Rethinking Universalism in the Context of China*


Partially stimulated by the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, the issue of universal values is hotly debated in present-day China. The excellent performance and altruistic virtues that Chinese people displayed in response to this catastrophic event were highly praised at home and abroad. However, there are different interpretations of this phenomenon. One view is that the unified and timely national rescuing actions were taken because the Chinese people have accepted universal values of respecting human life from the Western world during past thirty years; another holds that the disaster-relief conduct demonstrates the superiority of socialism and the persuasive power of core socialist values; a third one considers that those activities were motivated by national solidarity and traditional Confucian values.

The discussion of the Wenchuan earthquake is just a pretext for the debate on universal values. Actually, the main reference for the debate recently shifted from the earthquake to the future of social reform in China. 2008 was the 30th anniversary of reform, and 2009 was the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. At these times, different social forces and political sects all took the opportunity to express their views on the past thirty years of reform and on the future of social development in China.

One important focus of the debate has been the speeches of Chinese political leaders. In recent years, President Hu and Premier Wen both stressed the role of universal values. President Hu Jintao said in a speech at Yale University in 2006, “We try best to promote social development, to safeguard people's freedom, democracy and human rights according to law, to pursue social fairness and justice and enable the 1.3 billion Chinese people to live a happy life.” These words imply that Hu accepts universal values. The attitude of Premier Wen Jiabao is even stronger. He stated many times that freedom and democracy are values pursued by all nations, a common achievement of all humans. In his words, “Science, democracy, law, freedom and human rights are not exclusive values enjoyed by capitalism, but are the kind of values which are always pursued through all of human historical development; they are fruit of civilization which was created by humans together.”1

These speeches were disturbing both to traditional Communists and to Chinese cultural traditionalists. For them, any attempt to trumpet universal values in China is dangerous. For the traditional Communists, the universalism of value is bourgeois ideology; if we give prominence to the universal values of abstract freedom, equality and justice, we are giving up Marxism and socialism, falling into a trap set by the Western capitalist world. For the cultural traditionalists, universalism is the heritage of Western civilization which is irreconcilable with Chinese culture. China has its own conception of value and humanity; even socialism in China has to be Confucian socialism, not Marxist socialism. Obviously, the debate has many implications for understanding the ideological constellation of China.

This paper has three parts: (1) I will review the debate on universalism; (2) I will turn to the Western academic sphere and observe three different paths of rethinking universalism from a left perspective; (3) finally I will turn back to China and discuss how to reconstruct a discourse of universalism that corresponds with social reality and cultural tradition.

Part one: review of the debate on universal values in China

The debate on universal values began in 2008 when an article “A new China was born painfully in the Wenchuan earthquake” was published in Southern Weekly (May 22), a newspaper renowned for bold and free speech. The article reads, “The rescue efforts led by the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party have proved the commitment to universal values shared by the Chinese people and rest of the world.” These words irritated Si Mana, a scholar well known for struggling against pseudo-science. He argued, when interviewed by the Economic Observer, “universal value is a myth”; freedom, equality, human rights, and constitutional government are not universal. Western countries exalt these ideas as universal values merely in order to impose their specific interests on other countries. The first round of debate was between the advocates of traditional communism and liberalism; in the second round, the cultural traditionalists and new leftists also joined in, and the debate continued among the different positions.

The argument against universal value from dogmatist Marxism

For the orthodox Marxists, the problem is very simple: any stand for universal value is non-Marxist and prone to liberalism. Zhou Xincheng,a professor from Renming University, in an article entitled “What is really universal value?” states that universal values actually don’t exist:

[They] are not embedded in human nature or endowed by God, but produced by the social and economic relations of capitalism. We can penetrate their essence as soon as we check the concrete content of universal values. Those values, such as democracy, freedom, human rights and justice, are only seen as universal values in Western advanced countries; universal values are nothing but a reflection of capitalist political and economic relations.3

Chen Kuiyuan, dean of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, made a speech entitled “No Exaltation of Western Ideas as Universal Values.” He argued, “The Western ideas of democracy, human rights and free market are treated as universal values, just because Western voices are highly influential. It is unfortunate that some Chinese scholars follow the trend and are enslaved by these dubious universal values.”3 As an influential officer, he publicly called for Chinese scholars to resist such discourse. Another key research institute, the “Deng Xiaoping Theory and Three Represents Thought Research Center,” also published an article of criticism, “To Critique Universal Values by Class Struggle Theory,” in Qiushi,the journal of the Chinese Communist Party. It points out that “The current airing of universal values does not occur by chance.… We may disclose the source of universal values in current acute and complex ideological struggle at home and abroad.”4 Besides these, Banyuetan,an affiliated journal of Qiushi, published a set of five articles criticizing the idea of universal value.

