Charles McKelvey: The continuity of the Chinese socialist project

We are pleased to reproduce this interesting article by Charles McKelvey, reflecting and elaborating on some of the points made in Carlos Martinez’s essay No Great Wall: on the continuities of the Chinese Revolution.

Many China-watchers have believed that the post-Mao Chinese reform and opening constituted an abandonment of the principles of Marxism, Maoism, and socialism.  For all who are proponents of the capitalist system, such an interpretation confirms their belief in the superiority of capitalism over socialism.  At the same time, many Western leftist intellectuals also adhere to the interpretation that the Chinese have abandoned socialism, but they consider it a turn in the wrong direction.  For leftist intellectuals, such an interpretation of China validates their sub-conscious belief that socialism in the real world is not attainable, but they themselves have a lifetime position as a commentator, sometimes well-rewarded, on the contradictions of capitalism and socialism.

Both perspectives are formulated from outside China or any country seeking to construct socialism.  They are formed by assumptions and beliefs beyond the world of actually existing socialisms, without appreciation of the dynamics that shape the concrete decisions that the leaders of socialist projects must make.  These perspectives are grounded in the real world of capitalism or by the intellectual world forged by academic and intellectual debates.  They do not give serious consideration to the self-interpretations of the socialist projects; how the leaders, academics, and intellectuals of socialist projects interpret their own world. 

I have discussed this phenomenon in a previous commentary with respect to Cuba, in which I observe that there is a tendency to dismiss explanations by Cuban leaders, academics, and intellectuals as “official” discourses not worthy of serious consideration.  This tendency functions to silence the voice of the Cuban Revolution and to deny the Cuban Revolution its right to explain itself.  Thus, there emerge public debates about the revolution conducted by persons who are not of the revolution, and citizens of the countries of the North are denied their right to know the revolution’s understanding of itself.  This epistemological method is functional for capitalism, because it contributes to the confusion and division of the people; it is dysfunctional for the advance of human understanding and the forging of socialist movements in the world.

An article by Carlos Martínez in the Invent the Future Website, “No Great Wall: on the continuities of the Chinese Revolution,” seems to utilize an alternative method, different from the Western pro-capitalist and “socialist” methodology.  He appears to take seriously the insights of revolutionary leaders, such that his criticisms of defects of the revolution are intertwined with his developing understanding of their understandings and formulations.  In effect, drawing upon Chinese sources, he facilitates the dissemination to Western readers of the Chinese Revolution’s interpretation and defense of itself. 

Listening to and taking seriously the formulations of Chinese leaders, Martínez arrives to appreciate the continuity between the radical socialist project of Mao and the reform project of Deng, an interpretation that dovetails with the understanding of the Chinese revolution itself.  Western intellectuals, trapped in a Eurocentric method, no doubt would view his approach as circular, for in listening, he has set himself up to the possibly of finding credibility.  But the Western intellectuals cannot answer the question, how can any revolutionary process be understood without taking into account the understanding that the revolution has of itself?  How can criticism of defects be put forth, before the revolutionary understanding of itself has been understood?

 “No Great Wall: on the continuities of the Chinese Revolution” by Carlos Martínez

Martinez begins the article with the declaration:

The Communist Party of China (CPC) was formed in July 1921. From that time up to the present day, it has led the Chinese Revolution – a revolution to eliminate feudalism, to regain China’s national sovereignty, to end foreign domination of China, to build socialism, to create a better life for the Chinese people, and to contribute to a peaceful and prosperous future for humanity.

Some of these goals have already been achieved; others are ongoing. Thus the Chinese Revolution is a continuing process, and its basic political orientation remains the same.

