Formalism: Tension Between the Means and the Ends

The campaign for anti-four undesirable working styles has its historical roots in China’s recent past. For example, in Chairman Mao’s “reform of bad tendencies” (zhengfeng yundong) movement from 1941, there were three undesirable ways of thinking and working within the Party: “subjectivism,” “sectarianism” and “formalism” (Nivison 1956: 61). These were all seen as “deviations” from the way Party members should think and work. “Subjectivism” means to disregard objective reality; to disregard broad theoretical understanding and broad experience of the revolutionary movement as the whole; and to hold to one’s own interpretations and ideas, in opposition to the point of view of the Party (61). Nivison further elaborates on the dangers of subjectivism:

Given this selfish taint in “subjectivism,” it is easy for it to lead the individual to esteem himself and to try to persuade others of his own worth or rightness, thus creating factions which split the Party; or he may come to regard his “own position” and his own limited problems in the revolution as all-important, attempting to gather well-trained cadres around himself (if he is an official), and refusing to surrender them for other Party needs. (61)

On the other hand, to be a sectarian is to be “insincere” (62). However, another kind of “sectarianism” comes from Party members regarding the Party itself as a sect, thus “isolating itself from the masses,” without whose sympathy the Party cannot win (63). As Nivison further argues, the moving force behind all deviations is individualism, which further leads to bureaucratism, particularism, warlordism, absolute equalitarianism and so on (64). The distinction between them is not a practical but a metaphysical one: subjectivism is felt to belong to the category of thought; sectarianism to that of actual dealings with other persons; and formalism to the category of expression (64). As Nivison elaborates, formalism is closely affiliated to the first two deviations. It is conceived of as a tendency to use “empty phrases,” “insipid language,” to parrot cliches—the qualities of the theoretician who peddles a fast line without awareness of the realities of the revolution and the masses; it is also allied with the thoughtless aping of foreign ideas and manners. Formalism in literature and arts is a failure to keep in touch with the masses, who are the perpetual and only source of inspiration and freshness (64). Similarly, formalism can also be exhibited in interpersonal relations, in behaviour of all kinds, as symptoms of defective thought (64). For Nivison, vices that officials are prone to are merely going through the motions of being and unwilling to learn and of putting on bureaucratic airs (63). As we shall demonstrate in the next sections, many of the problems Chairman Mao attempted to eradicate in the 1940s still persist in the CCP today, especially the disconnect between higher leaders in the Party and the masses.

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