Reviewed by Roger Keeran
China’s Great Road: Lesson for Marxist Theory and Socialist Practices, Articles 2010-21 by John Ross. Glasgow, Scotland: Praxis Press, 2021. $20.50. Pp. 251.
Is China socialist? This question is guaranteed to provoke a lively discussion among any group of leftists. This is a complex question. No book and certainly no book review will settle the matter.
Whatever the Chinese system is, the Biden administration, like the Trump and Obama administrations before it, clearly sees China as the main threat to American imperial interests. This stance is creating a new cold war as perilous as the last one with the Soviet Union. Biden has not only kept in place the Trump tariffs against China, but has also just concluded a nuclear submarine deal with Australia and Great Britain clearly aimed at China. This year the CIA established a new China Mission Center, which according to its director William J. Burns “will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.” (New York Times, October 8, 2021) In November 2021, General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, called China the “No. 1” nation-state military challenger to the United States. He said that China is “clearly challenging us regionally, and their aspiration is to challenge us globally.” (New York Times, November 4, 2021) The fact that U.S. has about 750 military bases in some 80 countries compared to one (Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa) for China, and that the U.S. has 5,550 nuclear warheads compared to China’s 300 shows that whatever military threats exist are precisely in the opposite direction.
The new cold war is abundantly reflected in the overheated rhetoric about the so-called Chinese peril emanating every day from scholars and commentators who inflame the Chinese phobia with tales of the genocide of Uighurs, the pollution of the environment by Chinese coal, the discrimination against women (even Chinese female astronauts), the control of social media, the suppression of Hong Kong democracy, the impending invasion of Taiwan, the development of orbital nuclear weapons…the list is unending. Two recent iterations deserve mention for their level of high-pitched hysteria. In The Atlantic (November 1, 2021) Michael Beckley and Hal Brands, suggest that, unless deterred, China will initiate war with the U.S. The title and subtitle say it all: “How War With China Begins: A Cold War is already under way. The question is whether Washington can deter Beijing from initiating a hot one.” In the New York Review of Books, October 21, 2021, Perry Link, a Professor at the University of California at Riverside, manages a level of vitriol against China that surpasses the previous generation’s demonization of the Soviet Union. According to Link, China is less a socialist country than Taiwan and is best understood as a form of Murder Incorporated: “The CCP runs on hierarchical power, on personal loyalties that are outside the law, and on ruthless pursuit of private interests that employs pretense, manipulation, and where ‘necessary’ lethal force. It is more like the mafia than a modern government.”
After feasting on a daily diet of such dangerous inanity, it is a breath of sanity to pick up John Ross’s book. In China’s Great Road, John Ross, a Marxist and Senior Fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China in Beijing, makes a strong case for the socialist nature and direction of China. The book consists of articles, the majority of which were originally published in Chinese on the website Guancha.cn and others which were published in English at LearningfromChina.net. Reflecting its origins as separate articles, the book contains much annoying and unnecessary repetition, but this should not distract from its wealth of information and clear argumentation.
Ross’s argument is straightforward and compelling: that since the so-called “opening up” of the Chinese economy to private enterprise by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 and the pursuit of what Deng called “building socialism with Chinese characteristics,” China has followed a path that hews close to what Marx envisioned, and more importantly, by following this path the Chinese economic achievement“ is by far the greatest in the whole of human history—from the viewpoint of speed of improvement in living standards, rapidity of economic growth, the proportion of the world benefitting from that growth, and the elimination of poverty.”
The factual basis of this argument rests on reliable international sources, mainly the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, and others including the Conference Board Total Economy Data Base and the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Angus Maddison, an authority on long-term economic growth. The figures are astonishing. In 1950, the US economy was sixty-eight times greater than the Chinese economy. By 2000, a combination of slow US growth and great Chinese growth had closed the gap, and by 2022 China is poised to overtake the US. US annual average GDP growth has fallen from 4.4 percent in 1969 to 2.0 percent in 2019, while Chinese annual average GDP growth has been 12.5 percent since 1979.
