For the second and third in our series of short communist responses to common questions about China, we split one common question into two. We are often asked: “Is China a capitalist or a socialist country?” This is possibly the most common and most complicated of the frequently asked questions about China, so we’ll cheat a little bit here and provide a longer answer by splitting it into its two component questions. The previous entry addressed the question: “Is China a capitalist country?” This entry addresses the question: “Is China a socialist country?”
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The concept of “socialism” itself has always been murky. In the past, it was used by both revolutionaries and by those seeking to reform the existing order to make it more humane. In either case, socialism usually referred to the destruction of the property system[i] and was, at least in its early usages in the 18th and 19th centuries, basically synonymous with “communism,” “social revolution” and “anarchism” in its end goal. The distinction between revolutionary and reformist positions was simply a question of how to get there. In the course of the 20th century, socialism came to designate a “lower” stage of society preceding communism, within which the rule of property was in the process of being dismantled but had not yet been entirely abolished. Today, however, the word “socialism” seems to refer to nothing more than “capitalism with a human face.” It has lost any relationship to the destruction of capitalist society.
This is because terms that designate a living politics don’t take their meaning from history. They are instead defined by the current popular usage, especially among supporters of that politics, at least insofar as those supporters constitute a real force in society. Instead of trying to find some authoritative definition of the term in historical texts, we have to ask: what do the many hundreds of thousands of people around the world who call themselves “socialists” mean by the term? The same question can be posed for specific locations. In places like the US, for instance, “democratic socialism” refers to a growing number of progressives (likely tens of thousands of people, currently) who seek to emulate the policies of Northern European countries and/or re-implement certain features of government that existed in the postwar US, such as high taxes on the wealthy. A minority of these individuals see this as a necessary first step in the gradual direction of rebuilding a “mixed economy” where state-owned, cooperative and democratic institutions would grow to control larger shares of production, even while the property system is preserved.
In historical comparison, many point out that this is hardly “socialism.” In fact, mid-century liberals in Europe and the US easily implemented far more expansive public programs than are even proposed by “socialists” such as Bernie Sanders today. If we are tracking the historical transformation of the term, its current re-popularization in places like the US and Europe is a new low, with the meaning of the term more eroded than ever. But there are very few places in world where “socialism” is still a word used at a popular, colloquial level to designate the destruction or even the gradual erosion of the property system. In both the Latin American case, where elected socialists are buoyed by social movements, and in the Chinese case, where a special brand of socialism that looks almost exactly like capitalism is simply declared from above by the capitalists in power, no “socialist” or “communist” party has sought to challenge the property system in practice. At best, they disguise it as “state” ownership or allow the poorest areas a degree of “autonomy” in managing their own affairs, since autonomy without any resources is just another name for powerlessness. But even in these cases, socialist administrations have tended to entrench the property system, despite all rhetoric to the contrary.
Ultimately, all of this represents an historical bankruptcy of the term “socialism” itself. While it might be conceivable that, someday, the term could regain its revolutionary implications, this does not seem likely in the near future. In a practical sense, this means that it has become increasingly common for those who advocate for the revolutionary abolition of capitalist society to distinguish themselves against those calling themselves socialist. For the sake of accurately preserving our historical and theoretical heritage, many (including ourselves) use the term communist. In recent years, this term has regained its popularity among a politically active minority, accompanying the revival of interest in Marx that followed the Great Recession. Many of those calling themselves communists have been engaged in recent political upheavals. But, in contrast to last century, today communist politics has no widespread popular purchase in the world. While the name may come to designate a future politics borne of future struggles, it is just as likely that a new term might emerge to replace it, capturing the same meaning.
In China, the confusion is even more complicated, since the state is controlled by a party that calls itself “communist,” even though it is ruled entirely by capitalists, and which has provided real developmental benefits for millions of Chinese people. Development is key here, since the capitalists who run the communist party argue that, despite the degree of market development, the country’s socialist character is evident in the fact that people are being lifted out of poverty.
There is an important historical dimension to this reasoning as well: In the 20th century the meaning of “socialism” became closely aligned with the idea of an alternate developmental model for poor countries that avoided the chaos of early capitalist development. This is because the only successful socialist revolutions in that century occurred in extremely poor, mostly agricultural regions like Russia and China. In such places, the victorious revolutionaries had to make basic developmental programs a priority. This was seen as both an immediate and a long-term necessity. In the immediate sense, it was clearly justified both by the risk of mass starvation and by the threat of a foreign invasion funded by the global capitalist class, who still wanted to see the revolutions crushed.
