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The self-moving Subject in modern Chinese history 1740-1949 (the decline and fall of value-resistant forms of praxis)

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We learn by experience that we meant something other than we meant to mean; and this correction of our meaning compels our knowing to go back to the proposition, and understand it in some other way. (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, §63)

革命和资本,哪一个有更多乡愁?(欧阳江河,《凤凰 》)

WHO WE ARE notes
Coming to terms with the deformation and rollback of the communist project during the twentieth century remains an existential challenge to Marxist theory. The latter must account not only for the ongoing global extension of capital since the crystallization of the organized labour movement (a movement which here is understood as coterminous with the communist project), but also for the catalysing role that workers' organizations, parties, and nominatively Communist states have ultimately played in that process. Only by doing so can a critical theory of capital exhibit ongoing self-reflexivity: what this means is that (a) an immanent critique of capitalism by necessity contains insight into the terms of its own origin, the context of its own emergence; and (b) it must consistently derive its categories from the historically dynamic movement of capital itself, rather than from any appeal to transhistoricity [1]. What is required, in other words, is analysis of the trajectory of capitalism which treats the emergence of the Marxist critique and the ongoing production of communist potentialities as organic developments of that selfsame trajectory – more simply, a Marxist history of the historical emergence of Marxism.

The same reflexivity required of Marxist theory in abstract, furthermore, must also apply in concrete to the emergence and eclipse of the international communist project over the course of the twentieth century. This is by no means an original objective. Marxist critique of the Communist legacy of the Soviet Union and China encompasses – has been embodied in – the Trotskyite, the 'left' communist (the Italian Bordigan and Dutch/German council communist, and their descendants), the Eurocommunist, and certain aspects of the anarchist traditions. This text coordinates itself in response to each of these traditions, thru equal parts theft and criticism. That much of the material legacy of the communist project in the twentieth century has been subsumed by capital is beyond any doubt; we must bring to bear what has been left behind after this precipitation – that which, by its nature, cannot be co-opted. Only then will we be quits with our martyrs.

This text is in partial fulfilment of that purpose. Its ambition is limited – a complete understanding of the interdependent struggles and failures of the emancipatory project in the twentieth century is beyond the capacity of the present writers. The focus on the Chinese experience is a necessary but artificial restriction. This does not defeat the importance of this focus: ‘China’ is an entity that has long danced tantalizingly – at times resistant, at others compliant – on the edge of the capitalist event horizon [2]. We live now in the culminating movements of that dance – an end we will witness in our lifetimes, and which has within living memory made tangible steps toward congress (equally, toward upheaval within China as well as the global order). What that end might actually look like – the question mark that hangs over China's full and successful integration with the global capitalist order – will be dealt with in detail later in the text. It suffices now to emphasize that understanding, first, the shape of the trajectory of imperial mimesis in China – that is, how China, in its development during the period in question, has reflected and participated in the global extension of capital – and, second, the corresponding emergence and development of the communist project within China (that project's own trajectory), are of paramount importance to the ongoing reconstruction of a value-resistant praxis [3].

A crucial aspect of the above is to understand how the communist project broke the surface (or ‘junctured with actual reality’ – Gramsci, 1971: 113) and was played out in nations which themselves were only barely constituted in the aftermath of imperial collapse and which were without an organic foundation of domestic capitalist development. This led to a magnification of the dialectic between the productive forces and the relations of production. To deal with this is not a straightforward matter. This dialectic is a reflection of the use value/value distinction that is the central contradiction of capitalism; Marx’s own thought on the nature of this dialectic developed significantly even within his later works themselves, and arguably retains a degree of irreducible ambiguity. To further complicate matters, the reconstruction of his thought process is ultimately dependent upon the way in which his changing relationship to Hegel is interpreted.

The Russian and Chinese revolutions brought these ambiguities to the surface – to a condition of practical necessity. That the critique of capitalism arrived in Russia and China before significant capitalist development itself – and the extent to which the success of that critique in those nations called a moratorium on ongoing development – made necessary the planning of production in reflection of the capitalist path. This process is captured by Harry Braverman with respect to the Soviet Union: “If the old Social Democracy tended to view the capitalist mode of production as an immensely powerful and successful enterprise with which it was necessary to compromise, the Communists tended to view it with equal awe as a source from which it was necessary to learn and borrow, and which would have to be imitated if the Soviet Union were to catch up with capitalism and lay the foundations for socialism” (1974: 11). The ideology that ossified as the hegemonic ideology of the governing parties and their emergent nomenklatura extolled the primacy of development of the forces of production. This, then, is the cunning of Reason: that China be left to negotiate capital accumulation under the ideological hegemony of its Communist Party [4].

