Samir Amin: obituary

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Transform: A Journal of the Radical Left, November 2018.

On 12 August 2018, the global revolutionary movement lost one of its most outstanding thinkers. Born in Cairo in 1931, Samir Amin studied in Paris and received his early political education as a member of the French Communist Party. Moving back to Egypt in 1957, he worked as an economic advisor to the Nasser government before moving to Mali (1960) and then Senegal (1963). In 1975, he co-founded the Third World Forum, a network of intellectuals in Africa, Asia and Latin America, working to formulate models of development outside the context of imperialism.

Through his work and his writing, Samir Amin exercised significant influence on progressive governments and movements around the world, from China to Cuba, Venezuela to South Africa. The breadth of his influence is easily evidenced by the tributes that followed the announcement of his death, including from South Africa’s ANC, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro,1 and Bolivian President Evo Morales, who wrote that “the legacy of his ideals of social justice will be eternally acknowledged.”2

Overcoming Eurocentrism

Amin coined the term Eurocentrism in the mid-1970s to describe the ideology promoted by modern capitalism: a model that places Europe at the heart of global history and that considers (explicitly or implicitly) all human development to be of European origin, starting with the Greeks and Romans. Amin demonstrated, with great clarity and lucidity, how this ideology is leveraged to reinforce an actually existing global capitalism that consolidates wealth and power in Europe (and its Anglophone off-shoots) whilst perpetuating poverty and subjugation in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Amin ruthlessly deconstructs the Eurocentric view of history, pointing out for example that Ancient Greece wasn’t in the slightest bit ‘European’ in its outlook; it was engaged in intense exchange of ideas and goods with Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia (and to some extent China and India), at a time when Western Europe was “a backward and barbarous periphery”. It was only via the Crusades (in the 12th and 13th centuries AD) that the Italian towns were able to start asserting themselves as a global force, having won a monopoly on navigation in the Mediterranean.

Europe did not participate in the general development of the pre-modern system until very late, after the year 1000… At the dawn of the Christian era the population of Europe, including Italy, was about 20 million (8 per cent of the world population, less than 30 per cent of that of China, 50 per cent of that of the Middle East)… Until the year 1000 the productivity of European agriculture was greatly inferior to that of the civilised regions of China, India and the Middle East, and the continent still had no towns.3

By exposing the clear logical flaws of Eurocentric universalism, Amin was able to show that the dominance of modern global capitalism, far from being a permanent and pre-ordained set of affairs (or ‘end of history’), is the prodeuct of the very specific circumstances arising from Western Europe’s two major take-offs – at the end of the 15th century (the colonisation of the Americas) and the 19th century (the industrial revolution and the colonisation of much of the rest of the world). Once this ideology is challenged, it becomes far easier to visualise alternative political and economic systems to the Eurocentric nirvana of monopoly capitalism.

Critic of capitalism

Samir Amin made an in-depth analysis of modern wild-west capitalism – widely referred to these days as neoliberalism, but labelled more specifically by Amin as a “system of generalised monopolies based on an extreme centralisation of control over capital, accompanied by a generalisation of wage-labour”.4 This is different from the monopoly capitalism of a hundred years ago, in that “monopolies are now no longer islands in a sea of other still relatively autonomous companies, but are constitutive of an integrated system.” Even small and medium companies “are locked in a network of control put in place by the monopolies. Their degree of autonomy has shrunk to the point that they are nothing more than subcontractors of the monopolies.”5 Such a system is held in place throughout the globe via the monopolisation of technology, natural resources, finance, the media, and military capacity.

Although the capitalist class considers itself to be very modern and scientific, it has merely replaced a heavenly god with a metallic one. “‘Moneytheism’ has replaced monotheism. The ‘market’ rules like the ancient God.”6 This chimes with Marx’s biting observations about the ‘fetishisation’ of commodities under capitalism.

In the world of politics, this system of generalised monopolies is manifested as a “low-intensity democracy” in which people are encouraged to be passive, “devoid of authentic freedom, reduced to the status of passive consumers/spectators”. In essence Amin describes a plutocracy, with the nuance that “you are free to vote for whomever you want, because your choice has no importance”.7 This broadly correct assessment of course has its exceptions and caveats, and Amin was enthusiastic about the possibilities of Podemos and Syriza in terms of challenging the status quo in Europe.8

The long transition to socialism

In the same way that capitalism first developed within feudalism before breaking out of it, the long transition of world capitalism to world socialism is defined by the internal conflict of all the societies in the system between the trends and forces of the reproduction of capitalist relations and the (anti-systemic) trends and forces, whose logic has other aspirations – those, precisely, that can be defined as socialism.9

Although his analysis of capitalism makes for bleak reading, Samir Amin nonetheless remained a revolutionary optimist, a firm believer in a socialist future that will emerge – indeed is emerging – through the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism. He vigorously rejected the idea that socialism has failed and that capitalist ‘liberal democracy’ has been permanently established as the pinnacle of social and economic organisation. As Vijay Prashad notes, “he was not interested in defeat”.10

In this framework, the retreats suffered by the socialist world – particularly the collapse of the European socialist states between 1989 and 1991 – should not be considered as the death of the socialist project, but rather as part of the inevitable ebb and flow of a complex historical trajectory that could take hundreds of years but which nonetheless has an inexorable tide. A similar idea was formulated by the Communist Party of China in response to the collapse of the USSR and the European people’s democracies. Deng Xiaoping famously observed in 1992: “Feudal society replaced slave society, capitalism supplanted feudalism, and, after a long time, socialism will necessarily supersede capitalism. This is an irreversible general trend of historical development, but the road has many twists and turns. Over the several centuries that it took for capitalism to replace feudalism, how many times were monarchies restored! Some countries have suffered major setbacks, and socialism appears to have been weakened. But the people have been tempered by the setbacks and have drawn lessons from them, and that will make socialism develop in a healthier direction. So don’t panic, don’t think that Marxism has disappeared, that it’s not useful any more and that it has been defeated. Nothing of the sort!”11

On the controversial subject of China and its role in the global transition to socialism, Amin displayed a clarity of understanding that is all too rare. In his recent writings, he spoke of China as “perhaps the only country in the world today which has a sovereign project.” That is: China is successfully pursuing its own development model, designed by its own government and not the institutions of international finance capital. “China is walking on two legs: following traditions and participating in globalisation. They accept foreign investments, but keep independence of their financial system. The Chinese bank system is exclusively state-controlled… That is the best model that we have today to respond to the challenge of globalist imperialism.”12 The results of China’s strategy have been “simply amazing. In a few decades, China has built a productive, industrial urbanisation that brings together 600 million human beings, two-thirds of whom were urbanised over the last two decades (almost equal to Europe’s population!). This is due to the plan and not to the market.”13

The indispensable nature of multipolarity

Samir Amin considered that, given the economic, political and ideological stranglehold imposed by western finance capitalism, the first step towards a globalised socialism was to encourage the development of a multipolar world: a world with multiple power bases; a set of geopolitical spaces in which political and economic control is exercised by the people of those spaces rather than by the European and North American elite; a world which will bring about “the defeat of Washington’s hegemonic project for military control of the planet”.14 Such an environment “makes possible the maximum development of anti-systemic forces.”15 Multipolarity is an increasingly popular concept, but Amin was a very early proponent, having first discussed it in his 1985 book Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World.

Amin witnessed and welcomed the left tide in Latin America, the rising cooperation between China and Russia, the establishment of BRICS, ALBA and other major projects of regional or south-south cooperation that are slowly breaking down hegemonism. However, he also recognised the possibility of a violent, unpredictable and irrational reaction to all this – such as the Make America Great Again lunacy of the current US administration. “The world now is in serious danger. The collective imperialism of the US, Western Europe and Japan are run by US leadership. In order to keep their exclusive control over the whole planet, they do not accept independence of other countries. They do not respect the independence of China and Russia. That is why we are about to face continuous wars all over the world. The radical Islamists are the allies of imperialism, because they are supported by the US in order to carry out destabilisation. This is permanent war.”

He went on to propose a clear strategic response: “Russia should unite with China, the Central Asian countries, Iran and Syria. This alliance could be also very attractive for Africa and good parts of Latin America. In such a case, imperialism would be isolated.”16

Taking Samir Amin’s work forward

Samir Amin was a brilliant and creative Marxist, an uncompromising anti-imperialist, a powerful voice for the oppressed, and a visionary of a socialist world. His work mapping the past, present and future of humanity is a weighty inheritance that the global progressive forces must now take forward.

  1. Via Twitter, 12 August 2018 

  2. Via Twitter, 12 August 2018 

  3. Samir Amin: Global History: A View from the South, Pambazuka Press, 2010 

  4. Samir Amin: The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, 2013 

  5. Pambazuka: Audacity, more audacity, 2001 

  6. Global History: A View from the South, op cit 

  7. The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, op cit 

  8. MR Online: Glory to the Lucid Courage of the Greek People, Facing the European Crisis, 2015 

  9. Samir Amin, Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, Monthly Review Press, 2016 

  10. The Hindu: Death of a Marxist, 2018 

  11. Deng Xiaoping, Excerpts from Talks Given in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai, 1992 

  12. Defend Democracy Press: Samir Amin: How to Defeat the Collective Imperialism of the Triad, 2016 

  13. Monthly Review: China 2013 

  14. Samir Amin, Beyond US Hegemony? Assessing the Prospects for a Multipolar World, Zed Books, 2013 

  15. Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, op cit 

  16. How to Defeat the Collective Imperialism of the Triad, op cit 

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more?

This series of articles attempts to unpick the fall of the Soviet Union, looking in depth at the economic, political, ideological and military factors.

Why dig up these particular old bones? Because we must reflect on, and learn from, history. The world’s first socialist state no longer exists, and nor do the European people’s democracies that were its close allies. If mistakes were made, it’s crucial that they aren’t made again. Existing socialist states face many of the same external pressures that the Soviet Union faced; future socialist states almost certainly will too. Additionally, socialist states so far have had great difficulty maintaining revolutionary momentum through the second, third and fourth generations of the revolution; this is as true of contemporary Cuba or China as it was of the USSR. Addressing these problems is obviously essential, and the details of the Soviet collapse constitute some of the most important raw data for any such analysis. The more our movement can learn about the Soviet collapse, the better prepared we will be to prevent historic reverses and defeats in future, and the better equipped we will be to develop a compelling, convincing vision of socialism that is relevant to the here and now.

The series of articles will be made available in e-book form in the coming few weeks.

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 8: Will the People’s Republic of China go the way of the USSR?

So long as socialism does not collapse in China, it will always hold its ground in the world. (Deng Xiaoping)1

We should think of China’s communist regime quite differently from that of the USSR: it has, after all, succeeded where the Soviet Union failed. (Martin Jacques)2

This series has thus far explored in some detail the various factors – economic, political, ideological, military and cultural – that contributed to the collapse of the USSR and the dismantling of socialism in Europe. This final article in the series shifts perspective forwards to the present, asking what future socialism has in the world; what lessons can be drawn from the Soviet collapse in order to ensure the continued existence of the remaining socialist countries? These are synthesised into the topic of whether China – the largest and most prominent of the five countries currently ruled by communist parties – is destined to follow the same painful trajectory as the USSR.

These are questions of no idle academic interest; they are essential components of the biggest political questions of our era: Has capitalism won? Is there any escape for humanity from brutal exploitation, inequality and underdevelopment? Is there a future in which the world’s billions can truly exercise their free will, their humanity, liberated not only from hunger but from wage slavery?

