“Market Socialism” and the Legacy of Mao

Whither China?

Defend China Against Imperialism, Counterrevolution! For Workers Political Revolution!

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard Nos. 743 and 745, 6 October and 3 November 2000.

Exemplified by a revolt of 20,000 molybdenum miners in Liaoning province in the industrial northeast of the country in February, China has seen a rising tide of workers’ and peasants’ struggles this year. These struggles have been aimed against bureaucratic corruption, growing poverty and continuing inroads into the collectivized economy established as a result of the 1949 Revolution led by Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In August, 20,000 peasants protesting extortionate taxes clashed with units of the People’s Armed Police in Jiangxi province in southeastern China. The protest was reportedly touched off when local authorities banned a book written by members of the ruling CCP advocating a reduction in taxes on peasants. Earlier this year, a CCP internal report estimated that there had been over 2,000 violent protests in the countryside in 1999, and several million rural residents had joined in either demonstrations or petitions to Beijing.

The social turmoil has found an echo on the ideological and cultural plane. A Chinese television series about a mythic Soviet steel worker in the years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, based on the Soviet novel from the Stalin years, How Steel Is Forged, has been immensely popular. Earlier this year, a small theater in Beijing staged a play about Ernesto “Che” Guevara which ended with the actors leading the audience in the singing of the “Internationale,” the international workers’ anthem. One member of the audience later wrote in an Internet posting on the neo-Maoist Web site “China and the World”:

“We want to shout out at the top of our lungs: only when the working class united together fights against all the imperialists, revisionists and reactionaries and those spineless traitors can we workers not lose our jobs, can we truly become the masters of the state.”

Such sentiments are increasingly voiced in China today, if often in more muted form, including among sections of the CCP itself. An article in the New York Times (2 July) reporting on the arrest of a retired party cadre who had led protests against the local government in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, was headlined “Old-Line Communists at Odds with Party in China.” A popular campaign to secure his release, observed the article, “reflects widespread popular disillusionment with the Communist Party over corruption and lost ideals, even among its rank and file.”

The molybdenum miners revolt last February was triggered by massive layoffs resulting from the shutdown or privatization of their formerly state-owned workplace. A few months later, in May, some 3,000 workers at a metal alloy factory in the city of Liaoyang, also in Liaoning province, clashed with police as they protested unpaid wages and pensions. In July, nearly 50,000 miners, railway workers and others demonstrated in Liupanshui in the southern part of China. Again there were battles reported with the police, as protesters attacked the City Hall and chanted, “For another revolution in China!”

The People’s Republic of China is heading toward either proletarian political revolution or capitalist counterrevolution. As it pursues “market reforms” and opens the door to exploitation by Western and Japanese imperialists and the overseas Chinese bourgeoisie, the Beijing regime is paving the way for capitalist restoration. It is simultaneously preparing the ground for a new revolutionary proletarian explosion—not a social revolution which would overturn the economic foundations of society as in 1949 but a political revolution to oust the ruling bureaucracy and to place political power in the hands of workers, soldiers and peasants councils (soviets). Such a political revolution is premised on unconditional defense of the planned, collectivized economy which is the social foundation of the (bureaucratically deformed) workers state.

Social Roots of the Bureaucracy

Last year, the Wall Street Journal (1 November 1999)—the premier mouthpiece of American finance capital—ran an article on Jiang Mianheng, son of Chinese president and CCP leader Jiang Zemin. Jiang Mianheng was until recently the dominant figure in the rapidly growing China Netcom Corp., the country’s largest privately owned telecommunications company, and currently heads several other private firms. The same article pointed out that the son of Chinese premier Zhu Rongji is an executive in a joint venture with the giant Wall Street investment bank Morgan Stanley.

The implicit message of the Journal article is that since the sons of China’s top leaders—the so-called “princelings”—are high-flying entrepreneurs and even partners with American financiers, the restoration of capitalism in China is proceeding smoothly. Every day China is supposedly becoming more and more capitalist. The fact that the ruling party still calls itself Communist and pays lip service to “Marxism-Leninism,” in this view, has little significance in terms of the realities of China’s politics today.

But the realities of China’s politics today are very different, far more complex and contradictory. At the same time the Journal article appeared, a Beijing journal published an article by one Wei Wei, “At the Doorstep of a New Century.” The article stated:

“The Russian October Revolution led by Lenin was of undeniable historical significance.... It opened the road to a bright future for the whole human race and it demonstrated the possibility of rooting out private property, eliminating all exploitation and oppression and realizing the ideal world.”

Wei’s article ends with a political call to arms:

“One must deeply understand that those who have already tasted the sweetness of socialism and become the masters of the state will not keep silent for long as they are losing their status as masters and their lives are deteriorating. Those conscious communists who have been educated by Marxism will also consolidate their own forces, again firmly unite together, and lead the masses to wage a resolute struggle against the representatives of the capitalist class. It must be pointed out that, in this struggle, Mao Zedong’s theory of anti-revisionism, preventing revisionism, anti-capitalist restoration, will be the most powerful and effective weapon.”

This article was not published in an obscure underground journal put out by a handful of old-line dissident Maoists. It was published legally in the Central Current, a nationally known and widely read journal founded in 1990 with the approval of the CCP’s Central Department of Propaganda. Despite a recent crackdown on political opposition and dissent, Central Current continues to appear. Clearly, this publication, whose stated intent is to “use Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought as guidance,” has friends and protectors in very high places. The existence of this kind of journal is a surface manifestation of factional differences within the Chinese bureaucracy. And those differences are undoubtedly sharpening in the face of the current mass upsurge in worker unrest, as hundreds of thousands of workers are being laid off from state-owned factories and other enterprises.

These divisions within the CCP illustrate the Trotskyist understanding of China as a deformed workers state. From the time it seized power in 1949, the CCP patterned its rule on the bureaucratic regime which usurped political power from the proletariat in the Soviet Union in 1924 through a political counterrevolution led by Stalin. The rise of this relatively privileged layer grew out of the backwardness and poverty inherited by the Soviet state from tsarist Russia and the failure of the socialist revolution to spread to the advanced capitalist countries, particularly Germany. While not overturning the proletarian property forms established as a result of the October Revolution of 1917, the Stalinist regime repudiated the revolutionary internationalism that animated the Bolsheviks and embraced the anti-Marxist dogma of “socialism in one country.”

Common to the Stalinist bureaucracy which ruled the Soviet degenerated workers state and that which has ruled the Chinese deformed workers state from its inception is its nature as a brittle, contradictory caste, not a possessing class. Parasitically resting on the proletarian property forms from which it derives its privileged position, the bureaucracy simultaneously acts as a transmission belt for the pressures of the capitalist world market on the Chinese deformed workers state. Thus, in anticipation of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), Beijing has accelerated the pace of privatizations and retrenchment of state-owned enterprises. At the same time, the regime has attempted to mollify the angry workers and peasants through “anti-corruption” campaigns, even executing some high-ranking officials, and has occasionally reversed some of its own “free market” measures. This is not because the Stalinists are irrevocably committed to defense of the collectivized economy. As Trotsky wrote of the Soviet bureaucracy in The Revolution Betrayed (1936), “It continues to preserve state property only to the extent that it fears the proletariat.”

“Market Socialism” and Neo-Maoism

To be sure, Wei’s article does not openly denounce the Jiang/Zhu regime and its pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist policies, e.g., China’s drive to join the WTO. That’s not permitted in a public journal which has to have at least the unofficial sanction of the Communist Party. But readers of Central Current get the message—written, so to speak, between the lines. While exalting Mao as a great revolutionary, Wei’s article does not even mention his successor, Deng Xiaoping, who introduced “market socialism”—which he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—and invited large-scale investment by Western, Japanese and offshore Chinese capitalists in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Deng is thus condemned by conspicuous omission.

Wei also praises Mao for opposing the “revisionism” of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the late 1950s and early ’60s. But Wei’s real target is the post-Mao Chinese “revisionist” leaders Deng and his successor, Jiang. At least the older generation of Chinese know that during the “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s, Mao branded Deng as “the second leading person in authority taking the capitalist road” and stripped him of his political power for several years.

Wei Wei is not just a nostalgic, old-line Maoist intellectual whose writings have no bearing on power politics in Beijing. Central Current is the public voice of conservative Chinese Stalinist bureaucrats, like former propaganda minister Deng Liqun, who worry that the restoration of “free market” capitalism will produce massive and incalculable social dislocations. It could even lead once again to the subjugation and dismemberment of China at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialism.

Many top Chinese government officials and military men look at what happened to the Soviet Union with genuine horror. As a consequence of capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, a “superpower” second only to the United States was broken apart along national lines, its industrial base dismantled, its military power gutted, its society beset by political turmoil. They see demobilized former Soviet military officers reduced to penury and homelessness. They see former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, once a respected world figure, now acting as a public relations man for an American pizza company!

But even more than they fear the unhappy fate of their former Soviet counterparts, Beijing Stalinist bureaucrats fear the Chinese working class. And rightly so. The protesting molybdenum miners and their families literally took over the town of Yangjiazhangzi for three days before being quelled by the army. According to one police report from the central province of Anhui, it has become common to see “workers collectively besieging enterprise leaders, hurling abuse at them, and even detaining them under duress.” The Chinese Labor Ministry reports that there were more than 120,000 labor disputes last year—14 times more than in 1992—from petitions to strikes.

The Chinese bureaucracy instinctively knows that it cannot suppress this level of labor unrest just by using the police and army. Some army units, mainly consisting of the conscripted sons of poor peasants, might even go over to the side of the rebellious workers. So the bureaucracy also tries to politically pacify the workers by promising them a better future. Jiang, Zhu & Co. promise prosperity through China’s greater integration into the world capitalist economy. But having experienced the ravages of “market reforms” for over two decades now, much of the Chinese working class is skeptical or outright hostile toward the advocates of a “socialist market economy.”

So other sections of the bureaucracy present a left face as represented by Central Current. This neo-Maoist journal offers a kind of reformism of the left. It says in effect that there are influential figures in the CCP who, if they gained the upper hand, would eliminate the rampant corruption and nepotism and curb the increasing economic power of Western, Japanese and offshore Chinese capitalists. They might even reconstruct the “iron rice bowl” (guaranteed lifetime employment in state-owned enterprises) and return to the supposedly more egalitarian policies of the Mao era.

In reaction to the extreme inegalitarianism promoted by Deng, who once declared, “To be rich is glorious,” an idealization of the Mao era has developed in the popular consciousness of Chinese society. During the 1989 student-centered demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, a contingent of young workers who joined the mass protests carried placards with Mao’s picture. The London Independent (24 May 1989) commented at the time: “While few would relish any return to dogmatic Maoism, the past does offer an appealing if highly romanticised vision for many Chinese: prices were stable, crime was low and unemployment was unheard of.”

Stalinism with Chinese Characteristics

Such idealization of the Mao era is certainly understandable. But Mao’s regime was far from egalitarian and far from socialist. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s was an insane economic adventure, exemplified by backyard steel furnaces, which ended in total collapse and widespread starvation. The destructive frenzy of the “Cultural Revolution” which began in the mid-1960s—a decade-long, convulsive factional struggle within the bureaucracy—took many more lives than the massacre carried out by the Deng regime to crush the Tiananmen protests.

In both China and the West, Mao and Deng are viewed as polar opposites, the one a communist visionary, the other a pragmatic modernizer. In reality, both represented the interests of the parasitic bureaucracy which has governed China since the 1949 Revolution and rests on the planned collectivized economy ushered in by the revolution. That revolution shattered capitalist rule, seized the land from the rapacious landlords and threw off the yoke of imperialist subjugation. The creation of a planned economy laid the basis for enormous gains for the workers and peasants.

But there was a qualitative difference between the 1949 Chinese Revolution and the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party. The October Revolution was carried out by a class-conscious proletariat which saw the seizure of power as the first step toward world socialist revolution. In contrast, Mao’s CCP came to power through peasant-based guerrilla war and propounded the nationalist Stalinist dogma of building “socialism in one country” from the outset.

Writing in the mid-19th century, Karl Marx explained that in the absence of an international socialist society based on the highest level of technological and industrial development, “only want will be generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and all the old crap must revive.” Flatly repudiating Marx, the Stalinists preach the idiocy that socialism, which both Marx and Lenin identified as the lowest stage of classless communist society, could be built in a single country if only imperialist military intervention were thwarted. In practice, “socialism in one country” meant opposition to the perspective of workers revolution internationally. It expressed the nationally limited interests of the bureaucratic caste which usurped political power in the Soviet Union in 1923-24 and turned the Communist International from an instrument of the world revolution into a tool for the bureaucracy’s illusory search for “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition fought against the Stalinist betrayers to restore the revolutionary, proletarian, internationalist principles which animated the October Revolution.

Within the nationalist framework of “socialism in one country,” which is counterposed to the perspective of international proletarian revolution, the regimes of Mao and Deng pursued different policies in different international contexts. Nonetheless, in one very important respect their policies were substantially identical: the alliance with U.S. imperialism against the Soviet Union. Thus it is both ironic and hypocritical that today the neo-Maoist Wei Wei writes: “The change of the nature in East Europe and the breakup of the USSR in the late 1980s and early ’90s was the greatest tragedy of this century.” In the late 1960s—and Wei certainly knows this—Mao labeled the Soviet Union a “social imperialist” power even more dangerous to China than the U.S. New Left radicals around the world hailed Mao’s China as a revolutionary alternative to the stodgy Kremlin bureaucracy at the time. We Trotskyists described Maoism as “Khrushchevism under the gun.” We insisted that given the Mao regime’s hostility to the Soviet Union, “the danger of an imperialist alliance with China against the Russians cannot be dismissed” (“Chinese Menshevism,” Spartacist No. 15-16, April-May 1970). That alliance was sealed in 1972 when U.S. president Richard Nixon visited Beijing and embraced the Chairman at the very moment that U.S. warplanes were bombing Vietnam!

The alliance with the U.S. was continued and deepened under Deng. In 1979, Deng ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to invade Vietnam, the main Soviet ally in East Asia, with the approval and encouragement of Washington. The Vietnamese resisted effectively and inflicted 20,000 casualties on the PLA, which retreated across the border. During the final years of the Cold War in the 1980s, China bolstered American imperialism in weakening and undermining the Soviet Union—for example, giving aid to the CIA-backed mujahedin cutthroats fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan—thereby furthering the counterrevolutionary drive which destroyed the USSR. So when the neo-Maoist Wei now laments that this was “the greatest tragedy of this century,” he is being deeply hypocritical.

Chinese workers and left-wing intellectuals must be won to the understanding that it is Trotskyism—not Maoism, i.e., Stalinism with Chinese characteristics—which genuinely represents the revolutionary Marxism of today. The Trotskyist International Communist League stands for the unconditional military defense of the Chinese deformed workers state against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution. Our defense of China against the class enemy does not depend on the prior overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy nor on the circumstances and immediate causes of a military conflict. The parasitic bureaucracy which is paving the way to capitalist restoration must be ousted through a proletarian political revolution. It is urgently necessary to build a Leninist-Trotskyist party in China to lead the combative proletariat to the conquest of political power.

