Research and study of ideologies of social and national emancipation and their application to conditions within imperialist society

Understanding Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

Speech delivered to the Brighton Morning Star Readers and Supporters, 24 March 2024.


The Communist Manifesto, the foundational text of scientific socialism, is still considerably short of 200 years old.

The working class and its allies have now held state power, and engaged in a serious project of socialist nation building, somewhere continuously for just under 107 years.

The Chinese working class, together with the peasantry and representatives of all patriotic sections of Chinese society, have held state power for just coming up to 75 years, with some two decades of running revolutionary base areas before that.

Since the October Revolution of 1917, serious attempts, with varying degrees of success, have been made to establish and build socialism in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, South America and Africa.

Therefore, on the one hand we can say that humanity has acquired a certain degree of experience and lessons, both positive and negative, regarding the struggle to establish and build socialism.

But more fundamentally, we can say that, in the long course of human history, socialism remains a very new and fledgling system.

This is not to say that there is nothing to learn and draw from. Xi Jinping’s point that socialism with Chinese characteristics offers a new reference point and option for those countries that wish to rapidly develop their economies while maintaining their independence acquires ever greater validity practically with each passing day.

And communists everywhere still draw on the historical experience of the USSR, its monumental achievements, as well as its mistakes, that contributed to its ultimate demise, as well as the experience of every historical and contemporary attempt to build socialism.

But despite the fact that we do not start from a completely blank page, the most fundamental lesson we can draw so far from the historical and ongoing attempts to build socialism, I would argue, is that there is no ready-made blueprint or master plan, no straight road, and certainly no ‘one size fits all’ formula that can be downloaded and implemented at any time and in any place.

Moreover, for most of their political lives (arguably less so towards the end) Marx and Engels envisaged socialism replacing highly developed and advanced capitalism.

So far, this has not happened anywhere.

One could of course argue, like some ultra leftists and dogmatists, that this somehow invalidates the whole experience of actually existing socialism.

Or one can appreciate that this conditions the context in which countries and peoples move towards socialism, that every country will approach socialism in its own way, and that, not least, the character and duration of the transition period may vary enormously.

What’s highly relevant to those countries in which socialism has actually triumphed, theorised by Lenin as ‘breaking the chain at its weakest link’, is the fact that attempts to build socialism have all occurred in a world that is still largely dominated by capitalism and imperialism.

Moreover, every preceding class that rose to political power did so in the wake of and in the context of their rising economic power. In the case of the proletariat, it is almost the exact opposite.

All this helps explain why Stalin, in his Foundations of Leninism, explains that, even after it has taken power, for a time, the proletariat remains weaker than the bourgeoisie.

This is some of the context in which we must start to look at the trajectory of the Chinese revolution.

Although China has the world’s longest continuous civilisation and was the world’s biggest economy for most of the last two millennia, since the British launched the first Opium War in 1839, the country was reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society. Not for nothing is the ensuing period known by the Chinese as the ‘century of humiliation’, marked by unequal treaties, foreign aggression, most devastatingly that by Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, and by wars of aggression and resistance, civil wars and ultimately a victorious revolution.

Whether when the Communist Party of China was founded in 1921, or the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949, China was one of the poorest and most wretched societies on earth. Illiteracy was as high as life expectancy was low.

So, how did the Chinese revolution succeed?

Stalin and Trotsky quarreled bitterly over the course of the Chinese revolution (as indeed they quarreled bitterly about many things) but neither of them conceived what was probably Mao Zedong’s single greatest contribution to the application and development of Marxism, namely that in a large, semi-colonial, semi-feudal country, as China was at the time, the revolution could be won, and the path to socialism opened up, with a Marxist-Leninist party representing and embodying working class political leadership, but with the peasantry, in accordance with the country’s demographics, social system and class composition, playing the main role, by basing the revolutionary forces in the countryside, building stable revolutionary base areas, waging a protracted people’s war, surrounding the cities from the countryside and ultimately seizing nationwide political power by armed force.

Literally no other Marxist had thought of this before Mao, and this is the beginning of the Sinification of Marxism and the most fundamental root of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

It is also the model that was basically applied to the revolution in countries as varied as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Albania, Cuba, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, and Guinea Bissau, among others.

The subsequent political trajectory of the People’s Republic – of course with many sub themes and caveats – essentially divides into two distinct phases.

From its founding in 1949 up to the death of Mao in 1976. Or perhaps to the launch of the policy known as ‘reform and opening up’ from the end of 1978, accompanied by the sidelining of Mao’s preferred successor Hua Guofeng and the rise to preeminence of the veteran communist Deng Xiaoping.

The period from 1949 to 1978 is often described as one of following the Soviet model.

There is some truth to this, just as contemporary China still draws on it to a certain extent, but it is far from the whole story.