China in the epoch of Mao

Martínez summarizes the emergence of the Communist Party of China (CPC) from the post-World War I Chinese anti-imperialist and nationalist protests by students, workers, and intellectuals; who were reacting to the Treaty of Versailles, which had offended Chinese national pride by ignoring Chinese demands.  In accordance with its anti-imperialist and nationalist orientation, the CPC participated in the early 1920s in a united Front with the nationalist party of Sun Yat-sen, with the intention of constructing an anti-imperialist alliance of workers, peasants, intellectuals, and patriotic elements of the capitalist class.  Later, in the period 1937 to 1945, the CPC joined a Second United Front with the nationalists, now under the control of the Chiang Kai-shek, in spite of the fact that Chiang’s nationalist party in political power had unleashed a brutal repression of the communists from 1927 to 1937.

During the period of the Second United Front, the CPC implemented a program for the improvement of the lives of the population in the territory under its control.  Its base in Yan’an attracted revolutionary and progressive youth from throughout the country as well as foreign visitors.  There were extensive debates concerning the types of society that they were trying to build, which Mao synthesized in his 1940 pamphlet, On New Democracy.  Here Mao described the revolution as having two stages, first new democracy, and then socialism.  In the first stage, the goal is to defeat imperialism and establish independence from foreign rule, thus providing an essential foundation for the later stage of constructing socialism.  During the first stage, political power ought to be shared among all the anti-imperialist classes: the working class, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and those elements of the national bourgeoisie that were against foreign domination.

The stage of New Democracy would combine components of both socialism and capitalism.  Martínez quotes the text of Mao’s On New Democracy:

The state enterprises will be of a socialist character and will constitute the leading force in the whole national economy, but the republic will neither confiscate capitalist private property in general nor forbid the development of such capitalist production as does not ‘dominate the livelihood of the people’, for China’s economy is still very backward.

Such private capital, however, would be subject to extensive state regulation.

Following the defeat of Japan in 1945 and the bitter four-year civil war between Chiang’s nationalists and Mao’s communists, the People’s Republic of China was declared on October 1, 1949.  The new government was a united front government led by the CPC.  It attempted to construct the type of society envisioned in On New Democracy.  It accomplished the dismantling of feudalism and the elimination of the rural class structure through the distribution of land to the peasants.  These reforms generated an agricultural surplus which, along with the support of the Soviet Union, enabled infrastructure construction and a program of rapid state-led industrialization. 

By 1954, the government was moving beyond New Democracy and toward the collectivization of peasant lands and the shifting of private industrial production into state hands. With the Cold War and U.S. hostility intensified, and with the Soviet Union moving toward “peaceful coexistence” with the West, the Chinese Revolution saw the need to accelerate production on basis of China’s own resources.  Accordingly, the Great Leap Forward, launched in 1958, sought to attain rapid industrialization and collectivization, a fast-track to the construction of socialism.

The Great Leap Forward was overly ambitious, causing disruptions in established productive processes, leading to a fall in production.  The withdrawal of Soviet technicians as well as draughts and floods also contributed to the failure of the project.  In 1960, Mao ordered decreasing the pace of the Great Leap Forward. 

Reasonable estimates are that the Great Leap Forward is responsible for 11.5 million deaths, a fact utilized by opponents to discredit the Chinese Revolution.  Martínez points out, however, that the death rate in India in 1960 was similar, and that China previously had terrible famines in 1907, 1928, and 1942.  Pro-capitalist academics use the failure of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) to denigrate the entire history of the Chinese Revolution, but “the GLF was not some outrageous crime against humanity; it was a legitimate attempt to accelerate the building of a prosperous and advanced socialist society. It turned out not to be successful and was therefore dropped.”

As a result of the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao and the radical wing lost influence in the highest levels of the Party.  Leading Party members with a more pragmatic approach that stressed social stability and economic growth arrived to positions of power in the Party, including Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun and Zhou Enlai.  They put forth the concept of the Four Modernizations in agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology.

Mao and a group of close comrades began to believe that the pragmatic approach was an anti-revolutionary revisionist trend that could ultimately lead to capitalist restoration.  Mao was concerned that the new orientation meant greater reliance on teachers and academics who came from non-working-class backgrounds, who would promote capitalist and feudal values among young people.  Mao maintained that it was necessary to “exterminate the roots of revisionism” and “struggle against those in power in the party who were taking the capitalist road.”

