Xi Jinping Thought

What a time to be in China! What a time indeed.

Happenstance would have it that I was in Beijing for the nineteenth congress of the Communist Party of China. Usually, such events barely raise interest outside China, except perhaps for the rare Marxist actually interested in the place or – that ambivalent term – a ‘China hand’. And if some foreign commentator happens to notice, they will trot out some rusty formulae concerning arcane language, obtuse signals and look for signs of a ‘totalitarian’ state – without trying to find out much real information.

Not this time.

Something big was afoot. Everywhere I went in China in the weeks leading up the congress I encountered banners, signs and posters. ‘Welcome to the 19th congress of the CPC’, one said. ‘Study carefully Xi Jinping’s writings’, said another. ‘The 19th congress will lead to a better life [meihua shenghuo]’, said a third, invoking an ancient Chinese saying.

Security was tight, very tight. Internet systems were down or slow. Foreigners found themselves asked for passports and even urine samples if they happened to frequent expat bars (I avoid them). Almost one million citizen groups in Beijing were mobilised to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Let alone the party members in town who had plain-clothes guard duty rosters for the lead-up and duration of the congress. Even social networking was tightened up: you could not change any item on your profile on wechat until the end of October.

In this buzz I zeroed in on the many levels of information available.

On the 18th of October, the congress began, with Xi Jinping slated to give a speech. And what a speech it was: 205 minutes non-stop, or 3 hours and 25 minutes. Clearly, the most important speech in his 63 years.

But what did he say?

Marxism has roared back to the centre of Chinese thought, policy and direction for the future. Not a mean achievement, especially after it seemed to be somewhat soft-pedalled not five years or more ago, before Xi became chairman (zhuxi, also translated as ‘president’). Marxism would be – no, is – the guiding light, the beacon to the future.

Marxist political economy is setting the agenda for a very different economic approach. This is called a socialist market economy – and the Chinese are very serious about what is an increasingly clear alternative to a capitalist market economy. The speech outlined five main factors: 1) furthering supply-side structural reform; 2) fostering innovation at all levels to increase China’s global leadership; 3) rural revitalisation; 4) coordinated regional development; 5) further opening up on all fronts. And the institutional mechanisms for each are already established.

But let me emphasise the following dimensions underlying this socialist market economy. The model clearly being followed is an alternative to neo-liberalism, which loves financial speculation and estimates based on short-term profit yields. Instead, the Chinese model takes the long view. Infrastructure is the key, within China and without. Think of the Belt and Road Initiative, already to reshape the world, let alone seeking to reshape the uneven development of China internally (focused on the western parts).

Further, the simplistic opposition between ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors of the economy is now obsolete. For example, any ‘private’ company of over 100 employees has a core communist party cell. Each multinational company that wishes to engage with China – and so many do – must have a communist cell within it. What do we call this approach? I prefer to call it an ‘enmeshed’ economy, in which the CPC is interwoven with an equally interwoven ‘public’ and ‘private’ sector. What appears initially to be a ‘private’ economic project is inescapably enmeshed with the CPC, while the ‘public’ companies (SOEs) are being revitalised by active interaction with the ‘private’ ones. Even more, the mighty SOEs, revamped and more efficient, are starting to become multi-nationals themselves through many projects. Obviously, this has significant global implications.

But Marxism is much more than economics. Let me give a few examples.

  1. The speech calls for an ‘ecological civilisation’, drawing deeply on cultural assumptions concerning the harmony of nature as ‘shanshui’, ‘mountain-water’, but also modern Marxist approaches.
  2. ‘Core socialist values’ is a key, stressing the fact that ethics is a crucial component of Chinese Marxism, which should permeate all levels of society even more.
  3. Strengthening the mechanisms by which the people run the country, which means developing further a distinctly Marxist tradition of socialist democracy.
  4. A ‘socialist rule of law’ (shehuizhuyi fazhi), in which everyone is subject to the law. Obviously, this has affinities with a European-derived ‘rule of law’, although that tradition really means a whole structure developed to buttress capitalism. This is why the speech emphasised a socialist rule of law. It is being developed as system to ensure the development of socialism, while at the same making it clear that no-one is above this law within this framework.
  5. Bold innovation by artists, writers, journalists, philosophers, social scientists and scientists, so that they not only contribute decisively to the country but also to the world.

Apart from the details in the speech, one of the more fascinating aspects for me was that it followed in its structure a familiar pattern from the Marxist tradition. Look back at Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Deng and others, and you will find that important speeches like this begin with an assessment of achievements (this one since the eighteenth party congress five years ago). While it identifies significant achievements, it also stresses – in the tradition of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ – where problems have arisen. The next two parts deal with national and international concerns. Xi’s speech on this occasion focused more on internal concerns, which is to be expected. But he certainly did not neglect the international picture: the armed forces would continue to be modernised for the country’s own security in an international context and China would continue to pursue the peaceful policy of a ‘shared future for humanity’.

In all these speeches, the last part deals with the communist party itself. Xi’s tenure began with a strong desire by party leaders that he would deal with significant problems: corruption, factionalism, brewing coups, lack of unity, inadequate theoretical knowledge. On all fronts, Xi has driven through major reforms, so that his statements concerning the party’s ability to govern and lead, and the need for full, rigorous and strict governance over the party were certainly not empty phrases. More work obviously needs to be done, which he stressed, but the communist party has begun to emerge as stronger, more disciplined, unified and confident. It will be even more at the centre of power. As Xi put it, the ‘defining feature’ and ‘greatest strength’ of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the communist party. The party is the ‘highest force for political leadership’.

For some time now, Xi Jinping has been emphasising the ‘two centenary goals’ (2021 and 2049), the ‘Chinese dream’ and its concrete manifestation in global projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. These were in the speech as well, but with greater clarity. The first centenary goal – of the CPC itself – is still there, of building a xiaokang shehui, an old Confucian term infused with Marxist meaning and translated as ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’. Given that this is around the corner, Xi’s sights are set further in the future. To achieve the second centenary goal, he laid out two steps.

2020-2035: Full ‘socialist modernisation [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua]’, or more fully a ‘socialistically modernised country’ [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua guojia]. This phrase captures all of the policies outlined in the speech, but it also marks a shift from his earlier pronouncements. He used to speak of socialist modernisation being achieved by the second centenary goal, marking 100 years since the establishment of the people’s republic. Now the aim has been brought forward to 2035.

2035-2050: building on the previous achievement and developing China into a ‘great modern socialist country’. This country will be strong, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful. Only when this has been achieved can China begin moving beyond the ‘primary stage’ of socialism in which it still finds itself.

A tall and ambitious agenda indeed, but Xi and those around him as ‘the core’ have a reputation for getting things done. Crucial for understanding this revised plan is the observation, ‘based on a comprehensive analysis of the international and domestic environments’. Clearly, the rapidly shifting global situation, with the accelerating decline of the United States and ongoing turmoil and instability in Europe, along with world-shaping projects like the BRI and China’s increasing involvement around the world, the time has been judged right for the emergence of a ‘great modern socialist country’ by the middle of this century. It also means that China would become the most powerful country in the world, and thereby the most powerful socialist country in human history.

This is not to say that road ahead will be easy – far from it!

A crucial part of the speech identified a new primary contradiction: ‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’. This is straight out of the ‘contradiction analysis’ approach that Mao first elaborated in Yan’an in 1937, showing that Marxist dialectics in a Chinese frame is still front and centre of government policies. Not only is there a primary or most important contradiction in any situation, but this contradiction may shift in terms of the weight given to either side, or it may become secondary as a new primary contradiction emerges. Thus, the earlier primary contradiction, articulated by Deng Xiaoping, identified a tension between the people’s social and cultural needs and the backward economic forces. With China’s forty-year reform and opening-up, it has been decided – through careful analysis – that this earlier contradiction has become secondary.

But what does the new primary contradiction mean? Unbalanced and inadequate development signals the complex problems of world-leading development in the more eastern parts of China and the lag in western parts, with resultant gaps between rich and poor, city and countryside. Obviously, the new contradiction targets these issues more directly. And the people’s every growing need for a better life – an old Chinese term meihua shenghuo – applies to everyone, especially in western parts. Hence the targeted poverty alleviation program that has been accelerated, hence the BRI, hence the focus on the full range of what a ‘better life’ means. But the need for a better life also identifies with the core idea that socialism is primarily about improving the economic, social and cultural lives of everyone. Until this contradiction is resolved, China clearly remains in the primary stage of socialism.

At the same time, it signals a profoundly new era. This theme came through again and again in the report: China and its socialism have entered a new era. The trick here is to indicate profound continuity with the past, while also taking it all into a new stage. It is not for nothing that it has been called ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era [xindedai zhongguotese shehuizhuyi sixiang]’.

Or ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ for short. Only Mao’s thought has until now been designated with the description sixiang, thought. Even Deng’s important but briefer reflections were designated only as lilun, theory. Xi Jinping Thought has now been written into the constitution of the Communist Party of China.

I have spent some time with all of this, not least because foreign ‘China watchers’ have tended to focus on international relations, the strength of the communist party, and above all Xi’s own power. Obviously, this emphasis skews much of what the speech contained, both in terms of continuity with Xi’s earlier elaborations and the new directions. I leave aside the silly tropes of ‘jargon’, ‘coded’ language, or ‘grand theatre’ that are routinely trotted out.

But what was the response of people around China? I could mention the millions that watched the speech live, or the flurry of wechat and weibo posts about it. But one experience said it all for me. I decided to go to the local Xinhua bookshop, the official government one. At the front desk, I asked where Xi Jinping’s works were kept. The woman at the desk smiled and pointed upstairs.

There before me was a massive table laden with Xi Jinping’s publications. And at the forefront were various editions of the speech itself, only days after it was delivered. I struggled to find room to look at the publications, so crowded was the table. Eventually I managed to get hold of one copy, as well as a number of Xi’s other publications. For whatever reasons, people were snapping up the printed form of the speech. I simply could not imagine this happening anywhere else.



Chinese Marxist Ethics

Lunli, they call it in these parts, or Gongchanzhuyi daode – ethics or communist moral principles. These are by no means abstract terms, debated by philosophers with little connection to real life. I encounter it day to day in a very concrete fashion.

Here Chinese tradition meets Marxism in a way that continually amazes and bewilders me. To begin with, the dushuren or xuezhe, the intellectual (literally ‘book reading person’) and scholar has a venerable place in Chinese society. The intellectual is simultaneously expected to devote significant time to reading, thinking and writing – whether scholarly works, moral maxims, poetry, or a range of other genres – and to the good of public life. This expectation is embodied in part in the word yiwu, which means both to volunteer and a duty. One volunteers to contribute in some way to the greater good of society, but this is simultaneously a duty or obligation. Although it is manifested as many levels of social relations, for an intellectual it means service in or for the government, or perhaps work that contributes to solving a commonly recognised problem.

Further, the first character in yiwu is yi (义), a significant aspect of Confucianism. Its literal meaning is ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, but it also includes ‘human relationships’ and ‘meaning’. Thus, yi involves the intertwining of justice and relationships, in a moral framework of doing good and the understanding of how to do so in a sensible and fit manner. In other words, one must know the underlying reason for such righteousness and not simply follow precepts.

For a scholar, especially a professor, this means that one is engaged and not engaged. Or rather, when one is engaged directly, one longs to be disengaged, to find the tranquillity to think and write and identify the deeper framework. But even in this situation, one does so with the public good always in mind.

By now it should be obvious that the ethics of a scholar are somewhat high.

What about communist moral principles? By now, they have been etched into Chinese culture, distinct and yet meshed with Confucian ideas. A communist is expected to be honest, direct and trustworthy, not concerned with personal gain and focused on the public good.

