Remodeling Marx

The closing statement of the recent 8th conference of the World Association of Political Economy held in Brazil in May, states: “There is no way of overcoming capitalism without the global political, economic, cultural and scientific action of the forces inspired by Marx.”

But how is one to inspire Marxist thought? Marxism is a compulsory subject in China’s schools and colleges, with the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China stipulating that the state should “educate the people in patriotism, collectivism, internationalism and communism and in dialectical and historical materialism.” However, it must be admitted that many decades of officially sponsored Marxist education have not always produced the hoped for results.

For example, in the USSR the following story was told: A man sent his wife to attend night school to improve her cooking skills. After the first week, she burnt the food; after the second, it was too salty; after the third week, she burnt the the food again. Her husband complained: “Three weeks at cookery school and you still can’t cook!” “It’s not my fault,” she replied. “We’ve only gotten as far as the October Revolution!” Too much Marxism can certainly have an alienating effect.

During eras of rigidity and dogmatism, Marxist theory was sometimes turned into a dangerous entity with which to critically engage. So, as the intellectual atmosphere became more permissive, it was natural that many non-Communists developed an ambivalent or even hostile attitude to Marxist teaching. And party members would often approach Marxism formalistically, using it as an instrumental ideology of power. Teachers of Marxism were caught in the middle ? trying to keep students interested in a subject which many felt was an imposition.

In Communist East German, a schoolteacher started his class one day with the words: “Let’s get to the most important question. Who wrote the Communist Manifesto?” Nobody replied. “Come on, who wrote the Communist Manifesto?” Silence. So he turned to the brightest student. “Fritz, who wrote the Communist Manifesto?” Fritz replied nervously, “It wasn’t me, Sir! Honest!” When he got home, the teacher told his wife what had happened. She tried to console him. “Never mind dear,” she said. “Maybe Fritz really didn’t write it.” Exasperated, he went to the bar to drown his sorrows. A large man saw that he was upset and asked him, “What’s the matter with you, comrade?” So the teacher explained what happened that day and the man declared: “Don’t worry, comrade. I’m with the secret police! We’ll soon find out who wrote the Communist Manifesto!” The next week the teacher was in the bar again and the same man approached him once more. He said: “I’ve got news for you, comrade. About the Communist Manifesto, it wasn’t Fritz who wrote it, it was his dad; he admitted it after three days of interrogation!”

Marxism has produced exciting and brilliant intellectual tools with which to critically analyze the past, present and future of society. But how are we to reignite a flame of interest in Marxism and help students to grasp its value and relevance? This is one of the great pedagogical challenges of our time. Chinese educators can play a key role in shifting the world balance of intellectual forces back towards Marxism. This depends on revitalizing the teaching of Marxism in ways which awaken a thirst for its message amongst the children of the Information Age.

Joseph Needham, whose monumental work, “Science and Civilization in China,” opened China’s collective knowledge to the world, used to appeal to people to “think in oceans.” Today’s children in China and around the world are largely unaware of the universe of intellectual enquiry which Marxism has awakened over the last 150 years.

It is understandable that China’s rapid social change and increasing opportunities for personal advancement and enrichment have fostered individualist outlooks in recent decades. But the overall consideration of society and social development requires observation from a higher level and on a far grander scale.

Outside China, Marxist ideas were marginalized after the collapse of the USSR and they remain on the fringes of intellectual thought. However, the coherent nature of Marxist methods of analysis and its influence on a broad range of disciplines means that developing a dynamic and progressive global intellectual movement does not require the reinvention of the wheel. All that is needed, initially, is to combine the fruits of past intellectual work in ways which inspire new generations on the path of discovery.

China’s Marxist educators need to think globally and consider the history of Marxist thought in its totality. They need to survey its many fields of influence, including economic criticism, socialist systems, experiments in workers’ control and cooperation, expeditions in the social sciences, culture, the arts, philosophy and history. Students should be engaged with these themes as vibrant and dynamic actors, visiting workplaces and institutions to discover the nature of society.

When Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, was the Minister for Education in the former USSR, she argued that the inner working of societal processes should be unraveled by a structure of educational enquiry which was directly linked to workplaces and societal institutions. In recent years, students at some Chinese colleges have gone into large workplaces such as Coca-Cola and informed the workers of their legal rights. Similar campaigns have been organized with migrant construction workers in Beijing. But the key to Marxist education is to encourage a critical, global understanding of the internal dynamics of society and its organizations.

Since 2004, the Teaching Standard Assessment of Undergraduates Program sought to improve teaching by standardized measures. This tended to centralize teaching methods and curricula, but it lessened the autonomy of teachers of Marxism, who struggled to awaken the interest of their students. Radical measures are needed to transform the image of Marxism in the eyes of students. Instead of viewing it as a state doctrine, they should come to see it as their own tool and instrument for critical intellectual enquiry.

To this end, engagement with Marxists from around the world will be vital. This should not be hindered by the sectarian attitudes which have developed amongst various Marxist trends. These problems can be solved by open and fraternal debate and Chinese universities should support Marxist research and enquiry worldwide. Resources and ingenuity should be combined to support the production of educational materials, films, and websites in all languages. Marxism should become as exciting a field of study for contemporary children and college students as the intellectual voyages of discovery were to the explorers, enlightenment thinkers and revolutionaries of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Heiko Khoo
 The text has been originally published
 on China.org.cn where the author is
 a regular contributor.

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