The Left in China: A Conversation with Ralf Ruckus
In The Left in China: A Political Cartography (Pluto Press, 2023), Ralf Ruckus traces the fascinating history of left-wing, subversive, and oppositional forces in China over the past 70 years. He looks at the interconnected movements since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, drawing out the main actors, ideas, and actions. Taking us through the Hundred Flowers Campaign in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the democracy movements of the 1970s and 1980s, and the workers’ movements that accompanied these events, he draws a clear picture of the political currents of China, its ruling party, and leaders through to Xi Jinping with a spotlight on contemporary struggles.
Chris Connery: Unlike the authors of other books featured in the Made in China Journal, you locate yourself outside academia. We have met a few times in China and Hong Kong over the years. When people ask me whether I know you and, if so, what you do, I usually reply: ‘He’s a revolutionary.’ It’s clear that I mean that with admiration. Maybe you wouldn’t describe yourself in those terms, but that’s not the important thing. Could you share with our readers some sense of your life and activities over the past couple of decades, and how that shapes your thinking and writing about issues of concern?
Ralf Ruckus: I like the question because it takes me back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I started to get involved in the anti-war movement, squatting, labour protests, and other social struggles—first, in West Germany and later in Britain. At that time, an important distinction was made in the left: either you belonged to the reformist camp of social democrats—or later, the ‘greens’, who opted for mere improvement of conditions within capitalism—or you were part of revolutionary groups and engaged in social struggles that aimed at toppling capitalism. This distinction and the label ‘revolutionary’ were important to us because, based on the experiences of radical movements and widespread social struggles from the late 1960s into the 1980s, we thought that revolution was, indeed, possible and on the horizon.
The imminent major social and political change or revolutionising of social relations is not brought about by a vanguard party filling workers with class consciousness nor by a ‘left-wing’ coup to take over state power. Instead, it is the result of the empowerment of the working classes, including workers, migrants, and women, through their own struggles. So, rather than entering an academic career to join the educated class and educate the workers, I joined radical political circles that engaged in ‘militant inquiries’. That meant we worked on construction sites, in factories, and in other workplaces, started discussions with workers, intervened with flyers, and organised protests. We did this not as a vanguard but as participants who wanted to learn from the workers as much as we wanted to get involved in social and political struggles on their side. Our practice was based on a rather critical reception of ‘workerist’ concepts used by earlier groups in Italy and Germany.
A revolutionary process that topples world capitalism needs the development of a global working class. That has still not happened, so I wanted to do something in that regard, too, and got involved in social struggles and organising in other parts of the world. For instance, I went to Russia to document the workers’ situation in the early 1990s, worked in call centres in Italy in the early 2000s, and supported Amazon workers’ organising in Poland in the 2010s. This also brought me to China since the mid 2000s. There was no way to work in proletarian jobs in China, so I focused on exchanges with workers and left-wing activists to learn about the conditions and struggles inside and outside workplaces, the feminist movement, and left-wing debates in China. And since the left in most parts of the world knew little about social struggles and left-wing groups in China, I began to translate and publish books from Chinese workers, activists, or left-wing academics in German, English, and other languages before I finally wrote two books myself.
Today, despite the many ongoing social struggles, even within the left many people do not even express hope for a revolution that topples capitalism, and for that reason the label ‘revolutionary’ seems to be used far less than 40 years ago. In any case, whether anything I have done since back then was, indeed, revolutionary remains to be seen. The results are what make something revolutionary, not the claim to the label.
CC: Along with Alain Badiou and others, I think the ‘second revolution’ to come could be decades, perhaps centuries, in the future, and that our present tasks include attentiveness to new political energies and alignments that could keep revolutionary possibility alive; the ‘results’ you mention above might not be visible until long after our times. So, I’m comfortable with a provisional use of the term revolutionary, even in times like these, with little on the near horizon.
I’ve been impressed by the international character of your political work and your dedication to social investigation, in the radical sense of that term, and I’m interested in what this history brings to your understanding of the political scene in China. I wanted to share a couple of anecdotes from my own time there. After a lecture I had given in Chinese about left and right politics in the contemporary period, an undergraduate asked me: ‘Why is it that the left in China is considered right in the West?’ And at an academic conference in Shanghai in 2012, a local scholar, with occasional glances in my direction, described three political positions in the contemporary intellectual sphere:
- Liberals (自由主义者), who advocated a Western liberal-style economic order, including privatisation, protections for private property, multiparty politics, and individual rights.
