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Clash or Synergy of Ideologies?




The Montréal Review, April 2011



Religion and religious institutions in Europe and around the world have been under attack since the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Since then, the place of religion in the organization of society, its importance and influence on individuals and the state, has been questioned as never before.

How did the decline of traditional belief systems occur? How did the secular revolution begin? It began, first and foremost, with politics in the heart of Europe, with a revolt against the old political and social order of privilege and birthright. In his book The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis De Tocqueville observed that in 1789-92 the revolutionary bourgeoisie rose up not against Christianity but against the Church, because its institutions were seen as part of the "old regime. " The revolutionaries treated the clergy as "landowners," as "parasites" on the body of the French nation. At that time, science was still in its infancy, and religious skepticism was heard only from a handful of voices. But in the nineteenth century, the enmity against the Church shifted, or rather expanded, to the Christian faith in general. New secular prophets appeared. They were not scientists in the modern sense, but political thinkers and philosophers. They created new and powerful ideological narratives based on politically colored Darwinism, supported by "scientific" arguments and attractive promises of successful social(ist) engineering. Although their doctrines were only theories, they defended them with religious zeal. The "scientific method" was their gospel, and in the ferment of the Industrial Revolution, with the exploding progress of science and technology, they claimed ownership of every human achievement and waged a war for the hearts and minds of the people, arguing that science and religion were two implacable enemies. The flaw and tragedy of their worldview was that they viewed science and religion politically.

In 1917, the Communists took power in Russia. Religion and the church were suppressed because, as in France in 1789, they were seen as part of the old regime and thus a threat to the new political order. But unlike the French revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks had the legitimizing ideology of Marxism, which rejected both the need for religious institutions and religious belief itself.

In the twentieth century, almost all post-colonial national movements adopted secular, anti-religious Marxism as their ideology. And if we ask why a theory dealing with industrial societies and their social classes became the central ideology of almost all national movements in the pre-industrial societies of the twentieth century, the direct answer is that these new nations were not mature enough, not historically developed enough, to create their own authentic modernist message. They borrowed and modified Western Marxism, and their new revolutionary elites found in it a convenient ideology for their ambitions for power and domination. Religious institutions in these societies were naturally seen as part of the old political order (and colonial past) and thus automatically declared political enemies of national independence and self-determination.

In the twentieth century, Marxism was a dominant, if not always victorious, ideology in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The new national elites struggling against the grip of the old colonial and feudal rulers adopted it and transformed it to suit their own political agendas. China was among the states that embraced Marxism and its revolutionary Bolshevik strain - Leninism - as a flagship for its modernization and lost independence. (1) And today, China is the only world power where the Marxist-Leninist ideology continues to exist, seemingly untouched by the communist decline of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The reason for this resilience is that the Marxist ideology has never been the true matrix of the Chinese political order. A random reading of Mao's most popular books and pamphlets, (2) in which he supposedly exposes his "Marxist" beliefs, would hardly reveal a speck of pure Marxist thought. Mao's works were anti-imperialist, nationalist, explaining the tactics and philosophy of revolutionary war against the imperialists, feudal lords and enemies of the communist regime, extolling the supremacy of the peasantry, but rarely (if ever) discussing the problems of the urban proletariat. His writing is feverish and exalted. It is clothed in Marxist-Leninist terminology, but it only resembles Marxism. Marxism is primarily a doctrine against capitalist exploitation, a revolutionary theory that explains alienated labor, class relations, and the realities of the Western political and economic order -- things that hardly existed in China in the 1930s and '40s. Marxism is about the emancipation of the working class, but even until the 1980s Chinese society was still predominantly agrarian; Marxism is about a teleological process of ultimate change that follows strict historical patterns -- feudalism destroyed by capitalism, capitalism transformed by socialism, and socialism developed into communism. There wasn't any such historical process at work in China, or even in pre-Soviet Russia.


First of all, we must say that there is nothing but central power behind China's communism. China's communist ideology exists only "on paper," it is a typical totalitarian state propaganda without any real and meaningful content. Its real messages are either orders and directives from the central power or education in loyalty to the Party. Its ultimate goal is to keep society peaceful and under the control of the ruling elite. The communist ideal of a "people's republic" is a chimera.

