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The Montréal Review, April 2011


Today, when we speak about socialism or communism, we usually discuss economy. Human rights and political system always come second largely because in the twentieth century the real competition between the two systems - the communist bloc and the capitalist "free world" - was in the economic field. And more importantly, Marxist theory, the orthodox socialist theory, was primarily based on the economic analysis of capital accumulation and on critique of the existing in the nineteenth century labour relations. The Marxist theory had no ambition to explain the political organization of a future socialist/communist society, it offered only a vague millenarian prediction that in communist societies, purified from the evils of capital owners, the state will cease to exist, which means that political will disappear as a source of human organization. (1) Marxist ideals - equality, fairness, freedom - proved too ambitions for people to apply in practice, but they were also a great source for political emancipation and economic reform.

There are no communist states today. Indeed, there have never been communist states. The former communist countries such as the Soviet Union or DDR (East Germany) were a twentieth century modification of the old Oriental despotism. But today, curiously, the ruling elites in the second economic power in the world are arguing that their country is a communist state. They use Marxist rhetoric and communist symbols and the political organization of their country is one-party system, the same as it was in the former Soviet Union. Yet, what is communist and what is not, usually depends not on state propaganda or politics, but on facts that deal with the economic organization of society. In a truly communist state there are no private owners, the land is collectivized, and the state, which is supposedly an expression of collective will, regulates economic activity channelling capitals and investments were they are supposedly most needed.

Marxism is full of contradictions when we try to apply its principles into practice. Here's a paradox: in a communist state the capitalist is the state bureaucrat. The bureaucrat is not an exclusive owner of the capital, but his power to use it and to create labour relations makes him, at least for a certain period of time, a true capitalist. Thus, there is no pure communist state, a state without capitalists. But the economic organization of contemporary China does not resemble even the "bureaucratic" state capitalism of twentieth century. In 1999, in "communist" China, more than 20 million people were employed by private enterprises and the contribution of private sector to the industrial output was 73.5%. (2) The state run newspaper "China Daily" reported last summer (2010) that private sector provides 90% of the new jobs in China and quoted Vice Minister Zhong Youping who said that the country had 7.55 million private companies at the end of March 2010, up almost 14 percent year-on-year, with total registered capital exceeding 15 trillion yuan ($2.2 trillion), up 26.9 percent. "Zhong urged local industry and commerce bureaus to continue their support for the private sector following the central government's support plan unveiled in May to boost development in the private sector," the China Daily reported. (3)

Discussion and repetition of the obvious is always boring. As the early twentieth century cultural reformer Hu Shi, I believe that we should speak or write when we really think that we have something important to say. In this short essay, I have no ambition to argue that China is not a communist country. The facts speak for themselves. Everyone knows how capitalist China is. I am more interested in questions like Why did China accept (and still follows) the Marxist ideology? Why does its political system resemble this of the former communist states? How communist was the philosophy of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong? The lenght of this essay does not permit a detailed analysis, and my knowledge of China is not so deep to offer satisfactory answers, but I hope that I will answer to these questions at least partially.

Although a great civilization, a state with rich history, culture and traditions, China in XIX century did not escape the fate of the most states in the world that fell under the sway of the European economic, political and cultural power. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the West European societies did two crucial breaks in the consistent chain of human history: they restricted the power of king and aristocracy and developed a new economic system rewarding productivity, trade and business dynamism. Such a break up was achieved for first time in human history and was hugely supported by a compendium of liberal, well-defined ideas that legitimized political equality and economic freedom from the old feudal bondages. This revolution did not bring immediate prosperity to all people, nor eradicated the social and political evils. The disappointment from the new order, the development of new forms of oppression, (4) created a new set of ideas that aimed to push civilization even farther ahead. So, for example, John Locke's idea of the sacrality of private property was re-developed by Marx, who saw in property an absolute individual right: everyone owns his labour and no one has right to steal the surplus value of his brethren's product of labour. (5) Socialism was born as an opposition to the industrial capitalism that on his part was a result of the political and social revolutions in the late 18th and early 19th century.

While Europe was in the ferment of new social, economic and political reformations, the rest of the world was still moving according to the old time. China in the 19th century was in the hands of an old, sclerotic dynasty -- the Qing dynasty; its society was living the life of its ancestors and when the European traders and missionaries appeared on Chinese shores, China, despite its culture and wealth, was defenceless. While nominally China looked as an independent state, in the late 19th century it was an already colonized country.

