Marxism and China

In a rather neck-snapping series of pronouncements, Marxism has moved to center stage in China.

On the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a high-profile campaign lauding the importance of the German philosopher.

Communist Party newspapers hailed Das Kapital, Marx’s critique of capitalism, as “holy scripture.” State television aired a prime-time documentary and a talk show to celebrate the “greatest thinker of modern times.”

DaTech3.jpgIn a country that has used capitalism in theory to create an economic juggernaut, China was thought in recent years to have become socialist in name only, with little thought given to Marx.

The Wall Street Journal argued that the pro-Marx campaign may be an attempt “to persuade Chinese to keep faith with a Communist government that he [President Xi] says has employed Marx’s ideas to make China prosperous and powerful.”

Marx “lived honestly and simply, and valued affection and comradeship,” Xi said recently in a speech at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. He ordered party members to master Marxist theory as a “way of life” and “spiritual pursuit.”

“The posthumous cult of Marx these days serves to legitimize the present leadership and whatever it claims Marxism to be,” Daniel Leese, a China historian at Germany’s University of Freiburg, told The Journal. “And only Xi Jinping is said to be capable of synthesizing classical doctrine with present realities.”

At the party congress in October Xi declared a “new era” in Chinese socialism, a move seen as his bid to reshape the development model laid down 40 years ago by reformist leader Deng Xiaoping.

Chinese officials have long grappled with the contradictions of their state capitalism and professed Marxism. In the early 1990s, party officials and academics debated alternative political models and contemplated renaming the Communist Party to better reflect its tilt toward state-led capitalism.

The party didn’t change its name but has welcomed capitalists to join its ranks, experimented with political reforms to professionalize the civil service and allowed an expansion of civil society.

But President Xi seems determined to bring the party and the country back to its Communist roots. The campaign started in late April when Xi led his party’s governing Politburo in a study session focused on The Communist Manifesto, the 1848 political pamphlet written by Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels.

A propaganda blitz ensued. State media played up Marx’s purported contributions to China’s present-day prosperity. While the West descended into “a new era of uncertainty and instability,” China’s experience “eloquently proved that Marxism…has opened a pathway to the truth,” the party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, said in a front-page commentary.

Peking University hosted a “World Congress on Marxism,” gathering more than 120 scholars from some 30 countries to discuss “Marxism and the Human Community of Shared Destiny”—a reference to Xi’s signature diplomatic slogan.

To reach younger Chinese, propaganda officials produced videos and comics that focused on Marx’s personality and appearance.

The party’s flagship theoretical journal, Seeking Truth, produced a short video titled “10 Little-Known Facts About Marx.” The video highlighted Marx’s Jewish background and his zodiac sign, Taurus, and explained that his iconic beard was fashionable for his time.

It’s unclear whether this fascination will have a lasting impact on China, but President Xi’s interest in reviving Marx seems more than a passing fancy.