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Xi Jinping’s dictatorship

Early or late Caesar?

Frederick Lauritzen

22nd December 2023


Anthony Blinken, secretary of State of the United States, was shaking his head, visibly perplexed on November 15th. President Biden had just referred to Xi Jinping as a dictator. In the context of diplomatic exhaustion, the notion of dictator appeared to make every one jump off their seat.


The emperor Augustus probably would have agreed with a negative understanding of the term ‘dictator’ which is why he refused the dictatorship in 27 BC, at the end of the Roman civil war. He spurned the title which Julius Caesar, his predecessor and adoptive father, had held. Caesar had assumed the dictatorship five times (49-44 BC). It was a temporary power. Then, in January 44 BC,  thunder struck, and he received a lifetime dictatorship. Within two months he had been murdered.


The dictatorship in Rome was a position by which one man held all constitutional powers during a crisis. As a temporary measure it was not an abuse of power but a constitutional solution to a serious problem. When the dictatorship became permanent in 44 BC, it altered the constitutional structure of Rome.


Did Biden believe that Xi Jinping had made himself an absolute ruler? Blinken seems to think that is what Biden meant.


China is technically a dictatorship according to article 1 of the Chinese constitution (“The People’s Republic of China is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants”. Art. 1 of the Constitution 1954, 1975, 1978, 2014). The article is like the Conference Programme of 1949. The “people’s democratic dictatorship” is an invariable and constituent element of Chinese thought from 1949 to today. Biden is right: Xi Jinping is the leader of a dictatorship.


This is the point where we are confused. What are they talking about?


The dictatorship the Chinese constitution is referring to derives from Marx and the Communist Manifesto (1848). Marx in 1875 wrote: “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”  (Critique of the Gotha Programme, section 4).


Marx is referring here to a period of transition in which dictatorial power is given to the proletariat. The term dictatorship here is used in the Roman republican sense of a temporary solution to establish a correct political balance of powers. Marx is using the example of the dictatorship given to Caesar in 49 BC to solve a constitutional crisis. That concept is enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. Blinken instead seemed to think that Xi Jinping was being accused of being the perpetual dictator like Caesar in 44 BC. The confusion is due to the change of the meaning of the word between Caesar’s first dictatorship in 49 BC and the late one of 44 BC.


Marxists have not helped solve the conundrum. Lenin developed the idea of a leading group of enlightened thinkers who would lead the revolution. Stalin in 1920 wrote about Lenin: “To retain the post of leader of the proletarian revolution and of the proletarian party, one must combine strength in theory with experience in the practical organization of the proletarian movement.” The dictatorship of the proletariat needs a leader. According to Biden this is what Xi Jinping is.


Is Xi Jinping a dictator like early or late Caesar?

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