Marx, Money and Mysticism After Mao


There is a zero-risk method that we Americans can use to end human rights abuses in China. We can point out the fact that the cruelty of Marxism comes from the writings of Marx. We can do it here, among ourselves. Everything that is said in America gets heard in China.

The authority of the Chinese Communist party is based on the respect that all Chinese people feel for Marx. They may love capitalism. They may have no interest whatsoever in political theory. But they believe that Marx was always right and always good. The only reason that Marxism failed, they think, is the evil of human beings. The government of China can command the loyalty of the citizens because it is the heir of Karl Marx.

In America, nobody - left, right or center - ever stops to consider the possibility that Marxism comes from Marx. If only we could talk about how destructive it is to look forward to a society with no disagreement, China would hear us and understand us.

An old story used to circulate in the Soviet Union: Once there was an emperor who was very evil and very fierce. He said 2 + 2 = 6. All the people were afraid of him and agreed that 2 + 2 = 6.

When the emperor died the next emperor was less evil and less fierce. He said 2 + 2 = 5. All the people asked themselves, "How could we have been so stupid as to believe that 2 + 2 = 6?"

A young mathematician thought for a long time. He concluded 2 + 2 = 4. He wrote a book to prove his theory. He decided to take it to the publisher, but on the way, two strangers approached him. "Comrade," they asked, "what are you doing? Do you really want to go back to the days when 2 and 2 were 6?"

The story applies better to contemporary China than it ever did to the Soviet Union. Chairman Mao was the first emperor. The leaders who have ruled since Mao, most notably Deng Xiaoping, are the second emperor. The mathematician who dared to think the unthinkable was the people who sat in Tiananmen Square for six weeks in 1989. And the two strangers who told the mathematician not to rock the boat are the apparent majority of the citizens of China.

When I taught at Hebei University in Baoding, Hebei Province, in 1989, everyone seemed to be pro-student. I remember going to Beijing from Baoding with my daughter Miriam on Friday, May 19, 1989. From the train window, we saw homemade signs made of sheets attached to houses in farming villages: "We love students" - except that instead of the Chinese character ai meaning "love" there was a red heart. When we got off the train in Beijing, there was a group of people sitting in front of the station with a sign saying "Workers love students." And when we got to Tiananmen Square, there was a sign saying Gongchandang yuan ai xuesheng "Communist Party members love students"!

Ambulances were going back and forth through the streets of Beijing, carrying unconscious hunger strikers to the hospital. The demonstrators had assumed the almost impossible job of directing traffic, in order to keep lanes open for the ambulances, and were succeeding beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

We went to Tiananmen Square to see if we could recognize anyone from Hebei University. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, except that we found the needle. First we saw a banner with Chinese characters saying "Baoding," then another saying "Hebei University." Our students recognized us, applauded, shook our hands, offered us soft drinks and gave us headbands announcing our support for the hunger strikers.

One of my students - I will call him Ai Heshui - came to visit us in our hotel room. He said he would be bicycling downtown where he would spend the night. He gave me various documents he was carrying, saying he was afraid of losing them. I was afraid he might not succeed in getting back to the hotel Sunday morning since there already was no public transportation and the traffic situation might get worse, but he answered that if that happened, I should take his papers to Baoding with me and he would pick them up in my apartment. I didn't put two and two together. That night, the army entered the city. A crowd of students and local people blocked the street and persuaded the army to turn back. (Two weeks later, on June 4th, different army units would enter the city and would run over the people who tried to block their path.) From my hotel window, I could hear chanting, then what sounded like shots and finally a great deal of traffic. Miriam slept through the whole thing. I didn't know who had won until Ai Heshui called at 6 A.M. and said he was one of the many people who had faced the army down.

When we got back to America a week after the Tiananmen Massacre, all our Chinese friends in New York were pro-student and anti-government. Things have changed. Many of my friends who were pro-student in 1989 have since decided that Deng Xiaoping did the right thing in crushing the demonstration. Ai Heshui is one of them. He no longer supports the movement he had risked his life for. I haven't been back to China, but people I know who have gone there tell me that public opinion in China has changed as well. Now people seem to be saying they want stability, not democracy. They remember the days of the Cultural Revolution, when gangs of Red Guards entered people's homes searching for books, paintings or musical instruments, all of which were illegal at that time. They say that they need stability to prevent a return of the Red Guards. Somehow they don't realize that it was Chairman Mao himself who invented the Cultural Revolution and inspired the Red Guards. There are very few people in the world who know that democracy is the most stable form of government.