The most representative critique is made by Hou Huiqin, the vice-dean of Marxist studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His article, “The mistake of theory and the trap of practice in universal value,” takes an entirely negative position to universal values. He applies the debate on universalism to the struggle over the guidelines for reform. According to him, the Chinese Communist Party decided “which theory we shall follow and which road we shall take” at its 17th Congress; there is no need for a debate on socialist value. But there are always some people unwilling to give up their wrong idea, who attempt to deny the Party’s policy and change the direction of socialism. Actually, the main intent of “enthusiasm for universal values” is to misdirect reform and to cancel the leadership of the Party. Hou’s argument has four aspects:

First, value universalism confuses the epistemological concept of universalism with the axiological concept of value. Marxists, according to Hou, do not deny the existence of universal truth, but they definitely deny the existence of universal values. Though the young Marx believed in abstract universal values when he was still influenced by idealism, he abandoned these illusions completely after he finished the transformation of his worldview from idealism to historical materialism.

Second, value universalism confuses political values with human value. To some extent, Marx did talk about human nature, but he never justified his political appeal in these terms. “It is deceptive to talk about common human nature without the perspective of class theory.”

Third, value universalism confuses the ideal based on objective truth with illusion based on ideological bias. As an ideal of human emancipation, communism is not based on the illusion of universal value, but on the scientific inquiry through which the ideal value can be established; that is the essential difference between scientific socialism and bourgeois humanism.

Fourth, Hou argues that democracy and human rights can’t be universal political principles. According to him, democracy is by no means a super powerful tool but only a limited instrument. It can’t promote efficiency and fulfill substantial equality. He believes that the idea of “human rights above state sovereignty” reflects a malicious US-led campaign to damage socialist China, override third world nations and establish Western hegemony. Like Althusser, Hou allows for employing the discourse of universal humanism strategically in counterattacking bourgeois ideas, but he cautions against being misled by it.

In brief, traditional Marxists resolutely deny the universalism of value. It is wrong in theory because it contradicts historical materialism and Marx’s doctrine of “class struggle”; it is also harmful in practice, because it will disrupt socialist reform and Communist party leadership in China.

The argument against universal value from cultural traditionalism

Moral universalism is a main feature of modernity; as in other countries, it is challenged in China by cultural traditionalism. One scholar mentions that values displayed in disaster-relief efforts are neither from socialism nor from universal values of Western culture, but from the beliefs of traditional Chinese culture. Further, he argues that policies of reform and opening-up are largely nourished by traditional culture, particularly Confucian tradition. “If the term socialism has to be followed, it is a Chinese characteristic socialism which would abandon [Marxist] dogmatism and return to tradition.” In his eyes, China has its own cultural and political tradition, mainly Confucianism. It is a precious resource which modernization and socialism in China can rely on. The political philosophy of Confucianism does not focus on institutional design, but on governmental conduct. In this tradition, the ruled need to develop the virtue of loving others and putting oneself in another’s position, while the rulers have to cultivate “ruling virtues,” such as “generosity and charity” and “acting as parents of the people.” Chinese tradition can attach some Chinese characteristics to the concept of socialism.5

In China, cultural traditionalism does not refuse socialism per se, because they share some common views on human nature, society and politics. In the Confucian tradition, politics does not start from universal human rights or abstract principle, but from the organic cooperation of different agents of the social and political order. Social relations are not based on horizontal communication between individuals in a framework of universal rights and law, but on the hierarchical order of individual, family, country and heaven: namely “Cultivating one's moral character, putting one's house in order, running the country well, and letting peace prevail on earth”(修身、齐家、治国、平天下). In this sense the Chinese-characteristic socialism is not based on universal values, but on the particular values of Chinese culture.

