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Monday, November 26, 2018


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.


howard b said...

yes, other thinkers anticipated such developments by China, especially the Chinese officials who plotted and instigated the economic rise of China, all of whom were members of the Chinese communist party and who supposedly knew their Marx

David Palmeter said...

If socialism is to evolve incrementally out of the womb of capitalism, as capitalism evolved incrementally out of the womb of feudalism, what is the point of working toward socialism? Why not just let it happen? Would support of health care for all, for example, or free higher education, be considered working toward socialism, or are these things that inevitably will evolve--whether we get all excited about elections etc. or not?

RobinMcDugald said...

I’m somewhat perplexed by these remarks on China and Marxism.

On the one hand, we’re told that “Marx’s theories tell us virtually nothing about what is happening in China.”

On the one hand, there’s “His greatest insight” that, while basing his insights largely on what had unfolded in England, by focussing his critical attention on “the evolution of the social relations of production” he could provide an explanation of societal evolution, an explanation that was “in certain fundamental ways . . . quite correct.” It would seem, further, that, while it awaits “some modern Marx” to carry out the task, “Marx’s great work shows us how [the] investigation of [China] might be undertaken.”

This seems to me to be another occasion where it is being proposed that what is really important is Marx’s method, that one will fall into deep error should one simply imagine that each case of capitalist development will be a replay of the English case. Which brings me to my moment of perplexity.

For if it is so, that that method must be applied to China in order to adequately understand it—not just where it is going but how it got to be as it presently seemingly is—how does that fit the claim, made at least twice, that China’s present state was brought about by “fiat”? Doesn’t that claim amount to a claim that the new China emerged in a radically different way from modern Europe and that a Marxian method focussing on the evolution of its social relations of production is irrelevant to understanding it? Or am I misunderstanding what “fiat” means?

Related to the problem of understanding the development of contemporary China, the speed with which it has developed is also mentioned: “a blink of the eye in the history of the development of capitalism, which spanned four centuries in Europe.” I’d like to make to points with respect to this perception.

First, I believe it is by now a commonplace, that the rate at which capitalism has developed in different places has been continually accelerating, that, although it certainly didn’t appear that way to those who directly experienced it, it was, in retrospect, relatively slow in growing in England, that it grew rather more rapidly in, e.g., in Germany and the United States. So it may lead one into error to view China as developing so rapidly as to bear little or no relation to what happened elsewhere.

A second point I’d like to raise in relation to the speed with which China has grown and is growing is, is it right to look upon capitalist development as a series of quite autonomous national developments? Should it not, perhaps, be considered as a global phenomenon? If the latter, then the rate at which global capitalism’s Chinese parts are now growing may simply reflect that the exponential phase of global capitalism’s growth has moved to an ever higher level of exponentiality, which strikes our astounded perception has having almost achieved verticality? (This would, by the way, suggest that Marx’s method, his focus on the evolution of social relations of production, should be applied to its global object, not just to a national one.)

Very tangential to the foregoing: A few years ago I heard a Chinese sociologist offer her insights into what was happening in China. I retain (I think) a couple of her points. First, that although it was quite hidden from the rest of the world Chinese economic development was exciting enormous resistance in many places, especially where the old heavy industries in Manchuria and the like were being shut down—something she identified, as I recollect, as “class struggle.” Second, while Marxism was irrelevant to Chinese economic policies, Marxism as an ideology was placing some constraints on what the Chinese government could get away with. Whether she’d say the same now, I do not know.

LFC said...

Marx seems to have expected the "the natural laws of capitalist production," as he called them in the preface to the first (German) edition of Capital, to work themselves out pretty much the same way everywhere; hence, again quoting from that preface: "The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future."

That sentence might indicate that Marx did anticipate industrialization in the poorer countries. But the context of the paragraph in which it appears, along w/ other writings, suggests that Marx thought capitalism and its internal contradictions would develop in much the same way in the less "advanced" countries as in the more advanced ones.

But while the state played some role in capitalist development in Britain and more in Germany, in 19th-cent. Europe it was basically a process driven by the capitalists themselves -- at least, I think that's how Marx saw it. Whereas in, say, South Korea and Taiwan, and now in China (the PRC), the process has been and is very state-directed, and I think that's what the post means by the phrase "by fiat." There is a large political-economy literature on capitalist development in the so-called Asian tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan) and other so-called newly industrialized or industrializing countries, and maybe some of that lit. has a Marxist orientation. But the role of, among other things, "fiat" or state direction here means that, however useful some of Marx's perspective might be, the details of the analysis must be somewhat different. (Or so I wd think.)

LFC said...

p.s. I shd have said that there is definitely a Marxist literature on "development" in what used to be called the Third World, but on the whole 'dependency theory', as some of this was labeled, prob. does a better job of explaining why some poor countries are still poor than it does in explaining the ec. growth of China. (However, world-system theory might do better.)

As to whether capitalist development shd be considered a global not national phenomenon (per R. McDugald above), I wd suggest it's a global phenomenon but w national variations. But there are definitely global-level trends, and the global mobility of capital (both financial flows and more tangible aspects), which has always existed but has prob been at a peak in the last several decades (since the early '70s, esp.) is obviously relevant. And the way international institutions (WTO, IMF, etc.) have facilitated this intentionally rather than unwittingly, per for ex. Quinn Slobodian's book Globalists, is also pertinent.

Anyway, thks for linking to the NYT series, which I haven't read yet but plan to.

Anonymous said...

What about this letter of Marx?