Even in its most radical phases, the Chinese revolution never completely rejected a role for the national bourgeoisie.

This in turn meant that rather than a single party system, as in the Soviet Union, China retained, and retains, a multi-party, consultative system, based on acknowledging and upholding the leading role of the communist party.

There was always greater scope for local autonomy in applying and implementing national policies.

And greater possibility for mass participation and initiative.

Certainly, the Soviet Union never experienced anything like the Cultural Revolution, which convulsed China between 1966-76.

Above all, the peasantry (with some deviation during the Great Leap Forward, 1958-62), was not taken as a source of what might be termed ‘socialist primitive accumulation’ to benefit the proletariat in the cities and the promotion of heavy industry. Rather policies were if anything skewed in favour of the countryside, reflecting the fact that the peasantry constituted the majority of the population and even more that they were the bedrock of the revolution and the core of the party’s support.

The achievements of the Mao era should not be underestimated or denigrated. They were among the most stupendous in human history.

Despite the terrible years of 1958-62, and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, life expectancy in China grew by one year for every year that Mao was in power.

From being practically the poorest country on earth, Mao’s China solved the basic problems of feeding, clothing, housing and educating almost a quarter of the world’s population, provided basic medical care to the whole population, brought literacy to the overwhelming majority of the population, massively improved the social position and role of women, and so on.

Why then was it necessary to make such a radical turn in 1978?

For all this progress, China remained at the time of Mao’s death a very poor country.

Per capita GDP was lower than that of sub-Saharan Africa, although, of course, the ‘social wage’ was considerably higher.

Although the basic necessities of life were more or less guaranteed, most people remained very poor.

Whilst famine had been eliminated, food was strictly rationed, monotonous and food insecurity remained a constant worry. Eggs, let alone meat, were a considerable luxury. Xi Jinping, when recalling his young days working with farmers in an old revolutionary base area, has often said that his dream was that one day the villagers would be able to eat meat and to eat it often. In his time there, they might have tasted meat once or twice a year.

Although disparities and inequalities obviously remained, China under Mao may be considered to have been one of the most equal societies on earth.  However, it also remained one of the poorest.

This is what Deng Xiaoping was alluding to when he said that universal poverty is not socialism. Although I think it would be more correct to say that it is not the goal of socialism, he nevertheless had a very important point to make.

Moreover, huge changes were underway, both in the region around China and in the world.

Science and technology were rapidly developing and revolutionising the productive forces.

Countries and regions around China were developing rapidly – albeit inequitably and for specific reasons, including imperialism’s desire to have ‘showcases’ on the borders or vicinity of China, the DPRK and Vietnam and to fend off any further local communist challenges.

Thousands of Chinese were undertaking the perilous swim in the hope of securing a better life in Hong Kong.

However, this capitalist development in East and South-East Asia was skillfully turned into a positive factor by China as its principal source of investment in the first stage of reform and opening up.

The eagerness of investors to enter the Chinese market had a number of causes – from the patriotism, and attachment to ancestral homes, of much of the Chinese bourgeoisie in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and throughout South-East Asia and beyond, to awareness of the size and potential of the Chinese market. From the American defeat in Vietnam and partial retreat from Asia to a cynical desire to perpetuate and exacerbate the Sino-Soviet split.

For China, investment, initially largely from overseas Chinese and soon more generally, was crucial.

It provided what the country desperately needed – a faster pace of industrialisation and employment for those leaving the countryside to begin urban life; guaranteed export markets; skills and technology transfer; capital; technical and vocational training and skills upliftment; and advanced and scientific management, something with which Lenin was much enamored.

None of this would have been possible – at least not on the same scale, to the same extent and at such a rapid pace – without the foundations laid by Mao. Without a basically educated, literate and trained workforce. Without housing and medical care. Without a transportation network and paved roads linking the whole country. And so on.

That is why even today, talk of companies like Apple or Foxconn simply upping sticks from China and relocating en bloc to India, for example, remains largely fanciful.

And it is a major reason why Xi Jinping, right from practically his first remarks when he was elected General Secretary of the party in 2012, has consistently stressed that the two phases of China’s socialist development should not be counterposed to one another, but rather be seen as two parts of a single revolutionary whole, one resting on the foundations laid by the other.

In this, it must be said, he fundamentally differs both from standard bourgeois analyses but also from those who take up different positions on the left to slight and denigrate one or other phase of China’s socialist development.

Deng Xiaoping intuitively grasped that if you could deploy market mechanisms to unleash the enthusiasm and skills of the people, China would rapidly develop and people’s living standards would increase.

Once farmers were given extensive freedom to grow and cultivate what they chose, and to sell their surplus, in just a couple of years, food supply went from rationed and precarious to abundant and diverse.

