On State Capitalism

The following is the fourth part of the lecture on why foreign scholars are as yet unable to understand China’s socialist market economy. It deals with ‘state capitalism’, which is probably the most widely used term in both Marxist and non-Marxist traditions. As will become clear, what they mean differs considerably.

By 2008’s Atlantic financial crisis, or what is now called ‘The Great Recession’, the neoliberal project effectively came to an end. Since then, it has been in retreat, to the consternation of the true believers. The WTO is no longer setting the agenda in the way it used to do, for it is being changed from within, the ability of the United States to coerce others is in noticeable decline, the United States and Europe no longer see eye to eye, and a series of alternative international structures have gained significant influence, such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Belt and Road Initiative. How to make sense of these developments? On the back foot, more and more neoliberal true believers have begun once again to speak of the spread of ‘state capitalism’, with dire warnings as to its effects. By state capitalism they mean that the state is a large and influential corporation in its own right, a business enterprise and indeed core component that controls significant parts of a capitalist market economy.

But I have leapt ahead of myself, for the terminology of ‘state capitalism’ was developed mostly in the Marxist tradition, particularly in Lenin’s hands. The term itself may be older, used in relation to Bismarck’s project in Germany, but it is from the Marxist tradition that its most sophisticated sense arose. So let us consider Lenin’s contribution, after which I analyse a number of different paths that arose after Lenin.

Towards the end of his life, Lenin used ‘state capitalism’ on quite a number of occasions (Lenin 1918 [1965]-b, 1918 [1969]-b, 1918 [1965]-a, 1918 [1969]-a, 1921 [1965]-a, 1921 [1970]-a), but the fullest statement may be found in the key work, ‘The Tax in Kind’ (Lenin 1921 [1965]-b, 1921 [1970]-b). Lenin argued that in light of the sheer devastation and economic collapse caused by the First World War and the Civil War, as well as the very premature state of socialism in Russia, a measure of private enterprise was necessary to get the economy moving again. Peasants could sell the grain left over after paying the ‘tax in kind’, small private light-scale industry could be established, and concessions and leases would be given to foreign capitalist enterprises. All of this would entail the extraordinary dialectical point of building socialism through capitalism, or of private capital helping socialism.[1] How so? It would enable the initial impetus for the ‘development of the productive forces’ (Lenin 1921 [1965]-b, 342-43, 345-46).

Of course, Lenin had to overcome ‘left-wing’ opposition to do so, making two crucial points. First, he mapped out a process of transition, since it was not possible to move from a backward, imperialist situation immediately to full-blown socialism. Thus, he envisaged a series of transitions, from petty-bourgeois capitalism (and later from ‘War Communism’), through state capitalism, to socialism itself, during which elements of capitalism would remain.[2] Or, as he puts it more simply, from capitalism, through state capitalism, to socialism. Second, it all depends on the over-arching socio-economic and political system. His two examples are Germany (after Bismarck’s reforms) and Russia after the October Revolution. In Germany, this ‘state capitalism’ was firmly in the hands of ‘Junker-bourgeois imperialism’; by contrast, in Russia the socialist system already emerging was the key, with the nature of the socialist state and the proletarian dictatorship playing the major roles. Thus, argued Lenin, it would be highly advisable to learn from the German model and locate it within the Russian socialist system.

What has been the fate of Lenin’s insights? Four paths may be identified. First, some Western Marxists have sought to use ‘state capitalism’ to speak of socialist countries, albeit without acknowledging Lenin’s careful development of the idea. Thus, they have applied ‘state capitalism’ to both the Soviet Union and China in a purely negative sense. They do by ignoring Lenin’s key insights and understand ‘state capitalism’ as a system – with its new ‘bourgeoisie’ as exploiters – that is diametrically at odds with socialism, let alone communism (Cliff 1948 (2003); Pannekoek 1937; Norman 1955; Crump and Buick 1986; James 1986; Weil 1996, 26-27; Hooper 2017). Common to these works is a Western ‘betrayal narrative’, trying to find some moment when the Marxist tradition was ‘betrayed’ (see more below).

Intriguingly (and this is the second path), they also come close to a more recent group of non-Marxist scholars, who have begun to use ‘state capitalism’ in relation to a significant number of countries – including socialist ones – that have either refused or turned away from neoliberal approaches. In more detail, they see state capitalism as significant and long-term ‘intervention’ of the state in ‘the market’, by which they mean an entity separate from society and the state. They are also fond of using tired old categories, such as the opposition between ‘autocratic’ and bourgeois ‘democratic’, inefficient and efficient, so that state capitalism means inefficient ‘authoritarian’ capitalism and is contrasted with efficient ‘free-market’ capitalism. It should be no surprise that they see the spread of such state capitalism as a threat and hope to identify its shortcomings. Although they often focus on China as a favoured example (Haley and Haley 2013; MacDonald and Lemco 2015, 43-69; Naughton and Tsai 2015; Kurlantzick 2016; Chen 2015; Hundt and Uttam 2016, 189-220), this type of ‘state capitalism’ in certainly not restricted to China. The number identified is relatively large, whether one offers an analysis of the current situation or takes a historical perspective. In terms of the current context, the list includes most countries in East Asia, Central Asia, more and more Latin American and African countries, Russia and some Scandinavian countries. Historical surveys like to begin with modern state forms in Europe after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, and then identify various forms of state capitalist ‘intervention’ in mercantilism, European colonialism, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the welfare state in Europe (especially Scandinavia), many post-colonial states in Africa and Asia, and the Asian economic rise in the last 30 years or so, with particular focus on Singapore and South Korea (Kurlantzick 2016, 49-63; see also MacDonald and Lemco 2015, 17-42). One does begin to wonder whether ‘state capitalism’ has become a catch-all category that can be applied to all states to a greater or lesser degree.[3] Ultimately, this tendency is less of a problem than the fundamentally flawed assumptions and its oppositions – state versus market, autocracy versus bourgeois democracy, efficiency and inefficiency – that arise from the Western European liberal tradition, a tradition that has for too long seen the rest of the world in its own image. Unable to think outside this tradition, unable to seek truth from facts, they have resorted to the category of ‘state capitalism’ to try to understand the global shifts that became apparent in 2008.

