Research and study of ideologies of social and national emancipation and their application to conditions within imperialist society

Speech to the China-Europe Seminar on Human Rights. Co-hosted by the China Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS), and the Faculty of Law at Sapienza University of Rome in Italy. Rome. 20 September 2023.


Dear Colleagues and Friends

Thank you very much for your invitation to participate in the 2023 China-Europe Seminar on Human Rights and for giving me an opportunity to say a few words. I am sorry that I cannot be with you in person.

Dialogue of this type is extremely relevant and timely. Human rights are the universal aspiration and entitlement of humanity. But each country and each people have to find their own way to realise them. No country can genuinely claim that its human rights situation is perfect. They remain a work in progress. To frame international relations as being characterised by a supposed struggle between democracy and autocracy, and to stigmatise, sanction and even commit acts of war against other countries on such a basis, is itself the grossest violation of the most fundamental human rights of many millions of people and potentially of the majority of humanity.

As President Xi Jinping said, when unveiling his Global Civilisation Initiative on March 15 this year:

“We advocate respect for the diversity of civilisations. Countries need to uphold the principles of equality, mutual learning, dialogue, and inclusiveness among civilisations, and let cultural exchanges transcend estrangement, mutual learning transcend clashes, and coexistence transcend feelings of superiority.

“We advocate the common values of humanity. Peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom are the common aspirations of all peoples. Countries need to keep an open mind in appreciating the perceptions of values by different civilisations, and refrain from imposing their own values or models on others and from stoking ideological confrontation.”

There are many aspects to human rights – for example, individual, social and collective – and this is one reason why the struggle for their realisation echoes throughout the entirety of human history. Moreover, to properly realise human rights cannot be solely a question of subjective desires. It has to be rooted in material reality.

As long ago as 1846, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in The German Ideology:

“It is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means…slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and…in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. ‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions.”

It is on the basis of this materialist Marxist principle that socialist countries like China, and many developing countries more generally, have placed such emphasis on the liberation and development of the productive forces. This has not been to negate or to violate human rights. On the contrary, it has been the prerequisite for their development and their guarantee.

In this way, socialist countries, both historically and today, have paved, and are paving, the way for the elaboration of a human rights paradigm that is actually focused on people’s right and ability to manage the affairs of the state, economy and society as a whole.

As Xi Jinping has noted: “If the people are awakened only at voting time and dormant afterward; if the people hear big slogans during elections but have no say after; if the people are favoured during canvassing but are left out after elections, this is not true democracy.”

In contrast to this flawed form of democracy, Xi Jinping has put forward the concept of whole process people’s democracy, which has its roots in Marxist theory, the historical experience of the Chinese revolution and in China’s fine traditional culture and civilisational experience.

Starting at least from the days of the Jiangxi Soviet Republic, the Communist Party of China has now accumulated over 90 years of governance experience embracing millions of people. It is an experience forged in the harshest conditions, where reliance on the masses was simply the only way to survive. From this was derived what is known as the mass line, which Mao Zedong explained as taking the scattered and unsystematic ideas of the masses and synthesising them in such a way that the masses of the people consciously adopt them as their own. Or, as it is known, from the masses to the masses.  

Whole process people’s democracy also draws on traditional Chinese concepts of harmony and consensus. The great harmony of all under heaven, or of tianxia, as Confucius expressed it. The root of the concept of a community of shared future for humanity may also, to a certain degree, be found here.

According to this framework, the interests of the family, the society, the country, and even humanity as a whole, take precedence over that of the individual. But rather than this negating the rights and interests of the individual, it provides the context and the framework whereby they might be fully realised.

In the light of this understanding, politics, and therefore social relations, are not characterised by an adversarial division into contending and hostile camps, but rather by a search for consensus, harmony and inclusivity, whereby the achievement of the rights of all becomes the prerequisite for the achievement of the rights of one.

The necessary prerequisite, and material basis, to fully embody such inclusive and non-adversarial democracy is the establishment of a socialist system, where exploitation and oppression are no longer the defining characteristics of society, although they may persist to a certain extent in a primary phase of socialism.

In the developed western countries, politics has become just another profession. Indeed, in many cases, it has become a stepping stone to personal enrichment.

In his famous Gettysburg Address of 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln expressed his hope for, “a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Yet by 2011, the US Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz felt compelled to characterise his nation’s system as being, “of the one percent, by the one percent, for the one percent.”

In contrast to this situation, for the great majority of those engaged in governance in China, and other socialist countries, from the village level to the National People’s Congress or its equivalent, politics is not a distinct profession. Rather, representatives are drawn from all walks of life, from all professions, including ordinary workers and farmers, and from every ethnic group, and thus are genuinely aware of the problems, issues, and concerns in their communities, and are genuinely accountable to the people among whom they live and work. In a visit to China earlier this summer, I was deeply impressed to see how such grassroots governance and participatory democracy was developing and working in the Jinyuan community near to Guizhou’s provincial capital of Guiyang.

No country has a monopoly of wisdom with regards to human rights and the political systems that underpin them. However, in a situation characterised variously by frequent changes of prime ministers, unstable coalition governments, and the crisis and implosion of the traditional political party system, with once almost hegemonic political forces reduced to insignificance or even extinction, whilst new party formations prove to be nebulous and ephemeral, it surely behoves us in Europe to look without prejudice at alternative experiences and experiments and not least at China’s evolving whole process people’s democracy.

Thank you for your attention.






Writings of Keith Bennett


Writings of Keith Bennett