Marx vs. Luther: Will China and the West clash?

Penned for INK student magazine (print edition) in 2018 during my tenure as politics editor.

Imagine yourself in Wittenberg, Saxony, 1517. Western Europe is uniformly Catholic and, reminiscent of the once-mighty Roman Empire, the “Holy Roman Empire” presides over what is now modern Germany. One day, you notice a young theology professor nailing a lengthy notice to the doors of All Saints’ Church. Reading it, you sharply draw in breath. You are looking at the Ninety-Five Theses, which are just about to change history.

Alexander the Great, the first great unifier of east and west. Alexander sought unity through conquest. Perhaps we can seek peace through concord, instead.

So it was that Martin Luther challenged Catholicism’s foundations, attacking the practice of paying officials “indulgences” to earn your way to heaven and emphasising the independence of personal faith from arbitrary church authority. Soon, Europe was mired in conflict between Catholics and Lutheran-minded Protestants.

But with 1648’s Peace of Westphalia, the Protestants won two crucial victories. They achieved political independence for Germany’s princes and dukes, at the expense of the sprawling Empire. They also gained the beginnings of individual liberty for ordinary people, who were, in principle, allowed to worship freely (though still within stringent limits).

These two achievements endure today, albeit in a liberalised form: political independence exists for the 190+ states of the world; and individual liberty matters enormously in “the West” – the democracies of America and Europe, which endorse the liberties to worship, vote, and speak freely. Though Luther, a staunch social conservative, would be appalled by many of today’s liberties, the liberal-capitalist West has its roots in Luther’s Reformation.

But in the nineteenth century, journalist Karl Marx railed against the free market. He thought collective solidarity – especially among the poor – was more important than capitalist individual liberty. And he prized political centralisation above political independence, desiring the nationalisation of industry at home and global communism abroad.

China adopted these principles following Mao’s revolution in the 1940s, in accordance with the Chinese tradition of empire dating from the unification of the warring states in 221 BC. Although China has left economic communism behind and endorsed a form of capitalism, it still rejects Western democracy, since political centralisation and collective solidarity remain central to the ruling Communist Party’s ideology.

So Luther is to the West as Marx is to China. Their ideas shaped today’s most powerful states: China and the US. Luther’s ideas evolved into the American ideals of independence for nation-states and individual liberty. By contrast, Marx’s prophecies of political centralisation and collective solidarity have been most effectively realised in China. China’s disregard for countries’ political independence is demonstrated by its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, while its disregard for liberal individualism is manifested in its strict Internet censoring.

But are these ideological differences manageable, or is some kind of conflict inevitable? Never has a nation risen so rapidly as modern-day China. Its economy has grown from 7% of America’s in 1980 to 101% in 2014 (by purchasing power parity). Military power, after all, tends to follow economic power. So will we see a “clash of civilisations” (as Samuel Huntington put it) between China and the West?

History might help. In 1914, a rising power, Germany, threatened the British Empire’s might. Their ideologies differed – Germany effectively an autocracy, the British a proud parliamentary democracy. You guessed it: the US is to Britain (a ruling power) as China is to Germany (a rising power). And if ideologically-charged war broke out over a local Balkan dispute in 1914, what stops it from reoccurring over, say, a local Korean dispute in 2018? This would indeed be historically typical: as Graham Allison notes, the “Thucydides trap” dates back to the Peloponnesian Wars, when, quoting historian Thucydides, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Athens, Germany, and China rose. Sparta, Britain, America were challenged. War followed.

President Xi regards this as no “trap” which will inevitably cause war. But should the parties repeat history’s mistakes, “they may create such traps for themselves”. If China and America can respect each other’s ideologies and legitimate security concerns, conflict is not inevitable. Britain and America nearly fought in 1895, when America was rising and Britain ruling. If we wish to replicate 1895 rather than 1914, we need the Lutheran-inspired West and Marxist-inspired China to be reconciled. Conversation, diplomacy, and understanding do not sound like tall orders. But they are necessary to prevent ideological divergence and differing political interests from creating a new clash of civilisations. As former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami noted, we need to replace the potential for a clash of civilisations with something more in keeping with our common humanity: a dialogue among civilisations.


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