Cooking the Books: Osborne, Mao, Same Struggle

It was a good idea to twit George Osborne about his new-found love for the dictatorship in China to make the point that, when it comes to finding markets and investment outlets, ideology doesn’t matter. What does instead is the material, economic interest of the capitalist class, and that Osborne, as one of their governmental representatives, served this interest on his recent visit to China, despite it being a dictatorship and, to boot, one that (falsely) claims to be socialist.

But, in his response to Osborne’s 25 November Autumn Statement, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, fluffed it by choosing to quote from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and offering ‘Comrade Osborne’ a copy. What was he thinking of? He must have known that this would have been misinterpreted by a hostile media to paint him as a supporter of Mao, as one ‘Marxist’ quoting another. Of course neither Mao nor McDonnell are Marxists, and if anything McDonnell has been more of a fellow traveller of Trotskyism than Maoism.

The passage he quoted wasn’t very appropriate either. It was something Mao said in 1949, just after his party had won the civil war in China and assumed power there, about the need to learn how to run industries from those who had been running them under the previous regime (echoing what Lenin had said just after the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia), ending with the trite punchline ‘we must not pretend to know what we do not know.’

Actually, the Little Red Book does contain some more appropriate sayings that could have been applied to the Tory government’s Five Year Austerity Plan. One section is headed ‘Building Our County Through Diligence and Frugality’.

In 1955 Mao said:

‘Diligence and frugality should be practiced in running factories and shops and all state-owned, co-operative and other enterprises. The principle of diligence and frugality should be observed in everything. This principle of economy is one of the basic principles of socialist economics. China is a big country, but she is still very poor. It will take several decades to make China prosperous. Even then we will still have to observe the principle of diligence and frugality. ‘

And again in 1957:

‘To make China rich and strong needs several decades of intense effort, which will include, among other things, the effort to practice strict economy and combat waste, i.e., the policy of building up our country through diligence and frugality.’

In those days there would have been billboards and compulsory workplace meetings shouting ‘Build Our Country Through Diligence and Frugality’, i.e. work hard and live on as little as possible. Maybe ‘frugality’ wasn’t the best translation of whatever the Chinese word was. A more appropriate one might have been …. ‘austerity’.

Hard work and austerity was what the workers and peasants of China got under Mao as their consumption was held down to build up state capitalist China’s industrial and military might. Since Mao’s death in 1976 China has evolved towards a more conventional kind of capitalism, with private capitalist firms, billionaires, a stock exchange and all the rest, but still under the dictatorship of the so-called ‘Communist’ Party. Not that that’s a problem for Osborne when it comes to doing trade and investment deals. Nor would it be for McDonnell if ever he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Labour governments too have known all about how to look after the interests of British Capitalism plc.

Leave a Reply