Marx's Dream - China's Nightmare

Marxism has been rejected around the world. One reason for this rejection is the fact that Marxist nations everywhere were trapped in backwardness. As the world's living standard advanced, communist countries remained poor. The gap became increasingly visible with time. A second reason is that Marxist states have been unusually brutal. In a world whose history is the story of cruelty, nations ruled by the Communist Party stand out among the most vicious. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Mengistu, Ceausescu - it can't just be a coincidence.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, has not been rejected anywhere. His writings are studied, cited, and loved in the West and the East, by academics, historians, and even theologians. Nevertheless, the key to understanding this cruelty can be found in the writings Marx and Engels, who dreamed of a world that embodied all the values of the primitive, tribal society - of the Noble Savage. They imagined a world without merchants and therefore without commerce. It was a world without inequality and therefore without experts or professionalism. And yet this dream was the creation of highly sophisticated urban writers who felt that the revolution they were calling for would be made by the urban proletariat. There is an internal tension in Marxist theory that cannot be resolved - the contradiction between the sweet, bucolic dream they believed would be realized and the complex, urban structure that had shaped them and enabled them to formulate this very dream.

The dream was called "the higher stage of Communism" by its creators and was described in Marx's The German Ideology: ". . . in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can be accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic." When the "higher stage of Communism" is achieved, the state will wither away, according to Engels. In Chapter 9 of The Origin of the Family, he tells us that the state "has not existed from all eternity. . . . The society that organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole State machine where it will then belong: in the museum of antiquities, side by side with the spinning wheel and the bronze axe."

This dream is not simply impossible; it is a nightmare. Its ugliness comes from its rejection of the human desire to know more and more, which involves specialization; from its denial that people want to move from the country to the city and not vice versa; from its blindness to the fact that disagreement is inherent in human nature and necessary if society is to change and face new problems. Moreover, believing that this impossible situation is one's goal is dangerous because it involves a commitment to believing a lie and a consequent abandonment of rationality. In order to protect the lie, the state must be designed to eliminate the freedom to examine the philosophy underlying this lie.

The first time I lived in China (February to July l984), everything I saw led me to believe that Communism is not an economic system but a faith about an economic system. The purpose of the Chinese government is to teach that faith, but not necessarily to follow the teachings. All departures from Marx's teaching were explained by saying that China was a socialist country and that Communism, i.e. "the higher stage of communism," had not yet been achieved. Therefore bankruptcy laws and the incentive system were not violations of Communism but merely steps along the road.

In the short run this hypocritical point of view has led to liberalization, an increase in living standards, and a booming economy. Yet in the long run there is something extremely dangerous about "the higher stage of Communism," since it implies an attempt to recreate human nature through propaganda and force.

The Marxist vision of the future implies the realization of a society without disagreement and therefore the end of history. That is why thought reform is a considered a desirable and realizable goal. Those societies that have attempted to reshape human nature have been noted for their ruthlessness. All of the cruelty of Communist states, all of the evils committed by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, are implicit in the Marxist idea of the withering away of the state.

One consistent aspect of this cruelty was an attack on city dwellers. Pol Pot emptied the cities; Mao exiled millions to the countryside. Chapter II of The Communist Manifesto lists ten measures for revolutionizing the mode of production. The ninth of these is the "combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country." This is entirely consistent with the vision of an ideal life when one would "rear cattle in the evening [and] criticize after dinner."

The reason that people were forced to live in the countryside during Mao's Cultural Revolution was so that they could learn from the peasants. What is it that the peasants were supposed to teach them? China's antiquated agricultural techniques? Of course not! City people were supposed to learn how to become members of a society with relatively little change. The most permanent of human institutions are found in rural areas. If Mao wanted to achieve the dream of ending history, he had to make everyone think and act like peasants. What the Cultural Revolution was trying to do was to make China a land where all the citizens would accept their lot without questioning. Peasants, especially in poor countries, know that life is hard and nothing can be done about it. Urban dwellers know a different reality - that the world is growing ever more prosperous.