In the long-term sense, it was also recognized that many of the side-effects of capitalist development, such as basic education and healthcare, would be necessary to building a better society. Elsewhere, these things had only been enabled by capitalism’s drive to constantly revolutionize production in pursuit of larger and larger quantities of money. Initially, it was expected that revolutions in the wealthier countries would follow those in the poorer countries and that this would enable a form of cooperative integration between developed and undeveloped areas that would help to balance out this inequality. But the revolutions in the wealthy countries were crushed and the poor countries that had seen successful revolutions were left to develop on their own. Thus, “socialism” effectively came to describe any attempt to the emulate the developmental changes that had already occurred in the wealthier countries, but without also triggering an open transition to capitalism.
This also meant that the success of “socialism” began to be measured by developmental outcomes such as the extension of education and healthcare or rising per capita food consumption, all undergirded by increasing agricultural and industrial output. In places like Russia and Yugoslavia, there was a decisive end to this socialist experiment, marked by political collapse, fragmentation and the emergence of new capitalist oligarchs out of the old socialist enterprise system. In places like Cuba and North Korea, the demise of the Soviet Union resulted in new forms of survival through isolation, often intensifying local crises and spurring evolutions in the logic of development. Meanwhile, in China and Vietnam, political evolution in the wake of the Cold War transformed the old socialist bureaucracy into the spawning ground for the new capitalist class.
Driven by this logic of development, China was ultimately integrated into the global economy through a process that its political leaders called “reform and opening.” Even though the process meant that more and more of production and everyday life would be subject to the demands of the market, it was still understood to be “socialist” because it successfully produced developmental returns by rapidly increasing industrial output, even while it sacrificed some of the gains of the earlier socialist era (in public health, for example), saw certain regions (such as the Northeast) undergo widespread decline, and produced stark social inequality. At every stage, the party’s rhetoric has emphasized that, regardless of how extensive the market becomes, if it guarantees growth and development it is ultimately socialist—at least so long as the communist party retains control.
This represents a bankruptcy of the word “socialism” symmetrical to that visible in the US and Europe. But, whereas in these Western cases this bankruptcy was rooted in the defeat of the revolutionary movements of a previous generation, in the Chinese case, the bankruptcy of socialism has been the result of the party’s success in surviving the Cold War and achieving national development in the context of this same global defeat. This represents a much more lasting evisceration of socialism, since it is the fusion of socialism as an “alternative” mode of development with the very mode of development it was meant to stand against, seemingly calling into question the existence of any “alternative” in the first place.
This hints that the real question is not whether China is “socialist” or not, but instead whether “socialism,” however we define it, actually has any relationship to communism today. For now, let’s avoid some of the technicalities and reduce the meaning of communism to something approximating that older “socialist” ideal: the destruction of the property system and the abolition of money (technically “value”) in pursuit of the destruction of class society. So the question becomes: if we were to accept the narrative put forward by China’s leading capitalists (those who control the party), then what is the mechanism through which socialism with Chinese characteristics, as it actually exists today, enables or prepares for the global liquidation of the property system at the core of capitalist society?
Development alone no longer provides sufficient justification, since China today has the productive power and material wealth necessary to easily provide a comfortable life for all Chinese people and even to conduct cooperative development projects in the world’s poorest places—all possible if this wealth (including those forms of private property that are called “state” resources) were to be redistributed and subject to collective control for the benefit of all. It’s often an error to try and measure well-being using conventional business statistics, which fail to capture the depth and complexity of people’s livelihoods. But it is nonetheless significant that Chinese GDP per capita is today equivalent to the (inflation-adjusted) GDP per capita of Western Europe in the 1960s—the decade when many communists in Europe first began to argue that the focus of any potential revolution should be to decrease economic activity in wealthy countries such as their own, since output was more than enough to serve the needs of everyone. In an era of mass extinction and cascading ecological crisis, this emphasis has only become more important to the communist critique of the present world.
This basic fact calls into question the claims made by the party that this process of development—which it calls “socialist modernization,” understood as the main task of the “primary stage of socialism”—would necessarily last at least a century.[ii] What, in this line of thinking, is the level of development necessary for communism? How, in other words, does one avoid perpetually deferring abolition of the property system into the future, since greater levels of development will always be possible? These are essential questions that have been given no clear answer by party officials in China. Instead, as more of the party leadership were transformed into capitalists, they have also tended to push the timeline for more “advanced” stages of socialism further and further into the future. At this point, communism itself has disappeared far beyond the horizon.
