August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


14 - Ancient Chinese Philosophy I

Now that we have concluded with the materialistic theory of history, I want to present a brief survey of ancient Chinese philosophy, the Chinese philosophy of the classical period. Of course I cannot launch into a detailed discussion; I can only outline the most important points of view. I approach this topic from the standpoint of our general theme, therefore, with the question: in what relation does Chinese philosophy stand to the modern world-view, to dialectical materialism? Can some of its ingredients be imported into dialectical materialism? Can we, through recasting, through reforming, bring it into line with dialectical materialism, or is it necessary to make a radical break with it?

To find the answer we will consider the following questions in detail: (1.) In what relation does ancient Chinese philosophy stand to religion? (2.) Under what economic and social conditions did this ancient philosophy flower? What was its historical role and what historical role can it play today? And (3.) what is the place of ancient Chinese philosophy in history generally, what fundamental tendencies of philosophy are represented in it and what permanent contributions has it made?

The first question I want to deal with is the relation of ancient Chinese philosophy to religion. In this regard there is a fundamental difference between Chinese philosophy, on the one hand, and Greek and part of Indian philosophy on the other. In Greece and to a certain extent in India, philosophy marked the beginning of a criticism of popular religion, the beginning of the search for a natural, materialistic explanation of the world. This was especially true in Greece. But we have also seen that a materialistic school of philosophy developed in India. With the exception Yang-tse, the theoretical and practical materialist, who was, however, an isolated phenomenon and established no school, Chinese classical philosophy left the popular and state religion untouched. Confucius dealt with the popular and state religion chiefly as a means of regulating political and social life. He fixed the conditions of traditional religious rituals and ceremonies, those of ancestor-worship, as well as those associated with the worship of the nature gods. As for Lao-tse philosophic speculation was linked with the tradition of soothsaying and with the germs of philosophy or philosophic lore to which it gave rise, germs such as were contained in Yih-king. Accordingly, one must guard against reading things into the earliest ideas of Chinese popular and state religion which were not originally there. Christian missionaries and sinologists sought and found monotheism, the belief in a single god. They considered Shang-ti, the lord of heaven, to be this single god.

The wish to find Christian ideas, or at least footholds for Christian ideas, in Chinese popular religion was here father to the thought. Actually, this Shang-ti was no more the sole and exclusive god than Zeus was among the Greeks or Jupiter among the Romans. In ancient Chinese religion Shang-ti was never more than the highest god; he was not the only god. In this very early period this highest god was thought of as a person. Traces of this are still found in the Yih-king, the earliest collection of Chinese songs.

The songs of Yih-king come from a period corresponding to the period of the epic poems of the Greeks, the Iliad and Odyssey. The oldest religious ideas of the Chinese belong to the most primitive that we know: worship of the spirits of the ancestors, or animism. With this earliest stage, with the belief in the spirits of deceased ancestors (which is the first religious stage of all peoples), is linked a later stage, the culture of nature spirits - spirits of the mountains, of the earth, of heaven, of the rivers, etc. The worship of these spirits and the ideas held about them are adapted to the needs of a primitive agricultural people. It is also characteristic that the worship of these powers of nature was restricted to the ruling feudal nobility and officialdom. All this means that the ideas of nature spirits and their worship were the product of a much higher stage of development. The fact that the worship of ancestral spirits, the earliest and most primitive stage of Chinese popular religion, was the starting point of Chinese philosophy is, of course, significant for its development - the more so since it did not critically oppose popular and state religion as did ancient Greek natural philosophy and Indian materialism.

I want to stress this: even discounting these very definite facts which contradict the idea that monotheism prevailed in ancient China, all historical experience would still oppose the notion that monotheism came first in the religious development of a people and that belief in ancestors and nature spirits did not develop until later. Yet this notion is upheld by a new ethnographic school in Europe led by Father W. Schmidt and allied with the Vatican and Catholic missionary activity. Basically we have here simply an old missionary yarn poorly concealed in the cloak of science.

I now turn to the question of why there was this uncritical relation between ancient philosophy and the popular and state religion in China. Why is there no evidence of conflict with religion? The first and basic reason I find in the fact that in ancient China no special priestly caste or class was established. Priestly functions in ancient China were, as you know, joined with those of the father of the family, the elders of the tribe, the feudal lords, and the feudal monarchs and officials. Together with political functions they practised priestly duties. Priestly functions in ancient China were an appendage of family and tribal government and of political power. This, in one respect, is plainly connected with the fact that in ancient China the state and state authority developed from the functions of management and control of irrigation, of canal-building, etc.

The second reason: in ancient China, in contrast with Greece, we have a very weak and insignificant development of commodity production and, accordingly, of manufacture and of industry as well - i.e., of factors which impel a natural explanation of the world. The economy of classical China was very predominantly a nature economy, agriculture on a primitive communistic base with a feudal superstructure. Ancestor worship and the worship of nature spirits in this period corresponded completely with economic and social relations. Ancestor worship secured and consecrated the social bonds within the broad kinship of families and tribes. The worship of nature spirits provided the spiritual means of unifying the feudal state which transcended the tribal organizations; it also provided the means of binding these tribal organizations to the state. Ancestor worship and worship of nature spirits corresponded perfectly with the economic and class structure of ancient Chinese society; it molded itself to this structure in the closest possible fashion.

Thus is explained, I believe, the peculiar behavior of Chinese philosophy towards the popular and state religion. It is a fact that this behavior was not one of conflict. I now turn to the second question, namely, the question of the social and political role of ancient Chinese philosophy and its various tendencies. I shall try to sketch in a few strokes a general picture of the period in which ancient Chinese philosophy bloomed. First a few dates: in round numbers, it is the period of the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, a time, incidentally, of great religious and philosophical crisis both in India and in Greece.

Confucius appeared in the sixth century B.C.; he was born in 551 and died in 478. Lao-tse's birth is now set in 604. As for the technical aspect of this period, It is very important to keep in mind that it marked the boundary line between the bronze age and the iron age, between the period when bronze was the chief material for making tools and the period when iron was chiefly used. The bronze age in China stretched from 2000 to 5000 B.C.; the iron age from 500 on. Iron was first used only for utensils and tools for women, such as needles, and not until later for weapons. This was evidently because not until later was it learned how to temper iron so that it could be used for making weapons as well.

These centuries were extremely turbulent. It was the crisis of feudalism, the period of the overthrow of the central feudal power, of violent conflict among feudal states for supremacy. It was a period in which the border states, through great struggles, conquered new territories from the neighboring barbarian hordes. The struggles with the border peoples, which were undertaken by the border states, developed the military power of these states. It was therefore no accident that it was precisely the state of Tsin, which had long waged such wars, that was later able to establish the centralized absolute monarchy.

As far as the feudal classes were concerned, the period of feudal wars was a time of the greatest uncertainty in all vital relationships, a time of violent turns of fate. Many feudal groups succumbed in war; their fate hung continually in the balance. One day a feudal lord would be in power; the next banished or dead. For the great masses of the people these centuries were a period of increasing oppression, increasing exploitation. Oppressive compulsory labor was imposed upon them. To this was added the burden of military service. To compulsory labor were added taxes in kind, chiefly from the harvest yield. We also have the introduction of a salt and iron impost as early as the seventh century. This salt and iron impost was the invention of one of the older philosophers, Kuant-sie. A clear description of the military service which the peasants had to perform may be found in the songs of Yih-king.

There are songs in which the peasants bewail the fact that they have been separated from their families for years, that they must perform military service against the barbarians, etc. The feudal lord of this period rode to war on a war-chariot (like the ancient Homeric heroes), each chariot having an escort of foot soldiers. These foot soldiers were peasants.

The feudal wars were of course waged to the neglect of the most important of all governmental functions in China: the maintenance of the irrigation works - of the canals, dams and irrigation ditches. Irrigation in ancient China was the vital problem for the great masses of the people.

If we wish to group the class struggles of this period, we find two main groups: first, the struggles among feudal lords, struggles for supremacy; second, the struggles between the feudal lords and the peasants, struggles over compulsory labor and taxes. Finally, we have the middle class of ancient China, the literati. The literati play a role intermediate between the two main classes, the feudal lords and the peasant masses. This middle position between the feudal lords and the peasantry determines their ideological role.

Lao-tse, as the earliest, will be considered first. The nucleus of his philosophy in its social and political aspect is the concept of Wu-wei, of "inaction." This concept of inaction, of letting things go their own way with the least possible interference, is equivalent to the concept that the state should interfere as little as possible in the affairs of the peasant masses, in the self-government of the tribal villages. Lao-tse says that that government is best of which the people are least aware. He is against urban and courtly culture; he is for a simple, primitive life and against knowledge and erudition, which under the existing conditions was impossible without the exploitation of the people. In contrast to Confucius, he is against tradition, and, very characteristically, against the use of force. Things ought to develop of themselves, he felt. It is not an accident that Lao-tse came from the half-barbaric border state of Chu. This was one of those half-barbaric southern states which bred a mixture of Chinese and non-Chinese peoples. Lao-tse is made most clear when compared with a modern thinker, Leo Tolstoy, whose doctrine resembles his in its essential features. The doctrineof Tolstoy, as you know, likewise opposes the use of force. It is inspired by hate and enmity against the state and the great feudal landowner. Leo Tolstoy was a penitent nobleman. Himself a landowner, he sided with the peasantry against the landowners. As Lenin has shown, Leo Tolstoy reflects the peasants' resistance against feudalism and against the feudal state. The village, according to Tolstoy, should govern itself. The state should not interfere. Tolstoy's resistance, however, was of the passive sort; he rejected conflict, the use of force. This is consistent with the fact that at this time the peasant revolution was not yet joined with the revolution of the urban proletariat and that Tolstoy himself had no understanding of the proletarian revolution. But the position of the peasant class is such that it alone can never combat the centralized power of the state, because rustic life is not congenial to close-knit organization. The peasantry, although it comprises many millions, is divided, split into countless small units. Here one peasant family, there another; here one village, there another, without organized alliance. Hence the peasant class can accomplish a revolution in only two ways: either by joining another class which supplies the organizational leadership (the bourgeoisie, as in the French bourgeois revolution, or the working class, as in Russia), or by attaining their revolutionary objective through a centralized monarchy or through a dictator such as Napoleon III in France or Shi Hoang-ti in ancient China. Through comparison with Tolstoy the historical role of Lao-tse will become apparent. Lao-tse embodies the passive protest, the passive resistance of the peasant village against the feudal state and the feudal landlords. The state should keep its hands off the village. The village should govern itself and supervise its own farming. This attitude of Lao-tse does not correspond to a revolutionary position; it corresponds to a position of passive resistance, of non-co-operation, withdrawal, separation from the state. The conception of Lao-tse has been called anarchism. Well, anarchism is also Tolstoy's political position. But the word anarchism signifies little. It can have various sources: it can arise from the conditions of the peasantry at a certain stage of development (the conditions in Russia at the time of Tolstoy and in China at the time of Lao-tse), or even from a certain condition of the working class as in present-day Italy and France. Thus the mere word anarchism does not make one understand the theory of Lao-tse. One must comprehend the totality of class relations of the time, and the condition of the peasant class in particular, in order to understand Lao-tse's peculiar role.

Before I turn to Confucius, I will interpret one more general idea common to both Lao-tse and Confucius, an idea which hearkens back to much earlier conceptions: the idea of the unity of the natural and social orders. This idea is contained in Yih-king, for example; it is called Lung-fan, the supreme rule, and runs:

"Through deferential conduct rain will come at the proper time. If one knows how to speak appropriately, the sky will clear. If one's management is judicious, it will be warm in good time. If one attends to prudent advice, lo! at the right time it will grow cold. But if the ruler can call upon a holy one, then favorable winds will blow."

European sinologists have called this idea "universism, " the doctrine of the universal unity of natural and social orders. They find it very odd. But as soon as one considers the social relationships from which it arose, its meaning becomes clear. In countries where irrigation is crucial to the entire economy, where irrigation is the most important activity of state government, where the yield of harvest and the existence of the people depend on it, this idea is quite natural. This unity is so urgent and fundamental that in countries where the culture has been conditioned by irrigation, a collapse of the ruling power has been accomplished by a collapse of the irrigation system, and areas which once supported a dense population have fallen into complete disuse and have been transformed into waste-land. I think of Spain where the Arabian rulers built canals which were allowed to go to ruin under their Christian successors. The most striking example is Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and the Tigris, a country which in antiquity was one of the most fertile producers of grain, but which today, after the deterioration of its system of irrigation, is a bare and dreary desert. In a land like China, with its huge irrigation system, the close connection between the functions of the state government and the thriving of agriculture, the close connection between the social and natural orders, is clear and self-evident to every peasant. Here the state government is for peasant economy a natural force of the first order which determines the operation of other natural forces important to the peasant and which is crucial to his economic existence.

I now come to Confucius. In contrast to Lao-tse, Confucius came from an old noble family of the north, from the province of Shantung. His historical role is quite different from that of Lao-tse. His goal was a profound, far-reaching reform and thereby a re-establishment of the traditional feudal order. For this purpose Confucius projected an ideal picture of feudalism. He placed this ideal picture in antiquity. In the last analysis this picture of the earliest emperors projected by Confucius and his disciples is merely an historical poem, not true history - a poem in which they presented their conception of the perfect feudal order. Their political and social goal was to free the feudal order of its excrescences. It is a conception according to which the government official should be the intermediary between the feudal lord and the people - an intermediary, however, charged with the interests of the feudal lord. A fundamental concept in Confucius is that the people cannot govern themselves, but they must be governed by wise and judicious officials. The people are inevitably political minors. His great ambition was to reconcile the people to the reformed feudal order. To this end he created a whole structure of ceremonies to consolidate the foundations of this order. As a pillar of the feudal order, Confucius set forth a vindication of patriarchal authority, the authority of the husband over the wife and children, the domination of the elder brother over the younger brother, the doctrine of filial affection. Quite justly he says that sovereignty in the state is built upon the authority of the father in the home. Under the social conditions of the time, the regulation and consolidation of paternal authority meant the consolidation of the whole structure of the feudal order. The deep and lasting influence of Confucius is explained by the fact that the patriarchal family is the cell, the substructure of feudalism. At the end of the Tshau dynasty the shaken superstructure of feudalism was overthrown and for the time being the doctrine of Confucius was shaken. But since the patriarchal family remained the undisturbed basis of the life of the Chinese people even after the fall of feudalism, the basis upon which successive superstructures were raised, the doctrine of Confucius was able to recover and continue up to the most recent times as the dominant Chinese world-view.