The Chinese Communist Party’s high-profile commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth raised some misgivings.
To understand the move, one must understand something about Chinese culture - reverence for predecessors and sages. Multiple reformist politicians in Chinese history have promoted their own reforms by invoking past thinkers. Interestingly, their innovations were usually based on past traditions.
Marx holds a lofty position in China. It is hard to ascertain whether the high-profile celebration of Marx’s 200th birthday reminds people of the Chinese national tradition. President Xi Jinping’s long speech at the May 3 commemoration was an attempt to excavate spiritual wealth and strength from Marx’s ideas for China’s reform and development. His “excavation” revealed a brand-new Marx, a Marx that is different from the one in traditional orthodox propaganda, yet inspiring just the same.
There was hardly any mention of “violent revolution”, “class struggle”, “dictatorship”, “seizure of power”, terms considered provocative in western countries yet prevalent in the media and textbooks during the Mao era. On the contrary, Xi first reminded members of the ruling party not to forget the basic features of the beautiful future the German philosopher envisioned – that communism means people’s liberation and freedom. He quoted the line that the future society “shall be such a commonwealth, in which everybody’s free development is the condition for all people’s free development”. He expressed the hope that all communist party members and citizens can learn and practice Marx’s ideas of democracy and work for the welfare of the general public. He urged party members to constantly guarantee and improve people’s livelihoods, and promote fairness and justice in society, even though Marx’s thoughts had no direct relationship with present-day China’s social security regime.
The most noteworthy part of Xi’s speech was about Marx’s ideas on man’s relations with Nature, which rarely received due attention from ruling communist bureaucrats. Marx’s stated that man’s conquest of Nature will result in the latter’s revenge, and that human beings must respect and protect nature. Harmony between man and Nature must be preserved. Xi told his communist colleagues that a true Marxist must have due environmental awareness.
The most important, innovative part of the speech was that about Marx’s ideas on world history. In Marx’s words, since the 17th century, the more thoroughly nations’ primitive states of isolation was eliminated by increasingly perfect ways of production, communication, and the naturally formulated division of work among nations as a result of such communication, the more history would become world history.
Xi pointed out the scientific value of such an outlook on history, which had long been opposed by Chinese communist theorists. China must “expand cooperation with all countries in the world, actively participate in global governance, achieve win-win cooperation in more realms, at higher levels ... work with people of all countries to build a community of shared future for humanity, and a better world,” Xi said. As if to vent his dissatisfaction with the recent rise of trade protectionism and unilateralism, he warned that he “who refuses the world, the world will refuse him”.
The emphasis Xi put on studying Marxism was unprecedented in the history of the CCP. It may serve the CCP’s agenda on globalization and help address doubts within and outside the party. More importantly, it sends the message that the CCP is not an organization of narrow-minded nationalists, but one of global vision dedicated to global peace and human wellbeing.