Variations in the Language of Socialism

CSSH has a longstanding tradition of juxtaposing essays for comparative effect. Our readers enjoy this ritual, but we often wonder what our authors think of it. Under the Rubric gives CSSH authors a chance to respond directly to each other’s work, drawing additional insight and inspiration from their arguments.


Proletarian Politics Today: On the Perils and Possibilities of Historical Analogy

A Necessary Evil: Conceptualizing the Socialist Commodity under Mao

“Few terms from the Marxian lexicon have been as prolific, or the literature surrounding them as prolix, as the proletariat and the commodity.”

So say our editors in the Foreword to CSSH 61/1, in which we feature two essays that scrutinize these powerful words. James Ferguson reconsiders the proletariat in “Proletarian Politics Today: On the Perils and Possibilities of Historical Analogy” (61/1: 4-22 ). Laurence Coderre takes on commodities in “A Necessary Evil: Conceptualizing the Socialist Commodity under Mao” (61/1: 23-49 ). The articles make a good couple, not only because “commodity” and “proletariat” have traveled together through history, but because each concept has rich prehistories and afterlives, and each is filled with unrealized potential. As the editors put it:

The terms have long been allowed free range, as though universals, though they were born of a specific nineteenth-century European milieu. From there they have been borrowed and extended on analogical loan, so to say, into new comparative frames. Mostly, though, the procedures and rules of loan and extension remain unmarked and unnoticed. James Ferguson names and analyzes the typical “analogical associations” by which the proletariat crosses domains, places, and times, and he argues that creative reform is needed. Taking the case of South Africa, he shows how the development of an industrial working class there resembles less a nineteenth-century European paradigm than it does the case of ancient Rome, from which Marx first took the word “proletarian.” In ancient Rome, the proletarian did not look much like a selfconscious wage-earning class. Instead, its profile was that of a group deprived of property or sustaining work, and assuaged mostly via patronage and a politics of intermittent largesse. Ferguson shows how that view of the proletarian better describes today’s South Africa, and many other places too, than does Marx’s depiction.

Laurence Coderre reveals an analogous disjuncture for the term, “commodity.” What is the commodity outside of capitalism? How should we think about the apparent oxymoron of “the socialist commodity”? Coderre shows how Maoist China read the commodity as a necessary transitional evil, something that had to be managed, but not eliminated. To conceptualize this socialist commodity required a developed theory drawing on ideas of Stalin, among others. Coderre carefully unpacks this alternative genealogy of the socialist commodity. She invites us to rethink Chinese history through the prism of the socialist commodity, a term applied to making political economy relevant to the masses in China and, even more importantly, as a link from Stalin to Mao, and from Mao to “age of Deng” reforms, and then to the present.

After reading the essays together, we’re intrigued by several points of connection that emerge across political settings, and interpretive agendas, that are very different from each other. The likenesses are based in part on a shared canon, but socialist doctrine is as much a blockage as it is an enabling lens for these authors. Below, Coderre and Ferguson help us think through the analytical potential of their essays, and their key terms.

CSSH: You’re both attracted to the power and inadequacy of theoretical constructs. For Jim, it’s “the proletariat.” For Laurence, it’s “the commodity,” or “the socialist commodity.” The power and the inadequacy come from placement in a canon, which motivates and constrains political action. At a certain point, it becomes obvious that a construct doesn’t quite work as it should. Yet it’s still loaded with (dare we say it?) “capital.” One cannot ignore it. Ignoring it would be to negate its place in a canonical tradition; it would also be an intentional turning away from the fact that the construct still has a reality and explanatory power. Commodities are out there; proletarians are, too!

That’s all pretty obvious. But a similarity between your papers that is related, and more interesting to us, is that both of you see immense utility in locating theory in relation to proletarian energies. Laurence directs our attention to the fact that “political economy” as theory was made available to the proletariat (‘the masses”) in China, for prophylactic and progressive reasons. Jim’s essay is a re-engagement with the proletariat (of South Africa) for the purposes of making new political sense of the political potential of this … class?

Clearly, you both feel an intellectual obligation to these old Marxian terms, yet you also want leeway. Leeway has long been a problem for folks who put politics first: “naming” and ideological rigor are indispensable mobilizing tools. Given this tendency, we can ask you the question we’ve been trying to frame: is there something about the proletariat, and the proletarian, that might facilitate the kinds of theoretical interventions you envision? The Chinese authorities wanted proletarians to help them with theoretical work. So, it seems, do you!

