Monday, August 09, 2010

Daniel Bell and The Chinese Confucian Party

"It is not entirely fanciful to surmise that the Chinese Communist Party will be relabeled the Chinese Confucian Party in the next couple of decades."

That's the remarkable claim being made these days by Daniel Bell, a professor of political theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has elaborated his argument for this claim in a book--China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton University Press, 2010). Brief statements of his reasoning can be found in two essays for The New York Times and Dissent, which can be found here and here.

I have a special interest in Bell's argument, because in October, I'll be presenting a paper at Beijing University entitled "The Dao of Confucianism and Darwinism," arguing that China needs a new Confucianism supported by Darwinian liberalism.

Does Bell support my argument for a liberal Confucianism sustained by Darwinian science? It's hard to say, because his reasoning is confusing, if not contradictory.

On the one hand, his claim that the Chinese Communist Party needs to be replaced by a Chinese Confucian Party suggests a rejection of communism in favor of Confucianism. He says that "Communism has lost its capacity to inspire the Chinese," that the failures of Maoist Marxism were so clear that Marxism no longer has any moral legitimacy, and so Marxism is totally dead in China. "A moral foundation for political rule in China," Bell observes, "almost certainly won't come from Karl Marx" (ix, xix, 8). This leads me to think he agrees with me that China needs a liberal Confucianism to replace Marxist socialism.

On the other hand, Bell insists that he's defending a socialist Confucianism that conforms to the current Marxist ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Leaders of the Party say that their move in recent decades to promote capitalism is only the "primary stage of socialism." In accordance with Marx's ideology, capitalism is a necessary evil, a transitional stage that must prepare the way for a final revolution that will establish "higher communism." In this final revolution, family life, private property, and social hierarchy will be abolished in a utopian community of pure socialism (3-5). Bell advocates a "left Confucianism"--rooted in the "original Confucianism" of Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi--that supports the "socialist ideals defended by Karl Marx" and thus supports the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (xxix-xxx).

This contradiction in Bell's argument is hard for me to resolve. I do wonder, however, whether this contradiction comes from a rhetorical maneuver that creates a tension between Bell's surface teaching and his secret teaching. In his Dissent article, Bell writes: "As a practical matter, interpretations of Confucianism are more likely to win acceptance in reformist circles of the ruling political class if they are also seen to draw upon socialist ideals." In his book, he writes: "Nor is it possible to openly say what almost everyone knows to be true: that Marxist-Leninism is basically dead as a ruling philosophy" (xix). Does this suggest that his defense of "socialist Confucianism" is actually a rhetorical ploy to obscure the fact that Marxist socialism is completely dead in China? So he only pretends to be working for the eventual triumph of true socialism? Is he really promoting a "liberal Confucianism" as his secret teaching?

This becomes a plausible possibility if we keep in mind that Bell has lived under the threat of persecution and censorship, which forces writers who want to criticize political rulers to employ an evasive style of writing. Bell is a Canadian who studied political theory at McGill University in Montreal and at the University of Oxford. In England, he met his Chinese wife. He then taught political theory in Singapore and Hong Kong before going to Tsinghua University, where he became the first foreigner in the humanities since the Chinese communist revolution. He says that in comparison with Singapore, "China is a paradise of academic freedom" (129). But he also says that he has to worry that if he becomes too openly critical of the Party's position, he could lose his visa and be expelled from China.

If Bell really is secretly agreeing with me that China needs a liberal Confucianism to replace Marxist socialism as the ground of moral order, then he's hiding the secret very well! He repeatedly insists that the Confucian tradition requires socialism, and that any conception of Confucian liberalism must be rejected. And yet his arguments for this conclusion are so weak, and even incoherent, that I must wonder whether this is part of his rhetorical strategy to hide his endorsement of Confucian liberalism from the communist party censors.

Let's start with the most obvious problem for any defense of a socialist Confucianism. Marxist socialism requires the abolition of family life. Bell admits that when the Chinese Communist Party tried "to replace family ties with ties to the state during the Cultural Revolution," this failed because it was contrary to "central Confucian values and habits" (10). It's impossible to conceive of Confucianism without filial piety. Bell never explains how Confucianism could be compatible with the socialist abolition of the family.

