The year 1969 signified the unbinding of socialism in China. The system was held together for years more only by an extreme extension of the state, in the form of the military, into all fields of economic coordination, production and distribution, and by a desperate amplification of the ruling ideology into all realms of life. When even these would no longer suffice, catastrophic collapse was avoided only by the tactful maneuvering of a now-unified ruling class of “red engineers” whose political dynasty continues to this day.

Here we have emphasized the domestic scale of these phenomena, focusing on the slow knitting together of “China” as a coherent economic entity. This local focus makes sense, as the socialist era would see much of mainland East Asia pulled out of the global circuits of capital accumulation. China was the name for this retreat—an attempt at autonomy performed across a massive territory and staffed by an enormous segment of the global population. Interaction with the outside world via trade, migration or cultural transmission slowed to a trickle, limited to meager contact with a specific subset of “Third World” countries once Sino-Soviet relations broke down. This retreat ultimately failed, and the next fifty years would see the East Asian mainland and its people slowly reincorporated into the very circuits of value that they had wrested themselves from.

But this is not to say that the socialist era did not have a global dimension. It was the largest in a worldwide wave of socialist revolutions, which were themselves merely the late peak of a workers’ movement founded in Europe. Though their guiding mythology emerged from the industrial cores of the capitalist world, all of these revolutions were the products of a politicized peasantry, driven to fight against both old and new regimes. In China, the industrial mythology of the workers’ movement would fuse with the reality of rural revolution in a more seamless fashion than it had in the Soviet Union. The product was a socialist culture in which Marxist eschatology merged with centuries of peasant millenarianism. This combination proved capable of igniting one of the largest developmental bursts in human history.

The limits and incentives that confronted this project were also global in nature. As the Qing declined, the once-powerful region was thrown into a century of violent disunity just as a new empire was arising in Europe. In only a few generations, one of the richest parts of the world had suddenly become one of the poorest. This led to the invention of “China” as an ancient, unifying name for the region by Western-educated nationalists seeking a “restoration” of power relative to Europe and its satellites. Since the area’s continuing poverty was in large part a product of Europe’s own ascent, the revolutionary process would take on an “anti-imperialist” character.

At the same time, the very threat of the European imperial projects set the standards for Chinese development. In this period there could be no revival of the old peasant utopias, since these would entail developmental stagnation, ensuring that the region would be unable to resist the colonial ambitions of Europe and Japan. After the capitulation of the Qing and GMD to foreign powers, it became increasingly clear that the development of the region could not be achieved through an alliance between a new industrial bourgeoisie and the old elites, as had happened in “late-developing” countries such as Germany. Instead, the old regime had to be entirely destroyed, alongside domestic capitalists dependent on port trade with the West.

The fusion of peasant millenarianism with the teleology of the workers’ movement seemed to offer an alternative model of development. But absent the “normal” agents of this development (the ascendant bourgeoisie or an “iron and rye” alliance between new and old elites), the project could advance only via “big push” phases of industrialization. In capitalist countries, this type of industrialization was carried out at the extremes of global economic crisis, when the anchors of value production seemed to be tearing loose. In socialist countries, development had to be undertaken as if the economy was perpetually in a state of crisis, because these systems existed without any such anchor.

This meant that the socialist period in China also saw the developmental regime ultimately supplant the communist project itself as more and more was sacrificed to the bottom line of building a national economy. This was a failure structured by the era. The mythology of the workers’ movement helped to make this error possible, since it tended to conflate the expansion of production and industrial employment with the historical advancement of society toward communism in a teleological fashion. But of far more importance was the besieged and isolated condition in which this experiment took place. Beginning in such extreme poverty, it is hard to fault the early communists for emphasizing development. By the time a new generation attempted to expand this communist horizon, however, those early communists had become irreparably yoked to the machine of their faith.

Space for this developmental project was opened only because of a global crisis in the capitalist economy. From the 1910s until the end of the Korean War and the post-WWII recessions, the global economy seemed to be teetering on the edge of oblivion. This teetering took the form of a half-century of war, depression and extreme unpredictability. The global economy fragmented, as nations raised tariffs, emphasized closed-circuit domestic trade and initiated nation-wide industrialization projects, often with a strong military character. It was only in this context of a general global cloistering of production that the socialist projects could take place at such an enormous scale, ultimately covering most of the Eurasian continent. It is no coincidence that the two largest socialist revolutions took place roughly alongside the two world wars, since these wars represented two peaks in this cloistering.

In the same way, the Chinese socialist project was capable of emerging only within the context of the global workers’ movement and the period of industrial expansion that conditioned it. This general expansion of industry and manufacturing employment ensured that the Chinese inherited at least a rudimentary industrial structure (in Manchuria), and that Western nations were still focused on domestic development, rather than actively seeking overseas sites for production. There were few strong incentives to “open” China in this period, and to attempt to do so seemed merely a recipe for extending world war by another decade. The Cold War was a détente in which Chinese socialism was simply quarantined and allowed to run its course.

All of these conditions would change beginning in the 1970s as the relative cloistering of the early 20th century gave way to a series of expansionary drives under a new global hegemon. At the same time, technological advances both decreased the need for expensive industrial workers and allowed for the extension of supply chains to far-flung regions of the world. Increased unemployment, lowered wages and falling profits in the West created a need for cheaper sources of production as deindustrialization generalized. Relocating factories to places like South Korea and Taiwan allowed firms to regain profitability while also offering cheaper prices for Western consumers, helping to mute the domestic effects of the economic slowdown.

It was these changed conditions that would soon encourage the “opening” of China. But this opening would be accepted by the Chinese only due to the failures of the socialist developmental regime, and even then only slowly. Above, we have detailed the local history of the failure of the communist project in China. In the next issue of Chuang, we will turn to the global integration that followed this failure, as China opened to world trade and initiated its transition to capitalism in the 1970s.