04 February, 2019

On the American Football Game

I die—but first I have possess’d,
And come what may, I have been blest.
—Lord Byron
This clip has been played 87 million times on Facebook and another seven million times on Youtube.

It's inspirational. It's powerful. I get why it has as many hits as it does.

But there is something more to it, and this something speaks to some of the cultural divides we have in America right now.

Most foreigners don't get football. They think it is just bunch of angry men crashing in to each other. That is mostly because they don't know the rules. When you know the rules of football you understand that this sport is one of the smartest games out there. It is a bit like playing chess with grown men as your pieces. The game is strategic.

But that's not why its popular.

There are also a large number of Americans who don't get football. You will occasionally hear cries from these folks that the sport ought to be banned (dangerous as it is), that the money spent on athletic programs is wasted, that it embodies a form of toxic masculinity, and so forth. Occasionally you will find old footballers among these critics, but most were not athletes themselves when they were a teenager—or if they were, they were on the cross-country team. Now, there is nothing wrong with being on the cross-country team. There is nothing wrong from with forgoing athletics altogether. But the folks from that world where football does not matter will always have a bit of trouble understanding the souls from the world where it does.

I get this. It is easy to caricature the football player and his fans as brutish and violent. It is easy to caricature the small towns whose seasons are divided by the calendar of the local high school football team as backward and out of touch. And lets be honest—any sport that revolves around smashing into someone as violently as possible does have something brutish about it; any town where the high school home-coming game is the most happening thing really is not a very happening place.

But there is more to it than this.

If you were to pick out people from that homecoming crowd—and I speak here of grown adults, especially the men, but also many of the mothers—and were to ask them, "so what does all of this football stuff mean to you?," you wouldn't hear about strategy and tactics, nor the joys of smashing into someone with all of one's force (though joyful that can be). The stories and feelings that you would hear would be of the kind seen in the clip above. You would find in football the school of life and fields of purpose. The football stadium is the place where one boy after another learns lessons their  school teachers could not teach them.

There are many paths through the wilds of life that promise to fill the journey full with meaning. There are untold ways to discover the lessons most worth learning. But for so many millions, this is the path and the way laid out before them. Between two end zones lies the proving ground of their strength and their grit, the place where words like sacrifice, struggle, love and belonging stop being words and start being lived realities. For them, the football field is a field of meaning.

The indifference of the critic disheartens. "Say you tear it all down," I often wish to ask them. "Say you send the boys home. Say you cut apart the living tempo of the small towns. Say you rip to pieces the solace of the downtrodden. Say you sever the chain tying sons to fathers. Say you crush a rare institution that forces young men to take seriously stalwart and caring old men. Say you strip away the rare chance for the boy who is not bookish to thrive in a world that forces his sort down into the gutter. Say you destroy this field of meaning. What will you replace it with?"

The world is not wanting for ways of meaning. The ritual role of the football field may plausibly be filled with waters drawn from some other well. This is true—but it is also so much easier to say from the outside. Others' treasures never have the same weight as those clutched close to our own bosoms. I suspect that replacing one treasure with a new one is another feat easier said than done. It is easier to destroy communities than it is to build them.

A few years back, the popular country singer Kenny Chesney released a paean to American football titled "The Boys of Fall." It is beautiful in its own way, a tribute to the ritual role football plays in the social life of its players. The song's eight-minute long music video begins with a pep-talk delivered by a high school football coach. At one point the coach chokes up and tells the team:
There are so many people that live vicariously through you. I would give anything tonight to jump in one of these uniforms with you. That feeling goes away. It goes away and it does not come every Friday night. It comes when you get married. It comes when your first child is born. So you get it, but you just don't get it every Friday night. You are going to miss that more than anything in the world. [1]
Pathetic, some will think. And in some ways it might be. Any young person optimized too far for athletic excellence is in for a rude awakening. The athlete peaks young. If the American athlete is lucky, his or her excellence may pay their way through college. But those are the lucky few.  Fewer still are the athletes whose years of toil and practice can pay their bills at 30. Those who devote their lives to the football field run the risk of cresting there, living out their remaining days in the shadow of their high school glories.

But is that actually so bad? At day's end, those who mock the foolishness of the man on the football field will be seen for what they are: no less foolish. As the shadow grows, it becomes ever clearer that the fields they have chosen for achievement last no longer than those that fill them with disdain. Financial derivatives may be packaged and repackaged, businesses may bloom or bust, books and doctoral theses may be typed at for years on end—but none survive the setting of the sun. You cannot take them with you. Too late we stumble upon that old discovery: what matters most in life is that which does not last. It is a truth the poets best express:
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream. [2]

You live, you die. A flash of light in the dark deserts of eternity. But within that flash come joys and loathings, great beauty and great sorrow. It is our doom and our glory to live our lives on the cresting wave. But given how ephemeral our attainments must be, who then can rightly criticize the man on the football field? Standing on that field is a man who has found a sense of place and a source of strength. There he has been wrapped with bonds of love. There he has coursed with glory. His game is short—but while it lasts, it brims with passion and with purpose.

My we all find as much before the close of day.


[1] Kenney Chesney, "The Boys of Fall," Youtube Video, published 3 September 2010.

[2] Earnest Dowson, "They are not long," An Anthology of Modern Verse, edited by A. Methuen (London: Methuen & Co., 1921), accessed on poetry archive on 4 February 2019.

