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The Montréal Review, April 2011


Today, when we talk about socialism or communism, we are usually talking about the economy. Human rights and the political system always come second, mainly because in the twentieth century the real competition between the two systems - the communist bloc and the capitalist "free world" - was in the field of economics (and, of course, geopolitics). Moreover, Marxist theory, orthodox socialist theory so to speak, was based primarily on the economic analysis of capital accumulation and on a critique of the existing labour relations of the nineteenth century. Marxist theory had no ambition, and indeed no ability, to explain the political organisation of the future socialist/communist society; it had only vague prophecies that the future communist societies, purged of the owners of capital, would be stateless, i.e. apolitical. (1)

There are no communist states today. There never have been. The former communist countries, such as the Soviet Union or East Germany, were twentieth-century modifications of old Oriental despotisms. Yet today, strangely enough, the ruling elites of the world's second economic power argue and insist that their country is a communist state. Moreover, they use Marxist rhetoric and communist symbols to define their regime, and the political organisation of their country is a one-party system. Is China a communist state? Is Chinese society apolitical? How communist is China?

However beautiful and exciting Marxism is as a theory, it is full of contradictions when applied in practice. Here's a paradox, a contradiction at the heart of Marxist theory: in a communist state, the capitalist is the state bureaucrat. The bureaucrat is not an exclusive owner of capital, but with his power to manage and use capital, he is de facto, at least for a period of time, a real capitalist. So there is no such thing as a purely communist state, a state without capitalists. But the economic organisation of contemporary China does not even resemble the "bureaucratic" state capitalism of the twentieth century. In 1999, more than 20 million people were employed in private enterprises in "communist" China, and the private sector's contribution to industrial production was 73.5%. (2) The state-run China Daily reported last summer (2010) that the private sector provided 90% of new jobs in China, and quoted Vice Minister Zhong Youping as saying that the country had 7.55 million private enterprises at the end of March 2010, up nearly 14% from a year earlier, with total registered capital of more than 15 trillion yuan ($2.2 trillion), up 26.9%. "Zhong urged local industry and commerce bureaus to continue supporting the private sector, following the central government's support plan unveiled in May to boost private sector development," the China Daily reported.(3)

This short essay has no ambition to state the obvious: that China is not a communist country. The facts speak for themselves. Everyone knows how capitalist China is. Rather, it aims to provide partial answers to questions such as: Why did China accept (and still follow) Marxist ideology? Why does its political system resemble that of the former communist states? How communist was the philosophy of the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong?

Despite being a great civilisation, a state with a rich history, culture and traditions, China in the 19th century did not escape the fate of the non-European states that came under the influence of Western economic, political and cultural hegemonism. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Western societies made two decisive breaks in the chain of human history: they limited the power of monarchy and aristocracy and developed a new economic system that rewarded productivity, trade and entrepreneurship. Such change was achieved for the first time in human history, and it was supported by new ideologies or beliefs that legitimised the political ambitions of the bourgeoisie. However, the revolution did not bring immediate prosperity to all, nor did it eradicate social and political ills. Thus, almost at the moment of its birth and victory, capitalist liberalism found in socialism an opposing doctrine with an even more radical nature and objectives. Disillusionment with the new liberal order led to the development of new forms of oppression, (4) created a new set of ideas that aimed to take the organisation of human society even further. Marx's redefinition of Locke's idea of the 'sacrality' of private property could serve as a curious (and rare, I should say) example of liberalism being challenged on its own ground: Marx saw property not only as "sacred" but as an absolute individual right; as a critic of capitalist exploitation and a defender of the proletariat, he argued that everyone owns their labour to the point that no one has the right to steal or exploit it, with or without consent. The absolute right to property was therefore, in Marx's view, so radical as to destroy the very idea of property relations. (5)

While Europe was in the ferment of new social, economic and political reforms, the rest of the world was still functioning according to old rules. Nineteenth-century China was ruled by a declining, inflexible dynasty - the Qing - the organisation of its society had not changed for centuries, and when European traders and missionaries arrived on its shores, the Middle Kingdom fell victim to their interests. China was colonised. Yes, it remained nominally independent, but in reality it was divided and exploited by the West.

