The title of this essay represents a play on the Chinese Communist Party’s description of its economy. Several decades ago, when China’s growing reliance on the for-profit sectors of its economy could no longer be credibly denied by the CCP, its leadership approved the slogan “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to describe the Chinese economic system. Formulated by Deng Xiaoping, the phrase became an essential component the CCP’s attempt to rationalize Chinese capitalist development under a socialist-communist political system.
According to the party, the growing privatization of the Chinese economy was to be a temporary phase—lasting as long as a hundred years according to some party leaders—on the way to a classless society of full socialism-communism. The party leaders claimed, and still maintain, that socialism with Chinese characteristics was necessary in China’s case because China was a “backward” agrarian country when communism was introduced—too early, it was suggested. China needed a capitalist booster shot.
With the slogan, the party was able to argue that China had been an exception to the orthodox Marxist position that socialism arrives only after the development of capitalism—although Marx himself deviated from his own formula late in life. At the same time, the slogan allowed the CCP to confirm the orthodox Marxist position. China’s communist revolution had come before developed industrial capitalism—an exception to orthodox Marxism. Capitalism was thus introduced into China’s economic system later—a confirmation of orthodox Marxism.
Stripped of its socialist ideological pretensions, socialism with Chinese characteristics, or the Chinese system itself, amounts to a socialist-communist state increasingly funded by capitalist economic development. The difference between the former Soviet Union and contemporary China is that when it became obvious that a socialist-communist economy had failed, the former gave up its socialist-communist economic pretenses, while the latter did not.
Whether the CCP leaders believe their own rhetoric or not, the ideological gymnastics on display are nevertheless spectacular. On its face, the slogan embeds and glosses over a seemingly obvious contradiction in an attempt to sanctify or “recommunize” Chinese capitalist development as a precondition of full socialism-communism.
However, the Chinese slogan does capture an essential truth about communism, one that is either unrecognized or unacknowledged by the CCP and denied by Western Marxists. Contrary to the assertions of communist leaders and followers, and even contrary to the claims of many who oppose it, socialism-communism is not essentially an economic but rather a political system.
Once in power, socialist-communist leaders recognize that given their control over resources, they have effectively become the new owners of the means of production (whereas, as Ludwig von Mises suggested, consumers effectively hold the power of economic disposal in free markets). In attempting to implement a socialist-communist economy, they recognize that, in the absence of prices, large-scale industrial production requires supervisory decision-making. Likewise, decision-making is not democratic in the sense promised by socialist-communist ideologues. Decision-making must be centralized, or at least bureaucratized, to a great extent. Democratic decision-making is precluded by state-owned and controlled production and distribution.