From False Socialism to Authoritarian Capitalism

[English] – The German magazine Jungle World started a series of articles discussing the position of the left on the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party. In the first article, Felix Wemheuer presented the different leftwing positions on China in the German-speaking left. This is the English translation of the second article by Ralf Ruckus. The German version of this article appeared in Jungle World 11/2023 (March 16, 2023):

In his article “Solidarität mit wem?” (“Solidarity with whom?”, Jungle World, March 9, 2023), Felix Wemheuer presents various positions of the German-speaking left on the current situation in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Two opposing stances, which can also be found in other countries’ political left, stand out:

Some consider the regime socialist and an important counterpart to U.S. imperialism; others emphasize the capitalist nature of the CCP-regulated economy and oppose the exploitation of the Chinese proletariat by domestic and foreign capital.

For the debate on current developments in the People’s Republic, this distinction may suffice; in order to determine leftwing strategies beyond the politics of the day, it is necessary to analyze other positions as well.

These include the assessment of historical socialism after 1949, the human rights or democracy discourse promoted by leftists against today’s CCP regime, and the question of how to respond to the current intensification of the conflict between two imperialist blocs.

The System Changed

An assessment of historical socialism in China is important because some leftists glorify it or even consider it still existing. There are different opinions in the left about whether and when the socialist period began.

For some, the People’s Republic has always been socialist ever since 1949. They consider the CCP’s market reforms after 1978 part of a socialist reorientation. For others, the People’s Republic has always been (state-)capitalist. They see the reforms after 1978 as an adjustment and capitalist restructuring. Neither sees a rupture in the historical development of the PRC.

However, in reality, a systemic change took place, as others on the left acknowledge: The reforms since 1978 initiated the transition from a socialist period to a capitalist one. But contrary to what supporters of China’s pre-1978 socialism think, the CCP implemented a false form of socialism from the start.

False Socialism

The socialist period beginning in the 1950s was planned as a revolutionary transition to communism, but a new form of class society developed quickly. Leftist Maoists claim, only individual cadres or “capitalist roaders” (zou zi pai) were behind that development. But, instead, these new class divisions were inherent in the socialist system.

Masses of workers had to be mobilized and disciplined for the socialist industrialization project. Within the authoritarian state and within the planned economy that was created for this purpose, party and state cadres used their position of power vis-à-vis workers and peasants to establish themselves as the new privileged ruling class.

The proletariat was divided into urban workers in key industries and the mass of precariously employed, migrant, and rural workers, the former enjoying significantly better living conditions. The situation of women* initially improved as a result of their pressure. However, in the context of the Maoist patriarchy, which combined feudal and socialist elements, they had to continue to stand up against discrimination, the heavy burden of reproductive work, and against sexualized violence.

Waves of Struggles and Leftwing Opposition

Since the 1950s, several waves of social struggles with leftwing demands emerged against the new divisions, and some of them produced leftwing opposition groups that opposed the “red bourgeoisie.” The CCP leadership came under heavy pressure several times. It repeatedly made adjustments and brutally cracked down on struggles and movements.

This period can be called socialist because the CCP actually pursued the strategy of catch-up industrialization envisaged by Marxism-Leninism under the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (or better: of the party). Those who declare this period capitalist not only blur the differences to capitalism in other regions of the world, but also the failure of this form of socialism to bring communism.

Violent Capitalist Relations

Between the end of the 1970s and the end of the 1990s, the CCP carried out reforms that moved the country from a socialist planned economy to a managed capitalist market economy. A segmented labor market was created, and firms and workplaces were transformed into private or state-owned profit-oriented enterprises. Tens of millions of urban workers lost their jobs or suffered drastic cuts in wages and benefits.

The CCP opened the country to foreign capital and integrated China’s economy into capitalist global supply chains. Hundreds of millions of rural migrant workers now toiled under harsh conditions and low wages in factories, on construction sites, in private households, and in other service jobs. Since the 1990s, they have repeatedly fought back with strikes and other forms of protest and were able to push through improvements – but the exploitative conditions remained.

Anti-proletarian, Anti-leftist, and Anti-feminist Policies

The situation of women* has remained precarious in the capitalist period. With the One-Child Policy, the CCP regime first tried to impose its control over women*’s bodies and birth rates. Meanwhile, it has treated women as childbearing machines who are expected to produce more offspring to ensure the supply of labor. Women* are resisting reactionary family policies today and refuse to bow to pressure to have more children.

Leftist and feminist groups have supported the social struggles and have been repeatedly suppressed by the CCP. The surveillance and prison system, which has expanded enormously in the past decade, serves to discipline workers, to eliminate organized opposition, and, in a racist and most brutal form, to repress and forcefully assimilate ethnic groups that might threaten the CCP’s economic and political interests, as in Xinjiang. In short, those who continue to call the People’s Republic and the CCP socialist ignore or obscure violent capitalist relations and the party’s anti-proletarian, anti-leftist, and anti-feminist policies.

Democracy vs Authoritarianism?

The representatives of yet another position on China voice a different criticism of today’s CCP that Felix Wemheuer does not mention in his article – probably because it is not shared by leftists alone. The proponents of that position criticize the CCP regime as authoritarian and undemocratic, and they castigate, for example, the surveillance state or the brutal oppression or forced labor of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Yet they draw no connection neither to capitalist exploitation in all parts of China nor to the complicity of foreign (such as German, EU, or U.S.) capital in that regard.

They demand that the CCP regime respects human or women*’s rights, and they support the “liberal” democracies in the conflict with China’s authoritarianism. Consciously or unconsciously, they thus side with German, EU, or U.S. capital – and with the states that politically represent capital interests and also agitate against their imperialist competition in the People’s Republic of China under the guise of democracy and human rights. Moreover, the leftist proponents of that position defend a form of democracy that is designed to safeguard the capitalist and patriarchal class society and to suppress (or integrate) subversive tendencies.

Against War and Imperialism

In sum, it is necessary to learn from the failure of Chinese socialism, to attack the violent capitalist relations in contemporary China and the reactionary policies of the CCP, and to combine this with a critique of German, EU or U.S. capitalism and its entanglement with that of China. However, this alone is not enough.

The world is currently being drawn into an escalating conflict between the imperialist bloc led by the U.S. state and capital and a new imperialist bloc dominated by the CCP regime and Chinese capital. With the latter rallying behind the regime in Russia, the war in Ukraine can already be seen as a proxy war. Further escalations are likely.

In the leftwing debate on China, some suggest that beyond any criticism of the CCP regime, official negotiations with that regime are necessary to prevent wars and avert climate catastrophe. This reliance on governments and diplomacy here and in China is fatal. Leftwing anti-war politics – and also leftwing politics against the further destruction of the planet which is driven by capitalism – remains blunt as long as it relies on decision-makers in politics and business coming to reason and diplomatic negotiations between states leading to solutions.

Disruptive Power from Below

Only pressure and disruption from below, the deployment of mass resistance against war policies and exploitation, can break the imperialist dynamics of conflict and undermine the violent capitalist and patriarchal relations.

This does not happen with or within the state. Instead of appealing to the state – or even aiming for a career in the state apparatus, union hierarchies, and party foundations, as many leftists (in Germany, in particular) have been doing for decades – leftwing actors should pool their political resources outside (semi-)state institutions and join the investigation, support, and organizing of social protests and left opposition – in China and elsewhere.