocated super-industrialization, believing that even if Trotsky had been victorious in the internal party struggles, there would not be such a big difference from Stalin. Instead, they appreciated Bukharin, who advocated market reforms.

4. With the slowdown of the Chinese economy, labor unrest has risen. Do you sense increasing eagerness among workers for new ideas, more combative politics and/or a critique of “Chinese communism” from the left?

Ji Hengge: From the decline of rapid growth of the Chinese economy, although there is a rise in the number of workers’ protests, looking at the quality of the labor movement, it’s still not very high. Up until now, workers’ struggles have focused on economic struggles and not political ones. Class-consciousness is still at a level of gradually establishing itself – it’s still not very mature. The workers who are capable of coming in contact with revolutionary Marxism are very few, almost negligible. Individual laborers may from criticize the CCP from the left, but it’s mostly from a Maoist perspective. They absorb ideological information from the government ideology pre-1978.

5. What about young people in China today? Do you see potential for radicalization or a shift to the left among them?

Ji Hengge: Up until now, most Chinese young people haven’t had strong political consciousness; young students still pay more attention to their studies, individual lives, and future work. But up until now, there have been two large social tides of thought: nationalism and liberalism. For young people these have had a relatively strong influence, but the influence of nationalism is stronger, as seen particularly in CCP general-secretary Xi Jinping strengthening his personality cult and social control, and increasing the strength of nationalism.

Discussing liberalism on the other side, there are more demands for systemic changes. Their economic advocacy is partial to privatization and marketization, which is unfavorable for workers and peasants. But politically, the majority of liberal demands are only partial ones placed on the authorities and there is opposition to radical changes, that is, revolutionary changes of the system (not even capitalist democratic revolution).

But after the fall of Bo Xilai (薄熙來) in 2012, some young people who originally supported Bo’s right-wing Maoism (essentially nationalists) have become disillusioned; after reflection some of these young people have abandoned their originally nationalist positions and turned to a more left position. This has caused the number of radical young people to increase after a few years – but fundamentally, this is a growth in every shade of left-wing Maoism, and the young people that believe in revolutionary Marxism are still marginal. In the past, the discussion of topics like socialism was bound together with patriotism and nationalism. But now, there are more and more radical youth that have begun to realize that China has been a capitalist society for a long time, and socialists should oppose nationalist logic.

6. The government has escalated its repression against labor activists. In your view, to what extent does this discourage workers? Do these developments signal the emergence of a new revolutionary left in China?

Ji Hengge: Although government actions repressing labor NGOs organizers are escalating, it cannot really put down labor struggles of Chinese workers. With the economic decline, workers have lost jobs, there are more cases of owed wages, and moreover, the quality of Chinese social security is very poor. Capitalists’ pressure is very deep, inciting more and more workers to rise up and struggle for the sake of their most fundamental economic security. The total number of worker protests in 2016 are predicted to be 1.5 to 2 times that of 2015, which saw more than 2,944 protests. Some workers in the middle of struggle strove to establish their own trade unions or to demand unions founded on principles of democratic choice, because until now Chinese laborers haven’t yet been able to throw off the control of the official union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), and haven’t been able to establish independent trade unions.

At present, China’s far left is still small groups of people who rely on individual methods to organize (and even then, the large majority are left-wing Maoists). The most important activities are confined to political propaganda (and even then, you have to be extremely careful: you can only express political opinions in a roundabout manner). Accurately speaking, most radical left-wing individuals still cannot unite with present labor struggles, and very few of those workers who participate in strikes and other protests have encountered radical left-wing individuals.

But growing worker struggles are in the process of establishing a foundation for increased unity between such struggles and the radical Left. The other part of it is that Chinese laborers are currently in a situation without organization, but that means then activities at least do not suffer the restrictive control of bureaucratic labor unions. Although struggling workers deliberately exclude Marxism (because in China, Marxism is thought of as the government or ruling party ideology), but they already don’t believe the liberals and don’t believe in the government, and believe that they can only rely on their own strength to realize changes. Maybe in the future this can become the opportunity to realize the Chinese worker’s leap in development. To be able to use this opportunity, there needs to be revolutionary Marxists in a large-scale worker’s movement that can push their political awareness, with the ability for propaganda work.

The most important task for China’s new generation of revolutionary Marxists is to explain clearly to the people the fundamental difference between the path of socialism and Stalinism/Maoism’s bureaucratic socialism, to allow the people to clearly understand the need for socialism and its feasibility, and the true meaning of socialist democracy.

7. A controversy known as the “One Party, Two Publications” debate erupted in 2014. The debate began when the party’s theoretical journal, Qiushi (求是), stated that class struggle still exists in China, a claim that was flatly rejected by Study Times (學習時報), the publication of the Central Party School of the Communist Party. What was behind this controversy and what are its implications?

Ji Hengge: Regarding this question, I have to first explain, the CCP’s official theory of China’s current central contradiction is “the contradiction that people gradually have increased their material cultural demands while at the same time social productivity lags behind. As a result of internal factors and international influence, class struggle is still limited in scope to long-term existence and may radicalize under some kind of condition, but isn’t the central contradiction.” Qiushi’s “Red Flag Manuscrupt”(紅旗文稿) says that “class struggle still exists in China,” but then Study Times published an article that said, to the contrary, “According to class struggle, determine program” (that is, believing that the important contradiction isn’t class struggle). The two don’t present fundamental differences – much less a situation of “One Party, Two Publications.”

But relatively speaking, the “Red Flag Manuscript” more strongly emphasizes the traditional values of the CCP, hoping to revitalize the CCP’s ideological system, and the other essay emphasizes the desire to not make class struggle the central contradiction – to prevent disrupting the stability of present China and establishing the normal establishment of the capitalist market.

Outside of this, it still needs to be emphasized that the class struggle put forward by the CCP and the class struggle put forward by Communists is not the same. The CCP points to the class struggle as between the “the CCP/people and enemies” and “continuing to walk the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics and walking to multiparty western capitalism” as a contradiction (in truth, during the Cultural Revolution, the CCP’s asserted class struggle was not real class struggle, they had in China put an end to the capitalist class and landowning class, and discussed overthrowing party internal and party external capitalists and landowners, but this was only a slogan for advancing political purges). To put it simply, the real contradiction is supporting the CCP regime or opposing it, which is not really a contradiction between capitalists and workers.

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