On “Emancipating the Mind”: A Reply to Professor Kang Ouyang

It is very useful to have from Professor Kang Ouyang an elaborated statement of the philosophical and theoretical roots of the “market reforms” initiated under Deng Xiaoping.  However, his essay raises fundamental issues in regard to philosophy, socialism and Marxism, and social practice in the context of Chinese development.  Space allows for dealing with only a few of the more essential questions that he addresses.

1) “Emancipating the Mind.”  Professor Ouyang states that since 1978, when Deng regained power, China has experienced a “thought liberation movement,” away from what he describes as the dogmatic application of “a kind of Struggle Philosophy” under Mao Zedong. No one who has visited China more than once in recent years can doubt that there has been an increasing willingness on the part of many Chinese to speak openly about their views on many topics. But Professor Ouyang ignores the opposite side of this development, which is that many of those who opposed the introduction of “market reforms” and the social consequences to which they have led have experienced not “emancipation,” but rather repression.  To a large extent, the period since 1978 has seen the replacement of the theories of Mao with a dogmatically applied “free market” ideology, “the servant of Deng’s politics.”  Thus with each step in the relentless advance of “marketization,” the Chinese people have been encouraged to “emancipate their minds” further in the acceptance of the growing recapitalization and privatization of the economy.  Many of those who dissented were removed from office or otherwise effectively silenced.  Today Marxists who still hold to the concept of collectivism are often afraid to express their ideas freely, especially in the presence of those in authority.  What is viewed as emancipation by some, is thus experienced as new forms of constraint by others.

2) Reversing history.  This same “reversal” applies to such historical events as the Cultural Revolution as well.  We cannot here offer a detailed analysis of that experience, but we should  remember that while academics were among its central targets, often suffering brutal attacks, workers and peasants may look back on that same era as one in which they were allowed and even encouraged for the first time to oppose the authority of party and state officials, a time when traditional gender and familial relations were challenged, and when class divisions and the rural/urban gap in education and medical care were lessened. Many members of the working classes almost certainly feel much less “free” to express their ideas today, faced with corrupt officials and ever more exploitative employers, than they did during the mass movements of that time.  Workers and peasants often have a much more favorable view of the Cultural Revolution than the one-sided condemnations so common among intellectuals.

3) “Fair competition” of philosophical systems.  The reforms were introduced into China not through the “free marketplace of ideas,” but by governmental dictat.  The market was imposed on the Chinese, notably in the breakup of even those agricultural communes that were well-functioning and productive in the late 1970s.  For many farmers, the “individual responsibility” system of agriculture has meant an improvement in their standard of living.  But “freeing” the peasants from their collective forms of production has meant for tens of millions not only loss of a secure relation to the land, but also the end of the forms of social security which they enjoyed as members of the communes, and the collapse of educational and medical care in many of the rural areas, where there are no longer sufficient local resources to pay for them.  Thus “Primary education and health services are in deep decline in the countryside.”1  Such polarization is typical of “market reforms” worldwide.  Commenting on the role of “modern economically-rational development (especially capitalism),” one student of rural changes has noted: “In one way, the process can be seen as the liberation of peasants from the land and the village.  In another way, it can be seen as the severing of the peasantry from the land and the dissolution of the village.  The process of economic development in the developing world has been violent and tragic for peasants.  Their ‘liberation’ from the land has more often been experienced by the peasantry as a tragedy than a blessing.”2  The “floating population” of Chinese peasant migrants who have been displaced from the villages or driven by economic circumstances to seek work in the cities is now put at some 130 million.  Millions more, especially women from poor rural areas, work in highly exploitative and often dangerous conditions in the sweatshop industries of foreign investors and joint ventures in the “marketization” heartland on the Southern and Eastern coasts.

4) “Adjusting the mentality” of the workers.  In practice, such ideas as “emancipating the mind” are employed directly against the working classes.  Thus in 1997 Li Boyang, Minister of Labor, “urged people to change their concept of employment, which to Chinese has tended to be work in government departments and enterprises.  Many Chinese shun jobs such as housekeeping, and don’t consider themselves really employed if they do take these jobs.”3  From being secure members of the industrial working class, the Chinese proletariat are now being urged to accept instead such work as that of domestic servants in the houses of the newly rich.  Or as Deputy Prime Minister Wu Banguo put it, “We have to adjust their mentality toward certain kinds of jobs.”4  This “mental adjustment” leads directly to the greater exploitation of the workers, as well as to a sense of degradation.  “Many jobs in the service sector that is supposed to absorb the unemployed involve onerous work and wages that appall one-time factory workers used to receiving more like $80 to $100 a month plus housing, health and pension benefits — and, perhaps more important, [who] thought of themselves as proud standard-bearers of a socialist republic.”5