This text will deal with a period of over two hundred years – not continuously, but through an elucidation of certain moments selected to illustrate three main theses, that: (1) extended spatial and temporal structures restricted and/or deformed transformative agency within China in such a way that the communist project could not be transformative of the global order on its own terms [5]; (2) the failure of the 1919 Spartacist uprising in Germany and the emergent national-chauvinistic or Stalinist character of the Comintern were necessary but not sufficient factors in this [6] – they must be understood in terms of their interaction with a longer-term and ongoing process internal/immanent to Chinese development; and (3) the constraints of this process by necessity channelled the agency of the post-Liberation communist project into a project of national reconstruction[7], and that this project has been aided, abetted, and mediated by the hegemony of the Communist Party of China over the workers' movement. Meanwhile, it will be seen how Marxist theory has been used to justify as well as to critique these particular movements [8].

The title of this document refers to its conception of imperial mimesis in China in terms of a Marxian appropriation of Hegel's Phenomenology (the core of the latter being presented by Hegel in §27-37 of the Preface to that work). In this conception we lean heavily on Moishe Postone's reading of Capital in Time, Labor, and Social Domination (1993); in fact, this endeavour is intended in part as an attempt to bring concrete historical material to bear on, and thereby test the limits of, Postone's interpretation – an interpretation which itself, therefore, will not be assumed uncritically. That interpretation hinges upon an identification of the self-moving or self-positing Subject introduced by Hegel in §18 with the concept of value or capital introduced by Marx in the first volume of Capital [9]. The import of this identification is that Hegel's logic is historically situated by Marx as the internal logic of capitalism (Postone 1993: 5). Dialectical movement and the validity of dialectical analysis both emerge from the dual character of the commodity, historically and structurally embedded as it is within the capitalist mode of production; historical teleology is also therefore the resident logic within the capitalist event horizon; the Marxist critique itself, too, is immanent to the capitalist mode of production. None of these – dialectical movement, a historical teleology, the Marxist critique – applies immediately to non-capitalist modes of production. Understanding the mediation between capitalist and non-capitalist modes is a nontrivial problem, as will be seen in the case of the Qing dynasty.

That is why the Phenomenology is central to this document. In Hegel’s narrative therein of the uneducated individual’s progress to the position of Science, a position in which it is conscious of itself as the universal individual (the self-positing Subject), we see a description of the process of mediation between the categories of Subject, Spirit, Science, and their Other, and how the Other comes to be reconstructed by and ultimately to perceive itself in terms of those categories. It is a process analogous (albeit darkly, through a glass) to the crystallization of capital circuits within non-capitalist modes of production, both in capitalism’s own emergence from the pre-modern world, as well as in its mediation with the lingering remnants of that world. The Marxian correlates of this process (from the Grundrisse (Formens), Capital (unpublished 6th chap), and Rubin) will be explained in the following Introduction.

This interpretation has a bearing on how value-resistant praxis (and of course its counterpart, value-deformed praxis) must be construed. Derived from the above is the radical proposition put forth by Postone (amongst others: see Braverman, Murray, Labriola) – radical, insofar as it challenges assumptions commonly held by historical materialists, or commonly held by others to be held by historical materialists – that the substance of these determinate categories, which is only that of the forces of production to which they are considered to belong, is non-neutral under capitalism: “The dialectic of the forces and relations of production...is, then, a dialectic of two dimensions of capital rather than of capital and forces extrinsic to it. This dialectic is at the heart of capital as a dynamic, contradictory social totality...the forms of socially general knowledge and power developed under capitalism, according to [Marx's] analysis, are socially formed and are incorporated into the process of production as attributes of capital” (Postone 1993: 351-2)[10].

‘How does Science come into being?’ – Hegel’s research question in the Phenomenology – is hereby re-configured: ‘How do the circuits and ideologies of capital extend themselves, or how is the capitalist mode of production reflected into non-capitalist modes?’ This is of double importance, because this text is concerned not only with the reflection of imperial capitalism into China but also with the event horizon that has hitherto prevented movement away from this singularity. This entails an understanding of Hegel’s ‘Science’ as a non-neutral ideology of the capitalist mode – an example simultaneously mundane and extreme is the ‘management science’ criticized by Braverman[11]. Patrick Murray's Marx's Theory of Scientific Knowledge (1988) follows the argument that Marx's distinction between the general categories of concrete labour and use-value and the determinate categories of abstract labour and exchange value historically locates Hegel's logic as pertaining to categories that are determinate to capitalism [12] and puts this in terms of technological progress and scientific knowledge: "the philosophical and political specificity of the economic categories rules out technological determinism. Likewise, the texts do not support the associated notion of natural science as politically neutral" (xix) [emphasis added].

