In May, the Inner Mongolian branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dropped a hip-hop track praising Karl Marx.
The best thing that can be said for it is that it doesn’t sound quite as ridiculous as one might expect. The beat is fairly grimy and minimalist; the hook is underwhelming, but provides something of a counterpoint. For the casual listener who can’t understand the words, it’s a pleasant but ultimately forgettable experience. In the end it’s more mediocre art as propaganda that leaves its subject matter flat and deflated.
Called “Marx is a Post-90” — “post-90” is the Chinese version of a millennial — the song appeared as part of a new television show designed to reengage young people with Marxism. In the abstract, this sounds like a worthy project. Marxist thought is taught in all Chinese schools, but, according to a 2014 poll, nearly half of all Chinese students either don’t understand it or find it boring.
Even Zhuo Sina, the songwriter, confesses that she has never read a word of Marx. This likely explains why the lyrics come off as vague, awkward, even creepy:
I first encountered Marx during politics class,
I studied his teachings just to pass the exam,
I thought I’d pass and be done with it, never read the book again,
But when I opened the book, I discovered I didn’t hate it at all,
Life is always full of surprises,
One day I discovered how awesome he is,
Others saw my faith and never asked why again,
I’m no longer reading magazines, I’m reading Marx.
One hates to confirm the smugness of a Western press eager to paint an imperial competitor as some kind of cultural oddity. But even accounting for the possibility that something has been lost in translation, these lyrics are beyond hackneyed. In trying so hard to paint Marx as hip, edgy, and cool, you can practically hear President Xi Jinping asking “How do you do, fellow kids?”.
According to Zhang, a Chinese socialist now living in Europe, the Inner Mongolian CCP’s attempt lines up with the central party leadership’s most recent propaganda push:
I assume that some regional CCP propaganda office wants to kiss the president’s ass since the president is trying to promote [the idea that] the country is “confident in our guiding theories” (along with our “chosen path,” our political system, and our nation’s culture). Then they found a band to materialize it.
And in fact, Xi has recently called on thinkers and writers to “remake Marxism for the twenty-first century.”
Karl Marx’s life is fascinating from any standpoint: revolutionary activism, political exile, personal turmoil. Only none of that appears in the song.
Instead, Marx the man is made phantasm. The track paints him as an almost unobtainable ideal. Early on, the singer attacks bourgeois rulers who promise “Utopia,” but two verses later, she declares that “Communism is sweet as honey.” Listeners aren’t urged to engage with the Marxist tradition intellectually, but to become Marx’s “followers.”
Nonetheless, both the song and the show are proving popular with students. Or at least that’s what official reports indicate. If these are to be believed, then the CCP’s push to make Marxism “cool again” may be succeeding, at least in the short term. And if that’s the case, it raises a sticky question: exactly what kind of Marxism — and what kind of culture — is the ruling party promoting?
They're Afraid of Marx
It’s not news that modern China has little to do with actual socialism or Marxism. According to Zhang, the Marxism taught in schools and the reality outside — which he describes as “a kind of authoritarian capitalism” — are completely disconnected.
“They have to say it’s Marxism because that’s where their legitimacy came from,” says Zhang. “They would lose power if they do otherwise . . . If you’re kid, you might believe what the teacher says in the class. But few adults believe it. The teacher doesn’t either.”
Zhang’s harsh words highlight the key aspect of revolutionary Marxist thought missing in modern China: basic democratic control over political and economic decisions, and, flowing from that, over educational and cultural resources. Xi’s attempt to remake Marxism is part of the CCP’s long and sordid tradition of distorting Marxist ideas to justify private property and market reforms.
A great many tragedies have piled up at the feet of this masquerade, a great many protests and rebellions diverted and crushed. What all of these movements shared was the bottom-up creativity that popular insurgency needs to flourish. And when they’re defeated, that same creativity retreats back under the surface of business-as-usual.
