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Michael Harrington & Bert Cochran

Exchange on China

(May 1959)

From American Socialist, May 1959.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive created by Louis Proyect.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


A Letter: by Michael Harrington

I WAS very interested in your article [New Thunder out of Communist China, by Bert Cochran] in the April American Socialist, so I thought I would pass on a few comments. I will not take time to puff the good parts – research, calmness, and so forth – but will concentrate upon areas of disagreement.

First of all, I am disturbed by a question of method: the approach of the ‘on-the-one-hand; on-the-other-hand.’ Without being hard and sectarian about it, it seems to me that an essential concept of Marxian analysis is that of the ‘law of motion.’ This idea need not be reified, à la orthodox Trotskyism, into a claim for immediate and total comprehension to the exclusion of all ambiguity and tentativeness. It does, to my mind, require that analysis concentrate upon the direction and tendencies of a social phenomenon, that is, what class is a revolution bringing to power?; what is the mode of resource allocation?; and so on. This element seemed to be lacking in your study. Excellent points were made as to the totalitarianism of the Chinese Communist Party, the danger that China-itis will corrupt the very image of socialism, and so forth. But these were inconclusive notations, and nowhere was there even a hesitant attempt to define the massive movement of the system itself.

Then, there are some specific points.

You write that the big news was ‘that China had veered away from a number of unsatisfactory patterns ... The new pattern produces better results, permits a more harmonious growth of the economy, and offers the possibility of better compensation to the people who are doing the sweating and sacrificing.’ Here, I think you leap from your previous caution to careless assertion. The facts which we can draw upon are of course insufficient for precise analysis. But what of the retreat announced at the Sixth Plenum in December? What of the crisis in transport? What of the belated announcement that all those little furnaces added up to an unsuccessful gimmick? Indeed, I think that one of the main things we have to beware of these days is the gimmicky character of the Chinese Communist Party. And then, I would argue that the commune system, far from being part of a new pattern leading toward ‘better compensation of the people’ is, among other things, an instrument for food rationing and for cutting down the surpluses which the more successful collectives were able to produce.

ON the family, I think polemical zeal carried you away. The criticism of the commune and the family was not confined to those who mourned the passing of the old Chinese system. There was genuine, positive socialist disgust with the idea of regulating the sexual activity of husbands and wives, or with compulsory nurseries and boarding schools motivated less ‘by a desire to emancipate woman and more by the aim of getting the woman into the fit alongside the men. For that matter, it was on this score that the opposition of the people had a certain success – the change of line on the family announced at the Sixth Plenum was a gain which can only be understood in terms of the resistance of the masses involved. Similarly, your statement that the various communal services are ‘clearly a marked improvement in the living conditions of the rural people’ requires amendment, if only in terms of the admissions of the CCP itself. After all, Mao & Co. have ready admitted that there was a gigantic mess in precisely those areas, and decrees halting the closing of restaurants and so forth, were published even before the December Plenum.

Then there is Crossman. ‘R.H.S. Crossman believes that the communes sprang from the hard puritan elite peasant Communists who have emerged in tens of thousands from the countryside. He is probably right.’ First all, why is he ‘probably right’? We have no evidence substantiate his claim – and the introduction of army us Into the communes hardly corroborates it. Then, we know the problem of the tourist in the Communist country certainly don’t agree with Richard Walker’s general political line, but his piece in Problems of Communism was a devastating empirical demonstration of how honest and sincere travelers in China had been hoodwinked.

FINALLY, let me return to the basic point in terms of your final remarks on democracy. You write that democracy requires a certain material level. Of course! That ABC. But the point is not to under-value the relevance of democracy to socialism – which I feel was the implication of your words – but to re-emphasize it. When, an underdeveloped country attempts a quick industrialization on basis of its own national resources, it will develop a totalitarian apparatus, for that is the only way that the peasant can be forced to give up his surplus or the worker be kept at the grindstone. In the process, the totalitarians will not exist as an abstract and classless force, but enjoy the fruits of their economic, social and political power at once. This grim mechanism of accumulation only be changed if there is massive aid from advanced (socialist, or socialist-tending) countries. It will, I think, become generalized so long as the present international situation continues, and so long as there is no perspective of socialism in an advanced country.

All of this is hardly encouraging, but this is the reality must face. In dealing with China, what realism compels us to recognize is that industrialization is being carried in an anti-socialist way which is bringing a new social class to power. On this point, there is enough evidence. Your major failure, to my mind, was that you did not the problem of the basic direction of the system squarely and that, in your ambiguous remarks about democracy, you gave unwitting aid to those who would corrupt the very image of socialism through their attitude phenomenon like that of Chinese Communism.

Reply by Bert Cochran

Let me take up your main propositions under a few separate headings:

1. What Is Actually Taking Place. You say that Chinese planning has a ‘gimmick’ character and you cast doubt that the rural industry drive amounts to much. We have to beware, it seems to me, of bending the stick so far in direction of suspicion as to deprive ourselves of the possibility of comprehending the actual process under way. It is easy to get into such a mood because the Communists are unscrupulous manipulators of data. But it is the duty of conscientious social observers to strike a reasonable balance on the basis of the best information available. We do not have any reliable statistics as to the value the goods turned out in cottage and rural industry as against urban industry. But even if we had them, they would not tell us too much. Chinese economic development is occurring on several different levels. The commanding fact of rural industry is not its inevitably low productivity, but that it can be gotten under way with a small capitalist investment, with such technical skills as locally available, and that it puts to use resources and or which would otherwise go to waste. It is one aspect the great public works, which in turn makes possible huge agricultural increases, which in turn add to the capital fund for industrialization and general growth. In other words, it is part of a chain reaction; it has what the economists call a multiplier effect.

NOW, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As a result of the public works and local industries program – the two are closely linked – China reported greater agricultural progress than in the previous five years. Food grains shot up to 350–375 million tons, and they are talking in terms of 525 million tons this year. Of course, we can say the figures are all lies, but the Russian experience should caution us, while viewing the statistics critically, against blanket rejection. I am prepared to accept that it is not all beer and skittles: the transportation system is probably badly overstrained, a lot of the rural ventures probably flopped, some costly miscalculations were made, etc., etc. But the economic balance sheet reads very high. The British and Australian journalists on the scene accept the fact of an unprecedented agricultural breakthrough. This is all the more impressive as it is taking place while heavy and general urban industry is being relentlessly pushed ahead. How can monumental achievements of this kind be waved away as ‘gimmicks’? Aren’t we in danger of repeating the experience of some of the professional Russian critics: scoffing and jeering year after year only to wake up one fine day to discover that Russia is the world’s second industrial power?

2. The Human Cost. I know the human costs are terribly high, not only in economic deprivation of the living generations, but in regimentation. I indicated that in my article and condemned many aspects of it. But when you go on to talk about Communist regulation of sexual activity of husbands and wives, I must tell you I take this kind of information with a lot of salt. There as an inevitable regulation of sexual as well as other activities because of the grim regimen of hard work, long hours, and primitive living conditions. Even in this country, I can tell you from personal experience that General Motors or Ford regulate their employees’ sexual activity by working them to death on the assembly line. But I have seen no evidence that the Chinese Communists try to directly supervise family affairs of this nature – as does the Catholic Church at times, especially among peasant peoples. You say that the compulsory nurseries and boarding schools are less motivated by a desire to emancipate women than by the aim of getting them into the fields. Why can’t they be motivated by both desires? As a matter of fact, the evidence seems to indicate that they are. I have no intention of defending a commune system which was organized and operates by methods of coercion, but many Western correspondents back up the regime in the claim that the peasant’s economic lot is improving. Why do you want to cast doubt on this without having half-reliable contrary evidence?

I AM making these points, as I could several more, because I think the complaints betray an absence of judiciousness. But I don’t believe a question as deep-going as this one can be settled by scoring points. It has to be taken in the large: Regimentation and dictatorship, as far as I can see, are inevitable with a forced industrialization of a backward country. The alternative is not democracy as it is practiced in England or even in the United States, but the regime of Indonesia, or Pakistan, or Iran, or Chiang Kai-shek. I think the Chinese people are far better off with what they have. I don’t think we can look for the pathways of democracy in a poverty-stricken Asia desperately trying to lift itself into the twentieth century. I do believe the Chinese Communists can and should be criticized for forcing the pace too rapidly and inhumanely, for wiping out that measure of political freedom which is possible even in their circumstances, and having recourse to military pressures to solve too many of their internal difficulties.

3. The Law Of Motion. This is not the time or place for a restatement of general sociological estimations of the Soviet system, nor need our day-to-day analyses be dependent upon these estimations. The factual appreciations and political attitudes of many British left-laborites coincide roughly with my own although some of them think that China represents a variety of managerial society. I don’t think these transcendental considerations need necessarily determine all political attitudes, although I hold, as you know, that industrialization and modernization will in time bring forth forces working for democratization. The Chinese development – like the Russian – is contradictory and paradoxical, and I fail to see the worth of literary solutions that do violence to this reality. This may lead to a certain amount of ‘on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand’ ambiguity. But that is better than unilinear oversimplification. Spare me from both the Anna Louise Strong and Freda Utley schools of history!

Finally, you admit that the under-developed countries will go dictatorial if they seriously try to industrialize by means of their own resources, but this lamentable state of affairs can only be changed if there is massive aid from a Socialist West. Well, what’s the point of pretending; we can’t change it. If Germany or England, or both, had gone socialist in the interval between the two world wars, the history of humanity, including Russia and China, would have been written on different tablets and in a different alphabet. But that’s not what happened. The pattern is now set for the next era, of Russia-China industrializing despite the West and in conflict with the West. The socialists have not taken power and reorganized society in the West, and there is no indication that they will do so in the foreseeable future. That has certain consequences for the Soviet bloc, and willy-nilly, we are forced into far more rudimentary objectives in our own bailiwicks.

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