In the late 19th century China faced an alien, modern civilization that was puffing ahead with a predatorily greed. And as Marx and Engels wrote in their seminal essay, The Communist Manifesto, China was doomed as every "underdeveloped" (or "feudal") country in the world, to submit and adopt the features of world capitalism. (6) Here is the root of the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the 20th century China. China's communism was a reaction in great extent to the Western capitalist expansion and to the unpreparedness of China to face its challenges. That is why Chinese communism came from the womb of the nationalist movements and never abandoned its most powerful message - to save China's integrity and independence from the "imperialist" foreign forces. (7) A brief look at Mao's vast political writings will convince us that their major theme was not the structure of the new socialist society or the critique of the existing capitalist order, but the revolution against the "imperialists". Here it should be added that Mao's revolution was not against the proprietary industrial class (foreign and national), but against the rich peasants, because the rich peasants were the big exploiters of the labour. In 1920s - 1940s, there were no true labour or worker movements in China represented by the communist party; instead, there were small cells of city intellectuals and big armies of angry peasants fighting against a government that supported local despotism. (8)

Chinese communism came through two general, very unusual ways. First, it came because of the processes explained in the quoted under line passage from the Communist Manifesto: "The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature..." Marx and Engels argued this and with good reason. The intellectual achievements of the Western nations penetrated everywhere, and the European communists/socialists hoped that as the political ideals of bourgeoisie were disseminated throughout the world with the rise of trade and economic interdependence, so it would happen with the socialist idea when the working classes, created by the capitalist system, mature politically. The socialist ideas appeared in China when the Chinese came into "firsthand contact with the developed industrial society in Japan and the West", Arif Dirik noted in "Marxism in the Chinese Revolution." They were not a result of "objective laws" and historical logic, to use the Marxist terminology. They were not a result of the effects of capitalist environment, but reflections of the intellectual influence of Western proletariat. They were ideas, the seeds of the "world literature" planted in the Chinese soil by cosmopolitan intellectuals and Christian missionaries. (9)

Secondly, communism (and socialism) gained importance when in the 1920s the Kuomintang nationalists started to purge the communist factions existing within the nationalist movement. The Chinese Communist party owe a lot to the nationalists for its successful formation and later for its rise to power. The communists received shelter and initial military education in the Kuomintang's military camps, and thanks to the subsequent nationalist aggression and Chan Kai-shek's inability to attract the peasant masses, they were consolidated as an organization with particular features and ideology. People unite easy and most effectively when a common external force threatens them. The external threat makes them one group, one organization, one class, one nation. The reports of Edgar Snow from his voyages in the Western communist parts of China in the 1930s are abundant with evidences that show how "communism" became a sign of belonging to all diverse and oppressed communities and people, although most of them were not aware what communism exactly is in theory and in practice. And when the communists proved the only organized group that was most resolved to resist effectively against the "imperial" aggressor Japan, their position as leading political force after the war was completely assured.

So my conclusion is that Chinese communism is neither a fruit of historical logic -- a result of a real class struggle -- nor communism at all. It is first and foremost a vague nationalistic ideology that accommodated the discontent peasant masses in the late 1930s. In the 20th century, this important fact was not well understood by the West. The West, and especially the United States, led supposedly anti-communist wars in places such as Vietnam, but in reality, they did not fight against communists, but against national movements and military organizations that fought against the local elites working in collaboration with the Western "imperialism".

This partially explains why and how Marxism became the official ideology of Chinese state and why China has never been a truly communist society. The next question, Why China has one-party system?, is easier to answer. The existence of one-party system is due to the Chinese lack of democratic tradition. Marxism is the only modern ideology that offers legitimization of one political elite or party without the need of democratic institutions, and more importantly, Marxism, with its moral message and sense for historical validity, fits well in the tradition of the old Confucian ideology. Confucianism supports the ruler who has a Mandate of Heaven; this Mandate gives him an absolute right to rule. In the 20th century, China awoke for modernization and the Chinese did not want to ask any more heavens for legitimisation of their government, they wanted political system that depends on reason and justice. Unfortunately, because the impetus for modernization came in great extent from outside, the Chinese were not able to implement democracy and liberalism -- systems that arouse naturally and cannot be just grafted on every "old tree". Marxism was the only modern social theory (and ideology) that promised both modernization and progress without the evils of liberalism such as political fragmentation, clash of interests and periods of political crisis. Moreover, Marxism claimed possession of historical truth. This claim was absolutist, so the Marxist ideology replaced Heaven as a source for legitimization. Chinese people accepted easily the one-party system and the leadership of undisputed Party elite, because they were used with centuries of imperial rule and because they had the painful experience of decades of political fragmentation and chaos. Thus, China's political system is one-party system, not because China is a communist state, but because China did not break up with its political tradition.

