On privilege theory and intersectionality

What are privilege theory and intersectionality? And what’s the appeal?

Privilege theorist Peggy McIntosh talks of white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank cheques”. The term privilege is seen to go beyond the concept of ‘economic class’ to enable us to identify and understand how various oppressions affect our social relations and interactions with one another. Furthermore, privilege theory and intersectionality reject a division between so-called primary (class-based) and secondary struggles (for example, based around gender, ‘race’, and sexuality).

The basic premise of privilege theory is that wherever there is an oppressive system – notably, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity – there is both an oppressed group of people and a privileged group of people (who, consciously or not, benefit to a degree). Intersectionality is the idea that we are all privileged by some systems of oppression and burdened by other systems of oppression, thus our privileges and our oppressions intersect.

By lacking full awareness of our privileges and their intersectionality, we are politically divided and weak. And while we cannot be held responsible for the systems of oppression that impart privilege upon us, we do have a choice in terms of how we respond to such privilege (for instance, to our whiteness, to our maleness, to our straightness, to our ableness, and so on). For leftists then, the privileged have a critical role to play in the struggles against systems of oppression but not a leading role, since oppressed groups – with their own unique insight and experience – should head the struggles to end their oppressions.

It is easy to appreciate why privilege theory and intersectionality have broad appeal, and to see the potential for a constructive and creative exchange towards a politics capable of realising a ‘new normal’. That said, below I offer four cautions / critiques that I hope are worthy of engagement.

Beware of ‘the straw man’ in privilege theory and intersectionality…

A serious, damning history of prominent Marxist organisations downplaying, and, worse still, pandering to, sexism, racism and homophobia is certainly not ‘the straw man’ here. For instance, the forerunner to the Socialist Party, the Militant Tendency, in the late 1970s and 1980s (see my previous blog posts). This history, as well as the recent, well-publicised, ill-handling of a rape allegation case within the Socialist Workers’ Party, partly explains the appeal of privilege theory and intersectionality; and the ‘turn off’ many have to white, straight, male dominated Marxist organisations. However, this is neither the whole picture nor an inevitable one to do with Marxism per se. My own organisation (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) has a brave history of socialist feminism and anti-racism, of fighting for LGBT rights and liberation, and of balancing a collective, coherent and democratic centrist approach to struggling against oppression with autonomous control for oppressed groups.

Critique No 1: What is ‘the straw man’ in privilege theory and intersectionality? That Marxism innately differentiates between primary and secondary struggles, and is therefore class reductionist and economically determinist.

Let’s turn to Engels in a defence:

“if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, [she or] he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. We make history ourselves, but first of all, under very definite assumptions and conditions … history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a variety of particular conditions of life. Thus, there are innumerable crisscrossing forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant – the historical event.”

What we can gauge from this quote is actually a kind of pre-existing, living, breathing intersectional Marxism.

Racism and white supremacy

Demonstrating such a pre-existing intersectional Marxism are the following two examples from Marx’s writings on racism and capitalism:

“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” (From Capital)

On anti-Irish racism, Marx observed:

“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.” (From Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York)

Critique No 2: Marxism holds that people’s reactionary ideas are shaped by historical conditions and forces of existence, AND that people’s reactionary ideas can change depending on historical conditions and forces of existence.

Take the example of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, and the impact that this class struggle had on questioning gender roles and relations within traditional mining communities, and the effect that gay and black solidarity groups had in challenging homophobia and racism.

Privilege theory is predicated on an unchanging status – i.e. privilege – rather than a dynamic understanding of human consciousness vis-à-vis human history.