This morality appears at many levels. For instance, an ethos first developed at Ruijin in the early 1930s – during the first Chinese soviet – focused on providing poor peasants not with communist ideas, but with enough food, clothing, and shelter. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental desire of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Or it can be seen in Mao Zedong’s urgings for party members (cadres) after achieving power. In 1949, Mao wrote: ‘I hope that the revolutionary personnel of the whole country will always keep to the style of plain living and hard struggle’. Again, in 1957, he wrote that party members must not lose the revolutionary spirit of wholeheartedly serving the people. Instead, they must ‘persevere in plain living and hard struggle’, ‘maintaining close ties with the masses’.

Chairman (or president) Xi Jinping has been consistently evoking these admonitions from Mao over the last few years, especially in terms of uniting and strengthening the party through the ‘tigers and flies’ anti-corruption campaign – the most thoroughgoing and pervasive in modern Chinese history. As he does so, he and the leadership evoke the deep chords of communist morality.

Already five years ago, a new ‘eight rules’ were promulgated, echoing the ‘eight points for attention’ from 1927. The new eight rules focus on how leaders and party members should reject extravagance and reduce bureaucratic visits, meetings and empty talk. Crucially, the purpose is to strengthen ties between the people and officials, which had been eroded through corruption and power abuse.

That this approach resonates deeply with people shows up in complex surveys, with 80 percent or more of people supporting the measures. Why? Communist morality has become deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and society. If one is a communist, which means a party member, one is expected to live up to these ideals. If one fails, the fall is even greater.

What if you are a Marxist and a scholar? By now it should be obvious that the ethical standards are higher still. The combination of Confucian and Marxist ethics entails an expectation of almost impeccable morality – speaking plainly and directly, being honest, living simply, avoiding any sign of personal gain, and substantially focused on the public good.

Believer Without Belief: Two Levels of Party Membership

What does it mean to be a member of a communist party? Should one ‘believe’ in Marxism in order to be so? But what if one does not ‘believe’?

Over lunch in Beijing, I spoke with a reflective younger member of the party. He knew full well what he was doing, why he was the local (student) branch secretary, and what it meant to be a member of the largest communist party in the world today.

‘What was the process of joining the party like? I asked.

‘It’s a long process’, he said.

‘So it’s not just signing a form and paying a membership fee?’ I said.

‘Ha ha, it needs a bit more than that’, he said. ‘You might be invited to join if you have shown leadership or performed well in school or shown some other potential. And you have to do some study and training beforehand. It can be a bit of a long process’.

‘Tests?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said. ‘But the most interesting experience is when you speak with an old cadre’.

‘Really?’ I said.

‘Yes, I had to have a number of discussions with an old man who has been a member for decades’, he said. ‘After that, he had to fill out a report on our discussion’.

‘Did you have to give all the correct answers?’ I said. ‘So he could tick the boxes?’

‘Oh no’, he said. ‘He spent most of the time telling about his misgivings about the party, where it is falling short, about how he is sometimes embarrassed by it’.

‘What did you say?’ I asked.

‘I listened and nodded’, he said. “I was not quite sure why he was doing it’.

‘Unburdening? I suggested. ‘Testing you?’

‘Perhaps’, he said. ‘But I wonder whether it wasn’t more than that’.

‘Go on …’, I said.

‘I think he was trying show me what being a party member means’, he said.

‘To prepare you for disappointment?’ I said.

‘Not really’, he said. ‘Let me put it this way: the only real way to be a party member, a dangyuan, is to have misgivings about it, to be critical of it’.

‘Criticism and self-criticism!’ I said.

He laughed: ‘yes, a good socialism tradition. And we Chinese are very good at criticism and self-criticism!’

‘So it’s not a matter of belief’, I said.

‘I don’t like the word “belief”’, he said. ‘It has too much of a religious feel about it. In fact, the whole idea of “believing” in Marxism, or “believing” in a cause is – it seems to me – deeply influenced by Western patterns of thought’.

‘You mean Christian ideas of commitment?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said. ‘Don’t get me wrong; there is an emotional part to joining the party. It has to touch your passions. But Marxism is not a creed in which you believe. Or, as we like to say: I am a believer without belief’.

‘So he was trying to show you that the best way, or indeed the only way to become a member was to be a critical one, with your own hesitations – a believer without belief’, I said.

‘I think so’, he said. ‘It actually helped me. I could be comfortable about joining the party’.

‘What about now?’ I said.

‘Well, I am the branch secretary here at the university’, he said.

‘So you are clearly more involved!’ I said. ‘Do you approach that task in the same way?’

‘Of course’, he said.

‘Would there be any situation in which you leave the party? Or let me put it positively: what keeps you in the party?’

‘It’s got nothing to do with a better job, promotion, or anything like that’, he said. ‘In my assessment, the communist party offers the best, if not only way forward for China. It may not be perfect, and nearly all members admit that. But I cannot see any other path that would not lead to major disruption and chaos’.

‘You said that at the end of your discussions with the old member, he had to fill out a report’, I said.

‘Yes’, he said.

‘I am intrigued’, I said. ‘What did he write down?’

‘Oh, he said that he needed to put down the correct answers, reflecting the accepted narrative’.

‘Two narratives’, I said. ‘Two levels: the official one and the critical one’.

‘Yes indeed’, he said. ‘The only way to be a member: a believer without belief’.

Meeting Isabel Crook

‘Put that down, mum’, he said. ‘Someone is here to see you’.

He strode into the room, while I paused at the door and looked inside to see Isabel Crook for the first time. Books spilled out of ceiling-high shelves and were piled on the desks that surrounded her. Sitting in the only free space in the room, she had been reading. She did not look up at first, but focussed on putting the book in its place. She stood and walked to the door of her own accord.

Her 60-something son and began to introduce us, somewhat loudly.

‘Hello, I am Isabel Crook,’ she interrupted. ‘Pleased to meet you’.

I replied in kind, with a clear and strong voice.

She smiled. Her no-nonsense hair may have been grey, and she may have been slightly stooped and a little shrunken. But the sparkle was still in her eye and I immediately saw the origin of her son’s energy.

