Taking Marxism to China

Vermont socialists are trying to revive socialism in formerly communist China

Marxism is a bore in China, but tie-dyed American socialists are trying to revive it. Apparently it's easier to believe in socialism if you haven't actually tried to live under it.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

It isn't easy teaching Marxism in China these days.

"It's a big challenge," acknowledged Tao, a likable man who demonstrates remarkable patience in the face of students more interested in capitalism than "Das Kapital." The students say he isn't the problem.

"It's not the teacher," said sophomore Liu Di, a finance major whose shaggy auburn hair hangs, John Lennon-style, along either side of his wire-rim glasses. "No matter who teaches this class, it's always boring. Philosophy is useful and interesting, but I think that in philosophy education in China, they just teach the boring parts."

Classes in Marxist philosophy have been compulsory in Chinese schools since not long after the 1949 communist revolution. They remain enshrined in the national education law, Article 3 of which states: "In developing the socialist educational undertakings, the state shall uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought and the theories of constructing socialism with Chinese characteristics as directives and comply with the basic principles of the Constitution."

Chinese students are forced to learn the official ideology - or, I should say, they are forced to sit in classes where the official ideology is expounded - few of them seem to be listening any more. And yet, students say, it's still hard to find anyone who will openly criticize communism - partly because it's still very helpful to be a member of the Communist Party and partly because it's dangerous to criticize the official ideology of an authoritarian government.

Fortunately, just as China's Marxists begin to deal with their terminal despair at the decline of Mao's Good Old Cause, a couple of "veteran Vermont activists" are riding to the rescue. Ellen David-Friedman and Stuart Friedman--she's a self-described Marxist, an organizer for the Vermont teachers' union, and vice-chair of the Progressive Party, he's a clinical social worker at Central Vermont Hospital--are leaving their jobs in the People's Republic of Vermont to teach the Chinese about the horrors of capitalism. Communist Party apparatchiks and overseers at Guangzhou University have never attempted to censor her or Stuart's teaching, David-Friedman tells the Vermont weekly Seven Days. "We can say anything we want to in the classroom," she notes - perhaps because these radicals are in fact teaching the official ideology, and it's so hard to find people who want to do that these days!

Communism is always such a disappointment in practice. You'd think by now even romantic communists would have given up on it. But no--neither the activists nor the Seven Days reporter is ready for that:

China's communist revolution has gone off the rails, David-Friedman adds. The party "has divorced itself, tragically, from allowing itself to be led by the needs of workers," she adds. But maybe, in some small measure, these Vermont Progressives can help put the world's largest country back on the track toward socialism.

The LA Times concludes,

Talking over tea at the Education Ministry's modern offices in central Beijing, education official Zhou laughed a bit about today's students.

"They don't believe in God or communism," he said. "They're practical. They only worship the money."

That sounds a lot like the French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel's 1971 book Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun. Has the liberal-capitalist revolution begun in China?

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Posted on July 5, 2007  Posted to Asia Pacific,China,Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,Politics,The Guardian,Vermont,World news

Asking too much of DNA

Genes can't tell us if US president James Madison fathered a child with a slave.

Several years ago newspapers reported that a study of DNA proved that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Now some African-Americans want a genetic history to prove that they are descended from James Madison, the father of the US constitution. But DNA can't prove what they want.

The Washington Post reports that Bettye Kearse, an African-American physician, wants to confirm her family's oral tradition that they are direct descendants of Madison. This past weekend she attended the Montpelier slave descendants reunion at the fourth president's mansion. "Working with Bruce Jackson, co-director of the Roots Project, which helps African Americans trace their genetic histories," Kearse wants to:

compare the Y chromosomes - which are identical across generations - of male descendants in Madison's family to the Y chromosomes of some of Kearse's male cousins. Jackson and Kearse have been searching for Madison relatives in England but recently located a descendant of one of Madison's brothers in North Carolina.

The Kearse family's oral history:

begins with a kidnapped African slave, Mandy, who Kearse says was impregnated at Montpelier by Madison's father. The child, Coreen, later gave birth to Madison's child, whom she named James Madison.

So there's your problem. Even if Kearse and her genetic consultants manage to find a match between the DNA of her African-American cousins and that of Madison family descendants, it would only prove a genetic link between the two families. It would not prove that President Madison himself fathered a child with one of the Kearse ancestors. Indeed, since the Kearse family's oral history claims descent from both Madison and his father, there would be no reason to assume that President James Madison junior, rather than his father, James Madison senior, had provided the Madison DNA to the Kearse family.

The Washington Post reported:

Jackson, speaking to attendees Saturday about how genetic research is conducted, noted that if Kearse's claim proves correct, it would mean Madison's only living direct descendants are African American.

But since Jackson is a geneticist, it seems likely that he was not saying that a DNA match would prove that, but only that a DNA match plus some other form of evidence could prove such a claim.

A few facts about Madison's family point away from President Madison. James Madison had no children with his wife Dolley. His father, on the other hand, fathered 12 children. And some of Madison's brothers had children, whose descendants are being sought for the DNA testing. Dolley Madison had two sons with her first husband. So we know that Madison's father, brothers, and wife were fertile, yet he himself fathered no known children. It seems quite possible that he was infertile.

