After World War II, America began to remake the world in its own image. The triumph of liberal democracy over the Axis Powers marked a definitively new stage in world history: it was the triumph of the free world over authoritarianism and totalitarian domination. The next great enemy to be conquered would be the United States’ former ally against Nazism, the Soviet Union, whose defeat at the end of the Cold War would mark yet a further stage in the history of the world’s restructuring at the hands of America. After the fall of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy became truly universal. The ideology and political form of America, as well as the economic system it had inherited and expanded from its British predecessor, was truly global. It was the age of unipolarity.
Economic development all around the world took place only within the parameters of the unipolar world governed by the new hegemon, on terms of trade that were set by U.S.-made institutions of global governance. Even great countries like Russia and China had to play by American rules, and China in particular became the primary location of the labor force for American multinational capitalism. The world market was in every respect a feature of American globalism, a tool of what many have identified as American ‘colonialism’: that is, capitalism on a global scale, where the U.S. itself was the home of global capital.
China, to the best of its ability, took advantage of its inclusion in the world market and used this status to engineer its remarkable rise as the second greatest superpower and largest economy in the world. Contrary to all expectations in the West, China’s marketization and opening to the world did not induce ideological liberalization, but instead it enabled China to become the most formidable challenger to American liberal hegemony. At the same time, while Russia’s economic recovery after the Soviet collapse has not been nearly as impressive as China’s, it nonetheless became a critical source of oil and energy to much of the Western world—an important asset in its toolbox of geopolitical leverage (as recent events have demonstrated all too clearly). Russia’s military and soft power are similarly impressive enough to make it a worthy opponent of American unipolarity.
Yet their differing circumstances and degrees of integration into the world market have also led the intellectual leaders of Russia and China to conceive of the emerging multipolar world in distinct ways, despite their substantial convergence in opposition to Western unipolarity. While both countries have suffered decades of humiliation at the hands of the West, the concrete material conditions that have affected both countries after the fall of the Soviet Union are radically distinct. A Marxist analysis would expect these distinct material conditions to impact the ideologies that would take shape on Russian and Chinese soil. Indeed, this is exactly what has happened. Two thinkers exemplify these distinct ideologies in an especially clear fashion: Alexander Dugin and Jiang Shigong. It is worthwhile to take a closer look at the theories of multipolarity formulated by these two thinkers in order to understand the distinct ideological formations of modern Russia and China.
Alexander Dugin and the New Russian Ideology
After the USSR was officially dissolved on December 31, 1991, Russia fell into a state of absolute political and economic chaos. The transition from a planned socialist economy to a liberal democratic country with a free-market economy was supposed to take place overnight, according to the neoliberal theorists of economic ‘shock therapy,’ whose methods were brutally implemented in Russia under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The sudden liberalization of prices and privatization of productive property was supposed to transform Russia into a free country after the model of the great capitalist countries of the West. Instead, Russia plunged headlong into a new phase of poverty and destitution. GDP declined by one-sixth, the distribution system entirely collapsed and no efficient market mechanism appeared to replace it, scarcity and inflation beset the nation, and a rapid process of deindustrialization was set in place.
At the same time, and in sharp contrast to the marketization of the Chinese economy (more on that below), Russia’s transformation from a planned economy to a market one was accompanied by a painful disintegration from the greater global context. The usual characterization of the Soviet economy emphasizes its strict prohibitions on foreign investment, which is certainly true to an extent. But in fact the whole Soviet bloc, consisting of multiple Central and Eastern European countries as well as Asian, African, and Latin American countries, enjoyed a high level of internal economic integration that contributed much to the flow of capital throughout the USSR The disintegration of this entire bloc after 1991, and the Westward movement of many formerly Soviet countries, spelled the destruction of the vast network of political and economic ties that once contributed to Russia’s strength. Thus, in practice, the abolition of Soviet socialism meant not only the impoverishment but also the isolation of Russia from the rest of the world.
Since then, in the years marked by the rule of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has undergone an impressive degree of reintegration into the world market, based primarily upon its large supply of important natural resources, which has led to a robust economic recovery—although Russia’s wealth is nowhere near the levels it attained at the high point of Soviet rule.