The conclusions I draw are that China is following a fundamentally different path to that of the Soviet Union; that it has made a serious and comprehensive study of the Soviet collapse and rigorously applies what it has learnt; that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains a socialist country and an important friend to the socialist and developing world; that, in spite of the rolling back of the first wave of socialist advance, Marxism remains as relevant as ever; and that, consequently, socialism has a bright future in the world.

Wait… is China even socialist?

If you want to talk about socialism, let us not forget what socialism achieved in China. At one time it was the land of hunger, poverty, disasters. Today there is none of that. Today China can feed, dress, educate, and care for the health of 1.2 billion people. I think China is a socialist country, and Vietnam is a socialist nation as well. And they insist that they have introduced all the necessary reforms in order to motivate national development and to continue seeking the objectives of socialism. There are no fully pure regimes or systems. In Cuba, for instance, we have many forms of private property… Practically all Cubans own their own home and, what is more, we welcome foreign investment. But that does not mean that Cuba has stopped being socialist. (Fidel Castro)3

The first controversy to address is whether, after four decades of market-oriented economic reforms, China can still reasonably be considered socialist. After all, China today has nearly 500 billionaires and is the top destination for foreign direct investment, attracting over $100 billion each year. There are branches of McDonalds and Starbucks in all major Chinese cities; most people in their daily lives devote more attention to earning a living than to absorbing the teachings of Marx and Engels; and there is startling inequality between the coastal cities and the inland countryside, and between rich and poor more generally. There are stock exchanges in Shanghai and Shenzhen; there is finance capital; there is privately-owned capital. Many leftists – particularly in Europe and North America – look at this situation and say: this has nothing to do with socialism.

On the other hand, the People’s Republic of China has some interesting characteristics that make it rather different from the average capitalist country. Most importantly, although inequality has increased over the past 40 years, the standard of living for ordinary workers and peasants has risen along with it. Wealth under capitalism generally has its counterpart in poverty and exploitation (at home and/or abroad), but in China practically everyone enjoys a far better standard of life than they did. Extreme poverty is on the cusp of being completely eliminated – an extraordinary achievement for a country of China’s size.

Secondly, China is run by a communist party that continues to adhere to Marxism-Leninism. While it no doubt suffers from corruption, and although its ideological purity has been diluted, its history and traditions mean that it derives its legitimacy and support from the masses of workers and peasants. As such, the Chinese state operates primarily in the interests of the working classes, unlike any capitalist state.

Thirdly, as much private capital as there is in China, the economy is still very much dominated and directed by the state. Eric Li, in the John Pilger documentary The Coming War on China, explains:

China is a vibrant market economy but it’s not a capitalist country. There’s no way a group of billionaires could control the politburo as billionaires control American policy making. So in China you have a vibrant market economy but capital doesn’t rise above political authority. Capital does not have enshrined rights. In America the interests of capital and capital itself has risen above the American nation. Political authority cannot check the power of capital – and that’s why America is a capitalist country but China’s not.4

So while China has introduced elements of capitalism in the 40 years since the start of ‘reform and opening up’, these do not constitute a negation of socialism, any more than they did in the New Democracy period in the 1950s, or under the New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The point of the reforms is to to lay the ground for a more advanced socialism: “In order to realise communism, we have to accomplish the tasks set in the socialist stage. They are legion, but the fundamental one is to develop the productive forces so as to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism and provide the material basis for communism.”5

A workers’ state

The class nature of the state is one of the core themes of Marxism. Marx and Engels were the first to conclusively demonstrate that the state is not an impartial body sitting above society and operating for the common good; rather, its responsibility is to represent the interests of a given social class and the system of production relations that benefit it. In the case of capitalism, “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.6

In a socialist society, the state must serve the interests of the working class and its allies; it must protect working class power, defend it from the inevitable attacks from capital, and build a better life for the people. Marxist sociologist Albert Szymanski wrote of the Soviet Union that, “in a socialist society surrounded by a capitalist world, the necessity to develop industrially, to feed the people, to protect itself and catch up with the leading capitalist countries, imposes a fairly limited set of options on a socialist power elite”7. This applies equally contemporary China. President Xi Jinping explains in simple terms:

The working class is China’s leading class; it represents China’s advanced productive forces and relations of production; it is our Party’s most steadfast and reliable class foundation; and it is the main force for realising a moderately prosperous society in all respects, and upholding and building socialism with Chinese characteristics… To uphold and build Chinese socialism in the future, we must rely wholeheartedly on the working class, enhance its position as China’s leading class, and give full play to its role as our main force. Relying fully on the working class is not just a slogan or label.8

A socialist state run in the interests of the working class and its allies can certainly incorporate market mechanisms, as long as these operate under the guidance of the state and introduce some benefit for working people, and as long as capital is not allowed to become politically dominant. Deng Xiaoping – the political leader most closely associated with China’s economic reform – insisted that markets and socialism were not mutually exclusive: “It is wrong to assert that there is only a capitalist market economy. Why can’t it be developed under socialism? A market economy is not a synonym for capitalism.”9 “If markets serve socialism they are socialist; if they serve capitalism they are capitalist.”10

The Communist Party of China (CPC) conceptualises the capitalist elements of its economy as being at the service of socialist development. ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ leverages the market to stimulate production, attract investment, encourage technical development, support peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world, and thereby raise the living standards of the Chinese people and pave the road for a higher stage of socialism, built on advanced technology. Market socialism can reasonably be considered a pragmatic and entirely Marxist answer to the exceedingly difficult problem of building socialism in a large, underdeveloped country under constant threat from a hegemonic US imperialism. Sitaram Yechury, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), explains: “In the final analysis, it boils down to the question of who controls the state or whose class rule it is. Under bourgeois class rule, it is the profit indicators that are the driving force. Under working-class rule, it is the society’s responsibilities that are the priorities.”11

The Chinese government is extraordinarily popular among the Chinese people12, the reason being that it focuses precisely on the wellbeing of the masses rather than the profits of billionaires. “Meeting people’s needs, ranging from those in education, employment, social security, medical services, housing, environment, to intellectual and cultural life, is the top priority of the government.”13 This is constantly stressed by the leadership. Xi Jinping reiterates:

If we cannot deliver tangible benefits to the people, and create a fairer social environment, and, worse still, if we cause more inequality, then our reform will lose its meaning and cannot be sustained. Even when the ‘cake’ has indeed become bigger, we must cut it fairly… It is the essential requirement of socialism to eradicate poverty, improve the people’s livelihood and achieve common prosperity. We should pay close attention to people in straitened circumstances, and extend care to them with respect and love. We should do our best to solve their problems and keep their needs and sufferings in mind, and bring the solicitude and concern of the Party and the government to the people in the impoverished areas.14

A government’s priorities can provide a useful indicator as to its ideology and the social forces it represents. The top priorities of the Chinese government in the present era are very much consistent with the demands of the Chinese people, in particular: protecting China’s unity and territorial integrity; improving living standards; clamping down on corruption; protecting the environment; eradicating poverty; maintaining peace and stability; and re-establishing China’s national prestige, all but wiped out in the ‘century of humiliation’ preceding the establishment of the PRC in 1949. The average citizen of the US or Britain would surely be pleased if their government embraced an equivalent set of priorities, meeting the needs of the masses, and yet this doesn’t happen, because of the resistance of the (capitalist) ruling classes of those countries.

The question of environmental conservation is instructive. A capitalist state has very limited freedom of action on this issue, due to the short-termist needs of expanding capital (for example, oil companies wield significant influence within US policy circles). A comprehensive strategy of environmental protection requires a huge investment: a production of use values that may not have corresponding exchange values; that is, production for people, not profit. In China, the government has a clear mandate to lead just such a strategy (even though there is a tension between development and conservation, both of which are essential for the Chinese people).

Over the last few years, China has quickly become the global leader in environmental protection, planning to “spend at least $360 billion on clean energy projects and create 13 million new renewable energy jobs by 2020”.15 At the same time as investing heavily in alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower, it is divesting from coal, cancelling the construction of 104 new coal plants last year.16 The government has even set up an environmental police force to ensure compliance with green policy.17 China’s forest coverage has increased from around 18 percent in 2007 to 21.7 percent, with targets of 23 percent by 2020 and 26 percent by 2035.18 On clean energy, “the United States is actually playing catch-up to China… China has taken an undisputed leadership”.19 On pollution, “the results suggest that China’s fight against pollution has already laid the foundation for extraordinary gains in life expectancy.”20 These ambitious plans can be devised and carried out precisely because of the location of political power in the Chinese working class.

Another useful indicator of the class nature of the Chinese state is the government’s vigilance in tackling corruption. Breaking laws and exerting political pressure in the name of expansion of capital is par for the course in capitalist countries, and precious little is done to combat it – including in Britain, where what Seumas Milne terms the “revolving-door colonisation of public life” has become pervasive.21 In China, corrupt billionaires have an extraordinarily high chance of ending up in prison – or executed.22

Public ownership still dominates, and the state is in charge of the economy

Szymanski writes that “a social formation can be defined in terms of its dominant relations of production. This need not mean the relations of production in which the largest number of producers are involved, nor the set of productive relations that produce the greatest amount of surplus value. The dominant relations of production, rather, are those relations whose basic logic structures the form and movement of the whole social formation. Thus, for example, the US was a capitalist social formation in 1860 despite there being more slaves, freeholding farmers and artisans than there were industrial workers… It is likewise possible to have a socialist society in which the majority of the producing classes are not working in collectively owned and controlled enterprises, provided that the logic of such enterprises structures the rest of the economy.”23

Szymanski’s analysis holds for contemporary China. Although the number of employees of private enterprises has overtaken the number of employees of state- and collectively-owned companies, the basic economic agenda is set by the state. Private production is encouraged by the state only because it contributes to modernisation, technological development and employment. Vince Sherman writes that “in a socialist market economy, the state is controlled by workers and dominates the private sector. It allows it to flourish only to the degree that it helps in the economic development of the whole country and serves the greater class interests of the working class and peasantry.”24 While some Marxists may insist that markets can have no place under socialism, it’s difficult to reconcile such a view with Marx’s own view of socialism as a transitional stage on the road to communism. China has proven in reality that it can use market mechanisms in order to more rapidly develop the productive forces and improve the living standards of its people. After all, “socialism means eliminating poverty. Pauperism is not socialism.”25

It will come as a surprise to many readers to know that public ownership continues to dominate in China. According to the CPC’s central committee, “the basic economic system with public ownership at the core, jointly developing with many kinds of ownership systems, is the main pillar of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, and is the basis for the socialist market economy system… We must unswervingly consolidate and develop the public economy, persist in the leading role of public ownership, give full play to the leading role of the state-owned economy, and incessantly increase its vitality, leveraging power and impact.”26

There has been very little in the way of actual privatisation, in terms of transferring ownership of state enterprises into the hands of private capital; indeed, the state sector is several times bigger than it was in 1978, when the reforms were launched. Rather, private enterprise was allowed to develop alongside the state sector, and has grown at an even faster rate than the state sector (bear in mind that it started from a very low base). John Ross argues that China has grown “not by destroying its state sector but by altering the relations between the monopoly and non-monopoly sectors – rapidly expanding the latter.”27 Similarly, Martin Jacques explains that, “rather than root-and-branch privatisation, the Chinese government has sought to make the numerous state-owned enterprises that remain as efficient and competitive as possible. As a result, the top 150 state-owned firms, far from being lame ducks, have instead become enormously profitable, their aggregate profits reaching $150 billion in 2007… Unlike in Japan or Korea, where privately owned firms overwhelmingly predominate, most of China’s best-performing companies are to be found in the state sector.”28

It’s interesting to note that, for example, the combined revenues of two Chinese state-owned enterprises (China Mobile and Sinopec) were greater than those of China’s 500 largest private companies in 2009.29 The state maintains tight control over the most important parts of the economy, often referred to as the ‘commanding heights’: heavy industry, energy, finance, transport, communications, and foreign trade.30 Finance – which has a key influence over the entire economy – is dominated by the ‘big four’ state-owned banks.31 These banks’ primary responsibility is to the Chinese people, not private shareholders.

China’s land was never privatised, although collectivisation was mainly rolled back. It remains owned and managed at the village level. Peter Nolan observes: “Public ownership of land was a powerful countervailing force to the social inequality which inevitably accompanied elements of the market reform.” De-collectivisation “was not followed by the establishment of private property rights. Because the Chinese Communist Party wished to prevent the emergence of a landlord class, it did not permit the purchase and sale of farmland… The village community remained the owner, controlling the terms on which land was contracted out and operated by peasant households. It endeavoured to ensure that farm households had equal access to farmland… The massively dominant form was distribution of land contracts on a locally equal per capita basis.”32

Even the town and village enterprises (TVEs), which became the standard-bearers of economic reform in the 1980s and which came to employ as many as 135 million people in the mid-1990s, were collectives. Nolan considers that they “resembled national state-owned enterprises, with the ‘state’ being the local community, each of which typically owned multiple establishments.”33

Ironically, market reforms would almost certainly have failed were they not carried out under the tight control of the government and had they not existed within the context of a planned economy. Indeed this is one reason that China’s reforms were so successful and the Soviet/Russian reforms failed. Peter Nolan, who is by no means a cheerleader for centrally-planned economies, writes: “The comparison of the experience of China and Russia’s reforms confirms that, at certain junctures and in certain countries, effective planning is a necessary condition of economic success.”34 Nolan points out that the Chinese state took the lead in conducting large-scale experiments and analysing the results; protecting domestic industry from the sudden appearance of foreign goods; supporting the growth of the state-owned enterprises to a level where they could become competitive in the global marketplace; investing in social and economic infrastructure (transport, healthcare, education, transport, power generation); and coordinating the different parts of the reform programme. Left to the market and an emerging class of entrepreneurs, none of this would have happened.

Tran Dac Loi, of the Communist Party of Vietnam, gives a very clear explanation of the relationship between state and market in a market socialist economy (note that Vietnam follows a very similar economic model to China): ”The market is managed and regulated by the socialist state in order to utilise the positive sides, minimise the negative ones, and direct market activities into implementation of given comprehensive development goals. Market mechanisms are combined with macro planning by the state… The state economic sector should play the dominating role in key areas essential to macro economy such as energy, finance, telecommunications, aviation, railways, maritime, public transportation, etc… The land and natural resources remain within all-people ownership under the state management.”35

Tran continues: “We are aware that in the market economy in particular and in the transition period in general, it is impossible to avoid the gap between the rich and the poor; but the state and the whole society should focus on upholding the poor, supporting the disadvantaged, reducing poverty, increasing access to education, healthcare, social welfare as well as the improving and enhancing living standard of the people accordingly on every step of economic development. Unlike the charity acts and tiny, inadequate re-distribution seen under capitalism, these are persistent and obligatory targets to be achieved in the development process towards socialism.”

Such an arrangement is fundamentally different to the organisation of production in a capitalist society.

Opening up has led to development

China’s opening up to foreign investment and its integration into global markets is often presented by some leftists as prima facie evidence of its having become a capitalist country. Jenny Clegg points out that China’s joining of the World Trade Organisation in 2001 was seen as “the outcome of a gradual process of capitalist restoration – a final step in sweeping away the last obstacle in the way of China’s transition from socialism.”36

Clegg goes on to explain that WTO membership had nothing to do with capitalist restoration, and everything to do with developing China’s productive forces, strengthening its geopolitical position, and thereby building a better life for its people. China joined the WTO in order to able to “insert itself into the global production chains linking East Asia to the US and other markets, thus making itself indispensable as a production base for the world economy. This would make it far more difficult for the United States to impose a new Cold War isolation.” Further, China’s integration in the world economy has allowed it to be a part of “the unprecedented global technological revolution, offering a short cut for the country to accelerate its industrial transformation and upgrade its economic structure.”

The opportunity to rapidly learn from the advanced capitalist countries’ developments in science and technology was the principal reason for ‘opening up’. Blockaded by the western countries after the revolution, and then cut off from Soviet support as a result of the Sino-Soviet split, China in 1978 was still relatively backward from a technological point of view, in spite of having made some great advances and having developed a standard of living for its people that was far ahead of other countries at a similar level of development.

Deals with foreign investors were drawn up such that foreign companies trying to expand their capital in China were compelled to share skills and technology, and operate under Chinese regulation.37 “Foreign investment was regulated to make it compatible with state development planning. Technology transfer and other performance requirements ― conditions attached to foreign investment to make sure that the host country gets some benefit from foreign investment, such as the use of locally produced inputs, or the hiring of local managers ― were common and are still an issue of contention with the United States today.”38

Much as foreign investors might like to keep their technological secrets, they’ve had limited choice. “As China has grown more powerful, the demand for technology transfer has become ever more insistent, with foreign companies, complain though they may, generally conceding.”39 For example, “in order to gain access to the vast and rapidly growing China market, Boeing was required to assist the main Chinese aircraft manufacturer in Xian to successively establish a capacity to produce spare parts and then manufacture whole sections of aircraft, and finally to assist in the development of a capacity to produce complete aircraft within China. In order to gain the right to invest in car production in China, Ford Motor Company was required to first invest for several years in upgrading the technical capacity of the Chinese automobile spare parts industry through a sequence of joint ventures.”40

After four decades of opening up, China is now one of the world’s leading innovators in science and technology; it has caught up, through strategically and methodically integrating itself into a globalised value chain, whilst at all times driving a hard bargain, learning relentlessly, and keeping its focus on the needs of its population.

Commitment to Marxism

Only socialism can save China, and only Chinese socialism can lead our country to development – a fact that has been fully proved through the long-term practice of the Party and the state. (Xi Jinping)41

Through four decades of reform and opening up, the CPC has retained its commitment to Marxism. Deng Xiaoping was clear from the very beginning of the reform process that China “must keep to the socialist road. Some people are now openly saying that socialism in inferior to capitalism. We must demolish this contention… Deviate from socialism and China will inevitably revert to semi-feudalism and semi-colonialism. The overwhelming majority of the Chinese people will never allow such a reverse… Although it is a fact that socialist China lags behind the developed capitalist countries in its economy, technology and culture, this is not due to the socialist system but basically to China’s historical development before liberation; it is the result of imperialism and feudalism. The socialist revolution has greatly narrowed the gap in economic development between China and the advanced capitalist countries.”42

This is echoed today by the current leadership. As Xi Jinping puts it, “socialism with Chinese characteristics is socialism and nothing else. The basic principles of scientific socialism must not be abandoned; otherwise it is not socialism.”43

In no country in the world is Marxism studied as widely as it is in China. President Xi Jinping has a doctorate in Marxist philosophy. Marxism is part of the core curriculum at every level of the education system. Ninety million members of the Communist Party of China are required to engage in Marxist study. “The whole party should remember: what we are building is socialism with Chinese characteristics, not some other ism”, says Xi.44 Indeed, the Communist Party of China considers itself “a loyal inheritor of the spirit of The Communist Manifesto”.45 Marx is considered “the greatest thinker of modern times”.46

Those leftists that don’t support contemporary Chinese socialism may scoff at these pronouncements from the Chinese leadership, but the international capitalist class certainly takes them seriously. For example, a recent article in the Washington Times complained bitterly that “Marxism is highly relevant to everyday life in the world’s most populous country, a mandatory curricular course taught at every level of the education system from kindergarten to graduate school. Tens of millions of devoted ‘political teachers’ in the schools, unknown millions of ‘ideological workers’ at every level of the society, and the ubiquitous ‘political commissars’ in the People’s Liberation Army — they all collectively serve as the official clergy of Marxism.”47

It’s difficult to understand why China’s political leadership would go to such lengths to promote Marxism if they are intent on doing away with it. A far more likely explanation is that they’re genuine in their devotion to socialism and their resolve to strengthen it. Naysayers and purists will highlight flaws and inconsistencies, but this is nothing new or interesting. “Actually existing socialism will always fall short of the socialist ideal because it is precisely that ideal implemented within the confines of reality.”48

USSR got the economy wrong. China is not doing that.

At several points in the postwar period, Soviet leaders identified problems in the USSR’s economy and proposed changes; various reforms were attempted, but none of them succeeded in breaking the trend towards stagnation and the widening productivity gap with the major capitalist economies. The Chinese leadership after Mao also identified problems (many of them decidedly similar to those identified by the Soviets) and also implemented reforms; these reforms were resoundingly successful. If “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, then it must be concluded that the Chinese made much better pudding, since the trajectory of the Chinese economy has been one of rapid growth, ever-improving living standards, and a narrowing of the gap with the advanced capitalist countries.

Was reform necessary?

One important question is whether reform was necessary in either case. It would be easy enough to extrapolate from the Soviet experience and conclude that any move away from a heavily centralised ‘command economy’ is a disaster, since the Soviet economy scored its greatest successes before Khrushchev, Liberman and others started tinkering with market reforms.49

What’s the direction of causality? Did stagnation provoke reforms, or did reforms create stagnation? Keeran and Kenny, whose book Socialism Betrayed is essential reading on the Soviet collapse, take the latter position: “Even cautious proponents of markets within the context of a dominant central plan, have to explain the following awkward facts. In the final three and a half decades of the USSR’s existence, the more market relations and other reforms were introduced — officially and legally in several reform waves (Khrushchev, Kosygin and Gorbachev), and quietly, steadily, and often illegally through the spreading second economy — the more the long-term economic growth rates came down… A key lesson of the Soviet collapse is that market relations must be held to a minimum.”50

However, vigorous opponents of markets within the context of a dominant central plan have to explain the ‘awkward fact’ that Chinese market socialism has not been a failure, has not led to stagnation, has not led to the fall of socialism, has not weakened the rule of the communist party, and has not weakened Chinese national unity. John Ross points out that, in the 40 years from 1978, China’s economy expanded at an average of 9.5% per year, resulting in a 35-fold increase.51 So while Soviet reform coincided with stagnation, Chinese reform coincided with unprecedented growth. Clearly we cannot simply conclude that market reforms are inherently bad and weaken socialism.

The Italian Marxist philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo notes that, in the 1930s and 40s, the heavily centralised Soviet economy was working very well: “the rapid development of modern industry was interwoven with the construction of a welfare state that guaranteed the economic and social rights of citizens in a way that was unprecedented.”52 However, after the period of frenetic building of socialism, followed by the war, followed by the reconstruction, came “the transition from great historical crisis to a more ‘normal’ period” in which “the masses’ enthusiasm and commitment to production and work weakened and then disappeared.” In its final few years, “the Soviet Union was characterised by massive absenteeism and disengagement in the workplace: not only did production development stagnate, but there was no longer any application of the principle that Marx said drove socialism — remuneration according to the quantity and quality of work delivered.”