Critique No 3: In privilege theory, people tend to talk about ‘white supremacy’ rather than ‘racism’; but how much explanatory power does the former have over the latter? None. Robert Miles (1989) defines racism as a process of signification: “racism ‘works’ by attributing meanings to certain phenotypical and/or genetic characteristics of human beings in such a way as to create a system of categorisation, and by attributing additional (negatively evaluated) characteristics to the people sorted into those categories. This process of signification is therefore the basis for the creation of a hierarchy of groups, and for establishing criteria by which to include and exclude groups of people in the process of allocating resources and services.” This is what explanatory power looks like. How does white supremacy help with a political analysis and response to anti-Irish racism, anti-gypsy racism, anti-Semitism?

What happens when we mess around with ‘capitalism’ and ‘class’? We lose something rather important

Both ‘capitalism’ and ‘class’ have been given wider definitional scope within privilege theory and intersectionality: capitalism as social, cultural, political and economic relations, and class as a cultural construct (to include the economic but differing from simply wage-labour). Thus it is worth asking: what is lost in re-defining key Marxist terminology when thinking through the nature of exploitation and resistance?

Let’s recap Marx’s understanding of the terms labour, value and capital. In Capital, Marx distinguishes labour from labour-power, for it is not the labourer which capital buys, as in a slave society, but the capacity to work. The commodity, as a thing for sale, is defined as possessing both an exchange-value (its exchange ratio at a certain amount with various amounts of other commodities) and a use-value (its capacity to satisfy human wants or needs). A commodity can be a person’s labour-power, or a good or service.

The twofold nature of labour in commodities – “the pivot”, Marx reminds us, “on which a clear comprehension of Political Economy turns” – is concrete labour (a particular activity producing a useful thing) and abstract labour (the expenditure of a quantity of average social labour-time).

The value of a commodity is the common property underlying its exchange-value, specifically, the average social labour-time ‘congealed’ within it; while profit is the surplus-value derived from the excess of value added by workers’ labour over the value paid out for their labour-power as a commodity. Hence capital is value used to generate surplus-value or, as Marx puts it, is “self-expanding value”.

Marx’s differentiation of productive and unproductive labour can for most purposes be considered minor, since exploitation is fundamentally a relation between the whole capitalist class and the whole working class, not one capitalist and one worker. Exploitation lies less in the higher or lower rate of payment for labour-power and more in the fact that one class monopolises the means of production and another is compelled to sell their labour-power. The consequence being that, as Marx spells out in Grundrisse: “[t]he exchange between capital and labour […] does not enrich the worker”, since the “separation of labour and property [is] the precondition of this exchange”; therefore “[l]abour as object [is] absolute poverty, [and] labour as subject [is] general possibility of wealth. – Labour without particular specificity confronts capital”.

That said, for Marx, productive workers directly produce surplus-value while others do not, for example, unproductive workers, the unemployed, domestic labour, children, or old people. However, unproductive workers (and indeed unpaid domestic labour), whilst not directly linked to creating surplus-value, serve a role for capital in reducing the cost to capital in realising surplus-value. For the reason that capital or the State forces unproductive workers to work a longer time than required to produce the equivalent of their own wage, they are exploited in the same way as productive workers.

Furthermore, domestic labour, much unproductive labour and even consumption serves to reproduce labour-power and thus to reproduce the power that creates the wealth of capitalists and the State, as Marx remarks: “The individual consumption of the labourer, whether it proceed within the workshop or outside it, whether it be part of the process of production or not, forms […] a factor of the production and reproduction of capital […] The fact that the labourer consumes his [sic] means of subsistence for his own purposes, and not to please the capitalist, has no bearing on the matter. […] The maintenance and reproduction of the working-class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation.” Capital not only gets away with not paying for the full value of the maintenance and reproduction of the working class but actually further exploits the workers’ instincts (and wages) for self-preservation.

For all of us committed to the idea that a majority is capable of changing society into a more democratic and humane one, in which we can conceive of and realise a ‘new normal’, we actually need to know: who will set the tempo and volume of struggles against capital? The importance of Marx’s labour theory of value is that it offers us an explanation of profit and enables us to predict that when labour is withdrawn (when workers strike) no value is produced. While his distinction between productive and unproductive labour is a minor one (given exploitation is a relation of struggle between the whole capitalist class and the whole working class), it remains a useful tool in assessing the degrees of leverage various groups of workers have to disrupt and halt areas of capitalism.

