Last spring, China introduced its Global Civilization Initiative, meant to accompany its earlier Global Development Initiative and its Global Security Initiative (on the latter two initiatives, see “Notes from the Editors,” Monthly Review, April 2023). The Global Civilization Initiative was presented by Xi Jinping at the Communist Party of China in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting in Beijing on March 15, 2023. In his speech, Xi articulated four cardinal principles underlying the Global Civilization Initiative:
(1) We advocate the respect for the diversity of civilizations. Countries need to uphold the principles of equality, mutual learning, dialogue and inclusiveness among civilizations, and let cultural exchanges transcend estrangement, mutual learning transcend clashes, and coexistence transcend feelings of superiority.
(2) We advocate the common values of humanity. Peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom are the common aspirations of all peoples. Countries need to keep an open mind in appreciating the perceptions of values by different civilizations, and refrain from imposing their own values or models on others and from stoking ideological confrontation.
(3) We advocate the importance of inheritance and innovation of civilizations. Countries need to fully harness the relevance of their histories and cultures to the present times, and push for creative transformation and innovative development of their fine traditional cultures.
(4) We advocate robust international people-to-people exchanges and cooperation. Countries need to explore the building of a global network for inter-civilization dialogue and cooperation, enrich the contents of exchanges and expand avenues of cooperation to promote mutual understanding and friendship among people of all countries and jointly advance the progress of human civilizations. (“Full Text of Xi Jinping’s Keynote Address at the CPC in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting,” March 16, 2023, english.scio.gov.cn)
It might be thought that such a declaration, emphasizing the diversity of civilizations, principles of equality, mutual cultural exchange, and peaceful coexistence would have been met with universal acclaim by all countries. Instead, the response in the major foreign policy and media organs of the United States and Europe was one of outrage, followed by blistering attacks. The Wall Street Journal saw China’s Global Civilization initiative as nothing less than a direct assault on the West in its declaration that “unnamed countries ‘refrain from imposing their own values or models on others.’” This whole notion, readers were told—as if the historical facts were in question—“builds on the [Chinese] Communist Party’s longstanding interpretation of modern history as a period in which predatory Western nations, taking advantage of China’s weakness in the late 19th century, exploited the country for selfish ends and held it back.” For The Economist magazine, Xi’s “triad of global initiatives,” including the Global Civilization Initiative, “will deepen the world’s divides.” The real import of this latest initiative, with its principle of “equality of civilization,” The Economist objects, is that “the West should learn to live with Chinese communism. It [communism] may be based on Marxism, a Western theory, but it is also the fruit of China’s ancient culture” (Jonathan Cheng, “China Is Starting to Act Like a Global Power,” Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2023; “China’s Latest Attempt to Rally the World Against Western Values,” The Economist, April 27, 2023).
If leading organs of capitalist economic ideology like the Wall Street Journal and The Economist strongly opposed China’s call for civilizational coexistence, the main organs of U.S. grand imperial strategy were equally incensed. Foreign Policy adopted a stance similar to The Economist, insisting that Marxism is a Western, not Chinese, theory, and antagonistic to traditional Chinese culture such as Daoism. This apparently deprives the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of the legitimate right to present itself as representing Chinese civilization. The Diplomat chastised China for trying to undermine the U.S.-dominated “rules-based order” by promoting a “relativism of values.” The PRC, we are duly informed, is not operating in the tradition of Confucius, but rather that of “Thomas Hobbes” of bellum omnium contra omnes. For China to even speak of “civilization,” The Diplomat explained, was wrong, since it carried with it the shadow of Western colonialism in Latin America and elsewhere in the early modern era, which had been promoted in the very name of civilization. Worst of all, China’s Global Civilization Initiative is aimed at “deprivileging the voice of the United States,” preventing it from carrying out military interventions aimed at regime change in “authoritarian” states that violate its international rules-based order. China, at the same time, is left free to continue to promote “its subversive influence in the internal affairs of countries throughout the world” (James Palmer, “Why Xi Is Rebranding Chinese Cultural History,” Foreign Policy, April 19, 2023; R. Evan Ellis, “The Trouble with China’s Global Civilization Initiative,” The Diplomat, June 1, 2023).
The Economist was particularly alarmed by China’s characterization of itself as a “civilizational state” as advanced by the influential Chinese political and cultural historian Zhang Weiwei. The civilizational state idea is seen as lying behind the Global Civilization Initiative. In addition to being a leading voice emphasizing the re-emergence of Chinese civilization on the world stage, Zhang has directly challenged the hegemonic U.S.-based conception of formal, market-based democracy. For Zhang, China, while lacking in formal democracy in Western terms, has been relatively successful in promoting “substantive democracy.” Some kind of formal democracy, though not necessarily following the current Western model, is necessary, he insists, but the key in the struggle for democracy is to create substantive democracy. “In many Western countries,” he writes, “democracy has long since become a kind of ‘game,’ in which democracy means the election campaign, the election campaign means political marketing, and political marketing means money, resources, public relations, strategy, image, and acting. Politicians in such a system do not have to keep their promises; all that matters is that they [the promises] help to win the election.” Substantive democracy, in Zhang’s terms, means “good governance,” relying on both meritocratic selection and election, so as to generate a political system that draws on the full range of abilities of the wider population while focusing on satisfying their real developmental needs, in line with “‘popular opinion’ and the ‘people’s heart.’” (The issue of “substantive democracy,” it should be noted, was long emphasized in István Mészáros’s “critique of the state,” as exemplified by his Beyond Leviathan.)
