Capitalism, Socialism, And The Essay, Research Paper
The 1949 Chinese Revolution was a transformative, epochal event, not only for the Chinese but for the rest of humanity, as well. If the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (that resulted in the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or Soviet Union) inaugurated an international competition for the hearts and minds of people all over the globe, the Chinese revolution raised the stakes of that struggle. This struggle was understood in the so-called West as between “capitalism” and “communism,” although these terms were rarely defined in more than loose and unusually flexible terms. Communist ideology, as represented by certain statements of Vladimir Lenin, the central intellectual and political figure of the Bolshevik Revolution, was understood as grounded upon an idea of worldwide revolution — all nations would, according to the logic of the theory, ultimately succumb to communism. (The Soviet leadership expressly supported the idea of “worldwide revolution” and took steps to help achieve this objective, including organization and leadership of the so-called Communist International or Comintern.) This idea of worldwide revolution and the efforts by Soviet leaders and communists in other countries to make it a reality presented little room for compromise between the opposing camps (on the one side, the supporters of the existing social system in the Western nations and, on the other side, the communist movement). Thus, the communist victory in China (the most populous nation on Earth) created a stronger sense of threat in one camp and of impending victory in the other.
If societies are really formations of social and environmental processes, all interacting and shaping one another, then the introduction of this polar conflict between these two camps into the fiber of existing social relationships could not help but impact virtually every society (or social formation) and transform numerous cultural, economic, and political processes within those societies. New problems were created for those who wanted to defend the status quo (the moral, political, and economic arrangements that predominated) in the so-called Western nations, as individuals took up the rhetoric of the Soviet or Chinese versions of Marxism. The existence of the new “Chinese model” was particularly troubling because it opened the door to a “domino effect” of revolutionary change in the less industrialized world, creating the possibility of accelerated social change that might threaten the established order in the advanced capitalist nations.
Sometimes the effects of this conflict were quite unexpected. For instance, many individuals have argued that the “Cold War” (particularly the post-1949 Chinese Revolution version of the Cold War) may have been critical to the success of the so-called Civil Rights Movement in the United States, as U.S. political leaders sought to win the hearts and minds of leaders in newly independent African nations and intellectuals throughout the so-called Third World by demonstrating the openness, flexibility, and fairness of the American way of life (including the American economic system, which was presumed to be the embodiment of capitalism and diametrically opposed to the “communist” alternative). Ironically, the Civil Rights Movement was also interpreted, within certain anti-communist circles, as a subsidiary operation of the international communist movement. Civil Rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, were often accused of being communists. Thus, the new language and logic of communism and anti-communism (mostly in rhetorical form) transformed the rules of social engagement over racism, as well as many other issues.
In a larger sense, the conflict between these two camps reshaped popular culture. New images and ways of thinking about the self and society permeated the media, from literature to the motion pictures. For the most part, the conflict was not waged in terms of social theories or ideas about the proper organization of society. Instead, the conflict took on a religious connotation. In the West, communism was portrayed as “sinister,” even “evil.” Behavioral norms were changed, influenced by images of impending threat from the communist menace, whether from without or within. Anti-communism coalesced into a form of paranoia. This paranoia was promoted in a wide range of films and books. One of the classics of this era was the science fiction film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In this and other films, the concept of threat from infiltration of family and friends was supportive of notions prevalent within the anti-communist movement that communism would capture the hearts and minds of the innocent and turn them into obedient slaves of the world communist movement.