- Western-style Marxists, whose critique was directed largely at the Chinese State, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the state-owned as well as privately owned sectors of the economy. This rendered their critique ultimately quite similar to that of the liberals.
- Chinese Marxists, who are critical of capitalist power and are faithful to the Chinese revolution and its legacies, and who seek to draw on that legacy to strengthen the dedication of the state and the Party to achieving a better socialist society.
In recent years, as you know, the common pejorative term for Western-style Marxists as described above is ‘White Left’ (白左), an expression that has retained considerable currency.
Your book’s subtitle, ‘A Political Cartography’, suggests that a certain amount of conceptual mapping is needed when applying the term ‘left’ to the Chinese context. I have a few questions about the politics of the term and will return throughout my questions to the translation difficulties suggested in the anecdotes above. I’d like to start with some historiographical questions that arise from your use of the term to include the entirety of the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), from 1949, through the Cultural Revolution, to the present.
Let’s begin with the pre–Cultural Revolution period. How would you characterise the terms left and right, as they were used in official discourse (such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign)? What relation, if any, does this version of ‘left’ have to the protest movements during that period that you describe as ‘left’? Ho-fung Hung (2011), Elizabeth Perry (2008), and Kevin O’Brien and Li Lianjiang (2006) use terms such as ‘rightful resistance’ or ‘moral economy protest’, and Perry has suggested that this type of protest can be more ‘system-supportive’ than ‘system-subversive’. Many of the 1950s protests you describe use the state’s language and promises. What, in your view, makes a 1950s protest ‘left’?
RR: The mere distinction between ‘Western-style Marxists’ and ‘Chinese Marxists’ among left-wing Chinese intellectuals is misleading. That separation serves to defend those leftists who follow the CCP line and promote ‘Chinese interests’, and it is used to attack those who do not follow the CCP line and criticise the CCP regime. In addition, the term ‘Western’ suggests that there is only one position to which Chinese leftists could refer, apart from a ‘Chinese’ one. That shows a disregard for positions and influences originating, for instance, in the Global South or other post-socialist countries. Here, it seems to be also used as a derogatory description, branding those who follow foreign ideas as ‘non-Chinese’ or traitors.
However, those official separations aside, even if we give a more complex account of left-wing positions in China and include various left-wing circles that do not see themselves as intellectuals, distinguish different currents of the so-called New Left close to or critical of the Party, and look at Maoist and other anti-capitalist currents in labour or feminist circles, the problem persists that the usage of the term ‘left’ is contested and fluid.
That is not unique to the Chinese context though, as confusion or struggle over the meaning and usage of left-wing—as well as ‘liberal’ or ‘right-wing’—exists in other world regions, too. Left-wing activists I know in Poland, for instance, avoid the term left-wing or Marxist altogether because it is generally identified with the country’s socialist past. And the French translators of my 2021 book The Communist Road to Capitalism argued against the usage of left-wing or leftist as a description of Chinese activists and other actors because, according to them, the corresponding French terms, gauche/gauchiste, are often used for the reformist French Socialist Party.
It is important to overcome the confusion and find a common reference to and understanding of ‘left-wing’ in China and elsewhere. That can open new possibilities for collaboration and struggles across borders or even for common strategies to overcome capitalism and patriarchy, as well as other forms of exclusion, exploitation, and discrimination. To agree on a common understanding, we need clear categories. That is why I started the book The Left in China with a proposal for a left/right framework. According to that framework, the positions of social or political actors should be identified using at least two attributes: their position on the distribution of wealth and their position on the distribution of power. I call positions supporting the equal distribution of wealth according to people’s needs ‘left-collectivist’, with ‘right-exploitative’ as the opposite. And I call the equal distribution of power ‘egalitarian’, with ‘authoritarian’ as the opposite.
Another important element of my analysis is my focus on the relation between social struggles or movements and left-wing actors or groups. As you know, I do not look at left-wing leaders, intellectuals, or other individuals and their ‘thought’. I am interested in social conflicts and struggles, and in how these produced or inspired left-wing actors or movements, because that is the dialectic that potentially creates revolutionary processes. For China, that means that I focus on social struggles against the conditions set by the CCP regime and its allies, and that I look at oppositional left-wing circles that grew out of those struggles or started to support them.
