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Is China the new US?

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For many China is the new USA. They think that it will be the next economic powerhouse, if it is not already, replacing the US as the leader in the world economy. Others doubt this, but there is no denying that today China is rapidly growing – but what sort of society is it? There are still those who think that China is a socialist country or some transitional type of ‘market socialism’ somewhere between socialism and capitalism. Then there are the classic liberals who think that in China the Manchu dynasty and the Chinese Communist regime are different versions of ‘oriental despotism’ all engaged in human rights abuses. Rather than attempt to navigate between these contending viewpoints on the surface of events, we prefer to approach China by looking for the underlying revolutionary changes in its modern history which allows us to understand its development and its current role in the global economy today. Using Trotsky’s concept of the law of uneven and combined development, and Marx’s concept of permanent revolution which was later taken up by Lenin and Trotsky we can uncover and reveal this historic dynamic.

China’s pre-capitalist history

China before the entry of the European powers had been a highly developed pre-capitalist society for centuries. Marx famous and controversial concept of an Asiatic Mode of Production was an attempt to describe the typical hierarchical society typical of Asia of which European feudalism was a local variant. Despite being criticized as a Eurocentric version of ‘oriental despotism’ Marx seems to have identified the key elements of this mode in the communal modes at its base and centralized state at its center.

Eric Wolf defines this mode in Europe and the People Without History as a tributary mode of production which incorporated and dominated kinship modes of production Peasant families organized as kinship modes of production had their tribute or rent expropriated by a class of landlord families which in turn paid the standing army and bureaucracy to administer society. Yet for all its advanced technology and trade relations the tributary mode of production tends towards stagnation and could not embark on the capitalist road. The ruling class was able to extract sufficient rents to maintain society and did not need to allow the formation of a middle class of merchants to bring wealth from unequal exchange overseas back to China. Rather, those traders who sought to expand their wealth through trade and become merchant capitalists had to exile themselves and look for opportunities in other parts of the world in particular South East Asia. This merchant diaspora is the basis of overseas Chinese capitalism today.

China was highly successful in producing and exporting tea, running a trade surplus until the British ‘opium wars’ in the mid 19th century forced it to import opium in exchange for its exports. The tributary mode was thus subordinated to British imperialism which exploited China’s raw materials and surplus labor force as migrant workers in its other colonies. So long as China remained a form of British colony and had its resources and wealth expropriated it would not be able to create its own internal market and develop the capitalist mode of production. It would remain a tributary mode mined and plundered by imperialism. Karl Marx, however, anticipated that the sleeping giant would awaken as an independent capitalist nation. Marx wrote of the impact of the capitalist mode of production in dissolving the Asiatic mode, though he noted that this was very slow. Nevertheless in a famous newspaper article he wrote in 1850 Marx was not joking when he said: “When our European reactionaries in their immediately coming flight across Asia finally come up against the Great Wall of China, who knows whether they will not find on the gates which lead to the home of ancient reaction and ancient conservatism the inscription, ‘Chinese Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity’.”

The Bourgeois revolution

Here Marx is anticipating the uneven and combined development that would see capitalism progressively free China from the Asiatic Mode so that it would replace Europe as the dominant force in the world economy. For this to happen, however, a national bourgeoisie would have to rise up to overthrow the tributary ruling class which was subservient to imperialist powers. This national democratic revolution began in 1911 when the weak bourgeoisie struggled to force the old landlord ruling class to break from its subservience on British imperialism and free up the opportunities or the emergence of a national bourgeoisie. However, the Chinese would-be bourgeoisie proved to be too weak to united the country and win complete independence from the imperialist powers. Power shifted from the imperial center to a host of tributary warlords. As an expression of the tragicomic adventures of the would-be bourgeoisie, the united Chambers of Commerce declared their own national government in 1923, supported by Mao Zedong who said “The merchants of Shanghai…have adopted revolutionary methods; they have overwhelming courage to take charge of national affairs’. (Cambridge History of China, p 782). To unite China and win independence the national bourgeoisie would have to harness the class power of the peasantry and the workers and complete the bourgeois revolution. But it ran the risk of the peasants led by the workers taking over the national revolution and going straight to socialism.

