Article in People’s Democracy of October 04, 2009
60th Anniversary of the Chinese Revolution
Sitaram Yechury
2009 marks the 60th anniversary of the triumph of the Chinese revolution. The establishment of the people’s Republic of China ranks as the third most important development that shaped the trajectory of human civilisation in the 20th century. The Great October socialist revolution of 1917, the defeat of fascism in the Second World War in 1945 and the consequent decolonisation of the world and the Chinese revolution have had an inedible impact on the course of human civilisation.
During the course of the last three decades China has made tremendous strides in development that are incomparable with that of any other country in contemporary history. The average annual double digit growth rate during these thirty years has converted socialist China into an economic power house in the world. When China embarked on its reform process in 1978 many had quipped that socialist China requires capitalism to develop. Today in the wake of probably the worst capitalist global recession, the general feeling is that world capitalism requires China to bail it out of this crisis.
How was such a remarkable development possible? Particularly in a period when the mighty socialist Soviet Union was dismantled two decades ago. When all pen pushers of imperialism and the bourgeoisie were busy seeking to nail the coffin of socialism claiming that capitalism is eternal, socialist China continued to build upon its economic successes. Right wing intellectuals pursuing their theories of `end of ideology’ hastily attribute China’s successes as having nothing to do with Marxism or socialism. Some amongst the Left are equally concerned if China’s success constitutes the restoration of capitalism. Some ask: Has Mao’s China been jettisoned? Have the `capitalist roaders’ taken over China? What is the future of socialism in China?
On this 60th anniversary of the Chinese revolution some of these questions need to be examined and evaluated.
The triumph of the socialist revolution in Russia (and subsequently, following the defeat of fascism in the second world war, in the relatively less developed Eastern Europe; semi-feudal semi-colonial China; northern Korea; Vietnam and Cuba) did not and could never have meant the automatic transformation of these backward economies and low levels of productive forces into high levels (higher than that of capitalism) of socialised means of production.
For the purpose of our discussion, however, it needs to be noted that every socialist revolution, based on a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, worked out its approach towards developing rapidly the productive forces. How this can be done is specific to the concrete realities, both domestically and internationally, faced by the specific revolutions.
Lenin, himself, noted on the 4th anniversary of the October Revolution: "Borne along on the crest of the wave of enthusiasm, rousing first the political enthusiasm and then the military enthusiasm of the people, we expected to accomplish economic tasks just as great as the political and military tasks we had accomplished by relying directly on this enthusiasm. We expected — or perhaps it would be truer to say that we presumed without having given it adequate consideration — to be able to organise the state production and the state distribution of products on communist lines in a small-peasant country directly as ordered by the proletarian state. Experience has proved that we were wrong. It appears that a number of transitional stages were necessary — state capitalism and socialism — in order to prepare — to prepare by many years of effort — for the transition to Communism. Not directly relying on enthusiasm, but aided by the enthusiasm engendered by the great revolution, and on the basis of personal interest, personal incentive and business principles, we must first set to work in this small-peasant country to build solid gangways to socialism by way of state capitalism. Otherwise we shall never get to Communism, we shall never bring scores of millions of people to Communism. That is what experience, the objective course of the development of the revolution, has taught us." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 33, pp.58 emphasis added)
Further, he proceeds to state: "Capitalism is a bane compared with socialism. Capitalism is a boon compared with medievalism, small production, and the evils of bureaucracy which spring from the dispersal of the small producers. In as much as we are as yet unable to pass directly from small production to socialism, some capitalism is inevitable as the elemental product of small production and exchange; so that we must utilise capitalism (particularly by directing it into the channels of state capitalism) as the intermediary link between small production and socialism, as a means, a path, and a method of increasing the productive forces." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 32, pp. 350)
But, does this mean the restoration of capitalism? To this Lenin answers quite candidly during the period of the NEP (new economic policy) that: "It means that, to a certain extent, we are re-creating capitalism. We are doing this quite openly. It is state capitalism. But state capitalism in a society where power belongs to capital, and state capitalism in a proletarian state, are two different concepts. In a capitalist state, state capitalism means that it is recognised by the state and controlled by it for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, and to the detriment of the proletariat. In the proletarian state, the same thing is done for the benefit of the working class, for the purpose of withstanding the as yet strong bourgeoisie, and of fighting it. It goes without saying that we must grant concessions to the foreign bourgeoisie, to foreign capital. Without the slightest denationalisation, we shall lease mines, forests and oilfields to foreign capitalists, and receive in exchange manufactured goods, machinery etc., and thus restore our own industry." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 32, pp. 491)
To a certain extent, what we find in the post-reform socialist China is, a reflection of the theoretical positions Lenin had taken regarding state capitalism during the NEP period. The main question involved is that of increasing the productive forces in a backward economy to a level that can sustain large-scale socialist construction. Lenin, during his time, on the basis of the concrete international and domestic situation, consistently endeavoured to rapidly bridge the gap between backward productive forces and advanced socialist production relations. The course of this Soviet history of socialist construction, however, took place under different historical circumstances. Encirclement of the Soviet Union, the civil war, the preparations for the second world war by the fascist forces did not allow the Soviet Union a peaceful period necessary for a protracted period of transition towards the consolidation of socialist productive forces. The pace of the socialisation of the means of production had to be hastened for the very survival of the socialism itself. The fact that it did succeed in socialising the means of production through `collectivisation’, bore the brunt of fascist assaults during the second world war and decisively defeated them will go down as one of the most remarkable and liberating experiences of the 20th century.
