Roland Boer is a Professor of Marxist philosophy in the School of Marxism at Dalian University of Technology in China, and a member of the Communist Party of Australia. He lives in China and is fluent in Mandarin.
Earlier, he taught at Renmin University of China and in a number of universities in Australia. He has also been a visiting professor in the Academy of Marxism in Beijing (within the Chinese Academy of Social Scences).
He recently published the highly acclaimed monograph Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – A Guide for Foreigners (2021), and will soon have published with Renmin University Press a work entitled Friedrich Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance.
Roland Boer’s book covers the whole system of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, dealing with Deng Xiaoping’s theory, the socialist market economy, a moderately well-off (Xiaokang) society, China’s practice and theory of socialist democracy, human rights, and Xi Jinping’s Marxism. In short, the resolute focus is the Reform and Opening-Up.
The practice of socialism with Chinese Characteristics is one of the most important global realities today. However, the concept and its practice remain largely misunderstood outside China. This book sets to redress such a lack of knowledge, by making available to non-Chinese speakers the sophisticated debates and conclusions in China concerning socialism with Chinese Characteristics. It presents this material in a way that is both accessible and thorough.
Below we present the author’s preface as a useful insight into what Professor Boer seeks to do in the book. We also provide a link to a review of the book by Dr Tamara Prosic which recently appeared in the Monthly Review.
Let me begin with a quotation from Mao Zedong:
“Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After joining the revolution, it was slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education.” (Mao Zedong, quoted in Shao, 2017)
Mao was speaking to Chinese students studying in Moscow in 1957, but his words are still resonant today. For me at least, the in-depth study of Chinese Marxism, of socialism with Chinese characteristics, has required a washing of my brain, a washing that has taken a dozen years or more. Why?
When I first came to China, I thought I was open-minded, thought that I did assume the frameworks and assumptions with which I had been brought up and educated. How wrong I was. Like other foreigners, I had developed an opinion about China that was quite erroneous. This is particularly so for those from the small number of countries that make up the ‘West’ (containing about 14% of the global population). I have found that those who have grown up in socialist countries past and present—find it much easier to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is also the case for the many who come from developing countries, for there too is a living memory of the experience of colonial depredation at the hands of the ‘West’. So if you are like me, having been brought up and educated in one of the few Western countries, then you may well need to engage in a process of washing your brain so as to be able to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics, or sinified Marxism.
Another way of putting it is ‘liberating thought’, a term that became a central feature of Deng Xiaoping’s tenure and crucial in the launching the Reform and Opening-Up. For Deng, liberating thought entailed liberation from old dogmas and assumptions about what socialism should be and indeed what capitalism was. To be clear: this is not some liberal ‘freedom of expression’ that simply reinforces Western liberal frameworks. Instead, the liberation of thought is central to the correct theoretical line of Marxism itself: Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action, a method for analysis and a framework—in China—for the construction of socialism. By now it should be obvious that I will have much to say concerning Marxism in this book. The simple reason is that Marxism is front and centre in the Chinese project of constructing socialism. Socialism? Yes: I agree with the vast majority of Chinese scholars and common people—along with not a few in many other parts of the world—that the Chinese project is indeed a socialist project. Thus, if you want to understand China, you need to understand Marxism, especially Chinese Marxism. Those who ignore Chinese Marxism risk profound misunderstandings of China and its path.
My primary focus is the Reform and Opening-Up, launched by Deng Xiaoping and the CPC in 1978. I will also have much to say at various points on the longer Marxist tradition—especially on the development of contradiction analysis and the theory of socialist democracy. But my focus remains the distinctly Marxist project of the Reform and Opening-Up.
As I indicate in the introductory chapter, this book primarily uses research undertaken by Chinese Marxist scholars in order to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics. This research has thus far been overwhelmingly published in the Chinese language and has not been studied outside China as much it should have been studied. Although there are some notable exceptions—Domenico Losurdo, Colin Mackerras, Nick Knight, Stefano Azzarà, and Barry Sautman—I do not find much Western material on China particularly useful. Most of these latter works fall into the trap of ‘using Western categories to understand China [yixi jiezhong]’. Even more, when an occasional Western Marxist feels called upon to opine about China, we find that such an effort ‘uses Western categories to understand Marx [yixi jiema]’. For these reasons and more, it is necessary to deploy the extraordinary depth and range of Chinese Marxist scholarship to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Source: Roland Boer, 2021, Extract from Preface, ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics: a guide for foreigners’
More information on Professor Boer’s work: https://roland-theodore-boer.net/
Those who wonder whether China is still socialist or suspect that the Communist Party of China abandoned Marxism … in fact, anyone who wants to engage seriously and extensively with ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ , should read this book. I never doubted that China is socialist. China wants to lead by example and Boer’s book certainly shines a very bright light on the ins and the outs of that example.