But this cultural battle begs the question — was the struggle really between capitalism and communism? Does this notion capture the essence of the conflict in question? Or were these words simply misused tools in a conflict over more mundane issues, such as whether a relatively old and established elite would control the resources and political machinery in certain countries or whether a new elite would come to power and take their place. It would distort matters to imply that this struggle between different political and economic agencies, at a minimum it was a struggle between the governments and corporations of the West versus the government and bureaucracy of the newly formed USSR, could be reducible to either a conflict between capitalism and communism or a contest for control by two different sets of elites. Similarly, it would be a distortion to imply that it is not possible for the conflict to simultaneously satisfy both the capitalism versus communism condition and the contest between elites. However, it is no less distorting to begin with the assumption that either of these conditions is correct. We need to know that the Bolsheviks were genuinely interested in communism if we are to assume that the initial conflict — the USSR versus the West — was ever between capitalism and communism, as alternative, oppositional, and mutually negating social systems. This is not proven by the simple statements of the Bolsheviks about their interest in creating communism at some unspecified date in the future. We must have a clear sense of what communism is and whether or not the Bolsheviks were working to establish the conditions for the existence of such a social formation. After all, if a new slave master were to take control of a slave plantation and tell his slaves, “My ultimate goal is to free you and to create a new form of social arrangement in which you shall never be oppressed again,” would the slaves believe him? What would be necessary for them to believe him? If a conflict breaks out between this new slave master and the slave masters at other plantations then perhaps this might reinforce the idea that something extraordinarily different (and threatening to the old social order) was happening. But would that conflict be sufficient to convince us, as social analysts, that this conflict was between slavery and an alternative social system in the making (and not simply between two variant forms of slavery)? In other words, what would we need to know in order to conclude that this new slave master was a “revolutionary” intent upon ending slavery? To imply that the conflict between the West and the USSR (and the later expanded conflict between the West and the Communist Bloc) was a struggle between capitalism and communism is to imply that the so-called Communist Bloc was genuinely interested in creating communism.
In the West, there is a tendency to speak of the USSR, China, and other members of the “Communist Bloc” as already communist nations. Communism is defined in polemical fashion as synonymous with the set of political, economic, and cultural processes that developed in the USSR under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. This definition ignores prior discussions of communism in philosophy and social science, including Marx’s few references to this system. Similarly, capitalism gets defined in simple terms as the commonly recognized features of the economic and political system(s) prevalent in the so-called Western nations, particularly the presence of relatively unregulated corporations operating in relatively “free” markets and popular voting for certain governmental positions. In the most simplistic version of this polemic, capitalism is simply conflated with “free” markets. Indeed, there is no need for the word “capitalism” since the phrase “free markets” would capture the entire meaning of the word. Marx’s multi-volume attempt at producing new knowledge about the specificity of capitalist economic processes (where the word capitalism is produced as a social concept defining an historically evolving and unique set of social relationships by which certain individuals perform surplus labor and a different set of individuals appropriate this surplus labor is ignored (although Marx’s name may be invoked for polemical purposes)). Thus, it may be useless, in the context of this polemical “debate” over capitalism and communism, to try to distinguish whether or not the conflict between the West and the “Communist Bloc” was a conflict between actual capitalism and actual communism, understood as strictly defined and alternative economic systems. In the polemical debates, the terms capitalism and communism lose all social scientific meaning. The entire history of thought within which capitalism was defined as a unique economic system formed around a distinct class process and communism was defined as an alternative mode of producing and appropriating an economic surplus is absent from the arena of these debates. Instead, in the popular rhetoric, capitalism and communism become simple proxies for two specific sets of contending social formations (distinct in many ways but not necessarily in terms of prevalent class processes).
But we cannot play so fast and loose with these concepts if we are to make sense of the internal struggles and debates within the Chinese leadership that came to power in 1949 (anymore than it would make sense to ignore the historical definitions of capitalism and communism if one wanted to make sense of the post revolutionary struggles and debates within the Bolshevik leadership). In our survey of the Chinese economy, we will attempt to gain a better understanding of what was at stake in the Chinese Revolution of 1949, of the contending visions within the leadership of the Communist Party of China as to what constituted capitalism and communism, and whether or not there is any “objective” way to determine if China underwent a revolution as sweeping as the term communism implies. This will be important as we explore the current phase of “economic reform” in China and attempt to make sense of where China is going in the future.
But first, let me be clear about something on this point. China’s leadership never claimed to have inaugurated communism with the 1949 Revolution. As was the case with the Bolsheviks, China’s leaders were members of a communist party but never claimed to have instituted communism — a society without exploitation — with their revolution. They claimed merely to have overthrown the political leadership of the “bourgeois” state — to have made a political revolution against a pro capitalist state — and by so doing to have cleared the way for the construction of “socialism.” Socialism was understood as an intermediate stage between capitalism and communism. During this intermediate phase, the preconditions for communism would be gradually put into place to allow for the eventual attainment of communism, which some of the opponents of communism have described as a form of utopian (and therefore unattainable) society. No one ever said how long the society would have to be in this intermediate “socialist” stage, nor was the stage itself or the preconditions for communism that were to be instituted clearly defined. It was also anticipated that worldwide revolution would result in rapid growth of communist party led governments around the world and that these governments would develop socialism in a coordinated effort. Socialist solidarity was understood as an inevitable consequence of the movement of social forces that could be delayed but not permanently forestalled. Thus, the Soviet leaders saw the Chinese revolution as just another step along this road to the coordinated building of socialism. Socialism was never conceived, within communist ideology, as a system that would be developed sui generis in individual countries. There would not be a Soviet form of socialism and a Chinese form, for instance. This way of thinking not only caused tensions between Soviet intellectuals and political leaders and their Chinese counterparts but also caused some rather serious squabbling among Communist Party of China (CPC) leaders, with some taking the internationalist line and others arguing in favor of the idea of a unique Chinese form of socialism.
