Why is the debate concerning the socialist market economy settled in China?

When I asked a Chinese colleague recently about the socialist market economy, he said ‘why would you be interested in that? The debate is settled and no-one is much concerned with it’. I did point out that some international observers still do not understand the socialist market economy. For example, the EU acknowledges that China has a socialist market economy, but then misunderstands it: for the EU, it entails state ‘intervention’ in an autonomous ‘market’. Nothing could be further from the truth, for they use the framework of a capitalist market economy.

In my ongoing research, I have come across what is widely recognised as the most influential study on the socialist market economy, one that largely settled debates and defined the breakthrough. It is by Huang Nansen and entitled (in English translation), ‘The Philosophical Foundations of the Theory of the Socialist Market Economy’ (Marxism and Reality, 1994, pp. 1-6). Huang identifies two philosophical questions that lie at the basis of the theory and practice of a socialist market economy: contradiction analysis of socialist society; the relationship between universality (pubianxing) and particularity (teshuxing).

Contradiction Analysis

In terms of the first, he draws on an assumed approach that has much depth in Chinese Marxism: contradiction analysis. Briefly put, in his 1937 Yan’an lectures on dialectical materialism, one of Mao’s major breakthroughs was the necessity of contradictions after a communist revolution and during the long construction of socialism. The key text would later, with revisions, appear as ‘On Contradiction’ (1937), to be followed by ‘On Correctly Handling Contradictions Among the People’ (1957). For Huang, the important points are, first, that Mao identified the basic contradiction as one between the forces and relations of production, or between the economic base and the superstructure, and, second, that such contradictions should always be managed in a way that is non-antagonistic (feiduikangxing de maodun). While the second point is a given and remains a cornerstone today, Huang faults Mao for his misdirected application of the first. Thus, Mao felt that the manifestation of this contradiction appeared in terms of ownership: if the basic contradiction of capitalist society is between socialised production and private ownership of the means of production, then socialism should overcome this contradiction through public ownership of all means of production. The result, argues Huang, was a decline in production.

Instead, the way the forces-relations of production contradiction appears is not in terms of productive forces and ownership, but between productive forces and economic structure (jingji tizhi). With this breakthrough – enabled by the circle around Deng Xiaoping – it was possible to develop a socialist market economy. To find out how, and indeed what ‘economic system’ means, we need to wait until the next section, for he now addresses the relationship between a planned economy and a socialist market economy. Was the former a mistake? No, for it is appropriate immediately after a communist revolution, but only for a specific period. A planned economy works initially to liberate and develop productive forces, but eventually its limits appear and further development requires a shift to a socialist market economy. I am not sure this temporal argument is the best way to see the relationship between planned and socialist market economies, for they both continue to work together (more later).

Finally (for this section on contradiction analysis), does this argument entail a shift away from public ownership? Not at all, but once ownership is not seen as the primary contradiction, both public and private may develop in a symbiotic relationship, albeit with private ownership in a recognised but subordinate role. Let me add here that twenty-five years later this question takes on a whole new dimension, so it requires further work.

Universality and Particularity

The second philosophical problem concerns universality (pubianxing) and particularity (teshuxing), or what he also calls commonality (gongxing) and individuality (gexing). Succinctly stated, Huang’s argument is while a market economy is a universal or common reality, its integration with a capitalist or socialist socio-economic system evinces the particularity of each type of market economy.

This argument is based on a crucial terminological distinction, between a structure and a system. The Chinese terms are tizhi (体制) and zhidu (制度), which are somewhat difficult to translate in a way that indicates their differences, for they are often rendered with the same words in English. Tizhi in this case is a specific organisation, arrangement, method or structure. For the sake of conciseness, I use ‘structure’. For example, Huang speaks of a ‘market economic structure [shichang jingji tizhi]’ In his argument, this structure is clearly a component or part of a larger system. The term for this overall and foundational system is zhidu, which embraces the realms of politics, economics and society. To make his usage clear, Huang refers to the ‘basic economic system of society [shehui de jiben jingji zhidu]’, which may – in this context – be either capitalist or socialist. It follows that a specific structure, whether a planned economic structure or a market economic structure, may be a universal, while the overall system is a particularity.

With this distinction, Huang points out that in the past it was not common to distinguish between the two, for reasonably good historical reasons. Thus, the market economic structure was seen as inseparable from a capitalist system, while a planned economic structure was part and parcel of a socialist system. But historical developments since the Second World War have indicated the increased tendency in capitalist systems for planned structures, while in socialist systems – he notes Yugoslavia – some elements of a market economic structure began to emerge. These developments enabled the awareness of the distinction between specific structure and overall system. The outcome: it is quite possible, if not necessary, for a basic socialist socio-economic system to make use of a market economic structure. This was, he points out, the distinct insight of Deng Xiaoping and his comrades.

Of course, this raises the question: is a market economy neutral, like machinery or the natural sciences. Not at all, for as a market economy is integrated within the overall system, its nature is shaped by that system. Thus, a socialist market economy is qualitatively different from a capitalist market economy. Now the relationship between universality and particularity takes another turn: while a market economy may have a basic commonality, in terms of the means and basis for the logistic functions of a market economy, it also takes on the specificity of the system in which it is shaped, whether socialist or capitalist. The conclusion is that one may therefore speak of a socialist market economic structure (tizhi) within a socialist system (zhidu).

The final matter concerns what distinguishes the socialist market economy. Huang identifies five features: 1) It contains a multiplicity of components, but public ownership remains the core economic driver; 2) While enterprises in a socialist market economy must be viable, their main purpose is not profit at all costs, but social benefit (gongtongti fuwu) and meeting the needs of all people; 3) It deploys the old socialist principle of from each according to ability and to each according to work, limiting exploitation and wealth polarisation, and seeking common prosperity; 4) The guide for action (to parse Engels) always remains Marxism; 5) The primary value should always be socialist collectivism (shehuizhuyi de jitizhuyi) rather than individualism.

Huang closes with a timely warning: the shift to a socialist market economy is by no means easy, for it entails profound social transformation, which will entail many unforeseen problems and challenges ahead.

I have taken some time with this contribution, since Huang’s sophisticated analysis effectively summed up debates and established the philosophical foundations for a socialist market economy. Many of his insights remain valid and one can see how they have been and are implemented, albeit not without a few significant problems on the way. At the same time, it is twenty-five years since Huang’s study and Chinese socialism, let alone the socialist market economy, have taken some major steps. The tell-tale signal is the awareness that China has almost achieved the ‘great leap [weida feiyue]’ to socio-economic wellbeing, and that it is embarking on the leap to become a strong socialistically modernised society. Or, as it was put at the nineteenth congress of the CPC, China has entered a ‘new era [xinshidai]’.

At least three questions remain from Huang’s analysis, especially in light of developments in the last two decades: 1) The delinking of ‘market economy’ from a capitalist system, in light of Marx’s analysis (in Capital, vol. 3) and historical examples; 2) The issue of ownership and the withering away of the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’; 3) The shift in a socialist market economy from being a component to basic logistical device. These are the subjects of further analysis.

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