Recalling Riazanov

Marx on China

Sankar Ray

One of the very little discussed works of David Borisovich Riazanov, unquestionably the greatest Marx-scholar of the 20th Century is Karl Marx on China, published in 1926. Sadly true, Riazanov remains ignored by Leninists—let alone Stalinists.His path-breaking contribution in the revival of Marx's suppressed or misplaced texts is recognized by Marx-scholars,although ignored by not only the official communist parties [the parties that were 'sections' of Communist International or Comintern, until its dissolution in 1943 and their split entities such as the CPI(M) and variants of CPI (ML), but also the Marx-scholars who cling to the Leninist school of theoretical and historical subversion of Marx and his works. But the Comintern recognized the scholastic authority of Riazanov and poured fulsome praise on the great Marx scholar until the ushering in of the Stalinist era.

Riazanov's 2050-word essay on Marx's vision of China begins as follows: "Already in the Communist Manifesto the significance of the East Indian and Chinese market is pointed out as a factor in the development of European capitalism. It was, indeed, from East India that British capitalism began its offensive against China. The East India Company used its trade monopoly with China to make the latter a market for the sale of Indian opium. Since, however, all English traders were equally interested in the intoxication of the Chinese people, the monopoly was removed in 1833. The attempt of the Chinese Government in 1839 to forbid the import of opium produced the so-called opium war against China, which Marx characterises in Capital as one of the chief links in the long chain of trade wars in which since the sixteenth century, even in the East, the European nations were engaged."

"Chinese Socialism, bears much the same relation to European Socialism as Chinese philosophy does to Hegelian philosophy. It is, in any case, an intriguing fact that the oldest and the most unshakable empire in the world has in eight years by the cannon-balls of the English bourgeoisie been brought to the eve of a social revolution which will certainly have the most important results for civilisation. When our European reactionaries in their immediately coming flight across Asia finally come up against the Great Wall of China, who knows whether they will not find on the gates which lead to the home of ancient reaction and ancient conservatism the inscription, 'Chinese Republic—liberty, equality, fraternity'". Marx quoted, the well-known German missionary and sinologist, Gutzlaff, who also was the first to make a Chinese translation of the Bible. It was written around 1850, according to Riazanov.

Riazanov drew attention to Marx's indictment of British rulers for having "cruelly destroyed a whole series of Chinese towns and had slaughtered thousands of Chinese for the honour of Christianity and European civilisation, they forced on China in 1842 the treaty of Nanking, which provided for the opening of the five Treaty Ports—Canton, Amoy, Ningpo, Shanghai arid Foochow, the payment of what was at that time an enormous indemnity, and the surrender of the island of Hong Kong, which forms the chief base for British Imperialism in the Far East. Following the treaty of Nanking came treaties with the United States and with France. Marx observed that the Manchu dynasty was mauled militarily by the Europeans, destroying the myth of superiority of the dynasty, although in the 17th Century, it was powerful and hegemonic..

 How peasant masses were repressed "under the burden of taxation and the pressure of the bureaucracy" was investigated by Marx. The peasants had "reacted at times to their subjection by sporadic revolts, there now began to ripen a ferment of dissatisfaction which was especially strong in the South East where the destructive influence of foreign capital most made itself felt. To this was added the fermentation among the Chinese 'intelligentsia' of that time, the teachers and the lower officials, as well as among the craftsmen ruined by foreign competition." The motive of slaughtering of Chinese people 'for the honour of Christianity and European civilisation' in the 1840s was essentially colonial.

It is not known whether Mao studied or commented on Marx's thoughts on China but certainly he did not read Riazanov well, going by his works. Anyway, Riazanov's analysis of Marx's vision of China would have benefited the theoreticians of Communist Party of China. For instance, in an international review, Riazanov elaborated Marx's perception on the evolution of Chinese socialism: The "slow but regularly increasing over-population" of China made "the social relations there very oppressive for the great majority of the nation".

Riazanov's narration of Marx's perspective makes his status distinctively different from M N Roy and other Comintern stalwarts. He delved deep into Marx's lucid account of China, especially historical and sociological aspect of British colonialism and its protracted trampling of humanity. "Thousands of British and American vessels sailed towards China, and in a short time the country was filled to excess with cheap British and American factory wares. The Chinese industry based on hand labour was subjected to the competition of the machines. The hitherto unshakeable Central Empire experienced a social crisis. Taxes ceased to come in, the State fell to the edge of bankruptcy, the population sank in masses into pauperism, broke out in revolts, maltreated and killed the Emperor's mandarins and the priests of the Fohis. The country came to the verge of ruin, and is already threatened with a mighty revolution. And there is even worse. Among the masses and in the insurrection there appeared people who pointed to the poverty on the one side and the riches on the other, and who demanded, and are still demanding, a different division of property and even the entire abolition of private property", added the Russian Marx scholar.                   [abridged]

Vol. 47, No.11-14, Sep 21 - Oct 18 2014