Third, a few foreign Marxist scholars have continued to use the term, and to their credit they do so through careful engagement with Lenin and the New Economic Policy (which ran for almost a decade in the 1920s). More specifically, they propose that China’s Reform and Opening Up is a longer version, developed in terms of specific conditions, of the NEP (Kenny 2007). This brings us to the fourth direction arising from Lenin’s work, concerning which I need to mention Chinese scholarship. These scholars have pointed out that part of the inspiration for Deng Xiaoping’s breakthrough with the Reform and Opening Up was precisely Lenin’s New Economic Policy (Yang and Li 1998; Le 2000; Wang 2001; Tao 2008).[4] But there is one very important feature of this argument concerning the influence on Deng Xiaoping: the scholars in question rarely, if ever, use the term ‘state capitalism’. Let me put it this way: as we look back after a century, we can see certain shortcomings in Lenin’s approach. Notably, he assumed that private enterprise and market exchange were by definition capitalist, while public ownership and a planned economy were necessarily socialist. We now know that this is not the case, for market economies have existed under many different – and non-capitalist – conditions (as Marx already argued in his analysis of ancient Greece (Marx 1894 [1998], 588-605; 1894 [2004], 583-99)). At the same time, Lenin did make the crucial point that everything depends on the underlying system within which a market economy works. But in order to understand how this point remains relevant, we need to clarify the terms. Lenin called this ‘state capitalism’, in light of the evidence and knowledge available at the time, especially from Germany. But in light of subsequent historical research and current experience, especially in China, it would be better to speak of a market economy as a component of a larger socialist system (Huang 1994). Let me emphasise that this point is not made by foreign scholars, since they tend not to use Chinese sources for their work.

To sum up, state capitalism has an intriguing and complex history, with its initial development in the Marxist tradition through Lenin, its subsequent misuse by a number of Western Marxists in relation to the Soviet Union and China, its redeployment (without knowledge of the Marxist tradition) to try and understand the turn away from the neoliberal project, its Leninist sense by a small number of Marxists in relation to China, and then Chinese scholarship that fully acknowledges Lenin’s influence on Deng Xiaoping but then takes his insights a significant step further.

Bibliography

Chen, Zongshi. 2015. The Revival, Legitimization, and Development of Private Enterprise in China: Empowering State Capitalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cliff, Tony. 1948 (2003). ‘The Nature of Stalinist Russia’. In Marxist Theory After Trotsky, Selected Writings, Vol. 3, 1-138. London: Boomarks.

Crump, John, and Adam Buick. 1986. State Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management. New York: St. Martin’s.

Deng, Xiaoping. 1985 [1993]. ‘Reform is the Only Way for China to Develop Its Productive Forces’. In Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 3, 140-43. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

———. 1985 [2008]. ‘Gaige shi zhongguo fazhan shengchanli de biyouzhilu (1985.08.28)’. In Deng Xiaoping Wenxuan, Vol. 3, 136-40. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.

Haley, Usha, and George Haley. 2013. Subsidies to Chinese Industry: State Capitalism, Business Strategy, and Trade Policy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hooper, Michael. 2017. ‘Opposite Directions: The NEP and China’s Opening and Reform’. Australian Marxist Review: Journal of the Communist Party of Australia 64 (April).

Huang, Nansen. 1994. ‘Shehuizhuyi shichang jingji lilun de zhexue jichu’. Makesizhuyi yu xianshi 1994.11.15:1-6.

Hundt, David, and Jitendra Uttam. 2016. Varieties of Capitalism in Asia: Beyond the Developmental State. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

James, C.L.R. 1986. State Capitalism and World Revolution. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr.

Kenny, Thomas. 2007. ‘Lessons for the “Socialist Market Economy” of People’s China from the Soviet “New Economic Policy”‘. Nature, Society & Thought 20 (1):80-90.

Kurlantzick, Joshua. 2016. State Capitalism: How the Return of Statism is Transforming the World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Le, Chengyao. 2000. ‘Dengxiaoping lilun shi dui liening xin jingji zhengce de jicheng he chaoyue’. Ningxia dangxiao xuebao 2000 (3):11-16.

Lenin, V.I. 1918 [1965]-a. ‘”Left-Wing” Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality’. In Collected Works, Vol. 27, 323-54. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1918 [1965]-b. ‘Session of the All-Russia C.E.C., April 29, 1918’. In Collected Works, Vol. 27, 279-313. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1918 [1969]-a. ‘O “levom” rebiachestve i o melkoburzhuaznosti’. In Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, Vol. 36, 283-314. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury.

———. 1918 [1969]-b. ‘Zasedanie VTSIK 29 aprelia 1918 g’. In Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, Vol. 36, 239-76. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury.

———. 1921 [1965]-a. ‘Report on the Tax in Kind Delivered at a Meeting of Secretaries and Responsible Representatives of R.C.P.(B.) Cells of Moscow and Moscow Gubernia, April 9, 1921’. In Collected Works, Vol. 32, 286-98. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1921 [1965]-b. ‘The Tax in Kind (The Significance of the New Economic Policy and Its Conditions)’. In Collected Works, Vol. 32, 329-65. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1921 [1970]-a. ‘Doklad o prodovolʹstvennom naloge na sobranii sekretareĭ i otvetstvennykh predstaviteleĭ iacheek rkp(b) g. moskvy i moskovskoĭ gubernii 9 aprelia 1921 g’. In Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, Vol. 43, 146-61. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury.

