Karl Marx in Beijing

Issue: 123

Jeong Seong-jin

Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing (Verso, 2007), £14.99

Translation by Owen Miller

The following review was written by Jeong Seong-jin, professor of economics at Gyeongsang National University, South Korea. Professor Jeong is the author of a number of books in Korean, including Marx and the Korean Economy and Marx and Trotsky. He is also co-editor of the English-language volume Marxist Perspectives on South Korea in the Global Economy (Ashgate, 2007), editor of the bilingual journal Marxism21 and translator (into Korean) of An Anticapitalist Manifesto and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx by Alex Callinicos.

In South Korea the writings of Giovanni Arrighi have become popular among a section of the intellectual left who have wholeheartedly adopted his reworking of Marxism and welcomed his positive appraisal of a possible China-centred future. Jeong’s polemical attack on Arrighi’s concept of a “non-capitalist market society” should therefore also be understood in the context of South Korean left politics.

With Beijing the centre of world attention during last year’s Olympics, Giovanni Arrighi’s recent book Adam Smith in Beijing received a lot of attention from progressive scholars around the world.1 In South Korea too Arrighi is well known as one of the main theorists of world systems theory along with Immanuel Wallerstein and the late Andre Gunder Frank. Many intellectuals from the Korean PD tendency2 have accepted the thesis of “historical capitalism”, which constitutes the core of so-called “generalised Marxism”, from Arrighi’s best known book, The Long Twentieth Century (1994).

Many scholars, both in Korea and around the world, were keenly anticipating Arrighi’s first new book in 13 years. But this book is like the rumoured banquet where there is nothing to eat. Everything about it, from the eye-catching title (which, as Arrighi himself reveals, is an imitation of Mario Tronti’s 1971 book Marx in Detroit) onward, is problematic.

In Adam Smith in Beijing Arrighi claims that today’s Chinese society is a “non_capitalist market economy”. Thus, for him, modern China is not the capitalist world of Marx’s Capital but the market economy world of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. According to Arrighi, in contrast to capitalism, which is characterised by exploitation, inequality, expansionism and “accumulation by dispossession”, the market economy is based on principles of reciprocity, equality and “accumulation by possession”. For him, the market economy is a preferable social system to capitalism and the problems of our world are due to capitalism rather than the market economy.

Arrighi insists that in today’s world the US is the main capitalist state while China is the main market economy. From this premise he goes on to argue that in the 21st century, particularly after the Iraq war, the global hegemony of US capitalism is facing its “terminal crisis”, while the swift rise of the Chinese market economy to the centre of the world economy is historically progressive. He even goes as far as to present China and other “non-capitalist market economies” as really-existing alternatives that progressive forces can look to.

The core hypothesis upon which the whole of Adam Smith in Beijing rests is a distinction between market economy and capitalism. This distinction is not something thought up by Arrighi, but an idea that was introduced by the social historian Fernand Braudel in his Civilisation and Capitalism. But this sort of distinction cannot be found in Marx’s critique of political economy. Of course, Stalin and some Marxists such as Ernest Mandel have asserted that a so-called system of “simple commodity production” that corresponds to Braudel and Arrighi’s “non-capitalist market economy” existed prior to the establishment of the capitalist commodity system. But Marx himself nowhere used the concept of “simple commodity production”.3 Marx put forward capitalism as a historical system of generalised commodity production (a market economy) based on the commodification of labour power. He did not suggest anywhere that it was possible for a market economy to be established as a system distinct from capitalism.

In actual history, when the market economy was generalised and established as an independent social system Marx called this capitalism. There is no historical example of a market economy existing as a separate, independent social system. In fact, globalisation—the central characteristic of 21st century capitalism—is simply the expansion of the market economy to the entire globe, in other words the total realisation of commodification, marketisation and the logic of competition.

When one distinguishes between market economy and capitalism in the way that Braudel and Arrighi do, it also makes it impossible to criticise the capitalist system itself, even though this might be quite contrary to their intentions. Arrighi actually ends up closing his eyes to the exploitative and repressive realities and contradictions of Chinese capitalism today by idealising it as a “non-capitalist market economy”.

