Are there classes in China?

Since some became a little hot under the collar in discussion over a previous post on China concerning the question of class, I thought I’d explain.

Put simply, class is defined in both objective and subjective terms. Objectively, class designates the difference between those who work to produce goods and those who extract a surplus from those goods but do not produce them. This objective difference is manifested in division of labour, which operates in complex patterns of distinctions between male and female, mind and body, city and country, material and immaterial wealth. The subjective dimension involves a consciousness of belonging to a particular class. That consciousness includes a complex web of cultural assumptions, modes of speech, social codes, world outlook and religion. Most significantly, class consciousness is determined by a class opponent, the differences with which are marked by opposing assumptions of one’s role and importance within production, and by the cultural assumptions each holds.

To take the classic example from Marx, while the objective conditions for a working class emerged well before 1848, it was only with those revolutions that a distinct working class emerged. How? Up until that point, all had been united on a common front with promises of freedom and equality. However, when the bourgeoisie gained power, the workers expected and demanded the same freedoms. Bugger off, said the bourgeoisie. They aren’t for you. At this moment a class enemy becomes clear. And in that identification of a class enemy, the consciousness of being a working class emerges. Only then is it possible to speak of a ‘working class’, where both objective and subjective factors play a role.

As colleagues in China have explained to me, this analysis works very well there. With the problematic adoption of certain aspects of capitalist economic relations in the late 1970s, they brought with them objective conditions for a working class and a middle class. So you do have a situation where some work on farms, others work in industries that supply most of the world, and others in various management positions. And you do have millionaires, or rogue capitalists, who make their living off the surplus produced. This is a situation that many find highly problematic and much energy is being expended to deal with it. But you do not have the subjective conditions for a working class or a middle class, since the class enemy has not been identified through a crucial incident or series of incidents. All of which means that the loose terminology of China’s ‘rising middle class’ or exploited ‘working class’, bandied about in the Western media, or even among those who should know better, misses the point.

Should a point of class consciousness and the identification of class enemies occur, then that may well be the signal that the Chinese experiment has failed. But if they can manage to avoid that moment and cut back the situation that has created the objective conditions, then they may succeed with their unique experiment.


49 thoughts on “Are there classes in China?

  1. How about the thousands of protests against Party corruption, non-payment of wages and brutal working conditions that take place every year?

    You’re begging the question and creating a non-falsifiable because you set your own criteria for what is and isn’t legitimate class inequality and oppression; spluttering and sometimes incompetent media censorship and the co-option of Marxist language by a Party increasingly dominated by capitalists – the many fine theologians in its ranks notwithstanding – make it highly unlikely that the kind of political identity you will accept as the sole legitimate indication of the existence of a class system will manifest. But this is no different from a context like, say, the USA where the overwhelming majority of people consider themselves middle class, few use the language of anti-revisionist Marxism you demand, and yet it would be fanciful scholarship (even by the standards of academic theology) to argue that no class system exists in the USA. These are simply cases of rejecting 21st century material reality that get in the way of 19th century theory.

    And you do have millionaires, or rogue capitalists, who make their living off the surplus produced. This is a situation that many find highly problematic and much energy is being expended to deal with it. Tell me how can someone be a “rogue capitalist” if they are a member of the Communist Party?

    1. To put it another way, are you saying anything other than, yes, extreme economic and political equality exists in China, but the Chinese people do not articulate themselves according to the doctrines of anti-revisionist Marxist theory, so I believe these inequalities are not meaningful?

    2. You can of course reject the criteria by which class is determined in favour of your own idiosyncratic version, but this is a pretty simple and widely accepted Marxist definition that works perfectly well today. And you persist in buying into the ‘cynical priest’ argument concerning ideology. I do believe Althusser debunked that one a little while ago.

      But of course, I bow to your superior knowledge on sinological matters. All I do is actually talk with critics in China, but of course they are to be dismissed as simpletons and colluding ideologues, aren’t they?

      1. All I was asking was, by what criteria are you arguing that “proper” class inequality does not exist in China, you’ve set out your criteria. Ok. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to simply say that despite great inequalities, the Chinese are not conducting themselves in the manner prescribed by Marxist theory, therefore these class inequalities are not “proper” ones, but that’s another discussion.

