Marxism’s Relevance to China

One of the bits of evidence produced by Maoists to show that the policies of the Chinese rulers are “firmly rooted in Marxist theory” is to point to the widespread circulation in China of works by Marx and Engels (and Lenin and Stalin too, of course). In itself, this is an absurd argument: one wonders how many bibles there are in that Christian and neighbour-loving country, the United States. Nevertheless, the prospect of large numbers of Chinese workers reading Marxist writings is one that Socialists can only welcome.


A reading of the writers mentioned above will reveal that they cannot all be fitted into a single system of thought. Marx and Engels provided a scientific basis for the establishment of Socialism, that is, for the emancipation, by their own action, of the propertyless wage-workers who had been brought into being by capitalism. The Bolshevism of Lenin and his successors, in contrast, furnished an ideology for the capture of political power in countries where capitalism was still in its infancy by a minority who would then develop the means of production in those countries along state-capitalist, not socialist, lines. The atrocious experiences of the Russian people under Stalin were an example of such state-capitalist development carried out in a particularly ruthless and violent manner — they were in no sense regrettable aberrations of Marxism.


Exactly which works are published in China is not always clear. One of the works which ought to see the light of day in China is Stalin’s pamphlet Anarchism or Socialism?, originally written in 1906-7. In this quite remarkable tract, the future dictator makes it quite clear that Socialism (he makes no distinction between Socialism and Communism) will be a society without buying or selling, with no need for political power, and without wage labour. No-one could read this section of Stalin’s pamphlet and believe that China was socialist.


However, there are some passages in the writings of Marx and Engels which, considering that they were written upward of sixty years before the Chinese revolution of 1949, are amazingly appropriate to developments in China.


For example let us examine Engels’ essay Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. At one point Engels discusses the way in which the social nature of the productive forces causes competition to give way to monopoly, with the creation of joint-stock companies or trusts. Following this, the state itself (“the official representative of capitalist society”) will have to undertake the direction of production. But, says Engels, the capitalist mode of production remains, whether ownership is in the hands of joint-stock companies or of the state:


The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalist, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with.


What better description could there be of state capitalism as it exists today in China, Russia and (in the case of nationalized industries) in Britain? Only one step remains to be taken (though Engels does not take it), the realization that under such a system those who control the state machine can be identified as the ruling class.


Another passage which readers in China would do well to ponder occurs in Engels’ introduction to the English edition of this same pamphlet. He discusses the struggle of the bourgeoisie against the strictures of feudal society, a struggle which ended in the eclipse of feudalism and the victory of capitalism, and singles out “three great, decisive battles” — the Protestant Reformation in Germany, England in the seventeenth century, and the Great French Revolution of 1789. In comparing the features of these revolutionary movements, Engels comments:


Curiously enough, in all the three great bourgeois risings, the peasantry furnishes the army that has to do the fighting, and the peasantry is just the class that, the victory once gained, is most surely ruined by the economic consequences of that victory.


This is a brilliantly accurate picture of what was to happen in China. Peasant armies defeated both the Japanese invaders and the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, bringing to power the Chinese Communist Party. Land reform, the aim of the peasantry and the main reason why they supported the CCP, was carried out over the period of 1950-2, and resulted in a more equitable distribution of landholding, but it was followed by various types of collectivisation, culminating in the communes. There are now no peasants in China (in the sense of agriculturalists who produce primarily for their own consumption on family holdings), only rural wage-workers. The peasantry as a class have certainly been ruined by the consequences of the victory for which they fought so hard (though their material standard of living has certainly been improved — but that is not the point).


One text which certainly ought to be available in China is Marx’s Capital. Its opening sentence is justly famous: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities”. This is undeniably correct with regard to China. However much one reads about state regulation of prices, and so on, this does not alter the fundamental reality of commodity production there. Let us look at a recent and naively enthusiastic account of the Chinese economy, Joan Robinson’s Economic Management: China 1972. How can an economist like Robinson, who has read her Marx, reconcile claiming that there is “production for use not profit” with saying “so long as industry yields profit to the state overall, it does not matter that some commodities are sold at a loss”? The proposition that exchange-values and production for use can co-exist is not one that would have appealed to the author of Capital.


Study of the section of Capital dealing with accumulation would help to explain some elements of the Chinese economy which Chinese workers may otherwise find puzzling. The need to accumulate capital is eloquently reflected in labour legislation in China: trade unions, for instance, were urged to organize labour emulation drives and strive to increase production, while workers involved in disputes with management were to maintain production (i.e., not strike). The legislation which set up the first communes laid down that the rate of increase in members’ wages was to be slower than the rate of increase in production; indeed in 1959, about thirty per cent, of commune income was allocated for accumulation. A dilemma of the sort familiar to capitalist governments the world over occurred in 1958: it was found that higher urban wages tended to attract country-dwellers into the cities, so the regime called on enterprises to lower the wages of the lowest-grade workers to the level prevailing in nearby rural areas in order to stem the flow of manpower into cities — in other words, part of the Chinese working class suffered a decrease in their standard of living as a calculated part of national policy. None of this makes sense if one believes that what exists in China is a higher kind of social system than capitalism, but if one views China as a late-developing capitalist country in a hurry to catch up, it is all perfectly natural.


It should be said that some Chinese workers have already realized the true nature of the social system they live under — the Sheng-wu-lien group in Hunan; see the Socialist Standard for November 1969. (In passing, one would like to ask those who believe that the Chinese dictatorship is “democratic”, whether the Sheng-wu-lien document is openly available in China.) Anyone who is able to use his eyes in China is quite likely to come across some of the usual features of capitalism, such as pollution (which is especially bad in big cities like Peking; see the Guardian, January 13), a wealthy élite (who apparently still exist today: see our companion journal the Western Socialist, 1972, No. 3) and, less concretely, an increasing concern with foreign trade. The Chinese rulers may perhaps be aware that in encouraging their subjects to read the basic works of Scientific Socialism, they are placing in the latter’s hands an exceedingly dangerous weapon — a knowledge of Marxism. In other words, capitalism, in China as elsewhere, produces its own gravediggers.


Paul Bennett