Losurdo contends that China in the late 1970s faced very similar problems: “the China that arose from the Cultural Revolution resembled the Soviet Union to an extraordinary degree in its last years of existence: the socialist principle of compensation based on the amount and quality of work delivered was substantially liquidated, and disaffection, disengagement, absenteeism and anarchy reigned in the workplace.” It is beyond question that by 1978, almost three decades after the founding of the People’s Republic, China was still a long way from being an advanced country, and although it had achieved extraordinary progress in terms of life expectancy, education and mass empowerment, it “still faced tremendous challenges, with a GDP per capita figure lower than that of India and 542 million people living on less than one dollar per day.”53 Hundreds of millions of people in the villages still faced food insecurity and poor housing conditions. *“If we don’t do everything possible to increase production, how can we expand the economy? How can we demonstrate the superiority of socialism and communism? We have been making revolution for several decades and have been building socialism for more than three. Nevertheless, by 1978 the average monthly salary for our workers was still only 45 yuan, and most of our rural areas were still mired in poverty. Can this be called the superiority of socialism?”54

Productivity levels were low, and the use of advanced technology was decades behind the US (and, increasingly, the ‘Asian tigers’ – smaller states that were actively supported by the US in the development of hi-tech capitalism as a means of averting any possibility of socialist revolution). Peter Nolan describes some of the problems on the ground: “The system produced little interest among producers in the usefulness of their output. The pervasive atmosphere of shortage meant that there existed a seller’s market for a large proportion of output. Specification of output targets in simple physical terms led to a pervasive tendency towards the narrowing of product range towards those products which were easiest to produce. Thus, the mix of consumer goods notoriously failed to respond to consumer signals and there was a high rate o breakdowns of consumer durables.”55 These problems closely resemble the problems of the Soviet economy in the 1970s as described earlier in the series.56 Indeed, a pattern can perhaps be discerned from the experiences of ‘actually existing socialism’ thus far: while a heavily voluntaristic approach to production can be very effective for a period of time, it suffers from diminishing returns and can’t be sustained forever.

Being a poor country with a tremendous responsibility to meet the immediate needs of its huge population, China lacked the resources to invest heavily in research and development, and the resulting low productivity meant that it couldn’t guarantee an adequate standard of living to its people. Cut off from the global marketplace, it wasn’t able to quickly learn from others or benefit from an ever-more globalised division of labour. The post-Mao leadership came to the conclusion that the most important step to solidify socialism and to quickly improve the living standards of the Chinese population was to develop the productive forces by any means necessary; hence reform and opening up.

China’s economic reforms have been extraordinarily successful

The vastly different results of the Russian and Chinese reforms are demonstrative of the critical importance of choosing the right reform strategies and paths. (Hu Angang)*57

As has been discussed previously, Soviet attempts at economic reform didn’t meet with any great success; the tentative reforms during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods had minimal impact, and the Gorbachev-era reforms were basically disastrous. From the mid-1970s onwards, the Soviet economy entered what is widely considered to be a period of stagnation, just as the capitalist countries were starting to leverage developments in technology to achieve major improvements in productivity. Jude Woodward notes that, “from 20 per cent of the size of the US economy in 1944, the Soviet economy peaked at 44 per cent that of the US by 1970 ($1,352 billion to $3,082 billion) but had fallen back to 36 per cent of the US by 1989 ($2,037 billion to $5,704 billion). It never came near challenging the economic weight of the US.”58

In China, by contrast, “economic growth rates were transformed from the respectable 4–5 per cent of the Mao period to an annual growth rate of 9.5 per cent between 1978 and 1992.”59 Comparing China’s GDP with that of India, Martin Jacques finds that in 1950 – a year after the founding of the PRC and three years after Indian independence – “the per capita income of India was around 40 per cent greater than that of China; by 1978 they were roughly on a par. By 1999, China’s was not far short of twice that of India’s and by 2009 it was over three and a half times as great.” Another decade or so later and China’s per capita GDP is around 4.5 times that of India. In 1978, China’s GDP was around a quarter that of the USSR; by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, China’s GDP was around half that of the USSR. Today, China’s GDP is nine times greater than Russia’s.

Since 1978, China’s economy has grown more than any other country; it also tops the list for per capita GDP growth, which has risen from $156 in 1978 to $8,123 at the time of writing (2018).60 This puts it firmly in the ‘middle income’ bracket. In the same period, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, approximately 94 percent of the reduction of extreme poverty globally took place in China.61

China in 1978 was still a poor country, with half the population – almost half a billion people – subsisting below the dollar-a-day poverty line. Today less than two percent of the Chinese population lives below the ‘absolute poverty’ line (currently defined by the World Bank as $1.90 per day).

Jacques sums up: “Given its scale and speed, China’s economic transformation is surely the most extraordinary in human history, notwithstanding the sheer novelty of Britain’s as the first… Economic growth is no longer confined to a few ‘islands’ but has spread out in waves to most provinces of China, albeit in sharply varying degrees… China’s GDP represented 4.9 per cent of the world’s total in 1978, but is likely to rise to 18–20 per cent by 2020.”

The underground ‘second economy’ that did so much to undermine the Soviet system has not been an issue in China, because the market is legal and heavily regulated. Discussing the parallel process in Vietnam, Vince Sherman writes that the gradual implementation of market reforms allowed the Communist Party to ensure the dominance of the socialist state over the private sector. “Additionally, it forced ‘second economy’ enterprises to emerge from the black market and placed them under control of the state.”62

While the capitalist world is still struggling to come to terms with the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis, China and Vietnam have forged ahead. “In just four years, 2007 to 2011, China’s industrial production jumped from 62 percent of US levels to 120 percent, according to UN accounting.”63

The whole country has benefitted

Although inequality has emerged as a serious problem, China’s growth hasn’t exclusively benefitted a handful of rich people. Nearly all Chinese people are doing substantially better than they were 40 years ago, in terms of access to sufficient and good quality food, decent housing, adequate clothing, access to services, ability to travel, and amenities (washing machines, televisions, etc). Along with the vastly increased number of jobs in manufacturing and the service sector, the state is spending ever-increasing amounts on social welfare. The proportion of fiscal revenue in GDP rose from 10.7 percent in 1995 to 20.4 percent in 200864, and the lion’s share of this revenue is put to work for poverty reduction, public services and social security. The influential economist Hu Angang writes that “China’s modernisation is absolutely not designed to benefit just a portion of its people, cities, and regions. Rather, China’s modernisation aims to provide for the common prosperity of all people, across urban and rural areas and reaching both the coastal region and the vast interior hinterland. Such egalitarianism is the most significant difference between China’s socialist modernisation and the capitalist modernisation program of the world’s already developed countries.”

The number of people lifted out of poverty during the reform process numbers in the hundreds of millions. The Chinese leadership has set a goal to fully eradicate extreme poverty by 2020. Ajit Singh notes: “From 1978-2015, real income for the bottom half of earners grew 401 percent, compared to falling by one percent in the US. Chinese wage growth is also soaring, with hourly manufacturing wages rising 12 percent per year since 2001.”65 On top of this, government spending on education and healthcare is expanding rapidly.

Child malnutrition is becoming a thing of the past. According to the World Food Programme, between 1990 and 2010, the number of underweight children under the age of five fell by 74 percent and rates of stunting dropped by 70 percent. “Better nutrition has significantly improved the health and quality of life of Chinese children… China alone accounts for almost two thirds of the total reduction in the number of undernourished people in developing regions since 1990.”66 This story can usefully be compared with India, where child malnutrition is still, tragically, endemic.67

In the early years of the People’s Republic, a decision was taken to emphasise primary and secondary education in order to ensure every person received at least a few years of schooling. This was certainly the best use of resources at the time, but one result was that China had too few highly qualified young people. In recent decades, the government has expanded its focus to include college and university, and accordingly the rate of admission to higher education institutions is now 43 percent of high school graduates. “A record-breaking 8m students will graduate from Chinese universities in 2017. This figure is nearly ten times higher than it was in 1997 and is more than double the number of students who will graduate this year in the US.”68 The rate of admission to pre-school kindergarten is also extremely high for a developing country, standing at 77 percent.69

The Human Development Index (HDI) is a useful metric that has become popular in recent years, compositing life expectancy, educational level and per capita income. In HDI terms, China has gone from 0.407 on the scale in 1980 to 0.727 today (for calibration purposes, Norway is at the top of the charts with 0.949 and the Central African Republic at the bottom with 0.352). China’s increase in HDI makes it the only country that has leap-frogged the ‘medium’ HDI rank, moving from the ‘low HDI’ group in 1990 to the ‘high HDI’ group today (the requirement for the ‘very high HDI’ group is 0.800 – it seems likely China will get there within a few years).

Income inequality rose consistently from the start of the reform process – an expected but unfortunate side effect of allowing private enterprise and foreign investment. It rose to startling levels in the 2000s, but numerous studies show that it’s now starting to come back down, as jobs and investment spread inland.70 Deng’s controversial suggestion that “some people in rural areas and cities should be allowed to get rich before others”71 has worked out well in practice. The coastal and riparian cities, particularly Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, raced ahead, attracting vast investment and expanding rapidly. Now, however, “companies are moving production to the interior provinces and, in their place, Guangdong is seeking to move up the value ladder, develop its service industries and shift into new areas of production that rely on design and technology rather than the perspiration of its people and the migrant workers from faraway provinces.”72 In the meantime, the vastly increased tax revenue resulting from those that were “allowed to get rich before others” has been spent according to the formula agreed at the start, that is: “for the benefit of the people, a small portion being used to strengthen national defence and the rest to develop the economy, education and science and to raise the people’s living standards and cultural level.”73 In this sense, China is one of the few places in the world where the concept of wealth ‘trickling down’ is not sheer fantasy.

Losurdo points out that inequality must be considered both within a given society and at a world scale – “the inequality existing on the global scale between the most and least developed countries”. Looked at from a global perspective, China has made an extraordinary contribution to reducing inequality, given that the living standard of its people is starting to approach that of Western Europe. Losurdo also deploys a powerful metaphor for better understanding inequality within China itself:

There are two trains running from a station called ‘underdevelopment’ and heading towards a station called ‘development.’ One of the two trains is very fast, while the other train is slower: consequently, the distance between the two increases progressively. This discrepancy can be explained easily if you keep in mind the size of continental China and its tormented history: the coastal regions, which already had infrastructure (albeit elementary), enjoying easier access and the possibility of trade with developed areas, are in a better situation than the traditionally less developed regions that are landlocked and have as neighbours countries and areas marked by economic stagnation. It is clear that the distance between the two trains travelling at different speeds widens, but we should not lose sight of three fundamental points: in the first place, the direction (the development) is the same; second, today some interior regions are seeing their income grow faster than that of the coastal regions; third, because of the impressive urbanisation process (which pushes the population to the most developed regions and areas), the faster train tends to carry more passengers. Not surprisingly, if we take China as a whole, we see a steady and sizeable growth of the middle class, as well as a wider diffusion of social protection and features of the welfare state.74

A global leader in science and technology

The USSR never caught up with the major imperialist powers in terms of technology and productivity, for a number of reasons discussed earlier in this series. From the late 1970s onwards, the technology gap between the Soviet Union and the US grew sharply. In China, however, productivity and innovation levels are catching up with the most advanced capitalist countries.

While China focused on ‘technology transfer’ and learning from the US and Japan in the first decades of reform, it has in recent years it has been “steadily climbing the technological ladder.” Martin Jacques wrote a few years ago that “it is an illusion to think that China will be trapped indefinitely in the foothills of technology. In time it will become a formidable technological power.”75 This process is taking place before our eyes. Veteran science writer Philip Ball notes that “the patronising old idea that China … can imitate but not innovate is certainly false now. In several scientific fields, China is starting to set the pace for others to follow. On my tour of Chinese labs in 1992, only those I saw at the flagship Peking University looked comparable to what you might find at a good university in the west. Today the resources available to China’s top scientists are enviable to many of their western counterparts.”76

Soviet infrastructure was starting to crumble by the 1980s, while modern Chinese infrastructure is world-class. For example, although China didn’t have high-speed rail until 1999, it now has over 25,000 km, accounting for around two-thirds of the global total.77

The number of Chinese internet users is around three times the number of US internet users (per capita it is slightly behind the US, but this is still very impressive given that “the relative gap in the number of internet users between China and the US in 1993 was a factor of 3,000”78).