Regarding the 1950s and the CCP’s use of ‘left’ and ‘right’, the crucial concept is Mao Zedong’s distinction between left and right deviations from the Party line. He wrote that opposing measures the Party considers necessary is a rightist deviation. Meanwhile, forcing through measures that the Party thinks should not yet be taken is a leftist deviation. In Mao’s exact words:
When the right time comes for something to be done, it has to be done. If you don’t allow it, that is a Right deviation. If the right time has not come for something and yet you try to force it through, that is a ‘left’ deviation. (Mao 1977: 230–31)
Pro-capitalist forces and those with right-wing views surely existed in China in the 1950s, too. Yet, the concept of deviations from the Party line gave CCP leaders a tool to declare anyone who opposed their policies a rightist, whether a person demanded capitalist markets or argued for the interests of workers during a strike.
The terms ‘rightful resistance’ and ‘moral economy’ that you mention were used for the struggles of peasants and urban state workers against the deterioration of their conditions during the capitalist reforms of the 1990s and 2000s. These terms can, indeed, also be used to describe the strikes that began after the nationalisation of urban industries had been carried out in the mid 1950s. At that time, workers believed that the socialist transition should guarantee them a better status or position as the new ‘masters of the factory’ as well as material improvements, and that it should create equal conditions for all workers.
The crucial aspects for determining these struggles as left-wing or not are: who was involved, what was at stake, and how did they happen? The biggest group behind the strikes were workers in recently nationalised work units. They were dissatisfied with their working conditions and their subordinate position in the workplace; they were angry because they had believed the CCP’s promises and expected better conditions and more control over production processes in their work units; they largely used the CCP’s or socialist language, as this was the language with which to take the Party at its word and negotiate the fulfillment of the socialist promises; and they engaged in workplace actions and demonstrations to voice their anger and push through their demands. In this case, all elements of the who, what, and how point to a social struggle with a left-wing tendency against a left-wing authoritarian and exploitative regime.
It is surely important to analyse whether certain forms of struggle in a particular context are ‘system-supportive’ or ‘system-subversive’. That is the problem with all struggles and movements, though. They can be limited to demands that can be solved ‘within the system’, as it might be the case of the struggles in the mid 1950s; they can be coopted and used by a regime to strengthen its legitimacy and improve its methods of management or governance; and they can lead to disappointment and resignation on the side of the protagonists and weaken future attempts at struggle.
Whether social or political struggles are, indeed, ‘system-supportive’ or ‘system-subversive’ is often hard to determine in advance. As with the term ‘revolutionary’, it is the result that counts. In retrospect, we can see that the strikes in the mid 1950s did not last long and were not able to establish lasting organisational forms. However, they were so threatening that the regime opened ways for public critique during the Hundred Flowers Movement in the hope of releasing social pressure; and, shortly after, the regime repressed all criticisms and punished those who had attacked it during the Anti-Rightist Movement to weaken any opposition.
CC: I was planning to ask you for some Polish comparisons later in the conversation, so thanks for bringing it up here. I wholly agree with you about the importance of forging common ground across borders among all those struggling against capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and all forms of exclusion, exploitation, discrimination, and domination. I think that the two axes by which you evaluate the positions of social and political actors—their positions on the distribution of wealth and of power—are especially useful comparative measures during the past 20 or 30 years.
The period before the turn to market capitalism in the socialist world raises some particular issues. One concerns the CCP. In the 1950s, the CCP was of course the maker of the ‘broken promises’ that in your account galvanised the workers’ movements of that decade. And the Party leadership of that time contained strong voices for worker power and worker autonomy, such as Li Lisan, later branded a rightist.
The Cultural Revolution was another matter; and there is of course nothing in the Soviet or Eastern European experience with which to compare it. Here, guided by the theoretical work of Mao and his allies on contradiction, the nature of class, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the nature of revolution itself, the Cultural Revolution Group in the Party’s leadership encouraged the formation of extra-party organisations and anti-leadership struggles in schools, factories, and elsewhere. This allowed for a remarkable outburst of radical energies and political experimentation that continued for more than a year and whose after-effects lasted much longer (Russo 2020; Connery 2023). As Joel Andreas’s 2019 Disenfranchised shows, in the last years of the Cultural Revolution, workers made considerable gains in workplace authority, equality of compensation and treatment, and workplace democracy (everything but autonomy!) due to the efforts of radicals within the Party and in positions of factory leadership.
