"Is the East Still Red? – Socialism and the Market in China,” by Gary Blank, 2015
The most complex issue in Marxism today is the class character of China. The present conventional view among most strands of Marxists – whether originating from Maoist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Social-Democrat (‘democratic socialist’) or some other left tradition, is that it is a capitalism of some kind. Blank challenges this assertion – not from the viewpoint of a pro-Beijing CCP supporter, but as an independent Marxist who studies this question exclusively. In the process he clarifies both the factual and the ideological issues regarding China, no matter what your position.
Blank gives a comprehensive yet succinct overview, focusing on two books, “China and Socialism: Market Reforms and Class Struggle” by Burkett/Hart-Landsberg (“BHL”), and “Adam Smith in China” by Giovanni Arrighi. In doing so he references many contemporary writers and comes to his own conclusions. Of note is his ability to consider Leon Trotsky’s views, as Trotsky was the first and most prominent theoretician to witness and define a ‘degenerated’ or ‘deformed workers’ state.’
Blank sees good things in both books, but contends that each is wrong about China and political economy - in their either excessively-pessimistic or overly-optimistic conclusions and methods. BHL are wrong because they ignore the state, yet right because they identify the continuing dispossession of the working class and peasantry. Arrighi is wrong because he’s essentially given up on the prospect of socialism, yet he also identifies areas where the CCP is still influential in the right way. Blank of course investigates the books more fully than a review can.
Blank’s view is that the last 20 years in China exhibit “many of the central hallmarks of a transition to capitalism.” About market socialism, he contends that a “non-capitalist market society is truly illusory, “ Yet the transition to capitalism is not complete in China and is ‘subject to serious contention by workers, peasants and sections of the ruling stratum (CCP officials and enterprise managers) that still reproduce themselves in non-capitalist ways.” Unlike most observers who only look at economic facts, Blank also considers the ‘state’ and working class struggle as key issues – which are nearly always ignored by leftists who think China is already ‘state capitalist’ or capitalist. Ultimately what defines modern capitalism is its capture of the state apparatus. It is not merely a mode of economic production. He notes that it was the failure of the Chinese merchant class to seize the feudal state that stymied the development of modern capitalism in China long ago. This process of state capture occurred in England and Europe first, which made European capitalism possible. The state, as any Marxist knows, is not a neutral body - it is allied to one class or another, and no class can dominate society without one.
Blank discusses the historical positions of various tendencies in regard to the state. He gives short shrift to the contention that China is ‘state capitalist’ either from the ultra-left position of Alex Callinicos or the ‘progressive’ position of Samir Amin. State capitalism in whatever form would have to be a new stage of capital inserting itself between capitalism and workers’ rule – a ‘stage’ unanticipated by any Marxist until Max Schachtman. Blank himself follows a definition of “bureaucratic collectivism,” which he considers a refinement over Trotsky’s position about ‘degenerated’ and ‘deformed’ workers’ states. Both are transitional societies that never reached socialism, but differ in the definition of the bureaucracy. He contends that, unlike Trotsky’s ‘orthodox Marxist” position that the bureaucracy is a parasitic ‘caste’- the ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ view sees it as a new social class. As I might ask about state capitalism, which ‘new’ class might that be? Essentially this new class would introduce a new historical phase that all capitalist societies ‘might’ have to go through. This is reminiscent of the stagism of the Second International before WWI, or the endless ‘popular front’ of reformist socialism.
Blank goes through the various ‘reforms’ in China from the 1978 plenum in which market socialism was initiated by Deng Xiaoping; the 1992 turn to the IMF and export production after Deng’s ‘southern tour’; 1997 and a turn towards mass privatization; a turn in 2008 in which land use rights were allowed for sale. His central contention is that the Chinese Army is still controlled by the CCP; the major banking sector is still controlled by the CCP; the major energy, mineral and transport areas are still controlled by the CCP; that agriculture has not been taken fully out of the hands of the peasants or the local government units; that the yuan is not convertible; that there are capital controls in place in the Chinese economy; that state banks still loan money to ‘money-losing’ concerns to avoid unemployment (called ‘malign distribution’). And most importantly, this reflects that peasant / working class / CCP bureaucrat resistance has time and time again delayed or stopped the full transition to a market society – even after 37 years of trying. There is still a left wing in the CCP and a ‘New Left’ outside it that opposes market efforts. The ideas of Marxism and socialism still have some weight in Chinese society among the lower classes and are still a material force.