All of this only demonstrates the widening divergence between socialism, in both theory and its alleged practice, and communism. Even if one were to accept last century’s orthodoxy and acknowledge that socialist development was a necessary precursor for communism where revolutions had succeeded in regions of extreme poverty, this justification no longer exists in China. At best, this would be nothing more than a tenuous argument that, were a revolution to occur in the poorest parts of the world today, it would need to prioritize a similar process of “socialist modernization.” But there are very few places remaining where potentially revolutionary “socialist” organizations exist. Elsewhere, it not only seems as if socialism has now been divorced from communism, but even that socialism is de facto among the most powerful forces opposing the emergence of a communist movement.
In Europe, “socialist” governments implement austerity, deploy armies of police to crush popular rebellions and siphon the energy out of potentially revolutionary social movements, rerouting it in perpetually failing electoral schemes. In the US, “socialism” has come to mean nothing more than slightly more liberal administration of the status quo. Every one of the policy proposals of today’s “democratic socialists” are based on a disavowed nationalism, rooted in the hope for some mythical revival of American industry—a new industry that will be “green” in name but blood-red in the imperial violence that such a revival would require.
Similarly, the “socialist” government of China has been the most active and successful force suppressing the emergence of any independent proletarian organizations in the world’s core industries and outlawing access to communist literature among the population at large, including the systematic dismantling of Marxist study groups across the country. Party leadership is substituted for proletarian organization, as striking workers are told to submit to their suffering for the sake of national rejuvenation. Reading the works of Marx directly is discouraged and texts like Capital: A Critique of Political Economy are substituted with required courses studying official articles on “socialist political economy,” written by professors in various Administration and Management departments.
Meanwhile, “socialist modernization” has, in reality, only led to the further entrenchment of the private property system. The party has overseen the destruction of essentially all remaining communal or semi-communal conventions in land and enterprise management, alongside all remaining forms of socialist welfare, systematically replacing them with conventions of private ownership modelled on the legal systems of the leading capitalist nations. This cultivation of commodification, combined with the repression of all potential for communist organizing to emerge among the population at large, seems to pose this Chinese “socialism” against all prospects for proletarian emancipation. Placed in global context, it is not an exaggeration to say that socialism, as it actually exists today, is largely anti-communist.
Put simply: if being a “socialist” means that you oppose all strikes, riots and insurrections in both the heart of capitalist industrial production (in places like China and Vietnam) and across almost all the world’s poorest countries (portraying such events as CIA-backed “color revolutions”), then this form of “socialism” seems to be very clearly opposed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
Deus ex Xi Jinping
Even if we reject the cynical view that “socialism” is nothing but an ideological smokescreen disguising capitalist oligarchy and instead earnestly believe the self-descriptions of any of today’s socialists in China, the reality remains that all of their actions seem designed to preserve capitalism and to prevent the emergence of communism, at least at the popular level. The only possible conclusion remaining is that they instead have a strategy for building communism through the dictate of the party, which will hinge on some major shift in policy at some point in the future, after which the private property system built through “socialist modernization,” which marks the “primary stage of socialism,” will begin to be dissolved in some “higher stage of socialism” that prefigures communism in some way but today remains largely unmentioned and untheorized.
In this view, an exoteric communism rooted in the activity of everyday people is replaced by an esoteric communism hidden the depths of the forbidden palace and in the hearts of leaders such as Xi Jinping. Accepting this position is equivalent to placing an extremely improbable bet that some of the world’s most powerful capitalists—those who compose the party leadership—are still communists at some deep, moral level and that they will somehow be able to effectively challenge and overturn the power of all the world’s capitalist powers. In other words, such a gamble essentially abandons all hope in communism as a popular politics that emerges out of the struggles of the proletariat and sees the only possibility of communism lying in a rebel faction of capitalists.
Were this true, it would completely eliminate the messy business of having to wage a revolution against the capitalist world, since that revolution already took place in China more than half a century ago. At most, it might involve the oppressed in wealthy countries rising up in support of the rebel bourgeoisie of the party, hastening the demise of the imperial American state. Strangely, though, many overseas supporters of this interpretation today don’t seem to be involved much in existing rebellions in places like the US and Europe. Even worse, when they are involved, they almost universally seem to ally themselves with other reformist “socialists” in coopting such movements and domesticating them into electoral campaigns.