Deng Xiaoping said, "To get rich is glorious." Friends and former students I knew in China who have visited the United States recently have told me that nothing is more beautiful than money, and that they are interested in money, not politics. "Compact affordable car revs up for sale," says a front-page headline in the December 13, 2000, issue of China Daily, an English-language newspaper published in Beijing. At least some people in China are indeed getting rich.

In the days of Chairman Mao, nobody talked about money. It was assumed that what is good for a particular person is necessarily bad for the People. The world was viewed as a zero-sum society where good luck for an individual was considered bad luck for the masses. Self-interest was thought to be anti-social - especially if money was involved. The People was at war with people.

This view grew out of the line in the Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." In a class struggle, there are class enemies, and Chairman Mao had divided people into the hong wu lei, the five red (good) categories - workers, soldiers, peasants, revolutionary martyrs, and Communist Party officials - and the hei wu lei, the five black (bad) categories - landlords, rich peasants, rightists, counterrevolutionaries, and bad elements. No one wanted to risk being classified as rich and therefore a member of one of the five black categories.

The acceptance of the legitimacy of wanting to be rich is perhaps the biggest change in China since the death of Mao. Everywhere in the world, people want to be rich. Money is needed not only for food, clothing and shelter but for education, culture and comfort. Nevertheless, there is something weird about the slogan, "To get rich is glorious." It is a reflection of the inversion of a society where people used to believe that poverty is virtue. Deng Xiaoping kept the old Marxist system intact but turned it upside down. China today believes in capitalism with the same religious faith that it once applied to its belief in communism. Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, tells us that the bourgeoisie "has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.'" Yet it is China today that glorifies naked self-interest and does not allow other connections among people to exist.

China's current system has been described as market Leninism. That is a misnomer. Market Leninism is what Taiwan had in the days of Chiang Kai-shek. The Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, was openly Leninist, and adopted the Leninist principle of "democratic centralism," which means strict obedience to the party (see Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, p. 338). What China has today is Marxist capitalism: the belief that nothing matters but economics - not culture, not individuality, not biology, not politics. Marxist capitalism is Marxism with a minus sign in front of it.

The embrace of money is not the only change, however. Life is freer than before. The first time I taught in China, in 1984, one never saw a boy and girl walking together. Once, a student of mine asked me the secret of America's wealth and power, and I answered "freedom." "But if we had freedom, it would lead to sex," he said. Today there is more freedom, and it has led to sex. Not only that, it has led to divorce. An article in the February 23, 2000, issue of China Daily appeared under the headline, "Bear it or leave it: Divorce a suitable solution for sinking marriage." According to the article, the increase in divorces may lead to a new law making divorce harder.

Another enormous change that has happened in China is the appearance of labor unions. An article in the December 14, 2000, issue of China Daily entitled "Unions vital to workers' rights" tells us, "Trade unions are being urged to mobilize workers nationwide to help consolidate achievements made through the reform and development of State-owned enterprises," which sounds as if the unions are a tool of the government. Nevertheless, the article goes on to say that "trade unions should also focus on safeguarding the interests and rights of workers by fashioning a more effective mechanism to solve the problems of laid-off workers and workers' rights violations." Can it be that China is actually allowing citizens to organize? It's hard to believe. That would be tantamount to recognizing that individuals and particular groups have rights that are not the same as the rights of the People.

Once I visited the parents of a student from China who was studying at the College of Staten Island in 1989. When Hebei University had its spring vacation, my daughter Miriam and I went to the home town of my student. I got to his parents' apartment house and found that there was some water coming from a neighboring construction site which trickled by the entrance of the building. Algae was growing there, making it very hard to get into the building without slipping. I was told to hold on to the wall so I wouldn't fall. My friend's mother had fallen a few weeks earlier and was still in the hospital. We visited her the following day and commented on how dangerous the entrance to her building was. "I was careless," she said. If the accident had happened today, she might not have blamed herself but would have sued.

Divorces and lawsuits are not nice things, but the fact that they now are possible makes China a better place - a freer place - than it was before.

Marxism encourages sacrifice for the public good. There is no awareness of the fact that what is good for the public is the sum of what is good for each person. There is no recognition of the rather obvious fact that people will always disagree, not simply because their interests may clash, but because different individuals view things in different ways. Yet the boundary between selfishness and altruism is not as absolute as many people think. Every individual has personal, family, neighborhood, professional, national, and world interests. All of these are simultaneously selfish and altruistic.

Furthermore, each of us belongs to many smaller and larger circles at the same time. Every group has different needs, all of which are valid. There may be conflict between a person's status as family member and as citizen, which is not to say that one of these roles is somehow more moral than the other.

Human life could not have survived without both selfishness and altruism.

