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The question of the civilizational state: an interview at Guancha with Vijay Prashad

As a “civilizational state”, China has demonstrated through its unique history and development that developing countries can forge a development path different from that of the West, and at the same time construct a discourse that is different from that of the Western nation-state.

That said, can other ancient civilizations with a long history also be called “civilizational states”? What is the uniqueness of China as a “civilizational state”?

Following the interviews with Zhang Weiwei, director of the China Institute at Fudan University, and Martin Jacques, former senior fellow of the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, Guancha.cn (观察者网) invited Vijay Prashad, executive director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, to continue the discussion on the “civilizational state”. As an Indian scholar, Vijay delves into why India cannot be described as a “civilizational state” from a comparative perspective, and how China, as a “civilizational state”, has integrated its own history with socialism.

[Interview and Translation by Guo Han from Guancha.cn]

Guancha.cn: How do you understand the concept of the “civilizational state”?

Vijay: The “civilizational state” in fact contains two sub-concepts, namely “civilization” and “state”. The concept of the “state” is an interesting one, which has existed since ancient times. Now in the 21st century, we do not deliberately mention it, but automatically think that the “state” has a prefix called “modern”. So today we are actually talking about the ” (modern) civilizational state”. We assume that the concept of “state” has an element of modernity in it.

How should the modern state be understood? From the perspective of world history, human beings gradually integrated into increasingly large communities with increasingly complex forms of organization. People chose to accept the monopoly of violence by the form of the state—rather than by ordinary individuals—and thus the modern state was born: a series of laws and regulations were established through procedures to guide people’s life. Essentially, the state is a form of governance that organizes daily life through procedures such as laws and regulations. This is a common understanding of the modern state. Some of these laws have socialist overtones and were achieved only through the great struggle of previous generations.

For example, a law can be introduced demanding that everyone shall be free from scarcity and guaranteeing the population’s right to food, medicine and housing. So, some modern countries have some socialist characteristics, and some don’t. It depends on the laws and regulations that are acceptable in their respective countries.

The concept of the state is basically about how we build institutions and organize the functioning of society. I think it is important to clarify in advance that when Mr. Zhang Weiwei elaborates on the concept of the “civilizational state”—I read his book in English—he is talking about the modern state rather than the state in the abstract sense.

Civilization, on the other hand, is a more complex concept. Considering the world as a whole, human beings have created different societies, each with its own unique history, and social life across the world is full of diversity, which we call different civilizations. For example, we can discuss the origins of Chinese civilization, can it be traced back to the ancient times? Or did it start from the Qin dynasty (221-207BCE)? Or even from the Xinhai Revolution in 1911?

India is such a complex civilization, with 50 to 2,000 different languages, which enriches India’s understanding of its past, such as the hierarchical cultural forms of Indian civilization, the caste system, etc. There are many different cultures in Europe, but they all center around a fundamental “axis of civilization”, that is, the “Judeo-Christian tradition”. The nation-state system in Europe also took shape after the Roman Empire.

I believe that Professor Zhang has developed Professor Lucian Pye’s view. The “civilizational state” that the two professors talk about is actually not the same concept. Professor Zhang is concerned with contradictions and dialectical relations. That is, the peculiarities of China’s history and an absolutely interesting phenomenon—the flowering of socialism in a land called China. The peculiarities of Chinese history and the unique characteristics of Chinese socialism, which he tries to combine, is how I understand the “civilizational state”.

| Dr Prashad | MR Online's video interview with Guancha.cn, Photo by Guancha.cn

Dr. Prashad’s video interview with Guancha.cn, Photo by Guancha.cn.

The problem, however, is that many elements of traditional Chinese culture are somehow behind the development of society. In fact, many feudalist dregs were still seen before 1949. For example, one of the traditional cultures in Chinese civilization was the foot-binding requirement for women. It was the Chinese Revolution that abolished foot-binding and a host of other bad customs. When Chairman Mao said, “Women can hold up half of the sky,” his next emphasis was to “transform” some elements of traditional Chinese culture and civilization.