      2. Now you’re shifting terminology to ‘class inequality’. That’s different from my initial point concerning the existence of class, against which you first launched a tirade. Of course, inequalities exist, as I made perfectly clear, but classes don’t.

        But once again, I bow to your non-theoretical empiricism.

      3. Well like I said, we just disagree about the set-up and relative importance of adherence to 19th century theory. And I was correct that any criteria you used would employ abstract theory to paper over meaningful gross inequalities. In any case, this is amusingly analogous to my complaint about your denunciation of everyone and everything as “petty bourgeois”; if whatever falls into your line of vision is petty bourgeois, class no longer exists there, either.

      4. Well, when the Chinese working class demand an end to Socialism with Chinese Characteristics by demanding Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. I will re-enroll for re-education in the Margot Honecker spirit.

      5. But what I want to read about contemporary China is all written by petty bourgeois secularists! Monthly Review and the Financial Times just want to destroy our faith in the Prophecies of Lenin/Stalin.

        (Seriously, we’re not going to get anywhere here because we just place different levels of importance in applying the scriptures in day-to-day lives. I believe that there are religions that are not Calvinist Christianity and manifestations of class systems that are not Marxist class consciousness. I think that’s ok though.)

      6. But let’s just hold hands like good liberals and sing ‘Kumbaya’. I can cook my food with its funny smells over here and you can cook yours over there and we’ll all get on famously.

      7. If by “empiricist fallacy” you accuse me of believing there is a source of knowledge about the 21st century that is not contained in the Bible or Lenin’s writings on the NEP…. well, you’ve got me.

      8. What? Just because I doubt the all encompassing nature of biblical and Leninist wisdom I’m incapable of “serious discussion”? Dean’s posted way more clopfic links on this blog than I have…

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  3. I always thought there was a classic distinction between a class for itself and a class in itself. Surely the existence of a class does not as such depend on its class consciousness – one can in principle have a class in itself that is not, or not yet, a class for itself. Few petty bourgeois, for example, have ever seen themselves as petty bourgeois, I’d think. That said, I’m not sure what this has to do with Lenin’s “prophecies” being relevant or not…

    1. I used to see myself as petty bourgeois. Roland called me that so many times that I actually started to believe that the person I saw in the mirror each morning was the petty bourgeois cynic he identified me as. Not long after I started to believe it was all my own fault, too. But you know, after a while, you just stop arguing and you just stop fighting. And guess what? That’s when you stop feeling the punches raining down on you.

      That all happened to me long ago and now I’m just dead inside, you know, from a subjective class position.

      1. Do you see the way he addresses me, Matthijs? Can you understand his foolish games that are tearing me apart nao!? Are you happy? Why, I’d rather be on a Foxconn production line in Chengdu making iPads and getting slapped around by the shift boss than hang around here and put up with his thoughtless words.

        At least then I’d know I was building communism.

    2. Although I prefer Marx’s and Lukacs’ turn, let’s stay with the Hegelian terminology for a moment. Only when both conditions are met, as with objective and subjective criteria, do you have class in the full sense. Otherwise we get lost in the swampy terrain of Weberian stratification, inequality and so forth.

      1. Ok now I actually do want to apologize for my vulgar empiricist claim that you are “rejecting 21st century material reality that get in the way of 19th century theory”.

        Clearly it also gets in the way of 18th century theory.

  4. And even if some so-called Marxists speak of “class” in China, no true Marxist would speak of “class” in China. See Article 76.4.5 of the Charter for Pàrtaidh Co-Mhaoineach na h-Alba, which reads, and I quote, “No true member of Pàrtaidh Co-Mhaoineach na h-Alba speaks of “class” in a communist state.”

    Anyway, Pobbles are happier without their toes.

  5. I love this. Usually my mother reads my blog a couple of thousand times a day, but as soon as I post something on, say China or Stalin, bunga bunga froths at the mouth and spits out his martini, and Deane’s eyes glint in … well, they glint. I’m honoured to have the champions of light, truth and freedom standing up for the great cause. Next thing I’ll be hearing of personal letters to Obama urging to teach those dreadful Chinese a lesson.

    1. It’s not all about you, Roland. Sure, we talk about “Roland” and “China” or about “Roland” and “Stalin”, but these are code terms, mere cyphers. If you had read more closely, you’d have realised I’m really talking about Raymond Williams and the Khmer Rouge.

