I have spent the day reading Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing. While I am not in agreement with all his arguments, he does provide some useful insights. The key theoretical point concerns the differences between capitalist and non-capitalist market development. This should be obvious, since study of markets in the ancient world reveals that they were by-products of a state’s logistical concerns. With that in mind, he spends a good deal of time distinguishing between European and North American development (accumulation through dispossession of others) and Asian market processes, focusing on China and going back to the Ming Dynasty, where markets were mostly within states and where one can speak of a five-hundred year peace. His conclusion is that the Chinese path is a form of non-capitalist market development.

For me, the most interesting, but ultimately overly sketchy, section comes at the end, where he deals with the nature of the reform and opening up since the 1970s. He correctly characterises this period as the most significant in human history. Crucially, he stresses the continuity from the Mao era, which established the social transformation needed as a basis for the economic transformation.

One quotation (373-74):

The foundation of that tradition has been a distinct Chinese brand of Marxism-Leninism, which first emerged with the formation of the Red Army in the’ late 1920s but developed fully only after Japan took over China’s coastal regions in the late 1930s. This ideological innovation had two main components.

First, while the Leninist principle of the vanguard party was retained, the insurrectional thrust of Leninist theory was abandoned. In the deeply fragmented statal structure of warlord-GMD China, there was no “Winter Palace” to be stormed or, rather, there were too many such palaces for any insurrectionary strategy to have any chance of success. The insurrectional aspects of Leninist theory were thus replaced by what Mao later theorized as the “mass line”-the idea that the vanguard party ought to be not just the teacher but also the pupil of the masses. “This from-the-masses-to-the-masses concept”- notes Fairbank – “was indeed a sort of democracy suited to Chinese tradition, where the upper-class official had governed best when he had the true interests of the local people at heart and so governed on their behalf.”

Second, in seeking a social base the CCP gave priority to the peasantry rather than to the urban proletariat – Marx’s and Lenin’s revolutionary class. As the 1927 GMD’s massacre of Communist-led workers in Shanghai had demonstrated, the coastal regions where the bulk of the urban proletariat was concentrated were far too treacherous a ground from which to challenge foreign domination and the GMD’s hegemony over the Chinese bourgeoisie. Driven ever farther from the seats of capitalist expansion by the Western trained and equipped GMD armies, the CCP and the Red Army had no choice but to thrust their roots among the peasantry of poor and remote areas. The result was, in Mark Selden’s characterization, “a two-way socialization process,” whereby the party-army molded the subaltern strata of Chinese rural society into a powerful revolutionary force, and was in turn shaped by the aspirations and values of these strata.

The combination of these two features with the modernist thrust of Marxism-Leninism has been the bedrock of the Chinese revolutionary tradition and helps to explain key aspects of the Chinese developmental path before and after the reforms.