This interview with Professor Deng Chundong, President of the Institute of Marxism, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was conducted by Jenny Clegg in London on 5 December 2016. A slightly condensed version appeared first in the Morning Star.
Over three decades ago, Deng Xiaoping famously likened China’s reform path to a process of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’. On this journey, China has not been unaided: Marxism has been its fundamental guide. As China continues to undergo momentous changes as reform deepens, its president, Xi Jinping has put much emphasis on the country’s ideological orientation. In a nationally televised speech last July on the 95th anniversary of the CPC, he warned that “Turning our backs or abandoning Marxism means that our party would lose its soul and direction”. And he went on: “…what we are building is socialism with Chinese characteristics, not some other -ism.”
The Institute of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is one of China’s premier institutions, serving at the highest level as a research centre, a government think-tank and one of the foremost academic institutions. Its scholars and researchers not only absorb the Marxist classics but also apply Marxist theory to contemporary conditions, using Marxism to develop the concepts and practices of the socialist market economy, whilst critiquing capitalism to understand and learn from the mistakes of the West.
I was able to learn more about the Chinese Marxist viewpoint when I met up with Professor Deng Chundong, the Institute’s President, who was on a visit to London with a small delegation of political economists. We started by discussing the October Revolution in China, given the upcoming centenary next year. Professor Deng explained:
“The 1917 October Revolution signified a new era of human history. It was a great inspiration to the Chinese people – its great success showed the way forward to establish a socialist system in our country with the proletariat holding state power.
“At that time, China was oppressed by the forces of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism. China was in big trouble. Many of our most advanced thinkers of the time – scholars, students, businessmen – had tried to tried to figure out how to save China from its predicament. The success of revolution in Russia brought some sunlight during that dark period – it meant a great deal.
“Now to commemorate the October Revolution, we must commit to pursuing communist ideology and follow strictly the route of achieving socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
I then asked about his views on Fidel Castro’s main achievements and contributions to the world struggle for socialism.
“Fidel Castro gave his whole life to fighting for his people in Cuba. From the Chinese viewpoint, there are two major contributions he made which were helpful for China in setting a model for achieving socialism.
“In the first place, Cuba is a very small country in Caribbean close to the most powerful country in the world, the biggest capitalist country, the US. That such a small county could continue to follow a socialist path under the severe blockade of the US demands our great respect.
“In the 1990s, the whole of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed, but Fidel Castro continued in his belief and continued to promote socialism in Cuba. All communists around the world should show our admiration and our gratitude to Fidel.
“The reasons that socialism in Cuba advanced so far despite such great pressure from the US were firstly, the firm determination of Fidel, and secondly, that Cuba sought to explore its own unique way forward. It followed its own path and did not copy the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but – and this is the most important thing – adapted to the actual circumstances of the country and found its own practices to advance society, developing socialism with its own characteristics.
“Cuban socialism is very popular, it is a great attraction around the world. It has gained the confidence of the people and this is its advantage – its people are in favour of the Communist Party and this means Cuba will have a bright future”.
Although he had never visited Cuba, Professor Deng had had the opportunity for discussion with the Cuban ambassador to China on a number of occasions. Four years ago, he told me, China, Cuba and Vietnam had agreed to set up an annual forum for scholars to share the experiences of building socialism in the different countries and to exchange views and opinions.
We then moved on to the question of Marxist education in China. The rise of western thinking in university degree courses, alongside the waning of Marxist content, has become a particular concern among Marxist scholars in China. The westernisation of economics, it has been argued, was one of the reasons for the Soviet Union’s collapse. As Professor Deng pointed out, starting with China’s reform and opening up from the end of the 1970s, values and ideas from US and Europe have had a huge impact on China in terms of culture, education and economic thinking.
“The textbooks used in universities, the mindset, values and ideology of the teachers, the setting up of courses and curriculum design – all are influenced by Western values to a great extent.
“In the long term this will have a negative influence in undermining Marxist education and this is a situation which must be changed.”
To make the change, Professor Deng, identified three key measures.
“First it is necessary to educate the teachers in particular those teaching Marxism in schools and universities. Their mindset must not be influenced by Western values, they need to take Marxism as the core in terms of their stance, view and methods.”
The Ministry of Education has the responsibility here, organising workshops and seminars for university teachers. The Institute of Marxism has also held summer schools in Marxism for teachers from other provinces.
“The second thing that needs to be changed is the textbooks. Originally lots of textbooks used in universities to study economics, law, history, social sciences, journalism and media and so on, were all just copied from Western university textbooks. This situation has to change. Of course there is some content from Western learning that we should learn, but we need to select what is appropriate for China and not simply copy wholesale”.
Thirdly, Professor Deng pointed out that although Marxist education is compulsory in universities, in recent years the total curriculum hours devoted to this has been significantly reduced sometimes by up to a half or even two thirds.
“So it is necessary to adopt some measures to strengthen education in Marxist theory throughout the country.”
At the Institute, the study of Marxism centres on the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong but covers the whole body of Marxist debate, and not only the basic theory of Marxism but also as applied for example to Chinese political economy, law and regulation. Its journal, International Critical Thought, includes articles by both Chinese and Western Marxists on both contemporary and theoretical issues.
On the question of globalisation, Professor Deng pointed out that the important thing is who is in the dominant position and leading the process of internationalisation.
“Currently, of course the advanced Western countries are playing the dominant role – Chinese thinking here is that world affairs should not be determined by only one country, instead we should proactively promote pluralism and multi-polarisation. That is, all countries in the world should have the equal opportunity to get involved in decision-making; all countries should have equal involvement and engagement and should consult with each other and discuss with each other to try to resolve those important issues that affect the whole world and our human destiny.
“And as part of this process, China will gradually get more involved and contribute more to global governance, playing an active role by setting out our own plans and suggesting ways forward for world development.”
As a final point, I raised the issue of Donald Trump’s denial of global warming, to which Professor Deng commented:
“How the US chooses to deal with the issue and with the Paris Agreement, is their own affair, we won’t meddle in this. But for our part, China is committed to cooperating with the international community making our own contribution to tackling this serious problem.”