Interestingly, we should not assume that Professor Zhang Weiwei’s proposal of a “civilizational state” is a “backward-looking” concept. As I understand it, what Professor Zhang wants to emphasize is that China’s socialist path has reshaped and continued the long history of China, taking the best of it and removing the worst. I would like to emphasize this point. For the “civilizational state”, history is not an end, but a resource. We are not going back to the past, and Professor Zhang has wisely highlighted the continuity of the Chinese socialist road to Chinese civilization.

Guancha.cn: How do you see the interaction between the concept of “civilizational state” and the mainstream Western narrative of the “nation-state”?

Vijay: That’s an interesting angle. Let’s talk about the concept of the nation-state. It involves a serious issue that most states emerged from the fall of empires. The nation-state is one of the forms that they took.

In fact, since the decline of the Roman Empire, many countries had emerged from it, and they were culturally diverse. Within the Roman Empire there were Egyptian, Jewish, Assyrian and Turkic cultures, among others. This form of domination of the empire did not necessarily require cultural homogeneity. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was very diverse, with various ethnic groups. The same was true for the Tsarist Empire, so interesting things happened after the October Revolution. The possibility of two routes existed at that time.

After the end of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Turkish Empires disintegrated, and various small states became independent. In Europe, the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led to the founding of nation-states based on linguistic divisions, such as Hungary and Austria, the first of which had a predominantly Hungarian-speaking population, and the second German-speaking. French thinker Ernest Renan proposed that a nation-state must be homogeneous in terms of nationality, language and culture. Under his influence, a very narrow understanding of the nation-state was developed in Europe.

However, after the October Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union, Lenin had a completely different understanding of the nation-state. His idea was that even if the Russian nationality dominated the population, different nationalities could coexist in the territory of the USSR, such as Turkmen, Mongolian, Russian, etc. The practice of the Soviet Union proved that the state did not necessarily consist of a single ethnic group, and that a multi-ethnic state was possible.

In a nation-state, it is inevitable to deal with the problem of minorities in the country, so what to do? Germany was faced with the so-called “Jewish problem”, and we all know what the result was, the Holocaust. At some point, the nation-state will have to deal with minorities internally, either by assimilating them or by killing them or sending them to other countries.

In my view, the concept of the nation-state is highly discriminatory among all forms of state organization, because it assumes that a state can have only a single national identity. The Soviet Republics had a completely different understanding than the later Soviet Union, which was the social practice of the multi-ethnic state.

Interestingly, if we go back to the New China after 1949, Han Chinese always dominate, in the past and in the present. China’s social experiment, despite its partial ethnic homogeneity, was based on the Soviet socialist experiment, and the New China had serious thoughts about ethnic issues. The People’s Republic of China is a multi-ethnic country, and China has never been a single culture, but contains many minority cultures.

When China’s older revolutionaries thought about ethnic issues in the early 1950s, it was important that they drew on the Soviet framework. In their eyes, China was not an ancient, mono-ethnic country from the beginning. As the name of the People’s Republic of China reflects, China has understood its own multi-ethnic identity from the very beginning.

When we think about civilizational states, the worst mistake would be to “culturalize” and “ethnicalize” the concept of civilization, and then to establish a hierarchy among different ethnic groups, because they are not related in the first place. The meaning of “civilization” in a civilizational state is that the unique and long-standing part of Chinese history can be absorbed and used today.

For example, too much has been said about meritocracy in traditional Chinese culture. But let’s be honest, if we read the works of Lu Xun or Ding Ling, we know that the children of peasants in the old society, in fact, could not afford to take the imperial civil service examinations, right? Only the children of landlords could afford to study. That’s why the mechanism of meritocracy in traditional Chinese culture still showed a hint of class differences.

And what the Communist Party of China (CPC) has done is to democratize and popularize these traditions for the masses. So, when we discuss the civilizational state, the great continuation of Chinese civilization, we must acknowledge the fact that China’s socialist path has played an important role in democratizing traditional Chinese culture, for example by integrating the idea of multi-ethnicity into the practice of the modern state.

I don’t think people should misunderstand what it means to be a civilizational state and assume that it is simply a return to the past and a connection to history. The reality is that the past is being reshaped to serve socialism.

