A week ago, I reported on a plea for solidarity from Chinese students here in America protesting the arrest of students in China supporting unionizing workers. Included in the plea was a request that I boycott future Chinse-sponsored conferences on the thought of Marx. Of course I agreed, though I remarked that I was not likely to be invited. This prompted Jerry Fresia to wonder “What do you suppose World Congresses on Marxism organized by the Chinese government would look like? What elements of Marx, if any, would be brought forward, which obscured, which misunderstood?”
Three days earlier, I had linked to an article in the NY TIMES about China’s success in raising five hundred million people out of poverty. I failed at the time to notice that this was just the first of a very lengthy five-part series on China’s economic development. Yesterday, noodling around the Internet, I came on the series and read it from start to finish. If you start link and follow subsequent links, you can read it all. [Note, by the way, the innocent fun the authors have mocking Milton Friedman’s confident predictions, all of which have proven false. That by itself makes the series worth reading.]
Which got me thinking, not what the Chinese would say about Marx, but what Marx would have to say about the Chinese. Inasmuch as I know next to nothing about China beyond what I have just read in the TIMES series, but do know a fair amount about Marx, I thought I would try to answer the second question. So, here goes. This is of course not idle speculation about what Marx the man would have to say about modern China [he would have had a great deal to say, of course, and it would have filled at least one thick volume, for starters], but rather informed speculation about what Marx’s theories can tell us about China.
The simple answer is that Marx’s theories tell us virtually nothing about what is happening in China.
Let me explain. In his major writings, Marx undertook to study the social relations of capitalist production, as he called them, and to identify the “laws of motion” of capitalism. He did this by a deep study of the development of capitalism, principally, though not exclusively, in England. His greatest insight, which distinguished him from all of his predecessors and contemporaries, was that capitalism developed slowly, incrementally, “in the womb” of feudalism, until the new system of relations of production came into conflict with the existing system, producing a series of violent upheavals and confrontations [the French Revolution, the English Revolution, and so forth] that led ineluctably to the death of the old order and the birth of the new. Marx saw that the philosophical and ideological conflicts accompanying this great historical transformation were no more than relatively superficial manifestations of the deep, broad economic changes taking place in Europe.
Marx wrote almost nothing about socialism, despite his conviction that it would be the next stage in the evolution of the social relations of production. His reason, I believe, was that he had no use for the speculative pronouncements of those whom he and Engels called Utopian Socialists, which, he thought correctly, were not grounded in any analysis of the forces within capitalism generating new and contradictory relations of production that would lead to the next great transformation. My essay, “The Future of Socialism,” to which I have many times referred, is my very preliminary and inadequate effort to begin that analysis.
Marx, of course, thought he could see in the existing form of capitalism some indications of how it would develop, and in certain fundamental ways he was quite correct. But – and this is the central idea of this post – he believed that one could only find the anticipations of the future by analyzing the internal conflicts and tendencies of the advanced sectors of capitalism. He failed to anticipate that one of the most undeveloped pre-capitalist sectors of the world economy would be transformed by fiat, ostensibly in accordance with his writings, although of course not at all actually in that fashion.
Marx’s entire life work rested on his belief that each stage of economic development – Feudalism, Capitalism – grew within the previous stage until it burst its bounds and became the dominant form of its age. This was the heart and soul of his theoretical work, and he was right when it came to European feudalism and to capitalism.
It is not quite seventy years since the Chinese Revolution – a blink of the eye in the history of the development of capitalism, which spanned four centuries in Europe – and yet in that time, by fiat, not by slow growth within the old order, China has become an advanced industrial economy whose size and productivity is second only to that of the United States or the European Union taken as a whole.
As the NY TIMES makes clear, there are complex forces at work in the Chinese economy crying out for the sort of analysis Marx first undertook and which he carried out with respect to the emergence of European capitalism. But while Marx’s great work shows us how such an investigation might be undertaken, it will have to be left to some modern Marx, probably Chinese, to actually do the work.