This story is reminiscent of the 1998 bombshell about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Apparently confirming two centuries of rumors and accusations, the November 5, 1998 issue of the journal Nature ran an article bearing the headline, "Jefferson fathered slave's last child." The article was more cautious: it reported that DNA analysis pointed conclusively to some member of the Jefferson family having fathered at least one of Sally Hemings's children, and argued that the historical evidence (it cited oral history) pointed to Thomas Jefferson.

As the Jefferson historian David Mayer wrote in a critique of the research and the media coverage of it:

A more accurate headline, of course, would have been "A Jefferson - not necessarily Thomas Jefferson - fathered" Sally Hemings' youngest child.) The article on the DNA test results was accompanied by an article "Founding father," co-authored by Professor [Joseph] Ellis, which proclaimed that the DNA analysis "confirms that Jefferson was indeed the father of at least one of Hemings' children."

But in fact all the DNA analysis could confirm was that some of Sally Hemings's descendants were also descended from a male Jefferson. Sally's children could well have been fathered by Jefferson's brother or nephews. There is much debate over whether non-DNA evidence - the Hemings family's oral history, the accusations in Federalist newspapers, the ages of Jefferson and his relatives, their whereabouts nine months before the births of Sally's children - tends to point to Jefferson, his brother, or his nephews as the most likely fathers. But DNA can't prove more than the family connection.

Does any of this matter? It matters to the people who might be descended from Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. It's a common human trait to take pride in one's ancestry. It matters because truth always matters. And it seems to matter to some people in that it takes Thomas Jefferson down a peg. (The Madison story is new and much less discussed.) It makes him less the hero of the marble statue, or even the loving and lustful husband of the musical 1776, but rather a man of normal, even salacious, appetites - a man who (allegedly) engaged in sexual relations that were not just outside marriage but possibly outside the bounds of decency. Some have argued for a genuine love affair between the brilliant older man and the beautiful young woman who was the half-sister of his late wife. But most of us cannot escape the feeling that sex between a master and a slave is uncomfortably close to rape. Can a slave withhold her consent? So it matters because it lessens our admiration for Jefferson (or Madison), which is exactly what some critics want.

On the other hand, do we really need this story to point out to us the flaw in Jefferson's character? The cognitive dissonance endured by the man who declared, "All men are created equal," yet owned some men as slaves? Jefferson and Madison produced some of the greatest writing on freedom in history. We owe to them the theory and the institutions of American liberty. And yet they owned slaves. What can we say about that? That all men are imperfect, that most of us fall short of our ideals, but that the ideals still matter. We are all - white Americans, black Americans, people in other countries - better off because Jefferson and Madison fought for American freedom and wrote the documents they did.

As Mayer wrote:

Jefferson's place in American history - his central role in our nation's founding and the evolution of its system of government - justly derives from his ideas. As I see it, genealogy is irrelevant: the true "children" of Jefferson today are those who understand his ideas and work to keep them alive. His lasting legacy is the body of ideas he has given us, ideas still quite relevant today, to the perennial problems of protecting individual rights and limiting the powers of government.

The same is true of Madison. If we found that - as with the claims about Shakespeare - the Declaration of Independence and the constitution were not really written by Jefferson and Madison but by some tradesman lost to history, it would not change the power and importance of those ideas, though it would of course change our view of Jefferson and Madison as men. So it is with these possible revelations about their personal lives.

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Posted on June 13, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,Genetics,guardian.co.uk,Human rights,The Guardian

American dynasty

The US is a country formed in rebellion against dynasty. So why are 18 members of the country's Senate family legacies?

We Americans know that the head of state in a monarchy is an inherited position. But we rebelled against that system and created a republic, in which men (and later women) would be chosen to lead the republic on the basis of their own accomplishments, not their family ties. Sure, we had the Adamses, and we may well be fortunate that neither George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson had a son. And there are other dynasties, often combined to one state, like the Longs of Louisiana and the Breckinridges of Kentucky. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen is the sixth member of his family to represent New Jersey in Congress, dating back to the 18th century. One of his ancestors inspired the classic campaign song, "Hurrah, hurrah, the country's risin'/For Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen!"

And today, of course, we face the prospect of replacing the son of a president in the White House with the wife of a president. We may have 24 or more years of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. One leading Republican strategist has recommended that Florida governor Jeb Bush run for president this year, on the grounds in this of all years he won't lose points for being a dynastic candidate: what are they going to say, "don't vote for the president's brother, vote for the other president's wife instead"?

But it goes beyond Bushes and Clintons these days. In a country formed in rebellion against dynastic government, some 18 members of the US Senate in 2005 had gained office at least in part through family ties, along with dozens of House members.

And now . . . Wyoming? The Cowboy State, the Equality State, the home of wide-open spaces, rugged individualists, and yeoman ranchers - Wyoming is about to choose a replacement for the late senator Craig Thomas. And according to the Washington Post, the most likely choices are:

Lynne Cheney, whose husband served as a congressman from Wyoming before becoming vice president; state house majority floor leader Colin Simpson, the son of former senator Alan Simpson; and two of Thomas's three sons, Greg and Patrick.