In China today, what is being sought is to attain the conformity between the levels of productive forces and the relations of production under socialism. The advanced socialist production relations cannot be sustainable at lower levels of productive forces. A prolonged period of low levels of productive forces would give rise to a major contradiction between the daily expanding material and cultural needs of the people under socialism and backward productive forces. The Chinese Communist Party (CPC) has concluded that if this contradiction remains unresolved, then socialism itself in China would be under threat.
Following the political turmoil that took place during the cultural revolution and after the dethroning of the `Gang of Four’ a serious introspection was begun by the CPC on political and economic issues. In 1978, clearing confusion and incorrect understanding on many political issues and practices, the CPC adopted a comprehensive ideological line that culminated in what they call `one central task and two basic points’. `One central task’ is economic development, the `two basic points’ are adherence to the four cardinal principles (Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong; socialist road; people’s democratic dictatorship; and leadership of the Communist Party) and the implementation of reforms and open door policy.
Soon after the initiation of the reform process, in a conversation with Kim Il Sung in 1982, Deng Xiaoping says: "In a country as big and as poor as ours, if we don’t try to increase production, how can we survive? How is socialism superior, when our people have so many difficulties in their lives? The Gang of Four clamoured for `poor socialism’ and `poor communism’, declaring that communism was mainly a spiritual thing. That is sheer nonsense! We say that socialism is the first stage of communism. When a backward country is trying to build socialism, it is natural that during the long initial period its productive forces will not be up to the level of those in developed capitalist countries and that it will not be able to eliminate poverty completely. Accordingly, in building socialism we must do all we can to develop the productive forces and gradually eliminate poverty, constantly raising the people’s living standards. Otherwise, how will socialism be able to triumph over capitalism? In the second stage, or the advanced stage of communism, when the economy is highly developed and there is overwhelming material abundance, we shall be able to apply the principle of from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. 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? That is why I insisted that the focus of our work should be rapidly shifted to economic development. A decision to this effect was made at the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee, (1978) and it represented an important turning point. Our practice since then has shown that this line is correct, as the whole country has taken on an entirely new look." (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 3, pp. 21-22)
It is essentially such an understanding that led to a theoretical conceptualisation of the primary stage of socialism. This in fact conforms to what Marx and Engels themselves had stated and what is accepted by all subsequent Marxists: that socialism is the transitory stage between capitalism and communism and hence constitutes the first stage of a communist society. The CPC however has gone a step further to formulate that within this transitory stage, there will be stages depending on the levels of productive forces at the time of the revolution. This was systematically elucidated in the 13th Congress of the CPC. Basically, what it meant was that China, being a backward semi-feudal, semi-colonial country at the time of the revolution, was at a stage where the socialist transformation of its economy will have to be conducted from very low levels. The World Bank, in 1980 sent an investigation team to China which estimated that the per capita GNP in 1952 was US $ 50, even lower than that in India and only slightly more than one-fifth of that in the Soviet Union in 1928. In a country with the largest population in the world, the effort for a transformation into a modern socialist economy is, indeed, a stupendous task. The CPC estimated that this process would take atleast a hundred years from the time of the revolution to reach the stage of a modern socialist economy. It is this process which they call (is called) `the building of socialism with Chinese characteristics’.
In order to achieve such a transformation, the CPC put forward another theoretical formulation that of building a socialist market economy. By now, it is clear that as long as commodity production exists, there would be a need for a market to exchange these commodities. It would be erroneous to conclude that under socialism the market will cease to exist. So long as commodities are produced, the market exists. The crucial question is not planning versus market but which dominates. Under socialism, market is one of the means for the distribution of the social product. Centralised planning, utilising the market forces and the market indicators, will be able to efficiently develop the productive forces and meet the welfare demands of the people. Therefore, ignoring market indicators leads to greater irrational use of resources which will adversely affect the plan process itself.
What is sought to be created in China is a commodity market economy under the control of the socialist state where public ownership of the means of production will remain the mainstay; by which the CPC means "firstly that public capital predominates in total social capital; secondly, the state economy controls the economic lifeline and plays a dominant role in the national economy". Through this, they seek to prevent the economic polarisation and growing inequalities created by private market economy and ensure the common prosperity of the working people.
