News | Rosa Luxemburg - China What Can Rosa Luxemburg Tell Us about Being an Intellectual Today?

On thinking and reflecting from one’s own position



Xiong Min,

Rosa Luxemburg’s mugshot taken in a Warsaw prison, 1906.

I was born, live, and work in Wuhan. I am a single mother with three children, a member of the Communist Party of China, and also a college teacher.[1] In the coronavirus pandemic, neither I nor any close relatives and friends I know contracted the disease, let alone died. I know that a small number of people in the community where I live were infected and were quickly sent for treatment or quarantined. I have heard about some deaths, such as the first “whistle-blower” Li Wenliang,[2] or a physician in private clinics who often treated my family members and whom I have heard of many times, or the uncle of one of my good friends.

Xiong Min is an Associate Professor at the School of Marxism, Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, Wuhan, China. This article is based on her presentation at “Rosa Luxemburg at 150: Revisiting Her Radical Life and Legacy”, a conference hosted by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the International Rosa Luxemburg Society on 4–5 March 2021.

Maybe at first glance the information is not so shocking because of being somewhat removed. However, I do feel the huge panic that always exists in my heart, the anger of being forced into a dangerous situation because of not being informed of the danger in time, and the greater anger, sadness, and disappointment when the voice of anger and accountability is suppressed. I also feel gratitude for others’ bravery and fearless dedication, the feeling of both luck and guilt for having “escaped” the disease, as well as bewilderment upon discovering that the pandemic has highlighted anti-intellectual and populist tendencies around the world and caused the breakdown of many accepted norms.

Therefore, even if I know that what I have seen and thought this year must be one-sided, related to the peculiarities of my personal circumstances, and perhaps even highly prejudiced, I nevertheless appreciate and cherish the opportunity to attend this symposium very much. Only when everyone shares his or her knowledge and thoughts can we piece together a relatively objective picture of the world’s reality and future direction based on countless limited but incomparably real understandings. Each of us needs to be heard and seen.

Some Clarifications

First of all, please let me clarify the following points:

  1. If I make criticisms in the article, it does not mean that I am an extreme dissident from China. Rather, this criticism is an educator’s gentle reflection and criticism from within the system about herself, China, and the globalized world.
  2. I do not represent China, Wuhan, or anyone else, but only myself.
  3. China seems to have achieved a “victory” against the coronavirus, but I must admit that for me, there is not much joy (except for a few situations such as spending quality time with my kids and talking with friends). Long-term sadness, anxiety, and other emotions are not only unable to be released under the narrative of “victory”, but also are not allowed to be released. In fact, I feel that I am suffering from the aftereffects of disaster, which is manifested in the loss of enthusiasm for life, a deep sense of the meaninglessness of work, and extremely serious procrastination and low work efficiency. It is also manifested in the extent to which I want to face myself and sort myself out, and then in the number of times that I use various excuses to escape from and delay this endeavour.

​​​​​​​Therefore, when Sobhanlal Datta Gupta invited me to participate in this meeting as one of the speakers, I accepted the invitation without hesitation. I desperately needed a push from an external force to give me the impetus to face myself, to channel and heal myself by speaking out. Here, please allow me to express my deep gratitude to this meeting for providing me with an opportunity to spur myself into action! And as a manifestation of those “disaster aftereffects”, this speech was not completed until the final deadline.

Four Metaphors

1. “Lord Ye, who was fond of dragons”[3]

I do not know if you still remember a photo from the news on 2 September 2015. The picture shows the lonely remains of a Syrian boy who drowned as a result of a failed boat crossing facilitated by human traffickers. He was lying on a beach in Turkey, as if resting there, but in fact there was no sign of life. It was heart-breaking. And if it were not for this picture, I am afraid I would never have paid attention to the death of a boy named Alan Kurdi, and would not have paid attention to the refugee problem happening in the “distant” Middle East. I now realize that, for me, this had previously been a far-off concern that then aroused the sympathy of mothers all over the world through that eye-catching picture. It has nothing to do with politics or history. If we put it more cruelly and directly, disasters and atrocities that occurred far away are only “ornamental” to those who are not directly involved. It provides the “viewer” with the aesthetic experience of tears and heartache, provides a kind of shallow empathy, and even makes him or her feel superior and lucky in comparison.

I was such a “viewer” at that time. And the reason why I can sit back and observe is because the distance is safe enough, because it has nothing to do with my own interests. To reference the Chinese idiom “Lord Ye, who was fond of dragons”: I am the “Lord Ye” who expresses a fondness for dragons, and yet runs away when the real dragon appears. Once disaster strikes me, or in my vicinity (as with the sudden arrival of COVID-19), once my own interests are involved, I may be at a loss, may easily change my position, may easily agree to use violence to control violence, may choose escape, or conform to the status quo. Only through this comparison can I truly understand the disintegration of the Second International before World War I, which Rosa Luxemburg faced and was deeply disappointed with.