Perhaps one could argue that the CCP, before 1978, was a somewhat uneasy fit in the ‘left authoritarian’ quadrant of a left–right mapping. This has had consequential after-effects. During the period when the New Left in China was most prominent—2000–15, I would say—even though most in the New Left understood that the CCP leadership was supporting and enabling the deepening of market capitalism, their faith in state capacity and in the virtual socialism embodied in the Party’s slogans and official documents gave many of them a conviction that a leftist hegemony within the Party was possible and should be struggled for (Wang Shaoguang is the most prominent exponent of this view). Although this possibility now seems more distant than ever, their position—though it has doubtless contributed to the current severe weakness of left critical energies—is understandable. Could you comment on the CCP’s shaping of China’s political cartography from the pre-reform period to the past decade?
RR: I agree that the period between the mid 1960s and the late 1970s—that is, the phase immediately before the reform period started in 1978—raises some issues, and the CCP is at the heart of them. Mao’s calling for the Cultural Revolution did, indeed, trigger a unique series of events, and the important point here is how we read them.
Among the first Red Guards following the call of Mao and his faction in the summer of 1966 were many children of Party, state, and military cadres. They attacked not only teachers and cadres of the rival faction of ‘capitalist roaders’, but also ordinary people whom they called ‘black categories’. The latter were, according to the pre-1949 status or position of the male household head, categorised, for instance, as ‘landlords’ or ‘counterrevolutionaries’, and these labels were extended to family members. Among those attacked were, in fact, many proletarians and their children. The first or ‘conservative’ Red Guards referred to what they called the ‘bloodline theory’—that is, they demanded to step into higher positions as heirs of their ‘red’ cadre parents. In the autumn of 1966, a second wave of young ‘rebel’ Red Guards—many young people from the ‘black categories’—used the chance to mobilise and organise, this time against these privileged children, their claims, and their attacks (for a good account of all this, see Chapter 3 of Wu 2014).
When the Cultural Revolution reached the work units in late 1966, against the intention of Mao and his allies, the confrontation reached another level. ‘Conservative’ skilled workers and cadres stood against ‘rebel’ unskilled workers, apprentices, temporary workers, and others. And the rebels were joined by other dissatisfied groups such as rusticated urban workers and youths.
Obviously, the composition of the two factions depended on the location, and the picture is complex. Yet, it is important to note that many of the social actors behind the rebel faction made similar claims to those behind the strikes in the mid 1950s. They felt excluded, discriminated against, and exploited in the socialist system, and they demanded material improvements, such as permanent employment. And some groups among the rebels radicalised. In general, the rebels used Maoist concepts and respected Mao as a revolutionary leader, but these radical groups took the critique much further. Where Mao saw bureaucratisation or the ‘capitalist roaders’ in the Party leadership as a problem of certain cadres, the radical rebels analysed this as a systemic problem of Chinese socialism under the CCP. They demanded a different socialism and referred to the Paris Commune.
The Cultural Revolution Group and the CCP leadership around Mao were faced with a situation they could not control anymore: the Cultural Revolution had led to the collapse of Party and state structures and turned into a confrontation between different factions. They reacted with a mix of repression, cooptation, and concession. The army was called in to crush the rebellion, and it played a major role in the consolidation of power through so-called revolutionary committees; rebel leaders were coopted into these committees and the Party leadership; and concessions were made including those in work units that Joel Andreas (2019) mentions, but they changed neither the structural inequalities nor the political setup of the state. The social contradictions persisted and were reflected in continuing conflicts between ‘conservatives’ and ‘leftists’ in work units and on all state levels.
Important for my mapping is that the ‘leftists’ in the Party leadership aimed at improving the economic situation of proletarians and avoiding further social stratification. In that sense, they can be categorised as ‘left-collectivist’. At the same time, they remained an important part of the ‘authoritarian’ party regime. Meanwhile, the Maoist rebel dissidents demanded not only economic improvements but also a form of socialism controlled by workers and peasants—a ‘left-collectivist’ and ‘egalitarian’ position.
Of course, the assessment of the rebellion during the Cultural Revolution and of the ‘leftist’ faction in the leadership is contested. You point to the central problem here: the argument that an exploitative or authoritarian system can be changed by a left-wing faction within Party or state structures. That dire argument is not unique to China, as shown by the ‘entryism’ of leftist parties in other countries and their belief that they can ‘change the system from within’. Often leftist leaders or intellectuals utilise this belief, call for the ‘education’ of the masses, and refer to Gramsci’s argument for a leftist hegemony in the institutions to justify their careers inside state structures or the education sector.