Critique No 4: Privilege theory and intersectionality offer no such insight or explanation of capitalist exploitation and resistance; in fact, both take us away from a Marxist political economy understanding of class and class struggle.


The above discussion was based on notes that I delivered at the NCAFC Conference in Birmingham on 23rd November 2013. I spoke on a panel with two other speakers. Two points made by the last speaker have stayed with me since. First, she stated that I’d “made an assumption that everyone in the room was at the same level” – implying that “the use of high, convoluted language” (as she put it) by people who are able to read theory was a privilege and therefore exclusionary. Second, she frustrated that in such discussions people “refuse to shut up about Marx”. If this in some way signifies the practical application of privilege theory within the student movement, then I wonder if it is underpinned by a rather unhelpful anger, anti-intellectualism, and anti-Marxism.

In preparation for my talk, I had in fact assumed zero prior knowledge of privilege theory, intersectionality, and Marxism. And my introduction of Marxism was to illustrate its intersectional dimension, and its unique perspective into the nature of exploitation and resistance.

Finally, if anger derives from a place in which individuals feel uniquely and especially aggrieved, and they perceive others as unable to appreciate their uniquely and especially painful lived experience, thus offers of empathy are seen as patronising and from a place of privilege – then how healthy and useful is such anger personally and politically?

In defence of comrade Matgamna and Workers’ Liberty

I. These are the rules

A storm should leave in its wake stillness and clarity.

Marxism to me works as a method of thinking and application; a body of ideas and a school of experience; a theory to apply to any given reality with an analytical rigour and honesty; and, a process of testing, modifying and evolving ideas and practice in the interests of our class. There are also certain Marxist principles, as Leon Trotsky articulates:

“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules.”

So, a seven-year-old article by Workers’ Liberty comrade Sean Matgamna has recently caused great indignation among sections of the British Left, with accusations of racism and Islamophobia. For anyone familiar with this Left, it is hardly news that Workers’ Liberty are (supposedly) imperialists, Zionists, racists and Islamophobes, such are the longstanding accusations. But it would be unfair to label all of the article’s critics as mischief-makers; many, for sure, have genuine unease with the piece. And it is to these critics that I address my defence with the hope to convince them otherwise.

Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today is a classic polemical piece by Matgamna. It is an essay that takes effort to read and digest; it provokes emotion and stimulates the mind; and, it pulls no punches.

II. The political context

a. Politics and Religious Revivalism

While Matgamna presents some nuanced analysis based on differential conditions and forces of existence, he draws no essential distinction between East and West in relation to the increasing appeal and influence of religion in politics. His assertion is that we have reached a somewhat unprecedented epoch in which religion – or interests expressed in the name of religion – has become central to political life worldwide.

It seems to me that there is a valid case to make based on empirical observation and evidence that since the early 1990s, there has been a fertile growth of religious fundamentalisms. Take the examples of Hindu fundamentalism in India, the rising role of Jewish fundamentalism and Islamism in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or (most recently) the bizarre emergence of Buddhist fundamentalism in Burma and Sri Lanka.

Locally, Matgamna problematizes changes to British state law that have blurred the difference between racist and ethnic incitement and expression of hostility to religious ideas. He comments:

“We are in the throes of being thrown back decades, to the not so distant time when people in Britain could be prosecuted for ‘disrespectfully’ or ‘obscenely’ depicting Jesus Christ.”