This can be seen as a more recent moment in the struggle between two interpretations of Marx’s thought (the intrinsic difficulties of which have already been noted): on the one hand, 'evolutionists' or 'technological determinists' who posit the primacy of the forces of production and de-emphasize the necessity of class struggle; on the other, 'adventurists' or 'voluntarists' who posit the primacy of the relations of production and de-emphasize the teleology of immanent development in history. This theoretical conflict will be (somewhat crudely) historicized in the following Introduction. Suffice it here to state that what unites both of these standpoints is their conception of the forces of production as external in both content and form to the relations of production. Both standpoints ultimately conceive of the forces of production as transhistorical elements 'trapped' within the web of capitalist distribution relations. Labour as a determinate (alienated, abstract) category is treated thereby in its general (concrete) sense.

What will be argued here is that the above thesis does not hold from the vantage point of the present day and that therefore this debate can be brought to an end. In reconstructing how the nature of machinery and the nature of labour have historically come to be deformative of liberatory praxis [13](i.e. constructive of an event horizon) we will proceed from Marx’s discussion of the formal and real subsumption of labour to capital (Capital I, unpublished 6th chapter), through Braverman’s account of scientific management’s ongoing drive to replace the general categories with the determinate, to Postone and Murray’s critique of the political nature of the proletariat and scientific knowledge respectively.

From the specification of Hegel's categories as the historically determinate categories of the capitalist mode of production, then, is derived a critique of Hegel's conception of Science (construed here as representing the embedded logic and ideology of capitalist reproduction), and, therefore, a critique of science, technology and labour as they 'actually exist' under capitalism. The following details are emphasized here because they are not only fundamental to Marx's critique (see the unpublished chapter 6 of Capital, I) but also to our own critical approach to material development in China during the period in question: those details are the non-neutral (or 'political') nature of technology, labour (and its value-determined forms of organisation), the party apparatus, the state apparatus, and the nation [14].

A final related point is on the opposition of teleology and contingency. It might be argued that the substance of this text, which reduces over two hundred years of history to, on a strict count, ten or so paragraphs in Hegel, is a wholesale rejection of human agency in transforming history. A simple reply to this is that this text is not Hegelian, but Marxist. The words of the 18th Brumaire – “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” – must now be read in terms of the deformation and rollback introduced at the beginning of this Overview. The extent to which our own praxis serves to reinforce the event horizon of the bourgeois revolution is the same extent to which our project is moribund. We cannot make the old ghosts walk again, nor can we wake ourselves from these nightmares by discursive means alone. It is not an invitation the receipt of which enables us to immediately cast off the exigencies imposed by previous generations. We experience those exigencies as an ontological proof and (just as that proof brings us not to God but to self-consciousness – Marx) our actions are thereby negotiated with them as living ghosts.

The narrative of this text is suchwise informed by the structural exigencies (the narrative teleology, the nightmares on the brains of the living) intrinsic to the global extension of capital and, in that extension, the deformation of critical praxis in the twentieth century; interruptions to those exigencies constitute value-resistant forms of praxis and will be rightly raised – not to validate our current praxis with any spurious victory of the past, but to guard it against these pseudomorphoses. Those interruptions were towards, as they continue to be towards, “the elimination of value as a social reality, a new attitude toward nature and work embodied in a new form of production, and an end to the proletariat” (Murray 1988: xix).

An emphasis on contingency in history is often upheld (in post-structural philosophy, for example, and in certain strains of anarchist political thought) as a fortification of human agency, as an emancipatory foothold [15], and as a rejection of the transhistorical determinism common to mechanistic conceptions of historical materialism. It must be clear that it is not the purpose of this text to deny human agency – ‘value in motion’ is itself intrinsically destructive of such agency. It is the purpose of this text to reconstruct, alongside the large-scale teleological impositions of the law of value, the real efforts made by millions in resistance to that totalizing process [16]. To reject the intrinsic teleology of capital as merely ‘part and parcel’ of a transhistorical teleology of history is to dispense of a baby along with its ideological bathwater.

