Marxist study groups are mushrooming in China, as increasing inequality and injustice fuels discontent and dissatisfaction with those who feel left behind by the country's economic expansion.
Not all the groups are underground. Many of the disparate groups, ranging from workers who long for the relative economic security and egalitarianism of the Maoist era to students drawn to the ideals and traditions of Marxist humanism and democratic socialism, have the support of left-leaning leaders of China's ruling Communist Party, who contend that the country has gone too far, too fast down the capitalist road.
What could be considered a Left opposition within the party basically consists of three factions: an older Left made up of officials who are primarily concerned with preserving the power of the party and central bureaucracy; Maoists--though the term is not formally used in China--who are popular with workers and peasants nostalgic for the revolutionary period, despite the bloody chaos and disasters of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward; and a new or neo-Left that appeals mainly to students and intellectuals who are searching for solutions to the country's pressing problems and are open to different currents and tendencies in Marxist thought. The lines separating these camps are far from clear; for example, many neo-Left thinkers are admirers of Mao.
China's president, Hun Jintao, is assumed by many informed observers to be broadly sympathetic to the Left. Analysts have noted Hu's public praise for Mao (in keeping with the official view that 70 percent of what he did was good and 30 percent was bad) and call for increased study of Marxism (in accord with the official ideological mix of Marx, Mao, Lenin, and Deng Xiaoping Thought).
Aside from their shared antipathy to free-market reforms, the leftwing factions share a common concern that conditions are being created for class conflict in China, and that the party could be swept from power if it is identified with a privileged caste that is growing rich--and ruining the environment--at the expense of the overwhelming majority.
In this context, the Marxist study groups serve several purposes. Some act as unofficial, micro-sized think tanks; others, as safety-valve-style outlets for discontent; and still others, as false flag operations for luring and monitoring potentially dangerous dissidents. State spies and agents provocateurs have surely infiltrated the groups; and in some instances, they may even outnumber and out-perform legitimate members (recalling the way Polish and East German secret policemen steered some dissident groups during the Cold War and American FBI agents and informers influenced smaller radical Left groups during the turbulent 1960s).
Should the need arise for an orchestrated mass movement, the study groups--like the groups and websites extolling Chinese nationalism and hatred of Japan--could at some future date prove particularly useful to a leadership seeking to switch gears and change or reverse direction.
Given the regime's obsessive need to control ideas and information ... and continuing crackdown on the Internet and domestic and foreign media ... some developments are downright puzzling. For example, there have been two international conferences on the life and work of the innovative German Marxist theorist and revolutionary activist Rosa Luxemburg, who was killed by rightwing militia members during a failed socialist uprising in Germany in 1919. Together with her fellow revolutionary Karl Liebknecht, who was also murdered by the notorious Freikorps, Luxemburg led a Left that enjoyed great popularity among young people and put its trust in the "spontaneity" of the workers while exalting the "creativity of the revolutionary day."
A conference on "Rosa Luxemburg's Thought and its Contemporary Value" was held at Wuhan University on March 12-14. The gathering, attended by over 100 Chinese and foreign students and academicians, was a kind of follow-up to a conference held in Guangzhou two years ago. The 2004 event was sponsored by the International Rosa Luxemburg Society and the Institute of World Socialism in Beijing. Whereas the earlier conference emphasized Luxemburg's philosophical writings, the conference in March focused on her views concerning spontaneous mass struggles--including her concept of the "mass strike"--distribution of wealth--she was extremely critical of capitalist-leaning socialist reformers--and the rights of workers, as well as her disputes with Lenin, from who she had received praise, and other Marxists over the meaning of socialism.
Which could be an intriguing key to understanding why the conference was allowed to take place. The conference could be seen as one of many attempts to create more space for intellectuals to debate the direction of economic reforms without appearing to abandon socialist principles. Several Chinese speakers tellingly cited Lenin's praise for Luxemburg and her steadfast resistance to "imperialist" tendencies.
Not noted by these speakers, however, was Luxemburg's firm conviction until her dying day that socialism without democracy and democracy without socialism are impossible goals. She argued--against the Left and the Right--that democracy and socialism were intrinsic ideals. In this respect, it is hard to reconcile the realities of today's China--not to mention the China of the Mao era--with the lines she famously penned in opposition to the Bolsheviks: "Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party--however numerous they may be--is no freedom at all."
Much more typical and revealing of party thinking than Luxemburg's work is this textual gem from the Institute of Contemporary Socialism of Shandung University. The state-owned center says it is dedicated to researching the (official) theory of "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics," which it describes as "the most resplendent reality in the contemporary world."
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