In China, the intellectuals of the New Left see the Cultural Revolution as an attempt for a second revolution in China against ‘capitalist roaders’ in the Party, while they do not give much importance to the social contradictions and the structural problems of Chinese socialism at that time. They count on a new leftist faction inside the CCP leadership that could give the Party a different turn and bring it back on a socialist course against the marketisation and capitalism the Party has promoted in the past decades.
Yet, the Party’s vanguard position, political change imposed ‘from above’, authoritarian forms of power, the patriarchal nature of the CCP, the concept of leadership in a bureaucratic organisation—all these remain largely unaddressed. These aspects—the unequal distribution of power, so to speak—were at the core of many social conflicts in China since the 1950s. And it is no coincidence that the most important social mobilisations after the Cultural Revolution—the movements in 1976, 1978, and 1989—all included discontented workers who demanded a more democratic form of socialism, workers’ control over the Party, and workers’ control in the work units.
As you mention, today the New Left and other ‘anti-capitalist’ elements inside the CCP are weakened. Meanwhile, the CCP leadership still claims to be ‘socialist’. In the past years, it has emphasised Maoist folklore and socialist narratives of welfare and development that Bo Xilai and his allies had already used around 2010 to the applause of New Left protagonists. And the CCP promotes its domesticated version of Marxism, void of class struggle and revolution. Thus, today, young people in China can call themselves ‘left-wing’ while supporting the authoritarian rule of the CCP, capitalist exploitation termed ‘socialist market economy’, and Chinese nationalism.
CC: In talks in Chinese in China and in a recently published piece in English, I have claimed that left or anti-capitalist critical theory and analysis is at its lowest ebb in 130 years. Even though I thought it a fairly extreme claim, I never received any argument.
By contrast, the age of the New Left, from the 1990s through the first decade of this century, produced important analytical and theoretical work on gender, class division, the rural situation, and other issues. While varying in their degree of radicalness—ranging from social democracy to left communism (sometimes in the work of the same person)—this work intersected with social movements in interesting and politically promising ways.
The last piece I can think of in this vein—Wang Hui’s ‘Two Types of New Poor and Their Future’ (see Wang 2012, 2014)—came out in the early 2010s, and reflected with analytical depth the new political possibilities marked by workers’ movements allied with left nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) before the crackdown.
Although you downplay the role and importance of theory in your book, you clearly do not find theory unimportant; you have been central in introducing Italian operaismo to a Chinese-reading audience; I refer to the three volumes of translated essays in Operaismo and Its Critique (工人主义及其批判) that you released on your website (Gongchao 2018).
One graduate student in China I know who publishes very interesting blog-like commentary about class, workers’ movements, and regional politics told me that he thought that the most acute challenge for the left in China today is the lack of theory and analysis. Do you agree with his and my judgements about the current weak state of theory and analysis? What kind of theoretical and analytical work is currently needed on the left in China?
RR: I have quoted you during talks on your claim that left or anti-capitalist critical theory and analysis is at its lowest ebb in 130 years in China. So, what are the reasons? The antisocialist turn of the CCP and its domesticated Marxism? The sell-out of leftist intellectuals to the regime? The repression of left-wing and feminist dissent or opposition in the past few years? Or the limitations of the ongoing class struggles? In my opinion, this has many reasons.
Again, the problem does not just exist in China. Left-wing or anti-capitalist critical theory and analysis is in crisis in many places around the world. The two main left-wing grand narratives of the twentieth century have failed to deliver on their promise to overcome capitalism or, at least, control its brutal effects: Marxism-Leninism, including its Maoist strand, stood behind so-called workers’ states that were in fact authoritarian states with a new, ‘socialist’ class system of exploitation; and social democracy has been complicit in the neoliberal restructuring of capitalism with its devastating effects on working classes. A third left-wing narrative supported by anti-authoritarian currents such as anarchism played a role in many movements, especially since the 1960s, but was not able to dominate them or produce considerable successes. In that sense, so far it has failed, too.
Several important new elements of theory and practice have been added to the left-wing canon, including feminism and anti-racism, which have inspired many struggles and gained traction in left-wing circles since the last quarter of the twentieth century. But despite the deepening economic, social, and environmental crises, and the many resulting social mobilisations since the start of this century around the world—such as the wave of ‘square occupations’ and general strikes around 2010—we have not seen a new revolutionary spirit and hope similar to those between the 1950s and the 1970s. Back then, such spirit and hope could be felt during anticolonial struggles, the 1968 student mobilisations, the rebel struggles during the Cultural Revolution, or the wildcat strikes of migrant mass workers in many regions.