Yet despite its fairly impressive recovery, Russia still lags behind much of the developed world, has continued to be the object of Western disdain (leftover from the Cold War era), and is still deeply affected by the memory of its maltreatment and isolation by the West. This deep isolation has produced an ideology unique to Russia. Motivated by resentment towards the West’s, and especially America’s, pretensions to better the world through the globalization of liberalism, democracy, and capitalist free trade, Russia’s new ambition is to become a great and independent civilization again, rooted in a renewed awareness of its political, economic, and cultural uniqueness—and without the help of the West.
Alexander Dugin, perhaps the foremost political philosopher and geopolitical analyst in Russia, has given an especially clear theoretical formulation to this new Russian ideology, which he casts in the terms of “multipolarity.” In The Fourth Political Theory, he elucidates a multipolar vision of the global future, against the backdrop of three decades of American-centric unipolarity. After an oppressive unipolar system that has effectively treated nations in the periphery of the American empire as pariah states or easy sources of cheap labor, Dugin sees the fracturing of the globe into multiple “Great Spaces,” internally united by their own unique political, economic, and cultural systems, as an inevitable next phase in the evolution of the global order. Here Dugin is explicitly following Carl Schmitt’s theory of the Großraum, the Great Space, which is also at the foundations of ‘realist’ theories of international relations like that promoted by John Mearsheimer and other scholars.
But in The Theory of a Multipolar World, Dugin also acknowledges his debt to the Harvard based political scientist Samuel Huntington, who wrote a controversial work entitled The Clash of Civilizations as a rebuttal to Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist thesis of ‘the end of history.’ Huntington argued that the end of the Cold War need not have spelt the end of history, nor the victory of a predominantly American model of liberal democratic governance and its attendant economic and cultural forms over the rest of the world. Rather, the collapse of the US-Soviet ‘bipolar’ system only paved the way for the emergence of a multipolar world, where independent civilizations would become the new agents of world history—and, more pessimistically, the agents of any new great conflicts that might arise. Whereas Fukuyama’s optimistic thesis posited the end of politics and of political conflict, Huntington thought that the possibility of conflict remained, where civilizations would be the primary agents of conflict. Hence the ‘clash of civilizations.’ On this model, great civilizations such as Russia and China maintain their political, or at least cultural, autonomy, and their tension with the American-dominated Western bloc is to be interpreted as a clash between great civilizations.
Dugin more or less accepts Huntington’s framework—but with the crucial qualification that, a few decades after Huntington and Fukuyama penned their pathbreaking theses, it is the unipolar order described by Fukuyama that has in fact characterized the world since the end of the Cold War. Multipolarity, or the clash of civilizations, thus describes the world that is now emerging post-unipolarity, as the inevitable multi-civilizational rejection of American unipolarity, and the eventual dissolution of the unipolar world into a collection of large civilization-states, between whom a certain balance of powers would obtain at the international level, and which would each possess their own independent sovereignty over their own internal political, economic, and cultural affairs.
Moreover, Dugin is at pains to clarify that the dissolution of the American-centric global empire into a collection of autarkic Great Spaces is not simply a retrograde or reactionary return to premodern forms of regional empire. The political unit constituted by each civilizational “pole” of the multipolar world is an entirely novel type of “state,” yet one in which several features of premodern and modern states appear in a new form. The civilizational state possesses sovereignty over its own affairs; it possesses a legal center of power; yet the application of this power is differentiated, according to the distinct “ethnocultural” and “confessional” composition of the population; thus it should operate according to the principle of subsidiarity; it should incorporate wide variety of collective and individual identities and institutions, what is conventionally called ‘civil society’; and its distinct social strata (ethnic, religious, class, and other types of groups) should be legally represented. In this way, Dugin maintains, the political entity governing a distinct civilization is a novel state, yet one which incorporates different features of premodern states which, taken separately, would indeed be familiar, in a manner akin to the Hegelian movement of “sublation” or the “negation of the negation.”