Or do you?

And where do proletarian energies and theoretical interests diverge? Some very useful insights might be located at precisely those points of divergence.

Coderre: I think part of the story I’m interested in telling in my article is precisely the attempt to enlist the proletariat in the creation of a self-described “socialist” political economy that spoke to the system that developed in China over the course of the Mao era (1949-76) in a way that the existing Marxist-Leninist canon did not. This mismatch existed for a whole host of reasons, including the many ways in which China’s historical trajectory differed not only from Western Europe, but from the Soviet Union as well. Add to this Marx’s limited descriptions about what socialism and communism would actually look like, and you’ve got a recipe for creatively engaging/retooling the canon, for trying to make it “work” for the PRC. At its best, the involvement of the proletariat in the theory and practice of political economy—which were always thought to be inextricably linked—was meant to help extrapolate and apply Marx’s method of economic materialist analysis, rather than regurgitate a preset discourse or dogma. At its worst, though, one suspects that the “study” of theory on the factory floor involved tremendous feats of rote memorization and very little critical, analytical thinking. In other words, it contributed to the reification of a new, Chinese canon.

Reading Jim’s essay, I was further reminded about the politics of participation in this particular project. Although “everyone” was instructed to study political economy in the mid-1970s, it seems clear from the kinds of texts produced in association with the campaign that some people’s study was thought to be more important than others’. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any examples of peasants studying political economy, for instance—sent-down urban youth, yes, but straight-up peasants, no. Moreover, the proletarians who are highlighted in the literature—the dock- and steelworkers, etc.—are quite obviously “proletarian” in Marx’s purified, non-lumpen sense. And yet, scholars of labor in China have made it abundantly clear that, by the end of the Mao period, only about one fifth of the population operated within the work unit system, hallmark of the officially-recognized urban proletariat. CK Lee (2018) has recently suggested that we think of the large swath of people who did not have access to the “iron rice bowl” via a work unit as a precariat vis-à-vis the rights and benefits afforded recognized laborers. Fieldwork conducted by Harriet Evans (2016) in Beijing indicates that significant communities of such precariously-situated people were permitted to develop in the very shadow of the party-state apparatus for generations. All of this is to say that Jim’s point about the limitations of thinking “the proletariat” in terms of recognized, industrial labor applies to the self-proclaimed “proletarian” politics of yesteryear as much as it does the politics of today.

Another tangentially related thought:

If I’m reading Jim correctly, part of his gambit is to make anachronism a productive and useful tool insofar as it draws attention to the tacit analogies undergirding the conceptual lexicon that has come to seem unremarkable and/or uncontested. This methodological point is very well taken. In my article, though, my aim is to highlight the fact that “the commodity” was not an anachronism in the Mao period in the least. This is true in the sense that the texts I look at explicitly deploy the term “commodity” (shangpin) à la Marx. But it is also true, I think, in the sense that the term adequately described/explained the circumstances it was tasked with describing/explaining. If anything, there was anxiety at the time about the fact that “the commodity” and “commodity relations” did not seem particularly anachronistic at all. They still seemed to fit at a time when, ideologically, it would have been much easier for everybody if they didn’t. Anachronism, in this context, would have been registered as progress. In lieu of jettisoning “the commodity” on the grounds of analytical irrelevance, then, tremendous energy had to be directed into distinguishing the “socialist” commodity from the “capitalist” one.

Ferguson: Our papers both deal with the historicity of terms that are simultaneously analytical and ideological. And both of the cases that we treat raise questions about the way that such terms are linked both to the specific intellectual lineage of Marxism, and to the far broader lineage of socialist thought. I think we are both interested in the possibilities these histories contain for re-thinking the question of what socialism is, or can be.

