On June 26, Donald Trump signed an executive order on "Protecting American Monuments." The order was Trump's response to the protests against anti-Black police brutality and systemic racism that have wracked the United States since the murder of George Floyd. On the same day, the White House website published an address given by National Security Advisor Robert C. O'Brien two days earlier about "The Chinese Communist Party's Ideology and Global Ambitions." Both of these documents are notable for shamelessly deploying McCarthyite, anti-communist rhetoric that uses the threat of "Marxism" as a boogeyman to authorize both repression at home and imperial aspirations abroad.
This return to Cold War rhetoric comes at a time when critics across the US political spectrum have become increasingly vocal about the Chinese Government's potentially genocidal treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the repression of protestors in Hong Kong (which is now institutionalized with the new Hong Kong security law that came into force on June 30), and what some argue are China's own imperialist designs as it invests heavily in Africa and elsewhere.
These often well-meaning critiques can place those who consider themselves on the left in the awkward position of finding themselves aligned with, and even approving of, the foreign policy positions of Trump's regime. The stakes of these ideological conflicts continue to increase with actions like Trump's July 14 executive order "On Hong Kong Normalization;" which rules that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous and thus should no longer gain preferential treatment from the US, as well as sanctioning Chinese government officials. The path to ever greater, and more dangerous, conflict seems inevitable.
In this context, it is important to reiterate how the US government continues to cynically manipulate concerns over the conflict between a distorted notion of "communist ideology" and "human rights" in China and elsewhere to fuel a belligerent foreign policy for its diseased empire.
These manipulations are not just dangerous at the level of geopolitics, but also for those who consider themselves on the US left given that the mark of "Marxism" is being applied as the ultimate sin to both China and domestic anti-racist protestors. That the US political establishment uses purposefully confused definitions of these terms allows for their use as ideological weapons against communists across the world struggling to rally supporters to their cause.
Watch out, they're ideological!
O'Brien's speech begins by returning to a common question "China watchers" have wrung their hands over in recent years: as China has embraced the market logics of global capitalism in the past four decades, why has it not also embraced "liberal values" like free speech, strong private property protections, and electoral representation?
According to this logic, democracy and capitalism are inextricably linked and as China embraced US-led global capitalism, it would naturally begin to look more "free" and "democratic." O'Brien takes this argument even further to suggest that it was not just China's move towards a market economy, but US encouragement of that embrace that seemed to be driving China towards wider political change. "The more we opened our markets to China, the thinking went, the more we invested capital in China, the more we trained PRC bureaucrats, scientists, engineers, and even military officers, the more China would become like us."
The flaw in such thinking lies in its perception of who "we" are. Despite the dreams of economists and political scientists, there is little historical evidence to suggest that capitalism and democracy are meaningfully connected, at least not if one understands democracy to be a system of governance where all truly play an equal role in determining the course of society. The uprisings against police killings are clearly spurred on by the sense that the US government and its systems of social control do not represent the interests of many living within its borders, especially Black people.
While people like O'Brien might think that capitalism will come to China with a Big Mac in one hand and the ballot in the other, Marx's observation that "capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt" has been closer to China's actual historical experience. One need only examine the example of the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century—when British, French, and US forces fought the Qing Dynasty for the right to sell drugs in China in the name of "free trade"—to see that capitalism has a tenuous relationship with ideas of democratic "freedom."
Globally and historically, liberal values like individual property rights have served as the ideological cover for blood-sucking capitalist accumulation. In his bellicose tweets, Trump has sometimes seemed to openly acknowledge the violent truths obscured by the concern for "human rights" that has accompanied so many imperial wars abroad. In his speech, however, O'Brien relies on a softer vision of US foreign policy that advocates "liberal internationalism" as the opposing pole to Chinese "communism."
According to historian Samuel Moyn, this notion became dominant in the early 1980s and was at least a marginal departure from the cynical, "enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend" anticommunism of the Cold War. Its advocates, both Republican and Democrat, built on earlier ideas of American exceptionalism and proposed that the proper use of American power was to advance American values of civil liberties through wars glossed as "humanitarian intervention." As Moyn points out, the problem was that, even accepting the terms of liberalism, "A foreign policy based on expansive militarism and endless war is neither liberal nor internationalist."
Seemingly ignorant of this history or his own ideological blinders, O'Brien and others identify the "Marxist-Leninist" ideology of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party as a dangerous threat that the Trump administration has finally unveiled. "How did we fail to understand the nature of the Chinese Communist Party?" O'Brien writes, "The answer is simple: because we did not pay heed to the CCP's ideology." China is not a threat because its economic growth undermines US global hegemony, but because its ideology is evil and threatens the supposedly universal values that "all women and men are entitled by right of God to liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness."
We can presume that O'Brien's God must be different than the one who has observed the deaths of countless people around the world at the hands of US imperial wars in the present, recent, and distant past.
While O'Brien is clear that his target is China's Marxist-Leninist and communist ideology, he is much fuzzier on his understandings of those terms. He defines them thusly:
Under communism, individuals are merely a means to be used toward the achievement of the ends of the collective nation state. Thus, individuals can be easily sacrificed for the nation state's goals. Individuals do not have inherent value under Marxism-Leninism. They exist to serve the state; the state does not exist to serve them.
For O'Brien, communism and Marxism-Leninism are primarily about the subordination of the individual to the nation-state achieved through the state's total control of information. This definition of course does not wrestle with any of the substance behind communist philosophy. It would likely surprise Karl Marx, who writing in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, summed up communist theory as the "abolition of private property," not the abolition of free speech.
O'Brien does not address the material concerns of communists because it would confuse his argument that self-proclaimed communists from Lenin to Stalin to Mao to Xi are exactly the same because all these figures were concerned with "thought control" at the hands of a monolithic state. Such an interpretation flattens out historical differences and realities that contradict the notion of "communism" or "communist China" as defined by unchanging state control of people and information.
Mao Zedong certainly seemed to disagree with such a desired future when he claimed "it is right to rebel against reactionaries" in 1966 as he unleashed chaos during the Cultural Revolution. Instead of advocating complacency and control, during at least the early stage of this movement, Mao encouraged people to criticize those who had risen to positions of power in the party-state bureaucracy since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
The crux of O'Brien's argument is that China is dangerous because of its (poorly understood) ideology, which stands in opposition to the supposedly universal values of liberal internationalism and its concern for human rights. One of the key sources O'Brien cites for his analysis of China's ideology is the book Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping's China by Australian journalist-turned-China-policy-advisor John Garnaut.
According to a review by political scientist Christian Sorace, Garnaut's main argument is that China has not become a liberal democracy because it has failed to free itself from the grip of ideology. In so doing, he, like his disciple O'Brien, ignores that he himself is speaking from an ideological position; at least if one adopts Sorace's definition that "ideology is the inescapable air we breathe as political and social beings. We are never above, beyond, or outside ideology. For that reason, we should not project as ideology that which takes place elsewhere, something that happens to other, 'passive' minds."
Both O'Brien and Garnaut do not see themselves as representatives of capitalist and imperialist ideology, but instead imagine that they are beyond ideology. They imagine themselves at the end of history as they espouse the defense of rights-based liberalism. In the wake of endless war, the Patriot Act, drone bombings, constant threats to civil liberties like the right to abortion, and Trump's twitter account; such "experts" appear either shockingly naïve or as active propagandists for the ideology of an empire they would likely claim does not exist.
And though this imperialist ideology is currently emerging out of the Trump White House, we should not forget that it is a bipartisan affair and that the Democrats have certainly not shown any willingness to deescalate tensions with China.
Support our Monuments
A clash of ideologies is also at the center of the Trump administration's defense of monuments against protestors. The June 26 executive order "seeks to prosecute to the fullest extent permitted under Federal law, and as appropriate, any person or any entity that destroys, damages, vandalizes, or desecrates a monument, memorial, or statue within the United States." This order was passed in the wake of protestors destroying monuments of confederate generals, slave-owning founding fathers like George Washington, and genocidal settler-colonists like Christopher Columbus.
The order makes clear that it is the dangerous ideologies of the left, specifically singling out Marxism, that are behind the protests and the destruction of monuments. "Many of the rioters, arsonists, and left-wing extremists who have carried out and supported these acts have explicitly identified themselves with ideologies — such as Marxism — that call for the destruction of the United States system of government."
While the timing of this order and the publication of O'Brien's speech on the White House website might be coincidental, taken together they paint a picture where the Trump administration is locked in a battle with those inspired by Marxist ideologies both at home and abroad. No matter that very few US Black Lives Matter protestors would likely align their goals with the developmentalism of Xi Jinping's "socialism with Chinese characteristics," in the White House's schema they are painted with the same brush of "Marxism."
In opposition to such dangerous ideologies, the executive order projects itself as a defense of "the fundamental truth that America is good, her people are virtuous, and that justice prevails in this country to a far greater extent than anywhere else in the world."
Such statements emerged alongside recent provocations like Trump's insistence on speaking about the danger of "far-left fascism" at Mount Rushmore on July 3rd. This speech occurred in the face of Native American-led protests that have rightly called Mount Rushmore a monument to colonization carved out of land taken illegally from the Lakota Sioux (and designed by the KKK-affiliated Gutzon Borglum in 1927). In this context, it is hard to interpret Trump's executive order as anything but an unrepentant celebration of white supremacy and its monuments.
While liberals might disassociate themselves from Trump's belligerence, they largely agree with his administration's ideological premise that leftist (Marxist) ideology should be fought both at home and abroad. How else to explain mainstream Democrats' attempts to portray themselves as tougher on China than Trump, or their historical antipathy towards any policies that might be tarred as "socialist" or "communist"?
The incoherent centralism of a Joe Biden will do nothing to steer the US security establishment away from using the threat of "Marxism" as a weapon in greater ideological combat against both China and domestic protestors pushing for structural transformation to alleviate the depredations of racism and neoliberal austerity.
In this ideological battlefield, it is almost impossible to take any concerns over human rights in China that originate from the US seriously. Neither party has demonstrated much of a desire to understand anything meaningful about, say, the internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. If they had, the bipartisan "Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020," signed into law on June 17, might go further than just sanctioning high-level Chinese officials involved in the detention camps. For instance, it might sanction the 83 brands—including Amazon, Apple, Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Siemens, and Sony—that reportedly benefit from the forced labor of detained Uyghurs.
Indeed, to take serious action against these corporations would require an indictment of global capitalism and its ceaseless quest for the cheapest possible labor costs, which would contradict the raison d'ětre of the US's political, economic, and military establishment.
Much as the American left looked to the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution in China to understand the politics of civil rights and anti-capitalism in the 1960s, the only way out of this New Cold War is to combine local action with global understanding and solidarity. This task is of course complicated by the actions of a Communist Party of China that interns Uyghurs and represses radical labor activism. However, this should not make the US left either lose hope or uncritically support the CPC. Instead, we should double down on the only actions that have ever driven progressive historical change: involving ourselves with and directly supporting struggles for racial, gender, and economic justice at the local level while studying the global and historical structures that stand in the way.
Matthew Van Duyn is a historian who recently received his PhD from the University of Washington. He is currently unemployed. Find him a job and slide into his DMs @vanduyn0 on Twitter.