Confucius – a wise man or a court jester?

Confucius – a wise man or a court jester?

By Ljubodrag Simonović, Belgrade / Serbia *

The true nature of a certain thought can only be understood if the concrete social and historical conditions in which it arose are taken into account. The same applies to its later interpretations. Hence, it is of utmost importance that the discussion of a certain thought possesses historical self-awareness, which primarily means that it should be understood in the context of the prevailing tendency of world development.

We live in an ever deeper capitalist swamp. The entire spiritual and intellectual sphere of society is adapted to the ever-quickening development of the process of capitalist reproduction. Thought that questions the ruling order, which has an exploitative and destructive character, is systematically crippled and destroyed. This is the context in which historical events are being “explained” and the intellectual heritage of mankind interpreted. The ideologues of capitalism take thoughts out of their historical context and give them a meaning that suits the ruling order. This has happened with Confucius’ philosophy as well.

Confucius’ political philosophy and its class character

Confucius’ thought only formally has a moralistic character. It is a political philosophy that, in the form of a moral sermons, deals with people as political beings and thus abolishes the political sphere of society. It removes the criticism of the ruling aristocratic order that provides the opportunity to limit and eradicate the criminal willfulness of the ruling class. Confucius used a method that is still used today: avoid topics that might question the ruling order. Confucius’ postulates do not address issues that indicate the oppressive nature of the ruling aristocratic order, nor issues that indicate that man is a human being entitled to freedom and justice. His reasoning distracts the mind from real life and eliminates the possibility for man to see the full tragedy of his existence in the existing world. Likewise, his philosophy eliminates the possibility for man to understand that slavery and injustice are socially conditioned and have a historical character. In this way, Confucius prevents the oppressed from gaining a libertarian and changing self-awareness, which is the most important condition for the abolition of the existing tyrannical order and for the creation of a humane world.

Confucius’ philosophy has a class character. It seeks to destroy the libertarian dignity of the oppressed and create a servile mentality among them. His thought is not libertarian and visionary, but lordly and conservative. Confucius’ philosophy is the ideology of absolutist monarchy and in a broader thought context it is an integral part of the ideology of absolutism. It exists in organic unity with the ruling order. His philosophy is intended to ensure the eternity of the class order, and the eternity of the class order is meant to ensure the eternity of his thought. This is the basis of its self-awareness: it is an eternal truth because it is the thought of an aristocratic order that is eternal. Confucius’ philosophy is also based on the idea of the end of history and in that context belongs to the New Age ideology. It abolishes man as a libertarian and visionary being and thus abolishes history.

Confucius’ “golden rule” states: “Do not do unto others what you would not want done unto yourself“. In its original form, it reads: “Do unto others as you would unto yourself”. Who would really expect feudal lords to do to their subjects what they want to do to themselves – and that means to acquire the economic, military and political strength that would enable them to seize power? What feudal lords could only wish for as feudal lords is to ensure the absolute submission of their subjects and to preserve the ruling order based on the exploitation and oppression of working people. Confucius’ “golden rule” is a formal principle that has a propagandistic character. It originated in a class society in which the tyrannical rule of the aristocracy was established over slaves, serfs, women and children. These are the social frameworks that are unquestionable: the authority of aristocracy over workers is grounded in the natural order and cannot be questioned. This is what Confucius had in mind when he insisted on tradition. He advocated for the absolutist rule of the aristocracy and his philosophy was one of the ideological forms of its protection. Confucius’ philosophy does not have a libertarian and visionary character, but rather a conservative one. It insists on glorifying ancestors and traditional authorities. Its true meaning is the preservation of class order, patriarchy and aristocratic tyranny.

Support for the absolutist monarchy and the illusion that enlightenment will make rulers noble

Confucius was a supporter of absolutist monarchy. The relation of the feudal lords totheir subjects is based on their unrestricted wilfulness. Working people lack basic human, civil and labor rights. Confucius’ philosophy is a religion for the people deprived of their rights, that offers them the false hope that they can have a better life – if they renounce their libertarian dignity and kneel before their masters. Confucius’ sermons are meant to instill in the subjects a belief in the ruler and thus in the ruling order. In the ruler, they should see not an embodiment of tyrannical power but a benefactor who is willing to fulfill their wishes. The subjects should approach the ruler not with awe, but with trust and love. Confucius advocates that the ruler should not rule by punishment, but serve as a “role model” for the subjects. The ruler is not only a legislator, but also the highest moral authority and as such the embodiment of the highest values that man should aspire to. Bearing in mind that the ruling order has a cosmological structure, the ruler gets a divine status.