In 1966, university students, responding to Mao’s call to “thoroughly criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois ideas in the sphere of academic work, education, journalism, literature and art,” formed a mass movement of university and school students, calling themselves “Red Guards.”  Initially supported by Mao and by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution sought to eliminate persons in authority who were taking a supposedly revisionist and capitalist road.  Its objective was to forge a new socialist, collective, and modern culture.

In August 1966, the Cultural Revolution exploded into widespread disruption and violence, resulting in the closing of universities.  Many people were attacked and humiliated.  Liu Shaoqi, previously considered to be Mao’s successor, was arrested and tortured; he died in prison.  A similar fate awaited Peng Dehuai, former Defense Minister and the leader of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army’s operations in the Korean War.

In 1967, Mao recognized that the situation was out of control, and he and high members of the Party ordered the army to establish order and reorganize production.  However, the Cultural Revolution flared up again with the ascendancy of a radical wing, the so-called “Gang of Four,” beginning in 1972.

To the enemies of the Chinese Revolution, the Cultural Revolution is an example of Mao’s tendency toward violence and power or an illustration of communist authoritarianism.  In contrast to this view, Martínez writes of the idealism that was at the foundation of the Cultural Revolution. 

The Cultural Revolution was a radical mass movement; millions of young people were inspired by the idea of moving faster towards socialism, of putting an end to feudal traditions, of creating a more egalitarian society, of fighting bureaucracy, of preventing the emergence of a capitalist class, of empowering workers and peasants, of making their contribution to a global socialist revolution, of building a proud socialist culture unfettered by thousands of years of Confucian tradition. They wanted a fast track to a socialist future. They were inspired by Mao and his allies, who were in turn inspired by them.

Today in China, Martínez observes, the Cultural Revolution is understood as misguided.  But Mao remains a revered figure.  His errors are understood as errors of excessive revolutionary fervor, and they do not negate his achievements.

Reform and Opening

Beginning in 1978, two years after Mao’s death, the post-Mao leadership embarked on a process of “reform and opening,” which expanded space for private property and permitted foreign investment.  “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is characterized by a “socialist market economy,” an economy that is directed by the state but utilizes the profit motive to contribute the development of the productive forces.

The need to develop the productive forces in the construction of socialism is a Marxist concept.  As expressed by Deng Xiaoping,

Marxism attaches utmost importance to developing the productive forces… [The advance towards communism] calls for highly developed productive forces and an overwhelming abundance of material wealth. Therefore, the fundamental task for the socialist stage is to develop the productive forces. The superiority of the socialist system is demonstrated, in the final analysis, by faster and greater development of those forces than under the capitalist system. As they develop, the people’s material and cultural life will constantly improve… Socialism means eliminating poverty. Pauperism is not socialism, still less communism.

This view, that the construction of socialism involves the development of the productive forces in order to satisfy the needs of the people, is the prevailing thought in China today.  Martínez writes that “the consensus view within the CPC is that socialism with Chinese characteristics is a strategy aimed at strengthening socialism, improving the lives of the Chinese people, and consolidating China’s sovereignty.”

The 1978 turn to reform and opening was made necessary by objective economic and social conditions in China.  On the one hand, the achievements from 1949 to 1978 were enormous.  China had been unified and liberated from foreign rule.  Land had been distributed to peasants; and rural class relations had been transformed, which was accompanied by extensive irrigation of land.  Women had been liberated from archaic, feudal cultural constraints.  The literacy rate, which had been twenty percent prior to the revolution, had risen to ninety-three percent.  And universal health care had been established; life expectancy increased by thirty-one years during the period.  The poor in China had secure access to land and housing, so they were much better off than their counterparts in the developing world.

But on the other hand, China in 1978 was still a backward country in many ways.  Approximately thirty percent of the rural population lived below the poverty line, dependent on small loans for production and state grants for food.  Many did not have access to modern energy and potable water.  The per capita income gap between China and the developed world was not narrowing.  Although the ascent of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan could be explained by geopolitical factors, and the relative wealth of Hong Kong and Macao can be explained by global economic dynamics, the contrasting socioeconomic situation of China with respect to its East Asian neighbors was undermining the legitimacy of the revolution in the eyes of the Chinese people.

In this situation, the leadership of the Party decided for policies designed to increase the productive forces and elevate the standard of living, drawing upon the theoretical formulations of Marx and Mao in their policy reformulation.  Their “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was unorthodox in relation to Western Marxism; it was forged on the basis of reflection on the experience of Chinese socialism and the objective conditions of China.  As expressed by Deng:

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… 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?

Martínez maintains that Deng is echoing Mao, who in 1949 warned that the revolution would lose the support of the people if it cannot improve the standard of living of the people.  “If we are ignorant in production, cannot grasp production work quickly … so as to improve the livelihood of workers first and then that of other ordinary people, we shall certainly not be able to maintain our political power: we shall lose our position and we shall fail.”

International developments also favored the 1978 turn to reform and opening.  The international environment was less hostile to China, as indicated by the restoration of China’s seat in the United Nations and by the rapprochement between China and the USA.  There now existed greater real possibilities for the sale of Chinese goods in the world market and for the entrance into China of foreign capital, technology, and expertise.  Moreover, as Zhou Enlai observed, “new developments in science are bringing humanity to a new technological and industrial revolution… we must conquer these new heights in science to reach advanced world standards.”  In 1975, Zhou called for the nation to take advantage of the more favorable international environment to “accomplish the comprehensive modernization of agriculture, industry, national defense and science and technology before the end of the century, so that our national economy will be advancing in the front ranks of the world.”

The new policies were intelligently designed.  As Martínez notes, the opening toward foreign investment and international commerce enabled China to accumulate capital and technology, thereby facilitating the development of the productive forces.  The post-1978 policies were effective in increasing China’s productive capacity. 

In a capitalist system, an increased productive capacity does not necessarily lead to an elevation of the standard of living of the majority.  But when the working class and the peasantry control the state, it can give priority to satisfying the needs of the people.  And this is precisely the situation in China.  Martínez writes that “there are some extremely wealthy individuals and companies controlling vast sums of capital.  And yet their political status is essentially the same as it was in the early days of the PRC; their existence as a class is predicated on their acceptance of the overall socialist programme and trajectory of the country.”

As a result, the per capita income in China has doubled since 1980.  And the combination of state direction and increasing productivity has led to a massive program in the construction of roads, railways, ports, airports, dams, housing, and systems of energy, telecommunications, water, and sewage.  With the New Reform since 2012, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has eliminated absolute poverty.  The New Reform seeks to eliminate negative consequences of the spectacular economic growth of 1978 to 2012, addressing such problems as poverty, inequality, corruption, and environmental degradation.

The principles of the Chinese Communist Party, therefore, have not changed since its founding in 1923.  As succinctly expressed by Xi Jinping, “Both history and reality have shown us that only socialism can save China and only socialism with Chinese characteristics can bring development to China.”


Western intellectuals, both pro-capitalist and “socialist,” have not experienced a revolutionary transformation, in which exceptional leaders with keen understanding of historical and political-economic dynamics, and with unbounded commitment to the sovereignty of the nation and the people, guide the people on the correct road, explaining to the people as the process moves forward.  Western intellectuals, therefore, do not believe that a better world is possible, and they do not know that an alternative, more just world is under construction in the Third World plus China.  They frame their observations with the cynical assumption that the discourse of leaders is a politically motivated deception; they cannot see an explanation rooted in critical reflection on revolutionary practice, thus advancing human understanding.

We intellectuals of the North who are committed to social justice for humanity must, in the first place, listen to Third World revolutionary voices, arriving to discern their insights and to appreciate that they are constructing a more just and sustainable world.  Secondly, we must learn to communicate this important news to our peoples, so that they too can believe that the taking of political power by the people and the subsequent redirection of state policies is possible.  And high on the agenda of the revolutionary popular movement in the North is the abolition of imperialist policies toward other nations.

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