A Labor Standard Exclusive:
Conference and Discussion on Rosa Luxemburg at Wuhan University, People’s Republic of China
by Paul Le Blanc
Rosa Luxemburg has the
well-deserved reputation of being one of the most radical defenders of
democracy and one of the most uncompromising critics of the market economy in
the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. The People’s Republic of
Yet a well-funded, well-organized, well-attended “International Conference on Rosa Luxemburg’s Thought and Its Contemporary Value” (March 20–22, 2006) has recently taken place at one of China’s most prestigious educational institutions, Wuhan University, under the sponsorship of the similarly prestigious Philosophy School and Institute of Marxist Philosophy. This paradoxical development is a matter of some significance.
I was fortunate to have been
invited to present a paper at this conference, and doubly fortunate to be able
to do just that. This informal report seeks to explore the conference’s
significance by connecting a description of the conference with a discussion of
A classroom lecture on Rosa Luxemburg’s views of capitalism, socialism, and how to get from one to the other
I am by no means an expert on
Over the years I have read a number of valuable works of reportage, scholarship, and analysis by Edgar Snow, Nym Wales (Helen Foster Snow), John K. Fairbank, Benjamin Schwartz, Stuart Schram, Merle Goldman, Stanley Karnow, Les Evans, Gregor Benton, Pierre Rousset, and others, various articles in the pages of Monthly Review, fictional works by Lu Xun (Hsun) and Ding Ling (Ting Ling), not to mention André Malraux’s classic novel Man’s Fate, as well as writings by Mao Zedong (Tse-tung), Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-ping), and other leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, and such dissident revolutionaries as Chen Duxiu (Tu-hsiu), Wang Fanxi (Fan-shi), Peng Shuzi (Shu-tse), and Chen Bilan (Pi-lan) whose works are worth consulting in libraries and—in the case of the Chinese revolutionaries—on line at http://www.marxists.org/index.htm.
To prepare for this trip I viewed an excellent three-part, six-hour documentary originally aired on public television, “China: A Century of Revolution,” surveying the period of 1911–1997. I also watched the remarkable Chinese film “To Live” (1994), which reflects the hopes, tragedies, and achievements of that country’s turbulent history from the 1940s to the 1970s. This skillfully crafted, beautifully acted work of art portrays the terrible corruption and inequalities of pre-revolutionary China, the violence of the civil war between Nationalists and Communists, the tremendous idealism and some of the problematical realities associated with the Revolution that triumphed in 1949, the immense hopes and terrible sacrifices of the Great Leap Forward, the enthusiasm and tragedy of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and through it all the creativity, the humanity, the endurance and strength of the Chinese people. While Mao is associated with the victories over the old order that resulted in great gains for the popular masses, he is also seen as riding roughshod over his more practical-minded comrades [or virtually any “comrades” who disagreed with him] and pushing through what turned out to be devastatingly destructive policies (Great Leap and Cultural Revolution).
The dramatic shift in the
direction of capitalism, gradually engineered under the leadership of the
Communist Party since Mao’s 1976 death, was discussed by an excellent panel on
One of the most important
sources for my making sense of
The official photograph of some Rosa Luxemburg conference participants at Wuhan University.
How many people enjoy the
relatively prosperous lifestyle in
Two Westerners who have been living in China for a while told me that China’s urban youth are incredibly materialistic—as much as the most materialistic youth in the U.S. They also told me that the two primary characteristics among these young people are being very polite (and generally telling you whatever they think you want to hear) while all the time looking to advance their own self-interest. I think this may be true in some cases, but my experience convinces me that in many cases it is not true. It seems to me that reality is generally more interesting and complex than any sweeping generalizations. My own impression of the students I met (mostly those assigned to help with the Rosa Luxemburg conference) is that they are very bright, thoughtful, generous, energetic, more often than not blessed with poise and humor. It was a pleasure to get to know them and to spend time with them.
Each of the students whom I
asked, it turned out, is a member of the Chinese Communist Party (which has a
membership of 70 million). With each, one or more of their parents, and one or
more of their grandparents, were Communists, in some cases with membership
stretching back to before 1949. My understanding of what it means for them to
be a Communist is that they attend a Party meeting once a month and sometimes
participate in community service projects. At Party meetings they receive
information on national Party decisions and policies, discuss politics and
world events, and make decisions on the goals and implementation of their
service projects. Conveyed matter-of-factly, with perhaps an underlying tone of
modest idealism, this information did not seem linked to the sort of intensity,
activist enthusiasm, or critical engagement (or in some cases self-deprecating
humor) often exuded by young members of small left-wing groups in the
Those whom I asked told me that
their parents worked in service and clerical occupations, were teachers, or in
one case a judge. One student told me that his father had been born into a
peasant family, had moved to the city and became a factory worker, later being
given the chance to go to the university, from which he graduated to become a
teacher. Now the son is attending one of the
There is a tendency, among human beings, to think we know more than we actually know, and to see reality through the distorting lens of preconceived notions. Even when there is some element of truth to these notions, they can blind us to realities that are often more complex and far more interesting than what we think we are actually seeing.
A good example of this, as I
have already suggested, has to do with how different Chinese students are in
comparison to how I was told they would be. Another example has to do with the
central organizer of this conference, a senior faculty member in the Philosophy
One Western participant in the conference, shortly after I arrived (and before the conference actually started), speculated to me that He Ping was a bureaucrat who would only express the official ideology of the Chinese Communist Party leadership. I imagine that this speculation was rooted in an assumption that only a “loyal Communist Party bureaucrat” would be allowed by the government to organize such a conference. In any event, I also imagine that the person who speculated to me about He Ping was soon forced by reality to see her in a very different way.
He Ping is a diminutive woman of middle age, with a soft face that radiates genuine charm and warmth. From the nature of the conference, and from her words and actions, it seemed to me that she is interested in the expression of diverse and challenging viewpoints. I think she played such a central role in conceiving of and organizing the conference because she believes strongly in the value of Rosa Luxemburg and feels that a Chinese engagement with Luxemburg’s ideas, and with international scholars who are interested in those ideas, can be a good thing.
I had a chance to see He Ping interacting with her students in the classroom (which I visited to make an interactive presentation on Luxemburg’s challenging views), and it was clear to me that she is a caring, dedicated, capable teacher for whom her students feel respect and affection. “She is like a mother to us,” one told me.
Interactions with Students
I made a special point of spending time talking with Chinese students—between conference sessions, at meals, in the evenings, during a field trip, at the evening conference sessions with students, at a special presentation I was able to make to a combined audience of the Philosophy Club and a philosophy class, etc.
While sometimes there was the kind of reticence that I had expected in a country ruled by a one-party Communist state, there was also far more openness than I had anticipated—an interest in engaging with new ideas, thoughtful reflections, critical thought.
Early in the visit I indicated
to a bright young graduate student that I believed there were probably some
limits on freedom of expression in
Paul Le Blanc (center, back row) with Professor He Ping’s philosophy class, and also several conference participants
In one of the evening sessions for students, I defined democracy as “rule by the people” (emphasizing that this was not simply rule in the name of the people) and emphasized the importance of freedom of expression, including being able to express disagreements with those in positions of authority, in order to make democracy real. A student began hesitantly, “Maybe this is not the right thing to ask,” and then she made reference to students who had initiated struggles for freedom and democracy in the 1980s—but they didn’t get what they had hoped for, and things turned out badly for them. They became discouraged, and later others felt discouraged, about seeking such changes. What, she wanted to know, did I think about that?
I said that my studies and my own experience have shown me that bringing about positive changes is difficult. In working-class struggles, in struggles against racism, in struggles for women’s rights, in struggles against war and imperialism, and in other efforts to overcome oppression, there have been many defeats before there have been victories. But people who are struggling for something positive often keep struggling, learning lessons from past struggles on what to do and what not to do. People learn from terrible and discouraging defeats how to struggle more effectively, and through learning such lessons people can eventually win. It is possible to lose, and lose, and lose—and then win. That was the experience of the Chinese Revolution, I added, and also of the American Revolution.
People were very interested in
Someone wanted to know if there was political repression for those having radical ideas. I said that sometimes there had been such systematic repression—for example, during the so-called “McCarthy period” in the 1950s—but that today there is significant freedom of expression and freedom to organize opposition. There are still instances of dissenters being victimized, in one way or the other, by the authorities, but freedom of expression, not political repression, is the dominant reality. I also noted, on the other hand, that great concentrations of wealth translate into a substantial concentration of political power, and into substantial control over the news media, and that in my opinion this blocks genuine democracy. Our culture is distorted by this political-economic inequality, and by a terrible commercialism, yet there is a significant degree of cultural freedom and creativity.
A student told me she likes
Development “with Chinese Characteristics”
Early in my visit to
There is a question whether the reciprocal translation of different scientific and philosophic terms is a key element of all world views including Marxism, or whether Marxism alone can achieve such translation, while other world views can do so partially or not at all.
Translation of idioms into one another presupposes that a given period of civilization has “basically” an identical cultural expression, even if the idioms of the nations in that civilization are quite different, since they are each determined by a specific national development, culture, philosophic systems, etc. …
In Marzani’s notations, the reader is told that “to avoid misunderstanding, we are using the word ‘idiom’ to indicate the cultural ensemble, the ways of thinking and acting in a country at a given time. By corollary the word ‘translate’ means to transpose, to find correspondence or differentiations among ‘idioms’ of various countries, or of different periods in the same country.”
Gramsci expressed the view that “only in Marxism is such ‘translation’ possible in an organic manner, whereas in other world views this translation is only a schematic game” (60). One could argue, however, that the cultural and political (not to mention linguistic) differences between the contexts of a Gramsci or a Luxemburg and of a Mao Zedong or a Deng Xiaoping naturally generate quite different understandings of what is meant by “Marxism.” Clear communication in even the face-to-face discussion between this student and myself required great attention to the cultural specifics of his society and how these did or did not correspond to those of Gramsci’s society (or mine).
Paul Le Blanc and Lin Xianlan, a Wuhan University student who translated his presentation into Chinese
Even more so did this pose a difficulty in some of the discussions between Chinese and non-Chinese scholars at the Rosa Luxemburg conference. One obvious aspect of this difficulty was posed by the uneven results of the earnest and hardworking students who heroically sought to provide simultaneous translation of unfamiliar words and concepts during the conference. (Even the name of the person who was the focus of the conference was sometimes translated, from Chinese to English, as “Rosemburg.” On the other hand, I have difficulty pronouncing the unfamiliar names of my new-made Chinese friends with who I had such intense contact, and some of them kindly suggested easier English names or words, such as “Frank” instead of Fu Ke Xin, or “Minus” instead of Lin Xianlan.) Aside from such technical challenges, there were often such differences in ways of thinking that it sometimes felt as if portions of the conference involved a dialogue of the deaf. In the end, my assessment of the conference ended up being far more positive than that, as I will indicate later in this report. But dramatic differences in our respective political cultures definitely posed a challenge.
This is related, it seems to me, to the great stress—in official Chinese pronouncements as well as in some conference presentations—on the need for China to undergo modernization “with Chinese characteristics,” to develop Marxism “with Chinese characteristics,” and to fashion a market economy “with Chinese characteristics.” Also I believe that between one or another person who uses this formulation, different meanings may be intended.
One aspect of “Marxism with Chinese characteristics,” for many, was the particular interpretation of Marxism developed by Mao Zedong. In the late 1960s, the ideology employed in China’s revolutionary process was tagged by the Chinese themselves as “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought” (M-L-M)—which, to be quite frank, strikes me as a blend of rigid dogmatism and opportunistic flexibility, revolutionary Marxist ideals and dictatorial Stalinist strictures, and a swirling together of universal with specifically Chinese perspectives. It was used as a rationale for such dubious things as the extremist disasters of the Cultural Revolution. Recently “Deng Xiaoping Theory” has been added, reflecting the new, pragmatic shift away from the extremist policies, and also related to the introduction of capitalism as a growing component of the Chinese economy, representing the very different orientation of a man who was Mao’s comrade, victim (during the Cultural Revolution), and successor. Consequently, the ideological acronym for the country’s official ideology now is “MMD,” referring to Marxism, Mao, and Deng.
