Ideologically, there can be no middle way between Tibetan nationalism and the Communist Party of China’s Marxism, as the latter’s sine qua non is to destroy the former, contends Ben Byrne*
In 1973 Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in reference to Marx’s theoretical timeline towards communism that: “The socialist stage will be very long, that is to say the development from capitalism to communism.” Later, in response to Trudeau’s question, “Is any other country currently evolving towards communism?”, Zhou replied, “It is a remote thing to evolve towards communism. It cannot come quickly; not in this century. If imperialism the world over is not overthrown, including social imperialism, how can we achieve communism? It is even impossible to correctly realize socialism in that case. So, we say that the socialist revolution is a matter which will cover a very large period.”
Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in the 1980s were a tacit acknowledgement that the socialism that theoretically precedes communism could only arise out of capitalism. Xi Jinping has since said that the transition to socialism could take up to 10 generations.
This all illustrates that the fact that 21st century China contains capitalist elements does not mean that China’s leaders are not Marxists. A 2021 research paper by Chengbing Wang and Michael Peters states that “Marxism has an incomparable influence on contemporary Chinese politics, culture, and social life that no other humanities or social science disciplines can match.” The Chinese government is full of Marxists of different ethnicities and Marxists have a different prism through which they view the world.
Marx made class struggle the central fact of social evolution: “The history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles.” Marxists argue that the most fundamental human divisions are class distinctions that cut horizontally across national groups. From this, Lenin drew the following conclusion: “Marx had no doubt as to the subordinate position of the national as compared to the labour question.” From a Marxist perspective, Tibetan workers have more in common with Han workers than they do with Tibetan aristocrats. Through this prism issues such as the transfer of Han workers into the Tibet Autonomous Region are mute because ethnic and cultural differences are secondary to class bonds that cross ethnic boundaries. As Mao said in 1963, “In the final analysis, national struggle is a matter of class struggle.”
For Nationalists, vertical cleavages divide people into ethno-national groups with distinctive cultures and traditions. The Central Tibetan Administration is a Nationalist organisation which contends that a collective Tibetan national consciousness incorporating Buddhist traditions and Western democratic values supersedes the class distinctions among Tibetans. From a Marxist perspective, the Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg Proposal, calling for the unification of the three Tibetan provinces and Tibet’s transformation into a self-governing democratic political entity with the PRC in control of foreign affairs, is a Nationalist formulation because it gives primacy to ethnic and cultural considerations over class considerations.
Nationalist ideology is considered by Marxists to be a key part of the bourgeois superstructure which supports capitalism: Capitalists can own the means of production and live in luxury whilst their workers labour all of their lives for a subsistence wage – but the two classes have an overriding interest in the preservation of their nation, a mystical construct which binds them together through culture and ethnicity. Religion also plays a part in this construct as something that arises from the division of society into antagonistic classes, something that reconciles the lower classes to their lives of drudgery. For Marxists this superstructure is a smokescreen erected by the capitalist bourgeoisie to divert the working class from the struggle against their oppressors. Therefore, a Marxist considering the Dalai Lama’s proposal for a Tibetan ethno-state within the confines of the People’s Republic of China would ask the question: “Would it aid the class struggle against bourgeois capitalism or divert the masses from that struggle?” From their perspective it would not aid the struggle because the Dalai Lama and the religious institution he leads are viewed by Marxists as bourgeois or feudal actors who serve the interests of their class to the detriment of the proletariat.
Marxists do not recognize national identity as a defining characteristic of a human being, the defining characteristic of modern human beings in Marxism is class. In Marxist theory the fundamental schism or ‘contradiction’ in modern society is the one between the workers and their bosses. For a Marxist society focused on creating a dictatorship of the workers – the theorized intermediate stage between a capitalist economy and a communist economy – there is no incentive to come to any agreement with the ‘class enemies’ that their revolution was designed to overthrow. The Nationalist and the Marxist are philosophically incompatible soldiers marching in completely different directions – there is no middle way between them.
* Ben Byrne has a master’s degree in History and is an independent researcher.