"Long live state-capitalism!"

The Spartacist League on China

by Pete Brown
(from Communist Voice #26, May 1, 2000)

. In the last issue of Communist Voice we pointed out the importance of drawing lines of demarcation between socialism and the state-capitalist regimes:

. ". . . today one of the main issues in the left is the assessment of the state-capitalist regimes. The Trotskyists, social-democrats, old-time pro-Soviet revisionists, and others have their eyes closed to the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the various East European regimes. Nor do they grasp the lessons of the increasing transition of the remaining state-capitalist regimes towards market socialism -- instead they simply laud any resistance by the old 'dinosaurs' of state-capitalism to this or that market reform as a sign of 'socialist' resistance. Whatever criticisms they have of the political regime in the old state-capitalist regimes, they still long after the days when these regimes existed. Instead of using the collapse of these regimes to step up the criticism of revisionism, there is a wave of nostalgia for these regimes as never before. Along with this is support for state-capitalism in a variety of forms.
. "Yet Marxism-Leninism will never again be a banner of a vigorous world proletarian movement unless it not only draws lines of demarcation with these regimes, but in fact takes the lead in clarifying the nature of these regimes. There can be no real idea of what socialism is without separating it from what existed in these regimes."(1)

. In addition to the Soviet Union and East European countries, another example of the old Stalinist state-capitalist type of regime is China. China continues to maintain the political structure of such a regime, though it is rapidly moving towards a full-scale market capitalist system. Yet as we said in our last issue, there are those in the left who have still not grasped the significance of this movement, who long after the glory days of Stalinism and laud any resistance against market capitalism as "socialist." A perfect example is the Trotskyist organization, the Spartacist League. In their newspaper, Workers Vanguard, the Spartacists continue to harp on China's "socialist economic base" and to enthuse over presumed factional splits within the Chinese regime. And they make defense of the Chinese regime their hallmark of political maturity, differentiating themselves from their sectarian enemies on the basis that they are more diehard defenders of China than anyone.(2)

. The Sparts recently elaborated their line on China in a major two-part article in WV.(3) The gist of this line can be gleaned from the article's subtitles: "Defend China against imperialism, counterrevolution!" and "For workers political revolution!" WV's main purpose throughout this article is to "defend China" -- that is, to defend the present state-capitalist regime against all enemies or even mild threats, foreign and domestic ("imperialism, counterrevolution"). This is a difficult task for an organization claiming to be Marxist, so WV tries a variety of rhetorical tricks to make their position sound reasonable. They simply dismiss many criticisms of the regime as "CIA" or imperialist-inspired. Their favorite tactic is ad hominem: if the Western press carried a story about some atrocity in China, then that immediately disqualifies that story as "imperialist", and anyone who believes it has bad motives. Another trick is to write historical background showing that things weren't so great under Mao, either -- as if that should reconcile us to the present regime. Still another trick is to argue that "things are complex" in China, there is a variety of political forces thriving under the leadership of the Communist Party, so we should not simply condemn the regime. This is similar to the way imperialist chauvinists argue when they tell us capitalist exploitation in the U.S. isn't really so bad, since after all we have the "right" to speak out against it. If we complain about oppression, that merely shows that oppression isn't so bad after all!

. The second subtitle's call for revolution may sound enticing, but WV's qualifier -- "political" revolution -- must be borne in mind. In Trotskyist lingo this means "as opposed to social revolution." The Sparts think the basic social and economic structures of the regime are great; all that's needed is a change of leaders. This "political" revolution isn't a real revolution, a movement that smashes the Chinese state and reorganizes the economy. The Sparts' main concern is not to help build a revolutionary movement in China, but on the contrary to defend the state-capitalist regime, regardless of how many growls they mutter against the "Stalinists".