    2. I’m just thankful two people more than my mother occasionally read this. By the way, I’m thinking of organising a gathering in North Korea. It’s easy to get in, you are allocated a free guide and its dirt cheap.

      1. You do know who those free “guides” really are, don’t you?

        But this sounds exciting. A gathering of what? Will there be room for new and innovative work in Pentateuchal historical criticism?

      2. They are simply volunteers who wish to welcome visitors and suggest appropriate sites to photograph and places to visit. Very nice people, really. Let’s just say that in some way the gathering should be relevant to North Korea – so how would you get some scintillating Pentateuchal source criticism in touch with NK?

      3. I suggest the gathering be held in picturesque Oguk Village. As the Heavenly General of Mount Paektu Kim Jong Il (May Allah’s Peace and Blessings be Upon Him) said when inspecting the village; “the picturesque Oguk Village has turned into an earthly paradise, a socialist fairyland in the era of the Workers’ Party.”

        This excites me (even though I am dead inside, from a subjective class position) because I believe that this fairyland may be the closest we Bronies may come to Ponyville.

  6. Methinks the question of class is not best posed in terms of Marx vs Weber. In one of his early works Michael Mann found a way to combine features of both into a model that goes beyond the simple dichotomy of class in itself vs class for itself. Mann proposes a four-tier model of class and class consciousness:

    1) basic consciousness of social and cultural preferences (I like beer, we holiday in Blackpool, my favourite dinner is roast beef and Yorkshire pud)

    2) awareness of differences in social and cultural preferences indicative of class affiliation (I like beer, he drinks wine; we holiday in Blackpool, they holiday in a villa in Tuscany; my favourite dinner is roast beef and Yorkshire pud; his favourite meal is whatever is available at a Joel Robouchon restaurant in Paris)

    3) Recognition that there is a causal relation between his and my socio-economic position which accounts for the differences in these preferences. (Class consciousness proper)

    4) Recognition that only a supersession of the system which allows such socio-economic positions (and their accompanying cultural preferences) to exist will take us beyond the current situation where these situations and preferences amount to a fate or destiny. (threshold of a potential revolutionary consciousness)

    Each stage contains subjective and objective dimensions, as opposed to the class in itself vs class for itself dichotomy, where only the former is objective and only the latter subjective.

    1. This model views class formation and any resultant consciousness as a complex and uneven process (meaning that some processes move all the way from (1) to (4), while others stop at 3, or 2, or even 1). I have one problem with this model– it does not account for the dynamic that enables the transition from one stage to the next. This is where Marx is indispensable: it is the dynamics of capitalist production and accumulation that constitute the necessary (but not the sufficient) conditions for these transitions. The sources of sufficient conditions can be very ramified– religion, ethnic affiliation, gender, age differences, education levels, etc.

    2. Thanks Ken, it does add some useful complexity, although it seems that its primary purpose is to account in a sequential narrative for the rise of class consciousness. The conditions seem to be given before the narrative begins. However, since I am about to launch at long last into my sacred economy book, I would be intrigued as to how this might work in the the ancient near east. Ste. Croix probably comes closest for the Greek world with his careful attention to texts etc.

  7. That does seem a good way of looking at it. I don’t quite get Roland’s idea that if we understand class in objective terms only, it becomes Weberian stratification theory, or purely empirical sociology, etc. There is indeed that risk, but surely that’s not necessarily the case. Marx himself very often refers to class in purely objective terms, independent of their consciousness. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels say “the separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors”, which seems close to Roland’s position. But in the Poverty of Philosophy he says “Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist”, which is about as objective an analysis as one can get. And again in Capital, Vol. 1, “Self-earned private property, that is based, so to say, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent labouring individual with the conditions of his labour, is supplanted by capitalistic private property, which rests on exploitation of the nominally free labour of others, i.e., on wage labour. As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital…” Here, again, the existence of a proletarian class depends on the social relations of production, not a subjective consciousness per se.The most curious bit of course is in the chapter on classes in Capital, Vol. III, where he sets out the objective definition of class, and then the manuscript breaks off…

    1. Thanks Matthijs. I may have given the impression that objective analysis leads to Weberian stratification, but that was not what I meant. Weber of course includes the crucial role of status, a subjective factor, but he fatally introduces stratification across multiple levels. The dig about empiricist sociology was directed at Mr Burlusconi Youth, who never misses an opportunity to put me down, often with a lot of spite and viciousness (as you may have noticed – I am not sure quite why). He used to be enamoured with law and theology, but has found a ‘home’ in a form of detached sociology that derides anyone who is involved in some way (Taussig, for instance, and those who follow that approach).