The Economist, though, will have none of this and accuses Zhang of contributing to “China’s latest attempt to rally the world against Western values.” Nevertheless, it is hard to understand how notions of substantive democracy, equality, freedom, civilizational diversity, peaceful coexistence, friendship between all peoples, and nonintervention in the affairs of other countries, constitute an inherent attack on “Western values” (as expressed, for example, in Immanuel Kant’s “On Perpetual Peace”)—unless those “values” are equated simply with monopoly capitalism and imperialism (Economist, “China’s Latest Attempt”; Zhang Weiwei, “On Telling China’s Story,” Reading the China Dream [translation of article from Peking Daily, June 21, 2021], readingthechinadream.com; Zhang Weiwei, The China Horizon [Hackensack, New Jersey: World Century, 2016], 103, 138, 145; István Mészáros, “The Critique of the State,” Monthly Review 67, no. 4 [September 2015]: 23–27; István Mészáros, Beyond Leviathan [New York: Monthly Review Press, 2022], 386–91).
Renowned Chinese Marxist political economist Cheng Enfu is chief editor of World Political Economy and International Critical Thought, and author of two major articles in Monthly Review: “A Theory of China’s ‘Miracle’” (with Ding Xiaoqi, January 2017) and “Five Characteristics of Neoimperialism” (with Lu Baolin, May 2021). For those MR readers interested in learning more about Cheng’s work, an important new book has been published with an international group of contributors: John Bellamy Foster, Gennady Zyuganov, Tony Andréani, Hiroshi Onishi, Alan Freeman, Nguyen Minh Hoan, et al., Innovative Marxist School in China: Comments by International Scholars on Cheng Enfu’s Academic Thoughts (London: Canut International Publishers, 2023). The book includes contributions from a number of MR authors, including Paul Cockshott and David M. Kotz, together with Andréani and Foster.
Joseph K. Roberts, a Monthly Review Press author and leading Canadian socialist, died on August 29, 2023, at age 92. Roberts was the son of a vice president of Standard Oil (Indiana) and was originally destined for life amongst the ultrarich. He was, however, radicalized in the 1950s by his encounters with class analysis and political economy, as well as by a period spent in Sierra Leone, where he had “an opportunity to learn about imperialism first-hand.” In the late ’50s, Roberts studied with sociologist Robert Staughton Lynd at Colombia University, also taking a year-long course taught by philosopher Herbert Marcuse on “Social Change” (Immanuel Wallerstein was in the same class). While he was working on his dissertation on the role played by the oil industry in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Lynd introduced Roberts to Monthly Review editor Leo Huberman. This began a lifelong relationship with MR. Roberts also served for a time as the executive director of the New York Scientists’ Committee for Radiation Information, a counterpart to the Greater St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information founded by Barry Commoner. He worked briefly with Commoner during the Baby Tooth Survey, aimed at measuring fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing.
In 1964, Roberts went to Michigan State University to teach political science. In 1966, at the invitation of economist Dallas Smythe, he took a position at the University of Saskatchewan in Regina. He was to become a prominent figure in socialist struggles in the province and in Canada as a whole; a signer of the famous Waffle Manifesto and leading supporter of the Waffle Movement, which united students, farmers, and workers in a struggle “for an independent socialist Canada.”
As his son Chris recalls, “In Regina, it wasn’t uncommon for Joseph to design his university lectures and seminars in dialogue with articles published in MR; after moving to Canada, he hosted Harry and Beadie Magdoff and a number of MR contributors and visiting Saskatchewan socialists to speak to students and socialist gatherings. Joseph introduced generations of Saskatchewan socialists in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to Marxism through the regular study, discussion, and critique of MR.”
In 1998, Monthly Review Press published Roberts’s important book, In the Shadow of Empire: Canada for Americans, which explained Canada’s critical traditions and complex relation to U.S. imperialism. In an article that he wrote in 2010, he concluded with the eloquent words:
Still unrealized for all of us on the Left, however, is the construction of a socialist formation strong enough to dedicate itself to the task of replacing capitalism. In collaboration with comrades locally, nationally and internationally, the struggle for a socialist future continues, we remind ourselves of Gramsci’s slogan: “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the heart.” It is not within our constitutions to concede defeat. (Joseph K. Roberts, “An American Socialist in Saskatchewan,” Next Year Country, February 6, 2010.)