Why has Chinese economic reform succeeded when the Soviet reform failed?

Superficially, the reform strategy pursued by China from 1978 appears similar to Gorbachev’s perestroika; however, there are profound differences between the Chinese and Soviet approaches that help to explain the tremendous success of one and the outright failure of the other.79

Veteran Russian communist Gennady Zyuganov points out that a successful economic reform demands “a well-developed programme and precisely defined goals; a team of vigorous and highly intellectual reformers; a strong and effective system for controlling political phenomena; thoroughly developed and carefully considered methods of instituting the reforms; the mobilisation of the mass media to explain the meaning, goals, and consequences of the reforms for the state as a whole and for the individual person in particular for the purpose of involving as much of the population as possible in the reform process; and the preservation and development of the structures, relations, functions, methods, and lifestyles that have earned the approval of the people.”80

All these elements were put in place in China, and were notably absent in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. Gorbachev didn’t select people on the basis of competence or experience but on the basis of their uncritical support for his agenda. He didn’t mobilise the existing, proven state structures, but sought to weaken them. The media wasn’t used to unite the people behind a programme of development but to denigrate the Communist Party. The economic programme was incoherent and subject to sudden changes in direction. The masses were not invited to participate in any other way than doing what they were told. What followed was “a parade of political arrogance, demagoguery, and dilettantism, which gradually overwhelmed and paralysed the country.”81

China’s approach was extremely cautious and pragmatic, “based on a step-by-step, piecemeal and experimental approach. If a reform worked it was extended to new areas; if it failed then it was abandoned.”82 All reforms had to be tested in practice, and all results had to be analysed and learned from. Chen Yun, the lead economist of the Deng era, stated in 1980 that “the steps must be steady, because we shall encounter many complicated problems. So do not rush… We should proceed with experiments, review our experience from time to time, and correct mistakes whenever we discover them, so that minor mistakes will not grow into major ones.”83 This is exactly how things proceeded.

Gorbachev’s reforms were implemented in a heavy-handed, top-down way, without consulting the people or attempting to collate feedback. Meanwhile in China, many key ideas “came from people at the grass roots. We processed them and raised them to the level of guidelines for the whole country. Practice is the sole criterion for testing truth.”84 Reform in China was patient, incremental and results-oriented, whereas “Gorbachev made the fatal mistake of trying to do too much, too fast.”85

China’s leaders had confidence in their own home-grown ideas and paid precious little attention to the young stars of western economics, who at the time were near unanimous in their adherence to the ‘new orthodoxy’ of neoliberalism. There was certainly no hollowing out of the state, which continued to be the biggest player in both the strategic path and the day-to-day running of the economy. This can be contrasted with the Soviet Union, where Gorbachev’s team economists had fallen under the neoliberal spell and come to the conclusion that planning and state guidance were harmful. Marxist economist Michael Roberts observes that Gorbachev’s sudden dismantling of the planning agencies “provoked chronic excess domestic demand and the need for foreign imports”, leading the Soviet economy to implode. Meanwhile, the opposite was happening in China, where “the relaxation of restrictions on private capital development was combined with state control and planned and state-led heavy investment.”86

Soviet economists transitioned from central-planning dogma to neoliberal dogma, failing to come up with creative approaches that accurately took account of existing strengths and weaknesses. The Chinese approach was that “there should be no blind obedience to superiors or books; there should be obedience to truth and facts only; there should be exchange, comparison, and repetition.”87

Gorbachev’s team were never able to reach consensus for their plans; they merely bulldozed or sidelined those in the Communist Party who didn’t agree with them. As a result, there was never any real unity of purpose around perestroika. In China, the gradual, results-oriented approach allowed the top leadership to win round the Central Committee, the regional leaders and the party rank and file.

China is not weakening Communist Party rule or attacking its own history

If China allowed bourgeois liberalisation, there would inevitably be turmoil. We would accomplish nothing, and our principles, policies, line and development strategy would all be doomed to failure.88

The fifth article in this series includes a lengthy description of how the Soviet top leadership in the Gorbachev era attacked the Communist Party, questioned its legitimacy, re-wrote its history and sowed disillusion among the Soviet people. The attack on the party was putatively carried out in the name of enhancing democracy, yet the results turned out to be profoundly anti-democratic. The Communist Party had been the major vehicle for promoting the needs and ideas of the working class; once it was sidelined, the workers had no obvious means of organising in defence of their interests. This opened up a space for a pro-capitalist minority to dominate political power and, ultimately, break up the country and dismantle socialism.

The Chinese leadership understood that the People’s Republic of China could not survive without the uncontested leadership of the Communist Party. Deng “believed that the most urgent task was to improve people’s livelihood. In his view, all other reforms, including political ones, had to serve this primary goal. He believed that copying the Western model and placing political reform on the top of the agenda, like the Soviets were doing at the time, was utterly foolish. In fact, that was exactly Deng’s comment on Gorbachev after their meeting: ‘This man may look smart but in fact is stupid.’”89

In a changing economic environment, where private capital was being accumulated and a new class of entrepreneurs emerging, continued Communist Party rule was essential to guarantee that development benefitted the masses and that the new owners of capital didn’t become politically dominant. Moreover, political stability was an absolute requirement for successful economic reform.

In practically every important speech on China’s development path from 1978 until his death in 1997, Deng insisted on what he termed the Four Cardinal Principles: 1) Defend the socialist path; 2) Maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat (working class rule); 3) Maintain the leadership of the party; and 4) Adhere to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. He didn’t mince his words when it came to the importance of a workers’ state: “What kind of democracy do the Chinese people need today? It can only be socialist democracy, people’s democracy, and not bourgeois democracy, individualist democracy… Personal interests must be subordinated to collective ones, the interests of the part to those of the whole, and immediate to long-term interests. In other words, limited interests must be subordinated to overall interests, and minor interests to major ones… It is still necessary to exercise dictatorship over all these anti-socialist elements… The fact of the matter is that socialism cannot be defended or built up without the dictatorship of the proletariat.”90

A few years later, when some people started to call for an end to Communist Party rule and for China to move towards a western-style parliamentary system, Deng reiterated: “Our modernisation drive and the open policy must exclude bourgeois liberalisation… Our goal is to create a stable political environment; in an environment of political unrest, it would be impossible for us to proceed with socialist construction or to accomplish anything. Our major task is to build up the country, and less important things should be subordinated to it… In China, bourgeois liberalisation means taking the capitalist road and leads to disunity.”91 These words were spoken in 1985, a couple of months after Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. If only Gorbachev had been more influenced by China’s approach.

China has not followed the Soviet example of attacking its own history. Although the Chinese leadership made serious criticisms of certain of Mao’s policies (in particular the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution)92, it has never come anywhere close to repudiating Mao and undermining the basic ideological foundations of Chinese socialism. Quoting Deng again: “Not only did Mao Zedong Thought lead us to victory in the revolution in the past; it is – and will continue to be – a treasured possession of the Chinese Communist Party and of our country. That is why we will forever keep Chairman Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen Gate as a symbol of our country, and we will always remember him as a founder of our Party and state… We will not do to Chairman Mao what Khrushchev did to Stalin.”93

Khrushchev and Gorbachev both thought that tarnishing the Soviet Communist Party’s historical record would help to rally forces for constructing a renewed socialism; they were wrong. Xi Jinping on the other hand has been at pains to highlight the continuity between the Mao era and the post-Mao era: “The two phases – at once related to and distinct from each other – are both pragmatic explorations in building socialism conducted by the people under the leadership of the Party. Although the two historical phases are very different in their guiding thoughts, principles, policies, and practical work, they are by no means separated from or opposed to each other.”94 This is no marginal position but a view held more-or-less unanimously by the Central Committee of the CPC.

Xi points out elsewhere that “one important reason for the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the CPSU is the complete denial of the history of the Soviet Union, and the history of the CPSU, the denial of Lenin and other leading personalities, and historical nihilism confused the people’s thoughts.”95 Although there is much more press freedom in contemporary China than there ever was in the USSR, and while it’s not unusual for individual Chinese analysts to promote “historical nihilism”, such ideas have gained very limited traction, unlike in the Soviet Union where, by the late 1980s, the constant stream of ridiculous Cold War anticommunist propaganda – much of it emanating from state-owned media – had a serious impact on popular confidence.

The Communist Party of China is not suffering a crisis of legitimacy; it remains extremely popular. Countless surveys show that the vast majority of Chinese people are satisfied overall with the performance of the government and feel that life is improving year on year.96 Martin Jacques writes that, according to a 2009 Harvard survey, “no less than 95.9 per cent of Chinese were either relatively or extremely satisfied with the central government… By any criteria, this indicates an extraordinarily high level of satisfaction… Contrary to Western conventional wisdom, the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state, even though Western-style democracy is entirely absent… The rule of the Communist Party is no longer in doubt: it enjoys the prestige that one would expect given the transformation that it has presided over.”97

The Chinese government has shown itself to be highly effective at tackling the issues people care about, from poverty alleviation to protecting national unity, from tackling corruption to creating conditions for a constantly improving quality of life. The CPSU in the 1980s was becoming more fragile and less popular; the CPC continues to get stronger, more effective, and more popular.

China has managed to avoid a superpower ‘Cold War’

The last thing China wants is war. China is very poor and wants to develop; it can’t do that without a peaceful environment. Since we want a peaceful environment, we must cooperate with all of the world’s forces for peace.98

The necessity of maintaining peaceful relations with the imperialist world has been a preoccupation of socialist states from 1917 onwards. All socialist leaderships – those of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung and Fidel Castro included – have pursued ‘peaceful coexistence’ where it was possible (although since it “takes two to tango”, peaceful coexistence has often been largely illusive).

The importance of international peace for China’s development was implicitly realised by Mao at the start of the 1970s, when Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing opened the way for the PRC finally taking its seat at the United Nations. Continuing US-China communications throughout the 1970s led to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between China and the US in 1979. Ever since, China has done a remarkable job of ‘playing nice’ with the capitalist world whilst sticking to its own development path and refusing to succumb to the temptations of western-style liberalism.

Peaceful coexistence has of course meant some painful compromises, with China essentially relinquishing any claim to leadership of the world revolution. The Soviet Union took on a heavy responsibility as the global centre of progressive forces, giving extensive practical solidarity to socialist states, national liberation movements and progressive governments around the world – including vast economic support to the People’s Republic of China between 1949 and 1959; military and economic support to Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, Korea, Ethiopia and elsewhere; training, aid and weapons to the ANC in South Africa, Frelimo in Mozambique, Swapo in South West Africa (now Namibia), PAIGC in Guinea Bissau, and others.

In addition to direct aid, the Soviet role as the protector of the progressive world – and its position as one of two ‘superpowers’ – meant that it was forced to devote an extraordinary portion of its resources to military development. The figures vary wildly, but Alexander Pantsov estimates that, “at the start of Gorbachev’s perestroika, in 1985, the Soviets were spending 40 percent of their budget on defence.”99 Indeed Pantsov concludes that “the economy of the USSR collapsed under the burden of military expenditures”.