There’s no use in pointing out that this conception of communist power is quite distant from that envisioned by Marx and all those who carried on his insurrectionary project. The more practical point is simply that this seems like a bad bet. It is very improbable that some of the richest and most powerful people in the world are secretly communists just waiting to make their move. Maybe we are wrong here. It is certainly possible that a large enough share of the remaining leaders of the party are genuinely communists, in some fashion.
It is at least certain that Xi Jinping (alongside many other prominent leaders in the party) thinks of himself as a socialist, and there is little doubt that his administration will, over the next decade, pursue apparently “socialistic” policies by building out state infrastructure, raising taxes on the wealthy, expanding social welfare programs and otherwise reducing inequality. But, again, equating such minimal programs with “socialism” does nothing more than demonstrate the utter bankruptcy of the term itself.
Even if we were to accept this idea of an esoteric communist vanguard disguised as extremely wealthy capitalist bureaucrats, however, it is not exactly clear how these individuals would be able to: first, successfully fend off all the true capitalists who had merely joined the party for power; and, second, if they did keep control of the party, how it would be possible for them to liquidate the private property system and redistribute wealth.
After all, Chinese productive power is deeply dependent on global capitalism.[iii] If these secret communists were to finally drop their masks and act, the global capitalist class, with its array of states commanding vast military might would certainly not be silent about the seizure of their wealth. Having completely abandoned the mission of an international communist movement based in popular proletarian organizations across the world, there would be no basis for a genuinely class-based revolutionary war against the imperial forces of global capitalism. Instead, the result would be a brutal conflict between state militaries, with its only popular base built through the cultivation of dangerous, xenophobic nationalism.
To conclude, let’s review the basic points: China is only a “socialist” country insofar as the meaning of the term “socialism” has become utterly bankrupt. This bankruptcy has mostly occurred through the false equivalence between “socialism” and “development.” While developmental programs were once at least conceivably justified insofar as they established the basic conditions necessary for communism, today even this tenuous argument no longer holds. China’s level of development is in all respects more than sufficient to proceed with the abolition of capitalist society. Moreover, development alone should not be conflated with socialism. Many other parts of the world have seen similarly rapid development, often under openly capitalist or even dictatorial regimes backed by the major imperialist powers. These governments also emphasized that they had lifted their populations out of poverty.
All of this casts suspicion on the claim that some of the world’s most powerful capitalists, composing China’s party leadership, are secretly still communists. Founding any revolutionary strategy on this prospect seems like a bad bet. Regardless of their true beliefs, however, the fact remains that these leaders’ actions have only further entrenched the property system in China and bolstered the power of global capitalist society. This is most apparent in the fact that the party has engaged in continuous crackdowns against communist organizing in the core of capitalism’s global production network and censored access to communist theory, even disbanding university study groups devoted to Marx’s Capital. None of this suggests that the party remains an emancipatory force. But even greater evidence is given by the fact that the party has overseen the deep integration of Chinese production with global capital and systematically cultivated the property system in China itself, eliminating all the remaining communal or semi-communal institutions and converting all ownership to private ownership modelled on the property law of the leading capitalist nations.
[i] This is a slight oversimplification, but necessary for two reasons. First, it is more accurate to say that the goal is the total destruction of “the capitalist system” or “capitalist society” (and this terminology is used interchangeably), but misunderstandings of the nature of capitalism (especially the tendency to equate capitalism with “the market” and socialism with “the state”) make this prone to misreading. Even a seemingly state-run economy can be capitalist, so long as it has preserved the property system necessary to the production of value. Second, it is more accurate to say that the core of capitalist production is the “value form” or “form of value,” rather than the “property system,” even though the terms are loosely synonymous. We don’t use this terminology here because it is needlessly technical. If you’re looking for a more detailed understanding of how capitalism works, however, you will see the term “value form” used in this fashion today. In older literature, you might also find the term “bourgeois right” used in a similar fashion.
[ii] This was claimed by Zhao Ziyang at the 13th Party Congress in 1987, and is expressed more vaguely in the Chinese constitution, which states that the country “will be in the primary stage of socialism for a long time to come.”
[iii] It is essential to remember here that all the largest “state-owned” enterprises are shareholder corporations with their shares sold on global capital markets. Even though their status as “state-owned” enterprises means that the party-state has ownership of, at minimum a 50 percent share, the other half is held by private investors located all over the world. If these enterprises were to reject the profit motive entirely or liquidate their vast private assets by converting them to public ownership, it would effectively be a seizure of the assets of these international investors.