There is no nationally limited road to socialism in China. The modernization of China—providing the basis for a decent life for all its inhabitants on the basis of access to the advanced technology and productive resources now concentrated in North America, West Europe and Japan—requires proletarian revolution in the imperialist centers, laying the basis for an internationally planned socialist economy.

Maurice Meisner and Neo-Maoist Idealism

The regime of Jiang Zemin has to date effectively suppressed organized political opposition, whether from the left or right, and even widespread intellectual dissent. A neo-Maoist like Wei Wei can publish only by presenting his views in a highly guarded manner. Given the absence of open political debate in China itself, the most comprehensive and systematic analysis of present-day China from a neo-Maoist standpoint turns out to be the work of an American academic, Maurice Meisner’s The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994 (1996).

Whereas Wei cannot publicly attack the leaders of post-Mao China, Meisner operates under no such constraint. He condemns Deng for “the indiscriminate sweeping away of all the quasi-socialist institutions and values inherited from the Mao era.” And he goes on:

“For the savage capitalism that operates under the cloak of a socialist market economy is bringing about enormous social transformations and upheavals—massive proletarianization, more intensive forms of exploitation, greater alienation, enormous gaps between rich and poor, and growing economic and social differences between town and countryside.”

In his article, Wei cites Meisner’s work with approval, especially for his positive attitude toward Mao’s ideas and toward China during the Mao era. Nonetheless, there are very important differences between them. As can be seen from the above quote, Meisner contends that capitalism—he calls it “bureaucratic capitalism”—was restored to China under Deng, although he concedes that “glaringly absent is a developed system of private property.” Wei maintains that China is still “socialist” although threatened by the forces of capitalist restoration.

This difference reflects something far more important than the theoretical outlooks of these two particular leftist intellectuals. Because of his geographical location and social role, Wei seeks to appeal to the Chinese working class which is now engaged in elemental struggles against the effects of a “socialist market economy.” Chinese workers know that the privatization of state-owned enterprises will result in mass unemployment and destitution for many of them.

Following the closure of much of the state-owned molybdenum mine in Yangjiazhangzi in February and the sale of the remainder to the managers’ friends, one worker declared: “We miners have been working here for China, for the Communist Party, since the revolution. And now my part of the mine is private.” He is expressing the attitude of many Chinese workers, who understand that such state property belongs to the working class. If, as Meisner contends, state property in China belongs to the bureaucrats, why should workers protest if it is taken over as private property?

Nonetheless, Meisner’s work should be considered seriously, for it is well regarded among Chinese students and other intellectuals who are opposed to or critical of the existing regime from the left. It purports to be a theoretical analysis of China, from a “critical Marxist” perspective, from the 1949 Revolution through the last years of the Deng regime.

Meisner, now in his 60s, is a representative of that current of Western leftist intellectuals (e.g., Paul Sweezy, Charles Bettelheim) who endorsed and publicized Mao’s idealist criticism of both Marxism and of “orthodox” Soviet Stalinism. The Soviet variant of “socialism in one country” always involved a large element of technological dynamism: a faith that backward Russia, through its planned economy, could catch up with the advanced capitalist countries in a generation or so. Stalin’s Problems of Leninism (1933) asserted, “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years.”

Mao’s China in the 1950s was qualitatively more economically backward than was Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s. The gulf between the productive capacity of the Chinese and American economies was so vast that bridging it in any politically meaningful time period was inconceivable. “Socialism” was therefore redefined as imminently achievable in one of the most impoverished nations on earth. Encapsulating his anti-materialist outlook, Mao stated in 1960, “Lenin said: ‘The more backward the country, the more difficult its transition to socialism.’ Now it seems that this way of speaking is incorrect. As a matter of fact, the more backward the economy, the easier, not the more difficult, the transition from capitalism to socialism.”

Maoist ideology was characterized by extreme subjectivism, including a belief that socialist relations could be attained through a “cultural revolution.” Sweezy, Meisner et al. took the ideological posturing of Mao’s Cultural Revolution at face value as an attempt to create an egalitarian and non-hierarchical society whose members eschewed individual acquisitiveness in favor of the collective well-being. Sweezy wrote in the mid-1970s: “It was only in China, where of all countries in the world conditions were most favorable for revolution, that Marxism could finally be purged of its (essentially bourgeois) economistic taint” (Monthly Review, January 1975). Or as Meisner puts it in his book on the Deng era: “Mao not only gave primacy to social and ideological factors over economic ones; he also believed that backwardness offered special advantages for social progress and creative development.”

Meisner is in important respects more Maoist than Mao. In fact, he is consistently and often severely critical of the Chairman for not practicing what he preached. As an American academic without any political affiliation, he is not constrained in taking such ideas to their logical conclusion. Implicit in the doctrine of “building socialism in one country” is the view that there is no prospect or even possibility of proletarian revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. Falsely claiming the mantle of Leninism, Stalin and Mao could not say this openly. But Meisner can and does:

“In the developed capitalist countries, where the Marxian-defined social and material prerequisites for socialism are present, the road to revolution has been closed. Modern historical experience, thus far, has yielded little to support the Marxist belief that socialism is the logical and necessary historical outcome of industrial capitalism and that the urban proletariat is the truly revolutionary class in the modern world.”

In other words, if China is to achieve socialism, however conceived, it will have to go it alone. There will be no material aid from proletarian revolutions in North America, West Europe and Japan, which are supposedly fated to remain capitalist forever.

This view was common among North American and West European New Leftists, who saw themselves simply as an auxiliary of “Third World” revolutionary struggles. In fact, even in those years, the Marxist understanding that the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie inevitably leads to revolutionary crises was dramatically confirmed in the May-June 1968 general strike in France and a number of other prerevolutionary situations.

Far more categorically than Mao, Meisner identifies socialism with egalitarianism and communal values and capitalism with maximizing production and productivity. At times he treats socialism as if it were almost a religious faith inspiring the brotherhood of man. Thus he condemns the Deng regime for bringing about “a spiritual impoverishment of unprecedented depth.” One is here reminded of Marx’s comment in the Communist Manifesto on what he called “feudal socialism”: “Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge.”

On the other hand, Meisner not only contends that capitalism was restored to China under Deng but that Deng’s “bureaucratic capitalism” was responsible for China’s relatively high rate of economic growth in this period. At this point, Meisner’s views come close to converging with those of the Wall Street Journal: “What China’s quasi-capitalist regime has done,” he writes, “as capitalism in general is adept at doing, is to enormously expand production and productivity.”

Even among those Chinese youth or intellectuals of leftist sympathies who don’t subscribe to Meisner’s position that the Chinese economy of today is one of “bureaucratic capitalism,” many share his view that there is a fundamental antagonism between maximizing economic production and technological progress on the one hand and egalitarianism and socialist values on the other. Such intellectuals are thus conflicted over China’s prospective entry into the WTO. They believe that increased foreign competition will force state-owned industry to become more efficient and increased foreign investment will bring with it new and more advanced technology. At the same time, they recognize that China’s entry into the WTO would result in mass unemployment with millions of workers thrown onto the streets, many of them forced to become beggars, their daughters turning to prostitution to survive.

The belief that there is an intrinsic conflict or at any rate a necessary tradeoff between economic growth and social egalitarianism is profoundly false. Under a government based on workers democracy and led by a Leninist-Trotskyist party, a centrally planned and managed collectivized economy would optimize economic growth while eradicating the extremes of rich and poor so evident in China today. The Western-style affluence enjoyed by the top officials and their “princeling” sons is sheer parasitism. It has nothing to do with economic rationality and efficiency.