The Kuomingtang (KMT), the party of the bourgeoisie the under Sun Yat-sen sought to complete the national revolution against Japan and Britain and liberate the nation from semi-colonial oppression. To achieve this, the KMT formed a patriotic alliance between a bloc of workers, peasants and middle class under its leadership. This bloc was unstable because it contained a contradiction between the producing classes and exploiting classes. In order to ensure that the bourgeoisie would retain its class rule, the KMT could not allow the workers and poor peasants to lead the revolution for fear that they would not stop at throwing out the Japanese, but would throw out the KMT as well.

Russia’s permanent revolution

This class contradiction was recognized by the Bolsheviks because it had occurred in Russia as well. In Russia the weak bourgeoisie preferred to stay in power with the backing of the imperialists rather than cede power to the worker and poor peasant majority. Why? Because the imperialists would allow them a share of the super-profits expropriated from workers and peasants, while a workers revolution would eliminate the bourgeoisie as a class. Because of this treacherous role of the bourgeoisie only the workers leading the poor peasants could complete the national revolution against imperialism. The Bolsheviks rapidly dropped their alliance with the bourgeoisie and led a revolution in which the worker and poor peasant majority took power. The Bolsheviks had an ‘uninterrupted’ revolution (or ‘permanent’ revolution in Trotsky’s terms) in which the national revolution was completed by a socialist revolution.

Facing a similar situation in China in 1924, the Comintern (the 3rd International) that arose out of the Russian Revolution, was divided over how the national revolution should be completed. The majority around Stalin abandoned the lessons of October and reverted to the Menshevik idea that the bourgeoisie would lead a ‘united front’ [the ‘bloc of 4 classes’] to complete the national revolution and so prepare the conditions for the socialist revolution. The minority around Trotsky, (the Left Opposition) applied the lessons of the Russian revolution to China. Only the working class leading the poor peasants could complete the national revolution as a socialist revolution – the permanent revolution! The bourgeois KMT could not be trusted to lead a national revolution because it would side with the imperialists as a comprador bourgeoisie rather than allow the workers and peasants to take power. This division in the Comintern was reproduced in the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CCP).

The second revolution betrayed

Trotsky’s warnings that the workers and poor peasants must not subordinate themselves to Chiang Kai-shek’s military leadership were ignored. KMT were made honorary section of Comintern. The Comintern overruled the CCP leadership and suppressed the Left Opposition (LO). The KMT led the bloc of 4 classes to fight the imperialists but fearing the power of the exploited classes then turned on the CCP leadership and destroyed it. Stalin blamed the CPP leadership. Some of the CPP leadership opposed this and were expelled. Others were won to LO in China and four LO currents were formed which later formed a United Opposition.

Meanwhile in the face of this betrayal the Maoist leadership of the CCP continued the failed Stalinist popular front tactic of the bloc of 4 classes and began to suppress the LO. The KMT regime under Chiang was a form of Bonapartist bourgeois regime balanced between the Chinese peasants and workers on the one side and the imperialists on the other. Because of the weakness of the national bourgeoisie the KMT regime encouraged the formation of a state bourgeoisie. The national war of liberation became a peasant ar and it took many years to drive out the Japanese the KMT and its backer, the US. Mao finally took power in 1949 still committed to a bourgeois China and attempted to hand power over to the bourgeoisie. Again the popular front theory was proven wrong but only because by this time the peasants and workers were mobilized to take power, and not to hand it back to the bourgeoisie. The leading sectors of the Chinese bourgeoisie abandoned the revolution since it would not allow them to profit from a comprador relationship with imperialism. Some other sectors made an alliance with the CCP. Mao was then forced to expropriate bourgeois property but at the same time refuse to allow the workers and peasant base to administer the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The third revolution

Thus despite the Stalinist Maoists the revolution succeeded in removing the imperialists and the national bourgeoisie, but failed to create the conditions for the transition to socialism. The nationalization of bourgeois property created workers property and a bureaucratic plan, but the working class and poor peasantry were never able to democratically control the state. This transitional form of society contained a contradiction between workers property and the parasitic Bonapartist bureaucracy. In that sense it was structurally a workers’ state degenerate at birth, the same as the states formed in Eastern Europe that were occupied by the Red Army, or like Yugoslavia, balanced between the Soviet Union (SU) and imperialism.