In Chairman Mao's day, the government and the people spoke only of altruism; today they speak only of selfishness. The second is the negative of the first, but both views are equally simple minded and equally wrong.

Democracy is the institutionalization of the fact that disagreement is both inevitable and good. Marx didn't distinguish between democracy and other political systems. In the Manifesto, he wrote, "Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another." He was wrong. A philosophy that looks forward to the end of conflict of interest leads logically and inevitably to a society where disagreement is viewed as the embodiment of evil. When individuality was outlawed, individuals themselves were considered worthless. Countries as different as Russia, Ethiopia and China all developed the same architecture, the same "neighborhood committees," the same fear of thought. What is even worse, they pursued policies that led to starvation on a catastrophic scale. Such a famine is currently taking place in North Korea. It is no accident, comrade.


What is a religion? Each religion defines the word "religion" in a different way. Confucianism teaches a way of life and accepts an order in the world, but Confucius was vague about the nature of the gods. Is Confucianism a religion? This is not an easy question. Taoism is generally recognized as China's indigenous religion. Yet the philosophy of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, is independent of belief in the supernatural. Buddhism was China's major religion before 1949, yet among the Han people, the ethnic Chinese, Buddhism seemed to lack a connection between ritual and ethics. All societies have religious traditions, but one might argue that China was the least religious of traditional societies.

Perhaps this fact makes China a country whose citizens are likely to get swept up by new systems of belief. There isn't enough old religion to form an alternative to the rapid rise of a new faith. In 1836, a man living in Guangdong Province named Hong Xiuquan became a Christian. After having many visions, he concluded that he was the son of God and therefore the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He founded the Taiping Movement. Taiping means "very peaceful" and is the Chinese name for the Pacific, or "peaceful" ocean. The Taiping Movement was both religious and political, and between 1850 and 1864, a bloody civil war was fought between the Taipings and the government of China.

Marxism too is a system of belief, although an explicitly atheistic one. In the days of Chairman Mao, faith in Marxism was absolute. Marxists believe that there are inevitable stages of history: primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and the final stage of communism. When this final stage comes, there will be no economic inequality and therefore no conflict of interest, since the only cause of disagreement is money. The state will then wither away.

Chinese people today say they no longer have any interest in Marx. They simply want to get rich. Yet their acceptance of money as the sole source of happiness shows that Marxism has conditioned their patterns of thought. Other habits of thinking introduced by Marxism remain. Love of money hasn't necessarily changed the view that the poor are good and the rich bad. Marxism, ironically, has prepared China to accept some of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh. But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep" (Luke 6:20-25).

Arthur Waldron, writing in the Spring 1988 issue of Orbis, reports the following information:

Numbers of Protestant Christians in China have climbed so dramatically that their officially sponsored organization has had to scramble to accommodate even its own members. Thus, foreign visitors who wished to join Protestant worship in Beijing in the 1970s were regularly taken to a lovely small chapel with an adjoining parsonage for the minister, who was always happy to meet them. A decade later, however, the chapel was far too small, and what looked to be a vast old octagonal revival hall on the campus of a school was pressed into service. This is not to mention the numerous house churches, where unofficial Christian groups gathered, or the revival of indigenous Chinese Christian sects, such as the True Jesus Church (which now has converts and churches in foreign countries as well).

Roman Catholicism has shown similar vigor. Because of their loyalty to the pope, Catholics were persecuted relentlessly during the 1950s and 1960s, foreign missionaries were expelled or imprisoned, and Chinese clergy were murdered or sent to the gulag.

There is a large Catholic church in the heart of downtown Baoding. In 1984, mass was still celebrated in Latin. We knew an elderly faculty member at Hebei University who was a Catholic. He never went to that church. I later found out the reason: the downtown church belonged to the Patriotic Catholic Association, China's official pro-contraception, pro-abortion Catholic Church. A devout Roman Catholic would not go there.

We personally had no problems connected with religion in China. On Purim, both in 1984 and 1989, we invited students and colleagues to our apartment, where we all took turns reading from the Book of Esther - in English. Our Chinese guests didn't know the story, and all of them cheered at the end. There was another American family at Hebei University in 1984, non-observant Presbyterians from Minnesota. They didn't know the story either, and were quite upset to learn that when the villain, Haman, was hanged, his sons were executed as well. Our celebration of Purim deepened our knowledge of the differences between American and Chinese culture.

After Purim of 1989, a student came and asked me if he would be invited to our Passover seder. The question surprised me, but we had in fact brought matzohs and haggadahs with us to China. I told him that we would invite friends on the faculty to the first seder and graduate students to the second, but we just didn't have room for our 80 or so undergraduate students. "Last year Miss Ruth invited the undergraduates," he said.