In the late 2000s, in the aftermath of the so-called Global Financial Crisis, that situation seemed to change. Around the world, social movements, strikes, and other struggles were on the rise. In China, after the migrant worker strike at Honda in Guangdong in 2010, many expected the formation of a new migrant working class that would be able to play a significant role in challenging capitalist relations in the country and beyond. Wang Hui’s pieces seem to be written in the spirit of this time, as he hoped for a ‘re-politicisation’ of social struggles, and he thought this had to happen through intellectual activists stepping in to represent working-class interests—a Leninist model of intellectual leadership that in my view needs to be thrown on the trash heap of history, but that is another story.
Globally, the situation has changed in the past 10 years. Social movements have not yet developed the impetus for fundamental change for which we had hoped. In China, the end of double-digit economic growth, the restructuring and relocation of industries, and tougher repression of grassroots worker activists, labour NGOs, and feminists since 2015 have changed the game. Today, left-wing and feminist circles are on the defensive, many not daring to come out publicly or support social struggles in workplaces or on the street. These are dark times, indeed.
What can we do in a time of such muted social struggles and harsh repression? On the one hand, left-wing discussions are continuing in China, and this includes learning processes and exchanges on social struggles in China and beyond as well as on left-wing political analyses and theory. On the other hand, besides repression and censorship, other factors limit left-wing discussions in China—namely, the counterrevolutionary CCP narratives on leftism, socialism, or Marxism and the mystification and legacies of Cultural Revolution–type Maoism in oppositional left-wing circles. My book is meant as a contribution to a process of rethinking left-wing politics by critically analysing China’s history from a left-wing perspective, and it is meant as a challenge to these CCP narratives and mystifications.
I do not want to ‘downplay the role and importance of theory’, as you say, but I do not put that much attention on ‘theorists’ and their history of ideas. Instead, I argue for initiating analyses of social history, theory, and practice with a materialist approach—that is, by first analysing social conditions and struggles through the lens of the protagonists. And instead of asking how leftists represented, led, or dominated the struggles—not only a Leninist but also a bourgeoise perspective—I want to first understand how social struggles inspired left-wing currents and how this dialectic between struggles and left-wing currents changed over time.
Consequently, I am not sure whether the ‘lack of theory and analysis’ is ‘the most acute challenge for the left in China’. I would rather ask what kind of theory and analysis is lacking and what it is supposed to be used for. If we agree that the power to overthrow capitalism and to create a society without exploitation and discrimination lies in the hands of the proletariat or certain parts of the working classes, then we should start analysing and theorising the revolutionary process with and from the perspectives of the proletariat or these parts of the working classes. This is the problem not just in China but elsewhere, too: many left-wing activists do not make any inquiries into the situation of proletarians or workers.
For this reason, we introduced Italian operaismo to a Chinese-reading audience—or better: a critical view on operaismo’s methods of analysis and intervention developed during the struggles of migrant mass workers in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, including a critique by feminists close to operaismo. The most interesting part of this for the current situation might be the concept of conricerca, or ‘co-research’ in English (also translated as ‘militant inquiry’). This is a form of organising and intervention that brings together left-wing researchers, activists, and workers. The aim is to use interviews, assemblies, debates, or flyers to build working-class collective power and eventually use that for the revolutionary class struggle. This concept for working-class self-empowerment is also meant as a critique of the Leninist vanguard party strategy.
This distinct perspective can also be used analytically when developing left-wing narratives or theory regarding contemporary or historical social processes. When looking back at history, left-wing analyses should start with changes in social conditions and struggles and how those changes inspired different left-wing movements or debates or how they even created revolutionary openings. And when dealing with current affairs, these analyses should start with research into the everyday experiences of workers and other subjects in different sectors and situations. To do that, left-wing researchers or activists need to be with proletarians and learn from them, by regularly discussing and socialising with them, or by skipping a life and career as an intellectual altogether and taking a proletarian job if that is possible.
Under which conditions social struggles have morphed into serious threats for the capitalist and patriarchal system, which sections of the proletariat or working class have been on the forefront of the struggles, what forms and contents of left-wing critique and intervention have made sense in particular situations—these questions must be addressed in such ‘co-research’, but they must be based on analyses of past or current social conditions and struggles at the grassroots level.