We oppose WTO intervention in China not because we favor economic autarky —the Maoist doctrine of “self sufficiency”—but because it would further undermine the collectivized economy. As an integral component of a planned, socialized economy, the state monopoly of foreign trade could and should be operated to take full advantage of the international division of labor, promoting a high level of both exports and imports. Such a policy in no way entails opening China’s state-owned industries to untrammeled competition from Western and Japanese corporations.

Capitalism, Socialism and the Workers State

Meisner operates with just two categories—capitalism and socialism—which supposedly describe all socio-economic formations in the modern world. Furthermore, he invests the term “socialism” with two different, mutually exclusive meanings. For the most part, he uses socialism as a synonym for what Marx called full communism, accurately described by Meisner as “conditions of economic abundance [which] would allow people to free themselves from the tyranny of the division of labor, permit the shortening of the workday, and thereby yield the free time for the emergence of new ‘all-round’ people who would freely, cooperatively, and creatively develop their true human potentialities.”

But he also describes China under Mao as “socialist” in a much more limited and conditional sense:

“In the course of a revolution that took place in so primitive a rural environment, values and institutions were forged, albeit in rudimentary and embryonic forms, that pointed to the goals that Marxist theory attributed to an urban proletarian revolution. If China was almost entirely lacking in the material preconditions for socialism, this condition in no way diminished the socialist vision and will of China’s Communist revolutionaries.”

Since China lacked the material preconditions for socialism, once the Communist leaders abandoned their “socialist vision and will,” China became ipso facto capitalist. That is the crux of Meisner’s argument.

Meisner falsifies Marx’s understanding of the relationship between capitalism and socialism by omission and selective quotations. In one of his best-known works, the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx states: “Between capitalist and communist society lies the transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” Both the term and, more importantly, the underlying concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat (or workers state) is completely absent from Meisner’s analysis of the People’s Republic of China.

The theoretical core of the Critique of the Gotha Program concerns the economic structure and dynamics of the transition period. Lenin addressed these same questions in The State and Revolution (1917), which drew heavily on Marx and Engels’ earlier works. The Marxist understanding of the fundamental difference between the workers state, in which economic scarcity still prevails, and socialism bears directly on Meisner’s contention that capitalism has been restored in China and, moreover, even existed in rudimentary form under Mao. Meisner writes:

“The Deng Xiaoping regime inherited from its Maoist predecessor many of the necessary (but not sufficient) features of a capitalist economy. Among them was a relatively well-developed modern industrial and technological base; a hybrid mode of economic development that had separated the immediate producers from the means of production; the predominance of wage labor, formally in the cities, in disguised form in the countryside; and an efficient system for capital accumulation—through the state’s extraction of surplus value, especially from the countryside.”

He goes on to argue that the Deng regime introduced certain features into the economy which amounted to the formation of “bureaucratic capitalism.” The “most important” of these features was “the full commodification of labor-power—and that has largely been accomplished through the proletarianization of a good portion of the peasantry and the ‘smashing of the iron rice bowl’ in the cities.”

Differential wages and a labor market are and will be essential features of any and every workers state, even in the most advanced industrial countries governed according to the most perfect workers democracy. As Marx explained in the Critique of the Gotha Program:

“What we are dealing with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society—after the deductions have been made—exactly what he gives to it.... He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labour costs....

“Here obviously the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is the exchange of equal values.”

The only alternative to such a wage system under conditions of economic scarcity would be the militarization of labor in which the government assigns and compels people to do specific jobs. Under the Mao regime, as Meisner points out, peasants were legally prohibited from migrating to the cities while periodic xia-xiang campaigns forcibly dispatched millions of urban youth to live and work in the countryside. It would appear that Meisner prefers such policies to the greater use of the labor market, and with it more personal freedom, introduced by the Deng regime.

Certainly, genuinely socialist policies would bring about a wage structure very different than that which exists in China today. But there would still be different levels of wages and a market for labor power. Some jobs are a lot harder, more unpleasant and/or dangerous than others. How many people would work in a coal mine or steel mill if they could get the same wages doing clerical work in an office? Similar factors operate in inducing workers to upgrade their job skills. How many people would spend their few hours of free time taking classes and studying technical manuals rather than enjoying themselves with their family and friends unless materially rewarded for doing so? Only when labor absorbs an insignificant amount of time and energy—and that will happen only under full communism—will individuals freely grant it to the social collective.

As indicated in the passage from Meisner quoted above, he maintains that the Chinese economy under Mao as well as Deng was characterized by “capital accumulation” and the extraction of “surplus value” from the direct producers. He here identifies capital with the means of production and surplus value with the economic surplus available after consumption by the direct producers. This is an elementary error for a self-considered Marxist, albeit an unorthodox and critical one. Marx clearly stated:

“Capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character. Capital is not the sum of the material and produced means of production. Capital is rather the means of production transformed into capital, which in themselves are no more capital than gold or silver in itself is money.” [emphasis added]

Capital, Volume III

The investment of a substantial portion of the economic surplus in expanding the means of production would be essential in any workers state. In the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx polemicizes against the notion put forward by the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle that “the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society”:

“Let us take first of all the words ‘proceeds of labor’ in the sense of the product of labor; then the collective proceeds of labor are the total social product.

“From this must now be deducted:

First, cover for replacement of the means of production used up.

Secondly, additional portion for expansion of production.”

Without investing a substantial portion of the economic surplus in replacing and expanding the means of production, there can be no introduction of new technology, no increase in the productivity of labor, no reduction in the workday or workweek. In short, there can be no transition to socialism.

Some leftist opponents of China’s “market socialism” who argue that capitalism was restored in China under Deng point to the relative growth of capitalist enterprises compared to state-owned industry in recent years. This obscures the fact that the Chinese economy is still dominated by state-owned industry. Even in the countryside following decollectivization, land remains state-owned while distribution of agricultural products is controlled by the state. At bottom, the claim that capitalism has been restored is a rationale for refusing to defend the Chinese deformed workers state against the very real threat of capitalist counterrevolution.

China does not have a capitalist economy. For that to happen there would have to be a counterrevolution which smashes the deformed workers state and installs a new state committed to the defense of capitalist property forms. But neither is China a socialist society, nor could it be. China is a deformed workers state, that is, a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat in a backward country governed from its inception by a parasitic bureaucratic caste. Whether China is plunged back into capitalism or moves forward toward socialism will depend in the final analysis not so much on developments within China itself, monumentally important as these are, as on the future course of the class struggle on the international plane.

In analyzing the transition from capitalism to socialism, Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program and Lenin in The State and Revolution assumed an international context in which proletarian revolution had triumphed in all major capitalist countries. However, Soviet Russia and People’s China from their inception had to engage in a life-and-death struggle against more powerful capitalist-imperialist states. The pressures of world capitalism—economic, military and political—have had a profound impact on every aspect of post-1949 China (as they did on the former Soviet Union), from the top echelons of the officialdom to the most remote rural villages. It is impossible to understand the history of China over the past half-century independently of the Cold War waged against it by the U.S. and its imperialist allies.

