How China, the World's Oldest Marxist State, Proves Marx Wrong

Chinese history since the communist revolution has gone a little differently than its ideological father might have anticipated.

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A boat floats past neon decorations in Nanjing Reuters

If China's Communist Party stays in control for another dozen years, it will best its Soviet counterpart's record and become the organization linked to Karl Marx's ideas that has run a country longest. This makes it ironic that the course of modern Chinese history has so often called into question rather than confirmed Marx's predictive power.

The most recent case in point is this year's efforts to crack down on what Chinese people are saying on the internet, a chain of events that mirrors closely those of exactly a year ago that The New Yorker's Evan Osnos aptly dubbed China's "Big Chill."  I'll get to how the playing out of this year's Big Chill 2.0 raises doubts about one of Marx's claims, but first let's consider some examples from further back in China's past.

The earliest and most significant case of Chinese politics contravening a Marxist tenet came before the People's Republic was even founded. Marx had insisted that modern revolutions would be the work of urban groups, especially industrial laborers. In China, though, while labor strikes played a part in bringing Mao Zedong and company to power, rural struggles played a far more important role. So much for Marx's claim that peasants were destined to be a conservative check on radicalism.

Another important example of Chinese realities flying in the face of a Marxist orthodoxy has to do with the timing of the country's socialist and capitalist phases. Like many thinkers of his time, Marx embraced a linear view of historical development, in which capitalism was to be followed by socialism and collectivization. Yet, in today's China, which can be described as, at least in some ways, a post-socialist state, we are seeing many things happening now, after the abandonment of collectivization, that are reminiscent of the United States and Britain during their early capitalist periods, including an economy featuring sweatshops where workers lack the right to organize and strike play an important role.

One last problem China poses for Marx, which will bring us to the Big Chill 2.0, involves his famous claim that history repeats itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Repetition just hasn't been working that way in China of late. It certainly didn't with the two Tiananmen incidents. The first of these took place in 1976, when demonstrators gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn a recently deceased official, Zhou Enlai, whom they admired. The protesters presented themselves as patriots who were worried about the nation's fate now that this good man had passed from the scene, implying that those still alive and in power were less worthy. Officials castigated the protesters as "counter-revolutionary" troublemakers and crushed the struggle.

The same pattern occurred again in 1989, this time starting when Hu Yaobang died. Far from taking a turn toward farce, however, 1989's repetition ended still more tragically. The June 4th Massacre was more violent than anything that had taken place 13 years earlier. In addition, while the government reversed its verdict on the 1976 movement several years later, saying that the participants had indeed been patriots, there has still been no comparable official about-face concerning 1989. China's leaders continue to deny that soldiers did anything wrong that June.

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