Refusing to face reality

. So how can Marxists in the 21st century defend a regime based on class divisions and exploitation? The Sparts themselves present plenty of evidence that China is divided into classes. They speak of the "parasitic bureaucrats" who run the government and of the widespread workers' and peasants' revolts against the bureaucrats. They call the sons of government leaders "princelings" and point out the roles they play in private capitalist firms.(4) But the evidence of class divisions and class struggle is not enough to overcome their Trotskyist dogmas. China nationalized its private capitalist enterprises in the 1950s-60s. For the Sparts this is enough to make China a "workers state" (albeit "deformed") even today, and hence make its regime worthy of defense. Immediately after exposing the "princelings" WV goes right ahead and declares that things are "far more complex and contradictory" than one might think, and to illustrate this they give examples of the Chinese regime allowing articles to appear in major journals criticizing capitalism. And they note that the government sometimes goes so far as to prosecute, and even execute, some notorious bureaucrats who went too far in ripping off the masses.(5) These things lead WV to conclude that there are "sharpening factional differences" within the Chinese Communist Party. And this is what WV is excited about -- the possibility of finding some faction within the CCP they can speculate on.

. But in the course of this speculation WV mixes up all kinds of phenomena. The ruling party of China is very large, with millions of members. No doubt within that party there are people who are genuinely concerned about the plight of the Chinese masses and angry at the corruption surrounding them. But that doesn't mean there is any significant trend among the leadership to revive a revolutionary movement or even to oppose the present course of the top leaders. A recent major nationwide meeting of the CPC, for example, agreed unanimously that there would never be a reconsideration of the Tien An Men massacre, that the party leadership acted completely right in that case. And the party leadership is pretty generally united around the present course of privatization, too. In any case, opposition to privatization from the dinosaur CPC bureaucrats would only mean sticking to the old state-capitalist methods. But the workers in China need to break from the old system which has led to the present impasse, with tens of millions unemployed and the workers without a political voice of their own.

. WV characterizes the Maoist and post-Mao regime as "Stalinism with Chinese characteristics." But despite their complaints about Stalinism they moan about the fall of the Soviet regime and insist that, unlike the Maoists, they are not hypocritical in their mourning over the Soviet Union.(6) They consistently supported the Soviet Union, they say. And they're right. At a time when many leftists were denouncing the Soviet Union for invading the neighboring country of Afghanistan, the Sparts took the contrary path with their slogan, "Hail the Red Army in Afghanistan!" This shows how bizarre their "defencist" slogan really is. For them it wasn't just a question of defending the Soviet Union against its U.S. imperialist rival, but of defending the Soviet Union's own colonial aggressions. The Sparts justified their position with the excuse that Afghan society was quite backward, dominated by reactionaries, and that "on the other side" from the Soviets were the CIA and imperialism. It never occurred to them to support the Afghan people's right to self-determination against both the Soviet invasion and CIA intervention. And it never struck them that it was the Soviet invasion that helped create the conditions that allowed religious fundamentalism to take control.

. The Sparts maintain the same "defencist" attitude toward the "Stalinists with Chinese characteristics" today. WV insists that they stand for "unconditional military defense of the Chinese deformed workers state", and this defense of the Chinese regime "does not depend on the prior overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy nor on the circumstances and immediate causes of a military conflict."(7) In other words, they will defend China's rulers no matter what. So if the Chinese government incites a military confrontation with Indonesia or the Philippines over the Spratly Islands; or if China tries to solve the Taiwan question by force; or if China's rulers tire of Hong Kong's semi-autonomy and initiate forceful moves to quash any local autonomy -- no matter what the scenario, WV has already written the Chinese government a blank check. The Sparts will defend the regime regardless of circumstances. Considering that China is a rapidly rising regional superpower and ambitious to be recognized as a world power, this is a dangerously lenient position to take.

. The Sparts try to justify their diehard defense of the Chinese regime by portraying China as a beleaguered workers' state beset by hostile imperialism. It's true that China has some contradictions with U.S. imperialism (as well as other imperialist powers). But WV exaggerates these contradictions to make it sound as if the whole purpose of American foreign policy were to fight against the Chinese regime. But in fact the U.S. has been supporting China's bid to get into the WTO, American corporations have billions invested in China, the U.S. is a major export market for China, and the U.S. and Chinese military have many levels of communication and cooperation. It's true that U.S. imperialism also has some contradictions with the Chinese regime, as exemplified by the April 2001 spy plane incident. There are differences over Taiwan, and the Pentagon considers China a possible future enemy. But WV one-sidedly stresses these contradictions while overlooking the collusion practiced by the capitalist rulers of both countries. The Sparts' slogan, "defend China", superficially seems to have an anti-imperialist ring to it because in the past century and before China was a victim of vicious imperialist aggression. But today China is a rising capitalist power in its own right.

