By Rob Hoveman
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The Left in China by Ralf Ruckus review: saying China’s state capitalist isn’t about semantics

Ralf Ruckus’s new book chronicles workers’ struggles against the Chinese Communist Party regime
Issue 2845
The Left in China: A Political Cartography by Ralf Ruckus book cover

The Left in China: A Political Cartography by Ralf Ruckus

The Left in China: A Political Cartography is a much more interesting and even uplifting book than its unfortunate title might suggest. It’s an account of various forms of workers’ resistance in China since the Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, and the left wing and progressive ideas that emerged in these mobilisations.

The flashpoints covered by Ralf Ruckus include the upsurge in workers’ struggles in 1956 and 1957 and the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1968. He looks at the events leading up to the Democracy Wall Movement in 1978-80, the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989, and then struggles from the 1990s onwards. He also has an important section on the oppression of women in the so-called People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Ruckus’s account begins in the 1950s when the CCP moved to nationalise the economy, and implement an economic plan modelled on Stalinist Russia. Sections of the working class, expecting improvements particularly their living standards, were sorely disappointed.

This was compounded by the introduction of one-man management—again on the Stalinist model—rather than any hint of workers’ control over the newly nationalised enterprises. Those struggles faced severe repression and were followed by Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, a disastrous initiative aimed at rapid industrialisation.

Peasants were rounded up into huge “People’s Communes” and forced to work around the clock to meet impossible production targets. It was a failure and caused mass starvation in the rural areas, costing millions of lives

The failure weakened Mao’s position in the CCP and strengthened that of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaopeng. This factional conflict within the Chinese ruling class was the context for Mao launching the Cultural Revolution in 1966. He sought to mobilise sections of the CCP base against “bureaucratism”—his factional opponents within the party.

What is most interesting about Ruckus’s account of the Cultural Revolution, is the extent to which opposition to CCP rule more generally began to emerge. Workers took militant action way beyond Mao’s factional purposes. And, it was in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and the growing militancy that the Shengwulian movement was born in 1967.

Shengwulian had its principal support in Hunan province, but it became known throughout China because of the texts it published by members such as Yang Xiguang. Shengwulian identified a “red bourgeoisie” presiding over a state capitalist PRC. “For them, the liberation in 1949 was a bourgeois revolution, leaving intact capitalist relations of production,” it said.

After two years of the Cultural Revolution, the CCP ruling structures were in disarray and the very survival of the CCP was in jeopardy. Mao then sent in the so-called People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to suppress the revolt.

Despite this severe repression, further resistance emerged in 1976. Another factional struggle broke out with the deaths of long-time prime minister Zhou Enlai and then Mao himself. It pitted the “Gang of Four”—a conservative section of the bureaucracy—against “reformers” such as Deng who wanted greater use of market forces to secure economic growth. The Deng faction tolerated—and to some extent encouraged—resistance including the Democracy Wall Movement. But, once they’d won the factional battle, they repressed it.

The market reforms the new leadership introduced aroused more antagonism and resistance, culminating in the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989. It was initiated by disaffected students, but then taken up in large numbers by disaffected workers. And, once again, the regime ultimately unleashed the most brutal repression with the PLA killing thousands of workers

Ruckus tells a story of often very militant struggles repeatedly breaking out despite the CCP’s authoritarianism—and then facing brutal repression. Remarkable spontaneous co-ordination and very radical and even revolutionary ideas, such as those of Shengwulian, have emerged in these struggles. But it has proved almost impossible to sustain independent organisations because of the levels of repression.

Ruckus’s book is a very good read. But there are, I’m afraid to say, some serious weaknesses in it too. He engages in broad generalisations, which really should have had a lot more detailed support. The main text of the book is just 163 pages long. Some might breathe a sigh of relief at its brevity. But it is much too brief to do full justice to the events he describes over a 70 year period.

We get little sense of how important different events and lines of thought are. He provides no statistical backing for numbers of workers involved in various events, or number of radicals propounding the different ideas he identifies. This is, to some extent, inevitable given the levels of suppression both at the time and of the records since but the result is very impressionistic.

That is compounded by a set of tables where he seeks to categorise the different sets of radical ideas. It’s based on a contentious and simplistic set of four categories, such as “left authoritarian” or “left egalitarian”. They do not help to illuminate the ideological landscape he describes rather more subtly in the text itself.

Any history of the PRC of course requires an understanding of the CCP’s history before it took power and the broader international context that it tried to survive and prosper in. Ruckus does provide a brief potted history of the origins of the regime, but that too is very unsatisfactory. 

He fails to note that the CCP turned away from orientating on China’s small, but powerful working class to drive through revolutionary change. It had been set up in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 when the working class, in alliance with the peasantry took state power.

The CCP’s turn followed the disastrous alliance with the nationalist Kuomintang, under guidance from Russia’s leadership increasingly dominated by Joseph Stalin. That alliance culminated in the slaughter of thousands of communist militants and the savage repression of the workers movement in Shanghai in 1927—not mentioned by Ruckus at all.