Mao Zedong was not upset by the fact that the Cultural Revolution was causing nothing but hardship and reaction. He had no vision of a better life for the Chinese people. His Little Red Book deals with only two issues: how to win and how to punish one's enemies after winning. Once Mao had achieved victory and eliminated his enemies, what was there left for him to do? He had no further program. All he could do was punish the Chinese themselves. Yet despite Mao's inability to imagine a better life for China, he believed in Marxist theory. He wanted a China that would never again have another revolution - a China in which history would have ended. Rural China, in certain respects, resembled a society in which history had never begun. Mao was ready to lead China from feudalism to Communism without ever going through the intermediate stage of capitalism. He did not need an urban proletariat; his revolution had already taken place. It is not surprising, then, that Mao's contribution to Marxist thought was his elevation of the peasants to a revolutionary class.

Communism under Mao was very much like feudalism. In both these systems, the overwhelming majority of the population is equal and powerless. At the top, there is a tiny, highly structured class. In medieval Europe, this was called the nobility, and consisted of titled ranks, (duke, earl, etc.) with the king, who ruled by divine right, at the top of the pyramid. In China, those at the top are called cadres. Like the nobility, they are ranked, not by title but by number. There are 23 degrees of cadres. And at the top was the absolute ruler, Chairman Mao. In both systems, there was a faith that could not be questioned, since heresy was punishable by death. And both systems were based on the assumption that nothing would ever change in one's lifetime. In feudal Europe, one had to die to go to heaven. In China, paradise was the higher stage of Communism, which was eventually to be reached on this earth. But for those who died before the higher stage of Communism was achieved, there would never be any heaven at all.

Marx was a monist. For him there was one explanation for any social, personal or political problem: the class struggle. There is no psychology, no sociology, no anthropology; there is only economics.

China did not produce anything beautiful under Mao - no music, no literature, no architecture. Communism did not even end hunger. An article about the famine of 1959-1961 appeared in the December 1985 issue of Scientific American. The author, Vaclav Smil, informs us, "More detailed demographic data released by the Chinese since 1981, together with the results of the 1982 census (which was by far the most reliable Chinese census), put the number of excess deaths in that period at 30 million and the number of lost or postponed births at about 33 million. No other known famine has been so devastating."

The second time I lived in China, during China Spring (1989), everyone seemed to be totally in agreement with the student protests. Yet many people were uncomfortable with the thought that Marx could have been wrong. They said that his ideas were created in a different time and place and were not entirely relevant; they granted that Marxism in China had been influenced by feudalism; they agreed that Marx had been misinterpreted. What they could not do was question the essential correctness of his thesis. They continued to excuse the evils of the past and the harshness of the present by saying that China had not reached the "higher stage of Communism." They continued to view this fantasy of the future as possible.

Marx said that "national differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing." He was wrong. He said the value of a product is the value of the raw materials plus the value of labor. He was wrong; such a product is worthless if nobody wants it. He said that there had been no merchants in ancient times. He was wrong; he had never heard of the Silk Road. In fact, as long as 2,600 years ago, merchants regularly traveled as far as 500 miles. Marx was wrong about everything.

Although Marxism has appealed to humanitarians who wish to see the end of inequality and injustice, every state ruled by the Communist Party has been significantly inhumane. The ugliness of these regimes cannot be attributed to the philosophy of Lenin, and certainly cannot be explained by discussing such intellectual small fry as Stalin or Mao; it comes from the writings of Marx himself. Until the world faces this fact, Karl Marx remains a threat.

Marxism may be dead, but its ghost rules a billion Chinese. China has embraced capitalism, arguing that Chairman Mao erred by deviating from Marx's writings and trying to skip the capitalist stage. Despite the fact that free markets are growing, the Communist Party has absolute power over an increasingly powerful and belligerent China. Since democracies do not fight wars against other democracies, it is very much in America's - and the world's - interest to have a democratic China. The Chinese people showed they wanted such a system in 1989. The Communist Party survived, not simply because it used force, but because it was protected by the moral authority of Marx. When the Chinese reject the teachings of Marx, China will not only be free but unified as well.

A version of this article appeared in Midstream, Volume XXXXIII, Number 1, January 1997