This economic growth in China has been accompanied by an unprecedented growth in living standards as life expectancy and household and total consumption have increased at a greater rate in China than in any other country at any time in history. Ross points out that in China life expectancy, “the best single indicator of overall human condition,” increased at an unprecedented rate after the revolution. It reached 67 years in 1978, and with the opening up after 1978, it rose to 73 years in 2011 (compared to 79 in the United States). In China total consumption increased 7.9 percent annually in 1978-2012 and 8.5 percent annually in 1990-2012, whereas in the United States in comparable periods consumption increased 2.7 percent and 2.6 percent annually. Consequently, in the twenty-eight years leading up to 2009, China lifted 620 million people out of poverty, a number equivalent to half the population of Africa. In the same period, outside China those living in extreme poverty actually increased by 50 million.
Ross argues that the economic policies pursued by Deng Xiaoping after 1978, that is, “building socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or building a “socialist market economy, ” which meant retaining state ownership of major industry while “opening up” smaller industry and agriculture to private ownership, was entirely in line with Marxism, indeed more in line with Marxism than the Soviet policy after 1929 of socializing all productive property.
A key part of Ross’s argument here is his reliance on passages from The Communist Manifesto and the Critique of the Gotha Program where Marx discusses the transition from capitalism to socialism. In the former Marx said: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree [emphasis added] all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State as rapidly as possible.” (emphasis added). In the latter, Marx said: “In a higher phase of communist society…after the productive forces have also increased (emphasis added) with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of common wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
Ross argues that these passages show that Marx foresaw a “protracted transition period” (this phrase is Ross’s not Marx’s) and saw the need to develop the productive forces of the economy before one could dispense entirely with private ownership and the market. Hence, Ross argues that Deng’s policy of opening up was more in line with Marx than the Soviet policy of nationalizing everything at once in the first five-year plan and replacing the market with state planning. Moreover, Ross submits that Deng’s policy accomplished what Marx advocated, namely the retention of the market for a time and the fostering of rapid economic development. To his credit, Ross does not deny that the Soviet model also produced rapid economic development and was a response to the need for rapid industrialization in the face of powerful enemies and impending war. Still, he regards the Soviet path as an “ultra left,” mistake that should have been rectified after World War II.
Unquestionably, Ross makes a strong case, but not one as completely convincing as he suggests. In the first place, one should recall that in the entire body of Marx’s writing, he devotes only a few sentences to describing socialism. He resisted laying out a blueprint for a socialist revolution. Consequently, it is a bit tortured to rest a judgment of an entire social system, whether the Soviet Union or China, on its conformity to a couple of Marx’s phrases. Ross rests his case on behalf of the Chinese socialist market economy on Marx’s phrase “by degree,” i.e., the proletariat wresting capital from the bourgeoisie “by degree.” Ross, however, ignores the rest of Marx’s words in the same sentence about centralizing “all instruments of production” in the hands of the state “as rapidly as possible.” These latter phrases seem to justify the Soviet approach as much as the former phrase seem to justify Deng’s approach. Moreover, it is difficult to comprehend Ross’s idea that the Soviets should have returned to the market and some private property after World War II, since the external threat that justified the turn to rapid collectivization of property and central planning hardly diminished in any way during the Cold War, when the Soviets faced an immensely more powerful United States armed with nuclear weapons and surrounding the Soviet Union with military bases.
In any case, there is no gainsaying the conclusion that China’s reform and opening up since 1978 led to a great development of the productive forces. Moreover, the idea that this opening up represented not a betrayal of socialism but the basis for a new advance toward developed socialism is something that remains to be determined.
