[Column] Is China’s communism just another name for authoritarian capitalism?

Posted on : 2021-07-19 18:00 KST Modified on : 2021-07-19 18:00 KST
Capitalism is a passage from pre-modernity to socialism in a sense
Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek

By Slavoj Zizek, Global Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University

On July 1, 1921, the founding congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in Shanghai, when 12 men gathered in a villa in French Concession, the richest part of the city. Today, the Party has over 90 million members. Over the past century, it changed the history of China and the history of the entire world.

China in the last decades is arguably one of the greatest economic success stories in human history. It lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. How did China do it?

The 20th-century Left was defined by its opposition to capitalism and authoritarianism. China, however, is the combination of those two in their extreme forms. China today is a strong authoritarian state with wild capitalist dynamics and is perhaps the most efficient form of a socialist state. If someone in China tried to organize workers against the abuses of state power per Marxist ideology, they’d be arrested. In today’s China, one of the main functions of its Communist Party is to prevent workers from organizing their resistance against capitalism.

Deng Xiaoping reportedly said on his deathbed that his greatest achievement was not economic opening but how he “resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also the political life to multi-party democracy.”

We should resist the liberal temptation to assume how, if China were to liberalize politically, its economic progress would have been even faster. Recall the classical Marxist thesis on early modern England. It was in the bourgeoisie’s own interest to leave the political power to the aristocracy and keep for itself the economic power. The same thing is going on in China today. It was in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Party because it is the best protector of the interests of capitalists.

It may appear that, in the passage from the Cultural Revolution to Deng’s reforms, China has moved from one extreme to another. However, there is a structural similarity between the Maoist revolution and the inherent dynamic of capitalism. Mao himself created the ideological condition for rapid capitalist development by tearing apart the fabric of traditional society.

It is capitalism, again and again, that emerges as the only alternative, the only way to move forward and the dynamic force for change when social life gets stuck into some fixed form. Today, capitalism is much more revolutionary than the traditional Left obsessed with protecting the old achievements of the welfare state. Just consider how much capitalism has changed the entire texture of our societies in the past decades.

Lenin’s New Economic Policy from the early 1920s was the obvious model for Deng Xiaoping’s reforms which opened up the way for a capitalist free market under the control of the ruling Communist Party. But are we to make fun of this change as a loss for socialism? What if we defined this as a passage from feudalism to socialism?

With the abolishment of premodern relations of servitude and domination, with the assertion of personal freedom and human rights principles, capitalist modernity is in itself already socialist. It is not surprising that German peasants’ revolt in the 1500s and Jacobins demanded economic equality in this context.

Capitalism is a passage from pre-modernity to socialism in a sense. It accepts the end of direct relations of domination, but as Marx put it in his classic formulation, it transposes domination from the relations between people to the relations between things. As individuals, we are all free, but domination persists in the relationship between commodities that we exchange on the market.

The big question that haunts us is, of course, if market freedom can be abolished without abolishing political freedom. You indeed can abolish the latter while preserving market freedom as China did. But China just seems to be a new form of capitalism with an authoritarian twist that will replace liberal capitalism. Is China, then, the biggest threat to genuine democratic emancipation?

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