We are very pleased to republish this important article by Dr. Joe Pateman, which originally appeared in the World Review of Political Economy (Volume 13 Issue 4).
In his article, Joe presents a detailed analysis of Mao Zedong’s ‘A Critique of Soviet Economics’, which was published in unofficial translation by Monthly Review Press in 1977.
The author argues that, since its inception, Marxism has showcased the scientific superiority of political economy over economics. Mao Zedong, he notes, played an important role in demonstrating this superiority. In ‘A Critique of Soviet Economics’, the Chinese revolutionary leader criticised Soviet political economy for its economic focus, which underestimated the importance of politics and ideology. Mao’s critique addressed both Soviet leader JV Stalin’s 1951 work, ‘Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’ as well as a more substantial early post-Stalin Soviet textbook on political economy, reserving considerably more stringent criticism for the latter.
It was essential, Mao argued, to explore how the political and ideological superstructure affects the economic base. Only then can political economy scientifically understand the processes of socio-economic development, most notably the socialist revolution and period of socialist construction. Joe’s article further contends that Mao’s arguments retain key insights for the study and development of Marxist political economy today. They remain especially important in the People’s Republic of China. By upholding and enriching Mao’s insights into the critical role of politics and ideology under socialism, the Communist Party of China has ensured the successful development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Developing his arguments, the author begins by outlining the historical context, contents, and ideological perspective of Mao’s argument. He then examines the work itself, focusing on Mao’s theses concerning the relationship between the economic base and the political–ideological superstructure in the study of political economy, specifically as they relate to the processes of social change, socialist revolution, and socialist construction. Finally, the article argues that Mao’s analysis provides contemporary insights into the theory and study of political economy, the socialist revolution, and the successful construction of socialism in modern China.
Giving a historical context, Joe notes that the approach adopted by Mao can be traced at least as far back as the Yan’an period (late 1935 to early 1947), citing, in particular, the Chinese leader’s articles, ‘On Practice’ and ‘On Contradiction’, along with his lecture notes on dialectical materialism, all of which were written in 1937. He further tackles such issues as the role of politics and ideology in the socialist revolution, that socialist revolutions are more likely to occur in economically backward countries, the role of politics and ideology under socialism, the law of value under socialism, the relationship between industry and ideology, between economic and political rights, between economic and ideological incentives, and the role of politics and ideology in the Great Leap Forward.
Regarding the thesis that socialist revolutions are more likely to occur in economically backward countries, Joe notes that Mao referenced a quotation from Lenin claiming that the socialist revolution would be more difficult for the more backward countries. Although, according to Mao, this view was correct when Lenin expounded it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it had become obsolete by the mid-twentieth century. In fact, the opposite proposition was now true.
“In connection with this, Mao supported Lenin’s [later] view that the socialist revolution will occur in the countries constituting the weakest links of the imperialist chain, not the strongest ones. In making this point, he emphasised that revolutions sometimes begin in the political and ideological superstructure before extending to the economic base. For the most part, this principle remains true. Most socialist revolutions have occurred in countries with relatively low levels of economic development and/or weak superstructures. Today, the developed Western capitalist countries are the countries least likely to undergo socialist transitions, precisely because they have developed pervasive capitalist ideologies and resilient political systems. The socialist movements are at their weakest in these countries, since many of the workers support capitalist ideology, and because the political systems are durable. By contrast, the socialist movement has been stronger and more successful in Latin America, where the living standards are lower due to slower economic growth, and where the political systems are fragile and corrupt. In these countries, the masses have been more supportive of socialist ideologies.
“Accordingly, when examining the prospects of socialist revolutions in the near future, political economists should focus their attention upon the countries with slow economic growth and weak superstructures, and not the countries of the developed capitalist world. In the short term, the future spread of socialism will occur first in the developing Global South, rather than the developed Global North. Mao Zedong was a leading proponent of this idea.”
Turning to the contemporary relevance of Mao’s work, Joe notes that his critique encouraged the Chinese party to depart from the Soviet approach more completely, and thereby develop an independent Marxist approach to political economy. Upon the basis of Mao’s insights, and under his leadership, the CPC was able to chart its own course of economic development, one that more accurately reflected the application of Marxism-Leninism to China’s unique circumstances.