And here arises the last question How Marxist is Mao's thought? Mao's thought is not so much Marxist as radical and nationalist. Radicalism can be attached to every ideology, and a revolutionary, a political radical, can adopt every existing teaching. In the popular Red Book "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung " one can find a lot of Marxist, revolutionary rhetoric, but in the bottom of all is Mao the "fighter", the "nationalist", the "peasant", it is not the "intellectual", the "social democrat", the "worker". "Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?" (10) Mao asks and answers, "Our enemies are all those in league with imperialism - the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big Landlord class and the reactionary section of the intelligentsia attached to them." (11) In this quote, we see that the enemy is not the capitalist owner, but those "in league with imperialism", but in this league, we do not see the factory owner, the banker, the merchant. The main threat for the Chinese masses is "imperialism" and feudalism, not the "bourgeois liberalism." We can easily find how far from the orthodox Marxism Mao's thought is if we just compare his writings with the writings of communist leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht. For instance, in one of the most popular, international communist texts, "A Call to the Workers of the World ", the word "imperialism" is mentioned only once, while "proletariat" appears seventeen times. (12) In Mao's writings, the order of appearance of these words is always opposite. When Mao says, "the main socialist transformation has been completed with respect to the system of ownership", he means, again, that the communists eliminated "landlord and comprador classes". (13) The landlord is the feudal, the "comprador" is the person who trades with the Western companies -- both have nothing to do with the working class in its traditional Marxist sense. In 1949, Mao wrote, "The People's democratic dictatorship is based on the alliance of the working class, the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoisie, and mainly on the alliance of the workers and the peasants, because these two classes comprise 80 to go per cent of China's population. These two classes are the main force in overthrowing imperialism and the Kuomintang reactionaries." The truth was that China in 1949 was an agrarian society and the workers were an insignificant part of this "alliance", and again these two classes "overthrow" not the bourgeois capitalist, but the foreign invader and Kuomintang opposition.

Discussing the shortcomings of the Versailles Treaty (1919) in an essay, published in mid-1930s, Arnold Toynbee said that the war leaders have special mentality and temperament that correspond to their duties to save the nation from aggression. Even after the peace is assured they naturally continue the fight. Peacemaking is for peacemakers and that is why wartime leaders after First World War were not able to build a sustainable peace in Europe. Professor Toynbee's insight is universally applicable. (14) We can argue that state building is not for revolutionaries, especially for revolutionaries who liberated the country from an oppressive and brutal power. The revolutionaries are fighters, dissidents; they just cannot stop fighting after the victory, because they have special mentality and temperament. This fact explains partially the inability of old revolutionaries like Mao to understand the logic and needs of Chinese society after 1949. This also explains the revolutionary fever in the 1960s that started after a few "boring" years of a "socialist" state building. Indeed, for some twenty years after Second World War China had a communist/socialist period (in the model of Soviet Stalinism), it had a nationalisation and state controlled economy, Chinese accepted and still accept leadership of the central power, but China has never been truly communist and only now, after the reforms in the 1990s, it built a true, modern state capitalism that gave birth to a true proletariat. And here the most interesting questions come: How likely is the break out of a genuine socialist or democratic revolution in China today? Is the revolution more pressing and logical today than it was in 1949?



1 In 1949, laying the foundations of the future Chinese communist state Mao wrote: "Don't you want to abolish state power?" Yes, we do, but not right now. We cannot do it yet. Why? Because imperialism still exists, because domestic reaction still exists, because classes still exist in our country. Our present task is to strengthen the people's state apparatus - mainly the people's army, the people's police and the people's courts - in order to consolidate national defence and protect the people's interests." (Mao Dzedung, " On the People's Democratic Dictatorship " (June 30, 1949), Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 418 ) Every communist state begins as police state and finish as totalitarian.

2 Yanrui Wu, Economic growth, transition, and globalization in China ( Edward Elgar Publishing, 2006 ) p.231

3 http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2010-06/10/content_9962002.htm

4 See, for example, Karl Marx's "The Poverty of Philosophy": " The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist." (Forgotten Books, reprinted from Martin Lawrence Edition, London ) p.92

5 See John Locke's "Two Tracts on Government" (Courier Dover Publications, 2002): "Thought the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person; this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands we may say are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property." (p.12-13) In short, Marx expanded Locke's idea replacing the "nature" with the "capitalist" who accumulated wealth that exceeds his right of proper ownership and that gives him a chance to exploit others who presumably want to benefit from his capital through their labour.

6 "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature..." Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "The Communist Manifesto", introduction by Eric Hobsbawm (Verso, London. 1998,) p.39

7 Arif Dirik, "Marxism in the Chinese Revolution" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) pp. 20-25

8 Edgar Snow, "Red Star over China" (Grove Press, 1973) pp. 243-289

9 The other source for the first socialist ideas in China, according to Dirik, was the publications of the Christian missionaries. See Arif Dirik, Marxism in the Chinese Revolution (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) p.22.

10 "Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society" (March 1926), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 13 (quote from the Red Book)

11 Ibid. p. 19.

12 See "The Communist Manifesto and other Revolutionary Works " (Courier Dover Publications, 2003) pp. 232 -235

13 On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People (February 27, 1957), 1st pocket ed., pp. 51-52

14 Arnold J. Toynbee "The Main Features of the Landscape," in " The Treaty of Versailles and After," (George Allen & Unwin Brothers Ltd. London, 1935), p. 46.



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