It was the middle of May, 2015, in an apartment built in not long after the communist revolution. They had lived there ever since the 50s, in Beijing.

In the common room – for eating, guests, discussion – she paused and pointed to a poster on the wall: ‘This is priceless’. A youthful Mao Zedong was watching over a long line of marching men and women, holding the red flag aloft.

‘You can’t read the writing now’, she said. ‘It has faded over the years’.

‘Why priceless?’ I said.

‘These posters were all over Beijing when it was liberated in 1949. I managed to get hold of one. It was amazing. We looked all down the streets … students all with red triangular flags waving … the incoming army … cavalry, which was very exciting. It was the most joyful event I’ve ever watched’.

Isabel Crook, along with her husband, David, had been with the Red Army on that victorious day. Most men and women had walked thousands of kilometres in order to get from Yan’an to Beijing But since Isabel was pregnant with their first son, Colin, she was provided with the comfort of travelling in the back of a truck. Given the conditions of the roads after decades of civil war and the anti-Japanese war, I am not sure an old truck in 1949 would have been so comfortable. But she was obviously a tough woman.

We – Isabel, Michael (her second son) and I – sat and talked over a cup of tea. We talked of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, China today, Marxism, as also of families and the initial matters of what one is doing and why. Later, a couple of other people joined us and we made the most of the spring weather to have lunch at a simple outdoor restaurant somewhere on the edge of the Summer Palace grounds.

Isabel and I gravitated towards each other – as we did on later occasions – given our common interests in Marxism and indeed religion. She was born to Canadian missionary parents in Chengdu, China, way back in 1915. While she was brought up as a Christian in China and attended a Christian school, she followed the path of so many, from Christianity to communism. Crucially, her parents – Homer and Muriel Brown – were Christians with a social conscience, although they looked askance at communism (and Isabel’s future husband, David Crook). They reconciled themselves to the fact that a social cause was better than pure self-interest.

After anthropological study in her parents’ home country, Canada, she returned to China in 1940, under the auspices of the National Christian Council in Sichuan province. By 1942 she joined David in England, where she joined the communist party and where they married. Further study ensued, only to return to China in 1947. She has remained there ever since, becoming a participant-observer in the communist revolution itself and especially socialism in power. Many are the jobs Isabel has had, from anthropological researcher, through language teacher to lifelong social activist. Indeed, her commitment was of the sort that led one to action – to supporting an actual communist revolutionary movement on the ground.

Her story has been told many times (as of David), from foreign sources to many outlets in China. Her 100th birthday was saluted by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), her commitment to education and research is often noted (playing down her communist credentials), and even the Wall Street Journal managed to come up with a story. Of more interest are the accounts on CCTV and, above all, the website that tells her own story, simply called ‘Isabel Crook’. With all this information available, I do not need to dwell on all the details.

Her witness of socialism in power is, for a foreigner, second to none. In Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn), a communist area of Hebei province, she and David witnessed the profound effects of land reform already underway. She saw first-hand millennia-long practices being dismantled and replaced with socialist approaches. As she observes: ‘The land reform was obviously going to change the whole future of China’s history, because it would get rid of the feudal system … it would put the farmer in power, rather than going on with the old way’. The result was a hugely influential book, written by her and David, Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.

And of course, there was the teaching. The new China would need people skilled in English, so they were asked to stay and teach. Over the years, their work would become one stream that fed into what is now Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Over dinner one evening, I mentioned to Isabel that I had been to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Her eyes lit up.

‘I have had students from North Korea’, she said. ‘Ten of them, sent by the government to study English’.

‘How did they go?’ I said.

‘They were very good,’ she said. ‘Although one struggled. I believe in giving marks for actual performance, so his grades were not so good. As they boarded the bus after the course, this student was crying. “Why is he crying?” I asked one of the others. “He knows he will be reprimanded for not doing so well in the course and failing his country.” I wanted to stop the bus and hug him’.

She also experienced socialism in power during the Cultural Revolution.

‘During the Cultural Revolution, I was suspected of a being a spy. So I was put in prison for three years’.

‘Did it make you doubt the communist movement?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, she said. ‘My sons were on their own, but I knew they could manage’.

‘What did they do?’ I said.

‘They were teenagers’, she said. ‘And they knew how to take of themselves. One day, they realised their visas had run out, so they sent the youngest to the immigration office, hoping they would be deported. The woman behind the desk simply stamped the passports – another two years!’

We laughed.

‘Another time’, she said. ‘Before I was imprisoned but during the Cultural Revolution, one son was in hospital. I was on my way to visit him and the gardener out the front said, “Your son is fine”. In reply to my complete surprise, he said: “I’m the doctor. I am doing my duty as gardener now”’.

‘But what did you do in prison?’ I said.

‘I knew they had made a mistake and decided to make the most of it’.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘I asked for something to read’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘The Selected Works of Mao Zedong’, she said. ‘I read the four volumes through many times. I even noted how many times laughter appears. Do you know how many?’

‘No’, I said.


We laughed, with Isabel assuring me she remains as ardent follower of Mao Zedong.

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Marx’s Grave: The Comradeship of the Dead

Marx’s Grave: The Comradeship of the Dead

Thrice have I visited Marx’s grave.

First time, happenstance

On a Sunday in 1999, in the midst of a northern hemisphere summer, I was for the first time in England, let alone London. What should one do here, especially the first time? The supposed attractions of the city were many, but they held no appeal for me. At last I knew: I would visit Marx’s grave.

Highgate Hill, where Marx was buried, was as much a mystery to me as London itself. Eventually I found my way on what they call ‘the tube’ to Highgate. A narrow spiral of stairs took me out of the former air raid shelter and into a small pocket of forest. Once again, I had to ask the locals for directions, finally finding Swain’s Lane and the entrance to the East Cemetery.

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Overgrown it was, resembling more a subtropical zone than a temperate one. Tumbling gravestones threatened to disappear beneath a riot of vines, branches, saplings and towering trees. An old woman sat by the gate, sequestering three pounds from me – one for entry and two for the camera. She told me it was the entry fee and I was willing to believe her. She warned me that the cemetery was about to close, so I had better make my visit brief if I was not to spend the night with the bones of the dead.

