Organic Marxism, Process Philosophy, and Chinese Thought



Justin Heinzekehr and I recently finished a book on organic Marxism, process philosophy, and Chinese thought:Organic Marxism: An Alternative to Capitalism and Ecological Catastrophe.  (The text that is excerpted below was co-written by both of us.) The English version of the book will be published by Process Century Press in September 2014, and the Chinese version in early 2015. The book was inspired not only by our Chinese friends who are both Marxists and process thinkers, such as Zhihe Wang and Meijun Fan, but also by Jay McDaniel, whose work has integrated these three schools of thought in complex, interesting, and important ways. Because the Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism website inspired the book in many ways, it seems appropriate that the first short summary of the book should appear here. We dedicate this post to John Cobb, whose radical vision has inspired both this website and our book.

Organic Marxism as an Open Marxism

There are significant parallels between Organic Marxism, process philosophy, and traditional Chinese thought. Establishing the interconnections between these three different traditions is a crucial step in developing any social philosophy that serves the common good rather than profits for the few.

Engaging in comparative discussions of this sort is a central feature of a growing group of Marxist schools of thought. We here use the common label “Open Marxism” in order to draw attention to what these emerging schools share in common.[i] Open Marxisms flourish in the constructive postmodern context, rejecting the rationalism and determinism that dominated the modern European period. They acknowledge that all of life is an open-ended process and that leaders manage at the local, national, and international levels always “at the edge of chaos.”[ii] Scientific thinking is increasingly moving from the study of closed systems to open, non-static, organic systems (see Chapter 9 in the book). In response, economic and political theories have likewise begun to shift from the old orthodox and doctrinaire schools of thought to much more fluid, dynamic, and responsive approaches. For scholars and leaders today who are interested in structuring society for the good of humanity and the planet, these new embedded and contextualized Marxisms are bringing new life to Marxist critiques of wealth and power in the West.

The tendency for the wealthiest class to assume power, and to utilize that power to its own advantage at the expense of the non-wealthy, is pervasive across capitalist systems; it’s why such systems exist in the first place. Yet the details of how the injustices are overcome, and what society looks like afterwards, are not uniform. Open Marxisms recognize how greatly cultures vary and how deeply cultural systems affect the way a given society is organized and experienced. These differences crop up even when analyzing such central Marxian themes as work, production, and class relations.

What about the distinctive features of the Chinese context? Many scholars today, both in China and in the West, are working in the spirit of the new open Marxisms. We include among them the “Return to Marx” movement, which represents an important Marxist school in China today. This movement emphasizes the importance of turning back to the original Marx and reading his works, without being dominated by the interpretations of Lenin and the later Russian Marxists. The “Return to Marx” school offers an important corrective to a certain tendency in the early phase of Chinese Marxism, which sometimes let Russian Marxists define the form that Marxism should take in China. At the same time, recent scholarship has also uncovered the dissimilarities between nineteenth-century German Marxism and our present context. The differences invite one to update Marx and to engage in a constructive rethinking of Marxism. As Prof. Zhihe Wang writes:

Unlike orthodox Marxism or dogmatic Marxism, Chinese Marxism is an open Marxism which changes form according to the current situation. From Mao Zedong’s thought and Deng’s theory to Jiang’s “three represents theory” and Hu’s “Scientific Outlook on Development,” all point to such an open orientation.[iii]

Numerous publications on constructive postmodernism in China have already shown how deeply process thought connects with the ancient philosophical traditions of China. (In this respect, postmodern thought contrasts strongly with modernism, which usually defines itself in opposition to the traditions that precede it.) Organic Marxism is a form of process thinking; both affirm that reality is an open, evolving process. Each time categories of thought are embedded in a new context—be it a new culture, historical period, region, or political movement—they sprout and grow in new ways. Consequently, open process thinkers do not expect Marxism to be a static thing but to evolve continually, just as human social systems are constantly evolving.

These are the reasons it is crucial to explore the connections between the three terms in the title of this post. Regarding the first connection, the links between traditional Chinese thought and process philosophy have long been recognized. Concerning the second, we have attempted to show how process philosophy helps to transform modernist Marxism into Organic Marxism. The third connection is particularly urgent; we need to show how Chinese traditional wisdom can play an important role in Organic Marxism. For example, we note that the most significant recent school in Marxist studies, Ecological Marxism, rarely mentions the Chinese traditions. We hope that our constructive proposal in the book will help to overcome that limitation.

Marx and Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead is as central to process thought as Marx is to socialism. We believe that Whitehead is important for Organic Marxism in two ways. On the one hand, he helped to convince Western thinkers in the twentieth century that process is central to both science and human experience, in the way that the I Jing convinced Chinese philosophers of the same conclusion. On the other hand, Whitehead’s challenge to either/or thinking in politics helped to open the door for postmodern Marxism.

Especially since the Second World War, many people in the West believe that every nation is either capitalist (which they believe is good) or Communist (which they believe is bad). Either a country allows market forces to operate, which makes it libertarian and capitalist; or it bans markets in favor of state ownership, which makes it Marxist and Communist. Worse, during the Cold War people in the West argued that freedom, democracy, justice, and human rights are only present in capitalist countries.

When one encounters a false dichotomy, the wisest thing to do is to challenge the claim that the two sides are incompatible. One should look instead for both/and solutions that are more adequate than either of the alternatives alone. This is the core of dialectical thinking, which was central to Hegel and Marx. (It’s ironic that Western critics identify dialectical thinkers like Hegel and Marx with only one side of a forced choice, since their central contention was that the dialectical advance of history will over time incorporate both sides of each opposition.) It seems clear that there are times where market forces bring benefits within a nation and between nations; and there are other cases in which unrestrained markets produce injustices that neither local communities nor the global community should accept. A major contribution of Organic Marxism lies in its ability to blend elements from both of these two socioeconomic systems. We challenge the claim that democracy and socialism are inherently opposed to one another. Marx was right to view socialism as the most consistent form of democracy.

Alfred North Whitehead clearly saw the advantages of this both/and approach:

It begins to look as though the one thing democracy has that is worth saving is the freedom of the individual. [But] I would say,” remarked Whitehead, “two. The freedom of the individual is one. But your knowledge of history will remind you that there has always been misery at the bottom of society…Our own age is the first time when…there need be no material want. Russia has relieved the suffering of the masses at the price of the individual’s liberty; the Fascists have destroyed personal liberties without really alleviating the condition of the masses; the task of democracy is to relieve mass misery and yet preserve the freedom of the individual.[iv]

In a recent book, Anne Fairchild Pomeroy has argued that Marx and Whitehead can supplement each other: “Marx needs Whitehead to ground his claims regarding the proper ethos and telos of human life and its productive-processive interaction with, for, and as a part of the world as a relational unity; Whitehead needs Marx to focus on the destructive aspects of capitalism as a form of world productive-process.”[v]

It’s surprising that one finds such resistance to this both/and solution. Instead of thinking in dialectical (or Daoist) fashion, nations have remained locked into one option or the other. Sadly, North Americans have been particularly resistant to blending in the resources of socially oriented thinking. Whitehead saw this clearly:

We English and Americans…are singularly unimaginative in our interpretations of the term “democracy”; we seem unable to admit under our definition any form of society which does not conform closely to our own…I believe that the two great powers which will emerge from this war [World War II] will be Russia and America, and the principles which animate them will be antithetical: that of Russia will be cohesion; that of America will be individualism.[vi]

Certainly the last decades have shown an increasing turn toward individualism among Americans—at exactly the time that global climate disruption calls for community-based thinking and integrated international action to reduce pollution levels (to which the United States is a major contributor), thereby taking steps toward becoming a more ecological civilization. Both Marx and Whitehead challenge individualism and encourage a more social thinking.

What Is Process Thought?

One can identify four central features of process thinking. Each one has deep resonance with traditional Chinese philosophy. When combined, they provide the conceptual foundation for Organic Marxism.

(1) A relational view of reality. Every event is constituted by its relationships to other events. There is therefore no such thing as a discrete individual, existing by itself. The features of one event affect all other events.

Alfred North Whitehead expressed this insight by translating the Western language of things or entities into the language of events. Actual entities, he explained, are really events; he also spoke of them as “actual occasions.” Thus, as Whitehead wrote in his great work Process and Reality, “to ‘function’ means to contribute determination to the actual entities in the nexus of some actual world. Thus the determinateness and self-identity of one entity cannot be abstracted from the community of the diverse functionings of all entities.”[vii]

Like the ancient Chinese philosophical work, the I Jing, Whitehead’s philosophy understands processes as more basic than things. Things can only be externally related to each other. For example, two billiard balls can collide, but the effects will only be superficial; the billiard balls themselves remain the same. By contrast, Whitehead affirmed that humans and other living events are actually internally related to each other. Since we all exist in relationship (whether we admit it or not), he spoke of the principle of universal relativity:

The principle of universal relativity directly traverses Aristotle’s dictum, “A substance is not present in a subject.” On the contrary, according to this principle an actual entity is present in other actual entities. In fact if we allow for degrees of relevance, and for negligible relevance, we must say that every actual entity is present in every other actual entity.[viii]

Process philosophy is thus at its heart an ecological philosophy—which explains why process philosophy plays such a foundational role for Organic Marxism. As the process eco-philosopher Jay McDaniel recognizes:

all living beings have their existence and identities in relation to, not apart from, all other living beings. This means that the very identity of a living being, including each plant and animal, is partly determined by the material and cultural environment in which it is situated…This means that all entities are thoroughly ecological in nature and that human beings are themselves ecological in being persons-in-community, not persons-in-isolation.[ix]

Process philosophy takes this basic ecological insight and develops it into a comprehensive philosophical view of the world. On this view, every event is constituted by the events of its past. Each event takes in and synthesizes these past events to a greater or lesser degree. More complex events don’t just repeat the past; they integrate and transform earlier events in a novel way. To deny our relatedness to other events, or merely to repeat them, results in less beauty and harmony. The great process philosophers John Cobb and David Griffin expand this insight into a comprehensive principle for all living things:

There is no moment that is not constituted by its synthesis of elements from the past. If to be free from the past were to exclude the past, the present would be entirely vacuous. The power of the new is that it makes possible a greater inclusion of elements from the past that otherwise would prove incompatible and exclude each other from their potential contribution. Where the existentialist seems to see an antithesis between having the moment controlled by the past and allowing the future to be determinative, Whitehead says that the more effective the future is, the more fully the potential contribution of the past is realized.[x]

Political theory over the centuries has fought an endless battle between approaches centered on the individual (liberalism, libertarianism) and those centered on the community or society (socialism, communism, communitarianism). In Organic Marxism, which weds Marxist thought and process thought, this battle is circumvented. Following Whitehead, we prefer the middle way, whereby the two perspectives are synthesized. According to Whitehead’s solution, “We reduce [our entire] past to a perspective, and yet retain it as the basis of our present moment of realization. We are different from it, and yet we retain our individual identity with it. This is the mystery of personal identity, the mystery of the immanence of the past in the present, the mystery of transcendence.”[xi]

(2) Influence without determinism. Each event is constituted by the past and deeply informed by the past, but none is completely determined by its past. Process philosophy does not imply “top-down” or past-to-future control. Indeed, as events and systems of events become more complex, this indeterminacy becomes more pronounced:

[I]n each concrescence whatever is determinable is determined, but…there is always a remainder [and hence an element of freedom] for the decision of the subject-superject of that concrescence…This final decision is the reaction of the unity of the whole to its own internal determination. This reaction is the final modification of emotion, appreciation, and purpose. But the decision of the whole arises out of the determination of the parts, so as to be strictly relevant to it.[xii]

In contrast to determinism, indeterminacy is a source of novelty. After all, only in open systems can new and creative developments occur. Novelty is therefore a key ingredient in process aesthetics, because it is only through creative experimentation that humans find new solutions to global challenges.

Whitehead thus provides grounds for hope in history. As Cobb and Griffin note, “First, the future is fully and radically open. It must take account of all that has been, but the past never settles just how the future will take account of it. Its freedom in relation to the present is not merely that it can readjust the elements in the present world with differing emphases. It can also introduce wholly new elements that change the weight and meaning of those it inherits from the present.”[xiii]

With this new focus on open systems, a major objection to Marxism is answered. The class struggle is not overcome through an inexorable process of change; that picture makes of us mere objects in a tide that no one can stem. Instead, political and economic actors consciously form and foster communities of reform—justice-based communities that bond their members together in working for the greater good:

The vision that is needed is of new communities that are not experienced as restrictive of freedom. They must be voluntary communities, but that is not enough. Voluntarily to accept the oppression that was felt in involuntary communities is not improvement…The voluntary community must be bound by different kinds of ties, ties that are experienced as fulfillment rather than limitation.[xiv]

(3) Aesthetic value. The process view of reality is not value-free. Every event has intrinsic value, which is measured by its capacity for relationship and creativity: “Every unit of process, whether at the level of human or of electronic events, has enjoyment…To be, to actualize oneself, to act upon others, to share in a wider community, is to enjoy being an experiencing subject quite apart from any accompanying pain or pleasure.”[xv]

For process thinkers, value is defined as cooperative and communal rather than competitive and individual. In Whitehead’s words, experience is the “self-enjoyment of being one among many, and of being one arising out of the composition of many.”[xvi] Or, as he writes earlier in Process and Reality, “experience is nothing other than what the actual entity is in itself, for itself.”[xvii]

This theory of value has deep parallels with traditional Chinese thought. Value cannot be understood without discerning beauty; beauty cannot be understood without discerning harmony; and harmony cannot be understood without considering the perspective of the whole. In the Chinese philosophical classic Dao de Jing of Lao Tzu, the word Dao is used to express this underlying unity of all things. Whitehead links beauty, harmony, and unity in a very similar way:

There is a unity in the universe, enjoying value and (by its immanence) sharing value. For example, take the subtle beauty of a flower in some isolated glade of a primeval forest. No animal has ever had the subtlety of experience to enjoy its full beauty. And yet this beauty is a grand fact in the universe. When we survey nature and think however flitting and superficial has been the animal enjoyment of its wonders, and when we realize how incapable the separate cells and pulsations of each flower are of enjoying the total effect – then our sense of the value of the details for the totality dawns upon our consciousness.[xviii]

Those political theorists who define values only in terms of the individual are not just being selfish; they are actually making a philosophical mistake. They neglect the holistic dimension of value, which intrinsically extends beyond the individual: “Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole. This characterizes the meaning of actuality. By reason of this character, constituting reality, the conception of morals arises. We have no right to deface the value experience which is the essence of the universe.”[xix]

(4) Balance between private and public. It follows directly that events are characterized by a balance between private and public identities. Events—and therefore all persons—are constituted by their relationships with others. We are constituted by the ways that we influence and are influenced by our environment. In short, process philosophy is inherently an ecological philosophy.

At the same time, as we have seen, each event, organism, or person is also free to decide how it will react to the past and move into the future. Value is an achievement, one that requires the continual use of one’s freedom in ways that benefit the community. It may be true that “An entity is actual, when it has significance for itself.” By this Whitehead means, “an actual entity functions in respect to its own determination. Thus an actual entity combines self-identity with self-diversity.”[xx] This idea of “self-diversity” means that each one has being from its predecessors (its ancestors), which have provided the data for its own becoming, and being for those who follow after it, who will be affected by the decisions it has made. This organic connection of all things means that freedom from various constraints must always be freedom for the good of others. For process thinkers, freedom and responsibility are just two sides of the same coin:

As the human capacity for freedom is promoted, so is the human capacity to attain greater achievements of beauty, but also to achieve greater evil… From a process perspective, sheer freedom is not freedom at all. If there were only novelty, we would not have harmonization and unity of experience, only pure discord. Rather, true freedom is always, in the root sense, responsible freedom, i.e., freedom in responsibility.[xxi]

Chinese Process Thought

The Chinese contributions to process thought over the last two decades have been very significant. Although it has supporters in many parts of the world, process philosophy has grown more quickly in China than any other nation. More than twenty research centers focusing on Constructive Postmodernism and process thought have been established at Chinese universities, including Zhejiang University, Peking Normal University, and Harbin Institute of Technology. According to Professor Fubin Yang’s research, as of 2010 “no other school of contemporary Western philosophy, such as analytical philosophy or phenomenology, has yet established so many special centers of study in China.”[xxii]

The founder of Jesus, Jazz and Buddhism, Jay McDaniel, has frequently taught process philosophy in China. In an important post on JJB, Jay listed ten important comparisons between Chinese thought and process thought.[xxiii]Please click here. We know of no list of parallels that is as insightful and helpful as Prof. McDaniel’s list. Before you read any further, you should click on the link and read his 10 points.

In the ten points that Jay explains in his post, he reveals deep insight into process philosophy, traditional Chinese thought, and Marxist thought. We agree with Jay that deep organic connections exist between these three schools of thought. It is indeed possible to graft them together into a single living whole—not merely as an abstract philosophy, but as a new form of eco-praxis.


In this post we have argued that these three philosophies—traditional Chinese philosophy, process philosophy, and Organic Marxism—are growing together in the postmodern world. Of course, other scholars have already begun to recognize the connections. From the beginning, process philosophers acknowledged that their views were closer to traditional Chinese thought then to modern Western thinking. Likewise, the significant affinities between constructive postmodernism (process philosophy) and Chinese Marxism have been frequently discussed. For example, in a recent paper, Professor Zhihe Wang identifies four important parallels between Chinese Marxism and process philosophies:

(1) Both regard process as a central notion of their philosophies;

(2) Both reject the fallacy of misplaced concreteness;

(3) Both have a strong consciousness of social responsibility and pursue the common good of the individual, the community, and nature;

(4) Both hold a comprehensive and organic stance to the world.[xxiv]

The interest of Chinese scholars in process philosophy and the rapid increase in the number of Chinese-language publications on this topic provide further evidence of the deep connections. In a recent survey conducted by People’s Forum Poll Research Center on “The Most Valuable Theoretical Point of View in 2012,”the statement by Prof. Yijie Tang of Peking University, a leading specialist in Chinese philosophy, was selected as the most significant analysis:

At the end of the last century, Constructive Postmodernism based on process philosophy proposed integrating the achievements of the first Enlightenment and postmodernism, and called for the Second Enlightenment. The two broadly influential movements in China today are (1) “the zeal for traditional culture” and (2) “Constructive Postmodernism.” If these two trends can be combined organically under the guidance of Marxism, [they will] not only take root in China, but further develop so that, with comparative ease, China can complete its “First Enlightenment,” realizing its modernization, and also very quickly enter into the “Second Enlightenment” and become the standard-bearer of a postmodern society.[xxv]

It is important for thinkers and leaders in the West to understand what these developments—in China, in Marxism, and in process thought—mean and what positive changes they are likely to produce. Dr. Zhihe Wang suggests that part of the reason for the harmony between them is that “China is a nation of process thinking that understands the universe ‘in terms of processes rather than things, in modes of change rather than fixed stabilities.’ The Chinese not only have faith in the dynamic harmony of nature and humankind, but also have faith in change and transformation.”[xxvi] In the same article Dr. Wang notes that, in ancient Chinese, the opposite of the word “poor” is not rich, but “change.” And in the I Jing (The Book of Changes) we read, “Poor leads to changes, changes in turn lead to finding a way out, and in turn enable sustainability.

