China: Lenin’s ideas, Marxism discussed at international conference in Wuhan

[Read Paul Le Blanc's keynote address to the international conference HERE. For more by (and about) Paul Le Blanc HERE and more on Lenin HERE.]

By Paul Le Blanc

January 2, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province in central China, is graced by the prestigious Wuhan University, which has been the site of international conferences on two of the world’s foremost revolutionary thinkers and organisers – Rosa Luxemburg in 2006 and most recently Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

On October 20-22, 2012, it hosted the "International Conference on Lenin’s Thought in the Twenty-First Century: Interpretation and its Value”. Both events were organised under the leadership of Professor He Ping, an outstanding scholar whose qualities of thoughtfulness and caring result in a loyal following among her studentsand whose global reach and intellectual openness have generated impressive intellectual exchanges.

The conference was jointly sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and several components of Wuhan University – the School of Philosophy, the Institute of Marxist Philosophy and the Institute of Western Marxist Philosophy. I reported elsewhere on the complex and wondrous experience of the Rosa Luxemburg conference, containing information and analysis not repeated here).

Six years later, the conference on Lenin had many of the same qualities – for example, almost all papers were made available in both languages and simultaneous translation was carried out in English and Chinese. While both conferences were scheduled for three days, however, this one was shorter – an entire day was taken up with touring museums and historic sites in Wuhan, which were definitely enriching but cut down on the amount of contact and discussion that had been possible at the Luxemburg conference. There definitely seemed to be fewer Chinese students engaging in the conference and this similarly cut down – it seems to me – on a certain spirit of youthfulness and open engagement that (at least in my memory) infused the Luxemburg conference.

There was definitely a certain diversity, of course, given the fact that in attendance were approximately 100 scholars – a majority from China, but roughly one-fourth from outside, including a cluster of European students studying in China. Among the countries represented, one way or another, in addition to the host country, were Austria, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia and the United States.* Also among the foreign guests and also among the Chinese participants there were different currents that could be identified.


Wuhan is one of the largest of China’s cities and it is one of the key components of that vast and amazing country’s past, present and future.

The radical-nationalist 1911 Revolution – which transformed Imperial China into the Republic of China – began there. Wuhan was one of the strongholds of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang or Kuomintang) and in 1927 where the Nationalists murderously turned against their left-wing allies of the Communist Party of China (CPC). During the Second World War, under the impact of Japan’s onslaught, China’s national capital under the Nationalist Party was moved to Wuhan. Since the Communist revolutionary triumph that shook the world in 1949, it has been one of the great urban industrial and educational centres of the People’s Republic of China – currently with a population of more than 10 million people, well known for its automobile and steel manufacturing, optic-electronics, pharmaceuticals, biology engineering and more. At the conclusion of their tour of the remarkable Revolution of 1911 Museum – with its modernistic architecture and sophisticated exhibits – visitors were treated to a massive wrap-around video portrayal of a futuristic Wuhan, with bright lights and super-modern skyscrapers and obvious prosperity for all.

On the jet plane that took me back to the United States at the conclusion of the conference, I was able to read in the October 23, 2012, issue of the China Daily that this is “a critical time when China is building a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way, deepening reform and opening up and accelerating the transformation of economic development in difficult areas” (this in an article on the CPC’s coming 18th national congress).

It is commonly understood that the CPC, while maintaining its exclusive political rule over China, has for some years been working hard to make the country a dominant player in the global economy by transforming the economy along capitalist lines. The official ideology of MMD (Marxism-Leninism/Mao Zedong Thought/Deng Xioping Theory) projects this as the path to socialism and communism: creating sufficient wealth today that can be shared tomorrow. At the conference, this was likened to Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) of the early 1920s by Polish participant Professor Zbigniew Wiktor, whose terminology and conceptualisations matched those of the China Daily, which explained that the forthcoming CPC congress “carries high significance in inspiring CPC members and people of all ethnic groups to continue to forge ahead with the building of a moderately prosperous society, the modernization drive, as well as the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics”. It would seem that many of the Chinese participants also saw things from this standpoint.

Despite set formulations that are repeated over and over (referring to “all ethnic groups”, a “moderately prosperous” society, “Chinese characteristics”, etc.) in a number of articles, China Daily is a well-edited and informative publication, a sort of government-owned USA Today, which gives a sense of what is going on in the world and especially in the People’s Republic of China. In the copy of the paper carrying the previously quoted article, there is reportage on other concerns – for example, the persistence of inequality and poverty among millions of the Chinese people, inadequate health care for many, environmental challenges, a significant amount of corruption among powerful figures in the government. All such concerns are presented in an upbeat manner – new policies and programs and solutions being advanced to address and overcome the problems.

