There are five socialist countries in the world today — all of which are governed by an explicitly Marxist-Leninist orientation. These countries include Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and China.
Yet China is not universally recognized as authentically “socialist” by Western Marxists. In fact, many Western Marxists reject China outright as an “authoritarian” form of bureaucratic “state capitalism.” Left-wing anti-communists routinely invert the name of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) as the “Chinese Communist Party” (using the initials “CCP” — a not too subtle nod to the acronym “CCCP” which denoted the former Soviet Union.) Thus, even the language Western Marxists use to describe China is rooted in “red scare” Cold War propaganda.
Left-Wing Anti-Communism: An Infantile Disorder
It is difficult to pinpoint what precisely these anti-communist “leftists” take issue with regarding China. Their critiques are often vague, underdeveloped, and decidedly non-dialectical in nature. “Left” anti-communists’ objections to China — like those of the Soviet Union — typically amount to little more than “one-party state bad.” (Or, in the case of the latter, “Stalin bad.”)
Mostly, Western Marxists parrot the same anti-China talking points one routinely encounters in the U.S. capitalist media: 1) China’s alleged “lack of democracy,” and “human rights”; 2) The “authoritarian” nature of the CPC government; 3) the presence of markets within the contemporary Chinese economy; and 4) the baseless, state department-promoted claims of a mass genocide against the Uyghur Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang province.
For Western Marxists, China’s form of burgeoning socialism with “Chinese characteristics” is simply not “pure” enough for their utopian, highly narrow conception of “socialism.” In the words of Michael Parenti, these left-wing anti-communists “support every revolution except the ones that succeed.”
This contempt for any and every form of “actually existing socialism” stems from what scholar and PhD student, Carlos Garrido terms the “purity fetish.”
As Garrido writes of the purity fetish in his recently released book, The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism:
Western Marxists celebrate the emergence of a revolutionary movement; but, when this revolutionary movement is triumphant in taking power, and hence faced with making the difficult decisions the concrete reality of imperialism, a national bourgeoisie, economic backwardness, etc. force upon it, the Western Marxists flee with shouts of betrayal! For the Western Marxists, all practical deviation from their purity is seen as a betrayal of the revolution, and thus, the cries of “state capitalism” and “authoritarianism” emerge.
Necessary Medicine: Deng’s “Reform and Opening Up” and the NEP
Many Western Marxists point to Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 policy of “Reform and Opening Up” as evidence of China being insufficiently “socialist.” During this time, China allowed some degree of private ownership and capitalist enterprises to operate within the country. Deng also opened the country up to foreign investment for the first time since the Kuomintang era.
The CPC undertook this measure, not to undermine socialism or to take the “capitalist road,” as left critics claim, but to build up China’s productive and industrial capabilities. In order for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to be effective, it is not enough for workers to merely seize the means of production. They must then wield those productive forces for the public good.
In 1978, China was still a very poor country. According to Yi Wen, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, “China’s per capita income,” at the time “was only one-third of that of sub-Saharan Africa.”
As Deng stated in a speech in 1979, “China is still one of the world’s poor countries. Our scientific and technological forces are far from adequate. Generally speaking, we are 20 to 30 years behind the advanced countries in the development of science and technology.”
Today, China is one of the largest, fastest-growing economies in the world. In a span of less than 50 years, China has all but eliminated extreme poverty, lifting 800 million people out of poverty. China is, likewise, leading the world in efforts to fight climate change. China has made major advances in wind, solar, and light-rail transportation.
And, say what you will about the pandemic-induced lockdowns, but a global poll of more than 120,000 people from 53 countries found over 60 percent of respondents view China’s response to COVID-19 positively. Only a third of global respondents believe the United States handled the pandemic effectively.
As Garrido writes of Deng’s necessary intervention:
Reform and Opening Up developed as a necessary phase in the Chinese revolutionary process, wherein an overly centralized economy, combined with imperialist-forced isolation from the world, stifled development and necessitated reforms which would allow China to develop its productive forces, absorb the developments taking place in science and technology from the West, and ultimately, protect its revolution. Far from being a “betrayal of socialism,” as the Western Marxist holds, Reform and Opening up saved socialism. Not just in China, but — as China’s current geopolitical role makes clear — in the world. [Emphasis in original.]
Thus, Deng’s policy of “Reform and Opening Up” was similar to Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), instituted in 1921, which allowed a limited degree of state-controlled free-markets and capitalist economics to operate alongside the USSR’s state-run public enterprises. Lenin viewed the NEP as an undesirable but necessary “step backwards” in order to rapidly rebuild the Soviet economy which had been devastated by the five-year-long Russian Civil War. The NEP was not a “betrayal” of Soviet socialism as Trotskyists contend. It was a regrettable but necessary intervention in order to safeguard the revolution.
Anti-China “Socialists” and the NATO Left
The Western Marxists who most vociferously denounce China tend to be oriented around the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); Jacobin magazine (which serves as the unofficial newspaper of the DSA); the “democratic socialists” aligned with the “Bernie Sanders Left”; and Chicago-based publisher, Haymarket Books. All of these institutions — with some level of exception and/or criticism — are fully on-board with the U.S. proxy war in Ukraine. As a result, some have taken to deriding these “socialists” as the “NATO left.”
All of the above mentioned left organizations are Trotskyist in orientation. They also have deep ties to the U.S. state department. As the Grayzone reported on July 6, 2019, the 2019 installment of the annual “Socialism” conference in Chicago (an event sponsored and facilitated by all of the aforementioned groups — DSA, Haymarket, and Jacobin) featured a host of “regime-change activist” speakers and panelists from “multiple government-funded NGOs.”
As reporters Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal write:
One anti-China panel at the conference features speakers from two different organizations that are both bankrolled by the US government’s soft-power arm the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a group founded out of Ronald Reagan’s CIA in the 1980s to grease the wheels of right-wing regime-change efforts and promote “free markets” across the planet.
One of the speakers featured at the panel titled, “China and the U.S.: Inter-Imperial Rivalry or Class Struggle and Solidarity?”, was Ashley Smith. Smith is a DSA member who was previously aligned with the now-defunct International Socialist Organization (ISO). He is also an editor and co-founder of the social-democratic Spectre Journal where he advocates for continued U.S. military-funding for Ukraine.
China in the Crosshairs
The left’s failure to view China as authentically socialist and, likewise, as an integral part of the emerging 21st century opposition to U.S. imperialist hegemony, is a tragic mistake with profound consequences for the global socialist movement.
For the last decade, the U.S. has been steadily encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. Democrats in Congress have recently questioned the “sovereignty” of Taiwan (which for decades has been understood to be a part of China) as a possible pretext for a “humanitarian intervention” in China. The U.S. ruling-class views China as an economic — and possibly imperialist — rival on the global stage. It desperately fears losing its status as the unrivaled hegemon of the “Unipolar World.”
That is why the left’s position in this New Cold War is of vital importance. Western Marxists must abandon their purity-fetish ultra-leftism and stand in solidarity with China.