If you haven’t already, I urge you to take two minutes and watch the new Joe Biden ad criticizing Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are a wide range of valid and vital criticisms of Donald Trump’s handling of the situation — from his initial insistence that the virus was a hoax, to his elevation of a pillow manufacturer as a core member of the team — but pay careful attention to the ad’s language as it posits what specifically Trump did wrong. Here we see advanced the position that ultimate blame for the United States’ current crisis lies not in the inability of the US state apparatus to meaningfully protect its subjects, but rather in Trump’s failure to adequately hold China accountable for their role in the crisis.
It uses the classic attack ad shadow-filter as it depicts Trump’s praise of China’s approach, the voiceover saying with derision that “Trump praised the Chinese 15 times during January and February.”
So what, exactly, does the so-called left party’s candidate for president claim would have been the solution to the pandemic? A “CDC team on the ground” which Trump never got into China — of course interposed over footage of Chinese police marching in lockstep — and a travel ban of Chinese citizens entering America.
The argument is that the best thing the US could have done in order to secure a better outcome would be to “send in a team”, which of course has major interventionist associations given the militaristic images that the claim is interposed against. Core to this argument is that the real danger in our situation comes not from an intentionally hollowed-out US political apparatus, but from a trust in the Chinese state. When you get down to it, the only concrete path forward —other than to oust Donald Trump of course, which has become the singular obsession of American liberals to the detriment of basically every political project they claim to actually support — is to take a harder stance on China!
Much of the backlash against this ad from American left-liberal media has focused on the effect of this ad on anti-East-Asian xenophobia here in America, which is no doubt a dangerous outcome (see the irony of the liberal wing of the party which criticized Trump for his “Muslim ban” now calling for a similar measure on “the Chinese”). But we must understand this emerging situation not simply for its effects on the American internal political climate, but as part of a larger project of bipartisan alignment toward a new Cold War with a growing Chinese national power.
As the United States’ imperial power has waned over the last 40 years of barely-managed decline, and China’s post-1979 reform position has driven an unprecedented level of economic growth, it feels more and more like the language of conflict with China have increased — and this crisis is accelerating that process. So how are we to respond?
What we must acknowledge is that just as one must never ascribe “the discourse” to the 600 people you follow on Twitter, we must always bring a historical and material analysis to the ideological apparatus before being able to decide how to respond. And by doing so, it’s plain to see that the same voices who drove anti-communist and anti-national-liberation narratives around the globe during the twentieth century are the same ones pushing an anti-China line here.
Take the Kissinger Institute, which since 2016 has been pushing the line of “Great Power Competition” as the lens through which to view the modern situation, which of course relies on the view of China’s state apparatus as restrictive and authoritarian in contrast with America’s democratic and open society (eliding of course the anti-democratic aspects of a privately-owned system of production). Or the historically anti-socialist (and CIA-backed) National Endowment for Democracy coming in to aggressively promote narratives of Uyghur repression in the Xinjiang autonomous region through hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding.
Even more seemingly “neutral” outlets like the New York Times must be seen as existing within these structures which exist for private profit and have very close connections to the US state apparatus as a result of those shared class interests. Those who wish to take the New York Times’ narrative of “journalistic repression” in being expelled from China in recent weeks at face value will do well to remember the Times’ credulous reporting of state narratives around Iraqi WMD programs in the run up to the 2003 invasion, their anti-Philippine independence stance, etc.
Just look at the last three articles written by Paul Mozur, which clearly show a particular narrative developing about a repressive Chinese state apparatus and a growing conflict with China:
And the crucial point here is not that China is a perfect society, one that upholds the principles of class struggle effectively, or even that China is not itself an imperialist power, but rather that to accept the criticism from demonstrably right wing and imperialist outlets as worthy of entertaining without analyzing its essential class characteristics is a losing proposition for any who wish to effectively oppose imperialism.
We must remember that ideas do not exist in abstract, disconnected from their effects, but rather as part of the struggle between classes in order to advance particular positions within that struggle. As Mao writes in “On The Correct Handling of Contradictions Among The People” about the “hundred flowers campaign”:
Literally the two slogans -- let a hundred flowers blossom and let a hundred schools of thought contend -- have no class character; the proletariat can turn them to account, and so can the bourgeoisie or others. Different classes, strata and social groups each have their own views on what are fragrant flowers and what are poisonous weeds.
What always must be infused, even and especially into our desire to criticize existing socialist societies around the globe, must be a desire to move away from reflexively joining into criticism when we agree with it, but rather to organize in deed for real movement into the direction of socialism. From Lenin’s “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky” on the danger of following a reflexive nationalist line into the imperialist World War:
The Mensheviks deceived the people in a most despicable manner by calling this war a defensive or revolutionary war... Kautsky is pursuing a characteristically petty-bourgeois, philistine policy by pretending (and trying to make the masses believe the absurd idea) that putting forward a slogan alters the position. The entire history of bourgeois democracy refutes this illusion; the bourgeois democrats have always advanced and still advance all sorts of "slogans" in order to deceive the people. The point is to test their sincerity, to compare their words with their deeds, not to be satisfied with idealistic or charlatan phrases, but to get down to class reality.
So, if you ever look back at the twentieth century and think “maybe McCarthyism, indiscriminate bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia, and supporting death squads in Latin America in the name of anti-communism were all bad”, then maybe it’s time to take a second before joining in with the same narratives that gave cover to those actions on behalf of American imperialism!
So, by all means, take on a position of critique for improving the direction of socialist movements around the globe, but when you stand for those movements, do not ignore who you end up standing with and what they might want from the future.