People’s Republic of China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949 following a protracted liberation struggle headed by the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong, who was chairman of the party until his death in 1976. This liberation struggle had five key elements which are intertwined, but which we need to conceptually disaggregate if we are to make sense of what happened over the next seventy years, if we are to make sense of the nature of the Chinese state now.

The struggle was, first, an explicitly modernising enterprise involving educational projects, battles against semi-feudal superstition, foot-binding and so forth, and continuing in the tracks of the bourgeois-democratic developments in the early years of the twentieth century. These cultural-political developments saw, for example, the emergence of a women’s suffrage movement way in advance of many other countries. There was the implantation of ideas from the Western Enlightenment tradition which include those of Hegel and, of course Marx.

It was, second, a national liberation struggle, reasserting the independence and pride of the Chinese people against invading forces, most notably, of course, the Japanese, who had carried out horrific massacres, at Nanjing to note only one of the most well-known examples. The negotiations, and failed attempts to form ‘National Revolution United Fronts’ with the Kuomintang, entailed bloody failures. The Kuomintang, the ‘Chinese Nationalist Party’ under Chiang Kai-Shek, butchered communists while negotiating with the imperial powers. It was the Communist Party that emerged as the dominant nationalist force.

The third element, which needs to be untangled from basic national liberation in China in 1949, is that it was an anti-imperialist struggle. The revolution entailed the beating back of the imperialist Japanese invasion forces, and the driving out of the Kuomintang into Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-Shek ruled until 1975; he died a year before Mao. The Kuomintang was ejected from the island of Hainan in the south in 1950, the year that Tibet was formally incorporated into the People’s Republic. The British, a powerful colonial presence that allied with the Kuomintang against the Communist Party, was confined to Hong Kong, and the Portuguese confined to Macau.

With the fourth element we arrive at one of the main political contradictions, which was then to provide one of the hallmarks of Mao’s rule and of so-called ‘Maoism’. This is the rural, peasant-based element of the struggle. There was a contradiction between Western Marxist emphasis on urban industrial development as the context and motor for communist politics, on the one hand, and the Long March that Mao and his comrades engaged in through the mid-1930s, a long march through the countryside which led them to strategise the struggle as involving the encirclement of the cities. A hallmark of Maoism was to become its praise of peasant struggle.

Finally, fifth, there is a national and international element of what we could call ‘rebel Stalinism’; this term to attempt to capture the way that, on the one hand, the Chinese Communist Party was indebted to the apparatus of the Third International directed from Moscow, and, on the other hand, had to break from Stalin’s advice. The advice was that the disastrous National Liberation United Front be maintained with the Kuomintang in order to bring about a bourgeois-democratic revolution instead of a socialist one, which, in line with Stalinist ‘stage’ versions of historical development, would have been premature.

So, the political organisation of the Communist Party was still Stalinist, with top-down military discipline that had been necessary to liberate the country, but Maoism was to emerge as an international force on the world stage with the victory of the revolution there. The 1949 seizure of power was a world-changing event. But the world has also changed in the seventy years since that revolution. There is a contradictory process of resistance and adaptation to the international context that needs to be grasped if we are to understand China now and the prospects for Marxism there.

‘Marxism’ and Marxist Analysis

Leap forward seventy years; where is Marxism in China now? In a peculiar way, the fate of Marxism as a crucial practical-theoretical resource for Mao and his comrades, mirrors the fate of Marxism in the advanced capitalist countries, in this respect; while there are myriad leftist groups, including different competing remnants of the Third International here in the West, much Marxism as such has been transformed into an academic speciality. It is kept alive in the universities, and that’s not only a bad thing, but it is too often enclosed there, and so turned into a scholarly abstract theoretical enterprise instead of a practical one geared to link understanding with political struggle. And so it is in China, where there is occasional lip-service to Marx in public arenas, but few statues of Marx or Engels, or even, today, of Mao. You can buy tourist kitsch images of Mao and hammer and sickle souvenirs in the cities, but the one place where you can be sure to find ‘Marxism’ is in the Schools and Colleges of Marxism inside the universities.

And that’s what I know of it. I’ve visited China a number of times over the past fifteen years. I remember the year of the first visit, 2004, because that was the year Jacques Derrida died, something that was cause of some shock and upset among the academics in the conference in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province in the south of the country. I mention it because that conference on linguistics and critical discourse theory saw figures like that, deconstructionist philosophers, as more important than Marx or Marxists.

My most recent visit, in December 2019, was to a more explicitly Marxist context. I was paid by Guangxi University for Nationalities, for travel and accommodation, to speak at ‘The 46th Discipline Forum of the National College of Marxist Theory Discipline’ (maybe it loses something in translation), the subtitle for which was ‘International Academic Symposium on’, and this next bit was in scare quotes, ‘New Development of Socialism in the 21st Century and Progress of Human Civilization’. That’s what I will mainly talk about here, and I’ll use it as a peg on which to hang other reflections on what I’ve made of China in different visits.

You need a political frame to make sense of what you are told, and it’s this political frame that underpinned my paper at the conference on ‘Socialism in the next century’, which is probably why it got a polite quiet reception. It is a political frame that includes three moments of analysis from within the tradition of the Fourth International, which was founded in war-torn Europe in 1938, just over ten years before Mao came to power. This dissident revolutionary Marxist tradition, and an organisation that explicitly broke from Stalinism, is my implicit, and sometimes explicit, point of reference for the debates occurring in China before, during and after the revolution. It gives us three key texts, books that have been influential on me, at least.

The first text is a book by Wang Fanxi, who ended his life in Leeds at the end of 2002. The book published in Hong Kong in Chinese and then in English in the mid-1990s, is called Wang Fan-hsi: Chinese Revolutionary, Memoirs 1919-1949. Wang Fanxi was born in 1907, and compiled these memoirs in the 1950s while in exile in Macau. The memoirs trace his political journey from being a member of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s, a supporter of CCP co-founder Chen Tu-hsiu who resisted Moscow’s orders to take distance from the Kuomintang and who was then displaced by Mao, who was a more obedient Stalinist apparatchik. Wang describes encountering Trotskyism during his time in Moscow in the Communist University for the Toilers of the East, and then his return to China in 1929, the formation of the Chinese Left Opposition, imprisonment during the 1930s and then expulsion to Macau in 1949.

The Trotskyists in China were isolated, caught between the Kuomintang and the Stalinised Communist Party. Along with Peng Shuzhi, who was once on the Political Bureau of the Communist Party (who became a Trotskyist, was imprisoned by the Kuomintang, fled to Saigon after 1949, and then ended up in exile in the United States), Wang was an important figure in the Fourth International, keeping the revolutionary Marxist tradition alive, reflecting critically on Maoism, and paying the price. We can see in Wang’s memoirs and in the debates with Peng Shuzhi, questions raised about what Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution meant in Chinese context, and whether they had themselves been mistaken in putting their energy only into urban proletarian movements. In some important respects, Mao was right.

The second text, and it reflects a second moment in the Fourth International’s engagement with Maoism is the Italian scholar and activist Livio Maitan’s book published in English in 1976 as Party, Army and Masses in China: A Marxist Interpretation of the Cultural Revolution and Its Aftermath. Here in his book there is a history of the revolution, and a balance sheet of the Cultural Revolution which lasted for about ten years, from 1966 until Mao’s death, and then the final defeat by the party apparatus of the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ led by ‘Madame Mao’, his fourth wife Jiang Qing.

That Cultural Revolution, especially in its first phase, seemed to chime with and inspired some of the ‘New Left’ movements around the world, reenergising Maoism as a political current. On the one hand, it raised again the question of the peasantry as a revolutionary force, and was an important player on the far-left, along with Trotskyism, particularly in radical versions of ‘Third Worldist’ politics that struck a distance from the capitalist West and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the Cultural Revolution raised questions about the anti-bureaucratic potential of the mobilisation of the young Red Guards; the extent to which they were being used by one wing of the bureaucracy, that of Mao and then the Gang of Four, and the extent to which there was a dynamic to that movement that posed a threat to the bureaucracy as such, something that revolutionaries should be participating in.