So it is with hip-hop. Over the past twenty-five years, a flourishing Chinese underground rap scene as musically diverse as the country itself has developed.
As with most hip-hop across the globe, the style uses a coded — and not-so-coded — language of subversion, presenting a youth identity often set apart from — and sometimes in direct opposition to — mainstream notions of acceptability.
The relationship between this culture and Beijing has been far from harmonious. Last summer, the Chinese government banned over 120 hip-hop tracks. They included songs about teenage sex, about violent nights out, about farts, — no, I’m not making that up — and about political corruption.
The first seventeen on the list came from the Beijing group IN3, whose best-known song lambastes the capital city’s sharp inequality:
Beijing Evening News: some sleep in underpasses, while others use public funds to pay for banquets . . .
Beijing Evening News: when you’re sick, you need to take medication, but the medical bills are too high and nobody will cover you.
These were not the first popular songs that the government had banned. They were, however, the first songs that the government gave a reason for banning. According to officials, every song on that list was somehow “harmful to public morality.”
The state’s concern for public morality wouldn’t be quite so unbelievable if it weren’t also making deals with international capital, welcoming Foxconn and their deplorable working conditions, and sending police to face down strikers at factories.
“Marx is a Post-90” reveals the parallel cultural and political gaps at the center of Chinese social life. On one side, an official state ideology that ostensibly empowers working people instead papers over very real exploitation and repression; on the other, a cultural policy clumsily attempts to embrace youth culture even as it brazenly cracks down on it.
Both are borne from a core philosophy that needs complacent followers, not independent, creative, and rebellion-minded workers. In fact, the CCP seems to view both Marxism and music not as arts or sciences that obey their own rules, but as tools that enable social control.
Pulling alienated millennials back into the party requires it to first admit that alienation exists. Unfortunately though, as the public expulsion of socialist dissidents like Wang Ruoshui revealed, the Communist Party has long denied this. For some reason, it doesn’t recognize people sleeping under bridges and being beaten by cops as the symptoms of a class society.
Observing this chasm between appearance and reality, I’m reminded of the Plastic People of the Universe’s 1977 communique. A collective of avant-garde rock musicians based in Prague and heavily influenced by Marxist-humanist thinkers like Raya Dunayevskaya and Egon Bondy — with Bondy frequently providing lyrics for the group — they were active supporters of the 1968 Prague Spring.
After Soviet tanks rolled in and restored “official socialism,” the group was driven back underground. But they continued to skewer the regime with radical poetic wit:
They are afraid of workers.
They are afraid of party members.
They are afraid of those who are not in the party.
They are afraid of science.
They are afraid of art.
They are afraid of books and poems.
They are afraid of theatres and films.
They are afraid of records and tapes.
They are afraid of writers and poets.
They are afraid of journalists.
They are afraid of actors . . .
And summing up:
They are afraid of Marx.
They are afraid of Lenin.
They are afraid of all our dead presidents.
They are afraid of truth.
They are afraid of freedom.
They are afraid of democracy.
They are afraid of Human Rights’ Charter.
They are afraid of socialism.
So why the hell are WE afraid of THEM?
A worthy question. And indeed, it would seem that some young workers in China are losing their fear, leading wildcat strikes, demanding greater democracy, looking back at the legacies of Mao and the early decades of the revolution, and attempting to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It’s a creative process that stands in stark contrast to the Chinese state’s present methods.
The two questions raised by “Marx is a Post-90” — why is China attempting to replace genuine hip-hop with its milquetoast equivalent and why does that same state present Marx as yet another leader to be followed — are in fact the same.
And the answer has nothing to do with either revolutionary music or Marxism because, from the Chinese government’s perspective, art and politics only exist as static entities that can be used to shore up state power.
Any Marxism worth the name understands that its concepts must be grappled with in the context of class struggle. They cannot be dictated by a ready-made pop song any more than they can be authoritatively imparted in the classroom. They demand engagement, activism, life. Much like good music — and the freedom at the core of Marxism itself.