If we want to really understand China – its 5000-year history, its burgeoning world role today – we need to first get outside of that enormous reality and re-examine it through the lens of a rigorous and critical theory of society.  That theory, I propose, can only be based on historical materialism, the Marxist theory of history.  We therefore begin with a Marxist model of social structure and development – a theory of (what I call) the abstract social totality (AST) and the abstract capitalist economy (ACE).  Only then can we talk about China, from the earliest dynasties to 1949, the present-day diverse economy, Belt-and-Road, and more.

Historical Materialism and Theoretical Stages

Marxist theorists have always seemed to bounce back and forth between a “hard” theory and a “soft” one.  The hard view says history progresses through a ladder of stages: primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and on to socialism/communism.  It is full of directionality, and of scientific pretensions.  Alas, the actual historical record is a mess of counter-indications: regressions, stasis, lack of evidence of the “stages” so beloved of the hard theorists, contingent events, and peculiarities.

So the soft view emphasizes variation, contingency and possibility, keeping the empirical scholars happy but reducing Marxism almost to an “anything might happen” indeterminacy.

Now, it’s a false choice.   It’s not either/or.  “Hard” and “soft” refer to levels of abstraction within a single theory, not to alternative theories.  Viewed that way, I propose a set of theoretical stages (at the level of the AST), from which we then build a story that retains both the rich texture of historical events and their underlying unity.

The ladder of modes of production, holds; but only at the level of the AST.  Modes of production blend into social formations through human migration, trade, war and conquest, and through the specifics of geography, culture, timing, accidents.  The ladder still reveals an inner logic, which however may or may not be visible in any given situation.

That logic, however, shows the necessity of the stages.  The slave stage does not come first by accident; its crude, physical methods of restraint and compulsion are needed to regularize surplus extraction, in a period when more sophisticated means of coercion and control do not yet exist.  The extensive growth of production based on slave labor performs a crucial task: it breaks up the communal bonds among people that characterize the cooperative economies of the earliest human settlements.  That in turn makes possible the second class-antagonistic stage of small-scale manorial (or feudal) exploitation, in which incentives driving personal care for means of production can be harnessed.  This in turn promotes rising individual productivity, the basis for the growth of market relations, and capitalism.

The stages are all necessary, and interlinked.  The key is the underlying growth of productive power, and the succession of systems of incentive, coercion and control that propel the distinct phases of that growth.

The three class-antagonistic modes thus appear in a precise order – slave, feudal, capitalist – for an underlying reason.  And all the evidence of blockages, bypasses, extinctions, mixings, etc – when properly understood – does not refute this global insight; it only reveals the complex ways in which the core process works itself out.

Stages Within Capitalism

Capitalism, the most complex of the modes of production, has its own internal theoretical stages.  For reasons of space, this part of the story must be condensed.  There are four stages: mercantile, liberal, imperial, and global.  In the imperial stage (Lenin’s “highest stage”), capitalist firms have grown to a size at which they are able to capture their national states’ policy organs (financial, diplomatic and military), and use these to assist in transnational diffusion of capitalist power.

The final, global, stage is inherently contradictory: a world market is formed, but that market needs regulation from a world state that transcends national divisions; it therefore loses the ideological role played by nationalist passions, and risks being captured by universal human values and loss of capitalist ruling-class hegemony.

Finally: Enter China

Now the vast literature on Chinese civilization, beginning with the Xia Dynasty around 2000 BCE, points to enormous military, legal and ideological superstructures built up over a base of communal village agriculture.  The distinguishing feature is geographic: the relative scarcity of water.  The vast systems of communal lands and centrally controlled irrigation are features of the hydraulic society, exhaustively described by Western observers Karl Wittfogel and Joseph Needham.

In short: vast surpluses supported extensive and well codified administrative and legal government (the Mandarinate of “scholar-gentlemen”), together with vast achievements in technology, mathematics, literature, and monumental construction.  This science, however, was not applied to basic production, which remained in the hands of village communes.

China’s social economy, until the advent of western capitalism imperialism in the 19th century CE, was in a state of blocked transition from primitive communal agriculture – Marx’s famous “Asiatic mode of production.”  The surplus from this system luxuriated into the huge Imperial bureaucracies of the Qin and Han Dynasties, beginning around 200 BCE and continuing into the 20th century CE.

This had an important secondary consequence: social control became deeply intertwined with the role of ideology.  Instead  of relying on mechanisms of exploitation arising in connection with transformation of the productive forces, as in the slave plantations, mines, and construction projects of the ancient societies of the Mediterranean, in China surplus extraction came to rest heavily on authority vested in hierarchy, laws and moral prescriptions for conduct – the ideological framework codified in its full maturity by Confucius.  In a word: blocked transition to a full system of slave production was connected with hyperextension of the role of ideology – a fact that will be important in evaluating China’s social system after 1949.