There were some speakers at the Rosa Luxemburg conference whose presentations were permeated with MMD—with such predictable formulations as “grasping the proper relationship between masses, class, party, and leader,” and whose touchstone was the authority and wisdom of the regime. At one point, a young student at the conference turned around and showed me something she had just written down in her notebook: “I am so sick of MMD. They talk about it all the time in our classes and it is so boring!” She was especially interested in how I would define the word “freedom” and in the relationship of freedom and democracy in Rosa Luxemburg’s thought. There was another student, however, who very much liked the things I told him about Rosa Luxemburg but was very supportive of the policies of Deng Xiaoping. I asked him what he thought Red Rosa would think of Deng Xiaoping Theory. Without hesitation, and with quite genuine sincerity, he said: “She would support it one hundred percent!”
In some ways, the more important
issue involves not different understandings of social theory, but a distinctive
historical and socio-economic development taking place in
Both capitalism and socialism
must be developed “with Chinese characteristics,” he stressed. Chinese
civilization has existed for many thousands of years, and its patterns have
influenced, and will continue to influence, present and future developments. Down
through the centuries, Chinese society was organized as an incredibly durable
social order under an all-powerful Emperor who was served by a substantial and
highly educated layer of administrators known as the Mandarins. The Mandarins
were highly organized, sharing a common ideology, and strictly subordinated to
the Emperor. Poor peasants, approximately 80 percent of the population,
accepted the absolute authority of the Emperor and his Mandarin administrators
because they coordinated life, labor, public works, defense, and other vital
activities of the masses of people in
My understanding is that this is consistent with the thrust of Deng Xiaoping Theory.
A good question was one posed by a female student independently in a different conversation with me: “If we build a capitalist economy today, what will make it turn into a socialist economy later. Won’t the people who are benefiting from capitalism want to keep it that way?”
Regardless of what happens in
the future, the present in
(The statistics in the paragraph above come from a recent on-line report, “China Copes with Globalization: A Mixed Review,” by U.S.-based Chinese researcher and activist Dale Wen, and from the book by Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burckett, China and Socialism: Market Reforms and Class Struggle, Monthly Review Press, 2006. The quote from the labor dissident is from Stephen Philion’s “Interview with Yan Yuanzhang”.)
Such realities suggest that
perhaps there is a basis for Gramsci’s contention to be vindicated—that the
critical-minded variant of revolutionary Marxism that he, Rosa Luxemburg, and
others in “the capitalist West” articulated in the face of oppressive
capitalist developments, might find ready translation and resonance in
A front-page story in the New York Times (
According to Shanghai University
Professor Cheng En Fu (in his panel presentation at the Global Left Forum in
New York), some proponents of Deng Xiaoping Theory want China to copy the
United States in the same mechanistic manner that many Chinese Communists had
once sought to copy the USSR, not facing the fact that U.S. achievements are
connected to U.S. social problems. Professor Cheng explained that within the
Chinese Communist Party two critical currents have emerged. One involves
“traditional Marxists” (presumably “traditional” in the sense of inclining more
toward Mao Zedong Thought) hostile to the market reforms and to
For that matter, the New York Times reports, Chinese President Hu Jintao has, since becoming head of the Communist Party, “also tried to establish his leftist credentials, extolling Marxism, praising Mao, and bankrolling research to make the country’s official but often ignored socialist ideology more relevant to the current era.”
This is the general context
within which the “International Conference on Rosa Luxemburg’s Thought and Its
Contemporary Value” took place at
My estimate is that approximately
100 people were involved in the conference. This includes 53 formally
registered participants representing, in addition to
Why was this conference taking place? It seems likely to me that there was more than one reason.
One theory circulating among the
international participants was that, in fact, the conference was related to
differences within the Chinese Communist Party over the market reforms and
their impact. Discussing Rosa Luxemburg’s debate with Eduard Bernstein over
theoretical revisionism and over his strategy of accommodating to capitalism
could be a way of confronting similar questions in contemporary
The fact that Luxemburg was a Marxist revolutionary who had received praise from Lenin (this praise was cited and quoted many times by Chinese participants at the conference), and yet had publicly expressed certain disagreements with both Marx and Lenin, also may help to legitimize the creation of greater theoretical-ideological space—both for those enthusiastic about the direction of market reforms and for those who are critical. The simple fact of bringing an array of international scholars into dialogue with Chinese scholars is certainly consistent with the Chinese government’s desire to advance further its opening to the West and the world.
The collected papers – in Chinese and English – that were presented at the conference
In addition, academic departments and institutions are often inclined to enhance their authority by showcasing substantial scholarly events, such as international conferences. Nor should one shrug off the possibility that there is a sincere desire among Chinese scholars to advance scholarship and knowledge.
The poster advertising the conference accurately indicated some of the themes touched on:
Monday and Tuesday contained two morning sessions and two afternoon sessions—each lasting for almost two hours and involving three 20-minute presentations, one 10-minute commentary, and approximately 20–30 minutes of questions and discussion. On Wednesday there were two morning sessions plus a tour of the nearby lake area, then a banquet. While the tastes of the marvelous dishes served at the banquet are difficult to describe here, I do want to give at least a taste of the presentations and discussions at the conference sessions, although it will not be possible to do justice to any of them (or even to summarize all of them) in this brief report.
More than one Chinese presentation sought to bridge any gap between Rosa Luxemburg and Deng Xiaoping Theory. For example, one speaker stressed that the Chinese Communist Party absorbs all positive thinking and opportunities to develop Marxism. But this must be “Marxism with Chinese characteristics,” and the “Washington Consensus” (in favor of “neo-liberal” economic policies) is paralleled by the “Beijing Consensus” in which positive market reforms are being correctly implemented—and the study of Rosa Luxemburg would certainly add to this process. But there was, of course, greater variety than this among the presentations. For example, Li Gonzhen (Professor from Wuhan University) provided a very capable biographical sketch of Luxemburg, then went on to emphasize that her democratic thought is very important to China as the country opens up to the development of capitalism, and also that her democratic thought can be helpful for analyzing and learning from the collapse of the USSR and the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. While Rosa Luxemburg’s democratic and political thought had been criticized by official sources in the Communist countries, he concluded, now is the time to become acquainted with and make use of her ideas.
At a particularly interesting panel on “Rosa Luxemburg’s Philosophy of Politics,” an eminent scholar from Japan, Professor Narahito Ito (Professor Emeritus of Tokyo’s Chuo University and chair of the International Rosa Luxemburg Society) offered comments on Luxemburg’s distinctive rejection of nationalism, opposing to this her own internationalist and universalist standpoint; in contrast to Lenin, she refused to interweave support for “self-determination of oppressed nationalities” with a commitment to the struggles of the working class, seeing nationalism as something that divided laboring majorities and drew them into destructive wars—a view that Professor Ito saw as relevant to our own time. A much younger scholar, Estrella Trincado (from Complutense University of Madrid), perceptively suggested that Luxemburg because she was an “outsider” who (as a woman, as a Pole, as a Jew) was so often excluded, would naturally be out of sympathy with such naturally exclusionary ideologies as nationalism, but also sought to explore Luxemburg’s general approach to the question of “liberation” from the standpoint of feminist sensibilities. The third presentation of this session was by Lin Yuping (associated with the Rizhao Broadcast TV Station in Shandong), and the translation of his talk was difficult for me to understand, but its title is worth reproducing: “Insisting on the Unification of the Steadfastness of Faith and the Possibility of Realizing the Ideal Society—the Revelation Received in the Dispute of the Different Viewpoints between Rosa Luxemburg and E. Bernstein.”
It was interesting to see that,
unlike most discussions of Rosa Luxemburg, this conference had as one of its
primary focuses an intensive exploration of Luxemburg’s economic thought. She
was the author of a major and quite controversial work on economics, The Accumulation of Capital, which
sharply criticizes the second volume of Marx’s Capital, lays out a pioneering analysis of aspects capitalist
reproduction that is different from what one finds in Marx, and offers a bold
analysis of imperialism that is at odds with that of Lenin and other prominent
Marxists. Paul Zarembka (Professor of Economics at the
Luxemburg-as-economist had other
partisans as well. One of the most interesting was Tadeusz Kowalik (Professor
Among the Chinese participants, He Ping stressed that Luxemburg and Marx represented two different approaches in analyzing capitalism. Marx “looks at capitalist world development as the development of productive forces,” whereas Luxemburg “looks at capitalist world development as the expansion of capital and the process in which capitalism captured markets [in non-capitalist regions] in order to survive.” He Ping’s conclusion was that Luxemburg’s thought, while representing a critique and revision of an aspect of Marx’s work, “doesn’t deny Marx’s judgment about the essence of capital accumulation,” but develops it to “disclose profoundly the economy and the politics of the imperialist period.” She saw Luxemburg’s concerns around capital accumulation as relevant to recent Chinese developments and also to the process of globalization.
More polemical in tone was the presentation by Yao Shunliang (Professor from Nanjing University), who argued that Luxemburg “raised a fake question” about, and supplied “a naïve answer” to, an alleged problem in the second volume of Capital, where Marx discussed the capitalist economy as “a closed system” which Luxemburg felt was at variance with reality. That is, she misunderstood the fact that Marx was working at a level of analytical abstraction, assuming that he was instead attempting to offer a more empirical description of living reality; what’s more, her own solution of the alleged “problem” was itself a poor description of the living reality. On the other hand, more in line with He Ping’s comments, he believed that Luxemburg was “wrestling with a real problem behind the fake question,” and that the methodology she developed in this effort “can be used to help develop an analysis of globalization.”
Professor Yao Shunliang’s approach seemed to overlap with that of Arndt Hopfman (Director of the Regional South African Office of the Berlin-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation), although a far more negative critique of her economic thought was well-articulated by Michael Kratka (Professor at the University of Amsterdam), who explored debates around her ideas as involving an important stage in “Marxian Macroeconomics,” and who clearly preferred the approach Marx (and those hewing more closely to that approach) to what he viewed as a mistaken direction taken by Luxemburg.
A very interesting panel focused
on Rosa Luxemburg and Western Marxism, with three presentations from Chinese
scholars: Ye Ruzian (a somewhat older Professor from
There were a number of other
presentations certainly worthy of note. Fritz Weaver (an Austrian intellectual
of great charm, and a prominent member of the International Rosa Luxemburg
Society) walked us through “
Ottokar Luban (General Secretary of the International Rosa Luxemburg Society) presented something that is typical of him—an incredibly careful, thoughtful, well-documented piece of scholarship. This one was on Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin (1904) and of the Russian Revolution (1918), in which he capably laid out Luxemburg’s ideas and laid to rest the myth that she had repudiated her important critique of the Bolsheviks before her death in 1919. (I should add that in the discussion I expressed a dissent regarding what I believe is often an overly sharp opposition of Luxemburg to Lenin. I believe the revolutionary-democratic orientation of each is much closer to the other than is commonly acknowledged.)
The panel on “The Democratic
Thought of Rosa Luxemburg” was the one in which I gave my own presentation. The
first speaker was Ding Junping (Professor at
On the other hand, there was the
third talk of this session, given by Huang Biao (doctoral candidate at
The commentator for this session
happened to be Wang Xinyan, Assistant Dean of the
In the closing session, He Ping
What Would Rosa Luxemburg Have Thought?
I don’t know what Rosa Luxemburg
would have thought of the conference, but I am confident that as a dyed-in-the-wool
“troublemaker”—one who was always challenging existing power structures—she would
have had much to say about
She would, of course, be a powerful advocate for full freedom of expression, especially “for those who think differently,” and for the right of those who think differently to be able to organize in order to win others to their ideas. She would favor the most radical democracy, with a full array of free and independent publications, social movements, trade unions, opposition parties, democratic councils in workplaces and communities, etc. She would strongly favor democratic control over the economic resources, institutions, and policies of society. She would press for approaches consistent with the basic human needs for freedom (self-determination), community, and creative labor. She would insist on the utilization of the economy for the purpose of providing sufficient food, clothing, housing, health care, and education for all people in society. She would insist, at the very same time, that this be done in a manner that is consistent with the preservation of our planet’s thin film of life.
Related to this last point, she
would find it unacceptable that seven of the ten most polluted cities in the
world are in
Such things make Rosa Luxemburg dangerous for all existing power structures, it seems to me, and they also make her incredibly relevant to people in all countries, today more than ever.
March 31, 2006