Arguments for universal values

Compared with the negative view of universal value, its supporters are usually less-known scholars, such as Wang Zhanyang, Xu Jingan, Duguang, Tian Jixian. They defend the universal values of freedom, democracy, and human rights either from the position of liberalism or from that of Marxism. Like the critics of universal value, they also have a consciously political motive in the debate. As Xu Jingan states, “Universal value is essential for China to go forward to the bright future,” and “The essence of the universal value debate is the struggle between reform and anti-reform!”6 It is a new form of battle between reformer and conservative during the last thirty years.

The New Left argument for a universalist concept of value is easily seen in articles of Zhang Xuezhong and Xu Jingan. Zhang holds that, even without values shared by all people, the liberal state and democracy have been proved by their political history to be superior to other political regimes. He argues that the state of law and the liberal market are an institutional arrangement favorable to a society consisting of people with multiple views of value, because it can provide more free spaces of speech and activity, in which individuals can pursue their own way of life as they like. Democracy, which is based on universal suffrage and participation of people in decision-making, is an institutional arrangement which deals with value divergence of various groups in the public spheres. Universal values, such as freedom and democracy, have ideal meaning, even though they are not believed in by all people in reality.7

Xu Jingan holds similar position. He does not agree with traditional Marxism that social consciousness and values are determined by the economic infrastructure. He sees that view as reducing human beings to the level of animals. He argues that Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are all universal legacies, even though they are not created by us. “The core values of socialism are the most advanced culture in the world so that it needs to inherit all the advanced culture in human history. These include: inheriting traditional Chinese culture, learning from the Western civilization, and creating something new, which will … [be] the new universal value. That is the real advanced culture.”8 According to him, universal value not only motivates people to struggle for their freedom and moral autonomy, but also provides a rational foundation for the struggle for a more just and rational society.

Du Guang argues, from a neo-Marxist perspective, that the most important task in our times is to establish the idea of universal value. Though great achievements have been made in reform and opening-up, some remnants of despotism still exist in political, social and cultural realms. The major root of existing defects in our society is that we do not insist on universal values in our guiding thought. In his opinion, Marx did not deny universal values; he just carved out a better way of realizing them, through socialization of the means of production and the development of social forces. According to Du Guang, the further spread of universal values is a task for the development of Marxism in China. He sees the social reform and opening-up not only as an economic process, also as a process of realizing universal value.9

Progression of the debate

All participants in this debate want to influence the future direction of China, whether they accept or deny universal value. Unfortunately, the debate on universal value has not continued. Obviously, large-scale discussion filled with ideological passion is unfavorable for the reform agenda. The Communist Party authorities were concerned that such debate would cause confusion. A senior professor suggested that the Chinese central government should intervene and stop the debate. He believed that rejecting universal value is absurd; Chinese leaders even put forward for the 2008 Olympic Games the slogan “One world, One Dream.” Partly because the Chinese Communist Party did not wish this debate to continue, the dispute quieted down.

But the debate cannot be avoided. It will break out again sooner or later, as long as the reform is ongoing and the problems of relationships between socialism and capitalism, modernity and tradition, West and East have not been settled. Moreover, China is growing stronger in economic and international affairs. As an important pole of world order, China must express its understanding on human rights, democracy, globalization, social justice, all of which are universal values. For me, any political philosophy has its universal dimension. The question is, whose universalism? what kind of universalism? how to talk about universalism? That is the final issue I seek to discuss.

Rethinking universalism in the context of China

Universalism is not only debated in China; it is also debated by Western left thinkers. As Žižek said, we are living in a new constellation: “Our situation is thus the very opposite of the classic 20th-century predicament when we knew what we have and want to do (establish the dictatorship of proletariat, etc), but we have to wait patiently for the proper moment when the opportunity will offer itself. Now, we do not know what we have to do….”10 Russian socialism was buried in the historical ash in 1989; the task of political lefts is to reinvent universalism for the new century. Ernesto Laclau said, “There is no future for the Left if it is unable to create an expansive universal discourse.”11

Why is universalism so important for the left? Broadly, there are two basic reasons. First, if political discourse has no universal principle, it would be impossible to clear up the normative meaning of political appeals and the vision of future society. Second, neoliberalism has become a hegemonic discourse of universalism; any left that wants to struggle for an alternative to it must reinvent its own universalism. Laclau rightly points out,