Another weakness of Ross’s argument is that he allows for no ambiguity or indeterminacy on this question. Even though reform and opening up has produced a large capitalist sector, Ross provides no account of how large it is, how much political influence it has or where China is heading. Other sources, however, indicate that the capitalist sector in China is very large and growing. For example, from 2004 to 2010 the number of private companies in China increased by 80 percent and the number of private businesses reached 3, 596, 000. Moreover, these private companies are increasingly active abroad, where 117 of them (as of 2010) have invested millions of dollars in 481 ventures abroad. By 2009, private and statement foreign investment had made China the fifth largest global investor. (See for example Elisseos Vagenas, “The International Role of China,” in Communist Review 6th issue 2010, at https://inter.kke.gr/en/articles/The-Internationalrole-of-China)
While Ross demonstrates the tremendous progress China has made under reform and opening up, he provides no recognition of the costs of this progress for the Chinese working class. He does not acknowledge that this progress has been purchased at the cost of growing economic inequality and of long working hours (in some cases twelve hours a day, six days a week), often harsh and dangerous working conditions, and the curtailment of trade union power. China is second only to the United States in the number of billionaires (130 Chinese billionaires by 2010). (By way of contrast, the Soviet Union managed to produce tremendous economic growth and increased living standards, while reducing working hours enhancing trade union power and reducing economic inequality.)
Furthermore, an all-sided assessment of socialism with Chinese characteristics would certainly entail a discussion of the Chinese role in the international class struggle. The record of the Soviet Union in this regard is well-known. Even while developing economically and building socialism as home, the Soviet Union materially supported anti-colonial, national liberation and socialist struggles abroad from Cuba to Vietnam and Africa. Certainly, the Chinese role has been more checkered and problematic. In the past China repeatedly aligned itself with imperial powers in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Angola and elsewhere. Perhaps it is unfair to score Ross for not touching subjects he did not intend to touch, but the omission is still glaring.
Whether China will fall under the sway of its powerful capitalists and increasingly act as an imperialist rival to the United States and Europe or whether it will continue to march toward fully developed socialism remains to be seen. There are several indications that the latter tendency may prevail. Two mainstream scholars have recently argued that China is not heading the way of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, that in spite of the capitalist sector in China, the Chinese Communist Party has not lost control as happened in the Soviet Union. For example, in The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, Richard McGregor argues that China is not becoming more like the West and is not developing into a market-driven neo-liberal state, but rather into a state with a hybrid economy of state and private ownership, where the Communist Party wields the dominant influence over politics, academia, and the economy. Similarly, Ian Johnson, A Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in “A Most Adaptable Party,” (New York Review of Books, July 1, 2021) asserted, “Even private companies ultimately answer to the party.” According to Johnson, the party has 92 million members, 7 percent of the population, a size that allows it “to control politics, economics, and society without losing its exclusivity.”
Recent statements by Xi Jinping also suggest that that Chinese Communist Party has decided that the progress in economic development has reached the point that China can begin to rein in the capitalists, reduce their power, root out corruption, and address economic inequality. Invoking Mao’s phrase of “common prosperity,” a goal that Deng viewed as ultimate but distant, Xi Jinping said that China should begin moving toward this goal now. In January 2021, Xi said, “Achieving common prosperity is not just an economic issue; it’s a major political matter bearing on the party’s foundation for rule….We cannot let an unbridgeable gulf appear between the rich and the poor.” (New York Times September 9, 2021).
The value of Ross’s book is not exhausted by the main argument about China’s economic accomplishments under reform and opening up. As part of his effort to explain the success of the policy of reform and opening up, Ross provides a convincing discussion on the way in which Chinese economic policy reflects the insights of Adam Smith and Karl Marx on the division of labor, on John Maynard Keynes’s ideas of the need for state intervention to promote investment, on Mao’s analysis of protracted war, and on Marxism and globalization.
The latter topic has particular relevance given labor and the left’s skepticism of the globalization as promoted by European and American neo-liberals. Ross argues that according to Marx (and Smith) the division of labor is the primary engine of economic development and the globalization of production and the market is just a continuation of the process of the division of labor that began in the pin factory described by Smith. Moreover, Ross contends that Xi Jinping’s idea of “a common future for humanity” represents a modern application of Marx’s idea about the division of labor. Consequently, according to Ross, blanket opposition to globalization when it takes the form of “buy American,” or “Brexit” or anti-Chinese tariffs and protectionism is demagogic, backward, reactionary, and doomed to fail. This position may not sit well with those who have been on the receiving end of de-industrialization, free trade, and the so-called race to the bottom, but this idea like the rest of the book deserves serious consideration by everyone on the left.
-Roger Keeran is Emeritus Professor, Empire State College, State University of New York (SUNY).