We characterize this transitional form of state in China as a Degenerate Workers State (DWS) at birth following Trotsky’s method in explaining the role of the Red Army in occupying the Ukraine, Poland and Finland in 1939. Against those who took the position that the Red Army could not substitute for the working class to create workers states in these countries, Trotsky said that the state forms that resulted were an extension of the DWS in the SU. Despite everything the bureaucracy did, including suppressing national workers and poor peasants’ movements, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie created post-capitalist property.

But does the analysis of the DWS occupied by the Red Army as an extension of the Soviet Union also apply to those countries that were not occupied by the Red Army – Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, Cuba? In each of these countries, the nationalist forces that led the revolution were not under the direct control of the SU. But the same phenomenon that Trotsky observed in Poland happened. The support of the SU encouraged the workers and peasants to join in not only the expulsion of the imperialists, but in forcing the bureaucratic or petty bourgeois leaderships to go further than forming a government with the national capitalists, and rather to expropriate them.

In China the expropriation of big bourgeois property was possible only with support from the Soviet Union –a fact that the bureaucracy was forced to use to legitimate its rule. This is why when the CCP nationalized property it took the form of workers property, even under a bureaucratic dictatorship. The bourgeoisie as a class are removed, and all that remains for workers to claim their property is the removal of the bureaucracy. That is why, against those who thought that the Stalinists could create healthy workers’ states, substituting for the historic revolutionary role of the working class, Trotsky said that the only sure defence of workers property was the overthrow of the bureaucracy in a political revolution as part of an international socialist revolution.

Thus in China in 1949, as in Poland as Trotsky had argued in 1939, it was not the Chinese Red Army in itself that was progressive but the fact that the SU backed it against Japan and the US, expelling the comprador bourgeoisie, and forcing the Bonapartist CCP leadership to expropriate capitalist property.

Forward to socialism, or back to capitalism

China, as a new DWS could go in two directions. Forward to socialism by political revolution that removes the bureaucracy, or back to capitalism by a counter-revolution where the bureaucracy privatized workers property and turned itself into a new national bourgeoisie. The contradiction between workers property moving forwards to socialism and the bureaucratic caste moving backward to capitalism was expressed in the class contradiction which the Bonapartist regime attempted to reconcile. It was also represented in two factions in the CCP leadership. The Maoists fought to keep workers property and the planned economy as the basis of their bureaucratic privilege, while the ‘capitalist roaders’ fought to privatise collective property, restore capitalism and convert themselves into a new bourgeoisie. These big internal fights then represented both sides of the class contradiction striving for victory over the other.

The capitalist roaders won and began by replacing the rural collectives with the TVE (Town Village Enterprises) cooperatives in the 1980s, and then began transforming the SOEs (State Owned Enterprises) into privatized corporations in the 1990s. The shift to TVE cooperatives was decisive as it allowed a shift to personal shareholding. These became the basis of the conversion of the TVEs into privatized industries in the 1980s. This created a huge movement of displaced workers into the cities as a rural reserve army of formal wage labour who would then become a free wage labor force.

By the early 1990s the Chinese economy had been gradually opened to the influence of the Law of Value (LOV). State owned land was increasingly commodified with the development of a rental market, the SOEs were freed of any responsibility to meet the health, education and welfare needs of wage workers, and the state surplus increasingly became accumulated as private capital in pockets of TVE shareholders, SOE managers as well as private bosses. Thus at this point workers property relations were being replaced by capitalist property relations. The bureaucracy had converted the TVEs and SOEs into capitalist corporations in which a new bourgeoisie become the private owners.

Capitalist Restoration completed

The question of when workers property is replaced by capitalist property determines the change in the class character of the state. Here again, we apply Trotsky’s analysis of the counter-revolution in the SU. Up to the time of his death in 1940 Trotsky argued that the SU remained a DWS, and as we have argued the just as the occupied countries were DWs by extension of the SU. The counter-revolution in all of the DWS that emerged after WW2 would follow the same pattern as the SU. In the SU, the economy was characterized as workers property, or nationalized property, that was nevertheless coexisting with some elements of the market to allow demand to guide prices. But as long as the market was subordinated to the plan, no matter how bureaucratic, the allocation of resources would follow the plan rather than the law of value. That is why the SU was plagued by waste and shortages of basic necessities. Capitalism is restored when the LOV takes over from the plan in determining prices in allocating resources. Today when workers have little money the shortages of necessities result from lack of effective demand not lack of commodities.