After Khrushchev took office, Joe continues, the CPSU began to weaken its leading role in society, and it neglected the tasks of party building. This also resulted in the party’s distancing and alienation from the masses. When the CPSU lost its leading role, the Soviet Union collapsed instantaneously. However:
“The remaining socialist states—China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea—have survived the Soviet collapse and have flourished precisely because they have not underestimated the role of politics and ideology in the process of socialist and communist construction. Whilst recognising the importance of economic factors, including the productive forces and relations of production, these countries have also sought to develop strong and stable political systems, whilst imbuing the people with socialist ideology. These two factors—politics and ideology—have been key to the successful functioning and development of the modern socialist states. They have developed their economic systems not in isolation from the political and ideological superstructure, but instead under the close guidance of this superstructure. Once again, this is something that economic analyses have failed to recognise.”
Specifically regarding China, the CPC has consistently maintained Mao’s principles of “politics in command” and the “mass line” as core characteristics of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Since Mao’s death, the CPC has taken seriously the tasks of party building, as well as the principle of enhancing the party’s leading role in every sphere of society. The CPC’s emphasis on developing its leadership capacity is rooted in Mao’s legacy. During every moment of economic development, and at every stage of the gradual reform and opening of China’s economic system, the CPC has led the process, and has retained total oversight over the structural economic development of Chinese socialism. At no point has the CPC decided that economic forces should dominate the political ones in the stabilisation and growth of its socio-economic system.
Hence the author contends that, if Soviet society had managed to preserve a powerful willpower factor associated with the political superstructure, as happened in China, then the economic difficulties of the 1980s would not in themselves have posed a mortal threat to the Soviet system. The Chinese experience of economic reforms shows that in the presence of political will, a socialist society, in principle, is capable of successfully solving any economic problems. He adds:
“Mao’s ‘A Critique of Soviet Economics’ also illuminates the essence of socialism and communism. In contrast to the Soviets, who viewed economic factors as the primary indicators of socialism, Mao argued that the political factors are just as essential. This insight remains relevant today. Since Deng Xiaoping began China’s economic reforms, Western analysts have accused China of abandoning socialism for capitalism. They claim that China is a capitalist country, rather than a socialist one, because it contains private enterprise and markets. This widespread perspective is founded upon the erroneous tendency to define socialism in purely economic terms. As Mao established, however, socialism is not a purely economic phenomenon.
Socialism is also fundamentally a political phenomenon. It entails the political supremacy of the working class, in addition to its economic supremacy. Once the political aspect is considered, it becomes evident that China is in fact a socialist country, since supreme political power is in the hands of one class, the working class, with the Communist Party of China as its leading representative. In China, the working class wields supreme political power, and it uses this political power to regulate and direct the economic sphere of society. As such, there is no basis for the view that China has abandoned socialism for capitalism. This claim is false in both the economic and political senses.”
However, Joe argues that, as well as offering contemporary insights, Mao’s arguments concerning the role of politics and ideology under socialism also contain limitations. “Like Soviet political economy, Mao’s one-sided analysis underestimated the importance of socialist commodity–production relations…Mao’s approach and Soviet policy shared the same fundamental error—they both underestimated the importance of commodity–production relations. In the Soviet case, this error had grave consequences. It contributed to economic stagnation and the collapse of socialism. In the case of China, Mao’s error was not fatal to socialism, though it was a factor in the Great Leap Forward’s failure to advance China’s economy as successfully as possible…Thankfully, however, Deng Xiaoping corrected Mao’s errors when he took office. Whilst upholding Mao’s achievements, Deng showed a greater appreciation for the importance of objective factors in the development of socialist society associated with the dialectics of productive forces and production relations. And now, in a new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, China clearly demonstrates the creative synthesis of Mao Zedong’s ideas aimed at strengthening political power, and Deng Xiaoping’s ideas related to the conscious use of commodity–production relations for the development of the productive forces of a socialist society.”
In conclusion, Joe writes that: “Mao defended his ‘A Critique of Soviet Economics’ not with abstract principles, but by advancing a concrete analysis of modern society, and by pointing to the actual historical experience of socialism, especially the development of socialism in China. His defence of political economy has been vindicated by the success of the Communist Party of China, which has managed to produce the most rapid economic growth in human history. The CPC achieved this growth by retaining the principle of politics in command, by relying on the masses, and by utilising the power of socialist ideology to solve the tasks of communist construction. These principles of political economy draw directly upon Mao’s intellectual labours; and will guarantee the future prosperity and success of China.”
Joe Pateman is currently a Teaching Associate at Sheffield University in the UK. His key research interests include Marxism-Leninism, the politics of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the black liberation struggle, as well as their interrelationship. He is the co-author of two books and the author of numerous articles published in academic and scholarly journals.
World Review of Political Economy (WRPE) is a quarterly, peer-reviewed journal, published by Pluto Journals as the official publication of the World Association for Political Economy (WAPE). The WAPE Secretariat is based at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics and the WRPE Editorial Office is located at the Academy of Marxism, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing.