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The Party Congress as a ritual

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:21 UK time, Thursday, 15 November 2012

China's ruling Communist Party has held an important congress with sweeping leadership changes.

More than 2,200 delegates from across China gathered in Beijing's Great Hall of the People and selected a new Central Committee, which in its own turn elected China's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee.

The congress was a well-choreographed display of power and unity, though the proceedings, as many observers have noticed, mostly took place behind closed doors.

The choreography of it made me think about the ritualistic nature of events like party congresses, which I have witnessed personally in the former Soviet Union.

Interior view of the Great Hall of the People during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Party Congress

Inside the Great Hall of the People during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Party Congress

First of all let's think about the way things look - a grand hall where thousands of party members are seated row upon row like the congregation of a cathedral during the mass or liturgy.

But in place of the altar they see the body of the party leadership - the Central Committee. They are placed above them on a high podium with altar decorations - flowers in front and a communist coat of arms behind.

Just as an archbishop has his ambo, the general secretary or party chairman has his rostrum from which to deliver his speech, his sermon.

The process contains several archetypical moments which key into the most ancient parts of the public's unconsciousness.

A graphic showing the make-up of the communist party congress

I have looked up at this as a member of the public, and looked down from it as a part of the presidium.

When you are sitting amongst the ordinary members (I wanted to say 'in the crowd' but it's not a crowd since everyone is ordered and well-behaved) you are faceless, just one of many, as opposed to the selected ones on stage.

Those people on stage might look the same as you, they might well be wearing the same uniform as you, but they are definitely 'first among equals'. Seeing your mirror image sitting amongst the 'selected and elected' brings on a surge of hope and fear. The hope relates to the future - one day it may be possible to become like them. The fear relates to your current vulnerability, when any of those 'chosen' could snuff you out with a wag of his finger.

But when you are sitting up in the presidium, you are just as keenly aware of the distance separating you from the row upon row of 'members, who are really 'extras' to the process unfolding within the hall. You might share a joke with someone sitting next to you about a member of the congregation who looks odd, or someone else who is snoring away...

And yet the same two feelings torment you up in the presidium, only in reverse order - fear and hope. The fear is that you will lose this privilege and the hope is that it won't happen to you.

Looking at the layout of the Great Hall, it's clear that communist ideology has taken Hegelian dialectics, turned them upside down, and sewn them into its fundamental principles.

The first of these dialectical laws concerns the unity and conflict of opposites. The main body of the hall and the presidium are one, but they are opposites. The difference between them also subliminally alludes to the eternal 'class struggle' stated in the Communist Manifesto.

The second law refers to the inevitable transformation from the quantitative into the qualitative. Going from being a member of the party's body to becoming one of the 'selected and elected' requires lots of quantitative efforts which ultimately turn into a qualitative change.

"Sorry is the soldier who doesn't dream of becoming Napoleon" goes one of the most famous communist proverbs.

Marx himself said: "There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits." Replace the word "science" with "power" and you'll grasp what I'm talking about.

The third and final of the rules is the negation of the negation.

Nobody in the Great Hall would admit what I am saying here, but we can use this rule to negate their negation and show how ritualistic these congresses are and deconstruct how they appeal to the most profound human feelings.

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