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Marxism, Chinese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G005-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Chinese Marxism is a mixture of elements from Confucianism, German Marxism, Soviet Leninism and China’s own guerrilla experience. Because Mao Zedong (1893–1976) was in power longer than any other Chinese communist, the phrase ‘Chinese Marxism’ is commonly used to refer to Mao’s own evolving mixture of ideas from these sources. However, the advocates of Chinese Marxism have come from many different factional backgrounds and have tended to emphasize different aspects in their own thinking. Even Maoism reflects many minds. For example, Mao’s two most famous essays, ‘Shijianlun’ (‘On Practice’) and ‘Maodunlun’ (‘On Contradiction’) (1937) drew heavily from Ai Siqi, the author of the popular philosophical work Dazhong zhexue (Philosophy for the Masses) (1934).

The goals of the Chinese Marxists included the salvation of China from its foreign enemies and the strengthening of the country through modernization. Accordingly, they selected from other systematic theories those doctrines that appeared to facilitate those goals, and then paired these doctrines with others from theories that were sometimes incompatible. One should not, therefore, look for logical consistency in the relations between the ideas that the Chinese Marxists drew from these various sources.

The foundation of Chinese Marxism was undoubtedly Marx’s materialist conception of history, and the concepts of class struggle and control of the forces of production shaped the thinking of many early Marxists. However, faced with the need to accelerate social change through class struggle rather than waiting for the full flowering of capitalism, Marxists such as Li Dazhao began focusing less on materialism or determinism and more on voluntarism. There also arose a doctrine, based on the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, that right-minded people could ‘telescope’ the phases of the revolution and hasten the transition through the historical stages. This ultimately led to the doctrine of permanent revolution. First promulgated in China in the late 1920s, it reappeared in the 1950s. After Mao’s death, the ‘subjectivity’ movement within Chinese Marxism sought to move the focus away from classes or groups and onto the individual subject as an active agent.

Throughout the evolution of Chinese Marxism, political struggles played a direct role in the formulation and discussion of philosophical positions. Mao’s epistemological essay ‘Shijianlun’ clearly reflects the experience of leaders during the guerrilla period, and his theories of knowledge are analogous to the ‘democracy’ practised by the guerrilla leaders: the people were consulted for their knowledge and opinions, decisions were then made from the centre, and the resulting policies were taken back to the masses through teaching. In the same way, Mao believed, individuals perceive through their senses, form theories in their brains (the centre), and test the resulting theories in a manner analogous to teaching.

In China, right minds among the people were thought to arise through officials teaching the people. Here pre-modern Confucian legacy becomes important. It helps to explain the endurance of teaching as an official function in the Chinese Marxist discussion of democratic centralism. In Confucianism, the primary function of government was education, although it certainly had other tasks, such as the collection of taxes. All officials, including the emperor, had the task of transforming the character of the people. The education in which the state involved itself, through control of the curriculum and national examinations for the civil service, was moral education. The ultimate aim of state-controlled Confucian education was a one-minded, hierarchical society, meaning that people of all different strata would think the same on important matters. Maoists also sought to create a one-minded people through officially controlled teaching.

If the focus of teaching is on right ideas, which are supposed to motivate people towards socialism, one such idea in later Maoist writing is egalitarianism of social status. This was challenged by others, notably Liu Shaoqi, and following Deng Xiaoping’s assumption of power in 1978 it suffered a further blow with the switch in economic policy from central planning to market forces.

An example of the relevance of political struggle to the formulation of ideas was the heightening of the campaign against the philosophy called ‘humanism’, following a dispute in 1957 between Mao and President Liu Shaoqi. Liu made a speech in April of that year saying that capitalists had changed and so class struggle against them could be minimized; this was followed by a Maoist-inspired attack on humanism as a philosophy. The humanism that the Maoists attacked was a Confucian-inspired belief in a class-transcending humaneness or compassion for humankind or humaneness. In contrast, in the post-Mao years, the content of humanism has altered, and the term has come to refer to a doctrine inspired by both the early Marx and by the Western psychologist Maslow, namely that the goal of society is the individual’s self-realization. This form of humanism is one of several competing positions that claim to carry on the Marxist tradition in new directions, and has been reinforced by one form of the subjectivity movement in the Deng Xiaoping era.

Citing this article:
Munro, Donald J.. Marxism, Chinese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G005-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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