Jacques characterises the Soviet Union as having “opted for autarchy and isolation”, in comparison to post-1978 China, which “sought integration and interdependence”. He further claims that the USSR “embarked on military confrontation and a zero-sum relationship with the United States” whereas ”China pursued rapprochement and cooperation in an effort to create the most favourable conditions for its economic growth.” The characterisation of Soviet policy is unfair. The Soviet leadership didn’t opt for isolation, but it was subjected to isolation by an imperialist world order that was determined to undermine it. It didn’t “embark on military confrontation”, but it dutifully came to the defence of many of its allies that were threatened by the imperialist powers. These allies were not, as they are sometimes caricatured, mere pawns in a superpower rivalry between the US and the USSR; they were popular movements for socialism and/or national independence.

Nonetheless, the USSR’s economic isolation and disproportionate military expenditure caused it tremendous problems and contributed to its downfall. With a relatively safe international environment, China has been able to reduce its military spending from around 7 percent of GDP in 1978 to just under 2 percent currently. It has not had to face a ‘full-court press’ and has avoided getting caught up in an arms race.100

The relatively peaceful international context has allowed the Chinese state to systematically pursue economic development, and the latter has had a reciprocal effect on China’s safety, since it has made China a key player in global economic affairs. Jude Woodward notes that China’s rise has forced many countries to pursue good relations with it, even where they dislike its ideology. “Rather developed neighbours such as South Korea or Taiwan are deeply economically engaged with China and do not want this derailed… Even America’s European allies, notably Germany, France and Britain, were prepared to ignore US opinion on China when they signed up to the AIIB [Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank].”101

Although China’s global strategy has meant stepping back from an explicit leadership role in the world revolution, it has nonetheless been able to provide crucial support for progressive states. The highly-respected economist Ha-joon Chang points out that Chinese growth has had a profoundly positive impact in Africa and Latin America. “Being relatively poorly endowed with natural resources and growing at breakneck speed, China started sucking in food, minerals and fuel from the rest of the world, and the effect of its growing weight was felt more and more strongly. This gave a boost to the raw-material exporters of Africa and Latin America, finally allowing these economies to make up some of the ground they had lost in the 1980s and the 1990s. China also became a major lender and investor in some African countries, giving the latter some leverage in negotiating with the Bretton Woods institutions and the traditional aid donors, such as the US and the European countries.”102

Venezuelan revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez made a point of establishing strong relations with China, calling Chinese socialism “an example for Western leaders and governments that claim capitalism is the only alternative.”103 Billions of dollars of oil-backed low-interest Chinese loans have helped to underpin the impressive advances in human development in Venezuela over the last two decades. China has given similar support to Cuba, Bolivia, Nepal, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, among others.

Gorbachev was also keen to create a more peaceful international environment, to reduce tensions and cut down on military expenditure; however, unlike the Chinese, he couldn’t find a way to do so that didn’t involve outright capitulation to imperialism. With a stagnant economy, rising internal unrest and very few friends at home, he needed both cash and credibility from his new-found partners in the west: Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and Helmut Kohl. In order to maintain their friendship, he withdrew Soviet support for many of its allies, gave unilateral commitments on disarmament without getting anything in return, and ultimately gave a free hand to pro-capitalist and nationalist-separatist elements within the USSR.


Socialism will definitively remain the only real hope of peace and survival of our species. This is precisely what the Communist Party and the people of the People’s Republic of China have irrefutably demonstrated. They demonstrated at the same time, as Cuba and other brotherly countries have shown, that each people must adapt their strategy and revolutionary objectives to the concrete conditions of their own country and that there are not two absolutely equal socialist revolutionary processes. From each of them, you can take the best experiences and learn from each of their most serious mistakes. (Fidel Castro)104

It seems clear that China is not following the trajectory that the USSR did. Its reform process has been successful; the quality of life of its people continues to improve; it is emerging as a global leader in technical innovation and environmental preservation; nationalist separatism is being effectively contained; and the Communist Party of China remains popular and dominant. In short, China has continued to develop forms of socialism that are appropriate to its changing conditions.

Chinese economists often talk of the “latecomers’ advantage” in the world of technology, whereby “technological innovation and industrial upgrading can be achieved by imitation, import, and/or integration of existing technologies and industries, all of which implies much lower R&D costs.”105 There’s a sense in which this idea applies to the world of big-picture politics as well. The USSR was the world’s first socialist state, and as such its successes and mistakes constitute indispensable raw material for the study of socialist society. The CPC has been assiduous in learning from the Soviet demise in order to avoid suffering a similar fate. David Shambaugh, citing a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, sums up some of the key lessons the CPC has tried to absorb. These include “concentrating on economic development and continuously improving people’s standard of living”, “upholding Marxism as the guiding ideology”, “strengthening party leadership”, and “continuously strengthening efforts on party building – especially in the areas of ideology, image, organisation, and democratic centralism – in order to safeguard the leadership power in the hands of loyal Marxists.”106

The issue of maintaining a workers’ state and preventing the ascendance and dominance of pro-capitalist ‘liberals’ is arguably the most important lesson to be learned from the collapse of the USSR. Even with ongoing economic difficulties, it’s perfectly conceivable that Soviet socialism could have survived if the top leadership hadn’t decided to abandon the project. Allen Lynch, a prominent researcher of Russian politics at the University of Virginia, speculates that, if Gorbachev’s predecessor Yuri Andropov had lived another couple of decades (he died at the age of 69 after just one year as General Secretary of the CPSU), things might have been very different. “Judging from Andropov’s programmatic statements in 1982-83, as well as his long record at the summit of Soviet politics, there can be little doubt that he would not have countenanced anything remotely resembling Gorbachev’s political reforms or that he would have hesitated to use force to stop public challenges to communist rule. Moreover, Andropov’s networks in the Party, KGB, government and military were incomparably stronger than Gorbachev’s and he might well have leveraged a viable coalition for piecemeal reform of the Soviet economy. While the long-term success of Andropov’s economic vision may be questioned, it is entirely plausible that the Soviet Union – like Communist China – might still be with us.”107

The lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union must be thoroughly learned by the remaining (and future) socialist states as well as the global working class as a whole. In the current stage of history, where these states constitute a global minority and where they face a powerful ideological enemy that is determined to destabilise (and ultimately destroy) them, these lessons are broadly applicable. They form a key part of the great legacy that the Soviet experience leaves to the global working class.

We note in closing that the Soviet project is by no means a historical relic; its experience is relevant and even crucial to contemporary politics. The heroic feats of the Soviet people live on in Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos and Korea; in socialist-oriented and progressive states and movements around the world. Even in the territories of the former Soviet Union and the former socialist states in Europe, the memory of better times lives on (not least in the considerable defence and retention of Soviet achievements, traditions and forms in Belarus). Their populations are starting, as Fidel Castro predicted they would, to regret the counter-revolution, to miss “those orderly countries, where everyone had clothes, food, medicine, education, and there was no crime, no mafia”; they are beginning to “realise the great historic mistake they made when they destroyed socialism.”108

Yegor Ligachev – the most prominent of the Soviet politburo members that tried to resist counter-revolution in the Gorbachev era – put it well: “History does not progress in a straight line. It zigzags, steps back, and turns. The socialist phase of civilisation has not managed to avoid those turns. Despite the temporary defeat of socialism in the Soviet Union, the twentieth century will go down in history for the destruction of the colonial system, the defeat of fascist tyranny, and the experiment in construction of a socialist society. On the basis of that history, humanity will eventually realise a breakthrough to a socially just society, one in which the individual will come to full fruition.”109

The way to honour the legacy of the Soviet Union is to study it, to learn from its great successes and its sad demise, and to leverage this history towards a global socialist future. Such is the task left to our generation by the Soviet workers.

  1. Deng Xiaoping,We must adhere to socialism and prevent peaceful evolution towards capitalism – conversation with Julius Nyerere, 1989 

  2. Martin Jacques, When China Rules The World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, Penguin, 2012 

  3. Fidel Castro, Interview in La Stampa, 1994 

  4. Eric Li interviewed by John Pilger, The Coming War on China (documentary film), 2016 

  5. Deng Xiaoping, cited in John Ross: Deng Xiaoping and John Maynard Keynes, 2012 

  6. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (chapter 1), 1848 

  7. Albert Szymanski, Is the Red Flag Flying?, Zed Press, 1979 

  8. Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, Foreign Languages Press, 2014 

  9. Cited in Alexander Pantsov, Steven Levine, Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, Oxford University Press, 2015 

  10. Deng Xiaoping, Planning and the market are both means of developing the productive forces, 1987 

  11. Siteram Yechury: Economy: Reforms for Restoration of Capitalism (1991), in Vijay Prashad (editor): Red October – The Russian Revolution and the Communist Horizon, LeftWord Books, 2017 

  12. See for example The World’s Most Popular Leader: China’s President Xi, December 2014 

  13. Xinhua: Socialism with Chinese characteristics: 10 ideas to share with world, 2017 

  14. The Governance of China, op cit 

  15. Business Insider: China’s latest energy megaproject shows that coal really is on the way out, 2018 

  16. ibid 

  17. Bloomberg: China’s War on Pollution Will Change the World, 2018 

  18. Telegraph: China to plant forest the size of Ireland in bid to become world leader in conservation, 2018 

  19. The Guardian: US ‘playing catch-up to China’ in clean energy efforts, UN climate chief says, 2015 

  20. New York Times: Four Years After Declaring War on Pollution, China Is Winning, 2018 

  21. The Guardian: Corporate power has turned Britain into a corrupt state, 2013 

  22. See for example The Atlantic: Why Do Chinese Billionaires Keep Ending Up in Prison?, 2013 

  23. Szymanski, op cit 

  24. Return to the Source: Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam, 2013 

  25. Deng Xiaoping, Building a Socialism with a Specifically Chinese Character, 1984 

  26. Cited in Jude Woodward, The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War?, Manchester University Press, 2017 

  27. John Ross: Why the Economic Reform Succeeded in China & Will Fail in Russia & Eastern Europe, 1992 

  28. Martin Jacques, op cit 

  29. Hu Angang, China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower, Brookings Institution Press, 2012 

  30. For a fuller discussion, see China: Capitalist or Socialist?, The Guardian (Communist Party of Australia), 2010 

  31. The ‘big four’ banks are: the Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Agricultural Bank of China. 

  32. Peter Nolan, China’s Rise, Russia’s Fall, Palgrave Macmillan, 1995 

  33. ibid 

  34. ibid 

  35. Tran Dac Loi, Contribution at the International Forum of Left Forces, 2017 

  36. Jenny Clegg, China’s Global Strategy: Toward a Multipolar World, Pluto Press, 2009 

  37. Technology transfer is discussed in some detail in John Ross’s article Lessons of the Chinese economic reform, part 2, 1996 

  38. David Rosnick, Mark Weisbrot, and Jacob Wilson, The Scorecard on Development, 1960–2016: China and the Global Economic Rebound, 2017 

  39. Martin Jacques, op cit 

  40. Nolan, op cit 

  41. The Governance of China, op cit 

  42. Deng Xiaoping, Uphold the Four Cardinal Principles, 1979 

  43. ibid 

  44. Financial Times: Xi Jinping pledges return to Marxist roots for China’s Communists (paywall),, 2016 

  45. Xinhua: Xi stresses importance of The Communist Manifesto, 2018 

  46. Xinhua: Marx’s theory still shines with truth, 2018 

  47. Washington Post: Marxism: The opium of the Chinese masses, 2015 

  48. Vince Sherman, op cit 

  49. This is discussed in detail in the second article in this series

  50. Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004 

  51. Xinhua: China’s record in poverty reduction unparalleled in human history, 2018 

  52. Domenico Losurdo, Has China Turned to Capitalism? Reflections on the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (paywall), International Critical Thought, 2017 