CC: I personally spend more time reading and speaking to intellectuals and academics, and am very grateful for the work of others who are more directly involved in workers’ struggles and workers’ lives: you, Eli Friedman, Ivan Franceschini, the Chuang group, Diego Gullotta and Lili Lin, Chris King-chi Chan, and many others in and outside China—all of whose work has theoretical dimensions, albeit quite varied. I’ve sometimes thought that the current path of the CCP under Xi Jinping—greatly increased dirigisme overall and more direct administration of the economy, in both the state-owned and the private sectors, plus a continued unwillingness to adopt even mildly redistributive or household-friendly economic policy—might cause more left intellectuals to question their faith that the Party could allow opportunities for a new socialist or even social democratic hegemony. If a break were to happen and a more independent left intelligentsia emerged, the kinds of analyses for which I’m calling would have a better chance to develop, and ties with workers’ and other social movements could develop organically. I do think that without clear and philosophically sound analyses of the Chinese State and economy from the perspective of its revolutionary transformation—and to date this has been largely absent—social movements and worker activism will find it difficult to move forward. We need to find space for the necessary debates and discussion that could involve intellectuals, activists, and workers, and contribute to forming a frame of reference for a range of transformative projects.
As you point out, this theoretical crisis is not limited to China. But China poses distinctive challenges: state ideology, the Party–capital relationship, the specific character of social formations. Other factors include state repression, which as you mention has grown significantly in the Xi period, and the closer embrace of nationalism and Chinese exceptionalism on the part of many formerly critical intellectuals. And, as in much of the world, there is also the strength of market and entrepreneurial ideology in society at large. Militant inquiry, as you well know, is not without its challenges in China, and these are not solely a matter of state repression (Gullotta and Lin 2023; Franceschini and Lin 2018). It would of course be one of several paths towards fostering the kind of theoretical and analytical constellation that could contribute to a shared orientation.
To conclude our discussion, which I’ve enjoyed very much, I’d like to invite your speculation on the state of Chinese workers today and into the future, as well as in a global context. A few years ago, before Covid, I had a conversation with worker activist Lao Xie, whom I believe you also know. His interview with Chuang (2019) is one example of the kind of analytical work of which I think we need much more. Our conversation was after Jasic, and after the wave of state repression aimed at worker organisation, but I was surprised when he expressed optimism about the state of workers in China at that time: labour shortages, increased opportunities in the countryside, and other factors gave workers structurally more power than they had possessed in a long while. Do you share his optimism? How do you view worker power expressing itself and changing over the coming years? Based on your experience elsewhere, how would you compare the current condition of Chinese workers with that of workers elsewhere in the world, such as Poland and India?
And finally, in debates and discussions in the United States and elsewhere about the left’s relationship to China, an important point made by many of those anti-capitalists who are critical of the Chinese State is that rather than apologetics for the Chinese State, anti-capitalists outside China should make common cause with workers, feminist activists, oppressed minorities, and other social forces within China. As you write in your Epilogue, this is not easy given current conditions there. Do you have any suggestions for how leftists outside China can contribute to the forms of international solidarity called for by these times?
RR: Forms of left-wing politics and intervention in China are not just in crisis because of repression, as you say, even though repression is a major problem. They are also weakened by other factors—for instance, internal contradictions such as hierarchical structures in organisations and by ideologies of leadership and representation, which basically end up as paternalism. I address some of these issues in the conclusions of my 2021 book The Communist Road to Capitalism. In contrast to the approach of many labour NGOs, for instance, militant inquiry as an organisational concept is not only trying to tackle hierarchies between workers and activists or intellectuals. It can also be the base for class politics and research using a revolutionary perspective ‘from below’, instead of a leftist perspective of leadership and regulation of social movement ‘from above’.
I agree that, as with any other region, China poses challenges when analysing its state and economy. In my view, these lie both in the socialist past and in the capitalist present. In other words, the left must come to terms with the failures of socialism in its Maoist form and confront the challenges under the current capitalist regime. I do not expect any breakthrough here until a new, strong working-class movement forms, though. The weakness of social struggles and movements is the main reason behind the weakness of the left, including its lack of analyses of a revolutionary transformation.
In that sense, I also agree that we need a clear analysis of the state and economy ‘from the perspective of its revolutionary transformation’. I just do not expect the necessary sparks for revolutionary thought and practice to come from the side of the intellectuals, and especially not from an intelligentsia that thinks workers, migrants, or women involved in social struggles need a ‘party’ or some other outside left-wing ‘elite’ to overcome alleged limits of proletarian political imagination.