29 January, 2019

Of Words and Weapons

The original signalling theorist.
There is a principle, supposed to prevail among many, which is utterly incompatible with all virtue or moral sentiment; and as it can proceed from nothing but the most depraved disposition, so in its turn it tends still further to encourage that depravity. This principle is, that all benevolence is mere hypocrisy, friendship a cheat, public spirit a farce, fidelity a snare to procure trust and confidence; and that while all of us, at bottom, pursue only our private interest, we wear these fair disguises, in order to put others off their guard, and expose them the more to our wiles and machination.
—David Hume (1751)
Earlier this month I highlighted a speech given by John Garnaut on the relationship between the modern Communist Party of China and its Stalinist heritage. There is one passage in the speech I keep returning to:
Mao made plain that there is no such thing as truth, love or artistic merit except in so far as these abstract concepts can be pressed into the practical service of politics.... For Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Xi, words are not vehicles of reason and persuasion. They are bullets. Words are weapons for defining, isolating and destroying opponents. And the task of destroying enemies can never end.[1]
Treating words as weapons in the struggle for survival is not a notion Stalin dreamed up alone. It is an idea with a sterling Marxist ancestry. It finds its' roots in the writings of young Karl Marx, who declared  "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness." [2] As a materialist, Marx did not believe that human thought was autonomous. Marx maintained that a man's strongest convictions and most cherished opinions were not really his, but involuntary impulses of his material (read: class) background. Marx would state this idea most clearly in The German Ideology:
The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. (emphasis added)[3].
The implications of this stance are worth exploring. Marx is not so deterministic as to deny that ideas have an influence on the course of history altogether.[4] However he does seem to maintain that with effort any given set of ideas can be traced back to the material conditions that gave birth to them. Ideas, in the Marxian frame, are not the product of reason, but the instinctive expression of internalized differences in social position. Thus the Marxist's skeptical disdain for those who appeal to dialogue and reason to resolve disputes. Reason is a vain pursuit in a world where all reasoning is a blind byproduct of interests. In such a world, argument inevitably reduces down to identity.

Hence Engels' unsparing take on the reason-philia of the French Enlightenment:
The great men, who in France prepared men’s minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionists. They recognized no external authority of any kind whatever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions – everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism: everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence. Reason became the sole measure of everything. It was the time when, as Hegel says, the world stood upon its head; first in the sense that the human head, and the principles arrived at by its thought, claimed to be the basis of all human action and association; but by and by, also, in the wider sense that the reality which was in contradiction to these principles had, in fact, to be turned upside down. Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion, was flung into the lumber-room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.

We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the 18th century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch.[5]
A straight line can be drawn from statements like these and the great terrors imposed upon captive populations by Marxist dictators like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Men like Stalin did not oppose freedom of expression simply because it threatened their personal power. They opposed freedom of expression because they earnestly believed it was a pointless exercise. There is no point in debating with representatives of the bourgeoisie when the ideas of the bourgeoisie were not pliable to debate. If the opposing stance was not the product of reason, it could not be undone by reason. Ideas could not be argued against, because at their base they were not arguments. Words were weapons. Those who possessed the wrong ideas could not be persuaded—only removed, enslaved, or conditioned.

This is the dangerous endgame of an intellectual world where that allows no space for the argument made in good faith.

My readers probably suspect this essay is an attack on leftist rhetoric and identity based politics. "Post-modernism" and "critical theory" have their roots in Marxist thought, it is true. And yes, in the activist's insistence that argument be reduced to identity the parallel with Marxism's most dangerous ideas is unmistakable. However, standard leftist rhetoric is not my not target today. I bring up Marx because I am concerned with a different intellectual trend: signalling theory.

Signalling theory has been pushed by a diverse set of individuals, though the most prominent tend to be associated with the realms of economics or evolutionary psychology.[6] The central proposition of signalling theory is that the vast majority of arguments made in the public sphere are not made in good faith. An outraged tweet is not written to express genuine emotion, but to signal solidarity with the 'right' side. A verbose blog post is not written to persuade its readers of its argument, but of the cleverness of it author. A well circulated censure of some racist act is not written to convict the racist, but to display the Wokeness of the censor. The connecting string in all of these cases is that your arguments are less about your ideas than shaping other people's perceptions of you. Whether you believe you are writing primarily to shape other people's perceptions of you is immaterial. As with the Marxist theorists, signalling theorists are happy to conclude that signalling does not need to be a fully conscious process. In place of a class consciousness imposed by the material circumstances of an individual's social status, signalling theorists trace the origins of self-interested arguments to mental social-status 'modules' imposed by the material circumstances of an individual's evolutionary heritage. 

The comparison with Marxism will upset those who gleefully employ the rhetoric of signalling theory in their daily dealings with the social justice left. In the modern West, Marx is most popular in the least empirical and most politically driven academic tribes. This was not always so. In the 21st century, we have forgotten that the central appeal of Marxism to socialist revolutionaries was its claim to scientific validity. Marx, like the evolutionary psychologists, was committed to a naturalistic account of human affairs. Marx, also like the evolutionary psychologists, furiously denied that ideas and impulses have their origins in a "realm of pure thought." In words that could easily be uttered by any evolutionary psychologist today, he argued that "from the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter," and that any science of human society must be built on a clear-eyed picture of the relationship between ideas, impulses, and emotions on the one hand, and their material foundations on the other.[7] Like evolutionary psychology today, part of Marx's appeal was an iconoclastic rejection of popular pieties for the sake of scientific explanation. He justified his works not in the language of justice, but of truth. Only on this foundation could a truly scientific investigation of human society proceed.

Despite all this, Marx was a rather poor scientist. The silliest psychologist of our age possesses tools of inquiry and an understanding of the scientific method far and away more sophisticated than any method Marx could dream up. The point of the comparison with the Marxists is not to equate Marx's methods with the empirical foundations of  the signalling theory literature. The parallel that matters is how these theories are employed in political debate. It is one thing to analyze historical case studies of signalling behavior; it is another thing altogether to accuse your political opponents of signalling while they yet speak.

Consider a recent example from the Covington boys affair. I was alarmed to see so many liberals who previously railed against the term "virtue signaling" eagerly sharing a rant by Laura Wagner that was shameless in its use of the rhetoric of signalling to discredit her opponents:
As for why so many people are willing to not trust their own eyes; why they’ll readily accept the MAGA teen’s shitty and unconvincing publicist-created explanation that he didn’t do anything wrong; why news organizations rolled back reporting based on little new evidence; and why so many people lashed themselves to the whipping post in the square and begged for forgiveness, the answer is, I think, simple: These people are willing to give the screaming mob of white teens the benefit of the doubt because it distinguishes them from the emotion-driven hordes. It’s something like virtue signaling, but instead of attempting to signal that they hold any type of moral or ethical principles, these people are attempting to show that they are willing to be chastened, and so are thoughtful. I can admit when I’m wrong, they say, so you can always trust me.

It’s never good for the likes of Robby Soave or Bari Weiss or the cool priest or The Atlantic or CNN to be too vociferously on the same side as people on the left angrily yelling about how a bad thing is bad, not only because it’s not the done thing but because their brands rely on finding middle ground and pushing back against anyone who seems to care too much about something they don’t. (Somehow, of course, this always seems to land them on the side of the powerful and the privileged.) They need to be seen as reasonable and responsible and responsive, different from the frenzied masses.[8]
You see, it is always the other side that is doing the signalling.

Let's be clear about what is happening here. When Wagner accuses Bari Weiss and company of writing their apology tweets and correction letters in order to signal thoughtfulness and moderation, she is excusing herself from any need to actually engage with Weiss et. al. The same is true for most of the "virtue signalling" critiques lobbed at the left: to label an argument a virtue signal is to discredit it without actually having to respond to it. Why would you respond to it? The signaler is not arguing, but maneuvering. Their words are not written in good faith. Their appeals to reason are  merely a clever gloss for strategic, self-serving behavior. Reason is a vain pursuit in a world where all reasoning is a slave of narrow self-interest.

As a rhetorical strategy this is extremely effective. This is why we have seen it spread from the right's ideological fringes, to the centerpiece of conservative critique, and now to leftist attacks on the center. But there are consequences for intellectual life dominated by a theory that no person's words mean what they say they mean. When words have been reduced to a mask for status seeking, signalling worth, dog whistling, securing privileged interests, solidifying tribal identities, or what have you, then words have been reduced to mere tools in a competition for domination. It is foolish to think they will not be treated as such. 

When these notions are mainstreamed, civilized discourse disappears as an option. That discourse depends on taking opponent's words with good faith. It cannot abide a thought regime that insists good faith is an illusion.

The central idea of signallingthat public writing and speaking is mostly about manipulating other's perceptions of yourself—is not new. Sima Qian and Thucydides recorded examples of it. Han Fei theorized it. Scores of Buddhist philosophers satirized it. Yet these historians and philosophers could not free themselves from the hope that their readers would read their works as something more than grand signalling devices. This concern continues to the present day. Robin Hanson, doyen of modern signalling studies, fights a perpetual battle to convince his readers that none of the ulterior motives he ascribes to human sociality writ large are behind his twitter polls.[9]

This how things must be. Civilized discourse depends very much on both parties in duel of words recognizing the self-serving intentions that lie behind the other party's speech... and then deciding not to mention them. This is Reason's Pact: the bare minimum required for fruitful rational discourse to take place.

We underestimate how many institutions in our society depend on us maintaining this illusion. Jettison the ideal of 'reason' as a governing principle, and all you have left are words as war. 

Those wars will start with words. There is no guarantee they will end with them.


[1] John Garnaut, "Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping's China," speech given at the Asian Strategy and Economic Forum, 21 August 2017, posted at Sinocism on 16 January 2019.

[2] Karl Marx, "A Preface to the Critique of Political Economy" (1859), in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977), available on (accessed 29 January 2019).

[3] Marx, "Idealism and Materialism," in The German Ideology (1845), in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5 (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1936), available on (accessed 25 January 2019).

[4] See especially Marx's "These on Feuerbach" for a broader discussion of this point.

[5] Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, chapter I (1880), in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol 3 (New York: Progress Publishers, 1970), available on (accessed 28 January 2019).

[6] Marx, "Idealism and Materialism."

[7] For the economist side, see Kevin Simmler and Robin Hanson, Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); for the evolutionary psychologists, a good example is Robert Kurzban, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) and Robert Kurzban and Jason Weeden, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self Interest Shapes our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[8] Laura Wagner, "Don't Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes," The Concourse (21 January 2019).

[9] For a recent round-up, see Hanson, "Do I Offend?" Overcoming Bias (23 December 2018). I personally find this affair somewhat amusing. "While in these [controversial] cases I have not made moral, value, or political claims," Hanson writes, "when people read small parts of what I’ve claimed or asked, they say they can imagine someone writing those words for the purpose of promoting political views they dislike." Yes, imagine that—the man who pioneers a theory states humans have ulterior motives for the things they say is disheartened to discover that many people suspect he has ulterior motives behind his blog posts! Who would have thought that might happen?

17 January, 2019

Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage I: A Tyrant's Toolkit

Rainer Hachfeld, Stalin-Mao-Xi, originally published 12 March, 2018.