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Benner, E. (1996). Really Existing Nationalisms. London: Oxford University Press.
Braverman, H. (1974). Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Gramsci, A. (1977). Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Q. H. a. G. N. Smith, Trans.). London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of Spirit (A. M. Miller, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Labriola, A. (1907). Socialism and Philosophy (E. Untermann, Trans.). Chicago.
Murray, P. (1988). Marx's Theory of Scientific Knowledge. New Jersey: Humanities Press International.
Postone, M. (1993). Time, Labor, and Social Domination. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[1] That is, that "its analysis of the relation of theory and society is such that it can, in an epistemologically consistent manner, locate itself historically by means of the same categories with which it analyzes its social context." (Postone 1993: 5)

[2] Indications of what is meant here by ‘event horizon’ can be found in Gramsci, for example, who details a conclusion of Labriola by suggesting that the bourgeois revolution works to construct a bulwark against further revolutionary movement: “the fact that the Junkers and Kaiserism continued in power in Germany, despite the great capitalist development, adumbrates the correct explanation: the class relations created by industrial development, with the limits of bourgeois hegemony reached and the position of the progressive classes reversed, have induced the bourgeoisie not to struggle with all its strength against the old regime, but to allow a part of the latter’s facade to subsist, behind which it can disguise its own real domination.” (83) Braverman applies this to the labour process itself: “The apparent acclimatization of the worker to the new modes of production grows out of the destruction of all other ways of living, the striking of wage bargains that permit a certain enlargement of the customary bounds of subsistence for the working class, the weaving of the net of modern capitalist life that finally makes all other modes of living impossible. But beneath this apparent habituation, the hostility of workers to the degenerated forms of work which are forced upon them continues as a subterranean stream...It renews itself in new generations, expresses itself in the unbounded cynicism which large numbers of workers feel about their work, and comes to the fore repeatedly as a social issue demanding solution.” (151) [emphasis added]

[3] In Postone’s terms: “...the possible historical negation of capitalism implied by Marx's critique cannot be understood in terms of the proletariat's reappropriation of what it has constituted and, hence, in terms of the abolition of private property alone. Rather, the logical thrust of Marx's presentation clearly implies that this historical negation should be conceived as people's reappropriation of socially general capacities that are not ultimately grounded in the working class and had been constituted historically in alienated form as capital. Such reappropriation would be possible only if the structural basis of this process of alienation—value, hence, proletarian labor—were abolished. The historical emergence of this possibility depends, in turn, upon the underlying contradiction of capitalist society.” (1993: 357)

[4] Postone deals with the content of this paragraph in more general terms: “value, as a form of wealth, is at the core of structures of abstract domination whose significance extends beyond the market and the sphere of circulation (into that of production, for example). Such an analysis implies that when value remains the form of wealth planning itself is subject to the exigencies of abstract domination. That is, public planning does not, in and of itself, suffice to overcome the system of abstract domination—the impersonal, nonconscious, nonvolitional, mediate form of necessity characteristic of capitalism. Public planning, then, should not be abstractly opposed to the market, as the principle of socialism to that of capitalism.” (1993: 127) [emphasis added]

[5] See above footnote.

[6] It will be understood in this text that both Social-Democracy and Stalinism were fatally deformed vehicles for emancipation and could only serve toward the reproduction and extension of the law of value; furthermore, that to seek to explain the Chinese experience during the years in question solely in terms of the external meddling of imperialist or the Comintern is reductive and undialectical.

[7] Following Benner (1996), national construction will not be understood as intrinsically contradictory to the social movement. However, the form that national development necessarily took in a post-war world structured, for example, by the ownership (or lack thereof) of atomic weaponry meant that these two aims were ultimately irreconcilable.

[8] The ‘critical’ communist traditions, introduced above, allot the blame for this on areas of praxis that vary in their scale – from Trotskyite anti-Stalinism, to the council communist anti-Leninism, to Postone’s critique of a broadly-defined ‘traditional Marxism’. Ideas of ‘deformation’ are common to each of them; this text will seek to understand this deformation in ideological terms via Gramsci (1971: 168) and Best (2015), and through a re-appropriation of Oswald Spengler’s conception of ‘historical pseudomorphoses’.

[9] “[Value] is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject...value here is the subject of a process in which..it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently...value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own...” (Marx, 1990: 255-6). This has its precedent in Hegel's Geist, from the Preface to the Phenomenology: “the living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself, or is the mediation of its self-othering with itself...It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as it beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual” (PS, §18, see also 22-3).

