Sunday, April 27, 2008

Marxism, Mythology, and Tibet

by Norman Markowitz

This draft of an article may not be popular with some of our readers (the interpretations are very unpopular across much of the political spectrum in the U.S. and most of the developed capitalist countries) but I think that the major points are valid for those who see society in terms of historical materials.

First there is Tibet. In the 1930s, James Hilton wrote a popular, essentially escapist novel, Lost Horizon. In 1937, "Lost Horizon" was made into a very popular film by Frank Capra, famous for his political films and later director of the the WWII Office of War Information (OWI) The novel and the film deal with "Western travelers" (fleeing ironically political upheavals in China,) who crash land in the Himalayas, are rescued and brought to a valley of peace and
contentment peace, a place called Shangri-la, whose people are led by a wonderful high Lama.

This is a valley of eternal life and peace, one far greater than the "civilization" from which the travelers have escaped. To make matters more mystical, one of the travelers fleeing China, a suave British diplomat, is informed by the High Lama that he has been sent to replace him. Without continuing the fantastic but entertaining story, it is about finding, losing and for some finding again Utopia.

There are many odd parallels between the film and later real life. Sam Jaffe, who played the high Lama, was later blacklisted in the 1950s because of his opposition to McCarthyism, as was Jane Wyatt, who played Sondra, an ideal woman who had spent her life in Shangri-la.(she was to play the ideal suburban homemaker in the classic tv series, Father Knows Best) Franklin Roosevelt liked the film (which in its contrast between the peaceful egalitarian world of Shangri-la and the very mixed attitudes of the travelers, including one prominent capitalist crook is understandable). Roosevelt initially named the presidential retreat that the world today calls Camp David Shangri-la, and the term passed into general usage.

Although it was really unclear where the fictional Shangri-la really was
in the novel and the film(Tibet, Nepal, maybe somewhere in Northern
India) it acame to be identified with Tibet and in the cold war period
helped to compliment the theological mythology behind the U.S.
supported Tibetan Dalai Lama and the theocratic landlord class of
which he was the nominal leader.

Jam Jaffe, Jane Wyatt, and Franklin Roosevelt are dead today, but I think that if they were still with us, and all were progressives, they could distinguish myth from reality, particularly a myth that only serves the interest of the reactionaries who attacked them in their lifetimes.

First, Tibet in effect became a part of the Chinese empire when Mongol invaders established a dynasty, The Yuan Dynasty, in the mid thirteenth century, a few decades after the battles between feudal lords and King John were raging in England and another mythical figure, Robin Hood, was born. For centuries before that there was extensive commercial contact and interconnections between ruling class groups in China and Tibet. When Tibet became part of the Yuan Empire, Kublai Khan(a real historical figure mythologized for centuries in the European world) then in effect created a sort of Pope figure in Chinese (including Tibetan) Buddhism, which did not overcome religious sectarian conflict. The Ming dynasty, which overthrow the Yuan, pursued different policies distributing religious titles as European feudal aristocrats gave titles and wealth to their vassals. Conflicts intensified as the later Ming Chinese court for their own purposes gave great power to one Tibetan sect, whose leader eventually took the name of Dalai (or Ocean) Lama. Meanwhile, the Lamas (or teachers) were, whatever the mysticism surrounding their "incarnations" and their formal proclamations of peace and decency, in effect great lords and political leaders seeking to gain support from the Chinese court to expand their wealth and power, using Chinese military force to defeat and in some famous examples savagely persecute their rivals. And this went that way for centuries
and didn't end until our lifetime. Rather than a utopian society, Tibet was a brutal feudal society which was, from my readings, stands among the worst feudal societies in the world, far more repressive than Chinese feudalism and, even with the Buddhist clergy playing a more powerful role than the Catholic clergy and hierarchy in West European feudalism, certainly able to match the worst of West European feudalism.

The overwhelming majority of Tibetans were serfs living and working on manorial estates controlled by the high lamas and secular landlords (who were drawn often from the same families and were the ruling class). Serfs had no rights even by the standards of European serfs. If they could not work, their personal property was seized. They could be leased out and even sold. Their children could be taken from them and brought to the monasteries, where they were virtually enslaved Escape or resistance was often met with torture(eye gouging, cutting off of limbs, and even death by beheading). Actually, referring to this system as feudal in the Marxist sense of a feudal mode of production is generous. One might see it as a synthesis of feudal and slave modes of production and one in which it is difficult to say, at least from the perspective of the serf-slaves, that the feudal mode predominated over the slave mode.

What is important about this is that is that it cannot be separated from clerical power , although the region of which Tibet is a part became a battleground between the British and Czarist Russian empires in the 19th century as the Chinese empire found itself being carved up into commercial spheres of influence by major capitalist states and the Chinese masses experienced the horrors of imperial penetration, the Opium Wars, the Tiaping Rebellion and its suppression,the creation of cities within cities where Europeans did what they wished without any Chinese control, the entry of European and U.S. capital into China to develop railroads, mines, and other enterprises for themselves.

