- Confucian Marxism: A Reflection on Religion and Global Justice by Chen Weigang
Confucian Marxism: A Reflection on Religion and Global Justice by Chen Weigang is part of the series “Ideas, History, and Modern China.” As the title suggests, Chen establishes a constructive encounter between Confucianism and Marxism, two schools of thought that are too rarely seated at the same table. By way of laying out a sociologically and philosophically informed framework, Chen develops a challenging and densely argued interpretation of what he aptly refers to as “peripheral liberal deformation” (p. 4). Western capitalism has expanded globally without bringing about the normative ethos that has accompanied it in the advanced capitalist center in the West. If Weber, the author’s overarching interlocutor, is right, the Western tradition of Protestantism and its ascetic Berufsmensch, the person dedicated to a vocation, not only contributed to the emergence of capitalism but enabled the rise [End Page 291] of a class of people dedicated to pursuing the public good. The guiding motivation of combining insights from Marxism and Confucianism within a revised Weberian framework is to better explore why Western capitalism did not manage to bring about those normative achievements in China and other peripheral (i.e., non-Western) countries that it had in the West. In ten chapters, Chen outlines a comprehensive theory of the “Confucian social” as an alternative or parallel form of the “Protestant Social,” which Weber identified as the motor of institutionalizing morality in the European context. This volume is thus of interest not only to China scholars but also to those who want to better understand why the self-conception of global liberalism, which takes itself to be universal and detachable from its cultural roots, is at best simplistic and, in its current form, misleading and serves ideological purposes.
Chen primarily focuses on contrasting Protestant ethics with Confucian ethics, with occasional references to asceticism and conceptions of fate in the Indian traditions. The example of China shows that peripheral countries that have taken over many other aspects — such as capitalist market economies, science, and modern technology — do not also automatically adopt Western-style democratic structures. The sweeping exposure of pathologies in all corners of the social and political spheres in China leaves no doubt that the author is worried about the moral and political condition of the post–Cold War PRC. The failure of the liberal bourgeois model of democratization to integrate cultural diversity at a global, as well as national, level is most visibly expressed in its inability to give rise to democracies in non-Protestant cultures. Instead of the emergence of a genuine public sphere guided by the ideal of equality, with an interest in pursuing social justice, in peripheral countries public reason remains crucially underdeveloped. As the term ‘liberal deformation’ suggests, public reason has been corrupted. In the process of market expansions, we witness what Habermas interprets as a colonization of the life world by instrumental rationality. What is lacking in deformed peripheral polities is the acknowledgment of the vital need for a civil society, with the capacity of private citizens to make use of public reason, rather than misuse public goods for private purposes.
Confucian Marxism goes beyond identifying the phenomenon of peripheral liberal deformation in that Chen ventures to explain why the recent economic rise of China coincides with a turn away from democratic liberalism: “Given the persistence of peripheral liberal deformation, de-liberalization or de-Westernization is almost a ‘logical prerequisite’ for the upward mobility of a peripheral nation within the capitalist world system controlled and dominated by the Western core countries” (p. 7). Peripheral liberal deformation cannot, in this account, be explained without focusing on the split in Western cultures between the liberal culture and the subculture of its dominant group (pp. 306–307). While it is never fully made explicit, the proposed framework of Confucian Marxism is not only meant to explain the emergence of a deformed reason outside the Western core countries, but also points to a different kind of reason...