Of course, if democracy (rule by the people) and an international cooperative commonwealth under the control of the labouring majority are central to overcoming such problem sand are at the same time central to the very definition and existence of socialism – as Marx, Luxemburg and Lenin repeatedly emphasised in many writings – then the challenges touched on by the China Daily are formidable indeed. As the article on the coming CPC congress put it, now is the time to “advance innovation in theoretical terms, among others and draw out guidelines and policies that respond to the call of the times and the people”.

There are naturally different ways to interpret these words, but such formulations would certainly justify the kind of international interchanges that the Luxemburg and Lenin conferences in Wuhan represented. Also of special interest is the fact that among the 70 million members of the CPC – in a country of 1.3 billion or more people – there are many who, despite the utilisation and glorification of capitalist economic practices, still believe in the importance of a continued adherence to socialist/communist goals of the Chinese Revolution. For some, the use of the old idealism may be quite cynical, a manipulative mask for greed and power-lust and the advancement of careerist aspirations, but this is simply not true for all the millions of people who are members of the CPC and who identify with the ideals of the Chinese Revolution. Among these are intellectually honest individuals seeking to connect with broader streams of Marxist thought than were commonly propagated or permitted in earlier decades.

Questions about what seems to be a yawning gap between the development of a voracious capitalism and the persistence of an ideology suffused with Marxist rhetoric (and serious efforts of some to develop and deepen Marxist theory and analysis) cannot be addressed adequately in this report. But that fascinating contradiction certainly exists and is not without meaning.

Different currents of thought

Conference organisers explained:

The aim of this conference is to develop the study of Lenin, Marxist thought and contemporary issues in the today’s world and enhance the academic exchanges between Western and Eastern scholars.

Among the themes explored by speakers and panels were the relationship of Lenin to Marx, the Marxism of the Second International, Russian Marxism, Chinese Marxism, and the Western Marxist tradition. Attention was also given to the relationship of Lenin’s thought to issues of imperialism and international economic development, nationalism, democracy and feminism, and also to official domestic and international policies of the People’s Republic of China.

I cannot provide a detailed account of the conference and apologise to those whose presentations I fail to mention. Considering the more than 40 papers presented, however, it is possible to identify specific currents that crystallised.

Among the Chinese participants, there were some – as was the case in the earlier Luxemburg conference – whose presentations defended and expounded Lenin’s thought in terms that were consistent with CPC “orthodoxy” (MMD and perspectives expressed in the China Daily), sometimes in what seemed a rigid and dogmatic style. (This is unfortunate, since that was alien to Lenin’s own approach.)

Particularly noteworthy, however, was another current of somewhat younger academics who had studiously combed through Lenin’s writings for the purpose of developing theoretical constructions to explain and perhaps clarify and strengthen Chinese governmental policies in regard to international relations, post-revolutionary “socialist reform”, efforts to combat corruption, the contemporary women’s movement in China and the existence of the CPC as a “ruling party”.

Despite the obvious intellectual labour and in some cases a certain creativity permeating some of these presentations, it seemed to me that they tended to suffer from a two-fold problem: first, Lenin’s writings tended to be historically specific, not as easily transferable to very different historical contexts as some of the presenters seemed to believe; second, nor would he have been comfortable with having any or all of his words put forward as some undeviating or unquestioned standard of political correctness.

When Lenin argued that Marxism “is not a dogma, but a guide to action”, he obviously did not mean that action (or policy) should be guided by dogma. Lenin felt that such an approach would “turn Marxism into something one-sided, disfigured and lifeless”, depriving it of “its living soul”. He argued that one must infuse revolutionary theory with “dialectics, the doctrine that historical development is all-embracing and full of contradictions,” and with the understanding that “definite practical tasks ... may change with every new turn of history”. (These quotes are from Lenin’s 1910 essay, “Certain Features of the Historical Development of Marxism”.)

There were a number of presentations from Chinese participants that, it seemed to me, in exploring Lenin’s thought were animated by a stronger sense of dynamic historical development. This was certainly the case with the scholarly consideration by Professor He Ping of the different ways that Lenin’s classic The State and Revolution has been dealt with in China over the past three decades.

A number of Chinese scholars also examined the differences between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, though with what strikes me as an unfortunate siding with one (usually Lenin) who was considered superior to the other. My own quite different views on this were presented in my own presentation, “Lenin and Luxemburg Through Each Other’s Eyes”. Also interesting were various presentations dealing with the relationship of Lenin to other Marxists of the Second International. I particularly appreciated the conclusion of one bold scholar who suggested that Karl Kautsky’s Marxism was superior to that of Lenin, although I disagree with the substance of that position.