5) The “free will” of the working classes.  The above examples from theory and practice illustrate that philosophical ideas such as “emancipation,” “liberation,” or “freedom” cannot be dealt with in abstraction apart from their social content.  As Marx himself made so clear, bourgeois liberties are two-sided. On the one hand, they represent a liberation from the constraints of feudal relations and clerical or other traditional systems of thought.  But under capitalist society, workers in particular are also “free” to be unemployed, and even to starve, if they cannot find jobs.  As Marx put it in Capital, [T]he owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power. Marx went on to mockingly summarize this relation:

This sphere… is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man.  There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property … Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will.6
In China today, workers face not only the constraints of the marketplace, but as with the peasants a quarter of a century ago, imposition by the government of policies which are destroying the job security and collective benefits they enjoyed.  Here too, the “market” is being enforced by official dictat, absent any “free will” on the part of the workers themselves.  The result is the rapid creation of an urban “reserve army of labor.”  “By 1999, the shadow of unemployment had fallen on most state-owned firms. Officially published figures put the jobless at 12 million, but the actual number must be far higher than this.”7  Because many of the unemployed are still kept on the books of enterprises, some estimates of their numbers run as high as two or three times the official figure.

6) “The liberation of the human spirit.”  In the summer of 1999, I returned to Changchun, in the Northeast of China, where I had lived for four months in 1993-94.  On one street corner after another, I now found groups of workers, laid off from state-owned enterprises, standing around hoping that someone would come by and offer them any kind of day work, a sight completely unknown only five years earlier.  On more than one occasion, they quite literally pointed to their stomachs and said, “We have no food.” They also remarked bitterly that “when Mao Zedong was alive, there were no unemployed.”  In Changsha, in south central China, I was told stories of similar conditions, such as the laid off worker family forced to boil fat in order to get oil for cooking, eating the remnants as their only meat, and barely able to afford vegetables, while trying to save enough to pay the school fees for their children.  “They are completely miserable,” a relative put it.  Migrancy, street hustling, exploitation, rapidly rising unemployment, and outright hunger are the fate today for a large proportion of the once proud and secure Chinese working classes. Yet we are told that “the most important contributions of Deng Xiaoping theory lie in the liberation of the human spirit.”

7) A “classless” socialism.  Whether mental or physical, therefore, “freedom” has a class content.  But the Theory of Deng Xiaoping, and its elaboration by Professor Ouyang, strip socialist and Marxist concepts of their base in the struggle of classes. In its place, there is the assertion that for Marx and Engels, “the highest goal of socialism is to create higher productive forces, to get rid of social inequality, to destroy poverty, and to make all social groups richer.”  This “productivist” view of socialist society subordinates everything to economic growth, which it is believed can “enrich all members of society,” thereby eliminating the necessity of class conflict.  In place of the”struggle philosophy” of Mao, Deng and those who follow him have substituted a “non-” or even “anti-struggle” conception, in which social stability is the highest requirement, in order not to disrupt production.  It is this concept which led directly to the crushing of students, and especially workers, at Tiananmen in 1989.  Yet in the essay by Professor Ouyang the word “class” hardly appears.  There is no mention of the working classes at all, much less of the concept of exploitation, or of the revolutionary struggle that is necessary to put an end to it.

8.) “Abandoning some Marxist theories.”  Marxism in turn is reduced to a kind of individualistic humanism.  Certainly it is necessary not to focus only on the collective.  But for Marx, individual liberation was not possible within class society, where even the most wealthy and privileged suffer alienation. Thus, “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.”8 For Marx, therefore, only through ending the exploitation of some classes by others could the unique individuality of each person finally be freed.  The conflict of classes as the driving force of history and the revolutionary struggles to which it gives rise are the central and unique insights of Marx.  It is this which sets him apart from the many bourgeois advocates of higher production, poverty relief, and individualist humanism.  By removing class from socialism and Marxism, Professor Ouyang reduces them to a variant of reformism.  He even goes so far as to say that the most famous words of Marx are: “Philosophers only explain the world, but the problem is to change it.”  I beg to differ.  If there is a most famous saying of Marx and Engels, surely it is the last lines of the Communist Manifesto, written only four years later: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.  Working men of all countries, Unite!”  It is these last words that are actually inscribed on the grave of Marx, for it was the class unity and the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat that he championed.

9) “Getting rid of social inequality.”  Though China has made major gains under the reforms in reducing the worst forms of impoverishment, especially in some isolated rural regions, and has undeniably improved the living standards of a significant proportion of the population, the record is abysmal in the area of income polarization.  This results from two parallel and interrelated developments, not seen in China for decades.  On the one hand, “market reforms” have generated new forms of poverty, especially among migrants and the urban working class.  On the other, a newly wealthy bourgeoisie of entrepreneurs, enterprise managers, and often corrupt officials has emerged.  The result is a rapid repolarization of the society. “At last month’s annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Premier Zhu Rongji warned that a 1999 survey put China’s Gini Coefficient [of inequality]… at 0.39, ‘close to the international danger level’ of 0.4… Most experts agree that a more accurate estimate of the current figure is 0.458, although some claim the true figure is as high as 0.59.”9  The latter number would put China in the ranks of the most unequal countries in the world, such as Brazil. The full impact of this inequality can only be understood against the history of egalitarianism under Mao, with the Gini index in 1978, two years after his death, rated at “just 0.15, among the lowest in the world.”10  Yet in 1984, Deng Xiaoping had asserted that because China will continue to “adhere to socialism… no polarization will occur as our productive forces become developed in 20 to 30 years from now.”11  If, as Professor Ouyang also states, “getting rid of social inequality” is one of “highest goals” of a socialist system, and if “seeking truth from facts” is the only criterion for judging this, then it is clear that Chinese “market reforms” have failed this basic test.