A dimension of universality is already operating in the discourses which organize particular demands and an issue-orientated politics, but it is an implicit and undeveloped universality, incapable of proposing itself as a set of symbols able to stir the imagination of vast sectors of the population. The task ahead is to expand those seeds of universality, so that we can have a full social imaginary, capable of competing with the neoliberal consensus which has been the hegemonic horizon of world politics for the last thirty years.12

In the contemporary world, the issue of universal value is a new battlefield of ideas. Alain Badiou thinks that contemporary political philosophy is tossing between communitarian particularism and the pseudo-universalism of liberalism. True politics always has its universal dimension; anyone who denies it would reduce politics to administration and fall into cynicism.13 Among contemporary radical thinkers, we can find three approaches in thinking universalism.

1. Universality is an empty signifier

Laclau insists on political universalism, but he refuses to gives it any substantial content. For him, all universal concepts, such as equality, right, justice, even socialism, are empty signifiers. According his post-Marxist position, socialism has to inherit the ideals of liberalism; the radical left has to give them particular meaning by its concrete struggles. Today, insisting on socialism means to invest new content in universalism by our political protest. Universal concepts such as freedom, democracy and justice have no solid foundation outside the struggle for hegemony. Above all, for him and other post-Marxists, universal values are targets of political struggle, not pre-given foundations of politics. In Laclau’s work, ‘articulation’ means discourse practice in which a variety of empty and floating signifiers struggle to achieve a hegemonic position. In recent years, Laclau tried to construct a discourse of radical populism; its main goal is to articulate a meta-norm of equality with heterogeneous and multiple demands of politics. The position wants to rescue universalism by emptying it of substantial content in order to create a space for rewriting it in concrete situations.

2. Seeking true embodiments of universality

Laclau’s approach is well fitted to liberal-democratic pluralism and the theoretical framework of new social movements. But the radical potential of this kind of discourse will be easily assimilated by neoliberal ideology, because it does not tell us how to undermine the foundation of the capitalist edifice. Slavoj Žižek thinks our task is not just to expand abstract equality and encompass more heterogeneous and multiple requirements in the liberal-democratic direction, but to find a true embodiment of universality in social reality. According to him, true universality is Hegelian concrete totality, rather than an abstract and shadowy signifier. “Since each particular involves its own universality, its own notion of Whole and its own part within it, there is no ‘neutral’ universality that would serve as the medium for these particular positions.”14 Like Derrida, Žižek considers that we are living in times “out of joint,” with society divided into two parts – the included and the excluded. Some people have no proper place in the global order and live in the most miserable condition; for that very reason, they are the direct embodiment of universality. As Marx said in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, emancipation of the proletariat is not only the emancipation of a particular class, but also the emancipation of humanity; the proletariat thus “cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from other spheres of society, thereby emancipating them; … and [it] can only redeem itself through the total redemption of humanity.”15 Žižek insists Marx’s theory is still relevant in the neoliberal world.

Who is the direct embodiment of universal value in Žižek’s mind? The answer is, all people who are excluded by the totality of the existing order, such as the people of the Global South, the urban poor in advanced countries, immigrants, etc. “I am tempted to claim that this shadowy existence is the very site of political universality: in politics, universality is asserted when such an agent with no proper place, ‘out of joint’, posits itself as the direct embodiment of universality against all those who do have a place with the global order.”16 Therefore, the excluded is not just victim, but also agent of revolution. In this discourse, universalism is not based on humanity writ large, but on “the part of society with no properly defined place within it (or resisting the allocated subordinated place within it).”17 A true universalist is thus one who is devoted to the emancipation of a particular class, not one who indulges in talk about the principle of equality and human rights. Obviously, Žižek has put forward a dialectic of the universal and the particular in political philosophy.