———. 1921 [1970]-b. ‘O prodovolʹstvennom naloge (Znachenie novoĭ politiki i ee usloviia)’. In Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, Vol. 43, 205-45. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury.

Lüthi, Lorenz. 2010. ‘Sino-Soviet Relations during the Mao Years, 1949–1969’. In China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949–Present, edited by Thomas Bernstein, 27-60. Lanham: Lexington.

MacDonald, Scott, and Jonathan Lemco. 2015. State Capitalism’s Uncertain Future. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Marx, Karl. 1894 [1998]. ‘Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 37. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1894 [2004]. ‘Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Dritter Band. Hamburg 1894’. In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. II:15. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Naughton, Barry, and Kellee Tsai. 2015. State Capitalism, Institutional Adaptation, and the Chinese Miracle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Norman, David. 1955. Marx and Soviet Reality. London: Batchworth.

Pannekoek, Anton. 1937. ‘State Capitalism and Dictatorship’. International Council Correspondence 3 (1):8-16.

Tao, Lin. 2008. ‘Liening de xin jingji zhengce jiqi shidai jiazhi xin tan—jian lun qi dui deng xiaoping lilun de yingxiang’. Ha’erbin xueyuan xuebao 2008 (4):11-18.

Wang, Lirong. 2001. ‘Liening de “xin jingji zhengce” he dengxiaoping lilun zhi bijiao’. Zhongnan caijing daxue xuebao 2001 (5):13-16.

Weil, Robert. 1996. Red Cat, White Cat. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Yang, Chengxun, and Zhusi Li. 1998. ‘Dengxiaoping lilun dui liening xin jingji zhengce sixiang de jicheng he fazhan’. Makesizhuyi yu xianshi 1998 (5):12-17.

[1] It was in ‘The Tax in Kind’ – as noted earlier – that Lenin subsumed his earlier usage of ‘state monopoly capitalism’.

[2] In an insightful section, Lenin identifies the many components present in Russia at the time, in which petty-bourgeois production (mainly peasants with their patriarchal tendencies) and private capitalists were at war with a coalition between state capitalism and socialism (Lenin 1921 [1965]-b, 331; 1921 [1970]-b, 207). Indeed, Lenin argued frequently that many aspects of approaches first developed under capitalism would also have a proper function under socialism: ‘Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science. It is inconceivable without planned state organisation which keeps tens of millions of people to the strictest observance of a unified standard in production and distribution. We Marxists have always spoken of this’ (Lenin 1921 [1965]-b, 334; 1921 [1970]-b, 210).

[3] Earlier, I noted the effort by Kurlantzick to limit the meaning of state capitalism in terms of an implicit state monopoly capitalism.

[4] Deng Xiaoping hints at this influence in 1985: ‘What, after all, is socialism? The Soviet Union has been building socialism for so many years and yet is still not quite clear what it is. Perhaps Lenin had a good idea when he adopted the New Economic Policy’ (Deng 1985 [1993], 143; 1985 [2008], 140). Apparently, Zhou Enlai had advocated learning from the NEP already in the 1950s (Lüthi 2010, 36).

Codes and Conspiracies, or, Trying to Understand the Infantile Disorder of ‘Left-Wing’ Communism

From time to time, I try to understand those who believe that China has made or is still making a transition from socialism to capitalism. Earlier, I explored the orientalist dimensions of this belief, as well as the reliance on a ‘betrayal narrative’, but here I would like to focus on the need to rely on codes. In brief: all of the statements by the CPC, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, function as a code. They say one thing but actually mean something else. So what one needs is the key to the code, after which one can set to work deciphering the various statements.

What is the key to this code? According to those who believe in the code, the key is a conspiracy: from Deng Xiaoping onwards a vast conspiracy has been unfolding, which is nothing less than the transition from socialism to capitalism. I will not go into the details here as to why this conspiracy theory arose, based as it was on selected interpretation of events in the 1980s and even 1990s. Instead, I am interested in how the need for a code arises from the conspiracy theory.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through a few examples.

There are more obvious examples, such as the hypothesis that the ‘reform and opening up’ (celebrating 40 years in 2018) is not so much the necessary process of reform after a communist revolution (already clear from Lenin’s work), but simply a code for the passage to capitalism. Or the ‘socialist market economy’ is a coded way of speaking about capitalism with government ‘interference’ – neglecting the historical fact that a capitalist market economy is only one form of market economies.

But there are some more intriguing examples. To begin with, Deng Xiaoping famously said that if one wishes to cross a river, one must feel each stone on the river bed at a time with one’s feet. The obvious meaning of this statement is that the passage to socialism, and then communism, requires careful attention to each problem, each fact, which requires analysis and solution. But no, for those who believe in the conspiracy theory, he was speaking in a code: crossing a river entails going from one bank to another. Since China was socialist at one point, they believe, the other bank must be capitalism. A bit of a stretch, given that Deng made it clear China was in the preliminary stage of socialism.

More recently – 2017 at the nineteenth congress of the CPC – Xi Jinping famously announced a new primary contradiction that would guide government policy. This contradiction is between uneven and unequal development and the people’s desire for a better life (meihua shenghuo). Apart from drawing straight out of Mao Zedong’s major essay, ‘On Contradiction’, Comrade Xi made it clear that a ‘better life’ meant not only a ‘moderately prosperous society (xiaokang shehui)’ by 2020, but a ‘strong modern socialist country’ by 2050, which would be achieved through socialist modernisation. At the core of all this is Marxist political economy and the construction of socialism.

But what do our conspiracy theorists make of this? The desire for a ‘better life’ is a code for the full transition to capitalism.

Now we come the obvious problem of this use of a code. The more Xi Jinping makes Marxism central to China’s project, the harder one must work to fit it all into the code. Anomalies appear, much thought is devoted to working the many pieces into the code … so much so that even doctoral theses are devoted to deciphering the code (outside China). A waste of energy.

I am reminded of someone who taught me biblical languages many, many years ago. She believed that the New Testament was a massive code that really talked about specific events at the Qumran community (which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, as many hold). I recall her coming into class on some days full of excitement: she had cracked another part of the code that had been bothering her. Do not get me wrong: she taught me Hebrew, Syriac and Coptic very well indeed. The discussions about her code-cracking were held around the edges of class time. But the experience has made me acutely aware of how much time and energy people devote to deciphering codes after they have believed in a core conspiracy.

All of which brings me back to Lenin and his great booklet from 1920, ‘“Left-Wing” Communism – An Infantile Disorder’. Lenin’s immediate target may have been different, but the problem persists. Stalin faced the problem, as did Mao, Deng and indeed Xi Jinping today. Among the international Left one can find such ‘left-wing’ communists from time to time and they are keen to find the occasional person in China who is happy to pander to their desires. I find it both a lazy approach and one that faces immense problems to sustain not only the great conspiracy, but also to need to believe in a vast code that they must constantly seek to reinforce.

Narratives of Betrayal: A ‘Western’ Trope

A characteristic feature of European-derived, or North Atlantic[1] approaches to communism is the narrative of betrayal: at some point, a communist revolution was betrayed by someone, betrayed itself, ran into the mud, ‘failed’.

I was first struck by this narrative some years ago when I was working intensely on Lenin.[2] And it was inescapable in much of the secondary literature when I was engaging deeply with Stalin.[3] Recently, it has struck me once again while delving into the theory and practice of the socialist state. Let me be clear: the betrayal narrative is one found mostly in European-derived traditions. Although Marxists in these parts are fond of the narrative, it is also common among liberals and conservatives. One can find stray examples other parts of the world too, in the mouths of one or two who have been unduly influenced by this narrative. In what follows, I outline some examples of the narrative, before turning to consider the closely related dimension of pristine origins.

Betrayals, Betrayals Everywhere

If you hold to this type of story, a betrayal can be found almost everywhere you look. The initial example is that Engels betrayed Marx. Being of lesser intellect and not adequately trained – or so the story goes – Engels did not understand Marx. So Engels ‘glossed’ and ‘distorted’ what Marx said, especially in work that he produced on his own or after Marx’s death. It may have been Engels’s immense efforts in editing the second and third volumes of Capital, or his Dialectics of Nature (1873-82) and Anti-Dühring (1877-78) from which Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) was drawn. Thus, the editing efforts botched Marx’s work, while the effort to extend dialectical materialism into the natural sciences was fatally flawed. Given the profound influence of Anti-Dühring on the subsequent tradition – every Marxist of the second and third generations studied this text closely – that tradition was impossibly betrayed at the hand of Engels. It is relatively easy to refute this narrative, but this is not my task here.

Lenin’s putative betrayal is more contested ground, with some seeing Lenin as a purveyor of distorted Marxism from the beginning, others that Lenin betrayed the revolution after October 1917, or that Stalin was responsible for the betrayal. But what is meant by ‘betrayal’ in this case? Let me take the example of Lenin’s betrayal of himself, for this is consistent with the role of Stalin in this case. According to this story, Lenin held to some form of ‘democratic’ position, envisaging the soviets as versions of the Paris commune. The model may have been updated and reshaped a little in light of circumstances, but it held to ‘democratic participation’ by workers and peasants at local and national levels, open and free-wheeling debate within the communist party, and would form the basis of socialism after the revolution. However, what happened very rapidly was an authoritarian move, hollowing out the soviets in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat, if not replacing the proletarian dictatorship with the dictatorship of the party. In short, Lenin moved from a ‘democratic’ commune model to an authoritarian approach. Stalin merely carried this through to its logical conclusion. The examples could be multiplied: economically, ‘state capitalism’ was gradually introduced, a global revolution was abandoned for the sake of socialism in one country, the ‘withering away of the state’ was replaced with an authoritarian state characterised by the secret police, the self-determination of minority nationalities turned into their forced assimilation, and so on. The only difference is where one draws the line, whether within Lenin’s own thought and practice or between Lenin and Stalin. The latter is, of course, the one who began to be systematically demonised not long after he died.[4]

These days, I am most interested in the way a betrayal narrative has been constructed and is now assumed by many in the case of Chinese socialism. I am less interested in the hypothesis that Mao betrayed Marxism himself, whether because he took over unreconstructed Soviet Marxism of the 1930s or whether he did so of his own initiative. I am more interested in how the betrayal narrative has been deployed by self-confessed ‘Maoists’ and how this has influenced a wider misperception from conservatives to radicals.

According to this version, Mao was indeed a true communist, developing a breath-taking version adapted for Chinese conditions. The culmination of Mao’s vision was the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here was full collectivisation, public property, equality in pay and even clothes, idealism, the beginnings of socialist culture …. However, waiting in the wings was Deng Xiaoping, the ‘capitalist roader’. Rising high, deposed, then returning on Mao’s death and dispensing with the ‘Gang of Four’, Deng began – so it is asserted – the process of turning China from a socialist country into a capitalist one. All of this is embodied in the ‘reform and opening up’ from 1979. And Deng began the process of using coded language to indicate the shift: ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was and is a code for rampant capitalism; a ‘socialist market economy’ does equal service; ‘core socialist values’ means liberalism. All this was extremely clever, it is suggested, since the CPC could not give up on the rhetoric of Marxism, so it emptied Marxism of any meaning (perhaps replacing it with nationalism. The purpose: to keep the CPC firmly in power.