On the question of commodities, I am first of all struck by the compatibility of Maoist-Stalinist thought with contemporary economic anthropology (which, I must say, I was not expecting!). One of the first things I insist upon when I teach that subject is that there is nothing uniquely capitalist about buying and selling things, or pursuing profit in a monetary economy. People were doing both of these things for thousands of years before anything like a capitalist system of production emerged. And anthropologists have also been friendly to the idea that, if there is nothing essentially capitalist about commodity exchange and markets, neither is there any intrinsic reason why they cannot be integrated into a form of socialism. Such, at least, was the view of the (non-Marxian) socialist, Marcel Mauss (see my discussion, Ferguson 2015:123-136). And of course anthropology has produced a rich literature documenting the ways that commodities have been produced and exchanged in a range of non-capitalist settings.

If the commodity concept has a lively existence beyond the analysis of capitalism, so too does it seem to flourish outside the discursive domain of Marxism, where “bourgeois social science” finds plenty of use for the term. But this is not the case for the term “proletariat,” which has been effectively monopolized by Marxist discourse. The decline of Marxism in most of the world has therefore been accompanied by a sharply diminishing relevance for analyses couched in “proletarian” terms. (Hence my suggestion that finding new life for the term, and preventing it from becoming an anachronism, will require a far-reaching break with some of the Marxist premises that the word has long encoded.)

The “commodity” concept has fared much better, not only because of its use outside the context of Marxism, but also because (as Laurence shows) of its continuing relevance within it. The classical industrial proletariat dreamed of by Marx seems to be of diminishing centrality in China, as in most of the world (and it was, as she notes, in fact always a bit of a difficult fit with Chinese realities). But the questions and practical puzzles raised by commodities have only proliferated in recent years. The result is a new relevance and centrality for older discussions of how commodities can fit into a “socialist” economy. In China’s new times, the old analysis of the socialist commodity is therefore not an anachronism in the least, but of urgent contemporary relevance.

In contrast, the “proletariat” concept has no such obvious claim to contemporary relevance. Indeed, to restore such relevance to it, I argue, requires a radical break with Marx’s (and Marxism’s) historical use of the term. Making such a break, via the creative redeployment of the term’s original (ancient Roman) referent, I see as a way of redirecting critical political economy away from the fetishization of “real workers” with “proper jobs,” and toward the actual socioeconomic conditions and challenges of the contemporary global economy (see Ferguson and Li 2018). If Laurence’s aim is “to unsettle enduring and uncritical associations between the commodity form and capitalism,” mine is to do something similar by challenging the link between the wage labor form and the struggle for socialism, by offering a non-Marxian figuration of the proletarian. Socialism was always a much richer intellectual tradition than its reduction to a canonical Marxism-Leninism allowed (cf. Ferguson 2015:51-56). I would like to think that such reduction can be resisted through the sort of critical re-examination of the languages of socialism that both papers, in their different ways, undertake.

CSSH: Thank you for two fine papers, and for these additional insights. Reductionism is a constant risk in comparative analysis. You’ve given us good examples of how to open up and reconsider terms that often come to us in tightly-wrapped packages. It’s a wonderful effect!


Evans, Harriet. 2016. Invited presentation. NYU History of Women and Gender Colloquium. September 30.

Ferguson, James. 2015. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ferguson, James and Tania Murray Li. 2018. “Beyond the ‘Proper Job’: Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man” (co-authored with Tania Murray Li), Working Paper 51. Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape: Cape Town, 2018.

Lee, Ching Kwan. 2018. “China’s Precariats.” Globalizations 16 (2): 1–18.

About the Authors

Laurence Coderre is Assistant Professor of Modern China in the Department of East Asian Studies at New York University. She received her PhD in Chinese from University of California, Berkeley in 2015. She also holds AB and AM degrees from Harvard University. Prior to moving to NYU, Coderre was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan’s Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies. Her research, which focuses on Chinese socialist and postsocialist cultural production, has appeared in Journal of Material Culture, Modern Chinese Literature & Culture, and Journal of Chinese Cinemas, in addition to the edited volumes Maoist Laughter (Hong Kong University, in press), 1968 and Global Cinema (Wayne State, 2018), and Listening to the Cultural Revolution (Palgrave, 2016 ). Coderre’s work has been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Fulbright-Hays program. She is currently completing a book on media, materiality, and the commodity-form in the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

James Ferguson is Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor of Anthropology and the Susan Ford Dorsey Director of African Studies at Stanford University. He has done research for many years in southern Africa, including Lesotho, Zambia, and South Africa, and is the author of several books, including Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Duke University Press, 2006) and Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution (Duke University Press, 2015).