China: Socialism and Imperialism
This is the first of a multi-part series on China’s transition from socialism, to capitalism, and to its current state as a fledgling imperialist power.
It is popular in certain Marxist circles today to uphold the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party as champions of the proletarian struggle against capitalism-imperialism. While making superficial critiques of this or that bureaucratic official or corrupt policy in modern China, these self-proclaimed Marxists can only maintain their position through revisionism, sugarcoated half-truths, and a dose of ignorance. The reality is that China has itself become a new capitalist powerhouse that is seeking to establish itself as an imperialist power.
After the fall of the social-imperialist Soviet Union, a massive wave of counter-revolution swept the globe. China was in the process of being integrated into the global capitalist economy and the United States no longer had any major rivals preventing it from establishing itself as the sole imperialist superpower. It seemed as though the “end of history” had come and Pax Americana had beset the globe.
However, the past two decades have shown that Pax Americana would not be as stable as the imperialists had anticipated. It has been a period of almost unceasing war and major economic crises which have drawn down the reserves of the imperialist machine.
As US imperialism finds itself in a period of decline, it is struggling to reassert itself with increasingly heavy handed militarism. While its sphere of influence slowly shrinks, new imperialist powers are rising to take advantage of this window of opportunity. China, Russia and to a lesser extent, Brazil are the vanguard of this fledgling counter-hegemonic force.
As these new imperialists expand their own spheres of influence throughout Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America, it is important for revolutionaries to properly understand their role in global politics and the class struggle. We must ask ourselves, are these new powers on the side of the global proletariat? Or do they seek to subjugate the proletariat to their own interests? How does the existence of a new imperialist bloc affect US hegemony? Most importantly, what orientation towards these new powers should revolutionaries in the belly of US Imperialism have?
A critical part of answering these questions is a proper analysis of China. We must investigate into which class in in command of Chinese society and in which direction the country is headed.
What is Socialism?
When discussing the class nature of China today as historical materialists, this question is of utmost importance. Before we can delve any further, we must answer it correctly.
Let us begin with what socialism is not.
Socialism is not its own mode of production defined by certain benchmarks. Free or subsidized health care, the supposed defense of workers’ rights, a planned economy, state ownership of the means of production, and a nominal communist party holding state power do not equate to socialism. These may indeed be certain characteristics of a socialist country, but they can also exist to one degree or another in a social-democracy. This understanding of socialism is the hallmark of revisionism and is a form of right-deviationism.
Socialism is a transitionary period during which proletarian politics are put in command of production and the state, the contradictions between town and countryside are being resolved, distinctions between mental and manual labor are in the process of being done away with, and society is moving away from commodity production and towards production based first and foremost on satisfying the needs of all of society. In order to be properly socialist, a country must generally be heading in the direction of communism. That is, it must be moving towards the elimination of classes.
This simply is not the case in China. While there is indeed an ongoing line struggle being waged within the party, bourgeois elements are winning and have been doing so since the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four (possibly even before). The party has long since put economics in command. Putting economics in demand is in the interests of the bourgeoisie and inevitably bolsters the capitalist mode of production. The proletariat is not the ruling class in China. China is dominated by the interests of party bureaucrats, engineers, technicians, and its growing capitalist class.
We shall discuss this further in part II
Lessons from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
The Chinese proletariat and peasantry laid out the ground work for the construction of socialism during the New Democratic Revolution from the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 through 1957. During this period, feudal social relations were washed away and China mobilized the national bourgeoisie under the control of the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to rapidly develop the economic base necessary for the creation of socialism.
By 1957, private industry had been abolished and land in the countryside had been seized by the small peasants and reorganized into collective productive units marking the beginning of China’s socialist period. The consolidation of a socialist economy however, does not immediately eliminate the reactionary superstructural elements of the old modes of production. Old customs, ideologies, ideas, and practices linger long after. As long as these backwards vestiges of old modes of production remain, the potential exists for those modes of production to rise again to dominance.
Thus, the transformation of the super-structure is of equal, if not greater, importance than the transformation of the means and relations of production in the proletariat’s drive toward communism. New art, personal habits, ways of conceptualizing labor and economic development, literature, educational methods, cultural stories and mythology, philosophies all must be created to concretize a new revolutionary proletarian culture. This new culture must then be embraced by the masses as their own. They must replace old bourgeois individualism with proletarian collectivism as their source of ideological motivation.
In addition to old cultural elements, a socialist society inherits many structural contradictions from the old society. These include income inequality, divisions between mental and manual labor, exploitative relations between the city and countryside, differences in skill and education etc. While it is impossible to erase these contradictions overnight, as long as they exist, they are a breeding ground for bourgeois consciousness and ideology and must actively be suppressed.
The question of how to resolve these contradictions and how to construct socialism along with a new proletarian culture led to sharp conflicts with in the communist party and Chinese society as a whole. These conflicts culminated in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) which lasted from 1966-1976.
The two primary contending forces in the GPCR were colloquially known as the “socialist roaders”—led by Mao Zedong and representing the class interests of the small peasantry and workers—and the “capitalist roaders” led by Liu Shaoqi, representing the interests of the petty-bourgeois intellectuals, the expropriated national bourgeoisie, and the former middle and large peasantry.
