Theorising China’s transition

Issue: 174

Simon Gilbert

A review of The Communist Road to Capitalism: How Social Unrest and Containment Have Pushed China’s (R)evolution since 1949, Ralf Ruckus (PM Press, 2021), £12

In The Communist Road to Capitalism German activist Ralf Ruckus takes a rather different approach to most histories of Communist China.1 While authors generally focus on the Communist Party leadership and its internal conflicts, Ruckus writes history from below. China’s workers and peasants are not only victims of policies delivered from on high but at times can also be agents of change, forcing the hand of the government—a “process of partial concession and leadership consolidation” (p46).

A wave of strikes against the Communist regime broke out as early as 1956-7 (p47-48). This was at a time when the nationalisation of industry was being pushed through, often with a detrimental effect on workers’ pay and conditions. At the same time Mao Zedong was encouraging a limited opening up of intellectual debate in what became known as the Hundred Flowers movement. It was aimed at his opponents in the Communist Party. However, when it resulted in a barrage of criticism that went well beyond what was expected, the leadership closed ranks and shut it down.

A decade later Mao went much further, mobilising millions of young people against those who were trying to sideline him. Although it was labelled the Cultural Revolution, culture was only the pretext for a bitter struggle within the top levels of the Communist bureaucracy that resulted in vicious and deadly fighting between groups of “red guards”. Nonetheless, these splits at the top did allow space for critical ideas to emerge again, with some activists describing the People’s Republic as a class society and condemning their exploitation by “red capitalists” (p64). Fear that they were losing control forced the Communist leaders to wind down the Cultural Revolution.

Strikes and protests through the mid 1970s, combined with popular hostility to endless top-down political campaigns, helped to convince the leadership that change was necessary following Mao’s death in 1976. Since then workers’ struggles have become a permanent feature of Chinese society. Although these “remained limited to the socio-economic level and did not become serious political threats for the central regime”, they have been able to wring concessions from both local government and their employers (p169).

The experience of women under Communist rule is another thread that runs through the book. Despite some promising early reforms, for instance, in marriage law, the regime failed to live up to Mao’s maxim that “women hold up half the sky”. Women’s needs were subordinated to the state-led development drive. So, when labour was in short supply they were mobilised into the workforce using slogans of equality but at other times were told to stay home as “socialist housewives” (p65).

Ruckus shares with many others an interpretation of the reform period, which began in the late 1970s, as a transition from socialism to capitalism. However, if it takes a massive social upheaval—a revolution—to bring a socialist society about, how could it revert to capitalism even though the same party, and many of the same personnel, remained in power? Many authors simply duck this question. To his credit Ruckus is prepared to grapple with this issue and attempts a theoretical analysis of the transition.

He describes the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s as socialist and from the mid-1990s as capitalist. Thus, the years between these two periods (as well as the first years of Communist rule) were ones of transition. Ruckus admits that what he calls “actually existing socialism” did share “certain central features with capitalism”. This imitated a “form of capital accumulation” in order to fund industrial development in workplaces that were “hierarchically organised and employed labour regimes and technologies reminiscent of capitalist enterprises” (pp8, 26, 28 and 42). This created a “rigid class pyramid” with a “new socialist ruling class” at the top, which then “transformed itself into a capitalist ruling class” during the second transition (p34). Although Ruckus says it is a mistake to “understand state ownership, welfare and centralised one-party rule as tantamount to socialism”, it is difficult to see what else is left here (p171).

The tradition that this journal is associated with shares much of this analysis but goes a step further and identifies Chinese society under Mao as state capitalist. Ruckus rejects this approach, which he sees as based on the failure of Chinese communism to “abolish wage work”, “the extraction of surplus labour” and the “factory system”, as well as the fact that it established a socialist regime in “just one country”. Internationalism and an end to exploitation surely have to be qualities of any meaningful socialism, but there is a more fundamental reason for identifying the Chinese system as state capitalist. China under Mao reproduced the defining features of capitalism: competitive accumulation based on the exploitation of labour. The particular features of state capitalism are that competition takes place predominantly through military production between states rather than commercial competition in the market, and that the surplus produced by exploitation is accumulated by the state itself. However, what Marx called the “relations of production” are much the same. Seen this way it becomes much easier to understand how the Communists’ “exploitative” economy failed to “break with central elements of the previous system” and why it was relatively easy for the bureaucrats to later transform themselves into private capitalists (p181).

Overall this is a very welcome contribution by someone who is actively engaged with the struggles of ordinary Chinese people. However, it does try to cover too much ground. Ruckus wants to provide both a history from below of 70 years of Communist rule aimed at those unfamiliar with that history and a theoretical attempt to understand the transitions to and from “actually existing socialism”. A more in-depth exploration of the links between the various struggles from below and policy changes at the top would have been useful.

Although Ruckus’s theoretical framework is rather weak and at times contradictory, his highly critical attitude to Chinese “socialism” means that he does take very creditable positions on the most important contemporary issues. For instance, he opposes the current US hostility to China. At the same time he is sympathetic to the democracy movement in Hong Kong and denounces the harsh repression of the Uyghur people. This book is intended as a contribution to debates on how to overthrow capitalism and end oppression. Its focus on struggle from below gives it a rare optimism about the potential for creating a “very different and much better version of ‘socialism’” (p168).

Simon Gilbert is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and is based in Oxford.


1 Ralf Ruckus is a leading figure in Gongchao, which over the last year or so has organised a fascinating series of discussions in English under the title “China and the Left”, many of which are now available as podcasts—see