In the EE states, attempts to remove the Red Army included elements that were for the defence of state property and those that wanted to restore capitalism. The bureaucratic suppression of both had the effect of subordinating the independence struggle to the restorationists. Thus by the 1980s the struggle for political revolution was weakened and the forces for counter-revolution strengthened. In the SU and EE this counter-revolution was completed between 1989 and 1992. At this point it was clear that the bureaucracy, despite competing factions, was committed to destroying the plan and re-imposing the LOV as the basis of production. Thus the SU and its buffer states ceased to be DWSs and became capitalist states. The first phase of the operation of the LOV was to destroy the existing industry and allow asset stripping by a new capitalist class to set its value on the world market. Trotsky anticipated this transition back to capitalism as a state capitalist phase.

Applying the same method to China it is clear that the turning point was around 1992 when the CCP abandoned and defence of the plan and passed laws to privatize the SEOs as the property of their managers. The CCP did this more deliberately than the CPSU and this phase of state capitalism was dressed up as market socialism. Massive devaluation and asset stripping was spread over decades instead of a few years. As opposed to those who point to the concessions to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in China as a major force for restoration, we point to the fact that FDI is still relatively small, and that the major moves towards privatization originated in the state sector where the bureaucracy made a smooth transition to capitalism and to their re-invention as a national bourgeoisie.

Is China imperialist?

Today by the measure of the LOV China is capitalist. In that sense a rapidly growing powerful capitalist China could be considered imperialist. But what do we mean by imperialist? According to Lenin and imperialist country has a surplus of finance capital which must be exported to counter falling profits at home. That is, the possibilities of growth at home can only be sustained by the export of capital to earn super-profits in other countries, and be imported to the home country to maintain the rate of profit. Less important was the need to find new markets in which to sell the commodities produced in the home market. Historically, the powers that clearly meet this definition are the USA, Japan and the main European powers like Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Others are not imperialist, or may be former imperialist, and are more like semi-colonies, such as Portugal, Greece, Poland, etc. Others may be small imperialist powers such as Sweden, Austria etc.

Does China today meet these criteria? As yet it doesn’t appear so. China has a big trading surplus from its commodity exports but this is mainly invested in US bonds. It is a peculiar sort of finance capital that must accept US petrodollars to fund the massive US external deficit. Most of China’s growth is driven by its internal market which is huge and expanding rapidly. In that sense China’s internal market is sufficient to maintain its profitability, while its exports are more re-exports of foreign mainly overseas Chinese companies (mainly Hong Kong and Taiwan) that have invested in China. So far from being evidence of the export of China’s surplus finance capital, China is the source of imperialist (Japanese, overseas Chinese, EU, US etc) FDI which reaps massive super-profits from China’s cheap resources and labor power.

While the organic composition of capital in China is growing it doesn’t seem yet to have reached the point of an overproduction of capital necessitating an export of productive capital. China today, then, is still developing its internal market, making huge infrastructural investment and is only beginning to establish DFI overseas in Africa, Latin America, and the rest of Asia to create its own so-called ‘empire’. Nevertheless, China is being driven by the rapid growth in demand for cheap raw materials and markets to become a major competitor to the existing imperialist powers, a fact that is clearly behind the growing alarm with which the EU and US views its aggressive role in Africa.

For some China’s capitalist growth has many of the features of industrialization in Europe in the 19th century. However, the form of combined and uneven development that Trotsky and Lenin spoke of in the case of the Soviet Union, and which Marx foreshadowed in China, is today manifest in a pace and scale that would have been beyond even their imaginations. Not only has China become the key driver of the world economy at a time of US dominance and relative decline, it is now at the center of the world historic contradiction between labor and capital. Emerging out of a bourgeois national revolution and the aborted socialist revolution China has within the space of two decades created a powerful capitalist economy. Whether it is contained as a semi-colony exploited by the other capitalists, or succeeds in re-dividing the world economy at the expense of the other capitalist powers, remains to be seen. China may be on the road to displacing the US but will it be as an imperialist China or a socialist China?

Written by raved

July 27, 2008 at 10:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized