In a comment to an earlier post on ‘Two Universes’, Ken Surin suggested China offers one layer of capitalism in China, the other two being wild-west capitalism and small-scale market gardeners and the like. Little room for communism here, except perhaps as fiddling with the capitalist mode of production. I know variations on this theme are common among western Marxists and assorted liberals, but no matter how much I respect their opinions, I beg to differ in some respects, especially with regard to the Chinese government. Let’s call the ‘wild-west’ capitalists a mafia-capitalism that seeks to avoid the planned economy. So, I agree that China has elements of mafia-capitalism and communal efforts at local levels, but the suggestion that it has an autocratic state capitalist regime is dodgy at best. A tall order maybe, but let’s see.
First, the term ‘state capitalism’ was coined by Lenin to describe the New Economic Plan in which elements of capitalism would be used to rebuild the Soviet economy. The state remains in control, directing and planning the various elements of market relations – hence state capitalism. The term soon became a popular one of abuse among both the western right and the western left, suggesting that it was not communism at all but a variation on capitalism. You see it cropping up throughout the era of the USSR even by Marxists I respect.
Second, the argument that the Chinese government is autocratic, or a dictatorship, or (more properly) an oligarchy, assumes some ideal form of government – like the thoroughly discredited ‘liberal’ or parliamentary democracy maybe. However, to be a hard-nosed realist about this, if you are surrounded by those who would love to see your demise, and if your long-term goal is the victory of communism over capitalism, then a hard line is sometimes required. In another world, where capitalism is a relic of few basket-case states, then you might be able to switch to a very different way of operating. But that isn’t the case now. As one Chinese person perceptively put it to me: I used to believe that liberal democracy was the best way to go, but then I realised it’s crap and that what we have here is better’.
Third, this description of China can express an impossible romanticism about the pure revolution and its aftermath. It is always best if the revolution is still to come and that all the revolutions we have had are failures which can conveniently be forgotten. Instead of such day-dreaming, I prefer the insights gained from those revolutions. Both Lenin and Mao realised that any revolution needs a good, efficient army (actually, Engels was the first to articulate this position), since all and sundry will do their best to rip apart any communist revolution. And you need, as Engels often quoted from the Gospels, to ‘be as innocent as doves and as cunning as serpents’.
Fourth, the description of an ‘autocratic state capitalist’ regime assumes that not a relic of communism is left, that they have abandoned it as so much useless baggage. That simply does not match with the reality of government and public life in China, into which I have gained a small window or two (my works have been translated by a central party committee and have entered into government discussions over Marxism and religion). If communism has been dumped, how otherwise do you explain – to give but a few examples from a long list – the fostering of Marxist studies throughout China and the world, the full translation project of the work of Marx and Engels from the original languages into Chinese (the former one is from the Russian), the school curricula where students learn of the basics of Marxism, the way in which the intricacies of communism are part of common public debate and discussion, and even the struggles over softer and hard-line approaches? That seems more communist to me than anything you’ll find in most other places.
All of which leads to the relation between what they say and do, between theory and practice. Four options present themselves. 1. Those in charge are thoroughly cynical despots – a little like the priests in the church who foist superstitions on the people but don’t believe it themselves. In short, they are simply in it for their own gain while mouthing platitudes to Marx and Mao. 2. They are stupid and don’t know what they are doing. Both 1 and 2 are really not tenable positions. 3. They have released something over which they have no ultimate control. This is the favoured position of those who mistakenly see a connection between capitalist market relations and ‘freedom’, arguing that China will eventually follow a path similar to some western states. 4. The government is in fact largely in control through a planned economy. Some elements of mafia-capitalism seek to escape that control, but they keep getting caught in the larger scope of planning. On this score, one may understand the noted tightening-up of government policy over the last five years, a spate of arrests and trials for corruption (including Australian citizens of Chinese background), and the desire to reign in mafia-capitalism. One reason, I suggest, is that they have seen what happened in Eastern Europe, where mafia-capitalism gained complete control (in the West, it is called business as usual).
My perspective on this formed by close reading of Lenin’s works and assorted secondary literature after the October revolution in 1917. Not a favourite Lenin for most, since the pre-revolutionary Lenin is far more attractive to many. That early Lenin is often the subject of romanticising views of the revolution that never comes. So why is the post-revolutionary Lenin more appealing for me? Somehow, in some incredible fashion, the communist revolution survived the rest of the Second World War and then defeated a global effort to close it down. The USA, UK, Japan, France, Germany, Canada and many others actively supported in arms and troops the ‘white’ armies who attacked from north, east, south and west. A mixture of good luck, sheer determination and creative adaptation enabled the success of the Red Army, some of whom did not have boots or even coats for winter. All through that ‘civil’ war and afterwards the population weathered food and fuel shortages, epidemics, transport breakdown and an almost global economic blockade. No wonder many lost heart and wondered whether the revolution had achieved anything at all. And then, when it came to the reconstruction of a thoroughly destroyed economy, the communists had to be the ultimate opportunists. As Lunacharsky points out in one of his ‘Revolutionary Silhouettes’, Lenin was the most creative opportunist, prepared to change direction and use whatever would work for the construction of communism. It was sheer hard work, killed off a good many leading figures, Lenin included, and extremely messy. And yet the aim was always to work towards a full communism in the midst of global capitalism. One of Lenin’s repeated comments during this time has stayed with me: the revolution itself is the easy part; constructing communism afterwards is infinitely more complex than what has gone before, capitalism included. The real surprise is not that they ‘failed’ (the topic of another post), but that they achieved as much as they did.