This story continues: subsequent presidents – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – played the same game. Now we find the destruction of the ‘iron rice bowl’ (Chinese welfare state), the rise of a ‘middle class’, the ‘suppression’ of the working class – all with a nod and wink while speaking of Marxism. And Xi Jinping has produced his own collection of terms: the ‘Chinese Dream’, the ‘two centenary goals’ and revitalised the term ‘moderately prosperous’ society, all the while clamping down on ‘dissent’ and ‘freedom of speech’ to enhance his hold on power. A communist party has – according to this spectacular story – enabled the transition not from capitalism to socialism, but from socialism to capitalism.

The pieces of this narrative have been laid carefully for two or three decades, trading on half-truths, wilful ignorance and sheer twisting of the facts. Apart from the fact that it faces enormous difficulties in understanding the role of Marxism in Chinese socialism, all the way from culture and education, through society and politics, to economics, it usually entails a pre-judgement that means one does not even need to bother with Marxism as such in China. After all, no-one ‘believes’ in it anymore, do they?

As a final sample of this narrative of betrayal, let me return to Marx. In this case, it is the younger humanistic Marx who betrays the older scientific one. How so? It begins with the late publication of some key materials from the young Marx, such as ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’ in 1927, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ in 1932, and The German Ideology, co-authored with Engels, in 1932. Here is a younger, more ‘humanistic’ Marx, which led and continues to lead some to emphasise this dimension of his thought as a counter to ‘Scientific Socialism’ (whether of the Soviet Union or in other forms). In response, Althusser in particular has argued that this earlier material – published later – was not the true Marx, who is to be found in his later, scientific works. This would have to be the most intriguing betrayal narrative of all, since it operates in reverse.

Pristine Origins

As I have already indicated, I focus here neither on how these specific accounts face immense hurdles on closer scrutiny, nor the motivation for them, but on the nature of the narrative of betrayal itself. Two points are relevant.

First, the story has profound resonances with the biblical story of the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Here a ‘paradise’ – if somewhat flawed due to the forbidden tree(s) – is lost due to the wilful disobedience of the first human beings. Initially, it was a southwest Asian story that has overlaps with others from the same part of the world, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but it eventually became a crucial story in European culture. The story in its biblical form has a distinct political setting, providing the eventual justification for a form of governance (monarchy) and control of wayward human beings (Thomas Hobbes comes to mind as an influential later version of this account). But it has come to be seen in much wider terms, speaking of the human condition, characterised by a mythical account of disobedience, sin and betrayal of an original ideal impulse. In this form, it became part of the wider foundations for European-derived cultures, shaping cultural assumptions, the nature of thought processes, if not historical reconstructions even of the modern variety. Thus, the narrative of Genesis, European assumptions concerning human nature, the way history is so often reconstructed, as well as narratives concerning Marxism seem to have a remarkably similar pattern.

Second and related, the account of betrayal trades on a notion of pristine origins. Time and again, I have found that a purveyor of one or another version of the story assumes a distinct idea of what socialism should be (never what actually exists). They base this idea on some texts of Marx. I write ‘some’ deliberately, for the texts selected form a ‘canon within the canon’: favoured texts that are meant to express the core of Marx’s position. Thus, socialism (which Marx did not distinguish from communism) appears in the Paris commune, concerning which Marx waxed lyrical in ‘The Civil War in France’ (1871). Here workers devolved the functions of parliament, army, police and judiciary to workers’ bodies that were directly elected and subject to recall. The commune was decentralised, removed repression and did away with the ‘state’. Or one may invoke parts of ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, especially in the higher stage of communism, when economic exploitation is removed, classes disappear, even divisions between town and country, if not between mental and physical labour, so that the biblically-derived communist slogan applies: ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’.

Once you have these original and authentic definitions of socialism and/or communism, you can make an easy connection with a betrayal narrative.[5] Before a revolution, or perhaps for a while afterwards, the revolutionaries held to the ideal – think of Lenin in particular, but also Mao. But soon enough, they gave up on the ideal. It may have been force of circumstances, or a turn in the face of imminent failure, or simply a weakness of will. And if Lenin or Mao did not do so themselves, then Stalin or Deng were responsible for overturning the socialist ideal and destroying it. The outcome: socialism has never been realised as yet, for the true moment still awaits us.

Once again, this search for and latching onto a notion of pristine origins has resonances with Christian thought and practice. In this case, the authentic moment may be found somewhere in the biblical texts, preferably in the words of Jesus himself (the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is a favoured location). Soon enough, these words and the community they envisaged was adulterated and betrayed. Here the line can be drawn at almost any point: between Jesus and the early church (the Apostle Paul); between the form of the early Christian community and the later betrayal by the institutional church; between the doctrine of justification by faith through grace and the doctrine of salvation by works …

The problem here is that one can find justification for a number of positions in the texts, for these texts are not uniform. So one has to choose some texts, downgrade or ignore the others that contradict one’s choice and then criticise those who latch onto precisely these downgraded texts. The history of Christianity reveals this process again and again. A group or a spokesperson emerges, argues that the institution as it exists has betrayed and sullied the original impulse, and begins a process of reform in the name of an authentic and original ideal based on a selection of texts. Sometimes, these movements were contained and channelled within the institution (think of the medieval orders in the Roman Catholic Church or monastic renewal in the Eastern Orthodox Church). At other times, they were brutally repressed and crushed, as many a radical religious movement in the European Middle Ages. And at other times, due to wider cultural, social and economic shifts, the reform effort became a whole new and enduring movement. The Protestant Reformation is the most notable example.

The analogies with European-derived Marxism should be obvious, if not the struggles between the varieties of socialist, communist and anarchist movements today (as Engels already noted in his ‘On the History of Early Christianity’ from 1895). But we can find it also among non-Marxists and even anti-Marxists. They too assume a certain definition of an ideal socialism, usually based on the very same texts used by Marxists, and then use those to dismiss the actual efforts to construct socialism.