Say it ain't so, Wyoming. Show the Washington elite that celebrity and connections don't cut as much ice in the Cowboy State as they do in the imperial capital. This is a republic, not an empire. If we can't demonstrate that in Wyoming, what hope is there for the rest of us?

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Posted on June 8, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,The Guardian,United States

A toast to Yeltsin

Boris was one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century, and deserves credit for being the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power.

More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he was one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.

In a way he personalises Mikhail Gorbachev's accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn't contain. Once people were allowed to criticise the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly - partly because of Yeltsin's unexpectedly radical leadership.

Two years later Gorbachev and the party hierarchy pushed him out of the Politburo. But he turned around and ran for the Congress of People's Deputies, won, and then was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He created Russia's first parliamentary opposition (in the Supreme Soviet) and then won election to the new Russian parliament. Against the continuing opposition of Gorbachev, he was elected to the chairmanship of that body, thus becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. He stunned politicos by resigning from the Communist Party.

And then in 1991, less than four years after being pushed out of politics by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became the first elected leader in a thousand years of Russian history, winning a popular election for president. Six weeks later he hit his high point. When hard-line communists tried to stage a coup, Yeltsin courageously raced to parliament to rally opposition. He jumped on a tank to address the crowd, creating one of the iconic images of the collapse of communism.

At that point Yeltsin was the boss, eclipsing Gorbachev, and the Soviet Union was on its way out. Yeltsin effectively dissolved the Soviet Union, leaving 15 newly independent states in the vast expanse that was once the USSR. As John Morrison says:

His greatest achievement was to avoid the violent "Yugoslav scenario" and allow the Soviet Union's 15 republics to go their separate ways peacefully in 1991-92 without civil war. Yeltsin defied nationalist demands for the restoration of a greater Russia and made huge concessions to the other successor states, notably Ukraine, but got little credit for it.

Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries? But by doing so, he avoided years of bloodshed. Yeltsin then set about freeing prices and privatising state property, the largest privatisation in the history of the world. As the New York Times notes, he was one communist leader capable of learning from - and feeling shame about - the success of capitalism:

On a visit to the United States in 1989, he became convinced that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its state-run economic system, in which people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. Visiting a Houston supermarket, he was overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.

A Russia scholar, Leon Aron, quoting a Yeltsin associate, wrote that Mr Yeltsin was in a state of shock. "For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands," Mr Aron wrote in his 2000 biography, Yeltsin, A Revolutionary Life. " 'What have they done to our poor people?' he said after a long silence."

Yeltsin wasn't perfect. He was often boorish and apparently had an excessive taste for alcohol. Despite letting the other Soviet republics go, he launched the devastating war in Chechnya. He unconstitutionally dissolved parliament in 1993; when communist lawmakers defied him, he sent tanks to shell parliament.

But it should be noted that Yeltsin at that time was seeking to defend liberal democracy against a return to communism. Imagine if Nazi legislators had stayed in the German parliament into 1949, resisting Adenauer's policies and threatening to bring back National Socialism. Would it be undemocratic to call out the military to counter them? Fareed Zakaria's worry in 1997 that Yeltsin's creation of a "Russian super-presidency" might be abused by his successors looks all too prescient now. But a reversion to communism would have been worse.

And finally, after becoming the first elected leader in Russia's history, he became something even more important - the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power. True, he turned Russia over to Vladimir Putin, making him more like Ronald Reagan, who delivered the United States to the Bushes, than George Washington, who left us in the capable hands of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Still, the words that President Reagan addressed to the American soldiers who invaded Normandy could also be applied to Boris Yeltsin: "These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."

Raise a glass tonight to Boris Yeltsin, the man who freed a continent and helped end the cold war.

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Posted on April 25, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,Europe,guardian.co.uk,Russia,The Guardian

Is libertarianism history?

American liberals have some shameful things in their past. But what about the conservatives?

On Sunday the New York Times ran a remarkably ill-informed reviewof Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty.

Over at Cato@Liberty, I responded in great detail. Noting reviewer David Leonhardt's litany of embarrassing moments in libertarian history, I argued:

If that's the sum total of embarrassing libertarian moments, it's a pretty darn good record over 70 years or so. Modern liberals have to deal with the fact - not an embarrassing fact but a shameful one - that many of their forebears supported Stalin and the Communist party, or were at least fellow-travellers.

As for conservatives, I could mention their long resistance to liberty and legal equality for blacks, women, and gays, but instead I'll just say: George W Bush and the Iraq war. In 70 years, libertarians have done nothing to compare to expressing support for limited constitutional government while also supporting Bush, his disastrous war, and his accumulation of unprecedented presidential power.

And I concluded: "No book is perfect, nor is any movement. But contra Leonhardt, Radicals for Capitalism is going to be the standard history of the libertarian movement for years to come. And it tells a story libertarians can be proud of."

The book is about the American libertarian movement, which will obviously reduce its appeal on the other side of the Atlantic. But it's a fine work of political history.

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Posted on April 3, 2007  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,Newspapers & magazines,The Guardian,World news

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