We are told that all of history since Marx and Engels has been the battle between capitalism and socialism. It’s a simple way of looking at these worldviews, but alas, it’s largely untrue. This blind spot, especially among Americans on the Right, is one reason why the United States is turning into the Untied States of America. Rather than being diametrically opposed ideologies, these two ideas are two sides of the same soulless and materialist coin.
When teaching classes on current events, the topic of corporate investment in China inevitably arises. Isn’t this a contradiction? How can a country devoted to Communism allow capitalism to penetrate its economy? Why would these implacable “enemies” do business with each other? The usual answer given by the Western foreign policy establishment and most of the educated classes is to say that China isn’t really Communist.
How many of these people know history? How many actually read Marxist literature?
Yes, Karl Marx believed that Communism would be born through violent revolution. Not every individual inspired by Marx’s copious writings agreed with him, however, that Communism would always or necessarily emerge from violent revolution. From the earliest days, some Marxists argued that Communism could emerge through evolutionary means.
Eduard Bernstein was possibly the most important theorist to argue this view. Bernstein maintained a close relationship with Marx’s sugar benefactor, Friedrich Engels. Incidentally, people forget that Engels himself was a capitalist. Bernstein was among the first to say that Communism would emerge from capitalism. In his tome Evolutionary Socialism, he writes,
With the spread of the capitalistic large enterprises . . . there is assumed to be a lasting and steadily increasing material cause for the impetus to a socialistic transformation of society . . . Like production itself, the conditions of existence for the producers press towards the socialization . . . of production and exchange. As soon as this development is sufficiently advanced the realization of socialism becomes an imperative necessity for the further development of the community . . . According to that, we have as the first condition of the general realization of socialism a definite degree of capitalist development.
Socialism, in other words, will come not through violent revolution, but through natural evolution as the capitalists unwittingly bring about their own replacement.
Bernstein may have been the first to assert this position, but he wasn’t the last.
Twenty-two years later, in the midst of the widespread destruction, death, and famine following the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin argued something very similar. Facing the grim reality of a broken and war-torn country, he opted not to go immediately to a total communist command economy, but rather led the Soviet Union through a capitalistic phase which he called the New Economic Policy. In his October 1921 “Report To The Second All-Russia Congress Of Political Education Departments,” he said:
We must not count on going straight to communism. We must build on the basis of peasants’ personal incentive . . . we must also give every specialist an incentive to develop our industry . . . Get down to business, all of you! You will have capitalists beside you, including foreign capitalists, concessionaires and leaseholders. They will squeeze profits out of you amounting to hundreds per cent; they will enrich themselves, operating alongside of you. Let them. Meanwhile you will learn from them the business of running the economy, and only when you do that will you be able to build up a communist republic.
Lenin could not have been more clear. He says he will use capitalism to achieve a Communist republic. He incorporated capitalism as an evolutionary stage in the development of the Soviet Union.
Joseph Stalin rejected this approach and ended the New Economic Policy. Adhering to the orthodox line from Marx and Engels, he chose to forsake the evolutionary path to Communism and led the Soviet Union through the revolutionary program of the five-year plan. Similarly, Mao Zedong followed Stalin’s line with the Great Leap Forward. These programs failed, and in the process, killed tens of millions in both the Soviet Union and China. This is the communism most Americans learn about. Both programs led to mass death and completely failed to deliver rising standards of material living. In both countries, the leadership realized that they were approaching disaster.
In the Soviet Union, they tried to avert this looming disaster by granting limited amounts of political and economic freedoms through glasnost and perestroika. These reforms failed and the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Not so in Communist China. There, its leader Deng Xiaoping chose to grant wider economic freedoms while absolutely holding onto political power. He chose a Chinese version of Lenin’s New Economic Policy. In a 1986 interview with Mike Wallace, Deng himself explained,
There was a view that poor communism was preferable to rich capitalism . . . I criticized that view . . . I said to them that there was no such thing as poor communism. According to Marxism, communist society is based on material abundance. Only when there is material abundance can the principle of a communist society—that is, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’—be applied. Socialism is the first stage of communism. Of course, it covers a very long historical period. The main task in the socialist stage is to develop the productive forces, keep increasing the material wealth of society, steadily improve the life of the people and create material conditions for the advent of a communist society.
Like Lenin, Deng explicitly saw development into a communist society as an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, process. Hence, to him, there was no contradiction in opening up China to foreign investment and to allowing capitalism to develop in the Special Economic Zones he designated along its eastern coast.
This policy continues in a modified guise today. China’s current President Xi Jinping said in 2013, “We must adhere to Marxism and socialism from a developmental perspective. With each step forward we will encounter new situations and unfamiliar problems, we will face greater risks and challenges, and we will be confronted by the unexpected. We must be prepared for adversity and danger, even in times of prosperity and peace.”
Did you learn this in school? Did it ever occur to your leaders and teachers—or our feckless elites—that Communism could come not through tanks and barbed wire, but through Nike shoes and the Apple iPhone? I doubt it. Yet Bernstein, Lenin, Deng, and Xi all agree with that premise.
The question we should ask is: Why did “conservative,” “pro-capitalist” think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation think they knew more about Communism than Deng as they and then-president George H.W. Bush began linking American capital with Communist China? And did his son, George W. Bush, really understand Communism more thoroughly than Jiang Zemin did when, in 2001, Bush granted China permanent normal trade status.
Zemin saw no contradiction with opening up China to “American” international capital. Zemin described it this way: “The establishment of the (capitalist) four special economic zones of Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, and Xiamen was an important step in opening China to the outside world and a new experiment in utilizing foreign funds, technology, and managerial skills to develop the socialist economy.” Are the international capitalists who controlled the United States in the 1980s and 2000s therefore simply Lenin’s useful idiots?