The Exhaustion of Developmental Socialism: Lessons from China

By DuRand, Cliff | Monthly Review, December 1990 | Go to article overview

The Exhaustion of Developmental Socialism: Lessons from China


DuRand, Cliff, Monthly Review


A funny thing happened on the way to market socialism. China started in that direction over a decade ago, seeking to rejuvenate a stagnating economy by basing production decisions on market forces rather than central planning, while regulating the newly-created market n the name of overall social interests. The latter was to give a socialist character to the new system they called socialism with Chinese characteristics.'

But before the decade of the 1980s came to a close, it became clear that the emerging system was not recognizable as any kind of socialism. Even those most permissive in the use of that honorific term, even those prepared to recognize a plurality of socialisms based on different national contexts, began to see that the reforms in China were not headed toward socialism at all. They were taking China down what Mao used to call "the capitalist road." However, it was not a capitalism familiar to Westerners; it was capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

Why did China's attempt to marketize socialism fall? If we take the words of China's reformers at face value and accept that they intended to create a new form of socialism, we have to explain the very different outcome. On the other hand, if we believe they were not really committed to socialism in the first place, we still have to explain how they were able to erect the beginnings of capitalism on what had been socialist foundations and to comprehend the strange kind of capitalism that resulted.

As more and more socialist societies embark on their own experiments with marketization, it becomes increasingly clear that the most likely outcome is not market socialism but bureaucratic capitalism, with comprador tendencies more or less pronounced depending on linkages with the world market. The emergence of a market along with private property (even if the commanding heights of the economy remain under state ownership) offers a prime opportunity for apparatchiks to capitalize on their official power and turn their bureaucratic privileges into personal wealth.

Samir Amin's voice rings out clearly in the rising chorus that warns those popular forces in Eastern Europe who attack the nomenklatura for their privileges under actually existing socialism that

the class aspiring to form a bourgeoisie will inevitably be composed of just this nomenklatura, that the privileges it has enjoyed are as nothing in comparison with the social inequalities under actually existing capitalism.

In country after country, an old ruling class is not just abandoning a sinking socialist ship, but seeking to convert itself into a new capitalist ruling class.

In Eastern Europe we see telescoped into a few months a process that has gone on in China for a decade. To understand these developments, we must first recognize that any effort to introduce market-oriented reforms will be shaped by the classforces that already exist in a society. It is not possible to snatch market socialism out of the heavens ex nihilo and plant it on the ground. It must be born from the old society, and consequently it will be shaped by the womb from which it emerges.

The various state socialisms that have been created in the twentieth century have had a tendency to become bureaucratized. Where this tendency has not been successfully kept in check, it has resulted in the consolidation of a ruling bureaucratic class.

Carlos Vilas calls them bureaucratic monarchies,(2) no doubt because the state/party is almost a hereditary, self-perpetuating elite. Unlike Weberian bureaucracies of the western type, appointment is not based in principle on technical or professional qualifications alone, but on political criteria. Those who proved themselves by participation in the revolutionary struggle or, in later generations, those who have convinced party superiors of their ideological reliability, rise to positions of official authority. The tendency is for such a politbureaucracy to evolve into a ruling class, guided no longer so much by a real political commitment to socialism as by a politics of self-interest. …

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