The defeat of socialism by Stalinism, fascism and bourgeois democracy has preconditioned this contemporary “social and spiritual malaise”, Matgamna observes. That said, he continues, the victory of the working class in the 1917 Russian Revolution remains the beacon and proof that the working class – when “politically armed with Marxism and organised in and by a consistently democratic class-loyal revolutionary party” – can take political power. However, much of the British Left has lost its way, so rather than proudly pioneer a revival of independent, internationalist, consistency democratic socialism, which is capable of envisioning “a rational, humane, enculturing socialist society”, it has capitulated to religious revivalism, namely Islamism, through an inverted dual camp politics. For documentation of this, see my journal paper: ‘The Anti-Imperialism of Fools’: A Cautionary Story on the Revolutionary Socialist Vanguard of England’s Post-9/11 Anti-War Movement.

b. On the End of History and the Clash of Civilisations

After the Cold War, two (of varying degrees) right-wing theses emerged in academic and public intellectual circles: Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ and Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’.

Frances Fukuyama proclaimed:

“The most remarkable development of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been the revelation of enormous weaknesses at the core of the world’s seemingly strong dictatorships, whether they be of military-authoritarian Right, or communist-totalitarianism Left. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union to the Middle East and Asia, strong governments have been failing over the last two decades. And while they have not given way in all cases to stable liberal democracies, liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures across the globe. […] The attractive power of this world creates a very strong disposition for all human societies to participate in it, while success in this participation requires the adoption of the principles of economic liberalism.”

Samuel Huntington depicted a new global order of civilisations: Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, orthodox, Western, and possibly African. The West, he prophesised, will be faced with the growing hegemony of Islamic, East Asian and Chinese civilisations. The West, Huntington concluded, needs a strategy to strengthen its political and cultural values while also seeking alliances with other civilisations.

Matgamna alludes to the lack of traction Fukuyama’s thesis has with empirical reality. Moreover, any reading of Matgamna’s essay as echoing Huntington’s thesis is, frankly, a misreading of Matgamna’s political method and motivation, context, analysis and conclusion. One can argue that Huntington, for right-wing political ends, racially essentialises civilisations and promotes within this a naturalised hierarchical order. If Matgamna is guilty of any kind of essentialism too, then surely the only case that could be made would be on ‘class’? He is steered by a belief that workers across the world have a collective interest in opposition to both their bourgeoisies and the growth of religious fundamentalisms. Does this then make him an economic determinist and class reductionist? No. As Friedrich Engels states:

“if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, [she or] he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. We make history ourselves, but first of all, under very definite assumptions and conditions […] history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a variety of particular conditions of life.”

c. On Orientalism and Racism

Leftist Edward Said (1978), in his book Orientalism, describes how the scholars who studied what used to be called the Orient (mostly Asia) disregarded the views of those they actually studied. Instead, such scholars preferred to rely on their Western intellectual superiority – an attitude forged by European imperialism. In addition to the complicity of European governments and scholars in the colonial Empire-building of the Arab world, Said identifies Marx and Marxism as guilty of an orientalist distinction between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’. Could one make a case that Matgamna’s essay is orientalist? Actually, I think the question itself is wrong on the basis that Said’s thesis is flawed. The critique of ‘a Western’ framing of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’, i.e. the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’, appears to me to replace one form of essentialism with another (or one dualism with another). The French Orientalist and independent Marxist scholar, Maxime Rodinson (himself praised by Said as a scholar who proved “perfectly capable of freeing [himself] from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines) states of Orientalism: “as usual, [Said’s] militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements”, which are made further problematic by the fact that Said is “inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists”. Rodinson cautions that Orientalism is “a polemic against orientalism written in a style that was a bit Stalinist”, that is, in its dual camp delineation of allies and adversaries.

Subsequent postcolonial theory tends to remain silent on past Islamic imperialism and present-day regional imperialisms outside of the US-Euro-Israeli triangle. Is it surprising then that during a plenary of an anti-war teach-in at Berkeley in 2006, the queer theorist Judith Butler stated: “Understanding Hamas, Hezbollah, as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important, that does not stop us from being critical of certain dimensions of both movements […].”