3. “Democratic iteration” of universality

In works such as The Rights of Others: Aliens, Citizens and Residents (2004) and Another Cosmopolitanism (2006), Seyla Benhabib introduced a concept of “democratic iteration” in order to rethink the dialectic between universal norm and concrete context. Benhabib said: “By democratic iterations I mean complex processes of public argument, deliberation and exchange through which universalist rights claims are contested and contextualized, invoked and revoked, posited and positioned throughout legal and political institutions as well as in the associations of civil society.” In brief, “democratic iteration” is an ongoing process of re-actualizing universal norms in new times and places. Benhabib reminds us that the process is not one of applying a universal law to a particular case (as in natural science), but rather one of rethinking and reinterpreting the universal in concrete context:

In the process of repeating a term or a concept, we never simply produce a replica of the first intended usage or its original meaning: rather, every repetition is a form of variation. Every iteration transforms meaning, adds to it, enriches it in ever-so-subtle ways. The iteration and interpretation of norms and of every aspect of the universe of value, however, is never merely an act of repetition.18

The universal always is produced and reproduced in concrete praxis. For Benhabib, the concept of democratic iteration is a specific logic for thinking the fluidity and variability of universalism in the framework of civil society.


The theories of the above three thinkers have contributed to the discourse of universalism, but they also suffer from serious difficulties. I think the three conceptions of universalism can be sustained if they are used to correct one another. Laclau rightly argues that moral and political universalism is an inescapable presupposition to any contemporary progressive politics, but in his theory there is no concrete social subject to whom universal values are addressed, and no determinate agents who will be responsible for realizing them. This theory reduces Marxism to a variant of liberal equalitarianism because he refuses to admit that Marxism has bestowed on universalism a distinct content and revolutionary intent.

Žižek’s concrete universalism can correct the weakness of Laclau’s position. He shows that true universalism is a dialectic between universal and particular, in which emancipation consists in the liberation of specific agents who are excluded from the legal and political structure. But he fails to provide a normative basis for distinguishing the emancipatory agent from the conservative agent among different particular positions.

Benhabib’s conception of democratic iteration shows that democratic and moral-legal universalism are interdependent and complementary – that there is no true democracy without universalism and no universalism without democratic iteration. This approach corrects the shortcomings of Žižek’s theory, but Benhabib’s theory has its own problems. On the one hand, it is too liberal-democratic and is not sensitive to the ideological bias of bourgeois democracy. By fetishizing democracy within a framework of liberal multiculturalism, Benhabib occludes issues of social class and rejects the notion of hegemony. On this point, Žižek can correct the blindspot in her theory. On the other hand, Benhabib’s theory does not apply the logic of iteration to a cross-cultural understanding of universalism. In fact, when a universal norm in one tradition is accepted in another tradition, its meaning will be transformed through translation and reinterpretation. In the language of Hegel’s logic, a true conception of universalism means that the universal must be embodied in the particular by way of democratic iteration and must become a specific unity.

Return to Marx and reconstructing universalism in China

In my mind, the weakness of the above theories can be overcome by a “return to Marx.” In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels had pointed out that the conception of universal value in class society always has some ideological features, because “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”19 But they knew that the appeal to universal values is a requirement of modern politics:

For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones. The class making a revolution appears from the very start … not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society; it appears as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class.20

In this sense, universalism is a necessary feature of modern political discourse. But, unlike bourgeois thinkers, Marx was well aware that a universal norm in class society is always ambiguous in reality; if we want to know what a universal means, we have to investigate it in concrete situations.

Marx did not call universality per se a mere ideology, but he argued that any given idea emerges in specific historical conditions. For example, when aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honor, loyalty, etc. were uppermost; during the times of bourgeois dominance, the concepts freedom, equality, etc. Is Marx reductionist or nihilist to universalism? The answer is no. Although, Marx and Engels reminded us that the universality of value is ideological, they also admitted that value can be weighed on the basis of normative criteria. Every new class wants to achieve its hegemony; so it has to rely on a broader social basis than that of the previous ruling class. This is the dynamic of value universalization in real politics. For example, capitalist society is more progressive than feudal society; the principle of exchange is more progressive than the principle of honor and title. In this sense, universalism of morality and law is not pure ideological illusion; rather, it must be understood as a dimension of progressive politics.