Clearly, then, there are natural connections and deep affinities between these three schools of thought. One needs to recognize that Organic Marxism is not the invention of something new; it is the naming of an intellectual development that is already well underway. The urgent task for the immediate future is to understand why it is attractive to let these three currents flow together into a single stream, and what implications it will have—for the environmental movement, and for the future of Marxism—if this stream becomes a major river, flowing across national boundaries and traditions. It may be that, for the first time, the world has produced a model of socially oriented thinking that is strong enough and attractive enough to undercut the libertarian philosophies that have dominated the West, and from there most of the planet, over the last four centuries.


[i] The book edited by Jacques Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis, Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism (Leiden: Brill, 2008), provides some sense of the range of Marxisms.

[ii] The phrase “at the edge of chaos” is used by my friend and co-author Stuart Kauffman in Investigations and numerous publications. On management principles in the context of so-called chaotic systems see David Parker and Ralph Stacey, Chaos, Management and Economics: The Implications of Non-linear Thinking (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1994) and Tony J. Watson, In Search of Management: Culture, Chaos and Control in Managerial Work (London and New York: Routledge, 1994). See also Chapter 7, “Process Philosophy and Systems Management,” in Philip Clayton, Science and Ecological Civilization: A Constructive Postmodern Approach(forthcoming in Chinese translation).

[iii] Zhihe Wang, “Constructive Postmodernism, Chinese Marxism, and Ecological Civilization.”

[iv] Alfred North Whitehead, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. Lucien Price (Boston: David R. Godine, 2001), 91.

[v] Anne Fairchild Pomeroy, Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectics, and the Critique of Capitalism (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004), 9, quoted in Zhihe Wang, “Constructive Postmodernism, Chinese Marxism, and Ecological Civilization,” paper presented at the 9th International Whitehead Conference in Krakow, Poland, September 2013.

[vi] Whitehead, Dialogues, 268.

[vii] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected edition (New York: Free Press, 1978), 25, emphasis added.

[viii] Ibid., 50, emphasis added.

[ix] Jay B. McDaniel, “A Process Approach to Ecology,” in Handbook of Process Theology, ed. Jay McDaniel and Donna Bowman (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2006), 243.

[x] John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 83–4.

[xi] Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, 1967), 163.

[xii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 27–8, emphasis added.

[xiii] Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology, 112.

[xiv] Ibid., 113.

[xv] Ibid., 16–17.

[xvi] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 220.

[xvii] Ibid., 51.

[xviii] Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Free Press, 1968), 119–20.

[xix] Ibid., 111, emphasis added.

[xx] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 25. Whitehead provides a technical description of this process: “The individual immediacy of an occasion is the final unity of subjective form, which is the occasion as an absolute reality. This immediacy is its moment of sheer individuality, bounded on either side by essential relativity. The occasion arises from relevant objects, and perishes into the status of an object for other occasions. But it enjoys its decisive moment of absolute self-attainment as emotional unity” (Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 177).

[xxi] Paul Custodio Bube, “Process Theological Ethics,” in Handbook of Process Theology, ed. Jay McDaniel and Donna Bowman (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2006), 152.

[xxii] Fubin Yang, “The Influence of Whitehead’s Thought on the Chinese Academy,” Process Studies 39 (Fall/Winter 2010): 342-9, quote p. 342.

[xxiii] Jay McDaniel, “Ten Comparisons between Chinese Thought and Process Thought,” on the “Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism” website, posted July 7, 2013,

[xxiv] Zhihe Wang, “Constructive Postmodernism, Chinese Marxism, and Ecological Civilization.”

[xxv] Yijie Tang, “The Enlightenment and its Difficult Journey in China,” Wen Hui Bao, November 14, 2011, Prof. Tang is Professor at PekingUniversity and Director of the Research Institute of Confucianism at Peking University, as well as Director of the Research Institute of Chinese Culture.

[xxvi] Zhihe Wang, “Constructive Postmodernism, Chinese Marxism, and Ecological Civilization.” The quotation is taken from Jan B. F. N. Engberts, “Immanent Transcendence in Chinese and Western Process Thinking,” Philosophy Study 6 (2012): 377-83.

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