Furthermore, ‘orientalism’, whether one rejects this thesis or not, is not a concept to be conflated with the concept of ‘racism’ – the latter (when sharply defined) has far more spatial and temporal sensitivity to analyse, explain and respond to any given reality. For Robert Miles (1989), racism is a process of signification:

“racism ‘works’ by attributing meanings to certain phenotypical and/or genetic characteristics of human beings in such a way as to create a system of categorisation, and by attributing additional (negatively evaluated) characteristics to the people sorted into those categories. This process of signification is therefore the basis for the creation of a hierarchy of groups, and for establishing criteria by which to include and exclude groups of people in the process of allocating resources and services.”

I contend that post-9/11 there has been a collapse of religion into a racial category vis-à-vis British Muslims, hence it makes sense to analyse an increase in ‘anti-Muslim racism’. For me, the term Islamophobia lacks serious explanatory power.

Any accusation that Matgamna’s essay is racist only works on the premise that either one cannot criticise or one should tame down one’s critique of Islam and/or Islamism because otherwise one is categorising all Muslim people negatively and from a racially elitist vantage point. This is the muddle that much of the British Left finds itself in, and it is their muddle not Matgamna’s. Is it with any wonder then that Matgamna declares:

“the first result on the kitsch-left of the present foetid regrowth of religion has been to expose the terrible lack of ideological and political self-confidence and the all-round weakness of mind and spirit that pervades that ‘left’.”

III. The political analysis and conclusion

The following are Matgamna’s central points that compose his overall line of argument in Political Islam, Christian Fundamentalism, Marxism and the Left Today. To pull sentences out of this narrative is to subsequently evade dealing with the narrative’s politics, i.e., identifying what products of capitalism to base ourselves on (namely the working class) in opposition with what other products of capitalism.


The ‘war on terror’ is not crudely a ‘put up job’ in which the external enemy has been invented (as the pseudo-Left claim). Whilst it is the case that key ‘Western’ imperialist and regional imperialist powers have fostered Islamism, for example, the Israeli state for the purpose of dividing Palestinians and jeopardising the prospect of a two nations settlement, and the US state in the financing and arming of Islamist forces during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Islamism has its own indigenous roots. The roots of Islamism lie in the space that was created from the collapse of Arab nationalism, in which a solution to the failings of Arab nationalism “is not an earthly, but a heavenly one”.


The ‘war on terror’ is “a war on civil liberties of ordinary citizens” and, Matgamna states, “is shaped around a US war against terrorists whose whole world outlook and motive to action is shaped by Islam and by their Islamic view of an afterlife in which a special place in a peculiarly fleshy paradise, with the harems of virgins with which Allah rewards those who kill innocent people as well as themselves, is the preordained heavenly payment for Muslim suicide bombers.”

In an era when ICT has dramatically compressed our sense of space and time, Islamism provides an expression to the disappointments and frustrations of a mass of people at the fringe of the prosperous, advanced capitalist world. Islamism’s response is a moral righteous (and essentialised) rejection of ‘the West’. It is in this context that Matgamna writes: “Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity [a historical reference to the 7th century that Islamism draws inspiration from] enviously eyeing a rich and decedent walled city and sharpening their knives, or country folk in former Yugoslavia eyeing a city like Dubrovnik, so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies.”

A general religious revivalism and rise of religious fundamentalisms worldwide appears to have coincided with the rapid spread of ICT and cheap air travel (the infrastructure of globalisation) and particular geographical shifts in global capital over the past twenty years or so. I don’t think one should play down the significance of this period in which satellite TV and the internet, and a rise in economic growth (and with that more plain inequality), sell the relative freedoms of life in the cities and beyond. This seems to be a major factor in bringing to a head the acute tensions of religious tradition, duty and honour. Visiting my extended family in the Punjab villages during the late 1990s and 2000s, anecdotal evidence talked of a new prevalent phenomenon of suicide among pre-marital young women (in a majority of cases, by drinking weedkiller). The wave of protests in India during late 2012 and early 2013, triggered by the 16th December Delhi gang-rape case, again demonstrated (amongst other things) a collision or confrontation between globalisation and patriarchal religious revivalism. See my piece and podcast, Historic moment for India? and Sexual violence: a global analysis.