2. “The Boston Massacre”

From 2016 to 2017, I attended the University of California, Santa Barbara for one year. My oldest child was 13 years old and accompanied me to the United States to study in a local middle school. One day she said to me, “we are learning about the Boston Massacre today. Guess what! There were only five people who actually died and it has been called a massacre!” I forget how I responded at that time, but I always remember the surprise that my daughter expressed and the very different understanding of life hidden behind it. I even thought that when I was her age, I might also have responded to it in a similar way.

In this unprecedented global pandemic, I have come across two very different understandings of life once again. The writer Fang Fang says, “once a grain of ash of the times falls on everyone’s head, it is a mountain”.[4] However, there are also some others attempting to obscure or even obliterate individuals through the use of grand national and ethnic narratives. Perhaps there is also a certain rule here: in a peaceful and affluent society or era, every specific individual is more easily seen, while in times of change and social turmoil, the power of the group, the game of the group, and the consensus within the group are of vital importance. The individual must melt into the group, must make sacrifices for the group, but the individual is also more likely to be trapped and wiped out by the group.

3. The Airplane Experience and the Disappearance of “Da Jia”

I once went to South Korea to participate in the International Rosa Luxemburg Conference held at the end of November 2015. It was almost wintertime. Actually, every winter in Wuhan, facing the grey and murky sky, I would feel gloomy and lament the increasing environmental pollution. However, that day, when the plane ascended over Wuhan, I saw so intuitively a few huge chimneys gushing white smoke into the air, and it was only in that instant that I really felt the connection between those chimneys and the dark sky, a vision so stark that it surpassed my cognition of environmental issues from papers, books, and news. My understanding of environmental pollution was finally confirmed, strengthened, and deepened by this sudden appearance of specific “totality”. I cannot help think that this experience may seem trivial, but it seems to show me two steps for intellectuals to participate in reality. The first is to truly experience, immerse oneself, and engage in it; the second is to keep a distance from reality, the status quo, and the tiny trivialities of life, just like the airplane taking off and overlooking the earth, so as to obtain a specific overall understanding.

Contrary to this accidental connection between theory and reality, I also witnessed a symbolic separation between the intelligentsia and the populist masses during the pandemic.

I really like reading articles on a self-publishing media platform called Da Jia, partly because of the depth of the articles it publishes, but also because of the pun in the name Da Jia, which refers to both “Great Masters” and the masses. However, this platform, which had existed for more than seven years, was shut down at the end of January 2020. Its final publication was an article entitled “Wuhan pneumonia for 50 days, all Chinese are bearing the cost of media death”. And many days before its demise, I noticed the hostility in its comment section, and some people even directly threatened to report it. I regret to see that this self-publishing media platform, which once hoped to use the dual meaning of “Da Jia” to realize the connection between the intellectual class and the general public, has ended up in the defeat of the intellectual class, and this defeat imbued with a slight sense of tragedy.

4. “Please Raise Your Hand If You Haven’t Come”

As far as I know, this statement originated from the tradition of Xiangsheng (literally “face and voice”, a kind of comic dialogue), which in this case satirizes the stupidity of a warlord in the period of the Republic of China with this apparently illogical expression. If we put aside the irony in it for a while, the expression itself seems to be similar to what we usually call “survivorship bias”. But this is worse, for it blatantly uses the survivor’s “survival legitimacy” to deny and obliterate the existence of non-survivors or “people who have not come”, because not raising their hands means their non-existence. It is obvious that those who do not come are either the vulnerable groups or the unseen side of history and reality. However, only by seeing the latter at the same time can we truly understand and grasp the history and reality.

Thus I also seem to understand a puzzle that has lingered in my consciousness. In recent years, following my interest, I have read a number of books that I did not know or would not have paid attention to before. I am surprised to find that what I am doing is peering into the scars of the system, and looking for the “missing” parts of history. And it is in this scarring journey, due to the contrast with the previous understanding, that my understanding of reality and the future has become increasingly obscured and confused, and even made me wonder whether I am getting closer to the truth, or further away. Now I have come to understand that the original intention of seeking the “missing” or the “people who have not come” in history and reality is simply akin to “I do not want you to tell me the selected facts, but to get to know all the facts; I do not want you to tell me what to do and think, but I have to think and judge by myself and for myself”. This is the inevitable growth process of becoming a “person”, and we cannot just confine ourselves to recognizing this law in the field of education.

Who Am I?

To understand the world, to understand what intellectuals do and should do in this world, perhaps the very first thing to do is to understand myself. So who am I?

Born into an ordinary working-class family in China’s planned economy, I grew up in the era of reform and opening-up, and managed to “jump” beyond my class background through my own efforts and relatively equal educational opportunities, becoming a member of the higher education system. On one hand, this leap has made my income stable and consistent with the average, has provided me more leisure time and a higher social status, and even produces a sense of superiority and satisfaction to some extent.

