Twenty years ago, Deng Xiaoping erected huge billboards throughout China that proclaimed, “Development is the Irrefutable Argument.” The way Deng’s slogan is translated today, China’s spectacular growth rates not only win the argument, they end the argument. The government speaks in a triumphalist discourse that is actually a remarkable echo of the language of nineteenth-century England, in the heyday of what historians later learned to call ‘the Industrial Revolution.’ England was enjoying tremendous industrial growth and taking over more and more of the world each year. Its mass media were united in an orgy of self-celebration. And yet its level of human suffering was alarmingly high. So much of its prosperity depended on the energy of its industrial working class, yet so much of this class lived in poverty and squalor. Victorian England was the world leader in productive power, but also in human misery. Plenty of people were aware of this mass misery. But most of them, when they thought critically, denounced the whole of modern life: they wished “to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts.” Marx was more complex: he wanted to affirm and to celebrate human progress, but also to confront its outrageous human costs. His thinking could be called a discourse of contradiction.
In our day everything seems pregnant with its contrary. Machinery, gifted with the power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character.
There are good reasons to say that ‘everything is pregnant with its contrary’ in China today and to look for a language that can grasp and penetrate its inner contradictions. It is ironic that, for decades, a travesty of Marxism was imposed on a backward, peasant China that couldn’t possibly digest it. It is only now, as China goes through dramatic and explosive development, that Marx’s discourse of contradiction can be a powerful critical vision of its real life.
more from Marshall Berman at Dissent here.