- Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi ed. by Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, and Nicholas Loubere
There are a number of monographs and edited volumes that have sought to juxtapose the relationship between Maoist China and the contemporary moment.1 They have surveyed, perhaps even exhausted, the range of debates [End Page 71] opened up by this axis of comparison: whether political forms and social relations have lingered to a significant degree or not; how to periodize and distinguish between events and nonevents; and what possibilities or foreclosures are made visible by thinking in the vein of "post-socialism." While it has been made clear that there exists no clean divorce from the past—actors of all sorts have not reneged on the prospect of communism, not to mention the particular "dogmatic" strain still carried out by the CCP (p. 1)—thinking of China through the lens of communism's rise and fall continues to result in an impasse. Namely, what is the relevance of renegade figures and forms that have absorbed the blows of transformation, especially if their residues are not often experienced in meaningful ways?
Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi is a volume that identifies "new interpretive possibilities" by critically rethinking the terms of that question (p. 3). Editors Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, and Nicholas Loubere first introduce the book by pacing between the words "communism" and "Maoism," urging that they are not interchangeable and that "we must remind ourselves all the more not to confine the ideas, aspirations, and promises of Chinese communism to an individual or a time" (p. 2). Their argument demonstrates the limits of understanding China through a before-and-after progression; in the end, there is not just one communism reified by Mao, then undermined by economic reforms, leaving traces of the past. How his legacy is present in various forms and dealt with by the CCP and others—rather than solely being "confined to discussing communism under Mao as a case of being for or against it"—is crucial to understanding the whole communist picture, including the politics of present times, which still bears communism's moniker (p. 5).
Furthermore, the editors agree that "it is wrongheaded to see Communist Party governance as having changed entirely in the 1980s with the advent of Reform and Opening Up"; the transformations of the past several decades were not from one monolithic system to another (p. 6). "Instead," they point out, what appeared to be a single paradigm shift was actually "a fluid set of relations and evolving practices over time" (p. 6). It therefore seems appropriate that the body of the volume is comprised of a lexicon-style list of 53 conceptual categories of the Chinese communist tradition, with a different scholar attending to each one. The multitude of terms and analyses featured, all with different interpretations, offers a rich body of historical research, but beyond that, it questions the efficacy of dealing with political transformation as a single, large-scale phenomenon. To this end, the editors write, "the chapters do not add up to a determinable totality" (p. 6).
Some of the 53 entries, for example, emphasize continuities in conceptual thinking that adapt Mao-era formulations to suit new political ends. In "Aesthetics," Christian Sorace reflects on a 2014 speech made by Xi Jinping that [End Page 72] was evocative of Mao's 1942 Yan'an Talks, each of them stressing art's political potential, so long as its "critical function" is not to humiliate China but to portray its optimistic future (p. 16). Yet without "revolution and communism as [art's] horizon" in Xi's version, the proper value of art seems to be more fully reduced to shoring up state power, rather than provoking transformative change (p. 15). Similarly, Susan Trevaskes' "Socialist Law" recalls the emergence of China's legal system modeled after Soviet precedents...