10) The return of the conflict of classes.  It is this failure, and the widespread corruption with which it is so commonly associated, that has led to the resurgence of class struggle.  “In short, workers in state-owned factories have seen their social status shrink swiftly and drastically, losing their once protected position day by day.  The result has been a major shrinkage in the middle layers of Chinese society, and a rapid expansion of its lower layers, an obvious formula for social instability.”12  The situation in the countryside is in many cases even worse.  “Farmers’ incomes are growing almost three times more slowly than urban incomes.  However, taxes on rural communities are growing faster than those in the cities, leading to an increasing gap between the haves in the urban areas and the have-nots on the farm.”13 As a result, demonstrations by workers and peasants have become increasingly frequent, some of them involving tens of thousands of participants and leading to violent clashes and attacks on local authorities and the newly rich.  Even many of the “middle class” are deeply disturbed by the vast polarization of Chinese society and the rise of a new bourgeoisie who live in an increasingly isolated luxury.

11) “Independent academic philosophical research.”  Given these facts, it is necessary to ask why a theory of socialism and Marxism that attempts to ignore class conflict might arise.  In part, the answer in this instance may lie in the “independence” of the purely academic study of philosophy, which has no ties to the lives of the working classes.  This stands in stark contrast to the philosophical essays by Mao, which were written in direct and straightforward language, meant to help even the peasants and workers with little or no schooling to participate in the study and addressing of complex social questions.  But as social critic He Qinglian has noted, today the intellectual stratum in China has become highly fragmented, with some who “know very little about the actual problems of society.”14  Still, this kind of isolation is not inevitable, and not all academic philosophers take such a route.  In the United States, for example, the Radical Philosophy Association, which includes in its ranks highly trained academics, has taken an active role in the struggle against class exploitation, racial and gender oppression, and imperialism, engaging both intellectually and in practice with some of the most important societal issues of the day.

12) The search for “true socialism.”  Professor Ouyang expresses satisfaction that, in his view, “Marxism became a subject that could be reflected upon, examined, renewed, and developed.”  In this spirit, we too should examine why some Marxists ignore the class conflict in their search for a “true socialism” that can be “accepted and followed” by the people.  There is actually nothing new about this phenomenon.  In Part III of the Manifesto, Marx and Engels analyzed various forms of socialism, each representing the interests of different classes.  It is evident that a variety of Marxisms can also be adapted to represent other class formations than that of the proletariat.  It is in part for this reason that Marx once remarked that he was not a “Marxist,” given the distortions to which his ideas were subjected.  Among the positions analyzed in the Manifesto was “German, or ‘True,’ Socialism,” which “ceased… to express the struggle of one class with the other… conscious of having overcome ‘French one-sidedness’ and of representing, not true requirements, but the requirements of Truth; not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy.”15 As an expression of the petty bourgeoisie, this form of socialism is concerned, above all, with helping that class to escape from being crushed between the capitalists and the proletarians.  Thus it hopes to avoid the conflict of classes, at least in part by simply ignoring it.  But the class struggle in China today can no longer be ignored.  Hopefully, therefore, Chinese philosophers, especially those who identify themselves as Marxists, will be able to find room in their work, in addition to examining such issues as “the concrete and historical unity among Truth, Good, and Beauty,” to address such fundamental Marxist “philosophical” questions as why so many workers have no food in their stomachs, and to lend their support once again to the struggles of the working classes.  Only in this manner can philosophy in China help give the practice of socialism and Marxism renewed meaning in the lives of the people.


1. John Pomfret, Washington Post Foreign Service, May 8, 2001, A01.

2. Han Dongping, “An Alternative Perspective on the Origins and Social Consequences of China’s Hukou System,” undated draft, 2.

3. China Daily, September 15, 1997, 1.

4. New York Times, May 31, 1998, 9.

5. Ibid.

6. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), 169, 176.

7. He Qinglian, “China’s Listing Social Structure,” New Left Review 5, Second Series (September/October 2000), 84.

8. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party [1848],” in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962), 48.

9. South China Morning Post, April 24, 2001.

10. Ibid.

11. Deng Xioaping, “Build Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” June 30 1984, in Deng Xiaoping, Build Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press,
1985), 62.

12. He Qinglian, op. cit., 84.

13. John Pomfret, op. cit., A01.

14. He Qinglian, op. cit., 77.

15. Marx and Engels, op. cit., 58.

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