Also quite good were presentations of two young protégés of Professor He Ping, who are themselves professors at Wuhan University, Wu Xinwei dealing with “Lenin’s Cultural Leadership” and Li Dianlai on the relation of Lenin to Western Marxism. Wu offered a thoughtful and workman-like discussion of Lenin’s views on Russian literature, particularly the writings of Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. Li demonstrated considerable sophistication in emphasising the centrality of Lenin’s thought to the Marxism associated with the two foundational figures of Western Marxism, Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci.

International participants

Among the international participants, there were also different currents that crystallised. A fairly small element appeared to approach the official ideology of the CPC in the positive manner already noted regarding the contribution of Professor Zbigniew Wiktor – something that a larger number were inclined to sidestep rather than embrace.

There was a significant number who were inclined to allow their contributions to stand as an implicit critique of the orthodoxies of MMD. Of these, Ottokar Luban of Germany and Norman Levine of the United States offered interesting and articulate criticisms of Lenin. Luban, one of the most prominent members of the International Rosa Luxemburg Society, made the case that Luxemburg represented a democratic approach to socialism that was superior to what he viewed as an authoritarian approach represented by Lenin. Levine, a prominent Marx scholar whose career has largely centred on defending Marx from what he views as philosophical adulteration and distortion by most of his would-be followers, argued that Marx’s own comrade Frederick Engels introduced mangled “popularisations” of Marxism that disoriented all would-be Marxists of the Second International, particularly Lenin, who in turn paved the way for Stalin – hence, one could say that Engels bore responsibility for the Stalinism that so badly damaged the Communist movement (although in the discussion period, Levine backed away from this particular formulation, while continuing to argue for a return to a Marx independent of those claiming to be following in his footsteps).

In the discussion, Stalin found a somewhat lonely but fierce and rather brave defender in Ella Rule, representing the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), a militant if small Maoist formation not to be confused with other variants of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She suggested that the CPC’s turning away from the defence and teachings of Stalin is a reflection of its decision to embark on the road to capitalism. Unfortunately, her own major presentation on “Marxism and the Emancipation of Women” was limited to a popularisation of comments by Engels and Lenin – along with some speculative connecting of anthropological dots – with no reference to the rich traditions of the Marxist movement in the theory and practice of women’s liberation.

More interesting and satisfying for me was the all-too-brief but very capable presentation by Russian Marxist Alexey Gusev, “Lenin and Leninism in Russian Ideological and Political Discourse of the 1920s”. Gusev examined the way that leading members of the Russian Communist Party, after Lenin’s 1924 death, sought to explain and popularise the contours and thrust of his thought – focusing on Nikolai Bukharin, Gregory Zinoviev and Stalin pushing in the direction of a system of ready-made axioms, with others such as Leon Trotsky and Eugen Preobrazhensky pushing in the direction of more supple and dynamic conceptualisations. He also touched on the quite different approaches of exiled Russian conservatives and liberals, as well as the critical evaluations of socialist exiles associated with the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.

Substantial contributions discussing the relationship of Lenin’s thought to that of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser were offered respectively by Austrian scholar Benjamin Opratko (“Gramsci’s Leninism Revisited”) and Canadian academic Thomas Carmichael (“Aleatory Materialism and Althusser’s Lenin”).

Here I must confess a bias for the boldly humanistic Hegelian Leninism of Gramsci over the anti-Hegelian and anti-humanist constructs of Althusser. While it seemed to me that Professor Carmichael had a good grasp of Althusserian perspectives, my lack of sympathy with those perspectives plus a complexity in the formulations of those perspectives make it difficult for me to do justice to what he offered.

In contrast, I am better able to report on the Gramscian presentation of Opratko, a bright and articulate young scholar whose presentation dovetailed nicely, I thought, with the excellent points by Li Dianlai, noted earlier in this report, regarding the Leninist roots of Western Marxism. Space limitations prohibit more than a few suggestive notes on the rich content of Oprakto’s contribution, which emphasises Gramsci’s knowledge of and positive and creative engagement with Lenin’s key political perspectives. He suggests and demonstrates the fruitfulness of “Lenin read through Gramsci” and “Gramsci read through Lenin” – particularly with a Gramscian “re-reading of some of Lenin’s formulations in What Is To be Done? from the point of view of Gramsci”. Most important, Opratko broke through what may have been an overly academicised tendency among some of the international guests, seeking to connect his ideas with “the mass protests in European countries such as Spain, Portugal and especially Greece” – reaching to better understand “both the crisis-corporatism from above and a possible politics of hegemony from below that could challenge it”.