As a result of these reforms, China over these decades has achieved tremendous successes. Material standards of living have grown by leaps and bounds. Poverty levels have come down sharply. In health, higher education, scientific research and technology development, China has moved ahead at a commendable rate. It has come a long way from 1978, when the gross domestic product, at current prices, stood at 364.5 billion yuan. By 2007, it had grown 68-fold to 25.1 trillion yuan.In 1978, the average annual disposable income of urban households was 343.4 yuan, while in 2007, it was 13,786 yuan, a 40-fold increase. For rural households, the increase was 31-fold to 4,140 yuan from 133.6 yuan. The country’s poor population was reduced from 250 million in 1978 to 14.79 million in 2007.
In the year 2008, GDP had increased by 9 per cent over the previous year, grain output continued its increase for the past five years, per capita annual net income of rural residents increased by 8 per cent while the per capita annual disposable income of the urban residents increased by 8.4 per cent. China had topped the gold medal tally, displacing the US, in one of the most spectacularly and successfully organised Beijing Olympic games in 2008. China is also host to the largest number of internet users in the world with more than 300 million users among whom 270 million connect through broadband. The scientific achievements of China are displayed best by the space walk carried out by the Chinese astronauts abroad the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft joining the country in a band of select few. The speed with which the country had reacted to one of the most devastating earthquakes in Wenchuan and conducted comprehensive relief and rehabilitation activities also testify not only to the enormous strides of progress made by the country but also speaks volumes of its social commitment. All these have been possible not because China `broke from the Maoist past’ but because it developed on the solid foundations laid by the People’s Republic of China during the first three decades of centralised planning.
However, new problems are also cropping up as a result of these developments. They are mainly the growing inequalities, unemployment and corruption. The CPC, cognizant of these dangers, is taking measures to tackle these problems. But the fact remains that with the current transformation of the State owned enterprises, there is a net accretion to the unemployed every year. While the State maintains a minimum subsistence allowance and offers re-training programmes for retrenched workers, unemployment is a serious problem.
The main question that emerges is whether these growing inequalities will take the form of the formation of an incipient capitalist class? Lenin, while talking of State capitalism and emphasising the need to rapidly expand the productive forces, also warned of the risks to the socialist State that such a period of transition will bring about. Characterising the process of building state capitalism as a war, Lenin says: "the issue in the present war is — who will win, who will first take advantage of the situation: the capitalist, whom we are allowing to come in by the door, and even by several doors (and by many doors we are not aware of, and which open without us, and in spite of us) or proletarian State power?" (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 33, pp 65) He proceeds further to state: "We must face this issue squarely — who will come out on top? Either the capitalists succeed in organising first — in which case they will drive out the Communists and that will be the end of it. Or the proletarian state power, with the support of the peasantry, will prove capable of keeping a proper rein on those gentlemen, the capitalists, so as to direct capitalism along state channels and to create a capitalism that will be subordinate to the state and serve the state." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 33, pp 66)
Similarly, Deng Xiaoping in a talk during his visit to southern China says: "The crux of the matter is whether the road is capitalist or socialist. The chief criterion for making that judgement should be whether it helps promote the growth of the productive forces in a socialist society, helps increase the overall strength of the socialist state and helps raise living standards." (Social Sciences in China, Vol. XX, No. 2, pp. 29)
Further, in 1985, addressing some of the apprehensions of growing inequalities Deng Xiaoping says: "As to the requirement that there must be no polarisation (read growing economic inequalities), we have given much thought to this question in the course of formulating and implementing our policies. If there is polarisation, the reform will have been a failure. Is it possible that a new bourgeoisie will emerge? A handful of bourgeois elements may appear, but they will not form a class.
"In short, our reform requires that we keep public ownership predominant and guard against polarisation. In the last four years we have been proceeding along these lines. That is, we have been keeping to socialism." (Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 3, pp. 142-143)
Clearly, the CPC is in the midst of a serious effort of building socialism with Chinese characteristics. The CPC is endeavouring to rapidly expand the productive forces and, thus, consolidate and strengthen socialism in China through these reforms. On the other hand, as noted above, this very process engenders certain tendencies which seek to weaken or even destroy socialism. As a result, ideas and values alien to socialism will also surface. Imperialist finance capital is there in China not to strengthen socialism but to earn profits and to create conditions of adversity to socialism. They would certainly seek the weakening of socialism or its dismantling in order to earn greater profits. This is the current struggle between imperialism and socialism that is taking place in the theatre of China. And, in this struggle, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Chinese revolution, the efforts to strengthen and consolidate socialism will receive solidarity from us and the Communists the world over.