. WV is also way off base when it tries to portray the Chinese regime as a workers' state with a socialist economic base. During the 1950's China set up Soviet-style economic ministries to carry out certain planning and coordination of production. But, as in the Soviet Union of the 1950's, this was not socialist planning, and it did not eliminate the anarchy of production. Thus WV is way off when it uses the phrase "planned collectivist economy" to indicate that China maintains a socialist economic base. China's economy was never really "planned, collectivist" in a socialist sense even during the heyday of the ministries in the 1950s. And today, with the vast privatization of state industry and the dismantling of the agricultural cooperatives, the state-capitalist forms play a much-reduced role in China's economy.

. WV tries to excuse their position with qualifiers that they are defending the Chinese regime "against the class enemy." But this strikes hollow when they also insist that this defense "does not depend on the prior overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy." In fact the Stalinist bureaucracy is the workers' class enemy. Even WV, with its hairsplitting dogmatic insistence that the bureaucracy is a caste and not a class(8), admits that it is the bureaucracy (with its princelings) that is driving China to full-scale private-market capitalism.

. China does not have a socialist economy and its government is not a workers' government, and if its government runs into contradictions with the U.S. or other powers it is not the business of workers anywhere in the world to run to its defense. Our obligation is to organize the workers here at home to oppose U.S. imperialism and chauvinism, but also at the same time to support the Chinese revolutionary movement. By taking an independent stand against our own imperialist rulers we can help inspire an independent stand among the Chinese workers against their oppressive regime.

Aid and comfort to China's rulers

. The Sparts promise to defend China's rulers not only in any external confrontation but also in dealing with "internal counterrevolution." This is the Sparts' way of slandering any opposition to the present regime that has not passed their Trotskyist litmus test. In their more sober historical passages they themselves admit that the Chinese revolution was over decades ago. And the present regime certainly could not be called a revolutionary one. Nonetheless the Sparts are nervous about "counterrevolution." Here again they write the regime a blank check and act as apologists for state-capitalist tyranny.

. The Sparts themselves admit that the Chinese regime is very undemocratic. They say, "The regime of Jiang Zemin has to date effectively suppressed organized political opposition, whether from the left or right, and even widespread intellectual dissent."(9) You would think, from this, that the Sparts would sympathize with activists fighting against tyranny in China, or at least be ready to condemn government repression. But no.

. There is widespread discontent among the masses in China over many issues. The peasants are angry about corrupt bureaucrats and unfair taxes. The workers are angry about the massive layoffs, low wages and unpaid salaries. The students are angry about the suppression of democratic rights. These are objective oppositional movements that will in future provide the base of any revolutionary movement that comes up. WV reports on these phenomena and appears to sympathize with some of them, but their basic support for the regime makes them focus on movements that they consider safely reformist. In the meantime they give many excuses for the regime, that "things are complex" and so on, and speculate on oppositional factions within the CPC that may save the regime's bacon. The last thing they want is a serious revolutionary movement aimed at smashing the state-capitalist system.

. WV gives some coverage of the workers' struggles against layoffs and economic devastation.(10) And these are important. But workers should also be encouraged to support and participate in all kinds of struggles against the tyranny -- for democratic rights, for the rights of national and ethnic minorities, for religious freedom, etc. To do so would require making a study of exactly what trends are present among pro-democracy activists, human rights activists, etc., and not simply writing them all off as "CIA". Defending Tibetan national rights does not require one to be a Dalai Lama supporter any more than protesting the imprisonment of Falun Gong adherents requires one to share their belief in supernaturalism. Protesting prison slavery and inhumane punishment does not require one to jump onto the bandwagon of businessmen and trade-union chauvinists who also want to use these issues for their own purposes. U.S. imperialism would like to see all oppositional movements in China oriented toward the West and free-market capitalism. This is all the more reason why workers should be encouraged to participate in struggles of all kinds. This is how they will become conscious of the all-round nature of state-capitalism and also be politically armed against the blandishments of the West.

