- Depoliticization and the Chinese Intellectual Scene
It is not easy to construct a Left critique in China today. One has to work hard both to differentiate oneself from the socialist past—especially the contentious period of the Cultural Revolution—and to critique the capitalist present. It is much easier to fall into a liberal position of maintaining an opposition between the market and what is considered civil society, on one side, and the socialist state, on the other. Wang Hui, one of the strongest critics of contemporary inequality and the marketization of society and politics in China, argues against the ideological separation of the market and the state that has undergirded much of Chinese intellectual discourse since the 1980s. This argument is forcefully made in The End of the Revolution, a new English-language collection of his essays published by Verso. The book is a difficult read because the thread linking its essays is not always clear; they cover a broad series of topics and were written over more than a decade. But its difficulty also stems from the complexity of Wang's intellectual project and the particular politics that he has worked to construct.
Wang Hui's intellectual trajectory cannot be understood apart from the development of intellectual politics in China since the 1980s, when his academic career began and his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement shaped his political outlook. [End Page 141] The post-Mao Chinese intellectual scene of the 1980s was dominated by a progressive narrative of tradition and modernity, in which the West was the modern standard and China was forced to catch up. Intellectuals saw themselves as agents of a new enlightenment, and Maoism was seen as an offspring of authoritarian Chinese feudal tradition based in a conservative peasant mentality. Breaking with tradition meant converging with the West. The reform-period liberalism that emerged at the time imagined this process as a liberation of society from the state, with the freedom of the market determining the measure of that liberation. This was always an elite process in which intellectuals and radical reformers in the Communist Party were to engineer the transformation and guard against populist backlash—with the specter of a violent and chaotic Cultural Revolution always a present fear. While there were debates over how this process was to unfold and what the best policies were to speed its progress, this narrative remained hegemonic within the Chinese intellectual scene until the 1990s and the emergence of the New Left critique, of which Wang Hui was a central figure.
As he outlines in chapter 4, it was in the repressive years immediately following 1989 that Wang, who was banished to Shaanxi for a year in punishment for his participation in the movement, began to develop his major, four-volume work of intellectual history, The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought (2004)—discussed in several essays in the Verso collection. 1 In that intellectual history, finally published in Chinese in 2004 and yet to be translated into English, Wang rejected the teleological and progressive narrative of history of the 1980s and its key dichotomies of China/West, state/society, and empire/nation, transforming the dichotomy tradition/modernity in the process. For Wang—and this marks the key divergence of the New Left from the liberals in the 1990s—the 1980s narrative of enlightenment acted as an ideological veil, concealing the repressive link between market reforms and the postrevolutionary state. Instead of celebrating the present moment as a break from the feudal state, with the market playing the role of a modernizing and progressive agent, according to Wang it is the role of intellectuals to critically tear away the ideological veil that conceals the hidden connection between the market and the repressive state, revealing a present in which the market and capital dominate the social world.
The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought attempts to open up history as a nonteleological process, full of reversals and contingencies. Ranging across Chinese history, with a focus on the period from the Song...