Review | The Communist Road to Capitalism and The Left in China

Ralf Ruckus, The Communist Road to Capitalism: How Unrest and Containment have Rushed China’s (R)Evolution Since 1949, (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2021), 232pp, £18.99

Ralf Ruckus, The Left in China (London: Pluto Press, 2023), 232pp, £16.99

These two complementary books are important additions to critical left writing on modern China. Ruckus is a long-standing left critic of both Maoism and the post-Mao leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the editor of Gongchao (Strike), a German-based website that provides consistently interesting coverage of struggle from below in China.

The two books are quite different in scope, though there’s necessarily quite a bit of overlap. Communist Road gives an account of modern Chinese history as largely shaped by struggle from below to which the CCP has been forced to respond: Unrest and containment led to or constituted ruptures, i.e., historical turning points, that marked the end of new phases in which the ruling class repeatedly introduced reforms. (p15) Ruckus shows in particular how such struggles through the 1970s and early 1980s helped to bring Deng Xiaoping to power, and how the post-Mao leadership have consistently have had to adapt to changes in the working class that they neither wanted nor expected.

The Left in China looks at the ideas and aspirations that lay behind upsurges from below, and some of the organisations that they produced. The author is working with a fairly broad definition of ‘left’, seeing struggles from the 1950s through to today as marked in differing degrees bytwo major themes: opposition to exploitation, and to political oppression. And he gives a particularly useful account of the revival of different sorts of Maoism in the 2000s – a Maoist ‘Right’ inside the CCP and a ‘Left’ that sees the CCP as part of the problem (though at times shares its nationalism). He is, however, careful to stress that these …are descriptions for tendencies or debates, not for larger organizational entities. (p119)

Ruckus is writing for activists, rather than academics, and he has an enviable ability to summarise complex histories in a compact and readable form. At times his narratives can be too compact, and flatten out important differences between different parts of China. And one dimension that’s almost completely absent is national struggles against CCP rule – there are very few mentions of Tibet and Xinjiang, and none at all of Inner Mongolia. This matters both because such struggles are important components of post-1949 history, but also because divisions between Chinese and minority ethnic workers are a weakness that any holistic account of the working class today needs to address.

He is much better on gender, with both books highlighting how women have been at different times pulled into and forced out of the workforce (and even both at the same time in the 1990s, for different generations), and how the explosive growth of a migrant workforce was based on women’s unpaid work: Reproductive labour, like taking care of migrants’ children and the elderly, was done in the villages where the costs were lower. (Left in China, p125)

Like many left critics, he sees China as having been socialist until the 1970s and capitalist only since the 1990s, with a transition period in between. And like most such critics, he’s not really able to explain how this happened. At one point he describes the transition as …society later drifted into capitalism under the leadership of the CCP. (Left in China, p163), which is a less than rigorous explanation. He rejects the concept of state capitalism because China has changed so much from the era of high Maoism to today, which is again a weak argument – India has changed fundamentally over the same period, but was capitalist then and is capitalist now.

I think it makes more sense to see China under Mao as a form of bureaucratic state capitalism, with the economy totally controlled by the central state, to a different form where the state (local and central) collaborates with local and international private capital, while retaining overall strategic control.

However, he goes on to argue that Actually existing socialism[1] and capitalism indeed share key features, such as surplus extraction and accumulation, top-down labor organization and social hierarchies. (Communist Road, p172), which produced …a new class rule based on economic exploitation, state repression, patriarchal discrimination and social exclusion was established. (Communist Road, p183) and even that China had …a form of capital accumulation in Karl Marx’s terms that merely had specific socialist features. (Communist Road, p26), Quite what ‘socialist’ means here isn’t at all clear.

These (and other) theoretical confusions don’t however undermine his excellent histories and analyses of class struggle under both Mao and the post-Mao leadership – there’s no question about which side he’s on. And his practical conclusion is equally valuable – the left needs

…to find an answer to the global confrontation between what is presented as China vs U.S., Chinese socialism vs universalist Western capitalism, or authoritarianism vs liberal democracy. This presumed dichotomy serves both Western governments and the CCP regime. In reality, we see interconnected powers of capitalist exploitation with a more or less authoritarian governmental structure. (Left in China, p159)

[1] A term first popularised by the East German dissident Rudolf Bahro in The Alternative in Eastern Europe, (London: New left Books, 1978), and normally used as a way of distancing an author from support for the regime in question.

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