This reminds me of an anecdote Giovanni Arrighi told me in the mid 2000s. During auto workers’ strikes in northern Italy in the late 1960s, he was called by worker activists to join an assembly of striking workers. They had seen the wage increases they had won eaten up by inflation, and they asked him as an intellectual to join them and explain what inflation was about and what factors produced it. They asked for intellectual input to understand a complex economic process, but he had to go to them and join their assembly. And, despite asking for explanations, they remained the main actors in their own struggle, experiencing and using their disruptive power against capital.
This is how I imagine the relation of left-wing intellectuals, activists, and proletarians. Left-wing proletarian perspectives, desires, and practices determine potentials and outcomes of social and revolutionary struggles. Left-wing intellectuals and nonproletarian activists can play a role in this by providing necessary resources—knowledge, experiences, skills, or money—but the initiative and control over the struggles should stay with the proletarians.
Surely, in times of few open mass struggles, it is hard to imagine that proletarian empowerment can produce a revolutionary situation. However, it is in these bleak periods that activists and intellectuals should develop respect for proletarian practices and struggles, so they are prepared to provide the necessary solidarity and support when mass struggles kick off again.
It is interesting you mention the optimism Lao Xie and a few others put forward when talking about the future of working-class struggles in China. Indeed, there are factors that could lead to the increase and use of workers’ structural power, such as the ongoing labour shortages. Similar factors play a role in other countries in Asia and in Europe, for instance. As dim as the situation in China looks now, we should observe how these factors develop and what kinds of struggles will evolve from workers’ usage of disruptive power in particular constellations.
What is more, capitalism is currently going through a series of economic, social, and environmental crises globally, and these are also producing new geopolitical tensions. On one hand, this might lead to more wars and other catastrophes we need to prevent. On the other hand, in this period of systemic instability, a temporary ‘window of opportunity’ has opened, as the foundations of capitalism are already shaking. In such a phase a progressive working-class movement has the chance to cause capitalism to collapse—a chance it does not have in times of systemic stability.
What we are hoping for are proletarian mass struggles as strong and widespread as those in the 1960s and 1970s mentioned earlier, for instance. Countries such as Poland and India have also seen industrialisation and particular forms of integration into global or regional markets—and social struggles provoked by the impact of these developments on proletarians and peasants. But given China’s key role in global chains of production and trade, such struggles there would be particularly influential and disruptive.
Chinese workers have experienced material improvements in the past three decades, and these were partly concessions to their demands and struggles. However, the period of rapid growth and capital concessions ended, so the questions are when and how workers in China will be able to stage mass struggles again and whether these struggles can ‘transgress borders’ and connect to those in other regions.
Let us be realistic, though. While in China state repression is employed to keep social struggles small and isolated, in other parts of the world, many large social movements seem to be mostly dealing either with the effects of the multiple crises or with the effects of conflicts within the ruling classes—conflicts that lead to reactionary politics and the making of reactionary mass mobilisations. Some of the rather progressive social movements are massive, but they remain largely defensive and develop ‘in reaction’ to economic hardships, authoritarian state measures, environmental threats, or the deterioration of conditions for workers, migrants, or women.
So far, in practice, there are not enough substantial connections between these movements—for instance, between environmental and labour movements or between movements in different countries, despite verbal references and exchanges. And these movements do not develop and follow any revolutionary project aimed at breaking up the system of nation-state borders that divides proletarians and aimed at toppling capitalist and patriarchal relations globally. Such revolutionary vigour might be expressed here and there, but it has not yet become dominant anywhere.
This leads me to the question of solidarity. Surely, the left cannot take a shortcut and substitute for the lack of a revolutionary movement. It can deal with the situation as it is and develop practices that might facilitate the making of such a movement in the future. You already mentioned the necessity to stand by the side of workers, feminist activists, oppressed minorities, and other social forces in China.
In the case of China, we need to address both sides of the class conflict. On one side, considering repression and censorship, an important form of solidarity is to make the voices of Chinese workers, feminists, and others heard and include their situation and struggles in our debates and interventions. On the other side, the CCP pretends to be socialist and covers up its capitalist, nationalist, racist, and patriarchal policies that make it, essentially, a right-wing regime. Solidarity with progressive social movements and left-wing oppositional forces in China therefore demands that we support them in their struggles against domestic and foreign capital as well as vis-a-vis the right-wing CCP regime and its form of authoritarian rule.