Above all, one of the principal features of the multipolar world will be its rejection of universal forms of sovereignty, such as that which has in effect been asserted by the American global empire. Accompanying this rejection of universal sovereignty is a critique of epistemological and moral universalisms, which purport to adjudicate and evaluate regional models of social organization or cultural formation according to some imagined universal standard. It is according to such a universalism that the American empire has operated, claiming not only a political sovereignty over the entire globe but also the ideological and moral authority to pronounce judgment upon the world, according to a set of ideological standards enshrined in the typical theories of liberalism. The theory of multipolarity rejects such universalism in favor of a more relativistic vision (though, to my knowledge, Dugin does not use this term), in which the political and cultural systems of distinct civilizations are normatively incommensurable.
And yet, despite this appearance of relativism, Dugin does not hesitate to declare that the American global empire is evil, and that “[t]he American Empire should be destroyed. And at one point it will be.” In making this declaration, he gives a voice to the multitude of communities worldwide who have been disappointed by the governance of the great sovereign in the West, which has ruled the world ultimately in its own interest. Globalism was the original version of ‘America First.’ Accordingly, the aspiration of Russian multipolarism is to free the budding civilizations of the world, in Africa, India, China, South America, and elsewhere, from the encroachments of American globalism, and to grant distinct civilizations their own sovereignty.
Jiang Shigong and Chinese Globality
China’s marketization in the ‘80s, at the time of Reform and Opening, followed a very different trajectory from Russia’s. Whereas Russia underwent the prolonged pain of economic ‘shock therapy,’ from which even today it has not entirely recovered, China’s marketization enabled its economy to undergo a sharp acceleration in productivity growth, making China one of the wealthiest nations in the world in a matter of a few short decades. While the typical Western tellings of China’s reform and opening under Deng Xiaoping typically portray it as a departure from the earlier Maoist vision of Chinese socialism, there is another reading of this era of Chinese history that sees it as a return to the scientific approach of Marxism-Leninism that Mao Zedong himself espoused. According to this reading, capitalism itself fulfills a definite purpose in the progression of history towards socialism and communism. Indeed, the writings of Vladimir Lenin are filled with repetitions of this basic reminder: socialism itself depends upon capitalism to develop the means of production, according to the laws of capitalist development that were elucidated by Karl Marx.
Mao’s own efforts at such development are known to have failed tragically, a fact that is recognized even in the higher ranks of the Chinese Communist Party. The ‘Great Leap Forward’ resulted in one of the worst famines of the modern era. It was when Deng Xiaoping initiated the ambitious program of Reform and Opening that, at last, the socialist program of economic development would actually enjoy unprecedented success. On this reading of history, rather than a departure from the traditional Marxist-Leninist and Maoist conception of socialist development, the Reform and Opening accomplished what the Great Leap Forward was intended to achieve.
Deng Xiaoping’s policies of reform stood in marked contrast to the ‘shock therapy’ that so destituted Russia. Rather than the liberalization of all prices in one big bang, the leadership decided to liberalize prices gradually and within the parameters of the famous ‘dual track’ system. The prices of light industry goods and consumer goods were allowed to fluctuate according to standard market signals, while the prices of heavy industry goods and essential goods, such as iron, steel, grain, etc., were subjected to tighter control by the central state. This more careful approach to marketization allowed the central planning apparatus to oversee the reform, and it even contributed to the creation of new markets and arenas of production—with the remarkable effect that China began to enjoy an upward trajectory of wealth creation, rather than the decline that took place in Russia.
More importantly, China’s reform was aided by its opening to foreign capital investment from the West, in contrast to the disintegration of Russia’s trade network within the Eastern bloc. Massive sums of capital began to flow into China from America in particular, laying the groundwork for its ‘miraculous’ rise over the following three decades. China became the primary destination for offshored manufacturing from the West, which transformed it into the super-industrial ‘workshop of the world’ that it still is today. By 2001, China entered the World Trade Organization and was not only a fully integrated member of the global community, but it also became the primary producer of the world’s cheap consumer goods, as well as of ‘heavier’ goods like steel. In a certain sense, the whole world became dependent upon China. The reality of globalization became an irreversible part of China’s modern identity.
China’s peculiar path of transformation has given rise to a very particular ideological conception of its role in world history. President Xi Jinping embodies this ideology in his governing philosophy, which has received much attention from scholars and analysts around the world. But the most authoritative explanation and defense of Xi Jinping’s thought comes from Jiang Shigong, a highly respected scholar of constitutional law at Peking University in Beijing. Some of Jiang’s texts have been published in English by the Reading the China Dream project, along with essays and speeches by other important scholars of modern China’s development. Jiang Shigong’s exposition of Xi Jinping’s thought, or more broadly of the ideology of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” characterizes it in Marxist terms as the natural ideological superstructure to complement the material base of Chinese socialism.
Jiang’s particular vision of the world after American globalism is deeply informed by China’s modern history, which, especially since the era of Reform and Opening, has been so deeply intertwined with American globalism itself. In a text entitled Philosophy and History, Jiang explicitly disputes the common reading that attempts to see a contradiction between the era of Mao Zedong and that of Deng Xiaoping, and he portrays the historical progression from Mao to Deng to Xi as a continuous and coherent evolution with three stages, rather than a process marked by major ruptures and paradigm shifts. Under Mao, China “stood up”; under Deng, it “became rich”; and under Xi, China is “becoming strong.”
Much like Alexander Dugin’s Russian theory of multipolarity, Jiang presents the ideology of Chinese socialism as a radical alternative to the American-dominated end of history theorized by Fukuyama, and he also cites Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as an alternative model of world order. Jiang joins Dugin and other theorists of multipolarity in looking forward to the end of Western global domination and Western capitalism. But Jiang’s attitude to globalization as such seems distinct from Dugin’s, since globalization plays such a central role in his account of China’s rise to power, especially through the Deng Xiaoping era of “becoming rich.” During the Deng era, the famous objective for China was to participate willingly in the international system of trade, even to assist in the creation of American unipolarity itself, and meanwhile to ‘hide its light under a bushel’ until the time was ripe.
Ripe for what? Jiang believes that China’s unique position in the international system gives it a particular responsibility to the entire human race, beyond merely the borders of the Chinese nation itself. He writes:
In this international context, the construction of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics not only has great significance with respect to the great revival of the Chinese nation within the context of the history of Chinese civilization, it also possesses great significance with respect to the search for the future of the civilization of humanity at large. Whether Chinese civilization can make a new contribution to all of mankind depends, to a great degree, on whether Chinese civilization can search out a new path to modernization for humanity’s development . . . But following China’s rise to become the world’s second economy, China now stands at the center of the world stage and cannot ignore its obligations to the rest of the world by concentrating solely on her own fate. China must recalibrate its relations with the world, linking the construction of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics together with the development of the entire world, actively joining in the governance of the world, taking up her responsibilities to all of humanity.
This is a striking departure from the language of “multipolarity,” which envisions a collection of great civilizations more or less concentrated upon their own fates, without interfering in the fates of other civilizations. China’s aspirations, by contrast, exceed the boundaries of its own fate, and are inherently wrapped up with the fate of all humanity. These are striking claims, shaped in no small part by China’s deep intertwinement with the development of the present world order.
In another text, entitled Empire and World Order, Jiang Shigong sees the progression of world history as the progress of smaller political units towards larger conglomerations, or empires, culminating in the latest phase of “world empire”—presently presided over by the United States of America (though again, with the indispensable contribution of China itself). The irreversible direction of history on this telling is towards the universal order of things. Jiang’s tone is almost fatalistic: “Henceforth, no country will be able to exist outside of this system of global trade with its freedom, rule of law and democracy. Every country, whether it wants to or not, will of necessity be implicated in the construction of this world empire.” China is, of course, included in this assessment.
Accordingly, Jiang interprets the multipolar world, not as a return to the era of regional civilizational empires, but as a rebellion internal to the system of global empire that America itself has constructed, and from which there is no turning back. In this vein, he corrects a potential misreading of Huntington’s thesis:
Even if Huntington saw the post-Cold War world situation as one of a “clash of civilizations,” and even if such civilizational conflicts overlap to some extent with the geographical distribution of the regional civilizational empires, we absolutely cannot confuse the two. What Huntington called a “clash of civilizations” is in fact merely a revolt against the world empire from within, which will necessarily develop within the system of the current “world empire,” just as it must necessarily develop within the universalist, “end of history” philosophical narrative of technology, trade and commerce, freedom and rule of law.
