Is China still socialist?

November 17, 1993


China and Socialism: Market Reforms and Class Struggle
By Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett
Monthly Review July-August 2004
130 pages

Is China today still socialist, or has it turned capitalist? This is a nagging question that has been confronting many socialists for some time.

But the current social order in China doesn't exactly lend itself to a straightforward answer, because while Beijing keeps proclaiming its system is socialist, all the signs are that it isn't.

China and Socialism seeks to answer this difficult question. Hart-Landsberg and Burkett provide the unreserved answer that China today is already capitalist — that social policies are dictated by private-profit making rather than by human need. They pull no punches against those who argue that China is still somehow socialist or, worse, that the country's speedy economic growth is testimony of the success of "market socialism" and therefore a development model for the rest of the Third World.

The authors review Beijing's changing proclamations about its objectives as well as giving detail about its actual policies over the two-and-a-half decades since the beginning of the so-called "reform" period. They outline the sweeping social ramifications of these policies on how industrial and agricultural production is organised, how basic needs are not being met and how working people are resisting.

Hart-Landsberg and Burkett also critically examine the place that the Chinese economy has come to occupy in the global economy. They reject the widely propagated but simplistic notion that China is now a "major export powerhouse" on par with the advanced capitalist economies. They provide detail of the extent to which China's production is financed and controlled by foreign capital, the high import-content required and how a high proportion of such production is designed for export. While the authors don't explicitly spell out the dependent nature of such production, this framework permeates their expositions.

The authors recognise that China's production under the "reform" period constitutes a major threat to other major Third World exporters, especially in Asia. They correctly attribute this phenomenon to the similar role these dependent economies play in relation to the global capitalist economy.

Hart-Landsberg and Burkett situate China's rapidly developing export-oriented manufacturing production as part of global capitalism's persistent problem — excess capacity. They debunk the myth that overproduction and export-dependency reflect either policy errors or misguided forecasts. Instead, they trace the root causes of these problems to the "fundamental laws of motion" of capital as it strives to multiply and accumulate "through the exploitation of labour and its natural and social conditions, a process that constrains the growth of the mass market relative to productive capacity".

China and Socialism tackles the central question of the nature of China's social system head on and offers a sensible conclusion. I agree with the authors' dynamic and materialist approach that socialism is not "created overnight", but requires a long transition to build its material foundations. I couldn't agree more with their observation that "the transition to full-fledged socialism entails a long and bumpy road full of pitfalls and contradictions".

Implicit in this understanding is that socialism in the strict sense did not arrive in China on October 1, 1949. That date simply marked the beginning of a new phase in the process of seeking to transform the Chinese economy in a socialist direction. Strictly speaking, the countries where successful socialist revolutions have taken place, such as China, Cuba and Vietnam, are more post-capitalist than socialist. Also implicit, is that this process can go forward as well as backward, depending on the success in bringing about the material conditions necessary for "full-fledged socialism".

Bear in mind that the necessary material conditions are harder to achieve in a Third World economy compared to an advanced capitalist one. There is a greater likelihood that a Third World nation's socialist endeavour can fail — although this is by no means mechanically determined. Other factors play a pivotal role, such as the working class leadership, political solidarity and material assistance from overseas (especially from a post-capitalist advanced economy) and the socialist consciousness of the working people in the country in question.

Hart-Landsberg and Burkett accept that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is a bureaucratic, privileged elite. They believe that the "socialist renewal" objective, embarked on under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, was later hijacked by the party leadership who "feared of losing their privileges ... that led them, through trial and error, to embrace capitalism with 'Chinese characteristics'".

The authors don't provide any analysis of the conflicting currents within the CPC, including the probably genuine pro-socialist elements, and what might have been the role of such currents in countering the capitalist restoration process. In fact, they say little about the CPC, essentially presenting it as a unified whole.

The CPC's monopoly on state power and its conscious push, at least in recent years, to dismantle the social gains achieved after the 1949 revolution has been critical to allowing a capitalist restoration in China. The suggestion that China has somehow lapsed back into capitalism "through trial and error" is not convincing.

The authors mention the lack of democracy within the party and in broader society. But they fail to cite this as a reason for why it is so difficult for any healthy pro-socialist tendency within the party, or more broadly, to wage an effective struggle against the pro-capitalist measures.

The authors provide no explicit analysis of the state of working-class consciousness in China today, let alone its changes since 1949 and the aftermath of the devastating experience of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Hart-Landsberg and Burkett outline the largely defensive, but impressive, struggles by workers against pro-capitalist attacks since the 1980s, but fail to assess what the apparently fragmented nature of such responses tell us about the state of working-class consciousness in China today. What is the impact of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre on workers' confidence to struggle? Ascertaining what working-class consciousness was like before the "reform" period is unavoidable if that question is to be properly addressed.

Hart-Landsberg and Burkett direct their argument at the "many progressives" who believe that China's "market socialism" has brought "impressive" growth, and that it should be emulated by the rest of the Third World. But this "progressive community" is, at most, only a small section of the left who have adopted, or are holding on to, a less critical assessment of the social transformation underway in China. And, as the authors note, many of these have also rejected Marxism as a tool to understand the world.

I dare say that most of the Marxist left today has considerable concerns about the pro-capitalist process in China, and is not trying to convince each another that post-"reform" China illustrates the great success of a "market-oriented" variety of "socialism".

If Hart-Landsberg and Burkett are mainly concerned with tackling the concerns of those "progressives" disenchanted with the Marxist method, that can only be done by avoiding the political rigor required to analyse this complex subject matter. Unfortunately, this tendency is the central weakness of China and Socialism.

From Green Left Weekly, August 4, 2004.

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