China: An international dialogue on Marx

A trader in Lijang, China, selling images of Karl Marx. Photo by Malias.

By Norman Levine

January 4, 2010 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Organised by Marcello Musto of York University (Toronto, Canada), an international delegation of scholars from Canada (Marcello Musto and George Comninel), USA (Norman Levine), England (Terrell Carver), Japan (Hiroshi Uchida and Kenji Mori) and South Korea (Seongjin Jeong) participated in a two-week series of colloquiums and lectures in China. This delegation was invited and graciously hosted by Fudan University of Shanghai and Nanjing University (two of the top five universities in China), and by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and the Chinese Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (CCTB) of Beijing. The faculties and administration of each of these institutions partnered in these colloquiums, which also saw the participation of Chinese academics from 23 different universities (and, among them, of many deans and chairs of departments).

This international dialogue was occasioned by the publication of the Chinese translation of the book Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 years Later, edited by Marcello Musto and published by Routlegde (London-New York: 2008). The Chinese translation was published by the prestigious China Renmin University Press.

The four symposiums were held from July 16 until July 29 and each covered a different topic. At Fudan University, on July 17, the subject was “Marx and Contemporary Social Theory”; at the CASS, on July 22, the topic was “The Resumption of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2)”; at the CCTB, on July 24 and 25, the papers concerned “Karl Marx’s Grundrisse 150 Years Later”; and on July 28-29, at Nanjing University, the presentations focused on “Reading Marx’s Grundrisse Today”. More than 50 papers were presented in the four conferences and the dialogue that emerged with the Chinese counterparts opened new insights into the process of the transformation of contemporary Chinese Marxism.

The Deng Xiaoping open door policy

In terms of Marxist theory, the Chinese university has opened an unrestricted discourse with North American and European scholars. The fact that our delegation was welcomed to these four major research centers verified the desire of universities in China to perpetuate this dialogue. The international colloquium presented papers on the formation of Marx’s critique of political economy (Marcello Musto), the new philological discoveries about The German Ideology (Terrell Carver), historical materialism and pre-capitalist modes of production (George Comninel), the organic image in Hegel and its influence of Marx’s method of explanation in the Grundrisse (Norman Levine); and were received by our Chinese academics with a full recognition of the freedom of speech and the value of disagreement.

The dissemination of the current tri-continental dialogue is facilitated by the fact that the MEGA2 is being translated into Chinese. Furthermore, the circulation of the so-called Western Marxism among the Chinese intelligentsia is being expedited by one of the programs of the CCTB, a government supported agency, which is now devoted, among the other things, to the translation of books written by Western Marxists into Chinese.

Never subject to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a younger generation of professors is coming to the forefront in the Chinese university. Recognising the economic and intellectual globalisation of the internet world these younger doctoral students are completing their phds in the West with educational scholarships from the Chinese government. These doctoral candidates are investigating such authors and topics as Hegel and his influence on the thought of Marx, Jurgen Habermas and the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci and his theory of “hegemony”, Ryazanov and the first MEGA, Baudrillard and Post-Modernism. Mao’s closed door policy belongs to the dust bin of history.

The appropriation, within limits, of Western Marxism

The contemporary Sinification of Marxism has opened a new epoch in the history of Marxology. After the original writings of Marx himself the first epoch in the history of Marxology was the Second International, the second epoch was the Third International of Stalinist Russia and the third epoch is the current transformation of Marx in China. In this third epoch of Marxology, present day Sinification, China, for the most part, has declared its liberation from Stalinist dogma. China faces binary oppositions, for while the Marxism of Soviet Stalinism is almost extinct the canons of dialectical materialism still claims its allegiance.

It is impossible in the confines of this report to summarise each one of the 50 papers so I will select five Chinese papers to supply the reader insight into the direction of contemporary Chinese research. In a paper presented in Beijing, Prof. Wang Dong (chair of the Department of Philosophy, Beijing University) outlined the influence Hegel exerted on Marx. According to Wang Dong Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel fits into three categories: 1) outlining the universal development of world history; 2) recognising freedom as the penultimate goal of world history; 3) to isolate the dialectic of means and mode of production as the propellant of world history. In another paper presented at Nanjing University and entitled “An Interpretation of ‘Consumer Society’: The Perspective of Karl Marx’s and Its Significance”, Zhengdong Tang (professor in the Department of Philosophy), exhibited an expert knowledge of the post-modernism of Jean Baudrillard. Professor Wang Xingfu (vice-director of the Center for Contemporary Marxism in Foreign Countries at Fudan University in Shanghai) spoke on “The Meaning of Marx’s Influence on Social Theory”, illustrating how Marx’s class analysis superseded the sociology of Max Weber. The president of Wuhan University, Gu Hailiang, offered a paper at the CCTB conference entitled, “Three Forms of Human Development and the Full Development of Individuals: An Investigation of Marx’s Most Valuable Thoughts in the Grundrisse", in which he argued how full human emancipation could be only possible in socialism. Finally, professor Lu Kejian of the CCTB in Beijing read a paper entitled “Is There Any Contradiction in the Materialist Conception of History Between the Grundrisse and the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy?”, in which he perceptively drew attention to the fact that in the Grundrisse Marx stresses the role of social relations while in the 1859 “Preface” is more focused on the clash between the means and mode of production. His conclusion is that Marx resolved this disparity in the dialectical materialism of Das Kapital.

New perspectives

Encouraged and stimulated by the very positive results of this meetings, Musto and Comninel are planning additional future series of conferences and, as a means of facilitating this tricontinental interaction, North America will reciprocate and host a Chinese delegation in the future. In addition, in order to internationally disseminate the best papers presented at this tri-continental colloquiums, an anthology of essays co-authored by Chinese, North American and European scholars should appear in 2012. The title of this anthology should be China and the West: Dialogues on Marx and it will certainly enjoy international distribution and will help the international rediscovery on Marx started in 2008, after the world economic crisis.