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MARXISM, SOCIALISM, CHINA, AND THE WORLD

On March 12, 2007, the Manuscript Collective of S&S met with a group of researchers and workers from the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau attached to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).1 They were in New York to present papers on the current stage in Chinese economic and social development at the Left Forum, which had been held over the weekend prior to our meeting with them. While the usual constraints of time and language were at work, the conversation was cordial, and led to promises, on both sides, of extending contacts and developing forms of cooperation. This includes what is eventually to become a Special Issue on China — perhaps the title of this Editorial can serve as a working title for that issue, although further evolution is still possible — to include contributions from Chinese authorities secured through the Translation Bureau, as well as other scholars from China and a range of non-Chinese participants, with varying degrees of specialized knowledge and interests. Please think of this Editorial as a Call for Papers, and proposals. We would love to hear from readers and potential contributors.

The importance of the topic is undeniable. Our Special Issue of July 2005 (Vol. 69, No. 3), on "The Deep Structure of the Present Moment" (guest edited by Renate Bridenthal) contained a study by Minqi Li on "The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy." ("Demise," of course, raises a flag that some readers may wish to question.) Li's paper sketched out several alternative scenarios for the 21st century, in all of which China plays an increasingly important role. In today's fluid and contradictory world, the search for clarification on China's history, reality and prospects is crucial for left thought and action, and we hope to make Science & Society a forum for that search.

As always, we seek a full range of positions, and do not expect any kind of consensus or elimination of inconsistency among the contributions. We certainly hope to elicit input from the CCP CC Translation Bureau, as well as from other Chinese scholars and thinkers, that helps us advance in understanding, on the internationalist principle that those who can write from direct experience — from within, so to speak — must play a major role in the dialog. Perhaps we can say that, whatever other differences may exist among S&S' editors, authors and readers, we share a sense that sound thinking on China should avoid two different types of distortion.

The first of these is a tendency, all too common among leftists in advanced capitalist countries, to apply romantic and utopian standards leading to hyper-criticism and failure to evaluate countries such as China as they must be evaluated: within a deep historical context. I have previously quoted Fidel Castro, from a now untraceable speech in the 1970s referring to the attitude of certain European intellectuals toward the USSR: "A country is first of all a reality, and the product of many other realities." The same applies to China. Criticism that uses idealized perfection as a launch pad from which to spew hostility and rejection is, from this point of view, at the very least unhelpful.

Second, we understand and appreciate the desire, on the part of some sections of the left, to form alliances with those who speak in the name of socialism and hold state power somewhere in the world. Still, vast experience (detailing should not be necessary here) teaches us that official pronouncements cannot be taken at face value; that even — perhaps especially — the politics of those who profess to be working within the Marxist tradition and to be building superior, post-capitalist societies, from positions of political authority, must be subjected to intense critical scrutiny.

Within this framework, we have prepared the following groups of questions, as a guide to our interest in serious Marxist study of China, both internally and in its relations with the rest of the world. These questions are not directed towards any one group of participants in this project; they are for all of us, and should be used as each participant sees fit. Some of the questions, of course, have a "voice" that makes them most appropriately directed toward our Chinese contributors, especially those who are in a position to speak for the makers of policy. The list is undoubtedly incomplete, and should by no means by taken as the outer limit of topics that might be explored in a forthcoming Special Issue. Our goal is only to give the process of study and interchange a good sendoff.

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QUESTIONS ON CHINA'S SOCIAL, ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT2

1. Chinese civilization is 4,000 years old, and China produced major technological and cultural advances, with highly sophisticated political institutions, at times when peoples in other parts of the world — notably, Europe — remained quite backward by comparison. Nevertheless, the dynamic breakthrough to capitalism occurred in the West, not the East, and capitalist imperialism was a powerful external force acting on Chinese social development from the 19th century forward, rather than the reverse.

How should Marxist scholars account for the social formations that dominated Chinese society until the 2oth century? How has the Chinese Revolution since 1949 addressed the issue of precapitalist social relations and consciousness, and the need to accomplish tasks of transition from precapitalist forms simultaneously with overcoming low levels of development in general and building socialist institutions?

In particular, many Western scholars — including the remarkable Joseph Needham, whose six-volume Science and Civilization in China brought basic knowledge of and a respectful attitude toward China to a whole generation of readers — have applied a communal-hydraulic conception (we recall Marx's brief reference to an "Asiatic" epoch) to understanding the communal village in China, its resilience and resistance to disintegration, even when huge surpluses were extracted from it to support the elite strata that were the source of so much scientific and cultural development. What forms and powers of the village commune, with the associated familial ties, still exist in China today? How do the legacies of communal relations appear in Chinese society at present? What are their positive and negative impacts on social progress?

2. In the Marxist tradition, socialism — more generally, communism, with "socialism" denoting that mode of production's lower stage — has included, as an essential element, the replacement of spontaneous market (commodity) relations with conscious planning and foresight. Marx, for example, speaks of "a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labor-power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labor-power of the community" (Capital, Vol. I, ch. 1, section 4). In the 20th century, almost every country involved in socialist construction, starting from relatively low levels of social and technical development, has theorized a need for markets, outside of a core public and planned sector occupying the "commanding heights" of the economy, and even, in some senses, within that core. These market relations would last a long time; they would, however, eventually wither away, as conditions make that possible, with their remaining positive contributions to socialist development being subsumed within the system of comprehensive planning and democratic participation.

At present, however, the Chinese leadership has proclaimed the concept of "socialist market economy," not as a protracted transitional form owing to a need for "catching-up" development, but as the essence or full realization of socialism as such. Any evolution beyond the market economy is postponed until some distant future, about which nothing of substance can be known at present.

How can this conception be reconciled — or should it be reconciled — with the vision of socialism and communism found in both classical Marxism and in socialist practice in the 20th century? And: if the market, including the market in labor power, is to be a central aspect of economic life, and planning is to be either abolished or reduced to a secondary role, what meaning remains attached to the term "socialist" in "socialist market economy"?

3. The central experience of socialist construction in the 20th century was that of the Soviet Union. That experience produced a rich legacy of institutions and theory — the political economy of socialism, a subject within Marxism that could not have been elaborated before 1917, except in very broad and speculative outline. Soviet academics and political theorists developed conceptions of stages through which socialist planning institutions pass, as they mature. These involve systems of planning, methods for progressive devolution of planning to decentral levels, forms of management within enterprises, methods of price formation, theory for determining wage differentials and managing the evolution of those differentials, normative methods for evaluating the work of enterprises and progressively overcoming distortions; and much more.

What use might be made of this legacy in China today? Is it true that China before Deng Xiaoping followed a Soviet "model"? To what extent are the legacies of Soviet socialist thought a reflection of specific historical conditions that are not reproduced elsewhere? Conversely, to what extent do they have more general significance? In particular, what contribution might they make to Chinese socialist development, after the necessary adjustment to China's specific historical and cultural conditions?

What contributions or lessons can be derived from other experiences of socialist construction in the world, from Eastern Europe and Cuba to Vietnam and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea?

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1. The delegation was headed by Zhuang Junju, of the School of International Relations, Peking University. Other members of the delegation were Cai Shugui, Deng Chenming, Huang Xiaowu, Jinag Yang, and Yang Jinhai.

2. These questions were formulated by a team consisting of the Editor; Editorial Board member Barbara Foley, who has both a long-standing interest and scholarly connections in China; and Contributing Editor Bernard H. Moss.


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