Socialist Party on China
A pseudo-Trotskyist hybrid
Comrades of the Bolshevik Tendency participated in two sessions that touched on the question of China at the Socialist Party of England and Wales’ (SP) online Socialism 2020 weekend on 21 and 22 November. In a forum entitled the “Legacy of the Collapse of Stalinism” Clive Heemskerk reviewed the horrendous human costs that resulted from capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and the deformed workers’ states of the Warsaw Pact. During the ensuing discussion a BT comrade recalled how, during the decisive August 1991 confrontation that decided the fate of the USSR, we advocated military support to Gennady Yanayev and the Stalinist coupsters’ “Emergency Committee,” while the SP’s Russian comrades sided with Boris Yeltsin and the forces of “democratic” capitalist counterrevolution. The Spartacist tendency, which was present in Russia at the time, quoted the following from the October 1991 issue of the Committee for a Workers’ International’s (CWI – to which the SP is affiliated) Rabochaya Democratiya (Workers Democracy):
“From the declarations of the [putschist State Emergency Committee] it followed that they were acting against the so-called ‘democrats,’ and that posed the danger of support to the putschists by workers organizations that did not share the principles of the ‘democrats’—the rule of private property and capitalist power. And that is exactly what happened. Some of the workers organizations were getting ready to send greetings of welcome, and at several factories the workers even tried to organize defense detachments in support of the putschists.
“From the morning on, all of our members explained to workers at their workplaces that the position of the Emergency Committee did not coincide with their interests. In addition to this, they connected up with worker activists of other organizations, in order to prevent hasty actions.”
Our comrade challenged the CWI on its mistaken 1991 position and pointed to the dangers of not defending the Chinese deformed workers’ state against any similar future threats of counterrevolution. He reminded the audience that Leon Trotsky explicitly advocated a military bloc with the Stalinists against capitalist restoration in the Transitional Programme: “Although it [the ‘faction of Reiss’—i.e., the Trotskyists] would find itself temporarily the ally of Stalin, it would nevertheless defend not the Bonapartist clique but the social base of the U.S.S.R., i.e., the property wrenched away from the capitalists and transformed into State property.”
Our intervention drew a response from several SP members, including Clare Doyle, a long-time Militant and Socialist Party leader, who declared that we had entirely misrepresented their 1991 position. Doyle asserted that there had been no basis to back either side because the working class was too demoralised and disorientated to be inclined to act. Her claim is contradicted by former general secretary Peter Taaffe who explained that “the mass of [the] population in the Soviet Union was opposed to the coup” and that the Yeltsinites enjoyed “the immanent mass support of the working class” (The Rise of Militant, 2013). Taaffe chastised his factional opponents, the future International Marxist Tendency (IMT), for initially inclining towards the Yanayevites:
“They then postulate the idea that the coup organisers would have been compelled to re-establish the elements of the planned economy, completely ignoring the experience of [Poland’s] Jaruzelski and the evolution of the Chinese Stalinists in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square.
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“The position taken by the minority on the August events in Russia alienated them from the great majority of our supporters.”
Rather than risk “alienating” supporters who, influenced by the poisonous propaganda extolling capitalist democracy, inclined to favour Yeltsin, the CWI cadres instead actively opposed pro-Yanayev workers’ mobilisations.
Other SPers during the weekend’s discussion argued that the destruction of the Soviet Union came as the result of an inexorable counterrevolutionary historical process that was already well underway, a theme reiterated by comrade Heemskerk in his summary. This sort of passive objectivism explains nothing and is certainly no justification for the CWI’s disgraceful intervention on the side of counterrevolution in 1991. The emergence of an overtly counterrevolutionary wing of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy (personified by Boris Yeltsin) came as no surprise:
“Both capitalism and Stalinism face the greatest crisis in their history. But compared to the decay and stagnation in Eastern Europe the economies of Western Europe, Japan and America through the present eight-and-a-half-year boomlet appear to be far more successful. In all Stalinist states a wing of the bureaucracy is blinded by the seeming ‘economic fireworks’, as Trotsky put it, of capitalism.”
– Militant 954, 21 July 1989, cited in: Taaffe, Op. cit.
The SP’s formal opposition to capitalist restoration and its ostensible defencism towards the workers’ states proved entirely meaningless: when it mattered, the SP’s policy was essentially indistinguishable from Tony Cliff’s. Doyle’s outraged insistence that we were misrepresenting Militant’s 1991 position is simply not supported by the facts, as she should know.