Moreover, the failure of Mao's Marxist government to extinguish Confucian traditions in China, despite resolute attempts to do so, testifies to the power of a Confucian civil society to resist governmental interference, which confirms the liberal argument as to the importance of civil society--the intermediary social groups between the individual and the state--as the ground of moral order.

After citing a few examples of how the Chinese government has recently begun to promote Confucianism, Bell observes that "the revival of Confucianism is not just government-sponsored" (x). He then gives examples of how the revival of Confucianism has occurred outside of government. Academics have been studying Confucianism. Psychologists have noticed Confucian styles of thinking among Chinese people. Economists have seen the economic effects of Confucian family values. Scholars of business ethics have studied the influence of Confucian values on Chinese business practices. Political scientists and sociologists have shown the influence of Confucianism during the modernization of Chinese society and government.

Bell fails to see that this all points to the power of a Confucian civil society in China. Despite all the efforts of the Maoist government to destroy Confucianism, Confucian values have survived in the social life of China. This is a historical demonstration of the power of Confucian society to prevail over the power of an oppressive government.

The importance of civil society for Confucianism is also evident in the Confucian understanding of how rituals sustain moral order through the spontaneous order of social habits and customs that rest not on governmental coercion but on social persuasion. It is not always clear that Bell sees this.

After summarizing Xunzi's account of ritual as a social practice arising from social tradition, Bell observes: "Ritual practices, as Xunzi notes, are the guiding ropes that pull the government (27.24). So the most obvious starting place for reform would be the establishment of a government agency with the specific mission to promote rituals that help the vulnerable members of the community" (51).

Notice that Bell here reverses Xunzi's teaching. For Xunzi, ritual principles should guide the government. For Bell, the government should guide the ritual principles. And yet, Bell apparently doesn't notice that his conclusion from Xunzi's teaching is actually a reversal of the teaching, because Bell can't see how rituals can arise from the bottom of society as spontaneous social order without coercive governmental planning from the top.

But, then, only a few pages later, Bell changes his mind: "the less-than-inspiring history of governmental attempts to transform motivation (even of the indirect kind) is reason for caution. So the case for ritual should come largely from schools (e.g., teachers who emphasize rituals and set a good model for students), families (e.g., parents who encourage their children to let the elderly eat first), civil society (e.g., intellectuals who explain the benefits of ritual), and other groups in society that rely first and foremost on persuasion rather than coercion" (53).

So, now, Bell recognizes the importance of civil society as the ground for Confucian values--"groups in society that rely first and foremost on persuasion rather than coercion." But in contrast to socialism, this is exactly the teaching of liberalism--that moral order arises primarily from the spontaneous order of society working through character-forming habits and traditions that rest on social persuasion rather than governmental coercion. A liberal government secures the freedom of civil society by enforcing the procedural conditions for peaceful social cooperation--recognizing the rights and duties of family life, protecting against force and fraud, enforcing contracts and private property, generally securing the rule of law, and providing for military defense. A Chinese liberal government would thus allow the flourishing of Confucian civil society.

By contrast, a Chinese socialist government that would try to abolish family life, abolish private property, and reconstruct the moral order of society according to a coercively enforced central plan would have to try to abolish Confucianism--just as Mao's government tried to do.

So why doesn't Bell embrace a liberal Confucianism? After all, he notices that some scholars of Confucianism--like Wm. Theordore de Bary--have seen a "liberal tradition" in Confucian history. Well, it's not clear, because in the two works I have cited--his most recent book and his article in Dissent--there are only two paragraphs where he explains his objections to liberal Confucianism. In the article, he claims that "liberalism" is a Western idea, and therefore a "liberal Confucianism" would have to subordinate Confucianism to the foreign standards of liberalism, which would fail to take Confucianism seriously on its own grounds (p. 4). In the book, he objects that there can be no common ground between liberalism and Confucianism, because while Confucianism is a comprehensive way of life, a moral conception of how one should live, liberalism is "mainly a political philosophy rather than an all-embracing ethical philosophy" (150). Liberals defend the idea of limited government that does not prescribe how people should live in their private lives, as long as they respect the equal liberty of others. Liberals leave private individuals to live as they please. But one cannot be a Confucian without accepting the moral norms of the Confucian way of life.