Similarly, the pressure exhibited by countries like Russia and China upon America to maintain its position of global hegemony must be understood as “a struggle to seize economic and political leadership after the realization of ‘world empire.’” This is a modulation of the classical Marxist scheme of class struggle, where China itself implicitly plays the role of the proletariat struggling against the bourgeoisie, which is personified by America itself. The seizure of global leadership is in reality the establishment of a global “dictatorship of the proletariat,” although Jiang does not state this explicitly. Nonetheless, Jiang does not hesitate to imply that China’s own ambitions lie in precisely this direction, especially when it appears that “we are living in an age of chaos, conflict, and massive change in which world empire 1.0 [that is, the American world empire] is in decline and trending toward collapse.” China’s own responsibility will be to assume the position of leadership in “world empire 2.0” in order to facilitate the development of all peoples, beyond the one-sided model of capitalist development that has dominated “world empire 1.0.”
Multipolarity continues to play a role in the global phase, even beyond rebellion against global capital, insofar as it is precisely within the parameters of a global empire that China “[encourages] all developing countries to open their own paths to modernization.” In the text of Philosophy and History, Jiang cites Xi Jinping’s own report from the Nineteenth National Congress to elucidate Xi’s own vision for China’s role in facilitating the development of different regions around the world: “It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” Jiang repeats and develops this thought, asserting that China’s aspiration is not to impose a one-size-fits-all model of economic development upon other countries, as the Western unipolar world has done, but precisely to facilitate their development according to their own regional paths, determined by their own local political and cultural constraints. In another important text from 2020, assessing the history and contemporary state of Sino-U.S. relations, Jiang explains how the Belt and Road Initiative plays a crucial role in the implementation of this vision.
The same care for the development of regional economies also demonstrates China’s characteristically ‘communist’ confidence in the potential of all humanity for development, and thus its aspirations are decidedly universal and cosmopolitan, and not simply nationalistic. Globality or universality continues to play a key role in China’s conception of itself and its historical destiny, which accords not only with its present-day communist ideology but also with the classical Confucian concept of tianxia (天下), or “all under heaven.”
Where Alexander Dugin attempts to envision a world order defined by multiple independent poles of civilizational sovereignty, Jiang Shigong envisions a world order still presided over by one universal sovereign, but a benevolent sovereign whose sole purpose is to enable the diverse peoples under his providence to pursue their well-being according to their own distinct paths of development. Where Dugin’s vision of multipolarity is simply incompatible with the universal world order, Jiang’s vision seems to entail a reconciliation of—or at least a productive tension between—universality and particularity, or even of unipolarity and multipolarity. Moreover, where Dugin’s vision of the political entity presiding over each civilizational pole of the multipolar world attempts to sublate, in a quasi-Hegelian fashion, various features of the premodern states, Jiang’s vision of the next world order manages to sublate even globality itself.
These distinct theories of multipolarity arise from the distinct fates of Russia and China after the fall of the Soviet Union. Although in both countries there is a strong feeling of resentment towards the West, American unipolarity has had profoundly different effects upon each of them. With the advent of unipolarity, Russia fell into a deep isolation, from which it is still recovering; while China was so welcomed into the new international system that it even played what is arguably the most important role in the construction of that very system, namely the role of labor—i.e. the global proletariat. To be sure, the antipathy that China shares with Russia against the Western model of development preserves a sensitivity for the wide diversity in development models that is hinted at by the concept of multipolarity. Nonetheless, in seeing the whole world dependent upon itself in a material sense, China could not help but also see itself in a position of potential global sovereignty of its own.
Ultimately, Russia and China play major roles in setting the ideological or theoretical parameters within which all countries under the sway of American power must consider the question of their future in the larger trends of world history. This is a question that transcends the boundaries of conventional political ideologies, such as those placed on the spectrum of Right–Left or Conservative–Progressive. Anxiety about the economic, political, and cultural inflexibility of the Western liberal order is shared by figures as diverse as Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Pope Francis, and a whole host of other prominent persons and interest groups around the world. The question of how the world after ‘the end of history’ will be shaped thus affects everybody. It is for this reason that the theories of multipolarity being formulated in Russia and China—the foremost opponents of American unipolarity—must be taken seriously.