SP on China: ‘A unique form of state capitalism’
The question of China naturally arose during the discussion about the collapse of Stalinism. The CWI currently views China as neither a deformed workers’ state nor a capitalist one but rather a ‘hybrid’. Peter Taaffe declares that this is:
“Difficult to classify from a Marxist point of view, nevertheless, China could be described in a sense as a unique form of ‘state capitalism’. The state’s primary concern is not to further all the normal attributes of capitalism: the realisation of surplus value, a drive to privatise ‘everything’ irrespective of the social consequences, etc. The opening towards capitalism was seen as necessary to ensure social stability. It can also be halted if it threatens a social meltdown. It is not the type of regime described as state capitalist by Friedrich Engels, where the state steps in to rescue and nationalise a minority of industry. Nor does it fit into the false concept of the state capitalist school typified by the late Tony Cliff and his heirs in the Socialist Workers’ Party. They described Russia under Stalinism as state capitalist. Russia was a nationalised, planned economy but with a one-party totalitarian regime, a ‘deformed workers’ state’. China is presently in a halfway position, a hybrid, and it is not certain how or if it will develop in a fully capitalist direction.”
– Socialism Today 150, July 2011
Tony Cliff’s “theory” of state capitalism was never anything other than a rationalisation for a cowardly retreat from the defence of the degenerated and deformed workers’ states against counterrevolution. During the discussion many SP supporters criticised Cliff’s position and pointed to the disastrous impact that capitalist counterrevolution has had on the working people of the former Soviet bloc. Some comrades also correctly observed that capitalist restoration in the former USSR has resulted in a significant shift in the balance of class forces internationally in favour of the exploiters.
In his Saturday afternoon presentation on the “New World Order: China and the US,” Tony Saunois reiterated Taaffe’s description of some of the unusual features of Chinese “state capitalism” and drew attention to both the role of state intervention in the economy and the survival of elements of planning. He noted that Beijing had handled the COVID-19 crisis better than the Western world.
When a young female comrade asked how, in light of these factors, the tasks of revolutionaries differed from those in purely capitalist countries, Saunois replied that a programme for revolution in China would have to “contain elements of a political revolution.” This was a reference to Trotsky’s call for a workers’ political revolution to overthrow the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy which would involve:
“A revision of planned economy from top to bottom in the interests of producers and consumers! Factory committees should be returned the right to control production. A democratically organized consumers’ cooperative should control the quality and price of products.
Reorganization of the kolkhozes in accordance with the will and in the interests of the workers there engaged!”
– Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program, 1938
The essential distinction between a political revolution and a social revolution is that in a workers’ state there is no capitalist ruling class to overthrow because the core elements of the economy are already state property. In his summary Saunois said he thought it unlikely that China “would go back to become a deformed workers’ state,” but allowed that the SP’s position needed to be developed further. In both sessions leading SP comrades were willing to acknowledge the expanded role played by state authorities in China in directing the economy, but were reluctant to comment on the significance of the spectacular reduction in poverty rates which have taken place in the same timeframe.
Several SP comrades echoed the imperialists’ propaganda about human rights violations in Hong Kong and lamented the suppression of what a few of them described as the “marvellous” protest movement. Trotskyists have a different attitude towards these overtly counterrevolutionary mobilisations led by individuals who were clearly identified with British and American imperialism, as we noted in our September 2019 statement:
“The Hong Kong protests were launched by the ‘Civil Human Rights Front’ (CHRF), a lash-up including organizations like the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, both of which have long histories of funding from the ‘National Endowment for Democracy,’ a U.S. agency Alexander Rubinstein aptly described ‘as a CIA soft-power cutout that has played a critical role in innumerable U.S. regime-change operations’. In August Dan Cohen published a useful article on the U.S. connections to the protest movement.”
The CWI’s “hybrid state” theory recycles Kautsky’s reformist conception of the state as a neutral instrument which can be used by different classes to advance their own interests. Lenin, following Marx and Engels, rejected such notions and insisted that any state is essentially a weapon committed to the defence of a particular set of property relations. While acknowledging that the current Chinese “state’s primary concern is not to further all the normal attributes of capitalism: the realisation of surplus value, a drive to privatise ‘everything’ irrespective of the social consequences, etc.” Taaffe & Co. arrive at essentially the same political conclusions as the Cliffites with their “state capitalist” nonsense.
There is an obvious parallel between the “defencist” CWI’s refusal to defend the Chinese deformed workers’ state and the group’s inglorious record of actively attempting to demobilise workers’ spontaneous opposition to Yeltsin and his counterrevolutionary rabble in the final crisis of the Soviet Union. This kind of double bookkeeping, so characteristic of cynics and pseudo-Marxists, must be rejected by serious revolutionaries in or around the CWI in favour of the straightforward unconditional defence of the Chinese deformed workers’ state against capitalist counterrevolution.
For recent analysis of social and economic developments in China see: The Myth of Capitalist China