Chinese communism, like any radical political ideology, is religious in nature.(3)This is the nature of every totalitarian state. Marxism-Leninism is an ideology that, in the name of a utopian promise, promotes the dictatorship and supremacy of one social group (or party) over all others. Marxism of the Bolshevik type, i.e. radical communism, does not tolerate political or economic pluralism, which makes today's Chinese "communism" an interesting "hybrid". Chinese communism had its own "classical" non-pluralist period in the second half of the 20th century; then, in the early 1990s, it began to evolve into a new form of 21st-century "Sino-communism," which, as we shall see, fuses elements of different political, ideological, and economic systems -- state capitalism, Confucianism, and Maoist "Marxism" (as the official ideology).

Typically, the totalitarian (and authoritarian) political elites who adopt Marxism as their ideology do not accept the idea of God. They are not constrained by any real religious culture and worldview that the citizens, including the ruling elites, follow, nor by any democratic institutions. The god of the Marxist state is the Party, its ideology, and the leader (or the Party's Central Committee, the so-called "high echelon"). All the legitimacy of power emanates from these three centers-party, ideology, leader. Compared to the God of religion, the presence and will of the totalitarian God is immediate and direct; the God of the totalitarian state has the power to punish quickly and reward without delay. It is an active, visible, undeniable power; the party leaders are its bishops, the political activists - its priests and deacons.


Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan- A Socialist Realism Color Lithograph on Paper by Chunhua Liu B.

Every totalitarian state has its own mythology and cult system. China has the legend of the Long March, the iconic images of Mao descending from the mountain holding the scrolls of his pamphlets or walking among his followers; it has granite, gigantic monuments to communist leaders and revolutionary martyrs that inspire awe and respect; it has annual commemorations, festivals, and calendars. It has "scriptures," dogmas, and sectarian differences. The symbols of the Communist Party dominate Chinese public space - they are unambiguous signs of the religious nature of the regime in Beijing.

With an institutionalized political religion, the central power in China does not tolerate traditional religions and beliefs. However, Article 88 of the First Constitution of the People's Republic of China states: "Citizens...of China shall enjoy freedom of religious belief."

But here is how the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China explains Article 88:

• People who believe in a religion have freedom.

• People who do not believe in a religion have freedom, including the freedom to be against religion.

• People have freedom to change religious belief. (4)

Two things stand out here: the overuse of the word "freedom" and the difference in the rights of believers and non-believers. The atheists have the "freedom" to be against religion, which means that they can attack or ridicule religious people; on the contrary, the believers have freedom, but they don't have the explicitly stated right to defend their faith against the insults of those who do not respect their desire to worship. Thus, in a typical subtle way, the Central Committee encourages, or at least opens the door to, anti-religious actions and propaganda, while covering its true intentions with a repetitive use of the word "freedom" (which, as we all know, means nothing in a totalitarian or proto-totalitarian society).

People in China have freedom of religious belief, but according to the government, it should be manifested only on the premises of religious places. The "fair deal," according to three Japanese pastors who visited China on a peace mission in late 1964, is as follows: "There has been mutual agreement that atheists do not come into the churches to propagate their atheistic concepts, and religious people do not go out to public places to propagate their religion." (5) At first glance, the "deal" seems fair; at second glance, we see religious people and religion excluded from the public sphere.

Mao knew the character of the peasants very well; he was a pragmatic man, the son of a wealthy and conservative farmer, and he knew that the Communist Party should not openly attack the religious "superstitions" of the peasants. In the traditional Confucian way, his approach to dealing with peasant beliefs was practical and cunning. "The idols were set by the peasants, - Mao says in a popular early writing - and in time they will pull down the idols with their own hands; there is no need for anybody else to throw away prematurely the idols for them. The agitational line of the Communist Party in such matters should be: "Draw the bow full without letting go the arrow, and be on alert." (6)Here we find Mao using a saying of Mencius, the Confucian sage. As we will see, the Communist Party has never lost its Confucian traits in its dealings with the Chinese people and society.