The first point--that "liberalism" is a Western idea that is foreign to China--is odd, considering that Bell is advocating a fusion of Confucianism with Marxist socialism, which is obviously a very Western idea. But this also begs the question at issue, which is whether a liberal order is far more hospitable to Chinese Confucianism than is Marxist socialism. If Confucianism flourishes in civil society, as Bell seems to say, then shouldn't he support a Chinese liberal order that would promote the freedom of civil society?

The second point--that liberalism, unlike Confucianism, cannot support "an all-embracing ethical philosophy"--is false, unless one believes that liberalism is libertinism or moral relativism. Surely, Adam Smith was an important liberal thinker, and his Theory of Moral Sentiments sets forth "an all-embracing ethical philosophy." But Smith explains how moral order arises through the natural and voluntary associations of social life that shape moral character by cultivating the moral sentiments. Later, Darwin explained how this view of morality could be rooted in an evolved moral sense. Thus, liberals can see the importance of a moral tradition like Confucianism that arises from moral persuasion in society rather than legal coercion by government.

Bell claims that his socialist Confucianism would conform to the "original Confucianism" of Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi. But he never specifies how we could read Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi as endorsing "the ideals of Karl Marx." Abolition of the family? Abolition of property? Dictatorship of the proletariat? I don't see any of this in the Confucian texts.

But I do see Menius arguing for low tax rates (10%), limited government, and free markets. That sounds pretty liberal to me. Mencius also warns that most political rulers suffer from a lust for power and "a taste for killing people." And he suggests assassination as one good response to tyrannical rule. Isn't this suspicion of absolute power justified by the record of Marxist rulers like Mao?

Modern liberals have looked to constitutionalism as a way of channelling, checking, and balancing the powers of government to protect against the abuse of power. Bell also has a set of constitutional proposals for China. But it's not clear whether his proposed constitution is either Confucian or socialist.

Bell's proposal is in response to Jiang Qing's recent proposal for "political Confucianism" in China. Jiang is a Chinese Confucian who has stirred both admiration and controversy in arguing for a Chinese constitution in which Confucianism would become the state religion, and the national government would be organized around a legislature with three houses.

According to Jiang, there are three sources of legitimacy for a state--"heavenly sacredness," earthly historical tradition, and human consent. He proposes to institutionalize these three sources of legitimacy through a tricameral legislature. Bell summarizes this in an appendix to his book (175-91).

The "House of Exemplary Persons" would evoke heavenly sacredness. Members would be chosen by Confucian organizations relying on examinations testing knowledge of the Confucian classics.

The "House of Cultural Continuity" would have members representing various religions and members who were descendants of great sages, including the descendants of Confucius.

The "People's House" would be chosen by elections and functional constituencies to represent the masses of uneducated people.

Although all religions would be tolerated, Confucianism would be the established state religion.

Bell agrees with Jiang in rejecting liberal democracy as rule by the uneducated, irrational people who constitute the majority in any society. Both Bell and Jiang look to rule by the educated few as the best.

Bell admits, however, that there might be a problem here in that Jiang "underestimates the political intelligence of ordinary people and overestimates that of intellectuals" (191). Bell also wonders whether written examinations are the best way to find the most virtuous people, because of the problem of "how to filter out clever but amoral (or immoral) exam takers" (187). But, even so, Bell never takes seriously the possibility that intellectuals who become political rulers might be imperfect in their knowledge or their virtue. Whereas liberalism assumes that that is always the case.

Bell sees problems in Jiang's tricameral legislature that lead him to propose an alternative bicameral legislature. Bell proposes that there be a meritocratic house with members chosen for seven- or eight-year terms by examinations, which should cover not only the Confucian classics, but also world history, basic economics, and a foreign language. He says that for this house, "there are strict penalties for corruption."

The other house of the legislature would be democratically elected to represent the preferences of the people--those who are uneducated and irrational.

Those in the meritocratic house would be free from the narrow and irrational interests of the people, and therefore they could judge how best to promote the common good of the whole nation as well as the common good for future generations, for all of humanity, and even all animals.