Even though the powerful lamas had not challenged Chinese authority for centuries (Chinese authority was after all the basis of their authority) the Chinese revolution was to change that. As China was fighting the U.S. in the Korean War, the government of the Peoples Republic in effect entered Tibet directly through an agreement with the two leading rulers, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Both accepted posts given to them by the new Chinese government in the next few years, as they had from Chinese governments for centuries. However, as the Chinese began to enact anti-feudal reforms, the high Monks and the secular landlords in effect launched a campaign of resistance. First they demanded in 1956 that the great estates be
continued. Then, with direct CIA support, they launched an armed struggle against the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army as it sought to both liberate serfs and recruit them for the liberation of Tibet. With China radicalized under the Great Leap Forward, the Tibetan feudal/slaveholder class declared for the first time ever an independent Tibet in 1959 and launched a military uprising in the capital of Lhasa.

The Peoples Liberation Army suppressed the uprising and the Dalai Lama then fled to India. The dispossessed former Tibetan exploiting classes have continued since then to fight for a "free and independent Tibet" which for them at least, like other emigre groups from revolutions, means the restoration of their power. While the Dalai Lama politically has been all over the place in his statements (from praising Marxism to embracing Jesse Helms in the U.S. and joining with Margaret Thatcher to oppose the extradition of General Pinochet in London) Americans particularly should know that, according to documents released by the State Department in 1998, the Dalai Lama was receiving an annual "stipend" from the CIA in the 1960s of $186,000. Today the "Endowment for Democracy" created by the Reagan administration to do overtly what the CIA did covertly in the ideological conflict is, along with various other U.S. funded organization, providing millions a year to the Tibetan exile community in India and internationally to foster"democracy" in Tibet. The Chinese, who were barred from the United Nations for twenty-two years by the U.S. government and saw Tibet as a pawn in the cold war against them, certainly know all of that.

I am not saying that this a simple struggle between good revolutionaries and bad counter-revolutionaries, as capitalist media sees the the Chinese as evil warlike villains and portrays the Dalai Lama as a second Mohandas Gandhi. Tibetans who were liberated from serfdom slavery suffered greatly from the failures of the Chinese revolution--from the economic failures of the Great Leap Forward and especially from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when religion(and the people, from my readings remain very religious) was massively suppressed and ideological dictates prevailed over reason in the creation of large communes. Also, in recent years, as China has turnedtoward a "social market economy," ethnic or Han Chinese have come to Tibet in significant numbers and tensions and conflicts between Tibetans and ethnic Chinese have become significant. But most of what Tibetans suffered in in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Chinese suffered. That many Chinese look down on Tibetans as backward and still feudal is probably true. This, along with the capitalist forms that characterize China's mixed economy may very well be fueling Tibetan nationalism inside the country that the emigre community. But cheerleading for the Dalai Lama and histrionic attacks on the Olympic Torch in the name of human rights not only does nothing to resolve the conflict while it denies that questions like slavery and feudalism, the way in which the Dalai Lama and the high lamas lived in the past, and the the suffering of the Tibetan people under the old system, are an essential part of human rights. Strengthening the Dalai Lama and the emigre class he represents is not helping the people of Tibet, even though in recent years he has criticized the old feudal system and said that he favors a constitution and representative government in Tibet (like so many of his predecessors over the centuries, he has said many different things at different times to different audiences).

Angering the Chinese people who know both the feudal history of Tibet and the history of their own bitter experiences with the imperialist powers, produces nothing that is positive.

As a final comment to what I expect will be a not so popular article, let me say that those who denounce the Peoples Republic of China for "cultural genocide" in Tibet should remember that the population ha doubled since 1950 and the average life expectancy of Tibetans has increased from 36 years to 65 years. Feudal Tibet was no Shangri-la. No one is claiming that Tibet as part of China's "social market economy" will be anything like Shangri-la. But there has and hopefully will continue to be progress. As a former believer in the Dalai Lama and still a strong believer in his Buddhist sect said, in a story which appeared in the Washington Post nine years ago, "I may not be free under Chinese Communism, but I am better off than when I was a slave." And he like many others in Tibet was a slave


the Jaded Prole said...

Excellent article. I've been trying to clarify this issue with progressive friends who have bought into the liberal/bourgeoisie "China out of Tibet" issue. The recent article in the PWW is helpful but this is much better. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

You remind me of W.E.B. DuBose's justification for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1930. In his polemic, he even referred to the place in the Japanese -Manchukuo. He wrote and said that all the Japanese actions were for the good of the Manchurians. Read it! That's what your article sounds like.

john m. said...

And by this logic, the colonial powers were good for Africans and the American invasion of Afghanistan was really about women's rights. I'm so ready for the flood of marxian rationalization and why these things are "not the same."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your positive comment jaded Prole. As for the others, colonialism forced tens of millions into serf and slave conditons, the Chinese liberated the Tibetans from those conditions. The Japanese slaughtered millions in China and had nothing to do with China until the rise of their empire. The Chinese state was a major force in Tibet since the 13th century and the Lamas were more than happy to take what it gave them until the Peoples Republic abolished feudalism. That ain't "Marxist rationalization but anybody he is not a cold war revivalist or a a fan of reaction or a resident of a virtual universe should be able to grasp
Norman Markowitz