  53. Black Agenda Report: A Conversation with Ajit Singh, 2018 

  54. Deng Xiaoping: We Shall Concentrate On Economic Development, 1982 

  55. Peter Nolan, op cit 

  56. Invent the Future: Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 2: Economic stagnation, 2017 

  57. Hu Angang, op cit 

  58. Jude Woodward, op cit 

  59. Martin Jacques, op cit 

  60. For a detailed analysis, see John Ross: China’s socialist model outperforms capitalism, 2016 

  61. The Scorecard on Development, op cit 

  62. Vince Sherman, op cit 

  63. Australian Marxist Review: For an International University of Marxism, 2015 

  64. Figures from Hu Angang, op cit

  65. Ajit Singh: China: A Revolutionary Present, 2017 

  66. WFP: 10 Facts About Nutrition in China, 2016 

  67. The Guardian: Over 40% of Indian children are malnourished, report finds, 2012 

  68. World Economic Forum: China now produces twice as many graduates a year as the US, 2017 

  69. Xinhua: 43 percent of China’s high school graduates admitted to colleges, 2017 

  70. See, for example, Vox: The great Chinese inequality turnaround (2017) and Quartz: China’s extreme income inequality finally appears to be falling (2017) 

  71. Deng Xiaoping, Our work in all fields should contribute to the building of socialism with Chinese characteristics, 1983 

  72. Martin Jacques, op cit 

  73. Deng Xiaoping, Bourgeois liberalization means taking the capitalist road, 1985 

  74. Domenico Losurdo, op cit 

  75. Martin Jacques, op cit 

  76. The Guardian: China’s great leap forward in science, 2018 

  77. Forbes: China’s High-Speed Trains Are Taking On More Passengers In Chinese New Year Massive Migration, 2018 

  78. Hu Angang, op cit 

  79. A more detailed analysis of the problems with perestroika can be found in the fifth article in this series

  80. My Russia: The Political Autobiography of Gennady Zyuganov, Routledge, 1997 

  81. ibid 

  82. Martin Jacques, op cit 

  83. Cited in Hu Angang, op cit 

  84. Deng Xiaoping: Excerpts from talks given in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai, 1992 

  85. David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party – Atrophy and Adaptation, University of California Press, 2008 

  86. Michael Roberts: The Russian revolution: some economic notes, 2017 

  87. Chen Yun, cited in Hu Angang, op cit 

  88. Deng Xiaoping, Conversation with Julius Nyerere, op cit 

  89. Huffington Post: Zhang Wiewei: My Personal Memories as Deng Xiaoping’s Interpreter – From Oriana Fallaci to Kim Il-sung to Gorbachev, 2014 

  90. Deng Xiaoping: Uphold the Four Cardinal Principles, op cit 

  91. Deng Xiaoping: Bourgeois liberalization means taking the capitalist road, 1985 

  92. These criticisms are discussed at length in the CPC’s document Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, 1981. 

  93. This comparison with Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin is discussed in more detail in the third article in this series

  94. Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, op cit 

  95. Xinhua: Correctly Deal With Both Historical Periods Before and After Reform and Opening Up, 2013 

  96. See for example Pew Research Center, Global Attitudes and Trends, 2013 

  97. Martin Jacques, op cit 

  98. Deng Xiaoping: We Regard Reform as a Revolution, 1984 

  99. Alexander Pantsov, op cit 

  100. For further information on the military pressure imposed on the USSR by the US, see part 4 of this series: Imperialist destabilisation and military pressure

  101. Jude Woodward, op cit 

  102. Ha-joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide, Pelican, 2014 

  103. Taipei Times: Chavez to triple oil sales to China, 2006 

  104. Cited in Telesur: China Is Most Promising Hope for Third World: Fidel, 2017 

  105. Justin Yifu Lin: Advantage of being a latecomer, 2013 

  106. Shambaugh, op cit 

  107. Global Affairs: Deng’s and Gorbachev’s Reform Strategies Compared, 2012 

  108. Workers World: Fidel Castro In Vietnam, 1996 

  109. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 7: Capitalist restoration was a disaster for the global working class

There can be no more tragic spectacle in the history of humanity than that of a defeated revolution. When the revolt of the slaves in Rome was defeated, thousands were nailed to crosses on the roadside. This should give us an idea of what a defeated revolution is… There was also the dreadful slaughter of workers after the defeat of the Paris Commune [in 1871]. This, too, should give us an idea of what a defeated revolution is. History teaches us that a defeated revolution has to pay an extraordinary toll in blood. The victorious ruling class demands payment for the anxiety it experienced, for all the interests that were affected, or that were threatened. But it not only demands payment for present debts; it also seeks to collect, in blood, payment for future debts. It tries to annihilate the revolution down to its very roots. (Fidel Castro1)

A joke circulating in Russia in 1992 went like this. Q: What did capitalism accomplish in one year that communism could not do in seventy years? A: Make communism look good.2

From liberation to liberalisation

With the burden of Gorbachev’s social democratic fantasies lifted from his shoulders, Yeltsin went to work on behalf of his major constituency: the most corrupt and unscrupulous sections of the Russian nouveau riche, along with US finance capital. The goal was to totally wipe out the economic foundations of socialism and create a fully liberalised economy where capital would be free to reproduce without fear of restriction or regulation; an economic environment purpose-built for foreign investors, speculators, bankers and gangsters.

But, as Gregory Isaacs put it, “a rich man’s heaven is a poor man’s hell”. The welfare state was all but wiped out. The neoliberal economic advisors hired by Yeltsin – led by Jeffrey Sachs3 – mandated an end to price controls, meaning that the price of even the most essential commodities skyrocketed overnight. Unemployment went from practically nothing to over 12 percent within a few months. Asset-stripping reached dizzy new heights. Privatisation, deregulation and corruption were the order of the day, as production, government spending, earnings and even life expectancy plummeted: Kotz and Weir note that “from 1990 to 1994 male life expectancy in Russia fell from 65.5 years to 57.3 years… Such population decline normally occurs only as a result of major wars, epidemics, or famines.”4

As funding dried up, the healthcare infrastructure collapsed and the peoples of the former Soviet Union were subjected to epidemics of poverty-fuelled diseases not seen for many decades. “Azerbaijan has had a tenfold increase in measles, Uzbekistan suffered an outbreak of polio and typhoid fever has reappeared in Russia. Tuberculosis and syphilis are widespread, and the incidence of such children’s diseases as whooping cough and German measles has increased sharply”.5 Russia witnessed its first cholera epidemic since the 19th century.

In the first few years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian GDP and industrial production both contracted by more than 40 percent. “By comparison, in the United States the four-year economic contraction in 1929-33, which brought the American economy to the low point of the Great Depression, entailed a decline in gross national product of 30 per cent”.6 Needless to say, wages followed suit, and the Soviet people started to suffer serious poverty for the first time in many decades. According to a World Bank report on the ‘transition economies’ (all the former socialist countries of Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia), the number of people living on less than 4 dollars per day increased from 14 million in 1989 to 147 million in the mid-1990s. In Russia this corresponded to an increase from 2 percent to 44 percent; in Ukraine from 1 percent to 63 percent; in Central Asia from 6.5 percent to 53 percent.7

It took around 15 years for Russian GDP to recover to 1990 levels – during which period China’s GDP increased by around 300%. Even after GDP had returned to 1990 levels, the obscene levels of inequality meant that millions of Russians still lived with a level of poverty that hadn’t been seen in the Soviet Union since WWII. New problems emerged, most noticeably homelessness (including youth homelessness), drug addiction, social alienation and prostitution, all of which remain endemic in Russia today. A 2012 article notes: “The rate of alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers has increased dramatically, as have delinquency and suicide rates, which are likely related to the growing incidence of  domestic violence. By the mid-2000s, government spending on education per child dropped to half of the rate in 1990. Experts estimate that over 1.5 million children currently do not attend school.”8

Yegor Ligachev – one of the few members of the politburo in the late 1980s to resist the madness of glasnost – lamented:

During the years of Soviet power, a person was judged, not by his bag of loot, but by his labour, and lofty moral principles were reinforced: patriotism, internationalism, collectivism, industry, honour, justice. Now, all that is being stamped out of people’s consciousness and the historical connection is being broken. The current authorities and the mass media are encouraging the cult of gain, grovelling to the rich, contempt for the poor, speculation, hard drinking, prostitution and savage individualism.

Instead of the peace and quiet of the Soviet era, we are witnessing an unprecedented increase in crime and corruption, hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, and millions of refugees. All measures of development have taken a sharp downturn except mortality and crime – which are rising steeply. This is understandable. The property created by and belonging to the workers is being stolen, society is rife with alcoholism, and the number of unemployed and homeless is growing. The authorities cannot fight the very people they depend upon, that is, the speculators and the corrupt apparatus…

In the Soviet era … you could walk through any town at night without concern for your life; now murders and robberies are committed in broad daylight.9

The Soviet collapse also had a disastrous effect on cultural and social life. Michael Parenti points out that “subsidies for the arts and literature have been severely cut. Symphony orchestras have disbanded or taken to playing at block parties and other minor occasions. The communist countries used to produce inexpensive but quality editions of classical and contemporary authors and poets, including ones from Latin America, Asia and Africa. These have been replaced by second-rate, mass-market publications from the West. During the communist era, three of every five books in the world were produced in the Soviet Union. Today, as the cost of books, periodicals, and newspapers has skyrocketed and education has declined, readership has shrunk almost to Third World levels.”10 Racism, domestic abuse and violent crime all reared their ugly heads with the collapse of socialism.

No wonder a majority of Russians regret the collapse.11

Ironically, even elements within the western mainstream press now recognise that socialism offered a far better deal for ordinary people than neoliberal capitalism: “The planned economy of the vast Soviet Union offered financial stability. In the immediate aftermath of its 1991 crash, it quickly became apparent that Russia’s new market economy would offer a rocky ride. Economic reforms quickly had a harsh effect on general living standards. The rouble became almost worthless. Corruption was rampant. A deeply flawed privatisation programme helped put much of the country’s economy in the hands of an entrenched and often shady oligarchy.”12

It is now widely believed that US-led finance capital knowingly directed the post-Soviet Russian economy into disaster so as to: 1) thoroughly wipe out the economic roots of socialism by replacing it with gangster anarcho-capitalism; and 2) to prevent the Russian Federation from becoming a serious competitor to US hegemony in the ‘new world order’.

So much for democracy

Yeltsin in power confirmed what every thinking person suspected: he had not the slightest interest in democracy. The brutal neoliberalism imposed on the Russian people could never have enjoyed popular legitimacy – how to win widespread support for the dismantling of social welfare and the transfer of the state’s assets to a bunch of bureaucrats and crooks? Therefore a corrupt, plutocratic political system was installed that openly favoured the enormously wealthy and that actively excluded the poor.

In stark contrast to their role during Soviet times, trade unions were barred from political activity. Pro-communist and anti-Yeltsin media were routinely banned.13

By autumn 1993, Yeltsin was facing serious opposition even within the Russian parliament, a majority of whose members were appalled by the results of the neoliberal ‘reform’ and Yeltsin’s use of extraordinary executive powers to push his programme though. A constitutional crisis arose when Yeltsin decided to put an end to the pesky parliamentary opposition by dissolving the legislature (unconstitutional dissolution seems by this point to have become something of a habit). The parliament responded by denouncing Yeltsin’s actions, impeaching him and declaring vice president Aleksandr Rutskoy acting president. The crisis was only ‘resolved’ when Yeltsin ordered the army to storm the Supreme Soviet and arrest the parliamentary leaders that opposed him. Quite the democratic transformation.

