We are used to various Leninist regimes distorting the views of Karl Marx to try to bring some kind of spurious legitimacy to their vile social systems. A recent, almost breathtaking, example occurred in the Beijing Review (no. 34, 23-29 August). An article by one Ed Rothberg, who is apparently a professor from New York, defends the changes in the Chinese economy over the last twelve years or so as being in line with Marx’s views. From a centrally-planned economy, China has changed to one where prices and wages are controlled by the market; this is allegedly all within a Socialist system, whereas in fact it is a change from state capitalism to a mix of state and private capitalism.
Rothberg’s “discovery” is that a planned economy violates Marx’s ideas about the best way to run a commodity-based economic system. Marx described the way that capitalism operated, with competition, profits and the law of value. But he was not concerned with recommending how to run such a system, as he knew that capitalism could not function in the interests of workers. According to Rothberg, however, Marx advocated competition as the way to develop the means of production. On this topsy-turvy logic, the economic changes in China are a successful application of Marx’s economic theory.
In fact, of course, the changes do constitute a tacit admission that even a centrally-planned economy cannot escape from the economic laws that Marx discovered and cannot avoid the booms and slumps that are inherent in capitalism. And that’s the point that Rothberg has curiously missed: Marx emphasised that his economic findings were specific to capitalism, and never suggested that they would apply in Socialism too. Rothberg has a damned cheek (to put it mildly) in invoking Marx’s name in defence of the Chinese ruling class and the butchers of Tiananmen Square.