The third text brings us almost up to date, a book by Au Loong Yu, China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility. Au describes the fundamental shift in class relations in China since 1949 with rapid industrialisation and the appearance of an urban working class. That working class is divided between those working in the state sector, those working in the service sector, which is rapidly expanding with the production of consumer goods, entertainment industries and new social media, and the role of migrant rural workers who provide cheaper labour living in vast barrack complexes run by large corporations.

Since the 1990s the Chinese Communist Party oversaw two waves of privatisation. Small and medium-sized State Owned Enterprises were privatised first, while the larger enterprises were aggregated into joint stock companies. Then urban and suburban land was privatised, something which put more pressure on rural migrant workers who were unable to afford accommodation, even when restrictions enforced by the ‘Hukou’ household registration system were relaxed. There are thus, Au Loong Yu argues, two forms of capital accumulated and managed and then invested in China now: There is capital which is individually owned by the bureaucrats, figures like Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba online retail and ecommerce group who is a multimillionaire and member of the Central Committee of the party; and there is collective capital owned and organised according to the needs of the different government departments and regions. There is an increasing flow of capital from one realm to the other, with corruption scandals symptomatic of the too-fast access of collective capital by individuals and an attempt to rein in competitors who threaten social cohesion. Recently, the inflow of capital from émigrés in Hong Kong and Taiwan has been at least matched by an outflow of capital into the West.

One of the most interesting aspects of Au Loong Yu’s book, and his day-to-day work – he is an activist based in Hong Kong, and so vulnerable to the recent proposals to enable extradition of evildoers to the mainland – is the fracturing of social cohesion, not only through individual millionaire bureaucrats fleecing the system, but through the many thousands of acts of resistance documented by China Labour Bulletin, including mass strikes, by rural and urban workers each year. With the recent slowdown of economic growth these have been fewer, and focused on resistance to closures. This has led to two quite different ‘critical’ responses inside the Chinese Communist Party, with a group of neoliberals advocating full-scale privatisation, protection of private property and ‘globalisation’ of the economy on the one hand, and, on the other, a left-nationalist current that calls for a more intense crackdown on dissidents and securitisation of the state apparatus.

There has been much debate about ‘social credit’ as a gathering of data about consumer trustworthiness, but these debates inside the party apparatus could spin the emphasis either on to economic-focused free-market grounds or on to direct political control, of who can access what services and who can travel where. At the moment it is both, which leads Au Loong Yu to suggest that the most accurate characterisation of the system now is as a form of ‘bureaucratic capitalism’.

Marxism as a belief system

So what do ‘Marxists’ in the university Schools and Colleges of Marxism make of this, and how do they attempt to justify what is going on?

Well, first of all, Marxism in China is not a political praxis, an analysis that is dialectically and intimately linked to changing the world. On the contrary, Marxism operates as a kind of social glue. In this way, I suppose you could say that it still functions as a political praxis, but one concerned with order rather than change.

A sidestep for an example of this: In 2009 I was at an academic psychology conference in Nanjing where we were treated to the most reactionary mixture of US-American laboratory-experimental psychology – rats in mazes, human beings turned into cognitive-behavioural mechanisms, that kind if thing – and so-called ‘indigenous’ Chinese psychology, which was basically Confucianism. The Confucius Institutes around the world funded by the Chinese state are a manifestation of this reclaiming of a philosophical system that emphasises the importance of people knowing their place and showing obedient willing submission to their elders and betters, and, as far as Confucius was concerned, of women to men.

One paper in that Nanjing conference traced out similarities between Confucius and the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Both, we were told, focused on duties and obligations, and on the way that power relations operated in a micro-managerial ‘capillary’ manner, linking surveillance with the inculcation of a sense that we needed to speak to those accorded power in a way that maintained power relations. It was an interesting talk, but with one thing missing, which I pointed out; Confucius endorsed and aimed to strengthen these power relations, while Foucault’s historical analysis was critical of them, emphasising, in his famous phrase, that ‘where there is power there is resistance’. The speaker looked at me dumbfounded, as if that had never occurred to him, and he avoided me afterwards.

During this last visit in 2019 I agreed to teach a session in the School of Marxism at Guangxi University of the Nationalities the day after the conference, because I wanted to see what the students made of it. Students from different disciplines, whether from the social sciences or natural sciences, are required to take classes in Marxism alongside their main topic. This is the case in every Chinese university, and this is what the Schools and Colleges of Marxism are up to.

Last year at a College of Marxism in one of the universities in Beijing I asked students who were based in the College, taking Marxism as their main topic, what they would do when they finished the course. They laughed and said, ‘teach Marxism’. I asked one of the lecturers, an economist, whether they thought China was capitalist, and they said ‘yes, of course it is’. In this class in Guangxi University, I was co-teaching with another comrade academic, Alpesh Maisuria, a Marxist who had also been invited to speak at the main conference. The Dean of the School of Marxism sat in on the class, and after we spoke about praxis and class struggle, the Dean intervened and said ‘we need to learn about Marxism because it is our belief system’. When we tried to set up the session as a discussion of what they knew about Marxism, the Dean advised against this, saying ‘they want to be told’. This had pretty well set the frame for what the agenda was in the main conference, which was to promote, we were told, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

There is an aspect of surveillance and control that makes any attempt to get behind the screen of state ideology extremely difficult, surveillance and control in China that is expressed in forms of management of a visitor’s experience of the country. Sometimes that surveillance and control is well-meaning and benevolent rather than deliberate and sinister. The visa application process, now outsourced to a private company, is more of the latter, laborious and intrusive, asking for detailed information not only about where you intend to go, but where exactly you went last time you visited China. The former, friendlier micromanagement of your time in academic settings, is more common.

At a 2011 conference on contemporary capitalism in Hangzhou, for example, I was told that we would all be taken down to the West Lake for an early evening meal in one of the restaurants. I said that I had stayed in Hangzhou before and would like to follow one of the canal-side paths to the lake myself, and I would meet them there. We had been relayed to the conference site, some hours away, from the hotel on coaches early in the morning, and I’d had enough of that kind of mass transport. Our coach driver who had brought us down from Nanjing had a hard time navigating the traffic, and some chaotic cross-cutting of road-lanes, shouting at one point that ‘these people drive cars as if they are bicycles’. We had a back and forth argument in which my assigned student guides insisted that this solo walk that I was insisting on was impossible, and that I would get lost, it would be dangerous, and so on. I said I really want to walk to the lake on my own, and eventually the penny dropped; they said ‘Oh, you need private time’, I agreed, and that did the trick. I walked to the lake, went to the wrong restaurant, and arrived at the meal two hours late, causing great panic meantime.

The West Lake was much changed since my previous visit seven years before, this is a feeble excuse for my mistake, I know, with private coffee shops, including Costa Coffee, sprung up around the edge, and incredible obvious commercialisation of it as a tourist site. There has, in short, been amazingly fast modernisation of previously quasi-rural parts of the country; skyscraper-strewn cities like Shanghai are now the rule instead of being the hyper-developed exception. And so it was in Nanning, site of the 2019 ‘New Development of Socialism in the 21st Century and Progress of Human Civilization’ conference.

Nanning is the capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in the far south of the country, a ‘second tier’ city, and so relatively small compared with first tier cities like Shanghai and Beijing; it is about six million, a sprawling smoggy metropolis that is known, I was told, as a ‘green city’. The campus was quite leafy. A philosophy student who was sent to meet me at the airport, he liked Heidegger, told me that in China there was ‘too much development, too many people’. Another student who took over to show me round the Guangxi University for Nationalities campus was more positive, praising the development and modernisation that Marxism had made possible. As an ‘autonomous region’, Guangxi, which is about the size of the UK, contains a significant minority population, the Zhuang and other groups, whose cultural artefacts are on display in the museum on the riverside, but the name of this academic institution, ‘University for Nationalities’, has another meaning too.

Nanning is the nearest urban metropolis to the border with Vietnam, and the university operates as staging post for academic contacts with Indochina, with visiting students from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And here is one crucial link between modernisation, nationalism and a peculiar twist on the anti-imperialist heritage of the Chinese revolution. I will come to that, and the way it manifests itself in debates about ‘Marxism’ in a moment, so let’s turn to the conference.