In my view, Marx was a self-reflective universalist. He had criticized abstract and shadowy concepts of freedom, equality, and right, etc. But his goal was to work out a rational way of realizing them. In his early writings, he articulated the Kantian moral categorical imperative in a more radical way: the “categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected, contemptible being.”21 The categorical imperative is a meta-norm which can be used in appraising the emancipatory potentials of all norms. In principle, any norm which can enlarge the horizon of equality, abolish discrimination and domination, alleviate suffering, and enhance the capability of the individual, would have more universality. Actually, from the Communist Manifesto to the Grundrisse, the full development of the individual and the free association of free individuals is always the universal norm in Marx’s critique of capitalism and in his vision of future society.

However, unlike Kant, in Marx’s works, the universality of the norm always connects with a concrete agent in a given society. Universality is not a transcendent being, but a historical project in human history. In capitalist society, the proletarian class is a universal class just because it is a particular class:

For a popular revolution and emancipation of a particular class of civil society to coincide, for one class to stand for the whole of society, another class must, on other hand, concentrate in itself all the defects of society, must be the class of universal offense and embodiment of universal limits.22

The existential condition of the proletarian class is dialectical, where the universality and particularity are linked directly. The victory of the proletariat is the victory of all human beings.

In short, Marx's thinking of universalism can give us two insights: First, the universality of value is a real problem, though in reality universalism is often ideological, but, in modern conditions, any political discourse must have a universal moral and political dimension. Second, the universalism at any given time must be embodied by the liberation of a specific class, if its emancipation is to meet the requirement of human emancipation in the Marxian sense. Unlike liberal thinkers, Marx never concealed his specific position; his theory was representative of a particular social class, the proletarian class. This dialectical discourse of universalism is still relevant today, even in China.

Before reform and opening up began in 1978, the discourse of Chinese socialism was oriented to universalism. The cause of Chinese socialist revolution and construction was understood as a part of global proletarian emancipation. The Chinese Communist party gave both moral and material support to revolutions in other countries. All this Chairman Mao called proletarian internationalism. Now the situation has greatly changed. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is an unprecedented economic and social experiment: “the Chinese experiment can neither be branded as a typical socialist model of transformation, nor an approach that has cast socialism to the wind.”23

How to understand the Chinese experiment? Is it a nationalist socialism, or Asian authoritarian capitalism? Is there still a universalist concern in this experiment? Thirty years have passed, during which the Chinese Communist party has succeeded in meeting many serious challenges: the “end of the cold war,” the collapse of Russian socialism, the political storm of 1989, the financial crisis of East Asia in 1997, and the recent economic crisis. We must admit that China has had great achievements in the field of economic growth. But, how to deal with the relation between socialism and liberalism, the relation between Western culture and Chinese tradition? All the problems relate to the universalism of cultural and political values.

In the past thirty years, China has become a superpower by seizing the opportunity provided by globalization, and has succeeded in integrating into the world economy. But China faces an irreconcilable conflict between the capitalist market and the socialist polity. In the official ideology, China will still keep the values of socialism, such as equality, collective self-organization and solidarity; those values are expressed in the program of Harmonious Socialist Society (和谐社会主义社会), which is defined as a society built on “democracy and rule of law, justice and equality, trust and truthfulness, amity and vitality, order and stability, and a harmonious relation with nature.”24 But in reality, the income gap between the rich and the poor is growing wide, and the social power of different groups has become more and more unequal. Now, China is in a seriously difficult situation of legitimacy. If China carries out equalitarian policy, that would hurt the further growth of the economy in the short term. In the circumstance of a globalized open economy, in which capital can move freely around the world, any policy favorable to more equal distribution and social welfare would injure the national economy. Paradoxically, the success of the market economy will lead to the failure of social solidarity!

To some extent, globalization has become the invisible hand of neoliberal coercion. The dilemma of socialism around the world is also China’s dilemma. If China continues the path of liberalist reform, that would damage its political legitimacy in the long term. The debate over universal values is not temporary in China; it is the expression of the hidden conflict between socialism and liberalism.

In this difficult situation, the Chinese Communist party tries to balance the contradictory pressures of economic growth and political legitimacy, the universalism of modernity and the particularity of its unique traditional culture. On one hand, it argues that the temporary unequal distribution of resources in this stage is to prepare necessary conditions for final equality in future, so, the inequality is a necessary price for a high level of equality. However, the arguments can’t resolve the thorny issue: what is the limit of inequality, what degree of unequal distribution is tolerable? If the gap between the rich and the poor in socialist society is bigger than in capitalist society, is it still socialist? In a country where people still have memory of a socialist age, a socialist society that permits more inequality than capitalism is difficult to sustain.

Socialism has its normative claims in the critique of capitalism and construction of the socialist ideal. Erik Olin Wright asserts that socialism has four central values: equality, democracy, autonomy, community. “The historical experiments in achieving this ideal—what used to be called ‘actually existing socialism’—failed to generate these results. In certain times and places, some progress on one or another of the four values might have been made, but nowhere did sustained and durable progress occur on all four.”25 This judgment also applies to current reality in China.

The nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics prompted many voices of suspicion at home and abroad. But I think the normative constraint of socialism is still at work in current practice in China. For those who look forward, rather than returning back to traditional socialism, the urgent task is to reconstruct a universal discourse of socialism. Socialism is based on common universal values; socialism with Chinese characteristics is no exception. Today, the concept of socialism is not exhausted by institutions of public ownership and planned economy that the traditional discourse of socialism advocated. We should return to Marx’s understanding of socialism or communism in the normative perspective.26 I believe that five requirements are universal for any socialist: (1) the civil right of freedom; (2) the social right to live in decent and healthy conditions; (3) the right to full development of one’s nature and potential; (4) control over arbitrary power of the market and the state; (5) full participation in political and social life. Perhaps in the era of globalization, any “real utopia” (Erik Wright’s term) would be suspect, but China, as a major economy with power to control the conditions of its development, has more opportunity to practice equalitarian policy than does a minor economy. The key is whether we still are faithful to Marx’s ideal of universal emancipation.

If we combine universal dimensions of the Marxist conception of human emancipation with the views of Western lefts, we can construct a new discourse of universalism. At the normative level, I insist on the Marxist concepts of the full development and free association of free persons as the horizon of universalism. In the 1970s some Marxists thought that Marx had no universal conception of justice and morality; they argued that Marx was utilitarian and hedonistic.27 I don’t agree with this position. Marx indeed criticized the idealist concept of abstract universalism, but this does not mean that he rejected all universal norms of freedom and equality. What Marx did is to save the rational core from the pseudo-consciousness of liberal ideology. Universal values of freedom and democracy are a precious heritage of humanity; the problem with the Eurocentric concept of universalism is not that these values are empty signifiers, but that there is no will to realize them seriously.

The vision of socialism is not only a rupture from bourgeois tradition, but also its critical continuation; socialism not only expands universalism horizontally, but also deepens the contents of freedom and equality vertically. Socialism is not so flexible that it can transform into anything. Now, ‘many Marxes’ or “many Marxisms” have been fashionable concepts; the Chinese Communist Party also advocates Marxism with Chinese characteristics, but this does not mean we can throw up the universal norm of Marxism and the basic requirements of socialism. The reconstruction of universalism in China has to rely on Marx’s original spirit and on the historical experience of the 20th century. The dialectic of universal and particular stated by Marx is still relevant. In China, the discourse of socialist universalism should put forward a comprehensive vision of human emancipation with concrete tasks of class-abatement and alleviating the sufferings of vulnerable groups, for example, the poor, peasants and the weak, etc., so that all members of the community can live a decent life.

How to deal with Marxism and Chinese tradition? I want to coin the concept “cultural iteration” based on Benhabib’s concept “democratic iteration.” I want to define cultural iteration as a bridge principle for communication of the universal across cultural traditions. Chinese civilization has a long history. During the Axial Age from 800 to 200 BCE, as in India and the Occident, a great intellectual revolution occurred in China. Chinese philosophers pondered the impartial and the universal in human praxis and political affairs. For example, in Analects, Confucius had to explain “shu” (恕) as like a negative golden rule: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not want.” He also expressed a positive golden rule by the concept “ren” (仁):“A man wishing to establish his own character, also establishes others; wishing to be prominent himself, he also helps others.” Cultural iteration of universalism means that China will re-actualize its original resource of universalism in global dialogue with other traditions. Globalization is not only the global market, transnational political order; it is also globalism in culture. If Marxist universalism wants to take root in China, it has to dialogue with Chinese tradition. This does not mean a particularistic version of Marxism, but a transformed and reconceived Marxism with the goal of universal emancipation.

