16 November 2015

Elite education and the Slavophil dilemma

I was brought to mind of this question whilst reading the recent book on contemporary Confucianism, The Renaissance of Confucianism in Contemporary China, which treats the radical-traditionalist political philosophy of Confucian gentleman Jiang Qing with a wide variety of criticisms and reactions. Some of these criticisms are extended exercises in question-begging and missing the point – Lo Ping-cheung’s broad intimations of fascism and totalitarianism are tiresome, and Chen Hung-yee’s obscurantist insistence on Xu Fuguan’s Old Text scholarship being superior to Jiang’s New Text scholarship is downright frustrating in that it has practically no force of argument behind it. Others, however, are utterly fascinating. Wang Tangjia’s attempt at correcting and fashioning a Confucian theory of gender based in-part on Jiang Qing’s ideas, as well as Hong Xiuping’s inquiries into what a Confucian academy would end up looking like, both seemed fruitful and thoughtful. And Zhang Xianglong’s inquiry into Jiang Qing’s universalist tendencies gets at what is, in my humble opinion, a major weak point in Jiang Qing’s political-philosophical programme. Even the infamous Daniel A. Bell’s probings into the possible overlaps between Jiang Qing’s political philosophy and those of Gan Yang and other ‘left-Confucians’ left me wanting to read further into this tradition. (Full disclosure: Zhang Xudong’s Whither China?, which has one of Gan Yang’s English-language essays, has been on my reading-list for ages. I will get to it eventually…)

But it strikes me that Jiang Qing is susceptible to, and in some ways only partially manages to avoid, one of the perennial problems of those non-Western thinkers (and even some Western thinkers, like Christopher Lasch) who have striven mightily against liberalisation, modernisation and bureaucratisation, and on occasion sought to use some of modernity’s own weapons against itself. Jiang’s hostility to soul-destroying careerism and consumerism, to parliamentary pandering and to bureaucratism, is as utterly unalloyed as, for example, Konstantin Pobedonostsev’s. To some extent, even the indignation that Pobedonostsev bears on behalf of the common people who get cheated in democratic systems into voting for the destruction of their cultural inheritance and their posterity, is shared by Jiang. And though Jiang faces this problem to a lesser extent than Pobedonostsev does on account of his unabashed defence of elite privilege, the Slavophil’s dilemma touches him all the same.

As Berdyaev pointed out, it would be a grievous mistake to characterise the Slavophils as mere autocrats or obscurantists. The writings of Khomyakov, Kireevsky and the Brothers Aksakov have in them the seeds of what came to be known as narodnichestvo. In their own time, they held aloft the ideal of the Russian peasant commune. In doing so, they critiqued a ruling class which had, from the time of Tsar Peter, sold off their own cultural inheritance of Eastern Orthodoxy and a deep connexion with the land, in exchange for the appearance of being Western. Naturally, this did not endear them at all to said ruling class, which censored them heavily! But therein lay the tragic irony of Slavophilism. They stood upon a kind of paternalistic, patriotic, populist ‘commune’-ism, which, as it historically played out, in the name of the peasantry afforded to the king, to the nobility and to the intelligentsia a dignity which they themselves denied and sought to disavow. Jiang’s own paternalism is more elitist than populist, but it has a similar communitarian trajectory, and thus suffers from a similar kind of irony. Jiang is disavowed, often vehemently, by the Chinese intelligentsia he champions, which itself is far too eager to trade away its own cultural birthright for a mess of capitalist pottage.

How, then, do those of us who are sympathetic to Jiang and to the Slavophils the square this circle? Should we even try? We see on the one hand a system of democratic rules and institutions whose flaws are now growing all too evident. Political activism and journalism have been blended together in a hellish Rupert Murdoch crucible, to form an insidious poison that attacks truth: on both sides of the American political spectrum, truths which challenge our presumptions and comfort are immediately not only dismissed, but attacked. And again, on both sides of the political spectrum, officials aspiring to election then feed parasitically upon these cancers of the intellect, and actually draw strength and legitimacy from their voter-bases, specifically for being unaccountable to reality.

But these problems don’t originate at the bottom. They never have. Opportunist manipulation of the democratic process originates with the elites; in the United States, it has always been somewhat the case that land-owners, merchants, bankers and speculators have used the religious and national sentiments of poorer segments of society for their own material gain. However, Goodwyn is right to note that the election of 1896, in which Mark Hanna used massive amounts of his corporate wealth to turn William McKinley’s campaign into a stage-managed spectacle, as a tipping-point in the way elite politics are done. And of course, May Fourth was hardly a peasant-driven movement, even in the slightest: it was driven entirely by the students and the intelligentsia.

Jiang’s own willingness to trust even a still-embryonic future Confucian elite with China’s destiny, given the damage they have sustained in the past (some of it, it can fairly be said, self-inflicted), struck me at first, and indeed still strikes me, as somewhat naïve. Having read his response to Hong Xiuping, I can appreciate that he is starting on a multi-generational project that we have no real way to gauge as yet. All I can say, though, is that I wish him and his Academy the very best, and hope for all of China’s sake that they succeed in cultivating true gentlemen.

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