Mao Zedong had great respect for traditional culture, having received a private education when he was young, and it is clear from his later poetic works that Mao was a man with a deep understanding of Chinese historical traditions, but he would not accept the part of hierarchy in Chinese civilization. This was natural and necessary, for they were after all socialists. While I agree with the framework of the “civilizational state”, I also think it important to clarify some of the concepts very precisely.

Guancha.cn: According to Martin Jacques, the nation-state is a product of Western colonialism. Many Western media outlets also see the “civilizational state” as a threat to the neoliberal discourse. Is this because the “civilizational state” offers a theoretical solution for developing countries to follow their own path and escape from Western discourse?

Vijay: This is an amazing observation. We know that China experienced a century of humiliation since 1840. Despite that, China never suffered the level of colonization in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia & Latin America. I would like to explain this a bit, and you may have a different opinion.

What’s interesting about China is that your language remains intact. Whether it is in Chinese mainland, or other Chinese regions, including overseas Chinese, the first language is Chinese; there may be other dialects, but it is mainly Mandarin. You think in Mandarin, and intellectuals think and create in Mandarin logic. This is a crucial part of national cohesion.

| The Thinkers Forum on Civilizational States in Global Politics December 6 2022 at the Guanchacn office | MR Online

The Thinkers Forum on Civilizational States in Global Politics, December 6, 2022, at the Guancha.cn office.

Now, let’s look to other parts of the world. In Latin America, for example, before Columbus arrived, the majority of the local populations spoke the languages of their native ethnic groups, with many varieties. They once existed, but what about today? We must admit that most intellectuals in Latin America speak Spanish, or Brazilian Portuguese, languages of the colonizers. In the United States and Canada, English is the prevailing language, again a language of the colonizers. This is especially true on the African continent, where most intellectuals and cultural activities use French or English, and in some places Portuguese. India once had more than 5,000 languages (dialects), and I learned five of them growing up, but cultural activities mainly use English.

In Southeast Asia, Indonesia, which was colonized by the Netherlands, is an exception. They developed an official Indonesian language (the Indonesianized Riau dialect of Malay—Guancha.cn’s note) after it won independence in 1948. Sukarno, the founding father of the Indonesian state, insisted that Indonesian be taught in the nation’s universities. In Pakistan, Urdu is the dominant language, along with Punjabi and so on. But the ideological and intellectual content is articulated in English.

So many places in the world have been shattered by colonialism and cut off from their cultural traditions in the intellectual realm. The last time I visited Chinese mainland was three years ago, and I had been there many times before that. I would visit Tsinghua University and interact with my good friend, Professor Wang Hui. Professor Wang is a window for me to understand traditional Chinese thought, on which he has published many works. He is not cut off from the past.

From this perspective, China has the unique advantage of not being cut off from the traditions of the past. Chinese intellectuals and others must understand the lengths to which many parts of the world have had to go to reconstruct the concept of civilization. For on a cultural level, they have been colonized far more than China.

As we are chatting, your phone must be next to you. If you open the phone, which APPs are you using on it, WeChat, Bilibili? These are all Chinese apps, and you are living in the Chinese cultural circle. Most of the people around the world, on the other hand, open their phones only to find U.S. apps such as Facebook and Twitter. Even if I can post in Hindi on Facebook, most of the content there is circulated in English. For many places in the world, China is uniquely positioned regarding the construction of civilization, the continuity of culture. And of course, China should not be overly complacent about its history.

I think China was very lucky. Back then the British Empire was eager to get tea from China, and when George Macartney came to Beijing during the Qianlong period (1735-96), he said that they could not continue to buy tea with gold, and asked if they could exchange it with other currencies. Emperor Qianlong said, we are the Celestial Empire that isn’t short of anything; you must trade gold for our tea. Then the British said, one of our colonies Fiji is rich in sea cucumbers, a premium tonic. Emperor Qianlong agreed, but the British supply was far from enough.

