Why Marx Still Matters

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In days of greater political brouhaha, “to go and see Marx” used to be a slang expression among Chinese Communists, to refer to death. More recently, a considerable number of commentators have pronounced the expiry of Marxism itself. China’s reform path, they claim, is the result of political pragmatism and the rejection of doctrinaire ideology. Continued references to socialism are often explained as the combination of a quaint holdover of past discourse and the necessity to refer in code to authoritarianism—without using that word.

There is some merit to that argument. It certainly is no longer the case that any government measure or proposal has to be justified by citing Marx, Engels, or Mao. Classical socialist discourse on class struggle has disappeared, while the presence of Rollses and Rolexes on the streets of Beijing seems to belie a serious commitment to class struggle. Indeed, it might even be argued that—to a certain extent—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was never as seriously attached to Marxism as its Soviet counterpart was. In its formative period, it was an underground organization operating in the countryside and, after the Long March, in the bleak mountains around Yan’an. Material conditions were harsh, to the extent that the Party’s radio station had to cease broadcasting after a valve in the transmitter failed and spares were not available. Few of Marx’s original works were available in translation there, and it seems that many of the leadership’s insights at that time were derived from Soviet-produced training materials, including the infamous Short Course, Stalin’s authoritative textbook on Communist Party rule.

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