Letter from a Young Chinese Comrade

October 31, 2022

In Letters To Finkelstein

Dear Professor Finkelstein,

My name is Tsing, a believer in Marxism. I’m originally from China and currently studying philosophy at CU. I had the honor to hear in person your talk in the Platypus panel a few weeks ago. Though I know so many people must have already said that, I still want to tell you that the talk was SO WONDERFUL! It’s the sharpest and most inspiring talk I’ve ever heard in my life. I used to think communists—the real communists—are a dead group whose body can only be found in history, but then I saw a living example.

I sincerely appreciate what you said about Mao. I understand he’s, to some degree, a demonized figure in the West. Even many Chinese people don’t like him because of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. As you said, he’s a highly controversial man and many crimes could be ascribed to him, especially concerning his later life. I totally agree with your saying he changed the notion of China to a real nation. In addition to that, I’m also highly sympathetic to him for his unparalleled strong faith in communism, not as an intellectual but as a true practicer. What he did in his later years, Cultural Revolution especially, is a failed attempt to build socialism in the real world. He was trying to transfer power from bureaucrats (who had been his friends and his comrades) to the people—a political move that had never been seen in history. The status of farmers and workers was deemed to be higher than that of capitalists for the first and the last time in history. Of course, lots of difficulties then appeared and crimes were committed due to various reasons, leading eventually to a huge tragedy. He became a mere symbol and, by the end of the Cultural Revolution, actually lost control of the whole thing. He should be held responsible for all bad things, but the very intention of him as a communist is unquestionable.

Here’s a funny thing. I’m not sure whether you know about it: CPC is actually trying to lower the influence of communism and Maoism on young people. Many student organizations and study groups in universities were disbanded right before covid because of their “fundamental” approach to communism and Maoism (“fundamentalism” is typically interpreted in a negative sense in China because we should go the “Chinese-way”). Namely, they really read and recommended to others Mao’s and Marx’s works instead of the “secondary literature” approved by the Party and taught in class. Several months earlier, many young people during Shanghai’s two-month lockdown were warned by the government because they played and sang Internationale. The song was then banned on major music apps in China, though several days later the ban was lifted. This is funny because it seems like communism eventually becomes a kind of enemy to the Communist Party.

Okay, the above is just a digression. Thank you so much for giving me your email address! This is going to be a long email and I guess you’ve already anticipated it ;).

Your talk was cut off because of the time limit last time, so I really want to know what you would have said that evening! You talked about revolution. You said affirmatively “it’s time”. Wow, I’ve never heard anyone saying it before. People all know Marx has a practical understanding of philosophy, namely as a way to change the world rather than merely interpret it. This naturally brings about a HOW question. This question seems to be unanswerable, though, given the lessons we learned in history and the facts in nowadays society (no empirical clue of class struggle). People usually just respond to it by saying “Marx didn’t say it” or “it’s impossible for people growing up in a non-socialistic society to imagine how a socialistic society works”. Marx criticized capitalism and envisioned socialism without knowing how to get to it clearly, nor did he know what the complete structure of a socialistic society would be like. Okay, I get it. This is an incomplete theory (and can’t be complete until the final actualization of socialism). But what next? What should we do? Then come all kinds of arguments saying “the power of productivity is not yet ready for socialism”, “socialism is merely a utopian concept”, “the idea of socialism is self-contradictory because it ignores human nature (normal feeling—don’t want to give up normal life/don’t want to take risk/…; attachment to particular people instead of the abstract and void concepts such as class or human beings; and natural power relations that can’t be truly “abolished”—a professor and a student, for example)”, or simply “bureaucratism and totalitarianism”.

You summarized your optimistic attitude from three aspects: radical potential, multinational solidarity in the working class, and also the major enemy—identity politics. I found some videos of you talking about identity politics on YouTube, and I’m fully convinced. So I wonder what you will say about radical potential and solidarity. One problem that especially puzzles me is how it is possible for the revolution to get started in the current situation. You also mentioned the middle class (extended to all workers in developed states) as a labor aristocracy, as well as the task of the government (representative of capitalists in my view, as a means to mitigate the tension between classes) to provide a better living standard for the working class. The former sectionalizes the working class and the latter makes the people feel satisfied. The current situation is that people feel content with their life, even though the best part of their lives (their days and their youth) is robbed by capitalists, even though they are alienated from humanity (unable to recognize themselves in their work and fully develop their potential), even though they are oppressed and exploited. They deem it to be normal to work for others and brag about it. Self-exploitation and exploitation of others are praised as responsibility/personal ambition and the science of management. The labor aristocrats mentally align themselves with capitalists rather than the working class “lower” than themselves essentially because they are also getting a small share of profit from the capitalistic system. I understand you see radical potential and solidarity among young people, but the problem is that most of the radical potential and solidarity are now geared toward a “better life under capitalism” rather than “overthrowing capitalism”. Strike is powerful, but the aim of strike is always raising salaries, signing a contract, and identity politics, rather than abolishing education costs, abolishing medical costs, uniting class, or class struggle. Strike, from this perspective, functions to remind the ruling class of how to appease (read: manipulate and deceive) the working class and perpetuate the current system. It indeed helps to “legitimize” capitalism to some degree.

For multinational solidarity in the working class especially, I think it’s just a delicate appearance. The case of George Floyd might be a sign of solidarity, and we can find similar cases across the world. People do show their sympathy sometimes towards others of different identities. But for the majority of time, we have to admit the working class is never one class. Solidarity in the subclasses of the working class is so strong that it can easily overwrite solidarity in the working class. Identity politics is not a mere invention of capitalists—different classes of working class do exist and they don’t see each other as comrades. Rather, they hate each other for complex cultural, religious, historical, and economic reasons. I think it’s just too arrogant for us to say “they are fooled by identity politics because they are too stupid to realize themselves as being in one class”. They have never belonged to a single class (even in Marx’s age, I think) and, for those reasons, it’s simply impossible for them to see each other as being in one “working class”.

In short, I just can’t see how the wrongly-oriented radical potential and fragile solidarity could be sufficient for the beginning of revolutionary changes. Or—how could a revolutionary change be possible at all in current days? This question has puzzled me for such a long time that I nearly no longer believe it to be solvable. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions! It would be relieving if you can tell me I’m wrong.

Again, I want to say thank you for giving that talk. I was deeply touched and awakened (not certain if this is the right word, just trying to describe my feeling). Many many many thanks!