The Guardian • Issue #2087

How to deal with leftist dogmatism: Liberate Thought

Chinese dances during a culture festival.

Chinese dances during a culture festival. Photo: Shadow134239 –(CC BY-SA 4.0).

Lessons can always be learnt from other Communist Parties, especially those that have long experience of political and economic power. The lesson here comes from the Communist Party of China (CPC). In the last few months one of the hottest topics of discussion concerns a new “liberation of thought.” The specific shape of this liberation of thought concerns the integration of the basic principles of Marxism with the best of China’s traditional culture. This is a thoroughly dialectical process, in which the essential socialistic elements of traditional culture are transformed through Marxism-Leninism so as to be suitable for socialism of today. Why is this a ‘liberation of thought’?

History is always helpful. As many have pointed out, there were earlier emancipations of the mind. An extremely important one happened with the Yan’an Rectification Movement of 1942-1945. The process was very comprehensive, running through all Party branches and all aspects of life in the Red Areas at the time. What needed to be rectified? It was the residual effect of “leftist” dogmatism that fed into “right-leaning” errors. The “leftist” aspect goes back to Wang Ming, who along with others in 1931 advocated revolutionary romanticism, military adventurism, and political isolation of the Party. These errors had led to significant military defeats, loss of large numbers of Party members, and lingering ideological disarray in a still young Communist Party. This “leftist” error also had a “rightist” dimension in that the approach taken was adopted uncritically from the Comintern and not applied in the light of Chinese conditions. Ultimately, the left and right mistakes supported one another and held back the CPC from a scientific approach in which Marxism-Leninism as a universal theory is applied and developed in the concrete economic, political, and class conditions of the time. The liberation of thought in the early 1940s led to a correct Marxist-Leninist approach and was described as seeking truth from facts.

The next major liberation of thought took place in 1978, after Mao Zedong’s death. There was a profound ideological struggle across the country, with opponents fighting out their positions in leading newspapers. At the centre of debate was Marxist philosophy and at stake was the future of Marxism-Leninism and the Party. One side – including some in the Central Committee – promoted the “two whatevers,” as in “we will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and without wavering follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” Earlier in 1978, this group held a stronger position, but we can already see the problem: this was a “rightist” approach in trying to preserve the disastrous “leftist” errors of the “Cultural Revolution.” It tried to raise the subjective positions of the revolutionary leader to a status of never making mistakes.

The other side was initially on the back foot, but movements began in provincial and regional Party Committees. Study groups in places such as Guangdong and Heilongjiang studied Marxism-Leninism in depth and they noted that neither Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, nor Mao Zedong himself ever promoted the idea that they never made mistakes. They also emphasised that Marxism-Leninism is a science and a guide for action, not a dogma.

Then a breakthrough happened: an article was published in Guangming Daily with the title “Practice is the Only Criterion for Judging Truth.” Written by Hu Fuming and appearing in May 1978, the article touched a real nerve and captured the shift in public opinion. Within weeks, the tide shifted decisively and by December Deng Xiaoping was able to deliver one of his most important speeches at the close of the Working Conference immediately before the Third Plenary Session of the CPC’s Eleventh Central Committee: “Liberate Thought, Seek Truth from Facts, and Unite as One in Looking to the Future.” This speech brought to a close what is now known as the “great discussion on the criterion for truth.”

The historical importance and implications of both these earlier liberations of thought are now well-known, but at heart was the recovery of Marxism-Leninism as a scientific method and guide for action, developing it in light of concrete conditions (truth from facts), and ensuring that the Party is unified and strengthened once again.

This history helps us understand the present liberation of thought, which emphasises the dialectical integration of the basic principles of Marxism with the best of China’s traditional culture for the sake of developing a new socialist culture. We need to situate this move in a global context: having stepped onto the centre of the world stage, every move made by the CPC and socialist China has global implications. These moves are taking place in a world that is undergoing a period of profound qualitative change, analogous to the time of the October Revolution in Russia a little over a century ago. The risks are great but the possibilities are even greater. For this reason, in China they speak of a new form of human civilisation to which every part of the world may potentially contribute.

What is the error being addressed? Once again, there is the problem of “leftist” dogmatism. Some in China want the leadership to stop keeping the US-led West on economic life support, and perhaps even put it out of its misery. The feeling is: they are finished, so let them sink and let us focus on our own concerns and perhaps those of the “Global South” (through BRICS etc). These people are annoyed that China is not beating the West with its own stick, is refusing to join in a one-sided and ideologically empty “New Cold War,” and is instead following the long-established path of further opening up and deepening its engagement with the rest of the world.

This type of “leftist” dogmatism would be disastrous. Why? It smacks of economic and political isolationalism, of denying so many parts of the world of a model of socialist modernisation that has increasing appeal in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere, and ultimately setting back the world communist movement. In other words, the ideological struggle today concerns once again the status of Marxism-Leninism as a science, which soberly and carefully assesses the global situation and its problems, makes appropriate proposals and seeks concrete answers.

These three liberations of thought provide us with much to consider and reflect upon, but perhaps the slogan from the early 1940s sums it up best: “Learn from past errors to avoid future mistakes, cure the illness to save the patient.”

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