The CCP under Mao then turned to building a peasant army, which fought a bloody civil war against the Kuomintang.

Stalin encouraged this transformation. Under his leadership, Russia had been transformed into a state capitalist country, where the state bureaucracy had become a new ruling class. Workers’ control of the means of production, and other gains of 1917, were swept away in a bloody counter-revolution. The goal of the bureaucracy, locked into competition with the West, was capital accumulation. Mao looked to Russia’s state capitalist model as a way of turning China into a modern, industrial country

The CCP came to power in 1949. Mao did this in the name of Communism. But it was a nationalist revolution, not a socialist one where the working class takes power through its own democratic bodies and runs society from the bottom up. The workers were not in power, as Ruckus repeatedly later acknowledges. Even more bizarrely, Stalin and Stalinism are barely mentioned in the book.

Ruckus provides his own periodisation of the PRC. The first period up to the death of Mao was “authoritarian socialism”, he claims, in which the working class was subject to “socialist exploitation”. The second period running roughly from the death of Mao into the 1990s was transitional to a third period, which saw the PRC become a fully capitalist state. 

Nowhere in this book does Ruckus seek to justify these characterisations. It would seem he equates capitalism with the existence of private property and a market system and socialism with nationalised state property and the abolition of the market.

But the abolition of private property and the market is not sufficient for a state to be socialist. What is crucial is who controls the state. And on this, Ruckus would agree with state capitalist theorists that it is most certainly not the working class and never has been since the 1949 revolution.

Ruckus does cursorily address the theory of state capitalism in his previous book, The Communist Road to Capitalism. He dismisses the idea that the PRC is still in some sense socialist given it is pretty much self-evidently a state and an economy integrated into the world capitalist system. It has market relations internally, including some billionaires now members of the CCP. That’s fair enough, of course.  

His dismissal of the state capitalist theory is, however, extraordinarily superficial. State capitalism, he says, claims that China today is state capitalist just as it was under Mao. As the PRC has self-evidently undergone very significant internal and external changes that cannot be true, he claims.

But the theory of state capitalism says nothing of the sort. No one but an ignoramus would suggest there haven’t been very significant changes in the way the Chinese economy is run. What the state capitalist theory says is that China’s ruling bureaucracy was locked into competition with other capitalist states.

This meant that, despite abolishing the market internally and implementing state planning, the priorities of that society were driven by competitive capital accumulation not meeting human need.

There was no workers’ state, a state under the control of the workers themselves, to draw up a socialist plan to meet need. There was, rather, state direction to try and meet the needs of the “red bourgeoisie”—off the backs of the working class and peasantry as Ruckus himself details.

The transition to a more market-oriented economy integrated into the global market, which Ruckus is willing to call capitalist, has not seen a “counter-revolution”. If the Chinese state was socialist, that’s what the market reforms would have amounted to. Instead, the same “red bourgeoisie”—or rather their offspring—is still in power as they were in power under Mao.

It is also obviously the case that the PRC is no longer a bureaucratic state capitalist society, such as Stalinist Russia. But the state does actually still play a much larger role in the economy than in Western capitalist states, despite the introduction of an internal market and integration into the external world market.

Now, one might think this is just a matter of semantics. Ruckus clearly has very similar, if not exactly the same, criticisms of what he calls Chinese “authoritarian socialism” as we would of Chinese state capitalism. But clarity on these matters is important.

Ruckus points out there was a revival of Maoism in the 1990s, partly based on nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s, amongst some workers and student radicals. This nostalgic Maoism was based on a critique and rejection of the growth of private capitalism within the PRC.

The more critical Maoists have been, of course viciously repressed again while others have accommodated to the regime. Current CCP boss Xi Jinping has sought to clothe his regime in the mantle of Mao with an emphasis on nationalism and a fake anti-imperialism. Military spending is now planned to increase at a far greater rate than the predicted growth of the economy. 

There is, in fact, a clear line of continuity between Mao and Xi. They share a nationalist vision, which sees the rise of China at any cost as the primary aim at the expense of the working class. They have the same willingness to use severe repression to secure the rule of the CCP bureaucracy, repression that has been stepped up under the Xi government since 2016.

Xi now faces the prospect of much lower economic growth rates. The Chinese economic miracle is faltering, and may now be over both through internal problems and the travails of the world economy.

Ruckus documents the history of repeated militant struggles, and radical opposition to the CCP over the last 70 odd years, in the face of an extremely authoritarian state and severe repression. His history gives us good reason to hope that militant struggles will emerge again, where radical and revolutionary ideas will take hold. The Chinese regime has faced protests and strikes in recent years.

In these struggles we must hope that Chinese workers reject any model of “socialism” based on Mao’s version of Stalinism. The way forward lies with working class self-emancipation, and an international struggle to overthrow capitalism everywhere.

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