Britain then colonized Bengal, my homeland, in 1757. The British colonizers forced Indian peasants to grow opium there and sold it to China, leading to the two Opium Wars (1840-42, 1856-60). India’s land was colonized, with its own intellectuals forced to be dependent, its political system disrupted, and so on. That is how colonialism hurt India deeply.

Next, the British sold opium to Shanghai, forcibly occupied Hong Kong, and Jardine Matheson and Barclays Bank opened, selling opium and forcing the Chinese to smoke it. But the colonists only occupied the ports along the Chinese coast; their power never penetrated into the hinterland and the vast rural areas in China.

Do you know that, even though China suffered the “100 years of humiliation”, but its cultural forms had more or less survived? The British did not open schools all over the vast land of China, and even the rule of the Qing Empire had remained until 1911. I hope that the Chinese people would realize that civilizations in other underdeveloped parts of the world, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, Latin America, have all been destroyed. The Mayan, Aztec, and Mongol empires have long ceased to exist. We, in these places, must struggle against unimaginable odds.

Thinking about the concept of a “civilizational state” in India today is very complex. As I said earlier, China’s social experiment is unique, and I don’t want to overstate it. I don’t think that all of China’s achievements stem from its cultural heritage, but rather from a combination of a long history and a socialist path. But the cultures of other countries have been destroyed from the beginning and have to be rebuilt first, sometimes even with worse results.

The harshness of the Indian caste system far outweighs its necessity, and this has seriously affected the development of science and technology. In an Indian middle-class family, when the light bulb in the room is broken, the couple will never fix it themselves. This is how the caste system has affected India. In India, applied science cannot be popularized properly, but India has made great contributions to theoretical scientific research. This is all rooted in the caste system, where a strict distinction is made between manual and intellectual labor.

In China, it is not a problem for middle-class families to fix a light bulb themselves. Perhaps it might have been a problem in the old society, where the scholar-officials would not jump on a chair to fix a light bulb, and they would tell a servant to deal with it. But the socialist path that China has taken over the past 70 years has changed the relationship between intellectual and manual labor, meaning that Chinese civilization has regained vitality instead of being rigid.

What I am trying to say is that while colonialism has killed many human civilizations, China has an advantage.  Colonialism did hurt China badly, but it did not wipe out your culture and history. The Chinese people should recognize this and, in my opinion, should remain a little humble.

Guancha.cn: Can you expand on the uniqueness of India as a civilizational state? How does India see its identity on an ethnic and religious level?

Vijay: India is like a continent, similar to China in terms of population, and we are both Asian countries. But the situation within India is much more diverse, for example, we don’t really have a “national language” but have hundreds, if not thousands, of languages, 27 of which are the most important. The local religions in India are not only Hinduism and Islam.

People rarely know that Christianity actually spread to India first, and then went to Europe. One of the apostles of Christ, Thomas, came to India first, and then the other apostles went to Europe. The history of Christianity in India is longer than in Europe, and we have very old Christian, Jewish, Buddhist communities, and so on.

As for ethnic diversity, I don’t even know where to begin. The place where I grew up, the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, once welcomed Alexander the Great, and founded the Bactrian Kingdom. Then there were many ethnic groups that came over from Central Asia, the Mongols, Timur, a descendant of Genghis Khan, Muhammad of Ghor. Hundreds of peoples and tribes had come to India, the Portuguese, the Africans, the Arabs, the great Zheng He fleet, and the Maritime Silk Road.

India’s cultural world is incredibly rich. Swahili, the language of merchants, is a mixture of Arabic, South Asian, and local African languages. India’s culture is so diverse that it cannot be traced back to a common origin. This is important. In the case of China, we can think of its cultural origins as the unification in the Qin dynasty, and “China” is not a so-called “ethnic” concept; it must include the imperial examination system, the teaching of Confucius and Mencius, etc. It’s more of a philosophical cultural tradition that unites the Chinese.

India tells a completely different story. There are those who believe in ancient philosophy, those who believe in physical gods, and those who are atheists. Take the Buddhists for example, they believe in humanity rather than a god. So, India is in a very different situation than China when it comes to constructing a concept of civilization for itself.

Before he became India’s first prime minister, Nehru wrote a book called The Discovery of India. In it, he argued that India was essentially diversified. If India is seen as a civilization as a whole, its core value is diversity. That’s why Nehru left a motto for India, “Unity in Diversity”. You can build a political entity based on this, but it is difficult to read India in terms of a civilizational state if you look at it from a cultural and ethnic perspective.

| Nehru | MR Online's The Discovery of India in 1946 criticizes the British-imposed princely-state system for curbing India's industrial development

Nehru’s The Discovery of India in 1946 criticizes the British-imposed princely-state system for curbing India’s industrial development.

In my opinion, the factor that has built the most central unity of Indian history and civilization is the anti-colonial struggle, which has reshaped India. In this sense, we can consider it as a kind of intellectual cultivation. India as a civilizational state is united under an anti-colonial civilization, so it’s not about India itself. It should be noted that, the word “India” itself is a geographical concept, meaning “the other side of the Indus”.

Guancha.cn: How do you evaluate the role of Mahatma Gandhi in India’s anti-colonial struggle and in shaping India’s national identity?

Vijay: This is very important because Gandhi was precisely a figure that played a role in unifying the Indian anti-colonial movement. In fact, he took a narrow reading from the vast history of India: nonviolence, or Ahimsa, a tradition found in Buddhism and Jainism. But its limitation is that even a great man such as Gandhi spoke only of nonviolence and did not explore the issue of social justice. He still identified with the caste system and was ambiguous in his approach to the workers’ movement.

So, I have repeatedly stressed that the term “civilizational state” should not be used arbitrarily, that we cannot take “civilization” for granted, that it should not be synonymous with the nation-state, but must have socialist elements. So, I think Professor Zhang Weiwei mainly discusses the Chinese experience, and I have not yet seen any theoretical summary of the situation outside China. If a “civilizational state” means combining the best parts of each culture’s history with socialism, similar examples could hardly be found elsewhere in the world.

Many people seem to think that what China has achieved today has nothing to do with socialism. In fact, in the 18th century, China’s share of global output was very high, but by 1949 it had fallen to incredible levels. Many believe that today China is returning to its rightful place in history, as if it were a matter of course, without the need for any intervention.

I think that the Chinese Revolution, marked by 1949, really intervened in Chinese culture and history. You cannot possibly assert that history was destined to come to this point. What if it was the Kuomintang that won in the first place? I’m afraid the landlord class would have dominated the country and the people in the countryside would have continued to grovel to others, daring not keep their heads up. The people would not have taken pride in the country, and they would have been subservient to the ruling class. China would have been no different from the vast majority of the Global South; and Covid-19 would have raged through the country, killing millions of people, and other things like that.

So how do you bring back pride and confidence to a nation in a poor and backward country? Let me be honest, it is impossible to rely on traditional culture alone. Only by relying on the state to maintain its sovereign integrity can a nation regain its dignity. This is not something given by the God. India has a great past, a history as long as China’s, perhaps even a little more interesting. But it is not enough to revel in the past; what can the past bring to India today?

It seems to me that China’s achievements today are necessarily more related to its socialist background, while maintaining the continuity of Chinese history. That’s why Professor Zhang has the room to explain China’s rise. I hope you understand that my views on this point may be radical.

Guancha.cn: In addition to the “civilizational state”, there are now more and more counter-narratives against Western universal values, including the “Asian values” proposed by Dr. Kishore Mahbubani. What is your take on this?

Vijay: Mahbubani is a very intelligent Singaporean scholar whose family emigrated from India. He came up with a number of “Asian values”, highlighting family, hard work, discipline in work and study, and so on. He believes that it is these unique Asian values and cultures that have led to the success of many Asian countries. But there is an empirical problem: there are still many Asian countries that have not succeeded. In many parts of India, hundreds of millions of people live in extreme poverty. Sri Lanka can hardly be considered a successful country. Aren’t many countries in South Asia, like Bangladesh, also in distress?

If there are so-called Asian values, why are these aforementioned countries still struggling? If “Asia” is the decisive factor, how can the rise of China and the failure of Bangladesh be explained? This is a very simple response.