Confucius creates the illusion that moral enlightenment will make rulers noble. How can rulers who are the embodiment and symbol of an oppressive order be “noble”? Confucius creates the myth of “noble rulers” to conceal the true nature of the class order based on the tyranny of aristocracy over working people. Instead of organizing and fighting against the plundering order and for the creation of a humane society, working people are to kneel before rulers – unquestioningly accepting the ruling order. Confucius’ most important political message to the oppressed is not to oppose exploitation and not to fight for freedom – but to ingratiate themselves with their masters and thus gain their favor. Kindness is acquired through obedience – it is actually the “golden rule” of Confucius’ philosophy, which in the modern world secures him the respect of the wealthy oligarchy and acquires him the halo of a “sage”.

Here it should be pointed out that there is an important difference between vanguardism – which is based on the authentic struggle of working people for freedom, and elitism – which has a class and lordly character. Institutionalized vanguardism, in the form of a party and state bodies, becomes elitism. This happened in the countries of “real socialism”. Mao Zedong was a role model as the leader of the Revolution, but during the construction of the new system of government he became an institution and as such fell into the ideological trap of the “personality cult”. Revolutionaries became rulers.

Confucius’ thought originated in feudal China where feudal lords had unlimited power over peasants. The rural population lived in such poverty that many had to sell their children to feudal lords and merchants in order to survive. In Imperial China, millions of peasants and their children starved to death every year… For Confucius, the exploitation of peasants by feudal lords was not a crime but a privilege that had an absolute character and as such was not subject to moral reasoning. The same applied to the exploitation of children and women. All this falls under the “tradition” on which the ruling order is based. One of the most monstrous “customs” in feudal China was that when the emperor died, his concubines had to die as well. As a rule, hundreds of girls who were in the prime of their youth were buried alive under stone slabs in the imperial tomb. The author of this text visited the tomb of the Ming dynasty, where the bodies of 200 emperor’s concubines, none of whom were over 15 years old, lie under stone slabs.

Confucius believed that education could change people and society. But what kind of education? Is it an aristocratic education that insists on class elitism and the glorification of tradition? Is it a patriarchal education that reduces woman to a sow, an object of man’s sexual exploitation and free labor? Is it a militaristic and racist education on which colonial expansion is based? Is it a religious education that creates the illusion that the future of humanity lies in the heavenly spheres?…

There are those who compare Confucius’ moral postulates with Kant’s “categorical imperative”: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law“. Just as Kant deals with the abstract “citizen” (who is the bearer of the transcendental Self), so Confucius deals with the abstract “man”. Unlike Confucius’ thought, Kant’s philosophy creates the possibility for the establishment of civil self-awareness in relation to the feudal order, which is based on the privileges of the aristocracy and has an absolutist character. With Kant, man appears as a constitutive segment of the political organization of society, in the form of a “citizen”, while with Confucius, man appears as a subject of the aristocracy and is deprived of human and civil rights. According to Confucius, man is not born free nor has the right to freedom; rather, his social status is given by the nature of the ruling aristocratic order, which is unquestionable.

What meaning can Confucius’ philosophy have in the modern world? Can it serve as a moral signpost for people living in a destructive capitalist nothingness? How can capitalists be guided by moral principles when the ruling order is based on the exploitation of workers and greed? What relevance can the moral lessons of the “wise man” hold in a world that is steeped in crime and destruction? Capitalism is ruled by principles such as: “Man is another man’s wolf!“, “The fight of all against all!“, “Destroy the competition!“, “Money doesn’t stink!“, “War is the best business!“… They express the existential logic of the ruling order and as such directly condition people’s way of life, their values, the nature of interpersonal relations…

Confucius’ position in socialist and modern China

In socialist China, Confucius’ thought was rejected. In modern China, his thought gained respect again, especially after the economic reform that established a capitalist economy that led to the creation of a new rich class and to growing social inequalities – which condition the creation of a class society.

Confucius’ philosophy is a lullaby for oppressed working people. It does not have a humanist and libertarian character, but a lordly and an oppressive one. Its purpose is not the fight for human freedom and a humane society, but for the preservation of the ruling order. Confucius’ thought is a political means of the wealthy “elite” to deal with the political struggle of the oppressed working people, which provides the opportunity to abolish capitalism and create a new world.

* Lubodrag Simonovic (72) was a member of the Yugoslav national basketball team, which won the world championship in 1970. Several times he played for the national team along with Sergei and Alexander Belov. He was a participant in the Olympic Games in Munich. In protest against the cover-up of a doping scam with Puerto Rico, he left the Games, after which he was expelled from the national team. The author is a Master of Laws and a Doctor of Philosophy. He has published ten books in the fields of philosophy, sociology and historiography. His texts have been translated into English, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Turkish. He taught at domestic and foreign universities. He is married and has three children and six grandchildren. Simonovic lives in Belgrade. 

Translated from Serbian by Vanja Zakanji. Subtitles set by UWI.

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June 2024