If growth in the Mao period was, taken as a whole, steady, once reform and opening up got underway, it became turbo charged.

From being a poor country, marginal to the global economy, China has become the world’s second largest economy. The largest according to at least one measurement. China is the world’s biggest manufacturer, largest exporter, and biggest trading partner for the majority of nations. It has rocketed up the value chain, increasingly leading the world in innovation and R&D, with the largest number of new patents and peer reviewed articles in scientific journals. In just a few years, the whole country was covered in a network of high-speed rail. China is leading the world in tackling climate change, from solar panels to electric vehicles. And now Xi Jinping is leading in the development of new, high quality productive forces, essentially conforming to the fifth industrial revolution.

It has to be stressed that, whilst promoting extensive economic liberalisation, Deng Xiaoping was completely resolute in defending what he called the Four Cardinal Principles, namely the dictatorship of the proletariat (generally referred to as the people’s democratic dictatorship in the conditions of China), the socialist road, the leadership of the communist party, and Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.

It is a simple fact that, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, an attempt at counter revolution in China in 1989 was resolutely crushed whereas in the same year, counter revolution triumphed in almost the whole of eastern Europe, and two years later in the Soviet Union itself.

Of course, no change as rapid and radical, and on so vast a canvas, as the process of reform and opening in China could possibly unfold without, as a secondary aspect, some serious negative features.

Whilst everyone, or very nearly everyone, in the long run, and not discounting some painful periods for many, has become much better off, what was once probably the world’s most equal society has become highly unequal. This has also included regional disparities and between town (where the majority of Chinese people now live) and country, and between migrant workers and others.

Massive damage was done to the environment and ideological and political work weakened.

This in a sense was prefigured by Premier Zhou Enlai, albeit in the customary Chinese form of reviewing history, when, in his report to the 10th Party Congress in August 1973, he observed that in the course of the Chinese revolution, one tendency had always covered another. That is, leftist deviations had occurred in the course of correcting right opportunism and vice versa.

This is essentially what Xi Jinping has been working tirelessly to correct since he assumed the leadership in 2012, inaugurating what the Chinese now call the new era.

Among its key features are:

A merciless and ceaseless campaign against corruption, both the major variety that inflicts damage on the country as a whole and the petty kind that can inflict misery on ordinary people. Or as the Chinese say, targeting both tigers and flies.

A rectification of the party’s ranks, strengthening its ties to the people and decisively returning to the concept of serving the people.

A massive, targeted campaign resulting in the historically unprecedented elimination of extreme poverty, with careful follow-up to ensure that people do not slip back into poverty and that their lives continue to improve.

Tackling pollution, preserving the environment, safeguarding biodiversity, leading the world in renewable energy, building an ecological civilisation at home, and leading the global fight against climate catastrophe.

Rolling out by far the world’s largest program of medical care and insurance, and old age pensions, albeit ones that remain in many respects rudimentary and with great scope for improvement.

Ensuring that all sectors of the economy, including the privately-owned sectors, work in the overall interests of socialism. In the private sector, relevant measures include far greater regulation of the technology sector and now the property and real estate sector; the taking of golden shares, partial ownership, or seats on the board of major private companies by the party and state; the organisation of party committees to exercise a supervisory role in private firms; and unionisation of the workforce.

A reaffirmation of the central and guiding role of Marxism.

Deng Xiaoping’s policy of keeping a low profile and not taking the lead in international affairs has been superseded by a proactive foreign policy, addressing all the key questions of the current world situation, and with the strategic goal of building a community of shared future for humanity.

Increased support for the other socialist countries and a more dynamic engagement with the international communist movement as a whole.

Whilst China remains, in its own words, in the primary stage of socialism, the overall goal is now to build a modern socialist country in all respects by 2049, when the People’s Republic will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

It is worth noting, as Andrew Murray did in the Morning Star, that People’s China has now survived for longer than the Soviet state. Survival in a world still dominated by imperialism has always been, and remains, a real issue for socialist countries. Lenin is said to have danced in the snow when the October Revolution survived for longer than the Paris Commune. Similarly, we should rejoice in the longevity and resilience of the People’s Republic, not least when it marks its 75th anniversary this October 1st.

So, to return in a sense, to my starting point, there is no ready-made formula, special secret, or royal road for building socialism, not in China or in any other country. We are not in solidarity with this or that particular policy at any given time. Time, social practice and the Chinese people will judge them. We are in solidarity with what we support in every country without exception – a better and more dignified life for working people; a cause that finds its highest expression in the socialist countries, the countries where the working class and its allies are organised as the ruling class, and which we must defend through thick and thin, come what may and without reservation, if humanity is to have a future.

Writings of Keith Bennett


Writings of Keith Bennett