Yet the Maoist Maurice Meisner writes about China as if it were located on some distant planet light years from the American imperialist state. During the Korean War of the early 1950s and again during the Taiwan Strait (Quemoy and Matsu) crisis in 1958, the U.S. threatened to use its nuclear weapons against China. The threat by the militarily most powerful state in the world to turn China into irradiated rubble is for Meisner so trivial, so unimportant that it is not even mentioned in his The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994, a book of over 500 pages. By contrast, page after page is devoted to scrutinizing Mao’s and Deng’s ever-shifting economic policies and “socialist” theorizing. For Meisner, the history of the People’s Republic of China has been primarily determined by the ideological concepts, attitudes and prejudices of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping!

The pressures of world capitalism on post-1949 China have been compounded by the country’s economic backwardness and the misrule of the Stalinist-Maoist bureaucracy with its anti-revolutionary dogma of “socialism in one country.” A proletarian political revolution ousting the Beijing bureaucracy would install a regime committed to the goal of world revolution, providing a powerful impetus for socialist revolution from Indonesia to Japan and the U.S.

For the sake of theoretical clarity and generality, let us project the following historical situation. A workers revolution takes place in Japan. A planned, socialized economy is thus established in this major advanced industrial country under a government based on democratically elected workers councils and led by a Leninist-Trotskyist party. Furthermore, the Japanese revolution precipitates a proletarian political revolution in China, the revolutionary reunification of the Korean peninsula and also a proletarian political revolution in Vietnam. There thus comes into existence a bloc of East Asian workers states centered on an advanced industrial country (Japan) and governed by revolutionary Marxist (not Stalinist) parties.

Let us further assume that a proletarian revolution does not occur at this time in the United States, which remains the military stronghold and dominant political power of world capitalism. There would thus be a new Cold War between an East Asian Communist bloc and an American-led imperialist alliance. The East Asian workers states—their populations and economic resources—would have to be fully mobilized to prevail in this global conflict. A large part of the economic surplus produced in Japan would be expended on increasing and upgrading its military-industrial capacity. Another large part would be used for economic and military aid to China, Korea and Vietnam. Improving living standards and reducing the workweek in the countries of the East Asian Communist bloc would be limited by the enormous expenditure of resources necessitated by the global Cold War. Obviously, there would be no possibility of the state withering away in China or Japan in this international context.

In short, there can be no transition to socialism for any workers state—whether economically advanced or backward—unless based on proletarian revolution in all major capitalist countries, centrally and ultimately the U.S. As long as the “world’s only superpower” is ruled by the Wall Street banks and Fortune 500 corporations, humanity will be ever threatened by nuclear holocaust.

The Socialist Transformation of Backward Countries: From Marx to Trotsky

Just as Meisner falsifies through omission and selective quotations Marx’s views on the relationship between capitalism and socialism in general, he likewise falsifies Marx’s views on the socialist transformation of backward countries. He begins his book by insisting that Marx held that socialism can be built only in an advanced industrial society previously developed under capitalism.

Marx and Engels initially did believe that industrial capitalism would be extended more or less uniformly on a worldwide basis, but they later abandoned that view in light of subsequent historical experience. The founders of scientific socialism were by no means blind or indifferent to the monumental crimes committed by the Western colonial powers against the indigenous peoples of Asia, Africa and the Americas. But they initially considered such crimes as a historical overhead cost for the modernization of these backward regions. In an 1853 article, “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” Marx wrote:

“England had to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating—the annihilation of the old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia....

“Modern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve the hereditary division of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power.”

This projection was not borne out by the actual course of development. While the Western bourgeoisies introduced certain elements of modern industrial technology (e.g., railroads) into their colonies and semicolonies, the overall effect of capitalist imperialism was to arrest the social and economic development of backward countries. Thus, British colonial rule deliberately perpetuated and utilized traditional reactionary institutions such as the caste system in India and tribalism in sub-Saharan Africa.

Moreover, the economic development which was introduced under European colonial rule had a deformed character. Thus, the British built the railways in India only from the hinterland to the port to facilitate trade with the imperialist metropolis. The rail lines did not connect the different regions of the Indian subcontinent. By contrast, railway construction in the United States during this same period was a prime factor in the economic and social integration of the American nation-state.

By the late 19th century, Marx and Engels had become champions of colonial independence and recognized that the modernization of Asia, Africa and Latin America could take place only within the context of a world socialist order. Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky in 1882:

“India will perhaps, indeed very probably, make a revolution and as a proletariat in process of self-emancipation cannot conduct any colonial wars, it would have to be allowed to run its course.... The same might also take place elsewhere, e.g., in Algeria and Egypt, and would certainly be the best thing for us.... Once Europe is reorganized, and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilized countries will of themselves follow in their wake: economic needs, if anything, will see to that. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organization, I think we today can advance only rather idle hypotheses.”

Marx was still alive at this time and was collaborating closely with Engels. So this represents their final, mature judgment on the socialist transformation of backward countries. Contrary to Meisner, Marx did not maintain that the backward countries had to go through a prolonged period of capitalist development emulating the experience of West Europe and North America.

In the 1880s, at the beginning of the era of modern capitalist imperialism, it was understandable that Marx and Engels assumed that proletarian revolution would first take place in the advanced capitalist countries and that the socialist transformation of the more backward regions of the world would gradually follow in consequence. However, imperialist domination and exploitation strengthened the bourgeois order in West Europe and North America, not least by infecting the working class of these countries with the ideology of national chauvinism and racism. As Lenin pointed out in his 1916 pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, superprofits derived from the colonial and semicolonial countries made it “economically possible to bribe the upper strata of the proletariat” in the imperialist countries.

At the same time, imperialism tended to destabilize the traditional social order in backward countries, generating contradictions which Leon Trotsky termed “combined and uneven development.” A sizable industrial proletariat, working with modern technology, emerged alongside the mass of impoverished peasants still subject to feudal-derived and other pre-capitalist forms of exploitation. The day-to-day struggle against capitalist and precapitalist forms of exploitation was organically intertwined with, and reinforced by, the struggle for national independence.

Recognizing the international contradictions in the era of modern imperialism, Trotsky in his theory of permanent revolution challenged the hitherto accepted sequencing of the world socialist revolution from the advanced to backward countries. It was now possible that the proletariat of a backward country, leading the peasant masses in the struggle against feudal-derived exploitation and foreign imperialist domination, could come to power in advance of the workers of West Europe and North America. Such revolutions would severely weaken the bourgeois order in the imperialist centers while giving a powerful impetus to the revolutionary consciousness of the workers in the advanced capitalist countries.

Drawing on the understanding first laid out by Marx and Engels in their 1850 “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League,” Trotsky developed this concept of permanent revolution at the beginning of the 20th century specifically with regard to tsarist Russia, and it was validated by life itself in the Bolshevik-led October Revolution of 1917. In the late 1920s, in light of the experience of the defeated Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, Trotsky generalized the theory and program of permanent revolution to what is now called the “Third World.” Trotsky recognized that while the socialist revolution could well begin in a backward country oppressed by imperialism, it could be completed only by proletarian revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries:

“The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet....

“In a country where the proletariat has power in its hands as the result of the democratic revolution, the subsequent fate of the dictatorship and socialism depends in the last analysis not only and not so much upon the national productive forces as upon the development of the international socialist revolution.”

The Permanent Revolution (1929); reprinted in The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (1969)

China and the Permanent Revolution

The Bolshevik Revolution issued out of World War I, which also transformed China into a classic case of combined and uneven development. The war choked off the supply of consumer goods and capital to China from the West European powers, giving a powerful impetus to local capitalist industry. Both Chinese- and Japanese-owned enterprises burgeoned during the war, supplying the huge domestic market. By 1919 there were some 1.5 million industrial workers in China, most of them newly urbanized and retaining strong links with the countryside.