In the Progress of Human Civilization conference…

There were introductions to the theme of the conference by local worthies, party members, and School of Marxism faculty heads, before ‘photo time’; visiting guests – that’s us outside China along with Marxism College visitors from other parts of China – sat on chairs at the front and other local speakers stood on the steps at the back. The introductions emphasised what they called ‘the integration of Marxism and traditional culture’ and links with ‘south east Asia’ culture, arguing that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ shifts the balance of power between capitalism and socialism globally. We were reminded that this is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and advised that ‘during the event our university will provide quality services for you’. One visiting apparatchik from outside Nanning said that they felt ‘very excited about the event’, telling us that it ‘will be recorded in the history of Marxist theory discipline’. What is socialism? ‘Socialism is the product of the contradictions of human development’, culminating in ‘Xi Jinping thought’, which provides ‘a new viewpoint for world socialism’; General Secretary Xi Xinping shows us that ‘we need to provide a Chinese solution to world problems’.

A keynote address before photo time by Professor Song Jin was designed to set the tone for the day, and was on, this is the title displayed on the screen, ‘The Cognitive Logic for the International Dissemination of Achievements in Localization of Marxism in China’. There was a quick run through the history of the Opium Wars, that is, nineteenth-century British imperial import trading of opium against Chinese resistance – the Brits don’t come out of this well, to say the least. It was a potent telling reminder that anti-imperialist struggle has a long background history to what eventually happened in 1949. This brought us to the ‘contemporary history of China’, sideswipes at the Kuomintang and present-day Taiwan, with the lesson that ‘promotion or propaganda must run alongside military power’. This ‘revitalisation of China’ must involve, ‘the promotion of development theory’, and ‘telling good stories about China internationally’.

What is to be done? Professor Song Jin said ‘we need to win over foreign media’, and promote Marxism and socialism, and aspects of that struggle include showcasing ‘good research in China’. We build on the observations of Deng Xiaoping, Party Chair from 1982 to 1987, he said, the first of which is the importance of ‘development’, and the second here is that ‘It doesn’t matter what colour the cat is as long as it catches mice’. This brings us, as the conclusion of the talk, to the ‘three philosophical questions addressed by Xi Jingping, which are ‘Who am I, where do I come from, and where am I going?’

After photo time I gave my talk, after which there was no time for discussion, and then there was an extra lengthy intervention by an elderly comrade wearing a grey cap who rambled around a number of different issues before he was told by the chair to wind up; these included reference to the ‘failures that can be seen in the Soviet Union’, Deng Xiaoping’s shift to ‘peaceful development’, the founding of over 500 Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture, ‘Chinese soft power’ and ‘Chinese traditional medicine’. This guy spoke about his visit to Vietnam; ‘they made the mistake of privatising land’, whereas China has ‘succeeded in managing urbanisation’. This was one of the few points in the day when interventions shifted gear from rather abstract distanced commentary on how good Marxist theory was to directly political comments.

A talk from a Russian academic on ‘The Post-Soviet School of Critical Marxism’, which was helpfully printed in the conference book we were handed at the beginning of the day in Russian, spoke of ‘the tradition of socialism preserved by the great power, China’, and then went on to mention some more interesting stuff and theoretical reference points, including Bertell Ollman, István Mészáros, Lucien Sève and David Harvey, though it was unclear how exactly they were being put to work. The ‘Post-Soviet School’ which has developed over the past 25 years, with Alexander Buzgalin as a key figure, includes focus on the development of global ‘late capitalism’, ‘qualitative changes in the nature of the economy’, ‘corporate manipulation’, the role of ‘simulacra’ and limits of capitalism. There wasn’t time either for the speaker, Olga Barashkova, to elaborate on this, or to do much more than praise Marxist theory in China, invite people to visit her institute in Moscow and look forward to future research links.

At least here we were talking about Marxism, as such, but in a way that was ‘about Marxism’, and how important that was as a belief system, rather than actually being Marxist as such. Indicative of this distanced relationship to what was supposed to be the central theoretical framework for the conference was a paper included in the conference book by Meng Liangqui from the Nanning School of Marxism on ‘Mapping Knowledge Domains Analysis on Marxism in 21st Century’ which was using CiteSpace, a software package for mapping dominant trends in research. ‘Journal Co-citation analysis’ identified key texts in ‘Marxism studies’, though it is not clear what criteria defined the field, but it included as top ‘research fronts’ the following top ten keywords: ‘Marxism, capitalism, state, politics, history, socialism, globalization, revolution, power, and Marx’.

This kind of list is perhaps what drives the jargon-generator style conference and publication titles produced by the Colleges and Schools of Marxism. The top five text resources from the ‘co-citation analysis’ were New Left Review, Capital, Antipode, Historical Materialism and Theory and Society. Top author citation counts ranked in the top five, Marx, Marx (so he got the top two slots), David Harvey, someone only identified as ‘anonymous’ and Antonio Gramsci. As regards top documents from the citation analysis, these are Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Marx’s Capital, Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.

This is interesting not so much for what the analyses throw up, but for what the point of the analysis is and the role it plays within ‘Marxism Studies’ in China. We know that Chinese academics have, over the past years been noticing what the key debates are in Marxism and have been translating key texts into Chinese. Until recently these texts have only been available to the party cadre, but the work of the Schools and Colleges of Marxism in each university indicate that the texts have now been so successfully enclosed within academic space that they no longer pose a threat.

Our participation, we Marxists from the West flown in to an academic conference, is obviously part of this phenomenon. What could we possibly say in this context that could be a threat; we were being used, and we knew it. In any case, the dominant language of higher education being English has further insulated the population from possibly dangerous subversive ideas. We know that some young scholars in these university-based institutes have been punished and, in some cases, been arrested and disappeared after putting the ideas they have been reading about into practice. Demonstrations by Marxist academics in support of the Jasic Technology strikers, for example, have been violently suppressed.

It was now becoming clear that there was to be no time for discussion after the papers, and what little wriggle-time there was would be plugged up with unscheduled speakers, now Professor Xinping Xia who followed up on the Russian talk by speaking about the way the Russian School was borrowing from Chinese Marxism, and then, a weird move, about the functions of the Chinese Army in protecting the development of socialism. There were aspects of these extra interventions, where the speakers spoke without notes, that felt, especially through the simultaneous head-set translation, like slow rap; the ideological preoccupations of the moment were coming into the head of the speaker and blurted out into the conference. This particular speaker went on to describe the publication in Russian of an ‘Encyclopaedia of Chinese Spiritual Culture’, and the importance of Confucius as ‘an organic part of socialism with Chinese characteristics’, of ‘traditional culture’. It was good, he said, that ‘the Soviet Academy’ was more open than the West to the rational nature of China’s success rather than simply treating it as an inexplicable ‘miracle’.

The other British speaker, Alpesh Maisuria, was more successful than me in keying into some of these preoccupations and to the theoretical level of the conference, speaking about the importance of alleviating poverty and the way that neoliberal capitalism relies on mystification, making it seem that communism is no longer feasible. Then we were quickly brought back, in another unscheduled intervention by a visitor from Hainan Normal University, to a brief review of and praise for the Russian Post-Soviet Critical School, warning that ‘critiques of the Soviet Union that focus on Stalin have some Western themes’.

This brings us to the significant strategic location of Nanning and the Guangxi University for Nationalities; context for a talk from a Vietnamese academic, and another from Bangladesh. These talks were also sandwiched between extra interventions, which again squeezed out any time for questions and discussion. Pham Thi Chauhong began by tracing the origins of democracy to ancient Greece, its development in the thought of Marx and Lenin, and then the role of the Vietnamese Communist Party, VCP, in promoting ‘socialist democracy’ which blossomed in 1986 with the ‘collective ownership for the labouring classes’. After 1986, she said, the VCP has protected ‘peoples rights and interests’; ‘we improved inner-party democracy’ and ‘leadership efficiency’, rectifying, for example, the ‘balance of power between prosecutors and courts’ and acknowledging the role of competition and entrepreneurship which are ‘popular issues among youth’, moving to a ‘market-oriented economic system with socialist characteristics’ which includes attention to ‘cyber-information security and development of e-governance’.

The talk by the Bangladeshi speaker was more interesting and indicative still. The speaker, Mostak Ahamed Galib, was actually not living in Bangladesh but working in the School of Marxism in Wuhan University of Technology. The son of a diplomat in Beijing, he had remained in China. His paper was on ‘The peaceful rise of China through “Belt and Road” initiative with a special focus on people to people partnership’. The Belt and Road Initiative, also known as ‘One Belt, One Road’, comprises road and rail and sea-route trade routes through six ‘economic corridors’ which link China to the world, and which link developing countries directly to China through infrastructure development loans, the infrastructure for which is designed to increase trade.

We were told that the Belt and Road Initiative now involves, six years after it was announced by Xi Jinping in 2013, 138 countries as a ‘cooperation platform’ and as a ‘welfare centric initiative’. You get the picture so far that there was not to be a whisper of criticism of this, and in fact the intervention at the conference was focused on rebutting criticisms of it. The main criticism is that it draws other countries, including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but also way beyond, into a ‘debt trap’, with strategically important countries provided loans which then mean that they are in debt to China. We do see this around the world, including in Latin America.

No, this is far from the case, we were told, and the guy was shouting into the microphone now, because what the Belt and Road Initiative does is lift 7.6 million people out of extreme poverty, and the loans are taken out as a free and open contract. This is, he said, ‘a win-win cooperative project’. Again, no questions or discussion, but afterwards when I pressed him on this, he admitted that there had been problems with some of the loans so far, but that was because Chinese entrepreneurs who didn’t understand local contexts had made some ‘bad deals’. This was, he said, very different from what Xi Jinping intended, and rules were now being tightened up, with more training for state-owned and private enterprises. This contract model of the Belt and Road Initiative driven by ‘development’ and profit imperatives illustrates well how China, from being resistant to imperialism, is now up to its ears in it, part of imperialist penetration of capital and commodification into every corner of the world.

This was all of a piece with the message that came through in the other papers after lunch; that development was bound up with China being able, as one speaker put it, to ‘stand up’, ‘enrich the people’ and ‘make the country stronger’. Another speaker, Professor Chen Yuan, asked the telling question, whether it is possible to avoid capitalism, and argued that ‘Chinese socialism’ has not escaped capitalism, but that we need to think again about the historical order between capitalism and socialism if we want to find ‘a new direction for human civilization progress’.

Another speaker gave his paper very quickly in the afternoon, apologising that he had to leave early to travel back to his own university because he had a ‘performance review meeting’ the next day. I felt for him, only late on managing to resist pressure from the conference organisers to take a long flights with multiple stops to arrive on Saturday in time for the Sunday conference and leave China to go home on Monday. I have the sense from talking to Chinese academics, that the pressures on them there make the complaints from Western academics about their own workload pale into insignificance. The world of an academic is more of a piece with that of hard-pressed, suicidal party apparatus bureaucrats.

There were now brief talks, these in Chinese, eight minutes each, about ‘global governance’ and the ‘ecological sense of being as part of Xi Jinping thought’; ‘ecologically’, we were told, ‘we need to improve the environment’. There were complaints that China was being blamed for CO2 emissions when actually the problem was the result of 400 years of development in the capitalist countries, and so the burden should be shouldered by the capitalist countries. This would be a ‘crisis transfer’ way of dealing with the problem. Confucius and ‘traditional Chinese culture’ was evoked again a number of times, as was the importance of ‘coordinating Chinese language with the world’; ‘we should tell good Chinese stories’. Is Confucius socialism, one speaker asked? No, says Xi Jinping, and so we need to clarify what traditional Chinese culture is, and regard it as ‘socialist Chinese culture’. If we want to break through ‘traditional thinking’, someone else said, we need to ‘criticise ourselves’, combat ‘wrong ideas’. Yes, one speaker said, there was corruption, but that could be changed by changing the mindset of the leadership and ‘old and backward practices’, replacing these with ‘evaluation criteria for inputs and outputs’.

There was to be no time for debate, everything seemed stitched up. Alpesh Maisuria and I complained bitterly about this at lunchtime, and convinced the organisers to open up a space toward the end of the afternoon session for what they called a ‘Q & A’ which would replace the coffee break. (The morning coffee break included biscuits and cakes and bananas and mandarin oranges and fresh lychees, product of this sub-tropical region of the country.) This is where a surprising eruption of politics into academic debate occurred. There was a good deal of heat in the discussion around one of the short papers that had been given late in the afternoon which had the title ‘Revalorization of the Chinese Nation and Tranquility’.

Basically the argument of the paper went as follows. The historical suffering and liberation of the Jewish people could have lessons for China, raising a question as to whether they, the Jewish people, could be liberated as ‘Jews’ or as ‘human beings’. The Jewish people were isolated, and isolated themselves, and their liberation was through asserting ‘Jewish ideology’ by establishing the state of Israel. We could learn from this, for ‘it threw light on Chinese people and revitalization of the nation’. In the additional Q & A session, there were many objections to this narrative, but mainly on the basis that the history of the Chinese people was entirely different, and their national identity forged through anti-imperialist struggle could not be reduced to that of another different people. There was some discussion of the problem of Zionism as itself an ideology that could be oppressive to the local population, Palestinians, something I pointed out, but this was quickly skirted over, and we moved into the closing talk on, you will be amazed to hear, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

…and out in the city

Translators always have something interesting to say about meetings they are brought in to work at, and this was no exception. Alpesh and I posed for photos with the translators when the conference was over. They said they were a bit anxious about the quality of their translation into English, which was actually really very good, and they apologised that they had not had sight of the papers in advance, only being brought in very late on, arriving that morning and expected to launch into action. They had to work freelance, had background academic study in politics and languages, and now they were forced to compete not only with the state enterprises but with a proliferation of private companies that employed people and offered translation services at impossibly low rates to organisations. Academic organisations like the School of Marxism in Nanning were expected to outsource its work. This was privatised precarious zero-hours work.

Alpesh commented that during our visit to the city centre the previous day we had not encountered any homeless people. The translators smiled and said that this was probably down to what they called ‘urban management’. There are gated communities in Nanning, as there are in Beijing. Travelling out to the edges of the very efficient clean new metro system on the south, north and west of the city, I could see different kinds of community. In some cases, those near the university, they were more typically middle-class, while at the edges and in the south of the river centre away from the shopping malls these were enclosed poorer spaces with checkpoints. At the farther south edge of the city were timber yards and shacks where workers and their families lived with farm animals.

Shopping malls in Nanning were, as in Beijing and Shanghai, glitzy consumer heavens, with KFC and Starbucks. Around the local mall area close to the university there were cheaper open-air restaurants in the car-parks, and in one of these there were pictures of Mao on the wall, a rare sight, and a reminder not only that such imagery is not common now, but also that to display such pictures must indicate some decided political choice on the part of the owner, a reminder that there are still such decided political choices, one of those permitted by the regime.

Closed-circuit cameras are everywhere, and we know that there is sophisticated face-recognition technology that enables the authorities to track the movements of the population. Social credit surveillance, for example, is actually already present in Western capitalist countries. It is a function of capitalism, and an indication of how far and fast China is travelling, and in what direction. Regime-friendly justifications for social credit include that Chinese citizens positioned as consumers are happy to buy into it. However, there are still spaces in China where this kind of surveillance is not necessary. When I was able to get out to the edges of the city on the metro, I walked in near-countryside. As evening draws in, the flash of the cameras is more evident, more intrusive, a reminder that everyone is watched, or is reminded that they may be watched; surveillance culture in action. The time for pedestrians on the zebra crossings, by the way, was just a little less than necessary; the car is becoming king.

China is a successful capitalist country, success built through a revolutionary break with its history of dependence on imperialism, and on a reassertion of its national independence through the unifying force of a party apparatus that was itself built with the help of a foreign power. Marxism itself is part of that heritage of Western Enlightenment developmental modernisation, but now absorbed and harnessed to the needs of the state, as have been the rural forces that made the revolution, absorbed and harnessed to a rapidly urbanising country.