[10] This is also indicated by Giddens in A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism: “The forces/relations of production dialectic is not a miraculous device that somehow holds the answer to disclosing the underlying sources of social change in general. Nor can the contradictory character of social formations be understood in these terms – except in the case of capitalism. The forces/relations of production dialectic...has peculiar reference to capitalism as a type of society” (1981: 89). A number of points raised by Giddens will be accepted in this text, in particular his criticism of the ‘Asiatic mode’ and his preference for the Grundrisse and its Formen section in favour of, and opposition to, the content of the Preface.

[11]‘Mundane’ because it should be self-evident that this is a system of control rather than of ‘science’. ‘Extreme’ because, on the basis of Murray’s statement, even the apparently more neutral formation of ‘natural science’ must also be challenged.

[12] “By not identifying the conceptual dialectic of Capital with a dialectic of history, Marx removed himself from inflated claims concerning the development of precapitalist societies. Consequently, Marx provided no warrant for a politics that works from some imagined historical blueprint in order to put such societies under a forced march. By distinguishing general categories such as useful labor, instrument of production, and land from the determinate categories abstract labor, capital, and landed property Marx penetrated the apparent naturalness and fairness of the capitalist economy” (xviii).

[13]This possibility, raised albeit in terms of nascent Chinese capitalist development rather than communist praxis, was put forward within China in the 1930s by T’ao Hsi-sheng and a number of other left-KMT writers who will be discussed later.

[14] This critique of labour under capitalism opens Marxist theory, as Postone notes, to those whom he calls “pessimistic” theorists (1993: 41). Others will be added to his list from inside and outside the tradition: Spengler, Ivan Illich, Ted Kaczynski, and Mark Fisher.

[15] As in fact is its opposing tendency. Gramsci deals with the use of determinism as an equivalent source of strength: “When you don’t have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself comes eventually to be identified with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a tremendous force of moral resistance, of cohesion and of patient and obstinate perseverance. ‘I have been defeated for the moment, but the tide of history is working for me in the long term.’ Real will takes on the garments of an act of faith in a certain rationality of history and in a primitive and empirical form of impassioned finalism which appears in the role of a substitute for the predestination or Providence of confessional religions. It should be emphasised, though, that a strong activity of the will is present even here, directly intervening in the ‘force of circumstance’, but only implicitly, and in a veiled and, as it were, shamefaced manner. Consciousness here, therefore, is contradictory and lacking critical unity, etc. But when the ‘subaltern’ becomes directive and responsible for the economic activity of the masses, mechanicism at a certain point becomes an imminent danger and a revision must take place in modes of thinking because a change has taken place in the social mode of existence. The boundaries and the dominion of the ‘force of circumstance’ become restricted. But why? Because, basically, if yesterday the subaltern element was a thing, today it is no longer a thing but a historical person, a protagonist; if yesterday it was not responsible, because ‘resisting’ a will external to itself, now it feels itself to be responsible because it is no longer resisting but an agent, necessarily active and taking the initiative. But even yesterday was it ever mere ‘resistance’, a mere ‘thing’, mere ‘non-responsibility'? Certainly not. Indeed one should emphasize how fatalism is nothing other than the clothing worn by real and active will when in a weak position. This is why it is essential at all times to demonstrate the futility of mechanical determinism: for, although it is explicable as a naive philosophy of the mass and as such, but only as such, can be an intrinsic element of strength, nevertheless when it is adopted as a thought-out and coherent philosophy on the part of the intellectuals, it becomes a cause of passivity, of idiotic self-sufficiency. This happens when they don’t even expect that the subaltern will become directive and responsible. In fact, however, some part of even a subaltern mass is always directive and responsible, and the philosophy of the part always precedes the philosophy of the whole, not only as its theoretical anticipation but as a necessity of real life.” (1971: 336) [emphasis added]

[16] “[T]he critical Marxian position...does not regard heteronomous history as a narrative, which can simply be dispelled discursively, but as a structure of domination that must be overcome. From this point of view, any attempt to rescue human agency by focusing on contingency in ways that bracket the existence of such historically specific structures of domination is – ironically – profoundly disempowering" (Postone 2009: 43) Here too we can see Gramsci’s drive to hold out against both these modes of thought: “Subaltern groups are always subject to the activity of ruling groups, even when they rebel and rise up: only “permanent victory” breaks their subordination, and that not immediately. In reality, even when they appear to be triumphant, the subaltern groups are merely anxious to defend themselves...Every trace of independent initiative on the part of subaltern groups should therefore be of incalculable value to the integral historian.” (Gramsci, 1971: 55)