I strode down the path, followed the left fork past the graves of George Elliott and Herbert Spencer to be met by the three metre gravestone, replete with a bust of Marx himself on the top. At a turn in the path, this grave was not buried in the riot of vegetation. ‘Workers of all lands unite!’ and the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach – ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it’ – were inscribed above and below the names of those buried: Karl, Jenny von Westfalen, Helen Demuth and a grandson, Harry Longuet.

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I had time to take a few shots with my simple camera and slip away to avoid being locked in. Now I needed a toilet and a beer on this humid London day. On a second beer by the window of the Rose and Crown pub on Highgate Road I scribbled some notes on Marx in London, where he found the most advanced workings of capitalism in England (if only he could see it now!) and sought to analyse its trends and workings. I supposed that some of the buildings would have been hereabouts when the Marx family moved to Kentish Town, with a little more money (thanks to Engels) from the grinding poverty of Soho and a chance for some quieter, less cramped living.

At that time, I was more interested in the living, at least at the time of Marx and Engels. I reflected less on the grave site itself. But that would come.

Second time, coincidence

Eight years later I was in London again – not a frequent occurrence – and this time with my partner. Now it was November, a little cooler, and the path to the cemetery was not entirely unknown. Still we had to pay for entry, up to two pounds each, but nothing for the camera. And still was it overgrown, despite the best efforts of the Friends of Highgate.

But now I became interested in the history, not so much of Marx and family, but of the grave itself. It was of course the main attraction of the whole cemetery, even with its other illustrious residents. The current site is not the original one, for Marx had been buried in Jenny’s modest grave on a small side path. At his funeral, on 17 March, 1883, only eleven mourners were present – a small gathering given Marx’s extraordinary importance since. They were his daughters Eleanor and Laura (Jenny had already died), their husbands and a handful of fellow communists. The ceremony was simple, with brief words in German, French and English, from the leader of the German Social-Democratic party, Charles Longuet (a son-in-law) and Engels. After two telegrams were read out from parties in France and Spain, the small funeral party returned to Marx’s home on Maitland Park Road in Kentish Town for the wake. Sadly, a week later, the remainder of the family was back at the grave to bury his young grandson, Harry Longuet.

What a contrast the following year made. Now over 5,000 people gathered, organised by the Communistic Working Men’s Club in London. Far more than a quiet show of respect, this was a full demonstration, with the plan to march, to the beat of a band, to the cemetery and give rousing speeches in German, French and English. But the cemetery directors were nervous, so the police forced the demonstration to stop in some vacant land near the cemetery. The event was peaceful enough, with people listening to the speeches, cheering and heading home.

In the years that followed, the old grave became a site of pilgrimage. Lenin visited with a group of Bolsheviks in 1903, when they were in London for an early congress.

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In 1956, a large group of Soviet sailors paid a visit and in 1968 the Soviet ambassador formally laid a wreath on the grave, captured in a newsreel:

But the sailors and the ambassador had actually paid their respects at the new grave. More than forty years earlier, people had begun to feel that the run-down state of the grave was unacceptable for a person such as Marx. For instance, in 1923, at the Socialist Annual Conference, the delegate Charles McLean described his effort to find the grave: ‘only after an hour’s search’ was he ‘able to stand at the foot of the grave’. He spoke of the sad state of the grave, feeling that someday ‘there would be international pilgrimages to Highgate Cemetery – just as there were pilgrimages to Mecca by the Moslems’. Surely a better memorial was needed.

The first response came from the Soviet Union. Feeling that the UK government was derelict in its duty, they proposed in the late 1920s to exhume Marx and bring him to Moscow where he would be remembered with due respect. 115 descendants of Marx signed a petition to add weight to the request. It was refused.

Here is the old grave in a newsreel from 1948:

Was there an alternative? On a rainy, cold night in November of 1954, five men met in secret at the grave. They erected a canvas screen, lit some oil lamps and undertook the unenviable task of exhuming the four coffins and their remains. In stealth, they bore the crumbling coffins to a new site, which had been excavated next to the main path where a cedar tree had been felled. The men were sworn to secrecy, so the story slowly leaked out, as the Daily Mail reports. Two more years would pass as Laurence Bradshaw sculpted the massive new memorial: an imposing bust of Marx on a granite plinth with the now famous gold lettering with quotations from Marx and the names of those buried. The planning of the whole project and the raising of funds was undertaken by the Marx Memorial Fund, established the Communist Party. Harry Pollitt unveiled the new memorial before a large crowd in 1956.

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Third time, enemy action

Another eight years were to pass before I returned to Marx’s grave, about which I now knew a little more. As a signal of the changing dynamics of world politics, if not world socialism, I was accompanied by a young Chinese student of Marxism.

Again it was November, again it was rainy and cool, and again it was reasonable walk from the Underground Station. Yet now the entrance had a sizeable booth, set up by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. Entry was now four pounds, with a plea to assist the friends in maintaining the cemetery.

Many have been the visitors before we returned. And not all of them with the best intentions. With the prominent new memorial, right wingers have since 1956 snuck into the cemetery in the dead of night to deface the grave site with swastikas and slogans. In 1965 and then again in 1970 they went so far as to attempt to blow up the monument, as the Camden New Journal reports. On the second occasion, the would-be vandals, believing the bust to be hollow, spent many hours sawing off the nose with a view to pouring the explosives through the hole. A simply knock or two at the beginning would have told them that the bust was anything but hollow. Frustrated, they detonated the gunpowder and shrapnel next to the memorial, causing £600 worth of damage – although most of this was actually the damage to the nose.

Yet the vast majority of those who visit come to pay their respects. On this occasion, we were joined by some others. A man sat quietly by, enjoying a cigarette and pondering the universe and Marx. A Spanish couple took photographs, especially with him holding his fist in the air. We too took photographs, and the Chinese student was thrilled to be at the grave of the man responsible for setting her own government on the path of Marxism.