In practical terms, the radical left should focus on the social and political conditions that cause unnecessary suffering, serious social inequality, and social exclusion. In order to defend universality in China, we should identify specific groups and view their political and social rights as the embodiment of universal values. Many Western tourists are astonished by the economic prosperity of China, but they don’t know the real conditions of social inequality and misery of some groups. In China, systematic inequality emerges not only in terms of incomes, but also in the distribution of public goods, such as education, healthcare and cultural facilities. The gap between rich and poor, urban and rural, eastern area and western area become wider and wider. Some people have not shared the achievements of social development. These people are the “excluded” from liberalist global order in China in Žižek’s sense, or from civil society in Marx’s sense. I believe that the integration of the previously excluded, under free and fair conditions, is a test for universalism. A true socialist must be a universalist militant, devoted to removing every kind of barrier to all people’s development, especially for the poor, for migrant workers from rural areas, and for the disabled.

I don’t agree with the Chinese orthodox Marxist position that universalism is false consciousness or the evil tool of the Western world. I do not agree with cultural traditionalism, which takes Chinese civilization as a particular system of value in opposition to the universal ideal of modernity. The true universal must be rooted in Chinese civilization and people’s concrete struggles for equality, freedom and solidarity. If China wants to be hegemonic in the 21st century, it must set up moral leadership through a new universalism. To do so, it must successfully combine Marxism with Chinese civilization.


*This article was originally read in 2010 at the Sixth International Marx Conference in Paris. Its preparation was supported by the program Marxism and Liberalism in the discourse of Modernity [NCET-08-0136]. Titles of articles posted in Chinese have been translated into English.  [Ed. Note: translated quotations have been edited for grammar.]

1. Wen Jiabao, “On the Historical Task of the Primary Stage of Socialism and Some Issues of Foreign Policy,” Xinhua Net, Feb. 26, 2007. 2. Zhou Xincheng, “What is really Universal Value,” Guangming Daily, Sept. 16, 2009. 3. Chen Kuiyuan, “No Exaltation of Western Values as Universal Values,” 4. Deng Xiaoping Theory and Three Represents Thought Research Center, “To Critique Universal Values by Class Struggle Theory,” Qiushi, (2008), 11. 5. Chen Ming, “My View on the Debate among Universal Values, Socialism and Traditional Culture,” 6. Xu Jingan, “Universality is the measure of cultural advancement: Against Si Mana,” 7. Zhang Xuizhong, “On Freedom and Democracy,”

8. Xu Jingan, “Universality is a value criterion of cultural development,” 9. Du Guang, “Universal Value, a Timely Momentous Task,” 10. Slavoj Žižek, “Welcome to the Interesting Times,” 11. Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, London: Verso, 2000, 306. 12. Ibid. 13. Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003, 6-7. 14. Butler et al., Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 316. 15. Karl Marx, Early Political Writings, ed. Joseph O’Malley, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 69. 16. Butler et al., Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 313. 17. Slavoj Žižek, Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology, London: Verso, 2000, 188. 18. Seyla Benhabib, “Cosmopolitan Norms, Human Rights and Democratic Iterations,” 19. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, German Ideology, ed. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 64. 20. Ibid., 65-66. 21. Marx, Early Political Writings, 65. 22. Ibid., 67. 23. Hemant Adlakha, “Towards an Understanding of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” 24. Renmin Ribao, Resolution of the CCP Central Committee on Strengthening the Construction of the Party’s Governing Capacity, Sept. 27, 2004. 25. Erik Olin Wright, “Coupon Socialism and Socialist Values,” New Left Review, No. 210, March-April 1995, 153-154. 26. Paresh Chattopadhyay, “The Myth of Twentieth-Century Socialism and the Continuing Relevance of Karl Marx,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol.24, No.3, November 2010. 27. On the debate on the justice in Marxist tradition, we can see: R.C. Tucker, The Marxian Revolutionary Idea (New York: Norton,1969); A.W. Wood, “Marxian Critique of Justice,” in Karl Marxs Social and Political Thought: Critical Assessments, ed. Bob Jessop (New York: Routledge, 1990); Norman Geras, “Bringing Marx to Justice: An Addendum and Rejoinder,” New Left Review, No.195, September-October 1992.