The Chinese communist state has never differed much from the traditional imperial state in its philosophy of governance. Confucianism is woven into communist ideology in curious ways. For example, in his short book "How to Be a Good Communist," Politburo member Liu Shaoqi writes:

"All those who have succeeded in becoming very good and experienced revolutionaries must certainly have done through long years of steeling and self-cultivation in the revolutionary struggle... Confucius said: At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decree of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow my heart's desire, without transgressing what was right. Here Confucius was relating the process of his steeling and self-cultivation. He did not regard himself as a born "sage."" (7)

Liu Shaoqi's book was one of the most important books for preparing Communist cadres in the 1940s and 1950s.

No wonder that Confucianism, which was the ideology of the imperial state, was and is used by the Communist Party. We can even argue that in many ways Communist China seems more Confucian than Marxist; like the old imperial China, today's China is religious and secular in the same specific way, both conservative and "modern." In his book "State and Religion in China", Antony C. Yu noted, "Despite the adoption of a constitution that allegedly would transform [China's] socio-political body into a modern, secular republic, it has yet to scrutinize and query the legitimacy of its enduring form of political religion - the worship of absolute power invested in the state." (8)

Confucianism was a compendium of ecclesiastical wisdom without the support of a true belief system; it was pragmatic, moralistic, and demanded both loyalty to authority and respect for ritual and ceremony. Belief in a transcendent deity, in the Western sense of the word, was virtually nonexistent. The purpose of ritual in the Confucian system was not so much to bind people together through common prayers and worship as to provide state-regulated education and channel the energy of the population. "Lead them by means of virtue and regulate them through rituals and they will have a sense of shame and have standards," (9) was written in the Confucian Analects. "A ruler directs his ministers through established protocols. A minister serves his ruler with loyalty," (10) is another example from the Analects, which is also applicable to the principles of communist party's hierarchy, organization, and government.

Chinese communism, like Confucianism, carries strong moral messages, believes in the importance of state-approved (and controlled) education, preaches "self-improvement" as the Confucians did, demands strong loyalty, and promotes secular ritualism. In Confucianism, the emperor had a mandate from heaven. In Chinese communism, the ruling party has the infallible scientific theory of Marxism, a kind of "mandate from heaven."

Confucianism is a philosophy of pragmatic government and "gentlemanly" behavior; there is no mysticism in it. At the same time, it encourages superstition and religious belief as long as they are within the regulated framework of state-approved "standards". Here is an example:

"Why does it rain after a prayer for rain?" asks the Confucian sage and continues with sincerity, "I say, for no reason. It is the same as raining when you had not prayed. When there is an eclipse of sun or moon, you "save" it; when there is a drought, you pray for rain; when an important decision is to be made, you divine. It is not that you can get anything by doing so. It is just decoration (italics are mine). Hence, the gentlemen considers them ornament, but the common people think spirits are involved. To consider them ornament is auspicious; to consider them as spiritual acts is inauspicious." (11)

The dual, secular and religious nature of Confucianism, its pragmatic understanding of the place and value of religion for the purposes of state power, is particularly evident in the following story:

"Zigong inquired about governing. The Master said, "Make food supplies sufficient, provide an adequate army, and give the people reason to have faith." Zigong asked, "If one had no choice but to dispense with one of these three, which should it be?" "Eliminate the army." Zigong continued, "If one had no choice but get rid of one of the two remaining, which should it be?" "Dispense with food," Confucius said. "Since ancient times, death has always occurred, but people without faith cannot stand." (12)

The quoted story is a method and principle of government that the communists naturally follow. Their political ideology is a utopia, and they rely on the people's faith in the communist promise. They offer faith to the people; faith in the Communist Party, its leaders, and its ideology. Ideological indoctrination is at the heart of Communist rule in China. The other staples of good governance mentioned in the story - the army and the "nurturing" state - are also key components of Communist rule.

After the anti-Communist rebellion of 1989 and the fall of the Soviet bloc, the Communist Party in China launched two general campaigns: economic reforms to ensure that "the food supply is sufficient" (as Confucian wisdom says it should be), and educational campaigns, the building of the so-called "socialist spiritual civilization," which was meant to restore faith in the Communist Party and its messianic mission.

In its propaganda and policies, the Party has always used traditional Confucian approaches. For example, the post-Mao regime propagates the "Four Cardinal Principles," a phrase that immediately evokes associations with the popular Confucian "Five Principles of Relationship." Surely the majority of Chinese people do not care what the Four Cardinal Principles are, but the important thing here is that this propaganda phrase aims to appeal to the traditional psyche, the collective memory. It is a manipulation, just another example of the psychological war waged by the central power to control the minds and beliefs of millions of people. In fact, The Four Cardinal Principles are not principles at all, they are commands from the central power: 1) Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, 2) the socialist road, 3) the dictatorship of the proletariat, and 4) the leadership of the Communist Party. The character of the Confucian Five principles of relationships is not very different: 1) king to subject, 2) father to son, 3) husband to wife, 4) older brother to younger brother, 5) friend to friend. Both Communism and Confucianism demand the same--loyalty; and both rest on hierarchy.


The Communist Party treats religion and religious practices-Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, etc. - in the same way that the Confucian imperial elites treated them: sometimes with an iron fist in velvet gloves, sometimes with open hostility. When Buddhism entered China in the third and fourth centuries AD, the opposition to it was fierce. The Buddhist religion undermined the basic structures of old Chinese society, which was hierarchical and demanded loyalty to the king, elders, and ancestors.

The traditional Chinese worldview saw the cosmos as a three-tiered structure: Heaven, Man, and Earth. Man was the link between heaven and earth - that's why his actions could either disturb or facilitate cosmic harmony. But "man at the center" was not just any human being; he was the emperor, who bore the greatest responsibility for the proper functioning of the cosmic order. Confucianism placed moral responsibility on the king and state officials, teaching that when the center is corrupted, chaos is near.

Buddhism did not care about ancestorships and king's powers. "Although various schools of thinking in classical China had sought to diminish the power and vice of the princes through criticism, none of them had ever thought of re-envisioning the bond of society in anything other than kinship terms," says Antony C. Yu in his book State and Religion in China and continues, "The Buddhist Sangha, on the other hand, represented a radical re-definition of human community by eliminating the biological factor, and with it any valorization of kinship ties." (13) In the same book, Yu cites some writings from the period of Buddhist-Confucian polemical conflict that clearly show that the traditional Confucian elite was alarmed by the undermining effects of Buddhist belief on key Confucian concepts such as filial piety, lineage maintenance, and ancestral sacrifice.

One could still say that communism has nothing in common with the Confucian state and order, but that would be wrong. Chinese communism was a child of the national movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "With the rise of revolution and republicanism and the fall of the Qing, the link between cosmos and ruler was served. Sovereignty was meant to originate not from the balance of Heaven, Earth, and Man but from human agency alone," 14 says Rebecca Nedostup in her book Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity. "The 1911 Revolution had broken the link between state and cosmic power. When this failed to produce a strong Chinese nation-state, unified and able to negotiate its interests on the world stage, critics blamed lingering elements of the cultural past... New culture critics began to absorb other influences ranging from the atheism of the late Qing anarchist movement to the writings of Friedrich Engels, and linked religion to autocracy and imperialism... Intellectual debates posited that aesthetics, philosophy, or science would replace religion in modern civilization." (15)

Nedostup argues that nationalism conducted the first large-scale experiment in Chinese history. It created the first secular government stripped of rituals linking sovereignty to cosmic authority. It built a quasi-democratic nationalism theoretically based on popular mobilization but ultimately dependent on political control. It created secularized civic ceremonies and replaced customary models of social order, including religion, (16) but failed to unify the country and offer a cohesive system of belief or ideology that could accommodate the majority of the Chinese population. This last thing-unifying the state under a single state ideology and power-was successfully accomplished by the Communists. What they did was to preserve "secular nationalism" while promoting the religious promise of the communist "just" order and society. They were able to accommodate the majority of the Chinese people because their political base was the peasantry and they knew its soul, sufferings and aspirations well. Moreover, they not only built their regime on the back of the nationalist movement, but also managed to "modernize" and apply classical Confucianism in their own political strategy. In fact, they did something amazing... and yet natural. They absorbed Confucian ideals, nationalist ideals, and Marxist ideals while building a modern state on a traditional totalitarian basis. They used the experience of the past and the most powerful ideologies of the twentieth century to create modern Communist China, even its harsh criminal code with a wide range of death penalties resembles the legalistic tradition of the glorious Qin Dynasty.


Today, the Communist government in Beijing has the same problems as the old Confucian power. It must remain vigilant against any sign of religiously or ideologically inspired opposition. It must work tirelessly to educate, indoctrinate, and assimilate society into state rituals and beliefs. It must demand loyalty and punish the "traitors" mercilessly. It must take care of everything, because the party is responsible for everything, just as the emperor was responsible for cosmic harmony in the past. Perhaps today's Communist leaders secretly believe, as the old Confucian officials openly did, that history is a cyclical movement, not progressive as Marxism teaches. They probably know that their modern communist dynasty will come to an end, as all Chinese kingdoms have before, and they are doing their best to fight corruption in their ranks and increase the prosperity of the common man, hoping that the inevitable collapse will not come soon.

Finally, I would like to say that this text is not political. It doesn't aim to say what is good or bad in China, it only suggests the idea that Chinese communism is a synergy of old and new, an unusual "secular religion" that serves the power of the political center in the tradition of old imperial China.


1 In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anti-imperial, anti-colonial revolutionaries did not know Marxism. Their ideology was a shapeless compendium of unsettled ideas. For example, Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People-anti-imperialist nationalism, democracy, and socialism-though a motto of the revolutionary movement in the early twentieth century, was still an unclear grouping of vague concepts. Nationalism was the real ideology of early twentieth-century China, but after the Bolshevik Revolution, the withdrawal of the old Russian concessionaries, and the activity of the new Russian Communist emissaries in China, nationalism merged with Marxism, following the example of Soviet nation-building. For more historical references, see Jonathan D. Spence's " The Search for Modern China" , Part III, "Envisioning state and society" (Norton, New York, 1999) pp. 265-375, also Arif Dirik's " The origins of Chinese Communism " (Oxford University Press, 1989) and Benjamin I. Schvartz's " Chinese Communism and the rise of Mao " (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951).

2 We can easily see how far from orthodox Marxism Mao's thought is by simply comparing his writings with those of communist leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht. For example, in one of Luxemburg's and Liebknecht's most popular international communist texts, "A Call to the Workers of the World" (see "The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Works" (Courier Dover Publications, 2003) pp. 232-235), the word "imperialism" is mentioned only once, while "proletariat" appears seventeen times. When Mao says, "the main socialist transformation has been completed with respect to the system of ownership", he meant that the communists eliminated "landlord and comprador classes" (On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People (February 27, 1957), 1st pocket ed., pp. 51-52 ) The landlord is a feudal, the "comprador" is the person who trades with the Western companies, yet both of them have nothing to do with the "working classes" in the traditional Marxist sense. (See "How Communist is China?")

3 Richard C. Bush expresses the same opinion in Religion in Communist China, (Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) , (p.15)

4 "From the Other Side of the Desk" China Notes (September, 1963), pp. 3-4, quoted by Bush (Richard C. Bush, Religion in Communist China , ( Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) ,), p.18

5 Richard C. Bush, Religion in Communist China, ( Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) , p.19

6 Richard C. Bush, Religion in Communist China, ( Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) , p. 30

7 Quoted by Jonathan D. Spence in " The Search for Modern China", (Norton, New York, 1999, p. 495)

8 Antony C. Yu, State and Religion in China, (Open Court Publishing, 2005), p. 145

9 Patricia Ebrey, "Chinese Civilization. A Sourcebook " (Simon and Schuster, 1993) p.21

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid. p.24

12 Patricia Ebrey, "Chinese Civilization. A Sourcebook" (Simon and Schuster, 1993)

13 Antony C. Yu, State and Religion in China, (Open Court Publishing, 2005), p. 97

14 Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious regimes: religion and the politics of Chinese modernity, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2009 ), p. 9

15 Ibid.

16 Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious regimes: religion and the politics of Chinese modernity, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2009 ), p. 279


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