China’s president, Xi Jinping, has reiterated his vision of Marxism in the modern day, which sounds very little what you might read in basic political theory class. It’s less “seizing the means of production,” and more “having a big role for the state within a mixed economy.”
In a recently published article, whilst maintaining “The foundation of China’s political economy can only be a Marxist political economy, and not be based on other economic theories,” he recognized the ability of private ownership to efficiently allocate resources. Modern Chinese Marxism permits “different kinds of ownership,” but this is not capitalism or “western ideology.”
This only adds to the confusion surrounding this term, “Marxism.” It means three or four different things, depending who you are.
There’s the OG ideology inspired by Karl Marx’s interpretation of communism. To sum up: capitalists steal workers’ labour value. This is probably the best and most accurate definition of Marxism.
Then there’s Marxism-adjacent. This is everything that has come from Marxist-inspired thought that holds influence today in universities and media. Call it Gramscism, the Frankfurt School, postmodernism. This stuff is not pure Marxism but owes plenty of credit to Marx for laying the groundwork.
Further, there’s Chinese-style Marxism, or “Marxism with Chinese characteristics,” which we have discussed above.
Then lately it has been used as a catch-all pejorative for anything left-wing, used by broadly right-wing people to label anything they don’t like. Its utility lies in identifying an ideological seed to explain what’s wrong with the world.
All of these things are bad by the way. Pure Marxism is an incorrect economic theory. Marxist-inspired academia is responsible for hideous woke culture. Chinese-inspired Marxism is just capitalism inflating an ever-more bloated government. No, thanks. That said, it’s important to be precise.
So much for semantics. The relationship between Marxism and China is highly complicated. China has long given up comprehensive state ownership and flagrant crackdowns on individual ways of life. Their post-Mao reforms opened themselves up to market forces and therefore wealth. But they’re still nominally “communist,” and are convinced what exists now is totally compatible with Marxism.
Marxism doesn’t fit neatly into Chinese culture (for one, it’s at odds with the ancient Chinese value of familial piety), but the one-party state definitely does. It’s congruent with the historical hierarchical way of things. The party is meant to the the outgrowth of national cooperation. There simply isn’t need for an adversarial system.
China’s public infrastructure is pretty good compared with the West. The trains are clean, on time, and super fast. Public works projects get done quickly. And on a related note, development is approved quickly (well alright, the new skyscrapers are cheap and ugly, but yay more homes). Overall, pretty impressive.
It would be better under a true free market. But if you’re comparing like-for-like, or comparing government-run services in two different nations, China comfortably comes out on top.
The reason is something to do with low time preference. The long-term thinking of Chinese leaders means they’re not looking to make the quickest buck possible, but a sustainable buck. Time isn’t the constraint, but the opinion of the party.
The party itself is an ever-shifting, self-criticizing body. Reforms have rectified corruption even in the past 20 years. Nobody thinks it’s perfect, but perfecting.
Obviously, this all pales in comparison to the self-correcting nature of free markets. These “special economic zones” are an explicit admission that private ownership works insofar as creating vast amounts of wealth. Why it’s necessary that but a few small areas must experience this prosperity isn’t clear. Why mustn’t the whole of China become a special economic zone?
It’s not so important how Chinese people rationalize and justify their systems. If they want to believe their system of capitalism with a massive state attached is unadulterated communism, there’s little harm in letting them think that. If it retains their pride, and the reforms keep coming, they can rock the hammer and sickle as much as they want.
All eyes are on China at the moment, as the West seems to want to start a solid World War as a response to COVID-19 and increasing political instability. This is an atrocious idea. What will increase the likelihood of this happening is less understanding on both sides. Glibly throwing out “they’re communist! They’re Marxist!” does little to foster peace. It’s a tad more complicated than that.
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