Alternatives

I have focused on European-derived, or ‘Western’ Marxism due to its preference for betrayal narratives and ideas of pristine origins. It can also be found in Russian Marxism, given the comparable cultural dynamics of that part of the world (think of the long-running struggle between Stalin and Trotsky and what their names have come to signify).

Are there alternative approaches that may well do better than the one I have been analysing? Recently, I was having one of my many discussions with a Chinese comrade and we came to the topic in question. In fact, these reflections arose in part from that discussion. She is fully aware of the narrative of betrayal, having devoted much of her working life to studying ‘Western’ Marxism. But she also admitted to not understanding it; or rather, she finds it difficult to understand how it can make sense of actual tradition. Instead, she prefers a process of clarification of previously obscure or unresolved points in each subsequent development. Is that a more Chinese approach? I wondered. Yes, it is, she affirmed. How do mistakes arise, or is every statement a clarification? Mistakes do arise, such as when there is an effort to turn back the clock, to reassert an older and more obscure position that has subsequently been clarified. Or perhaps if someone moves to undermine and dispense with Marxism itself.

I am still working out the implications of this clarifying approach, particularly if it can also incorporate the following possibilities. One is to argue for interpretation in the spirit, rather than the letter of Marxism. Or: instead of invoking the letter of the original text and judging all in its light, one sees Marxism as a method for dealing with every new situation. As Lenin, Stalin and Mao were fond of saying, Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action.

The other approach is related but takes a different approach. Changing historical circumstances produce new problems that must be analysed and solved in new ways. These problems did not face Marx or Engels, while other problems did not face subsequent leaders. The circumstances have been and are many, ranging from unforeseen economic problems, through the development of policies in relation to minority nationalities, to what a socialist culture might actually be. Perhaps the two main changes in circumstances turn on the question of power. Marx and Engels were never in a position to exercise power after a successful communist revolution (as they well knew), so most of the developments in relation to socialism in power had to deal with issues that they simply had not experienced and could not foresee. And none of the previous experiences of socialism in power has prepared us for the moment when China becomes not merely the most powerful socialist country in human history (it already is), but the most powerful economic, political and cultural force in the world.

[1] Or ‘Western’, but this term is loose and impossible-to-pin-down. Chinese has an ideal term, meiou, using the first character for the USA (meiguo) and for Europe (ouzhou), but this is impossible to render into English, except perhaps as ‘Euro-American’. Even this term loses the specificity of the USA and replaces it with a term for the two continents of South and North America.

[2] See especially Roland Boer, “Before October: The Unbearable Romanticism of Western Marxism,”  Monthly Review Magazine(2011), http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/boer081011.html; Roland Boer, “The ‘Failure’ of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative,”  Philosophers for Change(2014), http://philosophersforchange.org/2014/10/28/the-failure-of-communism-a-fall-narrative.

[3] Roland Boer, Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power  (Beijing: Springer, 2017).

[4] Domenico Losurdo, Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera  (Rome: Carocci editore, 2008).

[5] This search for origins can also be manifested in the whole dynamic of ‘revisionism’ in Marxism itself (I have heard the charge levelled at someone only recently and with some vigour).

Different ways to interpret the Marxist tradition

In recent discussion in China, I have become more aware of different ways the Marxist tradition can be interpreted. You can take any core feature, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the distinction between socialism and communism, the nature of the socialist state, and many more.

For example, Marx uses the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ 11 times, where he means a coercive force of the state that crushes class opponents. This is in tension with his treatments of the Paris commune, where he praises the diminishment of state power and its continuance only as apparatus. Engels, by contrast, does not use dictatorship of the proletariat, but coins the phrase (only in 1894), the dying or ‘withering away of the state’. Lenin develops the argument further, distinguishing between two phases, the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the state’s withering. He pushes this into a distant future, but Stalin argues that it would take place only after global communism had been achieved and communism had become second nature – which may take 1000 years or more. And in Chinese Marxism, dictatorship of the proletariat becomes ‘democratic dictatorship’ in Mao’s hands and then ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ with Deng Xiaoping, now as an inclusive category operating in terms of non-antagonistic contradictions.

What about socialism and communism? This distinction is not in Marx and Engels. Only in the late notes, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, does Marx distinguish an initial stage of communism and a further stage. He leaves open the possibility of more. Lenin then distinguishes these as socialism and communism, with socialism still bearing many features, such as state, classes, law and so on. Only with communism will the earlier prescriptions of Marxism begin to appear. Stalin takes this further, pushing communism into a very distant future, while socialism has a strong multi-national state, tensions between forces and relations of production continue, people are rewarded according to work, equalisation (a petty-bourgeois idea) has no place, and the state’s domestic responsibilities, affirmative action and fostering of anti-colonial struggles play huge roles. In a Chinese situation, they take an even longer view, with the preliminary stage of socialism lasting 100 years, after which a next stage emerges, the moderately prosperous, peaceful and stable society. During this process, a whole spate of new approaches emerge.

How do we interpret these developments? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A narrative of betrayal. Engels betrays Marx; Lenin betrays Marx and Engels; Stalin betrays all of the former; Mao betrays them; Deng betrays Mao … Pick your place, but betrayal of Marxism happens at some point. I find this approach quite common among ‘western’ Marxists.
  2. Continuity, sometimes radical. A smaller number take this line, arguing that all of the ideas found in Stalin, Mao or Deng have precursors in the Marxist tradition.
  3. Clarification. Each stage of the tradition and each of its different branches constitutes a clarification of some idea or practice that was not so clear before. This is a more common Chinese approach.
  4. Changing historical circumstances, which may be connected with the first or third approach. Obviously, specific circumstances, cultural histories, political realities and so on produce new problems, which require new solutions. This is what the Chinese call ‘seeking truth from facts’ (drawn from Mao).
  5. The differences between socialism seeking power and socialism in power. As Lenin and Mao pointed out repeatedly, winning a revolution is relatively easy; infinitely more complex is the effort to construct socialism. This is obviously connected with the fourth point, but plays a crucial role.