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Apart from the community of the living, I became interested in the community of the dead. The grave itself has four who keep one another company, including the strong woman and housekeeper Helen Demuth. But over time, others gathered in the vicinity. Earlier comrades include the Trinidad-born Claudia Vera Jones, socialist and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival , and Yusuf Mohamed Dadoo, the Muslim Indian South African communist and anti-apartheid activist (d. 1983). He was interred – with a full Muslim burial – beside Saad Saadi Ali, the Iraqi communist.

These and some others I had already seen in 1999. Yet in 2015 I noticed that the practice continues. Even closer to the Marx grave are those who have died only a few years ago: Nuno de Azevedo (d. 2005); the Russian Wladimir Krysko (d. 2009 at 98); the Australian Ian Mathews (d. 2010); Joseph Kirlew (d. 2011); Dorothy Dove (d. 2011); Lindsay McNeil (d. 2015). Intrigued by the practice, I wondered: is it that the spirit of Marx provides a beneficial aura? Or is it a sense of the comradeship of the dead? If so, the party grows year by year.

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Search for Meaning

‘Chinese people lack a sense of meaning’, he said. ‘They are lost, unsure of what counts, missing a core’.

Four of us sat around a small meal table, discussing the small, everyday things of life – such as life, death, politics and meaning.

‘But what about you?’ I asked. ‘Do you have a core set of beliefs by which you live your life?’

He nodded. ‘Yes, I do’.

‘And you?’ I said to woman next to him.

‘Yes, of course’, she said.

‘And you?’ Now to the woman next to me.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But that’s exactly the problem. In a recent survey, about 70% said that China lacks a core set of beliefs by which to live. But when each person was asked whether she or he has such beliefs, 70% of them said yes, they do’.

This paradox set me searching. Three areas drew me in as I talked with people across China, one concerning the exchange of ideas, another the question of religion and meaning, and a third xiao, filial piety.

Exchanging Ideas: Between East and West

My first foray did not bode well for my search. I was talking with a woman after a lecture I had given for students and faculty at a major university in China. The topic was one on which I had spoken often – Marxism and religion.

‘I couldn’t understand what you were saying’, she said.

‘Was it my English?’ I said.

‘No, no’, she said. ‘We had the English text and a Chinese translation. I read through them both carefully. I could understand each sentence, but they didn’t seem to connect to make a main point’.

‘We’d call that missing the forest for the trees’, I said.

She laughed. ‘Exactly! That captures it’.

After this discussion I was a little alarmed. Had all those overflowing lecture halls, conference venues, small groups and intimate gatherings simply missed the point of what I had been saying until now? Was I that obtuse, unclear, muddled?

‘You know’, she said, ‘whenever a Chinese lecturer speaks, she or he goes straight to the main point, to the core issue. But when you, or any other outsider I have heard, speak, it seems like a mass of detail and I can’t find the main point’.

I had come across all manner of characterisations of Chinese or indeed Asian education. They are taught to listen and absorb the words of the master, it is said, never to think critically or question. On my first visit to China, I found that was absolute crap. Students fearlessly and vigorously challenge all and sundry on the big issues. Chinese academia is slowly catching up to other places, it is said, and it has a long way to go – quality control, intellectual depth, awareness of the richness of Western thought. They may occasionally stumble across the odd book from the West and become all excited about it, but they really don’t know what they are talking about. And on it goes – one chauvinistic piece of grandstanding after another.

But this conversation after my lecture set me thinking, inquiring, returning to ask more. For here lay a profound difference in intellectual life, a stumbling block for many a Chinese student heading overseas to pursue their studies elsewhere. Slowly what characterises a Western approach dawned on me – and the West really begins somewhere around Iran (ancient Persia) with a Near West and a Far West.

An argument works through a mass of detail to a carefully qualified conclusion, the main point held off until the end in a curious form of delayed satisfaction. On the way there it must wade through a mass of detailed commentary, struggle through the thick undergrowth of references and footnotes, deal with objections (real or imagined), until the conclusion. Like a hunter pursuing a particularly evasive quarry, it finally emerges triumphant, the tattered and sorry-looking central point held aloft triumphantly. Never mind that the reader or audience has been snoring for some time now.

By contrast, a Chinese speaker sprints at breakneck speed to the central issue. He or she states it boldly, clearly, and then explores its implications. Now the details appear, the careful attention to a text or idea, the confrontation with objections. Yet all of this is constantly drawn back to the main point, elaborating and reiterating it.

For students brought up in either tradition, the generic expectations become quite distinct, the modes of thought and listening move differently. To a Western student, a Chinese lecture or paper seems blunt and unsophisticated, missing the nuance of an argument. To a Chinese student, a Western speaker simply trots out endless detail, massing together loosely related ideas. During the process, the conclusion is lost amidst the clutter, as though one had no real point to make at all, as though one were afraid of dealing with anything important.

Search for Religious Meaning

Wondering if I would ever find the answer, I found myself at Jining, the birthplace of Confucius no less, speaking with a beautiful woman, with fine features and a glorious smile. (Was my search fated to such encounters?)

‘What is your advice?’ She said bluntly. ‘What religion, if any, should I choose?’

She had approached me after listening to a discussion on Jesus and Confucius. We agreed to walk around the lake, through exquisite gardens along winding paths. She told me of her love of French (the language), of her three years in France, of her teaching, of her daughter and husband, of her study of accounting and her dislike of that subject, of desires to study further. I listened, asked questions, mistook what she sought … thinking it may be a conventional desire to study overseas.

But no, she was in a search for meaning. Difficult to express without sounding corny, but it was very much a personal search, a desire to locate some core that seemed to escape her. Here at last was someone who admitted that she lacked a core set of beliefs – rather than attributing it to others.

‘Chinese are very practical’, she said. ‘If one god will help us achieve something, we follow that god. If another provides a new possibility, we follow that one’.