At the same time, the Bolshevik Revolution profoundly affected this new proletariat and the left wing of the Chinese intelligentsia, exemplified by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, who now saw in communism the road forward to the national liberation and social and economic modernization of China. Within five years of its formation in 1920, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had grown from a small circle of left-wing intellectuals into a mass workers party.

But by then the Soviet Union and the Communist International (CI) had come under the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Reviving the Menshevik notion of “two-stage revolution” and thus insisting that the coming revolution in semicolonial China would be limited to a “national-democratic revolution” placing the national bourgeoisie in power, the CI under Stalin and Bukharin instructed the Chinese Communists, despite repeated objections from CCP leaders, to liquidate into Chiang Kai-shek’s bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang (KMT). This class-collaborationist strategy led to the bloody defeat of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27.

As Chiang’s army approached Shanghai in early 1927, over 500,000 workers staged a general strike which turned into an insurrection. But the Shanghai proletariat had been disarmed both politically and militarily as a result of Stalin’s treacherous policy. Shortly after entering the city, Chiang staged a bloody coup that beheaded the Chinese proletariat, as tens of thousands of Communists and trade unionists were slaughtered.

Trotsky had fought against Stalin and Bukharin’s disastrous policies. A significant section of the CCP cadre, including Chen Duxiu as well as younger party leaders like Peng Shuzhi (Peng Shu-tse), now adhered to the Trotskyist Left Opposition. But after the proletariat was smashed, the CCP leadership, soon taken over by Mao, abandoned the cities altogether in favor of peasant-based rural guerrilla warfare. The CCP was thus transformed from a proletarian into a petty-bourgeois nationalist party. Commenting on this in his 1932 document “Peasant War in China and the Proletariat,” Trotsky wrote:

“Had the Chinese Communist Party concentrated its efforts for the last few years in the cities, in industry, on the railroads; had it sustained the trade unions, the educational clubs and circles; had it, without breaking off from the workers, taught them to understand what was occurring in the villages—the share of the proletariat in the general correlation of forces would have been incomparably more favorable today.

“The party actually tore itself away from its class. Thereby in the last analysis it can cause injury to the peasantry as well. For should the proletariat continue to remain on the sidelines, without organization, without leadership, then the peasant war even if fully victorious will inevitably arrive in a blind alley.”

It was left to the Chinese Trotskyists to rebuild a proletarian revolutionary party. But they were not able to do so given the effectiveness and intensity of state repression directed against them under the KMT white terror and Japanese occupation. Even basic trade-union struggles were suppressed. Furthermore, the international depression of the 1930s sharply reduced China’s export markets, leading to a contraction of the industrial labor force. The Japanese invasion and occupation further devastated Chinese industry. At bottom, the problem faced by the Chinese Trotskyists in this period, above and beyond fierce repression, was that there was very little in the way of a proletariat to organize for socialist revolution; the Chinese working class was not, as it had been in the 1920s, a contender for political power (see “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 53, Summer 1997).

The disintegration of Chiang’s KMT regime in the aftermath of World War II opened the way for the victory of Mao’s peasant-guerrilla army. While Mao had called for a coalition with Chiang under the formula of “New Democracy,” the 1949 Revolution was itself a refutation of the “two-stage revolution” since it resulted not in a bourgeois “new democracy” but in a bureaucratically deformed workers state. Meisner simultaneously falsely ascribes Stalin’s positions to Lenin while painting as Mao’s innovations the politics which Mao inherited from Stalin. “New Democracy” was simply another term for the class-collaborationist Stalinist program which led to the liquidation of the CCP and the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution.

Wei, Soviet Stalinism and Maoism

Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution directly addresses one of the central themes of Meisner’s book: social revolution in backward countries and their socialist transformation. Yet there is no mention of Trotsky at all in this lengthy work. As a veteran American academic of leftist sympathies, Meisner is certainly aware of Trotsky’s views. Indeed, in his earlier book Mao’s China: A History of the People’s Republic (1977), Meisner not only correctly outlines Trotsky’s theory but takes pains to describe the entirely different meaning “permanent revolution” had for Mao, who turned it into a recipe for insane economic adventurism (e.g., the “Great Leap Forward”) and intrabureaucratic factional warfare (the “Cultural Revolution”). One recalls that during the “ideological” conflict between the Mao regime and the Kremlin leadership under Nikita Khrushchev in the late 1950s and early ’60s, both sides denounced the other for “Trotskyite deviationism.” Meisner’s failure to consider Trotsky’s views in the more recent book is a deliberate act of intellectual dishonesty.

There is also no mention of Trotsky in neo-Maoist Wei Wei’s lengthy article in the Chinese journal Central Current, “At the Doorstep of a New Century,” a polemical overview of 20th-century history mainly focusing on Soviet Russia and post-1949 China. Wei contends that Lenin was the first Marxist to maintain that a successful proletarian revolution was possible in a relatively backward country. In fact, prior to 1917, the Bolshevik leader believed that a revolution in Russia in itself would lead to a very radical form of bourgeois democracy which he termed “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” Despite this limitation, Lenin’s views were diametrically opposed to those of the Mensheviks, who propounded that the coming “democratic revolution” would necessarily place power in the hands of the Russian bourgeoisie and argued that the role of the workers party was to be a loyal opposition, not an active contender for power.

It was only with the February Revolution of 1917 that Lenin came to understand that the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy could bring the workers directly to power, establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia. At the same time, Trotsky came over to Lenin’s conception of a hardened, democratic-centralist vanguard party. On the basis of this convergence, in 1917 Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party, thereby enabling him to play a central role alongside Lenin in leading the first and to date only successful proletarian revolution in history.

Wei’s knowledge of Bolshevism, the October Revolution and Soviet Russia is clearly fragmentary as well as deeply distorted by his Stalinist-Maoist outlook. Thus he attributes the perspective of “building socialism in one country” to Lenin, asserting that the Bolshevik leader maintained that “the working class can rely on their political power, together with all the laboring people, to overcome the economic and cultural backwardness in their own countries.” In reality, Lenin, no less than Trotsky, insisted on the international character of the socialist revolution. Speaking a year after the Bolsheviks came to power, Lenin stated:

“Comrades, from the very beginning of the October Revolution, foreign policy and international relations have been the main questions facing us. Not merely because from now on all the states in the world are being firmly linked by imperialism into a single system, or rather, into one dirty, bloody mass, but because the complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active co-operation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia. Hence one of the main problems of the revolution is now the extent to which we succeed in broadening the revolution in other countries too.”

— “Speech on the International Situation” (November 1918)

This was the Bolshevik view until the triumph of the political counterrevolution in early 1924. Later that year, Stalin revised his own earlier statement that socialism could be victorious only on the basis of proletarian state power in at least a number of the most advanced countries and propounded the anti-Marxist dogma of “socialism in one country,” which corresponded to the narrow, nationalist perspective of the bureaucratic caste for which he was chief spokesman. This nationalist outlook was also promoted by the Stalinized CCP under Mao.

Interestingly, Wei’s ideological outlook is much closer to Soviet Stalinism than to Maoism, despite his exaltation of the latter. This is most evident in his attitude toward the former Soviet Union, which he describes as a “communist fortress” right up to the moment it was destroyed by capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92. That’s a far cry from orthodox Maoism.

Mao contended that capitalism had been restored in the Soviet Union because of the “revisionism” of the Kremlin leadership under Nikita Khrushchev. By this he meant in particular Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin’s crimes and his subsequent denunciation of Mao and the cutting off of Soviet military and economic aid to China in the late 1950s. By the late ’60s, Mao went further, branding the USSR a “social imperialist” state even more dangerous to China than American imperialism. As we pointed out earlier, this was the ideological justification for China’s criminal alliance with the U.S. against the Soviet Union beginning in the early 1970s.