Dr Tamara Prosic, Monash University, Australia.
Below we reproduce a review by Dr Tamara Prosic of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Monash University, Australia, which appeared in the Monthly Review, June 21, 2021:
Ever since the reform and opening-up from 1978, and especially during the last few decades, China has often been portrayed as an economic and a political hybrid: an officially socialist country which has, under the aegis of its Communist Party and its leaders’ continuing declarations of allegiance to Marxism and building socialism, embraced two key components of capitalist systems: private ownership over the means of production and a market economy. For many, this hybridity is also an insoluble contradiction which, similar to the classical liar paradox, involves a range of mutually invalidating opposites lining up with popular understanding of ‘authentically’ Marxist/socialist/communist economic and political values, practices, etc., and respectively ‘authentically’ capitalist/liberal/neoliberal values, practices, etc. Overall, the reasoning goes that if China is truly socialist and if its Communist Party sincerely adheres to Marxism (as its theoretical and practical guide for building socialism and eventually communism), then introducing practices typical of capitalism constitutes a betrayal of Marxism (or deviation from it) and introduction of capitalism. Based on this essentialising dualistic logic, China has become ‘state capitalism’, ‘bureaucratic capitalism’, ‘capitalist socialism’, ‘neoliberalism/capitalism with Chinese characteristics’, ‘crony capitalism’, ‘red capitalism’, and many other capitalisms. Many of these ‘capitalist’ qualifications come from non-Marxists and are often just poorly veiled attempts to reassert Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’ slogan and Fukuyama’s ‘the end of history’ thesis. Unfortunately, many Marxists, especially in the West, also succumb to the trap of dualistic social ontology in thinking about China. The glaring fault in their approach: disregard for the basic Marxist method, more concretely, dialectics, which involves understanding reality, including the reality of socialism, as the constant development of contradictions and their resolutions through sublation.
Socialism with Chinese Characteristics challenges the simplistic mutually exclusive dualistic lens through which socialism in China is often viewed and judged. Truthful to its title, the book is a guide to Chinese socialism, both comprehensive and incisive, although not so much for foreigners as for those who lost sight of Marxist dialectics as theory, analytical method and most importantly, as a framework and guide for social practice. For others, who like myself, grew up and lived in a socialist country, reading Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is a journey simultaneously familiar and new: familiar in recognising the language of specifically socialist Marxism and new regarding the ways it has been applied in Chinese circumstances.
It is not easy to provide a short overview of Boer’s book. It has ten chapters (each one with many sections and subsections) which aim to provide comprehensive answers and explanations to many different questions one can ask about modern China. Some are more theoretical, other more factual, but all of them draw on a variety of strands involving history, Marxism, politics, law, linguistics, etc. The book covers what some might consider the ‘big’ issues such as the Marxist basis for the reform and opening up, the introduction of private ownership and market economy (chapters 4 and 5), the theoretical foundations and practical functioning of Chinese socialist democracy (chapters 8 and 9) and ideas about sovereignty and human rights and their practical applications (chapter 7). In dealing with these ‘big’ issues, however, a number of other questions are also clarified, such as the status of minority nationalities and their involvement in the democratic process (section 8.5), the meaning of ‘legal system’ and ‘rule of law’ (subsection 8.6.1), the role of the Party and the role of the government (subsection 9.6.2), views on globalisation (subsection 10.4.8), etc. Every chapter also involves quotes and references from Chinese sources, which include works and speeches by Party leaders (Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping), documents from congresses and conferences and an incredible number of Chinese Marxist philosophers, political scientists, economists, etc., most of which are unfortunately unknown outside of China. The book also includes explanations of Chinese words, expressions and characters which are part of the Chinese Marxist discourse, such as shishiqiushi (seeking truth from facts) (32), datong(unity, togetherness, harmony) and xiaokang (moderately well-off, healthy, peaceful and secure) (chapter 6), baquan (hegemony) (256), etc.
The way in which all of this versatile material is woven together and presented is clear and accessible, but the book is far from being a simple descriptive journey as one would expect from a ‘guide’. It is also a deeply analytical work which in order to highlight the distinctiveness of Chinese Marxism and the complexities of building socialism involves careful reading of Chinese textual material (and their squaring up with actual practice), frequent comparisons with Soviet and Western Marxism and Western liberal thought, constant moving between the past and the present, zooming in on details and zooming out to the big picture and frequent expositions about how described practical aspects fit in with Chinese Marxist discourse. In this sense, reading through Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is not an easy ride. There is breadth and depth to it which requires constant focus and, most importantly, also an open mind and readiness towards accepting reconfigured, sometimes in a completely new way, well-known Marxist ideas and concepts.
The picture of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ that emerges from this intense journey is of a vibrant, dynamic and complex society which is in constant development and in a critical dialectical dialogue within itself and with the rest of the world. Indeed, if I were to summarise what ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ entails without doing grave injustice to its complexity, it would be that it exemplifies Marxist dialectics in real action. Dialectics was the force behind the reform and opening up (chapters 2, 3, 4, section 5.3) and it is still the dominant theory and method that informs and shapes development of Chinese socialism (section 1.2 and chapter 10). What differentiates Chinese Marxist dialectics, however, from Marxist dialectics in the classical sense is that it is referential to Chinese history and conditions (subsection 1.3) and that its primary focus is not anymore on contradictions arising from capitalism, but on resolving contradictions that arise in socialism, that is, in a post-revolution social reality where, as Marx would say, the expropriators have already been expropriated (section 3.4 and subsection 4.5.1). In other words, this is a type of socialist/socialisticdialectics whose main concern is development of socialism as concrete social, economic and political practice.
Dialectics is the dominant theme of the book, but the key to understanding specifically Chinese socialist(ic) dialectics and appreciating the intricacies of Chinese socialism and its functioning are the first four chapters because most of the ideas they deal with are, with an ever-growing complexity, further elaborated in the rest of the book. In the introduction, Boer explains the role Marxism plays in China, what is specifically Chinese about it and a number of liberal and Western Marxists’ (mis)representations of Chinese socialism, which Chinese scholars and Boer view as inadequate and methodologically faulty since they try to understand China from the perspective of Western history, Western intellectual traditions and Western Marxism. The second chapter discusses Deng’s two principles (liberating thought from dogmatism for the purpose of liberating the forces of production, and seeking truth from facts as the basis of the Marxist method) that were instrumental for the move from strictly planned to mixed planned/market economy. The third chapter presents ‘contradiction analysis’ or dialectical materialism as it was developed in the Soviet Union, namely, the understanding that contradictions continue in socialism albeit in non-antagonistic form, and its application in Chinese conditions. Finally, the fourth chapter explains the reasons for the reform and the opening-up via contradiction analysis in a series of opposites such as collective/individual, equality/difference, revolution/reform, self-reliance/globalisation and their recalibration within the Chinese socialist economic and political context. From here, the book turns to an extremely detailed discussion of more concrete aspects of Chinese socialism, such as the economy, socialist modernisation, sovereignty, human rights and democracy, ending with an exposition of Xi Jinping’s thought. What all of these chapters clearly demonstrate is the firm footing of Boer’s claim from the introduction, namely, that Marxism is at the core of Chinese socialist project, although, as mentioned before, this is Marxism that is primarily referential to and applicable to problems arising in socialism.
Does Boer’s book deliver on the promise to ‘redress the lack of knowledge’ about the concept and practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics? It certainly does and more so. For those who wonder whether China is still socialist or suspect that Chinese Communist Party abandoned Marxism, the book provides a lot of material on which to base their answers. In fact, anyone who wants to engage seriously and extensively with ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ should read the book. As for me, I never doubted that China is socialist. What Socialism with Chinese Characteristics did for me was to reaffirm that communism is indeed ‘the riddle of history solved’, which I began to doubt after the Yugoslav and the Soviet disaster, and to rekindle the hope that the world will come to that solution sooner rather than later. China wants to lead towards achieving this aim by example and Boer’s book certainly shines a very bright light on the ins and the outs of that example.