In the late 19th century, China was bending under the yoke of an alien, modern civilisation. And as Marx and Engels prophesied in their seminal essay, The Communist Manifesto, its fate was in the hands of capital. (6) Therefore, it is not surprising that Chinese communism, when it appeared, was an ally and subsidiary of Chinese nationalism, a reaction against Western imperialist capitalism. Chinese communism emerged from the womb of nationalist movements and never abandoned its strongest message - to save China's integrity and independence from the "imperialist" forces. (7) A brief glance at Mao's voluminous political writings will convince us that their main theme was not the structure of the new socialist society or the criticism of the existing capitalist order - there was no such order in China in Mao's time - but the struggle against the "imperialists". It should be added that Mao's revolution was never against the industrial capitalist class (foreign and national), but against the rich peasants, the "feodals" as Marx would say; the rich peasants, the "kulaks" if I use the Bolshevik terminology, who were the real exploiters of Chinese labour. In the 1920s to 1940s there was no real workers' movement in China represented by the Communist Party, no proletariat; instead there were small cells of urban intellectuals and large armies of angry peasants fighting against a government that supported local despotism.(8)

Chinese communism was the result of two general and (very) unusual phenomena. First, it was born out of the processes explained in a passage from the Communist Manifesto quoted in the footnotes below: "The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature..." Marx and Engels said so, and with good reason. The intellectual achievements of the Western nations penetrated everywhere, and the European communists/socialists hoped that as the political ideals of the bourgeoisie spread throughout the world with the rise of trade and economic interdependence, so would socialist ideas as the working classes created by the capitalist system reached political maturity. The socialist ideas appeared in China when the Chinese came into "firsthand contact with the developed industrial society in Japan and the West", Arif Dirik noted in "Marxism in the Chinese Revolution."They were not the result of "objective laws" and historical logic, to use Marxist terminology. They were not an effect of capitalism, but a reflection of the intellectual influence of the Western proletariat. They were, simply put, ideas, the seeds of "world literature" planted in Chinese soil by cosmopolitan intellectuals and Christian missionaries.(9)

Second, communism (and socialism) gained prominence when the Kuomintang nationalists began to purge the communist factions within the nationalist movement in the 1920s. The Chinese Communist Party owes much to the nationalists for its successful formation and later rise to power. Initially sheltered and trained as soldiers in Kuomintang military camps, the communists, thanks to the subsequent nationalist aggression against them and Chan Kai-shek's inability to attract the peasant masses, consolidated as an independent organisation and began to pursue their own political goals.

People unite when they face a common threat. The external threat makes them a group, an organisation, a class or a nation. The accounts of Edgar Snow, who travelled in the 1930s in the western parts of China controlled by the Communists, are replete with evidence explaining how "communism" became a unifying force for the diverse and oppressed communities in the rural provinces. The peasants didn't know what communism was; what they did know, and it was enough to make them loyal, was that the communist organisation defended their interests, and when the communists became the only organised force in China able to stop the Japanese agression, their position as the national leaders was cemented for years.

The conclusion, then, is that Chinese communism is neither the fruit of historical logic - the result of a genuine class struggle - nor communism at all. It is first and foremost a nationalist ideology that, under Mao's political genius, pandered to the discontented peasant masses of the late 1930s. Chinese communism is first and foremost nationalism, and then a political ideology that ensures political stability and order in China.

This partly explains why and how Marxism became the official ideology of the Chinese state, and why China has never been a truly communist society. The next question, why China has a one-party system, is easier to answer. The existence of a one-party system is due to the lack of a democratic tradition. The People's Republic was established half a century after the fall of the dynasty. There was no democratic tradition in China. Moreover, Marxism is the only modern ideology that legitimises a political elite or party to the extent that this party or elite represents the "people"; and finally, Marxism, with its secular ideology, is similar to Confucianism. Confucianism supports the ruler who has a mandate from heaven; this mandate gives him an absolute right to rule. In the 20th century, China had no choice but to modernise, there was no more heaven to approve the government, there was social and political science, Marxism, to serve as an oracle.Marxism was the only modern social theory (and ideology) that promised both modernisation and progress without the risks of liberalism, which thrives on political fragmentation, clashes of interests and regular periods of political crisis. In conclusion, a one-party system, legitimised by Marx's scientific social theory and accommodating imperial traditions and Confucianism, is what China needed to resist Western influence, remain politically stable and modernise.