I have already noted that Lenin’s Marxism focused on the creative and critical-minded, dialectical interplay between revolutionary theory and revolutionary action. In addition to Opratko, other participants reflecting this approach were Roland Boer (an Australian scholar who has also spent much time in a number of other countries), Radha D’Souza (an Indian-born scholar teaching in Britain), Geoffroy de Laforcade (a French-born scholar teaching in the United States).

Boer has made noteworthy Marxist-influenced contributions to the study of Judeo-Christian theology and meanings inherent in religious imagery and especially with the interplay of such things with Marxism. Such themes permeated his two interesting written contributions to the conference – “Religion as Miracle” and “Venerating Lenin” – but in the short time he had for his comments at the conference, he combined a playful indication of his unorthodox reflections with a forthright defence of the relevance of Lenin’s perspectives for our own time – especially the dynamic way the Russian revolutionary drew together conceptualisations of spontaneous insurgency and serious-minded organisation, strategy and tactics.

D’Souza examined (as she herself summarised it) “the nexus between self-determination [of oppressed nations], imperialism and the struggle for socialism”, capably arguing that “the three strands were inseparably connected in Lenin’s thinking” and that “the breakdown of the unity has impeded our understanding of contemporary imperialism”.

The concern over contemporary relevance was clear in the title of Laforcade’s presentation: “What’s ‘Left’ of Lenin? Internationalism, Post-Colonialismand the Revolutionary Subject in the Latin America of Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales”. Insisting that popular movements, struggles and insurgencies throughout Latin America were giving new life to Rosa Luxemburg’s conceptualisation of “reform or revolution” and Lenin’s of “dual power” (as well as to his views on working-class hegemony and the worker-peasant alliance), Laforcade suggested that some criticisms of Lenin (for example, by Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin) deserve consideration, but concluded: “It is inconceivable that a dialectical assessment of Lenin’s thought and action, particularly in the years leading up to the world’s first successful socialist revolution, should be discarded, even as anachronisms are acknowledged and the historical balance sheet of his concepts of party and dictatorship are critically reassessed or set aside. What has become clear in this new century is that the goal he and millions of others is still very much alive.”

Lenin for our time

My own views on the relevance of Lenin’s thought and on the general state of Lenin scholarship, in our own time were expressed in my keynote address to the conference – “New Trends in Scholarship on Lenin – Impacts of the Quest for Revolutionary Democracy”, which appeared recently in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. In it, I observed that “discontent persists, spreads, deepens. This is the case in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas. It is the case throughout Europe. It is the case from South Africa to Egypt and throughout the Middle East. It is the case in India and right here in China”. I added that “the oppression and violence of capitalism have persisted and in many ways have gotten worse” and that “the quest for revolutionary democracy has, in our time, begun to intensify”. I concluded: “Growing numbers of social activists are urgently seeking pathways to a better future, just as Lenin and his comrades did so many years ago.”

Such realities invest the international conferences in Wuhan on Luxemburg and Lenin with a significance and importance they would not otherwise have. One of the disappointing differences between 2006 and 2012 conferences, as previously noted, was that there seemed to be fewer Chinese students seriously engaged with the second than with the first. One of the compensations was that an animated cluster of radicalised European students (influenced by variants of socialist, anarchist and Marxist thought, and currently studying and doing research in China) did attend the conference. Hungry for revolutionary intellectual nourishment, some were critical and impatient over what they felt were rigid and spiritless qualities pervading some of the conference sessions. They were especially disappointed over the inadequate opportunities for discussion, though before the conference ended some of us created our own opportunities, providing some of the high points of the conference for me (and perhaps some others). Through informal discussions, I learned from Italian and Spanish and Austrian students about the conditions of Chinese factory workers and communities and also about ideas circulating among some of their Chinese friends. I was told about Chinese students who take the ideas of Marx and Lenin seriously enough to initiate study and discussion groups around their writings with workers.

To the extent that students and workers, in China and elsewhere, join together to study such revolutionary ideas – critically and creatively exploring their relevance to living realities of today – the ideas of Lenin discussed at the Wuhan conference will take on new life.


* Sadly, major Lenin scholars were missing – one thinks of Lars Lih, Christopher Read, Michael Löwy, Soma Marik and August Nimtz, for example, as well as major contributors to such journals as Science and Society and Historical Materialism, and to the volume Lenin Reloaded (2007) edited by Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Žižek. Perhaps some of these will be able to attend future such conferences.