Turning to the present era, we find western (and Japanese) imperialism seeking to diffuse into China, as it did into the rest of East and South Asia and other parts of the Global South.  This effort was, of course, not entirely successful, owing to the sheer size of China, the solidity of Chinese institutions, and the increasingly problematic nature of the transition from the imperial to the global stage within world capitalism, especially after World War II.

In addition, we have a rather unique conjuncture in the 20th century: the Russian Revolution and the rising influence of Marxism, especially in a country with close proximity to China; the surge of Chinese nationalism in the wake of the Japanese conquest; and the effect of the Great Depression in the West in stimulating working-class movements, magnified by the victory over the fascist axis in the War.  All of this created a “perfect storm” bringing the Communist revolution to victory at mid-century, with socialism as its guiding concept and goal.

Evaluating Post-Revolutionary China’s Social Formation

Everything in the historical materialist canon leads to an understanding of socialism/communism as a mode of production: a system of social relations at the level of abstraction of the AST.  In this sense, both market relations and a state (or public) sector appear as precursors of a fully formed socialist economy.  When an economy with a large state sector is also governed by a system of socialist political values, so that consensual norms embodying equality, central planning, participation and personal development are significantly present – and a capitalist class is significantly absent – it may be useful to think of that as a form of early socialism.  I believe this concept well describes the post-1949 Chinese social economy from its inception through the Deng Xiaoping opening-up period to the present.

We may think of early socialism in China as a core, which is in turn surrounded by other elements – the market economy, including the appearance, recently, of native capitalist enterprises; a cooperative sector; the “enterprise zones” in which western capital operates; and even some remaining pre-capitalist forms in agriculture, remnants of the old village communes.

For the early stage to blossom into mature socialism, however, will require something more: emergence of multilevel democratic iterative coordination (MDIC).  This transition to a system of democratic planning, I gather from numerous contemporary accounts, has yet to take place in China.  MDIC must be distinguished from a public sector economy as such; forms of the latter have been a feature of Chinese life for centuries, perhaps even millennia, as they have in other countries, and their presence cannot be described as “socialist.”

Capitalism came to China from outside.  The country did not witness the full formation of labor power: a commodity sold by an autonomous working class whose members act deliberatively in both the social and political (electoral) arenas.  The democratic breakthrough ‒‒ the institutionalization of formal participation in economic and political life ‒‒ is an essential basis for capitalist exploitation, a source of the real illusion of membership in the social body and equal participation in the market.  Limited as formal democracy is, it is still a necessary foundation for transition to the much more advanced stage of socialist democracy.

Yet, for historical reasons, some of which have been touched on here, this breakthrough occurred in China in a highly limited way.  In China, contrary to the usual sequence, the socialist revolution preceded, rather than followed, the democratic breakthrough.

The implications for China’s present, and future, seem clear: For China to progress beyond its current early socialist stage, massive political change will be needed, and this poses serious challenges for the Chinese Communist Party.

This way of looking at China does not coincide with CCP official doctrines, of a “harmonious society,” “market socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and the “Chinese dream.”  But it also rejects the very common facile Western notion that China’s society is “capitalist,” or has been since the death of Mao and the reform and opening-up policies were promulgated.

The undoubted emergence of a new wealthy class still does not amount to formation of a capitalist class in the full sense of the term.  Power and wealth among today’s Chinese elite are closely tied in with political connections, and linked to economic success.  Their wealth is not easily transferable, either abroad, or among industries, or between generations.  The working class, in its turn, is not a classical proletariat, and enjoys the protections and rights enshrined in the ideology of the Revolution, even as these are the object of continuous contestation and struggle.  Socialist ideology has sunk deep roots in the country’s political consciousness, and this is a real force – just as the classical philosophies of earlier Chinese social formations were a force exceeding their material foundations.

China is, of course, deeply embedded within the capitalist world system – as was the Soviet Union in the 20th century.  Which way will it develop?  Will the Belt and Road Initiative, and other vehicles of China’s increasing role in the world economy, emerge as a true alternative for less-developed countries seeking release from the grasp of western financial power?  Or will China emerge as yet another imperial presence?  Will the CCP evolve and help bring the inevitable democratic breakthrough into a dialog with the state economy, eventuating in transition to mature democratic planning (MDIC)?  Or will the breakthrough be led into opposition to the CCP and its demise, as happened in Eastern Europe?  I’m convinced that the latter outcome would be disastrous, for working people in China and the world.

David Laibman is Professor (Emeritus) of Economics, City University of New York, and Editor of Science & Society.

To read more, and for all supporting references, see David Laibman, “China: In the Perspective of Historical Materialism,” Science & Society, 84:2 (April 2020), pp. 171‒203.