Despite the Maoists’ denunciations of Soviet “revisionism,” at no time did the CCP attempt to set up a new, “anti-revisionist” international. No less than Moscow’s, Beijing’s brand of “socialism in one country” meant betraying revolutionary opportunities abroad. The fruits of this policy were seen in Indonesia in 1965, when the pro-Beijing Communist Party, the largest in the capitalist world, subordinated its mass working-class and peasant base to the bourgeois-nationalist Sukarno regime. Thus the Indonesian Stalinists disarmed the workers, both politically and militarily, leaving them defenseless when General Suharto, backed by the CIA and Islamic fundamentalists, launched an anti-Communist military coup which resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands (see “Lessons of Indonesia 1965,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 55, Autumn 1999).

Wei argues that Khrushchev’s “revisionism” merely set into motion political developments which, three decades later, led to the restoration of capitalism. He thus presents a revision, so to speak, of Mao’s position on Soviet “revisionism”:

“Although Khrushchev was holding the communist flag on the surface, in fact what he carried out was a revisionist line and a series of revisionist policies. Mao said that quantitative change contains partial qualitative change. Because quantitative change leads to qualitative change, in the end after 30 years the heirs of Khrushchev—Gorbachev, etc.—completed this dramatic change, rendering the overnight destruction of the communist fortress which Hitler’s million-man army failed to break through.”

Obviously, we don’t know whether Wei is consciously falsifying Mao’s position or genuinely thinks this is a correct interpretation of Mao Zedong Thought. That is not, in any case, an important question.

But why a Chinese leftist intellectual today should differ with Mao on the class nature of the former Soviet Union is a question of some political import. The answer lies not in what happened in Russia in the past but in what is happening in China now. Here it is clarifying to contrast Wei with Meisner. Meisner emphasizes that during the Cultural Revolution, Mao denounced the Chinese Communist officialdom as a “bureaucratic class” whose members were becoming “bourgeois elements sucking the blood of the workers.” In this way Meisner claims Mao’s authority for his own position that under Deng—one of the main targets of the Cultural Revolution—the Chinese economy became one of “bureaucratic capitalism.”

Now, however, there have arisen powerful forces in China—Western and Japanese investors, the offshore Chinese bourgeoisie, top officials and their “princeling” sons, wealthy farmers, small and not-so-small entrepreneurs, many intellectuals—who really are driving to restore capitalism, that is, private property in the means of production. And the Chinese workers want to defend “socialism” as they understand it; they are resisting the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the accompanying attacks on the “iron rice bowl.” Thus the realities of the class struggle are forcing leftist intellectuals like Wei to abandon Mao’s idealist version of capitalist restoration and the reactionary notion that the Soviet Union was “bureaucratic capitalist” or “state capitalist.”

While Wei’s views on the Soviet Union are far less reactionary than those of Mao, they are still fundamentally distorted by his adherence to the dogma of “building socialism in one country.” He, too, resorts to subjectivist idealism to explain (though not to define) the restoration of capitalism in East Europe and the former USSR. In the mid-1980s—it is not explained why—the Soviet government and the ruling Communist Party were taken over by a man, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was even more of a “revisionist,” much more, than Khrushchev had been. Wei emphasizes that in Gorbachev’s memoirs, “He frankly admitted that he started doubting communism since his college years,” as if one man’s intellectual outlook was a decisive cause of capitalist counterrevolution.

The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union—a world-historic defeat for the international proletariat—cannot be explained by the ideological attitudes of the Kremlin leadership. It can be explained only in terms of the deepgoing social and economic contradictions within the Soviet Union as a bureaucratically degenerated workers state under the relentless and all-sided pressure of world imperialism.

The Illusion of “Building Socialism in One Country”

In marked contrast to “Cultural Revolution” Maoism, Wei’s defense of socialism rests heavily on the superior economic performance of Soviet Russia under Stalin and in the immediate post-Stalin period (and also in China under Mao). He writes: “The growth rate for the USSR from 1928 to 1958 was 54 percent (44 percent per capita) per decade.” He then points out that this was not only higher than the growth rate of any capitalist country during this period but also higher than any capitalist country had experienced historically over a comparable period. Thus, in Wei’s view, the Soviet Union was successfully “building socialism” and was well on its way to overtaking Western capitalism economically.

Ironically, the same argument was made at the time by that arch-“revisionist” Nikita Khrushchev. In 1960, the Kremlin leader captured world attention when he declared that 20 years hence the Soviet Union would not only overtake the United States in economic production but would achieve full communism. While the latter claim was manifestly utopian, the former was simply a projection of the relatively higher Soviet growth rate during the 1950s over the next two decades. However, in the 1970s the Soviet economy lost its former dynamism as the rate of growth declined sharply and steadily.

The underlying cause of the Soviet economic malaise was actually predicted decades before by Trotsky in his classic study of Stalinist Russia, The Revolution Betrayed (1936). He explained that the exceptionally high rate of industrial growth achieved during the early five-year plans, which were based on constructing factories modeled on ones already built in the West and manned by surplus labor from the countryside, could not be sustained at a higher level of economic development:

“The progressive role of the Soviet bureaucracy coincides with the period devoted to introducing into the Soviet Union the most important elements of capitalist technique. The rough work of borrowing, imitating, transplanting and grafting, was accomplished on the basis laid down by the revolution. There was, thus far, no question of any new word in the sphere of technique, science or art. It is possible to build gigantic factories according to a ready-made Western pattern by bureaucratic command—although, to be sure, at triple the normal cost. But the farther you go, the more the economy runs into the problem of quality, which slips out of the hands of a bureaucracy like a shadow.... Under a nationalized economy, quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative—conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.”

These contradictions came to the fore in the 1970s when continuing quantitative expansion of industrial capacity and output by the old methods was blocked by an increasing shortage of labor. The Soviet Union now had to switch from extensive to intensive economic growth, a goal proclaimed by the Kremlin leadership under Leonid Brezhnev. This entailed introducing a new, higher overall level of technology and a corresponding increase in the technological capacity of the working population. To maximize labor productivity also required a qualitative raising of managerial efficiency. But the Stalinist bureaucracy—increasingly corrupt, politically cynical and self-interested—was organically incapable of a dynamic modernization of the Soviet economy.

When Gorbachev came to power, he denounced the last years of the Brezhnev regime as an “era of stagnation.” He offered market-oriented “reforms,” dubbed perestroika (restructuring), as the only means of transforming the USSR into an “intensive, highly developed economy,” enabling “her to enter the next millennium with dignity as a great and flourishing power” (quoted in Anders Aslund, How Russia Became a Market Economy [1995]). We wrote at the time:

“Within the framework of Stalinism there is an inherent tendency toward economic decentralization as an alternative to workers democracy. Since managers and workers are not subject to the discipline of soviet democracy, a section of the bureaucracy sees subjecting the economic actors to the discipline of the market as the only answer to the Soviet Union’s serious economic problems.” [emphasis in original]

— “Where Is Gorbachev’s Russia Going?” Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 41-42, Winter 1987-88

Gorbachev’s perestroika generated economic chaos and greatly strengthened the internal forces of capitalist restoration throughout the USSR. Within a few years, those forces—actively supported by Western, centrally American, imperialism—would triumph under Gorbachev’s one-time lieutenant and successor, Boris Yeltsin.