Second, the concept of Asian values does not help us understand the rise of China. If you tell me that it is due to common Asian values that China has achieved such a high GDP and will soon be the largest economy, I will find it impossible to understand this. Why have foreign companies not left Shenzhen and moved to Indonesia in the face of sanctions? Because these companies know that Indonesian workers are not as strong, healthy and well-trained than their Chinese counterparts. They are more prone to illness, absenteeism, etc. in new modern factories.

In short, Mahbubani does not talk about socialism. The advantage of Chinese workers over Indonesian workers today reflects the achievements of the socialist path. Why do Chinese workers have higher nutrition levels than Indian workers? Why, from the same Asian continent, are Indian industrial workers plagued by anemia, while the Chinese do not have this problem, so they work more efficiently and are more productive? Socialism is the answer.

| Kishore Mahbubani Chunqiu Senior Fellow at the China Institute of Fudan University Singaporean diplomat and scholar | MR Online

Kishore Mahbubani, Chunqiu Senior Fellow at the China Institute of Fudan University, Singaporean diplomat and scholar.

Mahbubani generalizes by saying that Asia has great traditions. That is true, and there are indeed some strong cultural ties, such as the family-oriented value. But how do you explain why there are 600 million people living in poverty in India, while China, also an Asian country, has eliminated absolute poverty? That’s why I don’t see much value in that research framework, unless Asia is only a synonym for culture, or China. That makes no sense. The culture alone does not explain at all how China has gone from a century of humiliation to its rise today.

Although I am not an “Asianist”, I agree with Mahbubani that Asian societies have a very long history. If you come to India, you will see on the roadside ordinary houses that are thousands of years old. They are not historical remains; they are just that old. Why is it important to say this? In many parts of the world, the legacy of a long history is preserved. A long history brings a special humility to a people, and you understand that everything cannot be rushed, and that only time will tell.

Socialism is not something entirely new. By the time it reached Tan Malaka in Indonesia, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and Mao and his comrades, long gone had been the days of socialism as an unfamiliar concept. Much of it they could understand at once. You don’t need Marx’s theory to tell you specifically that everyone in society should be treated equally. In modern society, they had already known that this was possible.

Capitalist society has accumulated vast amounts of wealth. Charles Dickens had not read Marx’s works when he wrote his famous novel Hard Times; they were roughly from the same era. But Hard Times reads like Marx was penning it, and they said the same thing: it is too cruel that the rich and the poor seem to live in two kingdoms.

In the old world of Eurasia, and in parts of Africa, the pace of the political process is even slower. You’ve heard of fast food, but now there’s “slow food”. The Italians are promoting slow food, sitting at the table with family, enjoying it, cooking the meal by yourself, embracing the joy and relaxation, etc. That’s my last point, there is fast-paced politics and there is slow-paced politics. A long history has taught us to be more rational, more tolerent, to understand other people’s perspectives, and so on. Instead of calling them “Asian values”, I would rather think of them as the values that any time-honored civilization has.

Guancha.cn: You spoke highly of China’s socialist path and Chinese model. What lessons do you think this can offer to the majority of developing countries?

Vijay: I would like to make three points. First, there is no doubt that China has made incredible achievements. For example, the elimination of absolute poverty, the development of green technology. All this is very encouraging to us; socialism has not failed.

Next, each country, each individual civilization, must find its own path of development. It is impossible to copy the Chinese model directly, and socialism cannot be achieved by simple imitation. In fact, a one-size-fits-all attempt is a bad idea even in the case of neoliberal practices. The Chinese model is not meant to be “exported” to other countries; it is first and foremost suitable for China itself.

Last, we can still learn something useful from what the Chinese government and people have already accomplished. The practice of eliminating absolute poverty, for example, is worth a close study, and other countries can partially borrow from this experience. It would be too unrealistic to copy the whole set of policies in other countries. It is important to be rational when transferring socialist experience to other countries. Socialist practice cannot be dogmatic, but a learning process. You may take valuable elements from elsewhere, but it is not possible to mechanically copy them. There is nothing wrong with recognizing China’s great achievements, but they cannot be packaged in bulk and sold elsewhere like bottled Cokes.