According to Bell, one example of the wisdom to come from the meritocratic house is that they would adopt the policies for solving the global warming crisis set forth in Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth (196).

There are lots of reasons to be skeptical of such a utopian vision of rule by the wise elite over the ignorant masses. But what is most perplexing about all this is how Bell claims that this is "political Confucianism," although he admits that there is no basis for any of this in the Confucian texts (180). Of course, beginning in the Han Dynasty, there was a long tradition in Imperial China of recruiting state bureaucrats through an examination in the Confucian texts. This ended in 1905, near the end of the Qing Dynasty. But Bell never endorses this as a historical precedent for what he has in mind, probably because he doesn't want to endorse Imperial Confucianism as the sort of Confucianism that he wants.

There is one crucial point where I agree with Bell. He rejects Jiang's appeal to Confucianism as a state religion with "sacred sources from Heaven." I agree with Bell's argument that Confucius was evasive or silent about metaphysical or supernatural conceptions of "Heaven" or the afterlife, because his primary concern was for human life on earth. This supports my claim that Confucianism shares with Darwinism a "humanistic" conception of moral order as arising not from cosmic sources--God, Nature, or Reason--but from human sources--human nature, human tradition, and human judgments.

In my China paper, I will be elaborating my reasoning for why Darwinian science would support a humanistic and liberal Confucianism. Much of that reasoning will be drawn from my many blog posts in recent months on Confucianism and Darwinian liberalism.


Anonymous said...

Interesting review. Certainly dogmatic Marxism is dead as ruling philosophy in China. However, maybe Bell has something else in mind when he claims that the Ruist texts support socialism versus liberalism. To oversimplify, the Ruists, however much some of their proposals might look like some parts of contemporary liberal democracy, were collectivists, with right and wrong being judged primarily on the basis of how your actions affected your family and your clan, and also, but secondarily, the state. Liberal democracy is individualistic. If I were a high ranking CCP member, I would work tirelessly to prevent China from becoming too individualistic, because I would figure that if it does become too individualistic it will result in disharmony, i.e. revolution and violence.

Also, isn't the only form of Confucianism possible in China an imperial form, as China is an empire? I do wonder if any one on the radical left will ever write a book entitled; Darwinian Marxism. Surely someone imaginative could dream up a leftist utopia that includes spontaneous order? I mean, isn't that more or less the point of Europe's social democracies?


Larry Arnhart said...


Yes, Bell wrote his dissertation arguing that "communitarianism" was superior to "liberalism." What he sees in Confucianism is a communitarian ethics that looks more attractive to him than liberal individualism. In his mind, the communitarian character of Confucianism puts it closer to socialism than to liberalism.

My objection to this kind of thinking is that it assumes that classical liberalism promotes an atomistic individualism that denies the social nature of human beings. This is what Hayek calls "false individualism," as opposed to the "true individualism" that classical liberals endorse.

As naturally social animals, human individuals must develop their nature through social interaction. Classical liberals say that they do this best in civil society--in the family and in the voluntary social groups that spring up wherever human beings are free to live as they please.

A liberal government will secure the conditions for the spontaneous order of civil society. A totalitarian government will try to extinguish civil society.

The history of Confucianism in China under Mao's rule shows the power of a Confucian civil society to resist Mao's socialist attempt to destroy it.

Mao's socialism was the enemy, not the friend, of Confucian communitarianism.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Arnhart,

I think that the distinction between the formal, legal individualism that allows for the spontaneous order of civil society versus atomism and anomie is a good distinction to make, but to speak of it in terms of liberalism is misleading due to recent politics in the U.S. Unfortunately, popular discourse has made the term classical liberal synonymous with neo-liberal economics, which is purposefully opposed to communitarian culture and committed to anomic, atomistic culture as a way to support the interests of the CEO's. I mean, isn't the war of businesses on Unions not only about money, but also part of the destruction of American civil society? Not that I am a progressive or anything, but I do wonder how much the U.S. form of government, i.e. interest group pluralism, really does support, as opposed to destroy, civil society. While I think that your characterization of classical liberalism is correct, classical liberalism is too often confused with the Washington consensus.