In Europe itself, there is a political battle for Muslim minds, and therein Islamism is a growing force.

See, for example, research by the world’s foremost expert on Islamism, political scientist Professor Gilles Kepel, for empirical substantiation of points one to three.


The growth of militant “primitive Christianity”, especially in the USA, is noteworthy in its new offensive against Darwinism. Matgamna asserts: “The savage joke is that the USA, the main international bulwark against political Islam, is itself riddled with its own ignorant fundamentalism. Christians in the half-demented grip of an eyes-put-out dogmatic faith in the Bible as the literal word of God, and an impervious belief that their own religious feelings, aspirations, and wishes are truths superior to reason and modern science, are an assertive and increasingly active political force in the USA. A ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity, as primitive and anti-rational as anything in the Muslim world, is a growing force in what is, technologically, the most advanced society on Earth!”

There has also been a simultaneous process in which, on the one hand, organised, theologically sophisticated and hierarchical Christian churches have declined in influence, and, on the other hand, mass/half beliefs in “primitive” superstitions (such as tarot cards, horoscopes and witchcraft) have increased in appeal.


In Britain there has been the emergence of faith schools and a rise in the militancy of various religions. For instance, Matgamna notes: “When Sikhs in Birmingham rioted against a play (by a woman of Sikh background) which they did not like, and succeeded in closing it down, other religions rallied to justify them.” Ironically, thereafter, they will be at conflict with one another.

I vividly remember the Sikh protesters of 2004 who succeeded in banning the play Behzti. Members of my family (of Sikh background) debated the issues frankly. We felt both heavily burdened by the media coverage of Sikh fundamentalists (who’ve been a growing repressive presence in our communities), and a sense of injustice that Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play wasn’t aired.

That her play depicted a rape in a Gurdwara was a brave, pioneering move to opening up a culture (to itself and others) to critical scrutiny. Whereas Dr Jasdev Singh Rai of the Sikh Human Rights Group argued, “free speech is a relic of colonialism”. Cultural relativism won the day, and a sad day it was.


(Wikimedia Commons)


The roots of the revival of Christian fundamentalism are not exactly the same as those reviving Islamism. For the former, Matgamna observes: “It is the spiritual emptiness of prosperous capitalism that draws people to primitive religion or keeps them mired in it – though, of course, by no means all American citizens share in that prosperity; vast numbers of people there, too, are beggars shut out from the rich people’s feastings.” But American populist-evangelical religion and Islamism have in common an aspect of “protest against capitalism, commercialism and money power”.


In sum, Matgamna makes clear: “Socialism proposes practical and rational action to achieve the aspirations that religion perverts into mysticism, unreason, and often into self-spiting and self-hatred.”

IV. And over to Karl Marx for the final word

From A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843):

“For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism. […] man [sic] is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man [sic] shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man [sic] as long as he does not revolve around himself. It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”

A contemporary history of China (Part I): the Mao years


During this and the following two articles, I will be overviewing a recent history of China. I begin with the Mao years, then move on to the era of Deng Xiaoping (known as ‘opening and reform’), and finish with the period of China’s global ascent.

Knowledge of China’s past is crucial for understanding the country’s present. To illustrate this interrelationship, let’s remind ourselves of the case of British citizen Akmal Shaikh. In 2007, Akmal was arrested by the Chinese authorities for drug smuggling (specifically, heroin), and was sentenced to death despite the fact he was mentally ill. The representation of the case in China by the Party-controlled media recalled the nineteenth century Opium Wars between the British Empire and China’s Qing Dynasty, which involved the British trading of opium, from India, within China. The story tragically played out: this time, China was not to be humiliated; so, in spite of the British government’s plea for clemency, the Chinese state executed Akmal Shaikh in 2009.


The Second Opium War (Wikimedia Commons)


Akmal Shaikh 1956-2009 (Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akmal_Shaikh)

The birth of Communist China

The so-called People’s Republic of China was declared in 1949 and marks the contemporary history of China as a one-party totalitarian nation-state, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

During the 1950s, the conditions of existence in the countryside (where the majority of the population resided) and in the cities was organisationally transformed by the CCP, in an effort to economically develop and exert political control within all arenas of everyday life (from work to leisure to home). Agricultural land in the countryside was bloodily ‘redistributed’ from landlords to peasants through cooperatives and collectives, and cities were ordered into work units and neighbourhood units. On the question of ownership, the State owned everything. Layers of Party bureaucracy proliferated and corruption thrived.

“Enemies Without Guns” was an early Party propaganda campaign that illustrates the pervasive affect the bureaucratic State was able to exert on its population: breeding distrust amongst neighbours, and breaking down potential camaraderie among the working class and peasant masses. The Party encouraged the population to anonymously submit the names of those who they suspected were linked to, for example, money, foreign devils and/or the rival Nationalist Party, into designated post boxes.

Alongside early rural land reforms and urban industrial projects, which sought to launch China (then home to one in four of the world’s population) into a global superpower, was the omnipresence of the State. Effort towards economic modernisation would go hand-in-hand with political repression – the defining feature of China’s political economy.


The relationship of the United States to Taiwan is critical and is based on America’s historical support for the Nationalist Party, during the early twentieth century years, to take political control of China. The 1910s to the 1940s were shaped by a struggle between the Nationalist Party, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong. The Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan when Mao took power in 1949. Taiwan has since benefited from US military aid, which is an ongoing source of annoyance for the CCP. But moreover, any desire by the Chinese state to act on its claim that Taiwan is part of China has long threatened to draw the United States into war.

Tibet is another major geopolitical tension and conflict. The CCP launched a military offensive on the region of Tibet in 1950, claiming the area was a part of China mainland. Tibetan uprising to CCP rule in 1959 was brutally crushed and caused international condemnation. It’s worth noting that the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, calls for the political demand of autonomy not a separate nation-state. The CCP remains un-negotiable.

While I was over in Shanghai in 2008, a local contact of mine relayed a story to me. He’d gone to a Björk gig that year, and at the end Björk had shouted, “Tibet! Tibet!”. His point to me, “this is not how we do politics in China, she should not have said that.” It surprised me that a liberal-minded Shanghaiese had such an opinion. But a combination of two things were at play, a proud sense of nationalism (a tremendously pervasive force in China) and a perception that politics beyond the State is foolish and dangerous.

The Hundred Flowers Campaign and Anti-Rightist Movement

While most intellectual life was controlled by the CCP, a momentary opening was created by Mao Zedong’s instruction in 1956 for the country’s citizens and intellectuals to constructively criticise the Party, known as “A Hundred Flowers to Bloom in the Arts and a Hundred Schools of Thought to Contend in Science”. What it released was a huge wave of criticism against Party bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption. Walls of universities were plastered with such criticism.

In 1957 Mao declared those he had encouraged previously to criticize the Party as Enemies and Rightists, and he appointed Deng Xiaoping to head the subsequent “Anti-Rightist Movement”. Not simply a curiously ironic affair, this effectively silenced China’s key intellectuals for decades.

Visiting China in the years 2007-2013, a frequent general observation was drawn by various of my contacts (working in the fields of academia, teaching, and business): Chinese students and graduates struggle with a sense of critique, i.e., of questioning things. Without doubt, the silencing of the country’s intellectuals decades previously has left a legacy on education, in which only a few brave teachers and students precariously and innovatively dare to question.

The Great Leap Forward

The launch of the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958 signified Mao’s ambition to equal the West in industrial output within fifteen years. What it actually was was a huge propaganda campaign with ludicrous and counterproductive initiatives and targets that – in combination with natural disaster – literally starved to death millions.