And here is the final question: how Marxist is Mao's thought? Mao's thought is not Marxist, it is radical and nationalist. Radicalism can be attached to any ideology, and a revolutionary, a political radical, can adopt any existing doctrine. In the popular Red Book "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung" one can find a lot of Marxist, revolutionary rhetoric, but at the bottom of it all is Mao the "fighter", the "nationalist", the "peasant", not the "intellectual", the "social democrat", the "worker". "Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?"(10) Mao asks and answers, "Our enemies are all those in league with imperialism - the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big Landlord class and the reactionary section of the intelligentsia attached to them." (11)In this quote we see that the enemy is not the capitalist owner, but those "in league with imperialism", but in this league we do not see the factory owner, the banker, the merchant. The main threat to the Chinese masses is "imperialism" and feudalism, not "bourgeois liberalism". We can easily see how far Mao's thought is from orthodox Marxism by comparing his writings with those of communist leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht. For example, in one of the most popular international communist texts, "A Call to the Workers of the World", the word "imperialism" is mentioned only once, while "proletariat" appears seventeen times. (12) In Mao's writings, the order in which these words appear is always reversed. When Mao says that "the main socialist transformation has been completed with regard to the property system", he again means that the communists have eliminated the "landlord and comprador classes". (13) The landlord is the feudal, the "comprador" is the person who trades with the Western corporations - neither has anything to do with the working class in the traditional Marxist sense. In 1949 Mao wrote: "The people's democratic dictatorship is based on the alliance of the working class, the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoisie, and especially on the alliance of the workers and the peasants, because these two classes constitute 80 to 90 per cent of the Chinese population. These two classes are the main force in overthrowing imperialism and the Kuomintang reactionaries". The truth was that China in 1949 was an agrarian society and the workers were an insignificant part of this "alliance", and again these two classes "overthrow" not the bourgeois capitalist but the foreign invader and the Kuomintang opposition.

Discussing the shortcomings of the Versailles Treaty (1919) in an essay published in the mid-1930s, Arnold Toynbee said that wartime leaders have a special mentality and temperament suited to their duty of defending the nation against aggression. Even after peace is secured, they naturally continue to fight. Peacemaking is for peacemakers, and that is why the war leaders after the First World War were unable to build a lasting peace in Europe. Professor Toynbee's insight is universal. (14) We can argue that state-building is not for revolutionaries, especially for revolutionaries who have liberated the country from an oppressive and brutal power. Revolutionaries are fighters, dissidents; they simply cannot stop fighting after victory because they have a special mentality and temperament. This fact partly explains the inability of old revolutionaries like Mao to understand the logic and needs of Chinese society after 1949. It also explains the revolutionary fever of the 1960s, which broke out after a few "boring" years of "socialist" state building. In fact, China had a communist/socialist period (on the model of Soviet Stalinism) for about twenty years after the Second World War, it had a nationalised and state-controlled economy, the Chinese accepted and still accept the leadership of the central power, but China was never really communist and only now, after the reforms of the 1990s, has it built a real, modern state capitalism that has given birth to a real proletariat. And here are the most interesting questions: How likely is the outbreak of a genuine socialist or democratic revolution in China today? Is revolution more urgent and logical today than it was in 1949?



1 In 1949, laying the foundations of the future Chinese communist state Mao wrote: "Don't you want to abolish state power?" Yes, we do, but not right now. We cannot do it yet. Why? Because imperialism still exists, because domestic reaction still exists, because classes still exist in our country. Our present task is to strengthen the people's state apparatus - mainly the people's army, the people's police and the people's courts - in order to consolidate national defence and protect the people's interests." (Mao Dzedung, " On the People's Democratic Dictatorship " (June 30, 1949), Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 418 ) Every communist state begins as police state and finish as totalitarian.

2 Yanrui Wu, Economic growth, transition, and globalization in China ( Edward Elgar Publishing, 2006 ) p.231

3 http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2010-06/10/content_9962002.htm

4 See, for example, Karl Marx's "The Poverty of Philosophy": " The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist." (Forgotten Books, reprinted from Martin Lawrence Edition, London ) p.92

5 See John Locke's "Two Tracts on Government" (Courier Dover Publications, 2002): "Thought the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person; this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands we may say are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property." (p.12-13) In short, Marx expanded Locke's idea replacing the "nature" with the "capitalist" who accumulated wealth that exceeds his right of proper ownership and that gives him a chance to exploit others who presumably want to benefit from his capital through their labour.

6 "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature..." Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "The Communist Manifesto", introduction by Eric Hobsbawm (Verso, London. 1998,) p.39

7 Arif Dirik, "Marxism in the Chinese Revolution" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) pp. 20-25

8 Edgar Snow, "Red Star over China" (Grove Press, 1973) pp. 243-289

9 The other source for the first socialist ideas in China, according to Dirik, was the publications of the Christian missionaries. See Arif Dirik, Marxism in the Chinese Revolution (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) p.22.

10 "Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society" (March 1926), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 13 (quote from the Red Book)

11 Ibid. p. 19.

12 See "The Communist Manifesto and other Revolutionary Works " (Courier Dover Publications, 2003) pp. 232 -235

13 On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People (February 27, 1957), 1st pocket ed., pp. 51-52

14 Arnold J. Toynbee "The Main Features of the Landscape," in " The Treaty of Versailles and After," (George Allen & Unwin Brothers Ltd. London, 1935), p. 46.


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