The program to make ‘market socialism’ work is like trying to square a circle. It cannot be done and puts the bureaucracy in a bind. Either a full market will depose them from power, as many bureaucrats have found themselves not benefitting by privatization - or a full top-down command economy will stifle productivity, leading to stagnation. This problem of productivity was/is an almost fatal problem in every single workers’ state, as the economy was not really in the hands of the working class through forms of workers’ democracy. This crushed productivity and initiative. Blank thinks that no real working class democracy has ever existed in China even under Mao; nor a high enough level of productivity and technology to ease labor. Both of which were prescribed by Marx in order to reach actual socialism. Marx considered socialism to be the lower level of a classless society that would incidentally not need a state.
Blank contends that the new neo-liberal billionaire ‘princelings’ in the Party are concentrated in finance and export industries and do not yet dominate the Party. The export sector crashed in 2008 due to the capitalist crisis in the West. It was only the most extraordinary plan by the CCP after that crash that stimulated Chinese production to an almost unheard of degree, It basically provided a stabilizer for the whole world economy – much as the USSR and eastern Europe used to do when they still existed as non-capitalist states. A neo-liberal capitalist economy would have not done this – perhaps even the reverse. The Chinese government actions in regard to climate change also indicate that the 'market' is not dominating this issue either.
Blank makes fun of the contention that a mass social revolution can be overturned by a single plenum meeting in the 1970s, as contended by orthodox Maoists like William Hinton and their academic fellow travelers in Monthly Review. Philosophically, this orthodox Maoist idea is rank idealism. He points out that Burkett-Hart cannot really date their ‘counter-revolution’ - nor can many others. After all, the contention that capitalism can slip into power is a sort of ‘reformism in reverse.’ A ‘state’ suddenly just turns into its opposite without the collapse or defeat of its army, the ‘state on wheels’ as it was once called. Or without the collapse of the power of the proletarian/bureaucrat Party. Reversing a mass revolution in the back room. Again, capitalism is not merely an economic system – but a political/economic system. This is why Marxists refer to ‘political economy’ – not just ‘economics.’ Which is why not just economic issues have to be dealt with. Did the Bolshevik revolution triumph in October 1917? Or only when the main industries were nationalized? The question answers itself. We can date the end of the USSR; we can date the end of the Polish workers state, the Hungarian workers’ state, etc. Not very difficult. Not so in China. Why?
Ultimately behind Blanks’ views are a sort of ‘defencism.’ It is no accident that the US is making China a new target, encircling it militarily. It is no accident that the US opposes a Chinese-controlled international bank. Nor is it unusual for the allies of American capitalism in the CCP and among Chinese neo-liberals to still call for more ‘liberalization’ and more focus on ‘growth.’ Or why they block with the Chinese right-wing all the time. Why? Because China is a new ‘imperialist’ power? Actually the capitalists know that the situation regarding ‘communism’ is not anywhere near complete in China. Even capitalist banks are not agreeing on what part of the economy is controlled by the state and what isn’t – some see low, others high. The point is that China is still ‘transitioning’ – the question is not settled. Intellectual surrender by the Left is no help to the Chinese masses. If Leftists are actually internationalists, failing to understand what to defend within China will not allow them to intervene in China in the right way. And many leftists – like Schactman so long ago – have already surrendered the gains of the Chinese revolution that still remain. It is time to defend China in the right way.
Prior reviews on China: “Minqi Li’s, “The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy,” Wang Hui’s “The End of the Revolution and the Limits of Modernity,” Samir Amin's“The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism” and Yeuzhi Zhao's “China: The Fall of Bo Xilai & the “Chongqing Model” from Monthly Review. (Use blog search box, lower left.)
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
April 7, 2015
Bandiera Rossa Triumfera!
Commune de Cortona, Toscana, Italia