To further complicate matters, the Chinese Nationalist Party or Guomindang — the party that was overthrown by the Chinese Communist Party and subsequently fled to the island of Taiwan — did not view itself as an instrument of a ruling capitalist class (which would be consistent with the notion of a “bourgeois” party). To the contrary, the Guomindang, many of whose leaders were openly supportive of and supported by the Soviet Union (and some, such as Chiang Kai-shek, studied in the Soviet Union), was generally described as nationalist and socialist. Sun Yat-sen, the Guomindang’s Lenin, was one of the strongest supporters of the Soviet Union. And the Soviets provided the Guomindang with financial support, armaments, and advisers. (If this is not sufficient to make the ideological waters murky, then consider also that the Chinese Communist Party made nationalism an important aspect of its constitution, eliminating another potential ideological difference.) On numerous occasions the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party were allied, particularly in the anti-imperialist struggle against the Japanese and there were even members of the Guomindang who simultaneously held membership in the Chinese Communist Party (at least until Chiang Kai-shek began his purge of communists from the Guomindang). The Communist Party officially recognized the valuable role of the Guomindang in bringing about the transition from the monarchist regime, embodied most recently in the form of the Qing Dynasty, to a modern state. This, of course, begs the question of who would control that state as the Chinese nation continued along a path that both the Guomindang and the Communist Party called modernization. When the Guomindang, under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership (after Sun Yat-sen’s death), turned against the Chinese Communist Party in 1927, assassinating most of the communist leadership (leaving a void that would be filled by the rural based Mao Zedong), the motivation may have been less ideological than part of an effort to eliminate any possible competition over control of this so-called modern state. Thus, the Chinese Communist Party, who won the struggle against the Guomindang despite the aforementioned assassinations, overthrew one version of socialism in favor of another version, at least when viewed in purely polemical terms.
This leaves us with some perplexing questions. What exactly was/is socialism? What did the Chinese Communist Party leadership mean by this term? What do they mean when they use it today? Is there a narrow enough definition of the term “socialism” as to allow us to test whether one society is or is not socialist?
For that matter, in order to make sense of the aforementioned struggle between communists (who are portrayed and portray themselves as opponents of capitalism) and anti-communists, we will need to ask similar questions of the concepts of capitalism and communism? Because these terms are frequently used for polemical purposes, we often think we know what they mean and can very easily end up like the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland (with these words meaning whatever we want them to mean). For our purposes, however, we will need to both understand what political and intellectual leaders in China (and elsewhere) meant by these terms and to attempt to find social scientific definitions (very strictly defined and testable terms used in a consistent manner within a consistently logical framework of argumentation) that could be used to analyze the economic, political and cultural dynamics driving change in Chinese society. These are two very different ways of talking about the concepts of capitalism, socialism, and communism.
Let’s begin with the latter problem—finding a social scientific meaning of these terms. We need a social scientific definition of capitalism, socialism, and communism that can be deployed in our analysis of the Chinese economy, Chinese economic history, and the intellectual debates about China’s so-called communist revolution and its current transition (from what to what?).
Since the concept of communism was/is largely understood as oppositional to capitalism, then lets start with capitalism. What is this thing that the communist party leaderships (in China, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere) wanted to transcend and ultimately replace with communism? The term capitalism began its life as an economic concept, although today it is often used to describe political and cultural elements, as well. Nevertheless, a concept of capitalism that is overly general or synonymous with other widely used concepts — such as the conflation of market economies with capitalism — becomes less useful as a device for categorizing and analyzing. What we want is a concept of capitalism (and communism) that is narrow and unique enough as to allow us to distinguish something profoundly different or similar between the societies under analysis (and, in a more micro context, between different social relationships within the economy).