In the process, the contradictions of which Marxism speaks, class struggles, are displaced onto the notion of ‘development’ as such, an ideological process which conceals, seals over, the real contradictions that are still present, and which are actually intensifying as a gap increases between the super-rich at the head of the party apparatus and the rest of the population.

Every radical social movement, ranging from those that make claims for their own national identity against the Chinese state, as in Xinxiang, to the #metoo and LGBT movements, and including a nascent trade union movement, are present in China now. That will put pressure on the ‘Marxists’ confined to the universities to make a connection with the real world, a process that Marxists around the world should play some part in, in debate and in solidarity.

Ian Parker, January 2020

 

This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

Republic of Cuba

Cuba is a ‘unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic’. That is what it says in the constitution, and that official designation needs to be taken seriously in any evaluation of Cuba’s place in the world, and where we place ourselves in relation to it. A victorious liberation struggle was led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara at the head of the July 26 Movement, J26M, named for the date of an unsuccessful attack on the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province in the east of the country in 1953. The J26M succeeded in chasing out military dictator Fulgencio Batista at the end of 1958.

1959 was the year everything changed, not only in Cuba, where a wave of land reforms, expropriation of land and takeover of large cattle estates went way beyond what many of the local and expatriate financial backers of J26M expected, but also in the wider world. The United States quickly reassessed the cautious support it had given Castro the previous year while it was trying to disentangle itself from Batista’s obviously corrupt and unsustainable regime, and the Soviet Union came into the frame as an alternative source of support, as supplier of petroleum that Cuba desperately depended on, and as customer for the sugar which made up over 80 percent of its export industry. Castro promised compensation to the US-based sugar companies, to be paid out of the revenues from sales to the US, a canny move that sent a clear message to Cuba’s old masters barely 100 miles to the north at its closest point, so close, so deadly. A deal was signed early in 1960 with the Soviet Union – sugar for oil – and through 1960 there was nationalisation of sugar mills and refineries, and of electric power and telephone companies. By the end of the following year, 1961, Castro declared himself to be a ‘Marxist-Leninist’.

While 1959 was the hinge-point for the transition, from the Cuban revolution being a national-democratic rebellion against US control and against its local puppet leaders, to being something more recognisably socialist, the following three years – 1960 to 1963 – were crucial in shaping Cuba as it is today. Banks, both US-owned and locally-owned were nationalised in 1960, as were all remaining US businesses shortly afterwards. Guevara, who had brokered the crucial sugar for oil deals, was now in charge of setting up new trade deals with China, and began steering the internal financial reorganisation of the country as President of the National Bank, while trying to manage Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union and China.

Cuba was caught politically between two versions of Stalinism, needing the two powers for economic survival and necessarily, inevitably perhaps, accommodating to the demands placed by each bureaucratic leadership, mainly with that in Moscow which, at one moment sought status from links with revolutionary anti-colonial movements and at the next sought to contain those movements in order to safeguard diplomatic relations with imperialism. Peking was a dangerous counterweight to that, dangerous to the revolutionary left, no more democratic, less powerful on the world stage but with more prestige in the so-called ‘third world’.

J26M was merged with the student Revolutionary Directorate and the Popular Socialist Party in 1961, and in 1963 the United Party of Socialist Revolution was formed, accompanied by a purge of nearly half the membership. These years, seeing attempted invasion by the United States at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, the missile crisis in October 1962 (a standoff in which the Cuban government had no say over what was being threatened and negotiated between the two superpowers), and the US blockade lasting to the present day, are when the shape of the one party, officially re-launched as the Cuban Communist Party in 1965, the one that now governs this island of little over 11 million people, was forged.

Today it is not sugar but tourism that is touted by the regime as a key economic driver; President Miguel Díaz-Canel declared in early 2019 that every tourist to Cuba is breaking the blockade, a blockade tightened by the Trump regime following 60 years of pressure, sabotage, terrorist attacks and assassination attempts designed to bring Cuba back into line as a client state of imperialism. More than half of Cuba’s food comes from imports, and now it must also import tourists. Guevara, murdered in Bolivia in 1967, and Castro, who died in 2016, might be gone, but the regime is still searching for new ways to circumvent the blockade as something that functions not only as a political-economic choke-hold on the Cuban people but also symbolically as an isolation device, threatening to enforce the impossible idea that only ‘socialism in one country’ can be, and must be, constructed here, an island of socialism in a sea of sharks and crooks intent on getting their property back, getting all property back into private hands.

Cuba is a case example of the way international context, the balance of forces in a world that is still capitalist, now more intensely and triumphantly hostile than ever to socialism after the transition to capitalism that took place in Russia and then China, enters into the political organisation and everyday institutions and the mindset of those who support and of those who oppose the regime in this enclosed trapped space. Every step forward, every step towards reform, and every attempt to adapt the country to the changing balance of forces is marked by the consequences of isolation. The consequences are practical, direct restrictions on what is available and how people can live and how they are materially divided from each other, and ideological, how the Cuban people, and we who would wish to build solidarity with what remains of what became a successful and enduring anti-capitalist revolt against the US in its backyard, make sense of this, how reality is filtered. What we see when we are there is filtered by the contradictory play of forces, and filtered for a visitor even before they arrive.

Propaganda

First filter, for visitors, comprises the competing images of Cuba as anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist icon and of it as state-managed top-down authoritarian regime. We know that, know that there are those competing images, but what is worst is the way this filter is reconfigured in the tourist guide-books, the most insidious of which at the moment is the CubaConga 2019 ‘underground guide’. This is an excellent place to begin, actually, for it neatly pits itself against the bland ‘introductions’ to Cuban reality that the most popular travel handbooks dish up, and it plays into the suspicion that these handbooks are playing safe. All information about Cuba, it warns, is ‘tainted’, and worse than that, ‘nothing is as it seems’. CubaConga 2019 plays on the motif of the video game – the reference in the title is to the 1980s arcade favourite Donkey Kong which spawned the Mario series – promising to raise the visitor up to level 5, warning them that they will never make the top level. This because under ‘tropical communism’, we are told, life is one big scam; every Cuban will be out to scam you, just as they scam the system and each other. No one in Cuba really works, nothing works, and you better get ready to be treated as what the Cubans called a ‘yuma’; a ‘yuma’ is a visitor, gringo or not, waiting to be squeezed of their money, and all the better if they can be shared, in which case they become what is known locally as a ‘punto’. In this way the visitor is launched into a paranoiac journey where they will distrust everything that is told them and everyone they meet. The CubaConga 2019 guide exemplifies the operations of ‘fake news’, feeding suspicion, with the message ‘nothing is what it seems’ seeming to undermine ideology while simultaneously reinstating it, discrediting each fact in the name of revealing the facts to be simply elements in the game.

Once we are in this paranoid universe, one that is antithetical to any solidarity that the visitor may feel for Cuba, every disconfirmation of the handy information this guide offers is further evidence that nothing is what it seems; the game has simply been quickly upgraded to fool the player. But I will tell you anyway that; when the CubaConga guide informs you that you can only buy roadmaps of Cuba in the departure lounge of Havana Airport, that is a funny fact, but incorrect; that none of the owners of the ‘Casas Particulares’ – licensed bed and breakfast home-stay accommodations – we stayed in were ‘elite’ members of the Cuban Communist Party intent on stopping you from talking to ordinary people, unless they were good liars; that you will not be made to pay extra car service costs by state rental firm Havanauto on your return to the airport, in fact our car, a bit ropy with a weird tiny battery, was fixed twice free, and then we were given a replacement car; that you will not be overcharged in hotels and restaurants, every bill was accurate, in some cases effectively rounded down. This even in taxis after we had been warned by locals that you should take care not to be squeezed, and taxis were organised for us – something CubaConga 2019 would tell you is the sure sign that you will be squeezed again – were in line with the agreed fare. In one ‘cafeteria’ near the north-west coast, the hot old woman owner showed us her medicines, complained about her health and climate change, but didn’t want to charge us for the coffees. Some people were reticent, more about that in a moment, but it was not at all a case of having to read between the lines, but being prepared to have open conversations when it was possible and listen to what people said.

Twenty years ago, my last visit to Cuba, was toward the end of the ‘Special Period’, an awfully difficult time in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when the sugar and oil agreements were ended, as was all other aid, aid that was necessary to counter the effects of the US-led blockade. The country was just beginning to pull itself out of economic hardship and, in some cases, hunger, hunger that was only alleviated by the ration system. Twenty years ago, yes, I got badly ill after eating in an illegal home restaurant while driving down the battered bicycle and donkey-strewn highway to Santa Clara and Trinidad de Cuba south-east of Havana, and I was hassled to give the guy who found accommodation with a freezing cold shower more money afterwards. But where have I not been treated as a money-tree and shaken down by poor people, something that is quite understandable. In some parts of the world a network of tourist police cracks down on this kind of thing, intensifying oppression and exploitation rather than addressing it. Is that what you want? This time out to the west of Havana, both in areas near the coast where there were few tourists and inland where there were many, we were given gifts of local food to see us on our way, we were not ‘squeezed’. What contradictions there were, were in the main more open and transparent than they are under full-blown neoliberal capitalism where the scam-element is woven into every promise and delivery of a good or a service.

Money

The second practical-ideological filter on the visitor experience comes into play in the very real division between the two currencies (a division that is now being re-evaluated by the Cuban government). For visitors to the country there is the CUC, the Convertible Cuban Peso which is directly pegged to the US Dollar, one for one; and for the locals there is the Cuban Peso which currently runs at about 25 to a dollar. The CUCs have images of monuments on, and the Cuban Pesos have images of famous figures (the 1 with Jose Martí, the 3, rarer, sold on the Havana streets to tourists, with Che Guevara on it).

This currency division effectively divides the country into two layers. The first layer is the state-organised economy, the bedrock of the political-economic basis of the revolution that was laid down in 1959. It is at this level that the rationing system works. A small quota of milk, sugar, flour, coffee and other essentials are available at very low cost. This ration system continues today – in one simple ration centre, the guy sweeping the place up at the end of the day invited us in and showed us the table of goods and prices. Children and pensioners will get the basic goods free of charge. So, the actual cost of living in Cuba is about a third lower than in the UK, and rent is nearly 80% lower. The pay is low, and seems at first sight lower still when it is calculated in the Cuban Pesos in which it is paid, but then the cost of accommodation is incredibly low, and education and health are, of course, free. A basic level of housing, social and welfare support are thus provided, from which the remaining Cuban Pesos can be set aside for ‘luxuries’, but then again, this currency is actually useless for anything beyond housing, collective transport and the local restaurants. For that you need to have access to the CUCS.

It is those who have access to the CUCS who circulate in the second layer, the one in which tourists experience Cuba most of the time, and this monetary division often goes alongside geographical division. There are visitors who now travel outside Havana into the countryside, especially to holiday towns like Viñales to the west which are often packed with Western day-trippers spending CUCS, and some who hire cars, but this is still unusual, and several times we were asked, with some astonishment, why were not in Varadero, spending our time, and money, in one of the all-inclusive beach resorts. Life with the CUCS is effectively more like life under neoliberal capitalism, where there is precarious and sometimes lucrative employment; to rise from the world of the Cuban Peso into the world of the CUCS is to touch the tourist economy and to function as part of the service sector, from which come the images of ‘yumas’ and ‘puntos’; here, as under capitalism in any other part of the world, things and people are turned into commodities.

One taxi driver told us that he used to work as an engineer, and got 1000 Pesos a month, but then shifted over to tourist work because he got better paid, and he then had access to CUCS. Owners of Casas Particulares may not be CCP members, but they are lifted away from the rest of the population through their access to the CUC economy. These CUCS are valuable, for what they signify and for what they can actually buy. At La Roca restaurant in Havana – an old cheap state-run restaurant with an old slow jazz orchestra playing to a small audience of diners – we handed over a 50 CUC note, which was then passed up from the waitress to the cashier and then to manager. There was a tiny nick out of the corner of the note, and so it was returned to us, refused because, we were told, the overall manager, when they saw it, would refuse it.

At the currency exchange at Havana’s José Martí International Airport on my way out of the country the woman in front of me in the long queue to change CUC convertible currency back into Western currency again was a Cuban woman. She was not travelling, but had come in to the airport just to change money, from US Dollars into CUC. We waited for nearly an hour before it was her turn to go to the counter. She handed over five Dollars, one of which was refused because there was a little tear in the note, and came away from the counter with four CUC.

Dissent

The third filter is an unavoidable one which separates out the life-world of the tourist from the world backstage. You see the signs for the operation of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the network of CDRs that have formed the local backbone of the revolution since 1960, but you don’t, of course, see how these work. Glimpses of their representative and sometimes coercive function are but that, glimpses. There were advantages to hiring a car and driving the pot-holed country roads away from the main tourist centres, and there were many disadvantages to long journeys in battered cars on difficult terrain. Hitch-hikers were grateful for a lift. One woman we picked up near Bahia Honda way east of Havana was travelling, she said, to her church in the next village. Cuba now defines itself as a ‘secular’ state rather than as atheist, and though Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a hard time – banned from organising in 1974, and so about 3,000 left in 1980 from Mariel, a time when those who fled were referred to as ‘gusanos’ (worms) – there are still Roman Catholic churches and, increasingly, evangelical Pentecostal churches, for one of which our evangelical hitchhiker on this occasion was a worker. The Roman Catholic church claims that 60% of the population are of their flock, though actual attendance is actually between 1 and 2 percent. This woman said that in that part of the country things were pretty evenly split, among believers, between Roman Catholics and Pentecostals. We asked her what her work was, and she said she worked as a teacher. What did she teach? ‘The Creation!’

There is still Santeria, Afro-Cuban local religion from the old slave times, with competing stories about whether this was celebrated or dissuaded by the CDRs, probably both. And there were competing stories about Jews. We were told by one opposition activist, for example, that most of the Jews had left the country after the revolution, some to go to Israel, some to the United States, where there are now specific ethnic Cuban-Jewish communities. But we found an active synagogue in Havana, and we were told by a Lebanese family-background maintenance man in one Casa Particular on the edge of Havana that, no, there was an extant Jewish community, but they kept out of politics. This guy also told us that after the revolution he had to give over the top floor of his large house to homeless people, but he didn’t complain about this, accepted it as part of the process of fair redistribution of resources he was living through. We were told that there were some converts to Islam, and that there had been some fights between Sunni and Shia in the street recently. Among the opposition there is also some contempt for the progressive shift made by the Cuban government under the impact of HIV/AIDS to active support for LGBT rights (something that pits the government against the Catholic Church), and contempt for the quite good, not perfect, public policy and information campaigns against sexism and racism.

In Viñales on the main stretch there was a brightly painted Freemasons Hall, open, it said, on Saturday morning at 9am. This is a reminder that the freemasons were the guild organisations of the bourgeoisie, progressive at one point in our history as the bourgeoisie replaced feudal rulers, but reactionary now in the West where capitalism is entrenched and the freemasons remain dedicated to its existence. In Latin America, where the bourgeois independence struggles came later, the freemasons played a progressive role within living memory, and key figures like José Martí and Simon Bólívar were members. Remember that the Cuban revolution was a bourgeois-democratic revolution against US imperialism that then had to grow over into socialism in order to carry out the basic bourgeois-democratic tasks, it was an instance of ‘permanent revolution’.

 

There is some suspicion of the CCP, but not, as you might expect, a sense that membership is necessary to advance through a career or to get special privileges. In fact, despite Castro’s decision, after the death of Guevara in Bolivia – death which followed brave if mistaken attempts to extend the revolution through ‘foco’ guerrilla warfare – to put in place financial incentives, and despite the selective distribution of television sets and other electo-domestic goods to ‘vangard’ party members in the 1980s, there is still not a privileged class layer of the population in anything like the same way as exists outside the country (whether in the remaining Stalinist states or in the capitalist countries). We spoke to young lecturers in Havana University who shrugged their shoulders as they told us that while the average wage is around 1000 pesos a month for skilled workers, it is 600 pesos for academics; but why not pay those who have worse jobs more money? These young academics were rather distant from the regime, pointing out the private restaurants that were, they said, much better than the state ones. When we asked them if they were members of the CCP, they said that, no, the party was for old people, something quite evident in the televised reports of meetings on the television. But when we asked them if they thought they should join the CCP, they said, no, they had never felt it would be a disadvantage not to be a member, so no point joining. As for Marxism, if Marxism meant falling in line with the ‘Sino-Vietnamese’ model much vaunted by the regime at the moment, then, no, they were not Marxists, but if it meant that one could be critical while supportive, then that was another question. The big battle in the Department of Philosophy, they told me, was over changing the title of the degree, which was actually a general degree in philosophy, so that it would not be a degree in ‘Marxist-Leninist Philosophy’, a title that was a millstone around the neck of any young academic who then wanted to go and study elsewhere.

A sprightly woman in her seventies, not the owner of a Casa Particular, told me that she had been a student activist before the revolution, an exciting time, she said, with continuous perilous activity that she enjoyed very much. We asked her if she was a ‘communist’, and she said no, but then elaborated a detailed narrative for why this was so, one that was at one with the revolution she had lived through, not against it. Yes, she remembered that in the early years of the revolution, time when there were still armed counter-revolutionary groups engaging in sabotage, she had heard the noise of gunfire early in the morning in Havana as opponents were seized and shot. The death penalty was restored in Cuba under the new regime. This woman was not a member of the Cuban Communist Party, but the reason she would not call herself a communist was because this was surely, she said, a state of being to be aimed for, not one that we could or should imagine to be achieved now. I was reminded of Che Guevara’s rather moralistic injunctions to the Cuban people to work harder to build socialism as a function of aiming to build what he called the ‘New Man’, not to rely on material incentives. The office building Guevara oversaw the construction of did not, apparently, have elevators because, he argued, it was better that office workers get some exercise climbing the stairs.

There were, in the early years, immense political differences between the three different organisations that were brought together first into the Integrated Revolutionary Organisations, in 1961, then into the United Party of Socialist Revolution two years later and then into the Communist Party of Cuba, which was founded in 1965 and which had its first congress ten years after that. Castro and Guevara’s J26M had, of course, been forged primarily in the peasant struggle, and it needed to link with the student Revolutionary Directorate which was based mainly in the towns and in Havana, which was then and is still the largest city in the Caribbean. And J26M needed a disciplined organisational resource base that was to be found in the Popular Socialist Party which had been founded way back in 1925 as the local communist party, section of the Third International, and so tightly controlled by Moscow.

Here is the internal local root of the problem that Cuba has faced from the beginning, a root of the problem of Stalinist bureaucracy that was intertwined with the Soviet compact. It should never be forgotten that the Popular Socialist Party, PSP, actually supported Batista right until the last moment, opposed the Havana General Strike that was called to support the J26M guerrillas in the countryside, and tried to put the brakes on the nationalisations that turned Cuba into something like a workers state. There are three elements of this direct local influence of Stalinism on Cuba that gives to Cuba both a bureaucratic and a deserved ‘Radical Face of Stalinism’ and which Castro and Guevara, at times, fought.

The first is the political apparatus that J26M lacked, and which it needed in order to be able to govern the country. The twists and turns of the PSP as it followed one disastrous line given by Moscow to the next had the effect, as with other communist parties that were franchises of the Third International, of hardening the organisation, making its leadership all the more obedient while all the better placed to give orders, to enforce top-down administrative rule.

The second element of the direct local influence of Stalinism was the commitment of the PSP and then the continuing Stalinist apparatus inside the CCP from 1965 to a ‘stage’ notion of historical-political development in which the ‘national democratic’ stage must come first, and only then can the ‘socialist’ stage be advanced. In countries dependent on imperialism, as Cuba was dependent on the United States up until 1959, that meant that the Stalinists opposed the revolution growing over from carrying out basic bourgeois democratic tasks by engaging in socialist revolution. We are not there yet, but this revolutionary space is blocked, distorted, waiting its moment to flower again.

The third element is the classic distortion of Marxism expressed in Stalin’s notorious phrase ‘socialism in one country’. Here in Cuba it means not merely an attempt to cope with the brute reality of the situation, to make the best of the isolation the country suffered, and then to attempt to break out of that isolation (as Guevara tried to do in the Congo and then, fatefully in Bolivia), but to twist the narrative into celebration of this isolation. The celebration of socialism in one country not only leads to nationalist distortions, something that Cuba has bravely challenged – with an internationalism that is also, then, tangled in the manoeuvres of the Soviet bureaucracy, but an internationalist spirit nonetheless – but also to a concordat with other regimes around Latin America, and around the world that call themselves socialist but are not, or with others that would not even claim to be so.

Together these three elements have enabled hard-line pro-Soviet forces inside the regime to sometimes gain ascendency, and for Castro, after Guevara’s death, to wobble between critique and praise of his Soviet ally; this leading him, for example, to endorse the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – a turning point for Cuban foreign policy – and to condemn Solidarnosc in Poland in 1980.

The symbolic re-framing of Cuba as if it were merely another iteration of Soviet rule can be seen in documentary films such as the 1964 I Am Cuba, a film that is effectively unravelled in interviews and quasi-semiotic analysis by the 2004 Brazilian documentary The Siberian Mammoth. Inside Cuba, despite the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ tag-line in the constitution, there are busts aplenty not of Marx or Lenin, but of José Martí, a revolutionary democratic leader of the movement for independence from Spain who was killed by the Spanish in 1895. In a case of history repeating itself, this first time in Cuba as tragedy, we might say, the movement Martí led was actually ‘annexationist’ rather than ‘secessionist’; the aim was to break from Spain and attach to the United States; in this first round repeat performance during the Cuban revolution of 1959 we see the regime surviving by breaking from the United States and ending up in hock to the Soviet Union.

The isolation that has distorted, even, if some analysts are to be believed, ‘deformed’ this worker’s state from day one, is welcomed by those who would wish to crush the life out of anything remaining of the revolutionary hopes of late 1950s. Owners of the Casas Particulares said that business was bad with the tightening of the blockade by Trump, with a sharp decrease in numbers of visitors from the United States, and we could see that many of them were empty. But for those who are intent on bringing down the regime, an increase in hardship is the price worth paying, and would even be better because it would also result in more dissatisfaction with the government.

We had a long conversation with an opposition activist, the son of a friend who had left Cuba, who made it clear that for him the blockade and Trump’s recent pronouncements about human rights were good things, at last the opposition had an ally in the White House, in contrast to the tentative links that Obama had made with Havana. Trump tells the truth, we were told, and, when pushed, this guy said that although it would be bad, although it was not what he wanted, he would go so far as to support an invasion by the United States, because, he said, they, the regime, ‘they are killing us’. He was against the recent election of López Obrador because that would relax blockade pressure from Mexico, and against the recent pension and ration and minimum-wage increases because that would mean that the population would be more contented with the regime.

There was also delighted support by him for Jair Bolsonaro’s reference to the Cuban doctors as ‘slaves’. We knew that medical training is a big thing in Cuba, and not at all the elite specialised technocratic enterprise it has become in so many parts of the so-called developed world. A Mexican friend’s son training to be a doctor had elected to do his placement in Santa Clara, for example, and he described how the lack of up-to-date medical equipment – the lack a function of the blockade – actually meant that doctors were trained to feel and interpret the body. Their expertise really was hands-on, and the treatment was geared to the lives of the patients rather than to the needs of the large pharmaceutical companies. Medicine was geared to health rather than to profit. One of the hitch-hikers we picked up was travelling with her niece to the small town of La Palma to do shopping and, she said, to buy medicine. Her niece would, she said, be enrolling in medical school in Pinar del Rio, the nearest large city, and it didn’t seem a big deal. This woman was otherwise quite scornful about local provision of services, but medical training was taken for granted as something that was available to everyone. There has been a huge outflow of medical expertise and of development of medical training. 400,000 medical professionals working in 165 different countries since 1960, and, with 31,000 students from 103 different countries coming to Cuba to be trained in its Latin American School of Medicine since 1998. Life expectancy in Cuba is currently 79 years, high given the conditions it has been exposed to by its neighbour to the north for daring to defy it.

The doctors working abroad are ‘slaves’, according to Bolsonaro, because the Cuban government draws up the contract for them to work abroad, obtains 4,000 pesos a month, and then passes on only 1,000 of this to the doctor. But the contract is quite clear, and the doctor chooses to sign up, and the wage they send home is good payment. Our opposition activist would have none of this, pointing to the difficulty that the doctor then had in breaking from the contract, or returning home to be with their family in case of domestic crisis, illness or death. This is true, and there is a degree of bureaucratic control, and monitoring of the population that is uncomfortable. It is true but clear, unfortunate but understandable in a country still effectively on war footing against the United States.

When we asked our oppositional activist friend what he thought about Trump and Bolsonaro, he said he didn’t care; all he cared about was, in a mantra relayed through the Madrid-based online paper Diario de Cuba from the US state department, ‘freedom of association’, ‘freedom of movement’ and ‘representative democracy’. Yes to freedom of association – that is happening in effect with access, in 2019 to the internet an instant group social media messaging, and yes to freedom of movement, but ‘representative democracy’ where those with the most money have access to propaganda tools turns democracy into a market-place with a corrupt layer of ‘politicians’; then we will be in the world described by CubaConga2019. One owner of a Casa Particular complained that their kids were now spending their time playing games on the internet. What the guys who wrote CubaConga2019 are unable to reflect on is the fact that the metaphor of the Donkey Kong video game expresses perfectly the condition of life under capitalist fake democracy; everyone is encouraged to scam everyone else in the field of politics. For the oppositional activist, it was as if, in a message in reverse, we had the true meaning of what ‘socialism in on country’ means. This was ‘reaction to socialism’ in one country.

Here is a paradox. We were told that people cannot move freely around the country, and there is a particular problem for those who would want to relocate their families or find work outside their home town. Dervla Murphy’s typically idiosyncratic 2009 The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba, a book which was commended by the British Communist Party paper Morning Star in the UK (a reliable barometer of Stalinist solidarity sensibility), doesn’t pull its punches on the bureaucratic pettiness that can mark some encounters of ordinary people with the system of rules, rules which are sometimes inflexible and harsh, sometimes relaxed and humanised. For example, despite the oft-repeated claim that people outside the tourist convertible economy are wary of interacting with foreigners, we found ready takers for offers of rides in our car from village to village, and we heard from locals who complained bitterly about the state of the roads, and laughed contemptuously when we asked what local representative body they might talk to in order that things might be put right. When it came down to it, the complaint was about lack of resources, lack of goods, and lack of medicines. One woman asked us to let her out of the car just before we arrived at the town she was aiming for – there for her fortnightly shop – and was quite clear that this was because she needed to check into the police station to register her presence there for the day. She said she would rather walk along to the police station than have us drive her there, in case questions were asked. We dropped her and watched her as she popped in and out of the police station, and then carried on to do her shopping. Perhaps she also told the police about us, who knows.

An older woman, not a member of the CCP, described to us the ethical dilemma the blockade posed for her. She, not incidentally, was someone who tactfully talked about Cuban friends who had chosen to live abroad, neither referring to them as ‘gusanos’, as was once the way at the time of one of the many mass exoduses permitted if not encouraged by the Cuban state, nor referring to them as ‘mariposas’, the wonderful wealthy creatures who returned later. (8% of the population, of which many were middle class professionals in addition to the very wealthy and the crime gangs who ran the casinos and brothels, left in the years after the revolution.) There were, this woman said, medicines available for her outside Cuba, and so, because of the blockade, unobtainable. If she thought about this question as an ‘individual’ question – as one concerning only her own rights to the medicine – then she might feel sad and even bitter about it, but if she thought about this as a collective question which spoke of the plight of the Cuban people as a whole facing unfair sanctions for taking back their country under their own control, then, no, that was a different matter.

Solidarity

Human rights cannot be reduced to basic provision of food and education, as some more hard-faced Stalinist supporters of every twist and turn of the regime will make out, and revolutionary Marxists should insist that more opportunity for critical political critique is the pre-requisite for better social organisation, not a hindrance to it. However, it should be remembered that the political-economic basis for human rights is exactly what is being attacked by the imperialist powers circling Cuba. Trump and Bolsonaro do this in the name of ‘Human Rights’, and so we need to be clear where we stand on this. Those political-economic gains of the revolution need to be vigorously defended, gains which include, note, that infant mortality in Cuba is now lower than it is in the United States, that over half of Cuban MPs are women, the second highest proportion in the world, that forest cover in Cuba is now up to 30% compared with 11% before 1959, and that diseases have been eradicated in Cuba that have are beginning to reappear in other parts of the world afflicted by poverty and corruption.

It is astonishing that Cuba has survived so close to the United States, and so all the greater threat to the oppressed there who might dare to take back into their own hands the wealth they had created for the few. It has been under pressure of the blockade which denies the basic trade links that are the lifeblood of a globalised world, under pressure from the Soviet Union to imitate its own bureaucratic forms of rule, and then more isolated through the ‘Special Period’ and collapse of Soviet aid in the 1990s. It has come through all this to the current oil-dependent relationship with Venezuela, a capitalist country where the regime is clinging onto power and also faces invasion threats from the United States.

Solidarity with Cuba as a revolutionary break from imperialism would be easier for us, for revolutionary Marxists, if our own Trotskyist comrades had not taken such bizarre political positions during the crucial years at the beginning of the 1960s and if the Cuban leadership had not fallen in line with some of the worse Stalinist caricatures of Trotskyism. The Trotskyist POR(T) were followers of Juan Posadas, issuing ultimatums to the regime to move fast and then, incredibly, urging the Soviet Union to unleash a worker’s ‘Atomic War’ with a first strike on the United States. Guevara, for his part, first defended the ‘comrade Trotskyists’, but then defended the smashing of the printing plates for a copy of Trotsky’s 1936 very relevant classic The Revolution Betrayed. Guevara had a copy of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in his knapsack when he was caught and killed. Against this background, it is all the more understandable, if regrettable, that Castro should denounce Trotskyism as counterrevolutionary, a line taken direct from the Stalinists. From these contradictory indications as to the political leanings of the Cuban leadership also flow some of the more ridiculous notions in the Trotskyist movement, that Castro is an ‘unconscious Trotskyist’ on the one hand, or that there could not have been a revolution because there was not revolutionary Trotskyist party leading it on the other. This double-failure, a political failure of analysis and leadership at crucial moments since 1959 has then led revolutionaries themselves to oscillate between starry-eyed enthusiasm for the regime and over-harsh condemnation which chimes with imperialist attempts to destroy what remains of this beacon of hope.

Earlier in 2019 there was a Trotsky conference in Havana – good – a positive event, but at the same time the organisers made clear that they wanted an ‘academic’ debate, and they did not want this to lead to the little sects arriving and trying to set up their own franchise groups on the island. External quarantine leads inevitably to internal quarantine. When I asked the young lecturers at Havana University, and they were interested in alternative approaches to Marxism, doing theses on the work of one-time Trotskyists Perry Anderson and Terry Eagleton, they said they had never heard of the Trotsky conference.

Of course the Cuban revolution faltered, it could not do otherwise, but in this very incomplete imperfect process there exist the grounds for hope that the revolution might be extended, as it must be in order for Cuba to survive. The blockade will either be lifted in such a way as to allow US-American capital to flow in and for property to be re-privatised, for the misery of life under capitalism to return, with massive wage and status differentials. Or the blockade will be broken through active solidarity with what is most alive in Cuba now. What is most alive in Cuba now is what resists the encroachment of imperialism in the country, for sure – that is where the debates about whether it is a ‘deformed worker’s state’ or ‘state capitalism’ come into play – but also what is most alive in Cuba is the inspiration it gives to revolutionaries outside. This was possible here, something was possible, and such a thing might be possible again somewhere else, in many places; international socialist solidarity and action for Cuba is crucial if the revolution is to become something real for us all.

 

This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles