Explaining `creative Marxism' to America

SU Shaozhi is confident of his Marxism. He is so confident, in fact, that he is venturing into Ronald Reagan's America to explain Marx as seen through Chinese eyes and to study the workings of the world's largest capitalist economy.

``Western observers think Marxism is only a dogma, but we follow a creative Marxism, not a dogmatic Marxism,'' Professor Su said in an interview before his departure for the United States late last month.

The distinction he made is now a common one between what is often described as Soviet-style orthodoxy and ``socialism with Chinese characteristics.''

As director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Su is an important defender of senior leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms against Marxist critics. He is one of China's top ``engineers of the human soul,'' as party propaganda chief Deng Liqun has called intellectuals who do political and ideological work.

Professor Su's two-month visit to the US, during which he is visiting more than a dozen major universities, is the first such odyssey for any of China's Marxist theoreticians. It is in keeping with his eclectic and forthright approach to Marxist studies, an approach which has been criticized by some of his more orthodox colleagues.

In the interview, Professor Su welcomed the opportunity to discuss the well-known People's Daily commentary, ``Theory and Practice,'' published late last year. The unsigned essay which appeared on the front page of that official voice of the Chinese Communist Party on Dec. 7 was widely interpreted in the West as a declaration that Marxist teachings were obsolete and that Chinese leaders were abandoning Marx.

A key passage in the commentary said: ``[Marx's] works were written over 100 years ago. Some of his assumptions were based on conditions of that time. Great changes have taken place and some of these assumptions are not necessarily appropriate today. . . . We cannot expect the writings of Marx and Lenin written in their time to solve all our present-day problems.''

The ``all'' in the last sentence was added in a discreet correction the following day.

Professor Su fully supports the People's Daily view, saying that there was nothing new in it because it was consistent with the policies and statements of Deng Xiaoping since late 1978, which have followed a less dogmatic line. Even so, the article generated a wave of euphoria thoughout the capitalist world since many people took it to mean China was leaving Marx behind.

So just what sort of Marxism is it that discards some of that great theorist's assumptions and conclusions?

``Creative Marxism'' means applying Marx's standpoint and methods to Chinese circumstances while perfecting the practical application of his theories, Su said academically. He noted that this was Mao's most important political achievement during his years at Yenan (1937-1947), when he rejected the rigid formulations of the Moscow-appointed party leaders and adopted a more flexible, sinicized Marxist doctrine.

``After the Opium War of 1840, Chinese history was a humiliated history,'' he said. ``How to revitalize the Chinese nation? We looked at different roads. The Kuomintang [Nationalist government] took the capitalist road for more than 20 years and proved that it does not work. The Chinese Communist Party persisted in Marxism. . . . Facts proved that whenever we correctly persist in this road, we will win. . . .'' he said.

Su concedes that the prestige of the Communist Party faltered as a result of the ``setbacks'' of the Great Leap Forward (1957-59) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But he claims that since the late 1970s, the tide has turned.

``Since we have improved the living standard of the people [after 1978], the prestige of the party is going up and up because people are taking truth [results] as the criterion and not rhetoric,'' he said.

``What is the main purpose of socialism?'' he asked rhetorically. ``It was not clear in China for a long time. Now it is clear. It is to develop the productive forces of the economy. . . . This is the central task of our party.''

This view has been forcefully advanced by Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang.

The extent to which all this dictates political distance from the Soviet Union is a delicate subject.

``Other socialist countries have misunderstood and misapplied Marxism: They didn't follow creative Marxism and didn't integrate Marxism with their own country's reality,'' Su said, without naming any socialist country.

A 1949 graduate of the Nanking Institute of Economics, Su is a thoughtful listener who seems to enjoy political discussions, or at least doesn't avoid them the way most Chinese prefer to do.

As an editor in the People's Daily theoretical department for 16 years before becoming deputy director of his institute in 1979, Su is well acquainted with the evolution of Marxist thought in China. His writings are direct and confront issues in ways familiar to Westerners.

Chinese Marxists must combat the criticism that ``communism is but a dim illusion,'' he wrote in an essay that has been translated and published in Western Europe and Japan. The statement partly defines his mission in the United States.

One big advantage for Su in discussions with foreigners is his knowledge of Western economic and political theory. For more than three decades, only a few privileged Chinese scholars have had access to works other than the Marxist classics and those by orthodox Soviet and Chinese Marxists.

This isolation has contributed to the lifeless style and unconvincing reasoning of many contemporary Chinese political writings and has limited the possibilities for dialogue with the non-Marxist world.

As a Marxist, Su explained that his idealism is based on the familiar materialist premise that man's starting point is social (material) being and that man's emancipation involves his freedom from class oppression and alienation, as defined by Marx, and ultimates in the perfection of his social (material) order.

Religion, in his opinion, is a form of alienation since, in Marxist terms, it springs from ignorance and superstition.

In recent years, Su has traveled to Britain, France, Japan (twice), Italy (three times), Yugoslavia (six times), Romania, and Hungary. This year he also expects to visit East Germany. His view that China has something to learn from Western political thinkers, both Marxist and non-Marxist, as well as from the experience of socialist and capitalist countries, was considered heretical until a few years ago.

``We get materials and sum up the experiences of these countries,'' he said, ``but we do not copy their models.''

There are still tests ahead for Su's theory. More than 100 of his essays have appeared in such reform-minded publications as the People's Daily and his own institute's quarterly journal, Research on Marxism. Yet none has appeared in Red Flag, the party's leading theoretical journal controlled by the propaganda department of the party's Central Committee.

When the editors of Red Flag accept his views, he will have something to celebrate. And so will Deng Xiaoping.

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