Reading the Communist Manifesto with Xi Jinping

Last week, Xi Jinping led the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party in a “group study session” of the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels–170 years after its first publication. This event seems destined to have a special place in histories of socialism and its reinterpretation: in what other study of this document would class struggle and the public ownership of the means of production not even rate a mention? At least, those terms did not appear in the Xinhua dispatch issued after the session (Chinese original here); Xi’s no doubt lengthy speech to the meeting has not yet been published in full.

Such evasions are one reason why there is a tendency for outsiders to see these kind of events as a kind of playacting that has no meaningful content and is disconnected from the realities of the country. But I think they can be quite informative about how those running China think. In my reading, I saw three key terms that dominated Xi’s discussion, which together can help us piece together his vision:

Scientific. This word was used a lot: according to Xi, the Communist Manifesto is “a classic work of scientific insight into the laws of the development of human society.” And the passage of time has not made it at all irrelevant. “The current trends of a multipolar world, economic globalization, use of information technology, cultural diversity, unprecedented interconnection and interdependence among countries–these completely validate the scientific forecasts made by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto.”

Xi does not dwell on what the scientific laws of development are exactly. But I have no doubt that he firmly believes that there are such laws. I think the emphasis on being “scientific” reflects a quite 19th-century view that human societies and economies can be understood and managed fairly easily. This is really an expression of confidence: that whatever challenges and problems the government encounters can in fact be dealt with. It is not quite an endorsement of central planning. But such confidence is certainly the polar opposite of the libertarian or Austrian view that the economy is an incredibly complex system that cannot be easily understood and so should be left largely to its own devices.

Development. The Communist Manifesto “provides powerful ideological weapons for us to understand the world and change the world,” Xi says. Again, there is absolute confidence that the world (or at least China) should be changed, that he knows how to do it, and that the Communist Party has the ability to do it. And the Manifesto also makes clear, he says, that the point of changing the world is to “promote the overall development of people and the overall progress of society.”

The lineage of this idea runs all the way back to Lenin’s 1920 statement that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” and Deng Xiaoping’s line in 1980 that “The purpose of socialism is to make the country rich and strong.” Since the late 1970s, China’s version of socialism has been more about the pursuit of national development than the implementation of a specific ideological arrangement of society. These days Xi is de-emphasizing purely economic measures of development in favor of a broader concept, but the message is ultimately the same.

Leadership. While the concept of development these days is much more flexible than the old ideas of a classless society and a heavy industry-led economy, there are some things for which flexibility is not permissible. Chief among them, of course, is the leadership role of the Communist Party. “The Party will lead the people in advancing a great revolution of society and in achieving the great rejuvenation of the nation,” Xi says. The Party “will always be the backbone of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation,” and it is the Communist Manifesto that laid the “theoretical foundation” for this idea.

In this interpretation of the Communist Manifesto we can thus see the fundamentals of what Chinese-style socialism is: the Communist Party pursuing the social and economic development of the Chinese nation, on behalf of the nation. It is clear that this social and economic development should not arise spontaneously from the free interactions of individuals, but should be directed and managed “scientifically” by the Party.

Whether these ideas can actually be found in the Communist Manifesto itself, or are just retrospective projections, is a question for another day.

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