In my view, the capitalist “laws of motion” that were formalised by Marx in Capital have functioned more clearly in the development of the Chinese economy since the 1980s than in any other nation in history. These “laws of motion” have appeared in China in the last three decades in their typical forms: the tendency of the organic composition of capital to rise, the resulting cumulative increase in the “reserve army of labour” (what Marx called the “general law of capitalist accumulation”) and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.4 Rather than the “socialism with Chinese characteristics” proclaimed by the Chinese ruling class, David Harvey’s phrase “-neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics” is a more appropriate description of today’s China.

It is unfortunate that so soon after Arrighi suggested that China offers a “non_capitalist market economy” and the possibility of “decoupling” from the troubled US economy as alternatives for humanity in the 21st century, its own economy has made an abrupt hard landing and “recoupled” itself with the deepening global economic crisis. Indeed, it turns out that the Chinese economy, rather than providing an alternative engine of growth for the world economy, has been at the centre of the current global economic crisis by exacerbating overproduction and over-accumulation on a world scale. There is a high likelihood that as the domestic contradictions and global imbalances resulting from China’s intensive accumulation deepen, and the global ecological crisis worsens, China may turn out to be the trigger for an even bigger world economic crisis.

If we want to hold China up as a possible alternative in the 21st century that can not be in the sense of a “non_capitalist” system that other countries can model themselves on. Rather it should be as a country akin to Russia at the beginning of the 20th century: the “weakest link” of the global capitalist system where the contradictions of uneven and combined development reach their highest level of intensity and compression—in other words, as the country where a workers’ revolution against capitalism is most likely to erupt.

Behind the wholesale revival of commercialism, chauvinism and Confucianism seen during the Beijing Olympics last year we see not the “industrious economy” dreamt of by Adam Smith but a capitalist reality marked by super-exploitation and inequality, competition and accumulation, dispossession and the logic of imperialism. It is a society still haunted by the spectre of Marx. In order to analyse this Chinese capitalist reality and consider alternatives, we still need the framework offered by Marx’s Capital, not Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

The intellectuals of the PD might consider Arrighi to be one of the core theorists of the “generalised Marxism” they have adapted but his ideas have nothing in common with our tradition of classical Marxism. As with The Long Twentieth Century, Marx’s problematics of class struggle and the law of value are completely absent from Adam Smith in Beijing.

Arrighi instead devotes the whole of his book to a critique of Robert Brenner’s The Economics of Global Turbulence (2005), a book which could be seen as the state of the art in the analysis of the large-scale dynamics of modern capitalism. However, despite the large number of points on which he takes issue with Brenner, in terms of level of scholarship, there is no comparison between the two books. The Economics of Global Turbulence makes a political analysis of primary sources on the basis of an independently constructed Marxist theory of crisis while Adam Smith in Beijing simply cuts and pastes a variety of badly interpreted secondary sources. If Arrighi actually had the ability to see reality as it is, he would have to change the title of his book to “Karl Marx in Beijing”.


1:I am deeply thankful to comrade Owen Miller for his excellent translation of my piece, which first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Candlelight Resistance.

2:PD stands for People’s Democracy-one of the two main tendencies dominating South Korea’s Stalinist left that originated in the workers’ and students’ struggles of the 1980s. While the PD tendency believed that Korean society was characterised by “state-monopoly capital” their rivals in the NL (National Liberation) tendency saw South Korea as a semi-colonial society dominated by US and Japanese capital. While the NL tendency has generally remained true to some form of left nationalist politics, and even in some cases to support for the North Korean regime, during the 1990s and 2000s the PD tendency splintered in many different directions, becoming increasingly influenced by post_Marxist and postmodernist ideas.

3:For philological evidence, refer to Christopher Arthur, “Myth of ‘Simple Commodity Production’”, Marx Myths and Legends (2005), http://marxmyths.org/chris-arthur/article2.htm

4:See Chris Harman, “Misreadings and Misconceptions”, International Socialism 119, www.isj.org.uk/?id=462 and Lee Jeong Koo, “A Study on the Development of State Capitalism in China since 1990s”, PhD dissertation, Gyeongsang National University, 2009 (in Korean).