From Mao to Deng: The Economic Dimension

The People’s Republic of China demonstrates the superiority of a planned, collectivized economy, even with bureaucratic parasitism and mismanagement, over a backward capitalist country. But it also demonstrates the impossibility of an economically backward workers state catching up with, much less overtaking, an advanced capitalist country.

The Chinese Revolution occurred about the same time that India achieved its independence from British colonialism. For the next several decades, this South Asian country—the most populous in the world after China—was governed by Nehru’s bourgeois-nationalist Congress Party. The economic conditions which Nehru & Co. inherited from the British Raj (colonial administration) were, on balance, more favorable (or less unfavorable) than those which confronted Mao and his colleagues in 1949. The Chinese economy—the agricultural as well as industrial sector—had been devastated by decades of war and civil war.

Yet within 20 years, China had surpassed India in all significant measures of economic and social progress. At the end of the Mao era, in 1977 China was producing 30 to 40 percent more food per capita than India even with 15 percent less arable land, and in China food was distributed far more equitably. By the early 1980s, per capita gross national product in China was 20 percent higher than in India. The infant mortality rate in China was 70 percent that of India, while life expectancy at birth was 67 years compared to 55 years in India. Secondary school enrollment was 44 percent of the school-age population in China compared to only 30 percent in India.

However, if one compares China to the United States or even the Soviet Union the picture is entirely different. When in 1978 Deng became the country’s paramount leader, crop yield per agricultural worker in China was 1,000 kilograms compared to 10,000 kilograms in the USSR and 95,000 kilograms in the U.S. China was generating 257 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, the United States 2.2 trillion kilowatt-hours. And since the population of China at this time was three times greater than that of the U.S., the difference in per capita output for the U.S. was three times greater than the difference in total amount.

It was precisely the acute contradiction between China’s relative economic backwardness and the “great power” nationalism of its bureaucratic rulers which impelled Deng & Co. down the road of market-based “reforms.” The neo-Maoist publicist Wei Wei is organically incapable of understanding the social and economic factors underlying Deng’s policies. In defending the achievements of the Mao era, he writes: “In Mao’s China, from 1952 to 1972, the growth rate [per decade] was as high as 64.5 percent (34 percent per capita). The economic development of China was not ‘moving forward at a snail’s pace,’ as many Western reporters erroneously told their readers.” It is true that many Western ideologues as well as the propagandists of the Deng regime deliberately understated the substantial economic gains China made during the Mao era. However, Wei is blind to the contradictions and extreme unevenness of China’s economic development during this period.

By 1952, most branches of Chinese industry had recovered, reaching or surpassing their pre-1949 peaks. The basis was thus laid for the First Five Year Plan (1953-57), which was closely modelled on the early Soviet five-year plans. In economic terms, this was far and away the most successful period of the Mao era. Industrial output grew at 18 percent per year, more than doubling China’s industrial capacity. But this very development revealed a central economic dilemma facing Chinese Stalinism. Agricultural output failed to keep pace with the rapid industrial growth. Thus a continuing rapid growth of an urban proletariat threatened to produce increasing food shortages and a rising cost of living.

While the First Five Year Plan was highly successful on its own terms, the results came nowhere close to satisfying the aspirations of Mao and his colleagues to transform China into a world power on a par with the U.S. and USSR. In the late 1950s, Mao launched the “Great Leap Forward”—an adventurist economic program attempting massive rural industrialization symbolized by the construction of “backyard steel furnaces.” It should be pointed out that the Great Leap Forward was initially supported by the “pragmatic” elements of the CCP leadership, represented by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who later were strongly critical of it. The consequent economic collapse amid widespread starvation in the countryside severely damaged Mao’s hitherto unchallenged authority among the upper and middle levels of the bureaucracy. This situation underlay the outbreak of violent factional warfare in the mid-late 1960s known as the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” as Mao sought to regain supreme control in Beijing.

Discussions of the last decade of the Mao era usually focus on the political-ideological sphere—the Cultural Revolution, the rise and fall of the “Gang of Four,” including Mao’s widow Jiang Qing, which briefly ruled after Mao’s death. Economic developments during this period get relatively short shrift. Yet these economic developments are key to understanding the recourse of Mao’s successors to market-based “reforms.”

Mao’s last decade coincided with the Third and Fourth Five Year Plans (covering 1966-70 and 1971-75). Industrial growth, while down from the exceptional rates of the First Five Year Plan, was still substantial at 9.5 percent per annum. Agricultural output, however, barely kept pace with population growth. Per capita grain output was 312 kilograms at the end of the Fourth Five Year Plan, only marginally higher than it had been at the end of the first plan 18 years earlier. Per capita output of raw cotton—the country’s most important industrial crop—had not increased at all over the course of almost two decades.

Soviet economic development was also characterized by a marked imbalance between industrial and agricultural growth. But the margin of subsistence in the Chinese countryside was qualitatively narrower—by large orders of magnitude—than it had been in Russia even in the 1930s. As we pointed out earlier in this article, when Deng came to power the crop yield per agricultural worker in the Soviet Union was ten times that of China! The low level of agricultural productivity in China was thus a fundamental barrier to rapid and extensive industrialization.

The first major economic “reform” undertaken by the Deng regime was the decollectivization of agriculture. The intent was to harness the acquisitive appetites of peasant families to drive forward the rural economy. Initially, the new “household responsibility” system did lead to an upturn in agricultural production. Also contributing to this was increased production of farm equipment and chemical fertilizers.

In the longer run, the decollectivization of agriculture generated a class of wealthy farmers exploiting the labor of their poorer neighbors. At the same time, sections of the urban industrial economy were opened to Western and Japanese investors and the offshore Chinese bourgeoisie in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. The social gains of the 1949 Chinese Revolution are today threatened by powerful forces striving toward capitalist restoration.

The mass unemployment and starvation racking the masses of Indonesia, South Korea and other countries caught up in the Asian economic depression give a picture of what capitalist restoration would mean for the Chinese workers and poor peasants, who were protected from the full brunt of the crisis by China’s collectivized economy. Undermining that economy, the Beijing bureaucracy continues to pursue market “reforms” and the growth of a capitalist sector (e.g., the “Special Economic Zones”) on the fatuous assumption that the world capitalist market will expand limitlessly.

Stalinist bureaucratic rule is leading China to a crisis which will determine the fate of the proletarian and peasant masses in that country and well beyond. As we wrote a few years ago in “China on the Brink: Workers Political Revolution or Capitalist Enslavement?” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 53, Summer 1997):

“The aims of China’s would-be exploiters—centrally to secure the right to buy and sell property and hand it down to their offspring—can only be achieved through smashing the existing state apparatus by one means or another and replacing it with a new one based on the principle of private ownership of the means of production. The one force which can stop the drive toward capitalist restoration is the Chinese proletariat....

“The program of political revolution is needed in China today if the workers and impoverished peasant masses are to emerge victorious in the class battles that lie ahead.”

The way forward for the Chinese proletariat lies in constructing a proletarian-internationalist party whose goal is world socialist revolution. This was the aim of the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky; it was the aim of the early CCP led by Chen Duxiu and of the Chinese Trotskyists; and it is the aim of the International Communist League as we fight to reforge Trotsky’s Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution. A Leninist-Trotskyist party in China would link the struggle against the corrupt Stalinist bureaucracy with the class struggles of the militant Indonesian and South Korean workers against their capitalist rulers, and with the workers and oppressed minorities in the imperialist centers, such as Japan, the U.S. and Germany. Only through extending socialist revolution to these countries will the threat of capitalist re-enslavement be eliminated once and for all and the basis laid for the development of China in a socialist Asia.

ICL Home Page