Can a religious person join the communist party?

Can a religious person join the communist party?

One would expect that the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Is not Marxism a materialist philosophy and political movement, with no time for the mystifying effects of religion or indeed for reactionary religious institutions? The catch is that communist parties around the world have actually permitted religious people to join and be members.

Let us go back to the First International. It was accused by the reactionary right and indeed by former comrades of requiring atheism for its members. On the other side, the anarchists wanted the International to declare itself atheist, abolish cults and replace faith with science. What was the response of Marx and Engels? While Marx asserted that he was an atheist,[1] he made it quite clear that the International itself did not make atheism a prerequisite for membership – ‘As if one could declare by royal decree abolition of faith!’[2] As for Engels, he repeatedly pointed out that anyone who suggests that the International ‘wants to make atheism compulsory’ is simply guilty of a lie.[3]

Why did they take this position? The first reason was that they saw religion as a secondary phenomenon, arising from alienated socio-economic conditions. Any direct attack on religion would divert the movement from its main task. Second, ‘atheism, as the mere negation of, and referring only to, religion, would itself be nothing without it and is thus itself another religion’.[4] The third reason is that they would simply be copying a bourgeois anti-religious program, which would – and this is the fourth reason – split the workers from the prime task of overcoming socio-economic oppression.

The Second International took an even more explicit position. It followed the Erfurt Program of 1891, of the German Social-Democrats: ‘Declaration that religion is a private matter [Erklärung der Religion zur Privatsache]’.[5] A key question debated at the time was whether a priest or minister could join the party: the answer was yes, but if the minister found the party program conflicted with his own positions, then that was a matter for him to resolve.

Even the far Left that became the Spartacus Group in Germany held to this position. For example, Rosa Luxemburg asserted in Socialism and the Churches from 1905:

The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience [Gewissen] and personal opinion [Überzeugung] as being sacred. Everyone is free to hold whatever faith and whatever opinions will ensure his happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. Thus say the Social-Democrats.[6]

Perhaps Lenin and the Bolsheviks provide us with a clear example of demanding atheism from party members. Here too we will be disappointed, for Lenin – as a good ‘Erfurtian’ – took the position of the Erfurt Program.[7] To be sure, Lenin argued for a radical separation of church and state, and that the party must not leave religion alone in propagating its position – so that religion was also very much a public affair. Yet this did not lead Lenin to propose that party membership applications should include a question on religion and atheism. Even though a socialist may espouse a materialist worldview in which religion is but a medieval mildew, even though the party may undertake a very public and unhindered program of education against the influence of the church, and even though one hoped that the historical materialist position would persuade all of its truth, the party still did not stipulate atheism as a prerequisite for membership. Even more, no one would be excluded from party membership if he or she held to religious belief. As Lenin stated forcefully: ‘Organisations belonging to the R.S.D.L.P. have never distinguished their members according to religion, never asked them about their religion and never will’.[8]

Surely the Cuban Communist Party bans religion for its members. It did so initially, but even then many of the members professed atheism while maintaining religious observance at home. So at the fourth congress of 1991 it decided to remove ‘religious beliefs’ as an ‘obstacle’ anyone who sought to become a member. Indeed, in the Central Committee’s Report to the sixth congress of 2011, it was noted that ‘congruence between revolutionary doctrine and religious faith is rooted in the very foundations of the nation’. To back this up, a statement from none other than Fidel Castro (in 1971) was used: ‘I tell you that there are ten thousand times more coincidences of Christianity with Communism than there might be with Capitalism’.[9]

It is becoming difficult to find a communist party that requires atheism of its members – at least until we come to the Chinese Communist Party. Here at last is a party that officially bans religious belief among those seeking to become members. Indeed, in the process of becoming a member, a candidate is asked whether he or she has professed any religious beliefs. Anyone found to have done so is called upon to rectify such beliefs. According to Professor Li Yunlong, from the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, ‘Party members are banned from joining religions. Believing in communism and atheism is a basic requirement to become a Party member’.[10] At last we have a communist party that is explicitly atheist, banning aspiring members who might be otherwise.

Yet, there is a typical Chinese twist: one must be an atheist upon entry to the party, but should one become religious at a later point, then little is usually done – at least if one keeps such beliefs discreet and exercises them along officially recognised channels.

[1] ‘Record of Marx’s Interview with The World Correspondent’, 1871, MECW 22, p. 605.

[2] Marx, ‘Remarks on the Programme and Rules of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy’, 1868, MECW 21, p. 208.

[3] Engels, ’ Account of Engels’s Speech on Mazzini’s Attitude Towards the International’, 1871, MECW, p. 608.

[4] Engels, ‘Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich, London, July 1884’. 1884, MECW 47, p. 173.

[5] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Erfurt Program. In German History in Documents and Images: Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War, 1890–1918. Available at  www.germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/513_Erfurt%20Program_94.pdf.

[6] Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Walters, New York: Pathfinder, 1970, p. 132.

[7] Lenin, ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards Religion’, Collected Works 15, p. 404.

[8] Lenin, ‘Does the Jewish Proletariat Need an “Independent Political Party”?’ 1993, Collected Works 6, p. 331 fn.

[9] See http://www.cuba.dk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=229:central-report-to-the-6th-congress-of-the-communist-party-of-cuba&catid=49:politik-og-historie&Itemid=50.

[10] http://en.people.cn/n/2015/0202/c90785-8844565.html.