      Back to class. Marx’s classic statements are in ‘The Class Struggles in France’ (1850, but with extensive notebooks beforehand) and ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire’ (1852). There you find the crucial and influential argument that the working class was truly born in the 1848 revolutions, for then they realised that their class enemy was the bourgeoisie, with whom they had shared the aspirations of ‘freedom’ until then. All manner of objective conditions were obviously in place, but this moment of subjective awareness is the vital moment. This insight was taken up and developed in Lukacs’s stunning ‘History and Class Consciousness’, but you will find it appearing in many of Lukacs’s works.

      If you stick with objective criteria, you end up with the facile debates over rich and poor, haves and have-nots, etc. This stuff appears, for instance, in accusations by Fox that Obama is stirring up class war by mentioning such terms.

      In China, many of the objective conditions are in place, with people mimicking bourgeois life-styles (flash cars, expensive homes, international holidays). At the same time, I have met many people who complain about corruption at various levels. They ask me, ‘what about Australia? What do you think of your government?’ I say, ‘Oh, they’re corrupt, self-serving, an embarrassment’. And they laugh. But there is no clear class enemy as the defining feature of the class. Japan and the USA are the most common ‘enemies’ mentioned, but not another class. I should say that I meet even more people who feel that the form of government they have in China is far preferable to the standing joke of ‘liberal democracy’ that is touted by anyone from Julia Gillard to Hilary Clinton.

      1. I agree with you about China– what you say is pretty much what I’ve experienced.

        A big problem for me when it comes to thinking about class consciousness is capitalism’s compatibility as a mode of production with social relations of production that are not straightforwardly capitalist– Saudi Arabia and Brunei are quasi-feudal, there’s its compatibility with fascism (Pinochet’s Chile), slavery (the US plantation South before the Civil War), serfdom (as in the indentured labour systems the British introduced in countries where slavery could not be instituted (sugar plantations in Fiji, rubber plantations in Malaya), …. There is a relation between exploiter and exploited in all these cases, clearly, but it’s not obvious that one or the other or both constitute an exploiting/exploited class.

      2. Regarding Fox accusing Obama of ‘class warfare’ (a joke really, given all that Obama has done for Wall St), George Bernard Shaw got it right: ‘the poor preach class war, the rich practise it’.

      3. The situation is analogous to the Roman Empire, which was happy for a time to leave the mode of production of a conquered place somewhat intact, but twist it for its own benefit. Eventually, that mode of production would collapse, but it leads to a rather messy situation for anyone working on ancient economies.

        The question with China is comparable to the situation with Yugoslavia with its market socialism and the USSR adopting ‘state capitalism’ for a time (some argue, of course, that it never went past state capitalism, but I disagree, following Cockshott and Cottrell). Did capitalist economic relations end up dominating or were they controlled within a broader communist framework? Is capitalism always going to end up trumps? Lenin was very anxious that the NEP not end up like this, with all manner of measures to keep it under control. The dropping of the NEP in the late 1920s suggests that they managed.

        My sense, from talking with people in China, is that that is the crucial issue for China. Can they keep those practices and relations under control or will they end up taking over? Despite what many assume, the fact that the government remains as strong as ever suggests they may well pull it off, albeit not without mistakes and controversy.

  8. I’m trying hard to understand what you are getting at. Are you saying that at some point after 1949 the CCP was able to solve the class struggle already in operation, or that a self-conscious proletariat simply never formed because of socialist policies that guided rapid industrialization? What is the progression from revolutionary Maoism and it’s consciousness of struggle to this comparative stasis? And what is the relation of the children of party members who attend Harvard business school and drive Ferraris to what you term “their unique experiment”.

    I hope I don’t sound trollish. I like your blog very much (there should be more of the combo of cycling and communism in this world) and am interested in this perspective.

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