People were told to convert scrap iron and steel into pots, and so the countryside was marked by rows of giant furnaces that made piles of pots which were useless and cracked easily. And yet it went on. To meet targets, Party bureaucrats inflated the figures for the actual production of grain thus too much grain left the countryside, generating a food crisis while grain lay stored in excess in the cities. One propaganda slogan, “The corn will grow higher the more you desire”, accentuates the farce.


(Wikimedia Commons)

There was little to no questioning of the Great Leap Forward as a consequence of the Hundred Flowers Campaign and Anti-Rightist Movement.

Author of “Mao’s Great Famine: The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe”, historian Frank Dikötter argues that the Great Leap Forward, with a death toll of 45 million, “ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three greatest events of the 20th century…. It was like Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over” (cited in Akbar, 2013).

The Cult of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and the close of the Mao years

By 1964 the infamous little Red Book, a book of Mao quotes, was produced and widely distributed. Its reach cannot be underestimated, both within China and globally. And what it came to symbolise was the cult of Mao, that is, his status as a living god and the irrational fervour that went along with that. In this climate, Mao decided that the Party itself had become an impediment to genuine revolution, and in May 1966 he launched a campaign that called on the youth to attack the Party and steer it onto the path of true revolutionary politics; the “Cultural Revolution” was born.

The fever-ridden young Red Guards were instructed to destroy the “Four Olds”: “Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits”. In other words, the very cultural and historical fabric of Chinese society was devastated – museums, libraries, temples, street signs, and so on. By 1967 the Cultural Revolution descended into factional warfare, with a splintler from the Red Guards forming, known as the Rebels (supported by Mao). By the summer China was in civil war.

Echoing the destiny of the participants of the Hundred Flowers Campaign who became labelled Enemies and Rightists, the youth that Mao had encouraged to take the banner as authentic revolutionaries were ordered to disarm and, by the end of 1968, were sent to the countryside to be re-educated by authentic revolutionaries. They became known as the “Sent-down Youth”.

It is estimated that thirty six million people were harassed during the Cultural Revolution and up to one million killed (Branigan, 2013):

They beat her, bound her and led her from home. She knelt before the crowds as they denounced her. Then they loaded her on to a truck, drove her to the outskirts of town and shot her. Fang Zhongmou’s execution for political crimes during the Cultural Revolution was commonplace in its brutality but more shocking to outsiders in one regard: her accusers were her husband and their 16-year-old child. More than four decades on, Fang’s son is seeking to atone by telling her story and calling for the preservation of her grave in their home town of Guzhen, central Anhui province, as a cultural relic. […] “My mother, father and I were all devoured by the Cultural Revolution,” said Zhang, 60, who is now a lawyer. “[It] was a catastrophe suffered by the Chinese nation. We must remember this painful historical lesson and never let it happen again.”

In addition to the political and everyday human horror is the cultural vacuum left by the Cultural Revolution. What does culture actually mean in China today? It is hardly surprising that one of the country’s main contemporary crises is that of culture.

The question of Mao’s successor arose in the early 1970s, with the deterioration of his health. There was popular distrust of the vying for power by the Gang of Four (who led the Rebels faction during the Cultural Revolution, and included Mao’s wife). After Mao’s death in 1976, the Gang of Four were arrested. Mao’s successor was to be a pragmatist, but nonetheless someone who was there right from the start, Deng Xiaoping.

Article source:

Zeitgeist Films (2007) “China: A Century of Revolution”.


Akbar, A (2013) “Mao’s Great Leap Forward ‘killed 45 million in four years’”. The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/maos-great-leap-forward-killed-45-million-in-four-years-2081630.html

Branigan, T (2013) “China’s Cultural Revolution: son’s guilt over the mother he sent to her death”. The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/27/china-cultural-revolution-sons-guilt-zhang-hongping