. Today a major issue in China is the state workers being laid off due to privatization. WV condemns the layoffs and job insecurity facing tens of millions of workers. But WV's support for the old structures makes it sound as if workers employed by the state were living in paradise. In fact Chinese workers have been churning out profits for the party and state leaders for decades as they toiled at low-wage piecework factory jobs. And though many state workers had fairly secure positions, millions more were forced into "temp" jobs, without benefits and subject to layoffs. When they got a chance, state workers protested job insecurity and low wages and tried to organize against these conditions.(11) This is why WV is so nervous about the movements for independent trade unions in China. They and the Chinese leaders know that if the state workers get organized and get into motion, this could spell major problems for the state-capitalist system.

. The Sparts are opposed to a revolutionary challenge to state-capitalism, even though they themselves admit that the workers are not in charge of this "workers state". They even insist that, unlike in the Soviet Union where the workers were for awhile in charge, through their soviets, the workers in China were never in charge. No matter -- why let a little detail about which class is in power get in the way of a Trotskyist dogma? China has nationalized property forms, so for the Sparts it must be somehow socialist and therefore worthy of defense, no matter what.

Transition: from capitalism to capitalism

. In their polemic against the idea of China being state-capitalist the Sparts bring up the question of a transitional regime (12). This is brought up as an apologetic for the Chinese regime. They cite the authority of Marx and Lenin to argue that you can't expect a transitional regime to exhibit fully the features of socialist society. Some features of a capitalist economy will continue to exist during the transition to socialism. So the conclusion, we are supposed to draw, is that the defects of state-capitalist society are to be excused as unavoidable during the transition.

. But Marx and Lenin, when discussing transitional society, were discussing a society that is actually in the process of transition from capitalism to socialism. Such a society will display some capitalist features. But it will also be overcoming these features as it moves closer and closer to socialism. That's the whole point, the movement toward socialism. And a necessary requirement for this movement (this is why Marx insisted that it begin with a revolution) is that the working class be in charge, that the working class rise up and establish its own state power. Without that, there is no point in talking about the various features of transitional society -- there will be no transitional movement. Capitalism, despite modern reforms, only widens class differences through exploitation. And state-capitalism does the same. The history of China for at least the last generation is not the history of a transition to socialism, but the opposite.

. The Sparts themselves admit that the working class has never been in power in China. And they recognize that the ruling bureaucrats are only interested in solidifying their power. A large part of this is moving toward private-capitalist property forms. But the Sparts think there are also factional differences, and that some of the bureaucrats are hesitant about jumping into private-market forms, when their present power is based on nationalized property forms (what WV politely calls "collectivized property forms"). This is where the Sparts' Trotskyist-Stalinist conscience pulls them away from any serious resistance to the Chinese regime. If there is any faction of the CCP, any possibility of an anti-privatization tendency among the regime, then WV can't bring itself to call for a revolutionary movement in China. Oh yes, they will call for "political" revolution. But this is not a call for an independent movement of the working class, for the workers to begin forging an alternative to state-capitalist tyranny. No, it is a call for a transfer of power to Trotskyist leaders while the economic structures remain intact. No reorganization of the economy would be required by the new forces in charge, since China is presumably already "transitional."

. This is a fantasy which only makes sense to those who believe in a "deformed workers state" and confuse that with working class power and the transition to socialism. To the Sparts, China is a workers state where the workers do not rule, and it's a transitional society where there is no movement towards socialism (in fact, the movement is all the other way). In this haze of illogic it makes perfect sense to call for a "political revolution" that's not really a revolution, just as it makes sense to wholeheartedly defend a regime even though it's a regime of parasitic bureaucrats.

What to do?

. The key thing in China, the Sparts say, is to build the "Leninist-Trotskyist" party to lead everything. But lead where? It's no wonder Chinese workers are not flocking to join such a party, since the first principle of such a party will be "unconditional defense of the Chinese state." That's not your typical first principle of a revolutionary party.

. The important thing for the Sparts is not the interests of the working class but promoting their dogma, "down with socialism in one country." In their view most of what's wrong with the "workers state" in China is due to external imperialist pressure; internally, the only thing wrong is that the Stalinists have this bad idea of "socialism in one country." If they could be replaced by Trotskyists who reject that idea, then everything would be peachy. This is a too-facile explanation. Fact is, the Chinese workers are in a very difficult situation. Because of rising discontent among the masses the Sparts think China is on the verge of their "political revolution" which will solve all problems by replacing the Stalinists with a new faction. But in fact the Chinese workers need to develop independent initiative to reject the entire tradition of state-capitalist tyranny. By not stressing this need the Sparts are actually acting as apologists for the present regime and its continued oppression of the working people in China.