She had been struck by my self-identification as a Christian communist and wished to know what that meant. After I had explained, we returned again to that question, ‘what should I choose’.

‘Of course, I can’t tell you that’, I said. ‘That is up to you’.

She felt that in the face of rapid changes, of a Chinese modernism, of the appropriation of some elements of capitalist economic relations – in the face of all this, the world she once knew had been turned upside down. Where to search? The West gave false hopes and facile propaganda. The deep return to the Chinese classics, Confucius included, signalled that search and many possible answers. It struck me that such a search is not a signal of crisis but of an extraordinarily creative period in modern Chinese history, one simply not possible in so many places in the world.

But then I asked about her parents. ‘They are communists’, she said.

‘What about you?’ I said.

‘I don’t know’.

‘Do you think it is worth re-examining that extraordinary heritage you have, of engaging in some really creative rethinking over it? After all, I envy you deeply since you actually have had a communist revolution’.

Parents, Children and Filial Piety (Xiao)

In the end, the answer to my exploration of this paradox of meaning may well be found at the mundane, everyday level of relations between parents and children. How do they really get on in China?

I was intrigued by this question, since so many elderly live with their offspring. The thought of my mother – no matter how much I love her – or indeed both our mothers living with us is enough to give me the most dreadful nightmares. So how do they manage in China?

To begin with, the Confucian virtue of ‘filial piety’ (xiao) plays a crucial role. This is the cultural assumption that children of whatever age will show respect and deference to their parents, indeed any elders. Even a brief visit to China will soon evince the great respect and admiration shown for the very old. Of course, people complain that it is breaking down (that kind of narrative is trotted out about every young generation), but it is really as strong as ever.

Intrigued about all of this, I asked a friend whose mother lives with her: ‘what is it like? Does your mother still tell you what to do, like mine?’

‘No, she doesn’t need to’, was the response.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘I know what I should do’, she said.

‘So your mother doesn’t tell you what you are doing wrong, ask where you have been, tell you should be doing something else?’

‘No’, she said.

‘But do you do what you are supposed to do?’ I asked.

‘Not always’, she said.

‘How does that work?’ I asked.

She went on to explain that even though she knows what she should do in respect to her mother, and even though her mother assumes that she is doing what she should do, she doesn’t always do it. Her mother never asks, and she never tells her mother, each one assuming that they are following the unwritten rules, while simultaneously knowing that they don’t.

Got it? It took me a while to figure out this deeper meaning of filial piety. But it makes sense, for in no other way would it be possible to live for years with one’s parents in the same place.

Is this perhaps the secret to the paradox with which I began? In this lived paradox of filial piety we might also find one answer to the paradox of the simultaneous absence and pervasive presence of meaning.

Red Petrograd

Snow blanketed the sky, swirled around buildings, cut visibility to a few metres. Petersburgers huddled deeper in their coats, heads ducked in an attempt to see their way through the driving snow. It was supposed to be spring. In fact, spring had begun not a couple of weeks before with mild temperatures, chattering birds returning to nest, trees budding, first crops sprouting, human beings with inquisitive eyes romping about (and over each other) with the broadest smiles and the randiest bodies. But now winter was back, with its snow storms, bitter winds along the Neva and icy footpaths to negotiate.

I had not come to see a white St. Petersburg; I had come to visit Red Petrograd, home of the first successful communist revolution in October, 1917. For then, after an unsuccessful revolution of 1905 and later the toppling of Tsar Nicholas II in February, 1917, the Bolsheviks had seized power and begun the arduous and infinitely challenging task of creating a communist society and economy. And it had all happened first in what was then Petrograd – later to become Leningrad.

How much of that defining moment of the twentieth century would remain in the city, especially after two decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991? Western news reports at the time presented images of toppling statues of Lenin, the banishing of the old order from memory and history, the divesting of all that had happened since 1917. Locally, Lenin’s memory was trashed by the new order and an effort made to connect with the political path taken by the bourgeoisie after the first revolution in February of 1917. Stolypin had become the hero, the man who attempted to reform the country in a mild middle class manner, but who was swept away by the situation generated by the First World War, widespread economic and social collapse, and the fiery, revolutionary fervour of the masses.

So I set out to find Red Petrograd, with the help of Sergey, who had returned to his beloved city some years before and who walked its streets endlessly.

Finland Station

First would be Finlandskii, the Finland Station at which Lenin and the first group of exiled revolutionaries came back to Russia in April of 1917 (I was there at the same time of year, 95 years later). They had arrived here in the famed ‘sealed train’, travelling from Switzerland, through wartime Germany (the Germans did not object to assisting those who may end the Russian war effort), over the Baltic Sea to Sweden and then by train through Finland to Russia. To their surprise, Lenin and Krupskaya and the rest were met by a massive crowd of workers, soldiers and Bolshevik leaders. They had expected possible arrest on their arrival, perhaps an unnoticed arrival, but not this.

And then Lenin shocked them with his speech on arrival, delivered from the top of an armoured car: the February Revolution was but the preamble, he said. We have not won yet, for we must seize power ourselves. Even his closest comrades listened with open-mouthed surprise, thinking Lenin had gone perhaps a little mad. Had they not already had a revolution? Had not the tsar already abdicated? Were not the various socialist parties already represented in the Provisional Assembly? Lenin would be proved correct, but he spent the next few months persuading his wary comrades.

Before the Finland Station he still stands, captured by a sculptor as he addressed the stunned crowd. Arm outstretched, mouth open to speak, the chin of history jutting forward. But one also notices at his crotch a well-defined fly and a prominent bulge. A joke by the sculptor, or perhaps another signal of his revolutionary virility? But the statue is by no means the only mark of that crucial moment. The armoured car on which he stood to deliver his speech is also to be found, ensconced in a room of the Russian Museum. Inside the Finland Station, preserved within its own glass shed, is the locomotive that pulled the train into the station. Even the second-hand bookshop, upstairs at the station, is reputed to have copies of his Collected Works in Russian. Unfortunately, the upstairs region was closed for renovation when we called, so I was unable to grab my copy (all 55 volumes!).


Walking back over the Neva River, with a view of the gold spires of Peter-Paul Fortress (where Lenin and many other revolutionaries had been imprisoned for a shorter or longer time), we spied the grey outlines of the cruiser Aurora.

Now this is a ship with a history. We were led around by an old fossil who seemed as though he was on the Aurora when it was first launched, late in the nineteenth century. The ship was one of the few that survived the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Ill-fated was that war, at least from the Russian Imperial perspective, but not for the Japanese or even the revolutionaries, who revelled in the humiliation of the tsar’s regime. That unpopular war was one of the factors that led to a crucial radicalisation of the armed forces, so that significant sections went over the communists in 1917.

But Aurora, and the garrison of Kronstadt where it was housed, had gone over long before. Forming their own soviet, voting on all issues, keeping the commanders on a leash, Kronstadt was a hive of revolutionary activity (it was to suffer for being almost too revolutionary after the Bolsheviks seized power, for the Kronstadt rebellion of 1918 was crushed with much desperation).

Back in 1917, the Aurora etched itself into the annals of history by sailing up the Neva River on the night of the October Revolution and aiming its guns at the Peter-Paul fortress. The garrison there soon enough decided to join the Bolsheviks, so the ship turned its guns on the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Assembly (formed after the earlier revolution in February Revolution of the same year) was making a last stand. A blank shot was both the signal to storm the Winter Palace and a reminder that significant firepower was on the side of the communists.

By the time the palace fell into Bolshevik hands, the Aurora had ensured that it would not be turned into scrap metal. Our guide told us of its subsequent duty, its use as sleeping quarters and a training facility for naval cadets and the many honours bestowed upon it. I marvelled at how 570 men could make such a small space their home (hammocks were slung above the dining table at night), at the demountable chapel that could be moved up on deck during fine weather, at the corner in which the two bears on board slept, and at the endless Soviet insignia, badges, posters, flags and honours. Hammers and sickles abounded throughout the ship.

Above all, I stood at the foot of the gun that fired that round in the Revolution itself.

Mars Field

‘What about Mars Field?’ said Sergey as we disembarked.

‘Mars Field?’ I inquired.

‘Yes, it used to the place where protests would first gather before marching out on the streets. But it is often deserted these days’.

I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck and intercepted a drop from my nose as the cold took its effect. After negotiating the windy streets, we walked out into the vast space of Mars Field while the snow continued to flurry about. In the middle is a square surrounded by a two-metre stone wall. In each corner are three fir trees and in the centre of each wall is an opening. At the central point of the square stone wall is an eternal flame that burns to the memory of those who fell in the October Revolution and in the ‘civil’ war that followed for some four years – ‘civil’ since the White Armies were funded, equipped and assisted with troops by the international forces opposed to the new communist state.

But we were in for a surprise: a plaque announced that the eight poems engraved on each side of the entry points to the square were penned by none other than Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky. But who in the world is Lunacharsky? He was a poet, playwright, polemicist, gifted orator, romantic, art and literary critic, prolific writer, expert on the history of religions, revolutionary, inspired first Commissar for Enlightenment in the new Soviet government, key to winning over the intelligentsia to the new project of constructing communism, and even the one who coined the term ‘cultural revolution’. He was hailed by admirers throughout the new Russia as ‘a true apostle of enlightenment’, as the representative of ‘the spiritual dictatorship of the proletariat’. In short, Lunacharsky was one of the most fascinating figures of the Russian Revolution. But he was also the most articulate spokesman for God-building (bogostroitel’stvo), in which he sought to harness the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism in terms of enthusiasm, passion, art, the communist elements of religions such as Christianity, so much so that communism would itself draw upon the best features of religion.

His poems engraved in stone spoke of martyrs, seeds sprouting from the fields of the fallen, of the new world that was being created, of the sheer moments of grandeur to which their grandchildren would bow down in awe.

In each corner of the commemorative square a red flag still flew. A bouquet of flowers lay by the eternal flame.

‘I have not seen that in quite a while’, said Sergey, pointing to the flowers. He also told me how at the most recent annual festival of the paratroopers (held in August, which I had witnessed in all its bacchanalian glory on my previous visit), a section of the parade had veered off and come here to pay its respects.


‘And Smolny?’ I asked.

‘Smolny?’ said Sergey. ‘I’ve never been there, so perhaps it is about time’.

He asked a thick-set policeman, who pointed us to Smolny Institute, a little away from the centre of town. Smolny, hard by a cathedral of the same name (now a concert hall, as it was in Soviet days), was taken over by the Petrograd Soviet, the Military Revolutionary Committee and the Bolsheviks in those heady days of September and October, 1917. It became the nerve centre of the revolution – cars and trucks would race off and back, with urgent messages, leaflets, posters, red Guards, equipment and what have you. Armoured cars stood guard, lights blared, people barely slept, keeping up a frenzied pace as the revolution unfolded. Smolny was a hive buzzing with urgent activity.

Now it is – believe it or not – the Governor of St. Petersburg’s residence and office. As one of the two cities in the Russian Federation (the other is Moscow), here still lies the seat of power.

‘Is there a museum?’ We asked the guard. There is a Lenin room, he told us, but you need to make an appointment to see it. And appointments could not be made for five minutes hence. Next time, we vowed. I was content enough, for before Smolny stands Lenin, in a gesture of urgent speech, clothes swirling about him, intense look on his face.

Lenin looked out over the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, which stretches out before Smolny. Walk down the wide avenue through its centre and you meet Engels, framed by the cupolas of the Smolny Cathedral – appropriately, for he may have lost his Reformed faith as he became a communist, but he maintained a lively interest in the revolutionary possibilities of religion until his death in 1895.

Engels faces across the avenue to Marx, who stands there in eternal reflection. Unlike Mars Field, the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship is full of people; or children, to be precise, for parents bring their children here to play and meet other kids.

‘Future revolutionaries’, said Sergey with a smile. ‘There’s hope yet’.