On being a disciple of Lenin (not Stalin)

Stalin himself was not keen on disciples, as he writes in a letter from 1926:

I object to your calling yourself “a disciple of Lenin and Stalin.” I have no disciples. Call yourself a disciple of Lenin; you have the right to do so … But you have no grounds for calling yourself a disciple of a disciple of Lenin’s. It is not true. It is out of place. (Works, vol. 9, p. 156)

Lenin and the rock of salvation

Here Lenin is compared to the ‘rock of salvation’ of Christianity:

The fact that Russia, which was formerly regarded by the oppressed nationalities as a symbol of oppression, has now, after it has become socialist, been transformed into a symbol of emancipation, cannot be called an accident. Nor is it an accident that the name of the leader of the October Revolution, Comrade Lenin, is now the most beloved name pronounced by the downtrodden, oppressed peasants and revolutionary intelligentsia of the colonial and unequal countries. In the past, the oppressed and downtrodden slaves of the vast Roman Empire regarded Christianity as a rock of salvation. We are now reaching the point where socialism may serve (and is already beginning to serve!) as the banner of liberation for the millions who inhabit the vast colonial states of imperialism (Stalin, Works, Vol. V, p. 354).

Lenin 90th anniversary of death - Red Square

Lenin and Religion 07

Soviet War Memorial – Treptower Park, Berlin

One of the more stunning parts of east Berlin is the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. It’s the main memorial to the Soviet taking of Berlin – yes, it was the Soviets who captured Berlin and put an end to Hitler’s efforts. 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the battle are buried here.

2013 April 135 (Spreeradweg)a

Designed as a whole by Yakov Belopolsky, each of the gates leads you into the central avenue:

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Your eyes are directed to the towering statue of young soldier, holding a German child while his sword rests on a broken swastika:

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What grabs me are the 16 stone sarcophagi, one each for the republics of the USSR. There are 8 on each side, flanking the central area.

2013 April 140 (Spreeradweg)a

Lenin’s here, the collective embodiment of and inspiration for the troops:

2013 April 147 (Spreeradweg)a

Stalin too is everywhere:

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Or rather, direct quotations from the man are on each of the sarcophagi. On one side they are in German, on the other in Russian:

2013 April 162 (Spreeradweg)a

Why? The ‘victory of 1945 in Europe was above all his’ (Roberts). Churchill and Roosevelt may have been dispensable and the war still won. Not so Stalin, for he was ‘indispensable to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany’. So, at the most important of war memorials in Berlin, Stalin is there to stay, inscribed in stone.

And so are plenty of communist symbols:

2013 April 172 (Spreeradweg)a

2013 April 173 (Spreeradweg)a

So if you have some time in Berlin, forget the crappy tourist spots, the sausages and the beer (well, maybe not the beer), and get yourself to Treptower Park. There’s plenty of others there as well.

What is the proper role of reform?

One might expect that Lenin would opt clearly for revolution over against reform, for an abolition of the current system over against tinkering with it in order to make life more bearable. A selective reading of Lenin’s texts can give this impression. Reform is thereby described as a “tinkering with washbasins” (characteristic of the Zemstvos), that is, introducing reliable water supply, electric trains, lighting, and other “developments” that do not threaten the foundations of the “existing social system” (CW 10: 189; LPSS 12: 263). Such reform may therefore be seen as a response by the bourgeoisie to the strength of the working class, attempting to steer the workers away from revolution by emphasizing reform. Even more, reformism is “bourgeois deception of the workers,” who will always remain wage-slaves as long as capital dominates: “The liberal bourgeoisie grant reforms with one hand, and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery” (CW 19: 372; LPSS 24: 1). In other words, reform is a bourgeois weapon designed to weaken the working class. Yet, should the foundations of the system be threatened, when the proletariat begins its own onslaught of that system, all the various dimensions of “tinkering with washbasins” will be abolished before we can slip out a fart.

It follows that those socialists who see the prime task at hand to be reform miss the elephant in the room, for they wish to alleviate the conditions under which they work and do not realize that the problem lies in those conditions themselves (CW 5: 387; LPSS 6: 42; CW 10: 378–80; LPSS 13: 62–64). As Lenin observes in relation to debates, especially with the Mensheviks, over voting in the Duma elections, the danger is not whether some conservative party or other will win the elections, by fair means or foul, but in the very elections themselves: the danger “is manifested not in the voting, but in the definition of the conditions of voting” (CW 11: 459; LPSS 14: 277–78). One should never rest with what is given, but work to change that given. And the reason is that by fighting on the ground chosen by the enemy, reformists strengthen the power of their enemy.

What, then, is the function of reform? Is it to be dismissed entirely as a bourgeois deception and as a socialist compromise with the status quo? Contrary to initial impressions, Lenin does see a clear role for reform. In a daring formulation that is based on revolutionary experience, he argues that the opposition of revolution and reform is itself false. One cannot have either one or the other; instead, the condition for reform is revolution itself. Without any revolutionary agitation, reform would simply not exist: “either revolutionary class struggle, of which reforms are always a by-product … or no reforms at all” (CW 23: 213; LPSS 30: 282). In this light, reforms may be understood as temporary reconciliation with a partial victory or even failure in which the old system has been shaken but has not yet collapsed (CW 11: 30-31; LPSS 13: 221). More importantly, reform becomes a central feature of revolutionary agitation, a means of raising the consciousness of workers and peasants, a way of both alleviating conditions in the intermediate period and of pointing out that those conditions are the problem. In this way, workers will see through the false promises of reformism and utilize reforms to strengthen their class struggle. Or, to put it simply, as Lenin recommends to public speakers and the Social-Democratic Duma representatives, “five minutes of every half-hour speech are devoted to reforms and twenty-five minutes to the coming revolution” (CW 23: 159; LPSS 30: 221).