We got to know a Muslim colleague at Hebei University during our first stay, in 1984, and he invited us to services at the local mosque at the end of the month of Ramadan. It was the first time I had seen an Islamic service. I should add that in 1984 we also attended Presbyterian services at a house in Baoding that was used as a church. On our second visit, in 1989, we attended Buddhist services in Shanghai and Inner Mongolia, which we visited during our spring break. The Lamaist Buddhist Mongolian worshippers looked more devout to me than the Han worshippers in Shanghai, but I must add that one can't judge devoutness by looking at people while they pray. China does not accept the idea of freedom of religion, but those forms of religion that are not considered threatening are functioning freely. 2 + 2 = 5. Other groups, of which the Roman Catholic Church is the best known, are not allowed to worship. 2 + 2 does not yet equal 4.

We never attended a Marxist service in China; strictly speaking, there is no such thing. What there was instead was required political meetings for faculty and students at Hebei University, and someone we knew said they were like church. When my wife asked why, he answered, "They are boring." Perhaps I should have asked whether I could attend, but I didn't. I am told that there are no more required political meetings in China.

China recently cracked down on a spiritual group called Falun Gong, which, clearly, is considered threatening. I know almost nothing about the beliefs of this group, but its ability to mobilize lots of protesters at short notice is already a threat to the government. It is not clear whether Falun Gong is considered dangerous because of its dogma or because it is an example of civil society.

In the days of Chairman Mao, there could not be anything resembling civil society; all loyalty was to the state and the Communist Party. There was no loyalty to one's friends and family. Reporting relatives and neighbors for being rightists or counterrevolutionaries was common. In the Soviet Union, Pavel Morozov - a child who was murdered by his neighbors after he reported his father for supplying food to starving kulaks, the analog of "rich" peasants, one of the five black categories - was a national hero. China had no publicly honored equivalent of Pavel, but one of my students - let me call him "Xue Wen" - told me that his mother had reported his father for having counterrevolutionary thoughts. The father died in jail. A second student, a month or so later, told me that Xue Wen had turned in his mother for the same crime. I knew Xue Wen's mother, who seemed to be on good terms with her son. I never asked Xue Wen about this.

There is no more reporting of family members, but there still is no civil society - no independent groups, formal or informal, and no sense of public responsibility independent of the government.

I fought a battle with the local post office. There always was a metal track from their accordion-style door stretched over the ground at the entrance. When I almost broke my neck over it the first time I entered, I told them "hen weixian" (very dangerous). "Mingtian xiuli," they said (they would fix it the next day). The next day, when I tripped on it again, I told them "hen weixian." They fixed it right then and there, but the day after that it was back. "Hen weixian," I said. Nobody did or said anything. I went with a translator and told them an old person would break their head. "Mingtian xiuli," they said. I persisted. It took four months, but they finally removed the hazard. After I left Baoding, someone wrote to me saying the danger had come back to the post office. Who knows if any old people have already broken limbs over it.

What I was doing was acting politically. My success, albeit temporary, happened because I was a foreigner. Chinese people are not supposed to engage in independent political action. There is no way for public issues, major or minor, to be addressed. No citizen would ever suggest that it is the duty of the post office to keep the entranceway safe and free from obstruction. A Chinese who wanted to report a hazard at a post office entrance would have had to make the issue a personal one, and would have tried to persuade an individual employee to deal with the danger as an act of private altruism - a voluntary sacrifice for the good of the country.

In a country where civil society existed, a group of local residents could have organized to get the post office to correct the problem. But China still honors Karl Marx, who hated civil society. He described in the the dirtiest words he knew: "It is from its own entrails that civil society ceaselessly engenders the Jew" ("On the Jewish Question"). In other words, civil society is so ugly that it excretes Jews from its bowels.

Trevor Corson, who studied at Beijing Normal University in 1989, wrote in the February 2000 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, "The origins of the movement among Chinese students were less romantic, and less clearly about democracy per se" than Western reporters believed. My own impressions of that time were there was great interest in democracy and in political theory. People asked me wonderful questions about separation of powers and about the rule of law. It was in China that the May 4th Movement arose in 1919, a movement that chose "Science and Democracy" as its slogan. It was in China that people first understood that democracy - arguing, testing, reconsidering - is the political realization of the scientific method.

Even though the Chinese are no longer interested in Marx, the legitimacy of the Communist Party is based on the unquestioning respect that people have for Marx. If Americans won't say bad things about Marx, why should the Chinese be different? On the other hand, if we and they can see just how much Marx opposed democracy, we can all live in a world where 2 + 2 = 4.

This article appeared in Partisan Review, Volume LXIX, Number 1, Winter 2002