Stephen Cohen notes that “the most influential pro-Yeltsin intellectuals were neither coincidental fellow travellers nor real democrats. Since the late 1980s they had insisted that free-market economics and large-scale private property would have to be imposed on Russian society by an ‘iron hand’ regime using ‘anti-democratic measures’. Like the property-seeking elites, they saw Russia’s newly elected legislatures as an obstacle. Admirers of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, they said of Yeltsin: ‘Let him be a dictator!’ Not surprisingly, they cheered (along with the US government and mainstream media) when he used tanks to destroy Russia’s popularly elected parliament in 1993.”14

Three years later, in 1996, the Russian presidential elections were almost certainly fixed so as to maintain Yeltsin in power at the expense of the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.15

Yeltsin portrayed himself as the ‘father of Russian democracy’; in reality he was its leading assassin.

Global tragedy

The destruction of socialism in the USSR … inflicted terrible damage on all peoples of the world and created a bad situation for the Third World in particular. (Fidel Castro16)

The importance of the USSR’s role as a counterweight to US/Nato imperialism was made achingly clear by the series of imperialist wars that took place during and after the Soviet demise. Symbolic of this shifting power balance is Saddam Hussein’s misplaced hope in early 1991 that Gorbachev would act to restrain US warmongering against Iraq.17 The Soviet Union was supposed to be a great power, a longstanding ally of Iraq, with its Armenian borders extending to within a couple of hundred kilometres of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Gorbachev’s government did nothing to protect Iraq from invasion by a predatory imperialist power on the other side of the world. It’s rather difficult to imagine Stalin or Brezhnev presiding over such a mockery.

Horrifically destructive US-led wars soon followed in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Libya and elsewhere. The campaign to destroy Syria’s independence continues to this day.

In the post-Cold War world order, neutrality was no longer tolerable. Many states quickly modified their nationalist orientation and semi-socialist policies to play by the rules of global capitalism, but only complete capitulation was accepted. Any country that contradicted Washington’s plans and erected some barriers to the penetration of imperialist capital could find itself in the crosshairs. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. attacked Iraq, and then, in the Clinton years Somalia, Sudan, Haiti and Yugoslavia… After launching a ‘demonstration’ war against Afghanistan in 2001, Bush declared an ‘axis of evil’ — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — a hit list for further regime change efforts.18

The balance of power in the world changed sharply, with the overwhelming majority of European socialist states being replaced by right-wing governments and incorporated into Nato (despite the promises made by the US and West Germany that there would be no eastward expansion of Nato).19 The economic crisis ‎occasioned by the Soviet collapse also led to the demise of socialism in Mongolia.

With China yet to become the economic powerhouse it now is, underdeveloped countries in need of investment were left with no choice but to look to the US and the Bretton Woods institutions. As a result, ‘structural adjustment’ became the order of the day, and many poorer countries had no choice but to accept privatisation and austerity on a grand scale in exchange for loans that were desperately needed to avert acute crises.

Of the remaining socialist countries, Cuba, Vietnam and DPR Korea suffered particularly badly as a result of the sudden disappearance of the Soviet Union (and its friendly trade terms). It is a testament to the remarkable courage, creativity and vision of the Cuban, Vietnamese and Korean people that those countries have recovered from the shock of the early 1990s and continue building socialism today.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and European socialism could reasonably be described as the worst defeat suffered by the global working class in its history. It gave a lifeline to imperialism and set back the cause of human liberation by several decades.

The next, and final, article in this series attempts to answer the question: Will the People’s Republic of China suffer the same fate as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? In doing so, it will suggest a few conclusions from the preceding articles and outline some ideas around advancing the struggle for socialism in the coming decades.

  1. May Day rally in Havana, 1961. Cited in The Fidel Castro Reader, Ocean Press, 2003 

  2. Parenti, Michael: Blackshirts and Reds, City Lights Publishers, 2001 

  3. For further information on Sachs’ role, see New York Times: Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Shock Therapist 

  4. David Kotz, Fred Weir: Revolution From Above – The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997 

  5. LA Times: Infectious diseases flourishing in former USSR as living standards fall 

  6. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  7. These figures sourced from Socialist Action: 10 Years After 1989 

  8. Institute of Modern Russia: Russia’s Invisible Children 

  9. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  10. Parenti, op cit 

  11. That most Russians regret the Soviet collapsed is well established by a number of opinion polls. See for example RT: Most Russians regret USSR collapse, dream of its return, poll shows 

  12. Washington Post: Why do so many people miss the Soviet Union? 

  13. See, for example, UPI: Anti-Yeltsin media banned, liberal paper attacked by militants 

  14. The Guardian: The breakup of the Soviet Union ended Russia’s march to democracy 

  15. This is even admitted by the US media these days. For example Time: Did Boris Yeltsin Steal the 1996 Presidential Election? 

  16. Tomás Borge: El Nuevo Diario Interview with Fidel Castro 

  17. New York Times: Hussein Wanted Soviets to Head Off US in 1991 

  18. Imperialism in the 21st Century: Updating Lenin’s Theory a Century Later, Liberation Media, 2015 

  19. Spiegel Online: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow? 

The C-word: comm**ism. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

Let’s talk about the C-word: Comm**ism. So much more shocking than the other C-word. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

You’d think it’d actually be pretty popular. I mean… it makes quite a lot of sense. What does it mean? It means a classless society, built on common ownership of the means of production, that by definition works to overcome the worst inheritance of human history: poverty, starvation, war, racism, sexism, national oppression, social alienation, inequality, exploitation. A collaborative, participatory society that seeks to elevate the oppressed to the highest levels of happiness, education and culture; that builds upon all advances in human understanding in order to create a qualitatively new way of being. This isn’t the place to dive into the theory, but let’s face it, it sounds great.

And yet, in the collective mind, ‘communism’ is a dirty word. When we think of communism, we don’t think of progress, literacy, economic uplift, culture, national reconciliation, peace, creativity, diversity. Rather we think of secret services, prisons, indoctrination, brainwashing, stale uniformity, dictatorship, militarism, bread queues, ration books. We think of the world described by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. We think pretty much exactly what senator Joseph McCarthy wanted us to think about communism: that it is the enemy of freedom.

This image is of course unfair, and represents a massive propaganda victory for the real enemy of peace and freedom: the imperialists. Ever since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 – almost a century ago – the media and education systems in the ‘free world’ have made anti-communist propaganda one of their most central tasks. The wretched of the earth rising up and expropriating the oppressors? That’s the sort of contagious idea that has to be nipped in the bud. Hence the endless and intense slander campaign against any socialist country that ever existed, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, from Vietnam to Venezuela, from China to Albania, from People’s Korea to Yugoslavia. Any progress made by these countries is totally ignored; any problems and failures are magnified out of all proportion; issues are distorted and lies are spread.

Am I saying that these socialist countries, led by communist parties, were/are perfect models of this new type of society? Clearly not. There were, and are, massive problems in the building of socialism and laying the foundation for a future communism. However:

1) All of these problems are exaggerated by a well-funded western media and academia, and all too often the ‘statistics’ about socialist history are based on the claims of highly dubious McCarthyite ‘scholars’.

2) Issues regarding repression must be seen in the context of socialist states having to protect themselves within a hostile international atmosphere where the enemy spares no effort to destabilise and attack them (just look at the 600+ attempts by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro).

3) Building a new society and getting over the inheritance of feudalism and capitalism is never going to be easy.

4) Most accusations pointed at the socialist countries generally speaking apply in much greater measure to the capitalist countries. For example, no socialist country in history ever had anything like the incarceration rate of the modern day USA.

5) Whilst it’s popular to talk about the “crimes of communism”, what about the “crimes of capitalism”? Such as, for example:

  • The transatlantic slave trade
  • The genocide of the native populations of the Americas and Australia
  • The numerous famines in India and Ireland brought about by British colonial policy
  • Apartheid
  • The dispossession of the Palestinians
  • The killing of 10 million Congolese by Belgian colonialism
  • The 13 million that die every year due to malnutrition (wholly preventable but for capitalist greed)
  • The rape of Africa
  • The wanton destruction of Vietnam and Korea
  • The Opium Wars
  • The Nazi holocaust
  • Systemic racism
  • The cult of the individual and the breakdown of community
  • The destruction of cultures across the globe
  • The monopolisation of wealth by a small handful of implausibly rich people

It’s quite obvious to any thinking person that, even if we accept the extremely dodgy and dubious claims of CIA-payroll historians like Robert Conquest, the “crimes of capitalism” far outweigh any “crimes of communism”.

6) Meanwhile, in the face of great difficulties, socialist countries have achieved some pretty extraordinary things.

Let’s take China for example. Pre-revolution life expectancy was around 35; now it’s around 74. Literacy was under 20%; now it’s 93%. It has witnessed the most rapid poverty alleviation in history. Its people were looked down upon as the scum of the earth. As WEB DuBois said in a broadcast on Radio Peking:

“What people have been despised as you have? Who more than you have been rejected of men? Recall when lordly Britishers threw the rickshaw money on the ground to avoid touching a filthy hand. Forget not the time when in Shanghai no Chinese man dare set foot in a park which he paid for.”

And who doesn’t know that Cuba provides by far the highest standard of living for ordinary people anywhere in South America and the Caribbean; that it has a life expectancy of 79 and literacy rate of 99.8%, in spite of a cruel economic blockade; that it has done more to eradicate the scourge of racism than any other country in the western hemisphere?

And who doesn’t know that the Soviet Union brought about a profound improvement in the living standards of the vast majority of its people; that it defeated Nazi Germany and saved Europe; that it provided crucial support to the liberation movements in Africa, to Cuba, to Nicaragua, to Vietnam, to Korea; that it brought about a transformation of the republics of Central Asia, ground down for centuries by competing colonial interests? When we think of communism, why isn’t it all this that we think of?

Certainly, many individuals have suffered unfairly in socialist countries. But why is the blame always assigned to ‘communism’? If I want to see oppression and repression, I can take the briefest of walks down Tottenham High Street. If I want to see corruption, bureaucracy and the centralisation of power, I can observe the proceedings at Westminster. But these things don’t get attributed to ‘capitalism’. Most people who walk past dozens of homeless people each day don’t turn into zealous anti-capitalists (more’s the pity). Anti-communism is the dominant narrative, and so it’s easy to adapt to. Anti-capitalism is not at all the dominant narrative, and to adapt to it is to face isolation and abuse.

The question is: can the C-word be re-claimed, or has the propaganda war already been lost? Are sensible, progressive people so put off by any mention of communism that they immediately disregard anything associated with it? Do we need new terminology for the basic principles of equality, people’s power and social justice? I have come across quite a few very decent and principled people putting forward such an argument – that the C-word is beyond the pale. I’m not convinced. Imperialist cultural hegemony isn’t going to broken unless people who oppose it stand up confidently and loudly for what they believe in. Are we simply going to allow free reign to slander and disinformation? Should we leave prejudices intact? To use a parallel from the world of religion: could Muslims get rid of islamophobia by changing the name of their religion to, say, Democratic Mohammedanism?

Prejudices need to be attacked. Disinformation needs to be exposed. People’s psychological/ideological/cultural reliance on imperialism needs to be broken. That won’t happen if we keep playing by the enemy’s rules.

Like Malcolm said:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”