The State is a machine in the hands of the governing class for suppressing the resistance of its class antagonists. In this way the dictatorship of the proletariat differs in no way essentially from the dictatorship of any other class.
—Joseph Stalin (1937)

Over at Sinocism, Bill Bishop has published the full text of an address John Garnaut gave to the Asian Strategy and Economics forum back in 2017. Garnaut titled his address “Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping's China.” The speech is an important distillation of many of the same themes that I have been writing about recently, especially on twitter.
Garnaut anchors his understanding of the Communist Party of China in its’ Stalinist heritage:
Mao knew Marxist Leninist dogma was absolutely crucial to his enterprise but he personally lacked the patience to wade through it. He found a shortcut to ideological proficiency with Joseph Stalin’s Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks, published at the end of Stalin’s Great Terror, in 1938. According to Li Rui, when interviewed by historian Li Huayu, Mao thought he’d found an “encyclopaedia of Marxism” and “acted as if he’d discovered a treasure.”
At the time of Stalin’s death, in March 1953, The Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks had become the third-most printed book in human history. After Stalin’s death - when Stalin was eulogised as “the Great Genius” on the front page of the People’s Daily - the Chinese printers redoubled their efforts. It became the closest thing in China to a religious text….
Stalin’s Short Course is a manual for perpetual struggle against a roll call of imagined dastardly enemies who are collaborating with imagined Western agents to restore bourgeois capitalism and liberalism. It is written as a chronicle of victories by Lenin and then Stalin’s “correct line” over an endless succession of ideological villains. It is perhaps instructive that many of the most “vile” internal enemies were said to have cloaked their subversive intentions in the guise of “reform.”
The practical utility of the book is that it prescribes an antidote to the calcification and putrefaction that inevitably corrodes and degrades every dictatorship.
The most original insight in Stalin’s Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks is that the path to socialist utopia will always be obstructed by enemies who want to restore bourgeois capitalism from inside the party. These internal enemies grow more desperate and more dangerous as they grow increasingly imperilled - and as they collaborate with the spies and agents of Western liberalism.
The most important lines in the book:
  •  “As the revolution deepens, class struggle intensifies.”
  •  “The Party becomes strong by purging itself.”
You can imagine how this formulation was revelatory to a ruthless Chinese leader like Mao who had mastered the “You Die, I Live” world into which he had been born - a world in which you choose to either kill or be killed - and who was obsessed with how to prevent the decay which had destroyed every imperial dynasty before.
What Stalin offered Mao was not only a manual for purging his peers but also an explanation of why it was necessary. Purging his rivals was the only way a vanguard party could “purify” itself, remain true to its revolutionary nature and prevent a capitalist restoration.
Purging was the mechanism for the Chinese Communist Party to achieve ever greater “unity” with revolutionary “truth” as interpreted by Mao. It is the mechanism for preventing the process of corruption and putrefaction which inevitably sets in after the founding leaders of each dynasty leave the scene.
Crucially, Mao split with Kruschev because Kruschev split with Stalin and everything he stood for. The Sino-Soviet split was ideological - it was Mao’s claim to ideological leadership over the communist world. Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. It was Mao’s claim to being Stalin’s true successor.
We hear a lot about how Xi and his peers blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the Soviet state but actually their grievances go much further back. They blame Kruschev. They blame Kruschev for breaking with Stalin. And they vow that they will never do to Mao what Kruschev did to Stalin.[1]

At first glance, equating Xi Jinping with Stalin seems absurd: Stalin, like Mao, is on the short list for “most terrible mass murderers in human history.” Xi has no compunctions about state sanctioned murder, but his victims are in the thousands (or perhaps if we include desperate suicides of corrupt officials, tens of thousands), not tens of millions. Stalin and Mao believed in the collectivization of all things. Economic policy under Xi, though more centralized and state directed than in the Dengist era, isn't comparable to Mao's economic program. Xi Jinping does not threaten another great famine. Stalin and Mao were chaos machines: their reign was marked by constant, unending upheaval. This upheaval stretched from the highest echelons of power down to the smallest of villages. The watchword of the Xi’s new era, in contrast, is “stability maintenance” (weiwen). The modern Party is an enemy to chaos.

Yet a focus on what makes Xi and his Party different from the Party of Mao and Stalin’s day obscures as much as it reveals. Xi Jinping and his cohort are heirs to the Communist tradition. The structure of the Party itself, the manner in which decisions are made, the way threats to the regime are assessed, and the tools the Party uses to subvert and overcome these threats share a distinct and undeniable symmetry with the methods and structures of the Party at its dawn. Direct lines can be drawn from the Party Mao made his own in the 1940s and the Party Xi made his own seven decades later.

One of the most important legacies of the Maoist era are the techniques Mao developed to deal with individuals and groups that threatened to derail The Cause. These techniques had clear antecedents in the Soviet experience, but for the Chinese they came together in the forge of Yenan. The first of these techniques usually went under the label “united front.” United front work was what you did with organizations, movements, and groups who might threaten the Cause, but who the Party could not yet afford to openly challenge. United front work was a mix of infiltration, subversion, propaganda, bribery, and false promises. Mao’s pledges of “New Democracy” and the Party’s successful propaganda and “diplomatic matters” (waijiao shiwu) campaigns with American observers in the 1940s are some of the most prominent examples from that time. Key to this work is a candied eye for what Party leaders would today call “win-win” propositions. Both sides win, then win, then win some more—until the Party is in position to impose a decisive win-lose on the other group in question.[2]

“Losing” often meant struggle. It was through a struggle campaign unleashed against the Party itself (the “Yanan Rectification movement”) that Mao was able to take control the early 1940s and ensure that Mao Zedong Thought became the official line of the Communist Party of China. Mao did this through a system of purges, executions, arbitrary detentions, coerced (and usually public) self-denunciations, coerced (and usually public) denunciations of others, coercive cadre examinations, thought control, an endless mill of written self-criticisms, and forced labor. The goal of all this, as Garnaut notes in his speech, was not:
to “persuade” so much as “condition”. By creating a fully enclosed system, controlling all incentives and disincentives, and “breaking” individuals physically, socially and psychologically, they found they could condition the human mind in the same way that Pavlov had learned to condition dogs in a Moscow laboratory a few years earlier. [3]
After the Party seized power in 1949, Mao would systematically apply the same techniques to one group of Chinese after another: “landlords” and village leadership; gamblers, gangsters, and criminals; Christian congregations, Daoist temples and the Buddhist sangha; business circles, corporations, and stock-jobbers; universities, schools, and intellectual clubs; hospitals, aid workers, and relief organizations; minor political parties and independent political groups; workers associations and unions; clan groupings and ancestral schools; martial artists and Confucian hold-overs—any set of organized and self-governing citizens was soon a target of a struggle campaign. In time each would be destroyed or brought into a subservient relationship with the Communist Party. [4]

One of the extraordinary things about reading Mao’s speeches from this period is the fluidity of who was considered an ally and who was considered an enemy. Mao framed his campaigns as a struggle between “the people” and “the enemy,” but who fit into each group differed drastically based off of the Party’s perceptions of who was a credible threat to The Cause and who was not. As Mao put it:
To understand these two different types of contradictions correctly, we must first be clear on what is meant by "the people" and what is meant by "the enemy". The concept of "the people" varies in content in different countries and in different periods of history in a given country. Take our own country for example. During the War of Resistance Against Japan, all those classes, strata and social groups opposing Japanese aggression came within the category of the people, while the Japanese imperialists, their Chinese collaborators and the pro-Japanese elements were all enemies of the people. During the War of Liberation, the U.S. imperialists and their running dogs -- the bureaucrat-capitalists, the landlords and the Kuomintang reactionaries who represented these two classes -- were the enemies of the people, while the other classes, strata and social groups, which opposed them, all came within the category of the people. At the present stage, the period of building socialism, the classes, strata and social groups which favour, support and work for the cause of socialist construction all come within the category of the people, while the social forces and groups which resist the socialist revolution and are hostile to or sabotage socialist construction are all enemies of the people.[5]
Thus a particular group could at one point be an honored part of “the people,” at another point an ally in a “united front,” and later a despised “enemy” of the regime. How the regime treated you depended very much on how threatening Party leaders believed you might be to the regime and its cause.

Today The Cause has flipped—officially—from socialist revolution to national rejuvenation. The Party works under the same schema but has shifted the “people” that Mao identified with specific economic classes to the nation at large.[6] Mass mobilization campaigns have been retired. But struggle and united front campaigns have not. Xi’s great corruption purge, the Uyghur labor camps of Xinjiang, the attack on Christians across China—these all follow the same methods for crushing and coercing “enemies” developed by Mao and the Party in the early ‘40s. “One Country, Two Systems,” interference campaigns in the Chinese diaspora, the guided, gilded tours given to Musk and his ilk—these all follow the same methods for corrupting and controlling “allies” developed by Mao and the Party that same decade. The tools have never changed. The only thing that has changed is the Party’s assessment of who is an "enemy" and who is part of the "people."

There is one threat, however, that the Communist legacy has poorly prepared the Party to face. Stalin and Mao conceived of their projects in cultural terms—they were not just attempting to stamp out dangerous people, but dangerous ideas. To that end both Stalin and Mao cut their countries off from the world they had no control over. If your end goal is socialist revolution this might be tenable. But if your end goal is national rejuvenation—that is, a future where China sits at the top of a global order, more wealthy and powerful than any other—then engagement with the outside world must be had. It means foreigners coming to China in great numbers, and Chinese going abroad in numbers no smaller. It means a much more accurate conception of the way the rest of the world works among the minds of the Chinese people. It means contemplating paths for China that do not involve being ruled by a dictatorial party-state.

This tension lies at the root of the Party’s problems with the West. Countries like America threaten the Party with their mere existence. Consider what these countries do: they allow dissidents from authoritarian powers shelter. Their societies spawn (even when official government policy is neutral on the question) movement after movement devoted to spreading Western ideals and ideas to other lands and peoples. They are living proof that a country does not need a one-party state to become powerful and wealthy. These things pose a threat to the Communist Party of China. The Party itself is the first to admit it. [7]

But what can they do about it? In essence, they have two main options. The first is retreat and retrenchment. If enough walls can be thrown between China and the world, then the cultural threat posed by the West may be managed. We already see this, to an extent. We shall likely see more of it. While I doubt we will see the sort of economic retrenchment that marked Stalin’s reign, I would not be surprised if we see a more limited quest for autarky, the type that led Japan on its own path to totalitarian rule.[8] 

The second option is to face the threat head on. This is the impetus behind China’s “influence” and “interference” campaigns. The Party will do what it can to keep PRC citizens abroad from being influenced by the ideological enemies of its regime. It will also do what it can to destabilize and subvert the societies whose existence threatens their rule and whose threat legitimizes their regime. As Garnaut notes in his piece:
The Western conspiracy to infiltrate, subvert and overthrow the People’s Party is not contingent on what any particular Western country thinks or does. It is an equation, a mathematical identity: the CCP exists and therefore it is under attack. No amount of accommodation and reassurance can ever be enough - it can only ever be a tactic, a ruse.
Without the conspiracy of Western liberalism the CCP loses its reason for existence. There would be no need to maintain a vanguard party. Mr Xi might as well let his party peacefully evolve.[9]

With this I agree entirely. The implications of realization are wide-reaching. I encourage you to explore them.

That is it for today. Tomorrow or the day after I will have a follow up post where I outline a few of the points where I disagree with Garnaut's take on the 21st century Communist Party of China.


[1] John Garnat, "Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping's China," speech given at the Asian Strategy and Economic Forum, 21 August 2017, posted at Sinocism on 16 January 2019.

[2] On waishi work see Anne-Marie Brady, Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People's Republic (Washington DC: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2000), ch. I-III. On the bureaucracy of the United Front, see the introduction of Brady,  “Magic Weapons: China's political influence activities under Xi Jinping,” Wilson Center report, 18 September 2017.

[3] Garnaut, "Engineers of the Soul."

[4] A very readable history of all this: Frank Dikotter, The Tragedy of Liberation, 1945-1957 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[5] Mao Zedong, "On the Correct handling of Contradictions Among the People," a highly edited version of a speech originally given in the 11th Session of the Supreme State Conference in February 1957. This version was published in the People's Daily on June 19, 1957.

[6] Timothy Heath, "China's New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation," address for the USC UC-China Institute, 29 January 2015.

[7] For a summary of many statements, see Matthew Johnson, “Securitizing Culture in Post-Deng China: An Evolving National Strategic Paradigm, 1994-2014,” Propaganda in the World and Local Conflicts 4, iss. 1 (2017), 62-80. The issue is also treated well in Samantha Hoffman, "Programming China: the Communist Party’s autonomic approach to managing state security," PhD diss, University of Nottingham (2017), ch II.

[8] On Stalin's retrenchment and possible comparisons with Xi, Andrew Batson has an interesting post: "Xi vs. Stalin: What Drives the Reversal of Economic Reforms," Andrew Batson's Blog, 7 January 2019. On Japan see Michael Barhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 19.

[9] Garnaut, "Engineers of the Soul."

01 January, 2019

Every Book I Read in 2018

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A new year has arrived, and that means it is time to post my annual list of every book I have finished since the last new year's day. I have kept a list of every book I have read, along with a few short comments summarizing and casting judgment on each title, since 2010 (you can see my lists for 2013-2017 here, here, here, here and here). As in past years I have bolded and linked to the Amazon page of the ten best titles of the year. Only books that I read for the first time in 2018 qualify for inclusion in this category. As is usual, the books are listed in the order in which I finished, not started the title. If a book is repeated, it is because I read it twice. A more condensed list of books that I started but did not finish can be found at the bottom of the post.

Two books in particular were the stand outs of 2018. The first is F.W. Mote's Imperial China, 900-1800. I have owned this book for sometime, usually consulting it as sort of a reference whenever I was reading another book about one of the dynasties covered therein. After lugging it across Asia with me for several years, I decided this summer to finally read it cover to cover. I am glad I did so. I cannot speak words glad as this book deserves. With perhaps the exception of Daniel Walker Howe's What God Hath Wrought or William Freehling's Road to Disunion, I have never read any other history that so effectively traces the connections between social, cultural, and political history. But Howe and Freehling do this on a smaller scale, a few decades in time. Mote does it for a millennia of human history. Just as remarkable is Mote's ability manages to marry large-scale macro-historical analysis with personal (and often poignant) assessments of Chinese historical figures.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. If only get ten books on a deserted island, this is one of them.

The second book is Robert Sapolsky's Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. This book is only a hair short of a masterpiece. Sapolsky is a unique character: both a neuro-endocrinologist (that is, a scientist who studies how hormones affect the brain) and a primate ethnologist (a scientist who observes monkeys or apes in the wild), Sapolsky has a strong cross-disciplinary perspective on the topics he covers. Sapolsky is also a very gifted writer. In this book he takes a crack at the neuroscience, endocrinology, genetics, and evolutionary history of human social behavior.

The book is wide ranging. So wide ranging that it has a few rough patches that don't quite live up to the rest of the work's quality. The chapter on priming and behavior in particular is a bad pitch, relying as it does on work from social psych that has failed to replicate. But the first 200 pages or so, which describe the inner workings of the brain and the neuroscience of human decision making, are the most valuable 200 pages I have read all year.

I am also impressed with how Sapolsky frames the way the different systems studied in neuroscience, endocrinology, social psychology, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary anthropology overlap and intersect with each other. This framing is unique and powerful. My personal take is that anyone involved the behavioral or social sciences—that is, the sciences that study why humans do what they do—must read this book.

Also: As Sapolsky is something of a raging leftist hippie (and it quite open about this in the book),  I have hope that Behave can be used to help those social scientists whose political commitments keep them suspicious of evolutionary takes on human behavior to reconsider these doubts. This is a book worth sharing.


Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, upd. ed., (New York: Harpers, 2015). 

Epictetus, Handbook, trans. George Long (London: Dover Thrift: 2006).

Honore Balzac, Old Man Goriot trans. Olivia McCannon (New York: Penguin, 2011). 

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel, trans. Arthur Wesley Wheen (New York: Rando House, 2011). 

Michael Howard, The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 

Caroline Alexander, trans., The Iliad: A New Translation (New York: Ecco Press, 2015).

Caroline Alexander, The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War (New York: Penguin, 2009).

Nancy Sherman, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Eva Brann, Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight When Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2008).

Christopher Logue, War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).

Earnst Junger, Storm of Steel, trans. Michael Hoffman (New York: Penguin Books, 2016). 

Bela Zombory-Moldovan, The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, trans. Peter Zombory-Moldovan (New York: New York Review Books, 2017).

James Stockdale, Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (Washington DC: Hoover Institute, 1993).

Roger Scruton, Kant: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Robert Fagles, trans., The Iliad, (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).c

Neil Irving Painter, Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era (New York: W.W.W. Norton, 2018).

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (London: Dover, 1905).

John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern in Delphi Complete Works of John Dryden (Delphi Classics, 2013). 

David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 2009). 

Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (Open Road Media, 2015).

Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (New York: Penguin, 2014).

Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression and New Deal: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland rev. ed. (New York: Harper, 2017). 

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel, trans. Arthur Wesley Wheen (New York: Rando House, 2011). 

Honore Balzac, Old Man Goriot, trans. Olivia McCannon (New York: Penguin, 2011). 

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005).

John Hersey, Hiroshima (New York City: Vintage Books, 1989). 

Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday trans., B. W. Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger (Plunkett Press, 2011).

Edward Bolland Osborn, eds., The Muse at War (London: Murray, 1917).

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Penguin Classics, 2006).

Antulio J Echevarria, Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). 

Michael O’Shea, The Brain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Richard Passignham, Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).

Pascal Boyer, Minds Make Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

Kenneth Payne, The Psychology of Strategy: Exploring Rationality in the Vietnam War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).  [Book review here.]

Kenneth Payne, Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2018).  [Book review here.]

Roberto Foa, “Ancient Polities, Modern States,” PhD diss (Harvard: 2016). [Related post here].

Peter England, The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, trans. Peter Graves. (Vintage, New York: 2011).

Christopher C. Rand, Military Thought in Early China (Albany: SUNY Press, 2017). 

Moheb Costandi, Neuroplasticity (Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 2016). 

Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018). [Related tweet stream here].

David S. Moore, Basic Practice of Statistics, 5th ed. (New York: W.H. Freeman, 2009). 

William Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew in Globe Illustrated Shakespeare (New York: Greenwhich House, 1983), pp.223-281.

Jared Rubin, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not (Cambridge: Cabridge University Press, 2017). [Related post here].

Human Rights Watch, Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018). [Related post here].

Zack Cooper, Understanding the Chinese Communist Party’s Approach to Cyber-Enhanced Economic Warfare (Washington DC: FDD Press, 2018).

ETS, Official GRE Quantitative Reasoning Questions, Volume I, 2nd ed (New York City: McGraw Hill, 2017). 

ETS, Official GRE Verbal Reasoning Questions, Volume 1, (New York City: McGraw Hill, 2017). 

Office of Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2018 (Washington DC: Department of Defense, 2018)

Olivier Morin, How Traditions Live and Die. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 

Jeffrey Eggstrom, Systems Confrontation and Systems Destruction Warfare: How the Chinese’s Peoples Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare (Sant Monica: RAND Corp, 2018).

Thomas Mahnken, Ross Babbage, and Toshi Yoshihara, Countering Comprehensive Coercion: Competitive Strategies Against Authoritarian Political Warfare (Washington, DC: CSBA, 2018).

David A Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900 (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Manhattan Prep, 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems, 2nd ed (2017: Manhattan Prep Publishing, 2015).

Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015). [Related post here].

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, vol I: The Golden Days, trans. David Hawkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1974).

Nadege Rolland, China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (Washinton DC: National Bureau for Asian Research, 2016).

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, vol II: The Crab Flower Club, trans. David Hawkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1974).

Fyodor Dostoesky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Sydney Monas (New York: Penguin Books, 1968).

Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic, A Preliminary Study of PRC Political Influence and Interference in American Higher Education (Washington DC: Wilson Center, 2018).

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber, vol III: The Warning Voice, trans David Hawkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1981).

Jane Austin, Sense and Sensibility in Jane Austen: The Complete Novels (New York: Gramercy Books, 1981.)

Author whose name I cannot yet reveal, Unpublished book manuscript (hopefully 2019?).

Dan Sperber, Explaining Culture: A Naturalist Approach (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).

Cao Xueqin and Gao E, The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber, vol IV: the Debt of Tears, trans. John Minford (New York: Penguin Books, 1982).

W. Michael Kelly, The Humongous Book of Algebra Problems 3rd ed, (Alpha: 2008).

Alex Rosenberg, How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addition to Stories (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 40th anniversary ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Cao Xueqin and Gao E, The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber, vol V: The Dreamer Wakes (New York: Penguins Books, 1986).

F.W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Shi Ji, 岳飞的故事 (Beijing: Sinolingua, 2017).

William Shakespeare, Poems in Globe Illustrated Shakespeare (New York: Greenwhich House, 1983), pp.2245-2323.

Books I Read a Significant Portion of, but Did Not Finish Completely:

Carles Boix, Political Order and Inequality: Their Foundations and their Consequences for Human Welfare; James C Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed; Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Peter Paret; Jaak Panksepp, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions; Kosuke Imai, Quantitative Social Science: An Introduction; Andrie de Vries and Joris Meys, R For Dummies, 2nd ed; Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, and David Schaberg, trans., The Zuo Tradition, vol II; Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning; Wayne Hughes, Fleet Tactics, 2nd ed; Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?; Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back; Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empire Emily Anhalt, Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths, James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom; Japan at War: An Oral History; The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology; Joseph Henrich et. al., Foundations of Human Sociality; Sanjit Dhami, The Foundations of Behavioral Economic Analysis; Paul Rouzer, A New Primer in Literary Chinese; Fang Xujun, 汉语相似词语区别与联系; Richard Elbreith and Robert Boyd, Mathmatical Models of Social Evolution; Patrick Juola and Stephen Ramsay, Mathmatics for the Humanist, Joe Stalworthy, ed, New Oxford Book of War Poetry.

29 December, 2018

Where is the Communism in the Chinese Communist Party?


The twelve core socialist values.
Image Source.
The few intellectuals who incited the students to action oppose the socialist system and advocate bourgeois liberalization. By that I mean they want China to be totally Westernized and to take the capitalist road. Our experience has shown, however, that we cannot take that road. 
—Deng Xiaoping (1986)
For 40 years, we have sought truth from facts, advanced with the times, pragmatically yet staunchly followed the guiding position of Marxism, and steadfastly adhered to the basic principles of scientific socialism.... [our course] highlights the irrefutable, scientific basis and fresh vitality of socialism. The great banner of socialism will always fly high in the land of China.
—Xi Jinping (2018)

In a recent essay for the Texas National Security Review, Liza Tobin wrote a few paragraphs that I found valuable and clever.[1] Tobin's larger topic was the Party term "community of common destiny" (renlei mingyun gongtongti 人类命运共同体). She spends most of her essay exploring the way this term is being used in official Chinese Communist writing. To contextualize the Party's vision for the world she takes a small de-tour to explain how Party leaders understand a word they often use when talking about their vision for this future: democracy.

Those who have never been to China may be surprised at how central the word democracy is to the rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party. Democracy is enshrined as one of the Party's "Twelve Core Socialist Values." These values are made into gargantuan electronic signs near highways, papered onto hutong walls, and posted in every classroom in the country. Barely a People's Consultative Conference goes by without a thousand Xinhua broadcasts proclaiming the brilliance of Chinese democracy. From Secretary Xi Jinping down to lowly officials at the bottom, you will find Party voices eagerly asserting not only that China is a democracy, but that it is the democracy par excellence.

There is a temptation to dismiss this as mere rhetoric: talk of Party democracy is nothing but propaganda for the globe's most gullible. I understand that impulse. A gulf yawns between what we normally associate with the word democracy and the harsh realities of Communist rule. A related temptation is to see the Party's use of the word democracy as a cynical sort of word-game reminiscent of Orwell's 1984 (you will remember the slogan of the ruling party in Orwell's novel: "war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength"). From this perspective, the Party intentionally uses words like democracy in an attempt to distort their meaning and rob them of their power. This is a common authoritarian tactic: forcing the ruled to utter lies as if they were truth has been a part of the tyrant's tool kit for millennia.

In the case of the Communist Party of China, I find both of these explanations insufficient. Neither matches up with the way that Party leaders and thinkers actually use this word. I contend that the leaders of the Party take their own rhetoric seriously. They are not cynical—or at least not here. For these leaders, democracy is a real ideal, one they believe is worth striving for. They actually believe that they are democrats. It is just that they conceive of democracy in a very different sense than Americans do.

Tobin also recognizes this. Even better, she offers a succinct (four paragraph) summary of what the Party leaders mean when they talk about the need to "democratize" international institutions or the importance of "democracy" to the Party's decision making process. I want to you to go read her entire essay, so I won't quote her explanation here. Just click on this link to go do that as soon as you have finished reading this post.

I bring all of this up to introduce a broader point, something I find is often missing from discussions of the intentions and plans of the Communist Party of China. The Party often describes its goals, purpose, and plans with words that for Western listeners occupy a very specific conceptual and semantic space. Often these words are tinged with special moral valence. Democracy is a good example of this. Another example are the words "communist" and "socialist."

Those who dislike the Party often emphasize the communist part of the "Communist Party of China." This is good tactics: in the West, communist is a dirty word. Those who feel like tensions between the West and the PRC have risen too high tend to do the opposite. Rhetorically, that means talking about "Chinese leaders" instead of "Communist Party leaders." Analytically, that means arguing that the Communist Party of China is not communist at all. I am sure you have heard these arguments before. The cleverest will say that the 21st century Party has jettisoned its Marxist heritage but maintained its Leninist traditions. More commonly, the doubters of Chinese Marxism will list a set of very un-Marxian attributes of modern China—incredible inequality, the government's divestment from most sectors of the economy, the country's crass consumer culture, or what have you—and then declare these things incompatible with a Marxist system. Marxism is a category modern China just does not fit anymore. If Chinese officials keep on yammering about Marx and Engels, it is mostly to signal loyalty to the regime. In the modern China socialism is a shibboleth, not a living part of its leaders' world view.

This is not correct. The leaders of China are open about what they do and why they do it. Time and again they rest their analysis of Chinese society and international affairs on explicitly Marxist concepts. These concepts are not hollow. There are clear links between Marxist ideas and the policies Party leaders carry out, be it the Belt and Road's "community of common destiny" or the sprawling surveillance system being thrown up across China. An accurate understanding of these policies and their intended purpose cannot be understood if you are not willing to take their Marxist roots seriously. [2]

But what of the capitalist aspects of the Party's regime? How can we take the Party's claims that it leads a Marxist system seriously when it ignores so many of the fundamental tenets of Marxist theory?

Let me offer an analogy.

The revolutionaries who established America as an independent nation did so using the rhetoric and logic of natural rights philosophy.[3] These ideas would later come to define what we today call liberalism. The American Declaration of Independence is the most famous statement of liberal political ideals in human history:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
But here is the catch: those words were written by a slave-holder. Over the course of their lives, the majority of the men who signed this document owned at least one slave. They would go on to build one of the largest slave-holding republics in world history.

Were America's founding fathers phony advocates of natural rights philosophy? Was liberalism a mere shibboleth, a hypocrisy to be spoken but not lived? Were these men truly motivated by words like "equality" or "freedom?"

These questions can feel compelling. For many, slavery bars America's founders from the qualifying as true liberals. No one who owned slaves can be classified as a true believer in the phrase "all men are created equal." These men must be placed in a different category.

If your goal is make a list of the heroes and villains of human history, this sort of thinking is sufficient. But if you want to understand why American statesmen did what they did, you will find this approach limiting. The question "Do the American founders deserve to be called champions of natural rights philosophy?" is far less interesting and far less informative than asking, "How did the American founders' understanding of natural rights philosophy shape their political decisions?" The the first question can only answer which arbitrary category the founders belong in; the second question's provides a foundation for analyzing the political workings of the early republic.

The same logic applies to the current situation. Asking "are the leaders of the Party real socialists?" is not useful. It is far more useful to ask: "What does socialism mean to the leaders of the Party? How do they reconcile communism with the capitalist features of modern China? How do their Marxist beliefs shape the policies and plans of their Party?" These questions are a necessary foundation for any serious analysis of the Communist Party of China.


[1] Liza Tobin, "Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies," Texas National Security Review Vol 2, Issue 1 (December 2018).

[2] An excellent example of this sort of analysis can be found in Samantha Hoffman, "Programming China: the Communist Party’s autonomic approach to managing state security," PhD diss, University of Nottingham (2017).

[3] The classic work on the relationship between liberal political thought and the American revolution is  Bernard Bailyin, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967). Thomas West provides an update to this thesis in The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).