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Nigel Harris

The Chinese Road to Socialism

(March 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.76, March 1975, p.40.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Chinese Road to Socialism, Economics of the Cultural Revolution
E.L. Wheelwright and Bruce McFarlane
Penguin, 50p.

Capital Formation in Mainland China, 1952-1965
Kang Chao
University of California Press, £3.80.

THE first book gives an account of the economic development of China since 1949 as seen from one political viewpoint after the Cultural Revolution. This covers both the background, the First Plan, the Great Leap Forward, the conservative phase preceding the Cultural Revolution. After discussing this latter event, the authors discuss various economic institutions and policies.

But it is poor stuff. The authors seem entirely unaware of the contradictory zigzags of policy, and of how much which they attribute to the Cultural Revolution has been seen before. They have no real sense of the pressures and necessities which force China’s leadership in particular directions quite independent of what they might like. For this reason, what they write now will become rapidly outdated as China adopts some new course, and indeed, can become an embarrassment where it conflicts with the Party line. To escape the knotty necessities of poverty, the shortage of capital and the burden of defence expenditure, they retreat on the slightest pretext into moralising. They care nothing for the oddities that this leads them into. For example, in a society that has supposedly abolished the private ownership of the means of production, we offered something as target called ‘selfish bourgeois individualistic competitive morality’. But it then turns out that this is not about Chinese capitalism or indeed world capitalism at all, but ‘the thousands-of-years-old concept of private ownership’ (p.109). History has disappeared, and all is selfishness or not.

In similar fashion, classes come and go. The Cultural Revolution, it seems, was not what we normally suppose revolutions to be about: the replacement of the power of one class by that of another. No, it was a great social moralising to upbraid the greedy. Although they refer to ‘bourgeois’ and ‘capitalist’, workers and peasants, really they do not mean anything important at all. There is no structure of power, only ‘the people’ and a few ‘bad eggs’. The real life of 800 million Chinese somehow disappears into a dream land. It is one die Labour government shares – it also likes to upbraid workers for selfishness and ask them to make sacrifices.

Unlike China, we know exactly what that means here. The book is intellectually sloppy (for example, ‘Every society needs a morality to suit its economic development as Tawney argued’, p.18). Key issues are mentioned, but then the book misses them, and goes off chasing its own predetermined moral tail. For the authors, bread or rice are not problems.

Kang Chao’s book is very interesting and competently done, but strictly for the specialist. The amazing fluctuations in Chinese investment and policy emerge with great clarity. It would be worth the authors of the first book reading it.

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Last updated: 28.1.2008