On the other hand, because of this social stratum’s dependence on the system and its central position within it, I am prone to have a sense of insecurity and worry about any potential gain or loss in social or class status. In addition, because I was born at the bottom, this leap made me naturally feel a sense of guilt towards the bottom rung of society, and so naturally I pay attention and try to maintain a closeness to working-class life. However, the paradox is that I, who have achieved a class jump, developed a sense of beauty and alienation through this time spent in the lowest social stratum. That is to say, I miss it, but I can no longer synchronize with it, and although I understand that this is no longer necessary, I also know that I can no longer bear that kind of life. Because of this gradual distance, when I want to speak from the perspective and position of the lowest social rung, there may be misinterpretations and misunderstandings. What is even more paradoxical is that the class I came from does not represent all bottom groups. It also means that I have a complete isolation from and aphasia related to other bottom groups, just as Luxemburg once admitted in one of her letters that she did not understand the peasant issue at all.

The pandemic has aggravated my often-contradictory state. In practical terms, this manifests as: fear of death and shame of being alive, dependence on the powerful rescue forces embodied by centralization and at the same time dissatisfaction with centralized power’s suppression of freedom of speech, making a living as a teacher (as Luxemburg calls it, one of the affiliated classes) and contempt for and dissatisfaction with the indoctrinating ideological education, the desire for certainty and the sense of panic and emptiness that accompany the uncertain reality, and the natural closeness with the class I came from and my worries about their populist tendencies. The torment of these contradictory states and the social division highlighted by Fang Fang’s diary prompt me to reflect on the relationship between intellectuals and ideology.

First of all, just like Fang Fang, everyone has to think in the specific environment he or she is in. This kind of thinking is sometimes one-sided, distorted, or even false. However, the right to independent thought cannot be cancelled, for approaching the truth requires precisely such concrete thinking that is imperfect but sincere. Attacking and even prohibiting the right of such thought because of its circumstantial imperfections will only lead to insincere thinking, and ultimately shift it towards the greatest degree of distortion and falsehood.

Furthermore, there is a paradoxical tension between telling the truth itself and ideological needs. Intellectuals usually pursue the truth as it is, while ideology often needs to attack, denigrate, and obliterate the former truth by using the selective truth. This means that although we inhabit the ideology and cannot get rid of its influence, at least we must realize that we are affected, and try not to be completely controlled by it (especially in the case of those with obvious prejudices) by drawing a certain distance from it through self-education and applying critical thinking. This not only requires the ability of the speaker to grasp the whole, but also the ability of the audience to identify and integrate this knowledge—in a sense, the latter is even more important.

Perhaps some specific historical events and even the evolution of human society as a whole can be described as “victory”. However, intellectuals should never walk into the ranks of blindly cheering for victory without reservation, but should always be the ones who say, “there is no victory at all”. The mission of intellectuals is to maintain disobedience, to maintain the balance of contradictions as the antithesis of power, and to avoid the absolute despotism and social anomie due to there being only one voice. In this sense, revisiting Luxemburg’s “On the Russian Revolution” cannot be more appropriate. In fact, it answers a conundrum I face: the narrative of China’s “victory” today should be regarded in the same way as Luxemburg’s attitude towards the Russian Revolution, that is, both with praise and criticism, otherwise Luxemburg's prediction of “socialism or barbarism” could again come true.

There is a saying which holds that “illness should not separate people. On the contrary, it should provide opportunities for humans to love each other”. As Luxemburg wrote in a letter to Hans Diefenbach:

Everything would be much easier to live through if only I would not forget the basic rule I’ve made for my life: To be kind and good is the main thing! Plainly and simply, to be good—that resolves and unites everything and is better than all cleverness and insistence on “being right”.

At present, what more could be said than that!

[1] My occupation seems to naturally provide me the identity of an intellectual. However, I know that this is not true. In my understanding, an intellectual should not be defined by occupation. Perhaps the most important criterion is whether he or she is open-minded, tolerant, and does not give up thinking.

[2] Li Wenliang was a Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, who was considered to be the first person to warn the public of the coronavirus outbreak. On 6 February 2020, he died of the novel coronavirus infection. For more information, see his Wikipedia page.

[3] This relates to a Chinese idiom based on the story of Lord Ye: ““[Lord Ye] was so fond of dragons that he had them painted and carved all over his house. When the real dragon in heaven heard about this, it flew down and put its head through [Lord Ye’s] door and its tail through one of his windows. When the lord saw this he fled, frightened out of his wits.” See: “The Lord Who Loved Dragons”, Kekenet, 2 December 2019.

[4] Fang Fang is one of contemporary China’s most celebrated writers. From January to March 2020, she published her diary online, mainly describing her life in the early days of COVID-19 in Wuhan. Fang Fang’s diary aroused many people’s sympathy, and at the same time, it caused some controversy. In April 2020, the diary was edited into a book, translated into English, and published in the United States under the name Wuhan Diary. Later, the book was also published in German, Japanese, and other languages. See: Fang Fang, Fang Fang Blog (in Chinese); “Fang Fang is nominated for the Nobel Prize and Mi Meng is resurrected?”, DayDayNews, 12 April 2020.