The question of which way forward for China was at the very center of the GPCR. The Liu clique and the class forces it represented pushed for the reintroduction of market mechanisms, rapid industrial development with little regard to the political nature of that development, and meritocratic means of appointing leadership. Proletarian forces pushed for independent economic development in China in a way that sought to actively resolve contradictions within Chinese society and move forward to communism.
Mao upheld that people and the social relations surrounding them were the building blocks of socialism, not machines. By mobilizing the masses and putting politics in command, the technical infrastructure necessary to eliminate scarcity would in turn be constructed by popular initiative with oversight by the party. This is the essence of revolutionary Marxism that distinguishes it from revisionism.
The capitalist roaders of today and of the 60s have a cynical view of the masses. They believe that engineers and other technical intellectuals are the driving force of revolution and that the productive forces are primary. Instead of relying on the proletariat to push forward social and economic development, revisionists put economics over politics and serve to develop capitalism, not socialism.
Setting the Stage for Restoration of Capitalism in China
An unintentional consequence of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was the merging of the interests of corrupt party elites and long suppressed academics who were simultaneously under attack during the turbulent decade. The GPCR attempted to further subordinate their interests to those of proletarian revolution. This naturally caused both to seek allies in order to preserve, consolidate, and expand their influence over Chinese Society.
The death of Mao in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s ascendence to power gave rise to circumstances in which these elites could establish themselves and renounce the radical egalitarianism of the CR. The tables were turning within the CPC in favor of the classes who had been held down by the masses and their leading representatives in the party, Mao and the Gang of Four.
Prior to the end of the cultural revolution, the class interests of academics, engineers, and technicians had been severely repressed. They were forced to engage in manual labor, political education, and accept lower pay than they felt entitled to. Perhaps most bitterly, these intellectuals were forced to subordinate themselves to the workers and to work and live among them. These contradictions were greatly sharpened during the CR as this class of Chinese society was constantly exposed to heightened scrutiny, criticism and occasional physical attacks at the hands of the revolutionary masses.
As Deng became more firmly established after renouncing Mao and the cultural revolution as utopian, he pushed forward an agenda of supposedly revolutionary pragmatism, stressing the need for rapid economic development and meritocratic policies emphasizing technique over politics. Deng put economics in command and the CPC began to take the Capitalist Road. This was to the delight of intellectuals who then became the primary target of party recruitment.
From the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949 through the CR the party overwhelmingly drew its ranks from factory floors, peasants, and soldiers. As technocratic tendencies, representing the class interests of the burgeoning new bourgeoisie, became more prevalent, engineers and other experts were catapulted into leadership positions ostensibly as Red Experts who could push China forward into modernization and material abundance. According to Deng, this would set the stage for the proper construction of socialism. Intellectuals constituted a mere 8% of party member ship in 1979 and by 1985 this percentage skyrocketed to 50%.
During the Mao era, the party and its cadres were viewed as a mechanism to mobilize the masses of workers and the peasantry. The few technicians and engineers who were party members were considered to be unfit for leadership. Instead they were viewed as providers of technical assistance whose dedication to the revolution had to be proved more rigorously. The technocractic era of China ushered in after the death of Mao turned this on its head. The party was increasingly geared towards facilitating scientific management and economic development. The radically popular nature of the party in the 50’s and 60’s was left behind.
During China’s revolutionary era, those who had first demonstrated remarkable political astuteness and exceptional capabilities as workers were recruited to attend technical training in the Universities. After intense training for three years, these workers would return to their factories to provide guidance. These new worker-cadres retained their official status as workers and their original pay. This helped eliminate the distinction between mental and manual labor and created a genuine bond between shop floor workers and those worker-cadres who had more advanced technical understanding.
Increased recruitment of non-worker university students into technical positions in factories reversed this trend and greatly broadened the division of labor and sharpened the contradictions created by that divide. The pay and status of these new engineers rose at a much higher rate than that of workers and consolidated this new class divide.
While members of this new class may have been technical experts, they were far from being revolutionaries. They were arrogant, detached from the masses, and sought bourgeois lifestyles. Instead of using their knowledge to serve the interests of the proletariat, they served their own. This class of engineers and other intellectuals laid the road for the development of capitalism in China. Deng’s conception of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was beginning to be unmasked as outright revisionism and the first steps towards capitalist restoration.
While communist social relations had never become the dominant mode of production in China (or anywhere else), the Deng era reforms destroyed the astounding progress that had been made in that direction during the first 30 years of the PRC. Private businesses were given significantly more freedom, the communes were dismantled and peasants were encouraged to instead work as family units who sold their products on the market and foreign corporations began drawing up business contracts with China and opened production facilities in the country. It is not a coincidence that the United States only formally recognized the Peoples Republic of China once these reforms had been put into play.
The largest shortcoming of the revisionist conception of socialism is its tendency to ignore the dialectical nature of the socialist period. In doing so, it is unable to correctly conceptualize class struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat. While revisionists may pay lip service to this phenomenon, they deny it in practice. They refuse to see that it is not a series of benchmarks which define socialism, but the direction in which a society is ultimately headed. Is it moving towards communism, or is it moving towards capitalism? Which class controls society? Are proletarian politics in command?
– Aspen Miller
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