A. Recent Spartacist League articles on China


1. "Down With U.S. Anti-China Crusade!", lead article in Workers Vanguard No. 733, 7 April 2000, pp. 1 & 6-9. Subtitles: "Taiwan: Stepping Stone for Counterrevolution; For Unconditional Military Defense of China Against Imperialist Attack and Internal Counterrevolution! For Proletarian Political Revolution to Oust Stalinist Bureaucracy!"

2. "Chinese Miners Revolt Against 'Market Reforms'", article in Workers Vanguard No. 735, 5 May 2000, pp. 4-5. Subtitles: "For Unconditional Military Defense of China Against Imperialism, Capitalist Counterrevolution! For Proletarian Political Revolution to Oust Stalinist Bureaucracy!"

3. "Whither China?", lead article in Workers Vanguard No. 743, 6 October 2000, pp. 1 & 8-11. Subtitles: " 'Market Socialism' and the Legacy of Mao; Defend China Against Imperialism, Counterrevolution! For Workers Political Revolution!"

4. Continuation of #3 in Workers Vanguard No. 745, 3 November 2000, pp. 3-5 & 10.

5. "U.S. Imperialism: Deadly Enemy of World's Working People", lead article in Workers Vanguard No. 750, 19 January 2001, pp. 1 & 8-11. Subtitle: "No illusions in the Democrats -- Build a Revolutionary Workers Party!"

6. "New 'Theories', Old Renegacy", article in Workers Vanguard No. 754, 16 March 2001, pp. 3, 6-8. Subtitle: "Workers Power Centrists Write Off Gains of Chinese Revolution".

B. Recent Communist Voice articles on China

1. "Privatization takes hold in China -- millions laid off", article by Pete Brown in Communist Voice Vol. 4, Number 2, Apr. 20, 1998, pp. 8-10.

2. "The rise and suppression of the 'ultra-left' in the Chinese cultural revolution", article by Pete Brown in Communist Voice Volume 5, Number 1, Mar. 28, 1999, pp. 18-30.

3. "The RCP-USA, Maoism, and the Three Worlds Theory", by Joseph Green; editor's reply to correspondence in Communist Voice Vol. 6, #3, Nov. 27, 2000, pp. 50-52.


(1) See Communist Voice, vol. 6, #3, Nov. 27, 2000, p. 52. (Return to text)

(2) See for example "New 'Theories', Old Renegacy," Workers Vanguard, Mar. 16, 2001. (Text)

(3) "Whither China?", Workers Vanguard, Oct. 6 & Nov. 3, 2000. (Text)

(4) See "Whither China?", WV, Oct. 6, 2000, p. 1, under the subhead "Social Roots of the Bureaucracy". (Text)

(5) WV's apparent support for capital punishment in China is another facet of their support for the regime. Every year China executes more people than all other countries put together. A few of these, mentioned by WV, are high-profile cases of notorious bureaucrats. But the great majority executed are from the ranks of the ordinary workers and peasants, poor people who have been convicted of some crime and received an inhumanly harsh sentence. And some of them are political dissidents such as workers who participated in the Tien An Men incidents of 1989. Executions are actually one more extreme method of extracting profit for the state-capitalist rulers: they have set up an assembly-line process to harvest the organs of executed prisoners while the bodies are still warm. The organs are sold in Hong Kong to rich capitalists from around the world. It's striking that WV overlooks these well-known facts, since they have made condemnation of capital punishment a centerpiece of their agitation around the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. (Text)

(6) "Whither China?", WV, Oct. 6, 2000, p. 9. (Text)

(7) Ibid., p. 9, col. 2, par. 2. (Text)

(8) Ibid., p. 8, col. 1, par. 3. (Text)

(9) Ibid., p. 9, col. 2, par. 4. (Text)

(10) See for example "Chinese Miners Revolt Against 'Market Reforms'", Workers Vanguard, May 5, 2000. (Text)

(11) See "The rise and suppression of the 'ultra-left' in the Chinese cultural revolution", Communist Voice, Mar. 28, 1999, pp. 22-24. (Text)

(12) "Whither China?", Workers Vanguard, Oct. 6, 2000, pp. 10-11. (Text)

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