Neil Burton and the historic debate on China’s future: Echoes from past to present

- Mark Sidel

I was immensely privileged to be invited to deliver this year’s Neil Burton Memorial Lecture, which honors the Canadian teacher, activist, editor and researcher, who had an impact on so many in Canada, China, Japan and beyond. I’m grateful to the Burton Memorial Lecture Committee, the Center for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) and the Burton family for this honor—and particularly to the Burton family and friends for providing some of the pictures which I used in the lecture, delivered on Jan. 24.

Thirty-five years ago, the young Canadian teacher, editor and activist Neil Burton played an important role in a key international dispute about the future of China in the immediate post-Cultural Revolution years. That debate—about economic reform, inequality, and China’s road to modernization—echoes down to the present in current disputes in China about social equality, corruption, and the regulation of China’s powerful market economy.

This battle pitted Burton, a young Canadian teacher living in Beijing who was directly familiar with Chinese people’s desires to reduce the emphasis on politics in their lives and move toward economic reforms and greater economic freedoms, against Charles Bettelheim, the famous French Marxist philosopher and political economist and a lion of the post-World War II pro-Mao European left, who argued against Deng Xiaoping’s liberalizing moves and in favor of continued Maoist policies. Now, 35 years later, Neil Burton and Charles Bettelheim’s historic battle is significant once again as China struggles with rising inequality, social unrest, the rise of civil society, and adapting this now-powerful Chinese market economy to a new era.

Neil Burton visited China in the early 1970s, with one of the first Canadian student delegations, and when he was studying Asia with the eminent Professor Paul Lin (Lin Daguang). In 1973, he returned to China for what would become eight years of work as a student, teacher, and editor. The China that Neil Burton encountered in the early 1970s changed rapidly: Neil witnessed the factional and popular battles that characterized the late Cultural Revolution era, including campaign against Lin Biao and Confucius, the mourning for and demonstrations to commemorate Zhou Enlai upon his death, and the death of Mao Zedong in late 1976. Through all of this Neil was a careful observer of a historic era, and an assiduous reader of its documents.

After Mao died, and the so-called “Gang of Four” (Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, and several other radical Cultural Revolution leaders) were arrested, an important split occurred among progressive overseas intellectuals and activists who had originally sided with China after the Sino-Soviet split, or had come to admire China’s progress in the 1960s and 1970s. One group, epitomized by the French Marxist theoretician Charles Bettelheim, denounced the new Chinese leadership as departing from the Maoist path, particularly as Deng Xiaoping reemerged in 1977 and 1978. In 1977, siding with the Gang of Four and, he believed, Mao, Bettelheim resigned as president of the France-China friendship group and issued a brief letter highly critical of the new Chinese leadership.

Others—and Neil Burton was in this camp—recognized that the Chinese they knew or met in Beijing wanted a change from the oppression of intellectuals, artists and others, the factional fighting, and the over-reliance on politics that characterized the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, they were deeply concerned that the new leadership would over-encourage markets and turn its back on policies that served the poor.

This debate on the future of China and socialism that emerged in 1977 and 1978 played out prominently in the pages of the most well-known independent socialist journal of the times, Monthly Review.  Monthly Review was (and remains) based in New York, then headed by the socialist intellectuals Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff. Sweezy, Magdoff and Bettelheim were close: Monthly Review Press had already published a number of Bettelheim’s volumes on the Soviet Union and China. They shared an antipathy for what the Soviet Union had become and a hope that China could do better. Sweezy and Magdoff had kept their journal independent of pro-Soviet parties, without affiliating with pro-Chinese factions. In the late 1970s, when Neil Burton joined the fray, Sweezy, Magdoff and Bettelheim were three of the most prominent Marxist intellectuals of the post-World War II era. (I had the honor of knowing Sweezy and Magdoff when I lived in New York in the 1970s, and of meeting Neil in Beijing in the late 1970s.)

As far as I know, none of these three lions of the post-war American and French left had ever met the young Canadian teacher Neil Burton when he wrote to Charles Bettelheim from the Friendship Hotel in Beijing in early 1978 in highly critical terms: “How could an eminent Marxist intellectual who had delved so deeply into the specific problems of revisionism and capitalist restoration be so wide of the mark?....  Do you really believe that China’s top leaders should exercise direct control over every aspect of the day-to-day life and work of the Chinese people? Do you believe such a thing is possible?....  As for members of the present leadership, we shall have to wait and see.  But we must remember that many of the circumstances which created a Mao Tse-tung [Mao Zedong] no longer prevail in China—new circumstances, new conditions, exist….”  (Burton, In Defense of the New Regime, Monthly Review, July-August 1978)

Burton not only took on Bettelheim, but sought to broaden the arena of debate. He sent his letter to Bettelheim to Monthly Review, suggesting that the journal “publish the original letter of resignation, his … reply, and whatever rejoinder Bettelheim might care to make.” Monthly Review saw a good debate brewing, and one that brought together readers who had a deep interest in China, including both those who castigated the new Chinese leaders as betraying Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and those, like Burton, who understood that many Chinese wanted a different and more flexible path and were willing to observe developments for the time being. 

Eventually Monthly Review gathered up Bettelheim’s acerbic resignation letter, Burton’s lengthy reply from Beijing, and Bettelheim’s even longer and detailed response to Burton. Those documents were published as the summer 1978 double issue of Monthly Review, and were widely read in the North American, European, Indian, Latin American and other progressive intellectual and activist communities.

Within a year, Monthly Review Press brought out the debate in book form, given the broad interest in developments in China and in these sharply contrasting views. The debate was translated into Chinese and published in Beijing, a fact that was largely unknown at the time. Editions of the Monthly Review journal issue or book came out in France, India, Japan, and elsewhere. Readers were drawn by the fierce disagreement, but also, at least for some, by the challenge that a young Canadian teacher, on the ground in Beijing, brought to one of the most prominent Marxist theoreticians of the post-war era. Charles Bettelheim is not nearly as widely read today as he was in the 1960s and 1970s, but he was a formidable figure on the left in his day. There was a kind of David and Goliath quality to the debate.

Thirty-five years later, much has changed. Sadly, neither Neil Burton nor Charles Bettelheim is with us today.  And of course the China they debated so fiercely in 1978 has changed dramatically as well. The paradox that Neil Burton identified and struggled with—himself, and against Charles Bettelheim—has come to pass: The Chinese people demanded a different road, a road that allowed more flexibility and autonomy in daily life, in economic arrangements, and in social life. And at the same time many of the early and more egalitarian ideals of the Chinese revolution and of some parts of the Cultural Revolution, such as the bringing of health care to rural areas through basic health care and the “barefoot doctors,” and attempts to prevent growing gaps in Chinese society, have certainly been abandoned. 

We cannot know exactly how Neil Burton and Charles Bettelheim would view today’s hyper-marketized China, one in which incomes have risen for many hundreds of millions in unprecedented ways while, at the same time income gaps have never been so profound and the homeless and billionaires live in the same cities in a party-dominated state. It may be enough to pause to remember a time thirty-five years ago when China’s socialist directions were a real topic of discussion in academic and political circles, and a young Canadian progressive fearlessly took on one of the most famous Marxist intellectuals of his era.  Yet having fought so fiercely in 1978, today I suspect that Neil Burton and Charles Bettelheim might find a bit of common ground in their wonder at what China has become, and the ideals lost in the process.  

Mark Sidel is Doyle-Bascom Professor of Law and Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and UVic CAPI Associate


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Keywords: Center for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, China

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