Chinese socialism has now officially outlasted the Soviet Union
A delegate displays a banner with the words 'Always follow Communist Party' upon leaving the Great Hall of the People after the 17th CPC Congress in Beijing. | Andy Wong / AP

A landmark in socialist history passed largely unremarked this month.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has now lasted longer than the USSR did, counting the latter’s lifespan, as one reasonably should, from the October Revolution of 1917 rather than the actual formation of the USSR in 1922.

Such milestones may mean little in and of themselves, but this one carries a freight of historical significance.

It is emblematic of the shift of the leading edge of human development from Europe and North America to Asia and the Pacific, as the depredations wrought by 300 years of imperialism are gradually undone.

But that is only one side of the issue. China’s rise, after a century of violent interruption by Western aggression, would have significance even if it were an entirely capitalist project, which its critics say it is but which the government of the PRC itself emphatically says it isn’t.

It has additional, and greater, importance in the world because the PRC places its advance within the framework of the worldwide movement for socialism as well as China’s tortured history.

The two revolutions were intimately connected. The Chinese communists are fond of saying that the salvoes of the October Revolution brought Marxism to China.

That is indeed true; before Lenin and the Communist International, there was no Marxism and no Marxist party in China, unlike in Europe where existing Marxist traditions flourished before the First World War.

It was Soviet Marxism that initially shaped the Communist Party of China (CPC). And without the CPC, the struggle for China’s freedom from imperialism would have remained in the corrupted and compromised hands of the Kuomintang.

It is doubtful that this counterfactual China could have ever established a genuine unity and independence from foreign hegemony, prerequisites for the huge economic advances of the last 45 years in particular.

In that sense, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Russian Revolution in world history has been the Chinese Revolution. As to why and how socialist China has lasted longer than its Soviet progenitor, that is a very complicated question.

The reasons for the Soviet collapse of the 1980s have been endlessly chewed over. But there is probably a consensus that one cardinal factor was the unyielding pressure from Western imperialism on the Soviet state, ultimately beyond what its economic system could readily sustain.

That is a problem China seems to have cracked. Its accelerating economic strength has not merely guaranteed its independence—Soviet socialism established that too—but it has been able to reproduce itself at more advanced levels, to the point where being broken by economic coercion, expressed through an arms race or otherwise, seems all but impossible.

The connections between the two great revolutions of the 20th century should not blind us to the discontinuities, however. The CPC may have taken the Comintern’s Marxism-Leninism as its foundation, but its work, since 1935 at any rate, has turned on trying to integrate those principles with a reality very different from the one that originally produced Marxism.

For example, Lenin told the victorious Russian communists that they stood on the shoulders of the experience of the Paris Commune and of pre-1914 German social democracy.

Such points of reference meant little in China. The CPC was, however, the inheritor of indigenous revolutionary traditions, like the 19th-century Taiping Rebellion, a decade-long insurrection animated by a sort of quasi-Christian utopian peasant communism which dwarfs the Paris Commune in duration and bloodshed.

The history of Chinese socialism needs to be read as much or more against this background as it does against the more familiar—in the West—narratives of the international communist movement of Lenin, Stalin, and beyond.

The CPC describes its long struggle to make Marxist politics suitable to the different conditions of China as the “localization” of Marxism. It is also, however, a dialectical step in the universalization of Marxism, a doctrine first developed in industrializing Western Europe from sources which included Hegelian philosophy and French understandings of socialism.

That such a doctrine could remain the same as it extends its reach across the world, to countries with very different civilizational roots, philosophical traditions, and specific histories of class struggle, is a massive implausibility.

It should be neither surprising nor alarming that Chinese Marxism is refreshed from a variety of sources of which Marx and Engels knew little or nothing. That is the inevitable interplay of the development of a methodology which aims to encompass the totality of social experience across the world.

And that should inform the debate as to whether or not the PRC is today authentically socialist. Socialism and capitalism are terms with universal application, but to expect them to retain the same precise definition over the passage of centuries and the sweep of the world is in a sense to deny Marxism itself.

The CPC, unlike the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) for a good chunk of its history, makes no claim to have developed a model for all countries to follow, nor to have spoken the last word on Marxism. Other peoples and movements will bring something to the common cause too.

A poster printed in the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s proclaims: ‘Long Live Chinese-Soviet friendship!’ Though the Chinese Revolution initially learned much from the Soviet experience, it has now lived longer than did socialism in the USSR.

So Chinese socialism is very different from Soviet socialism, in good and bad ways. On the positive side, it has endured, with astonishing benefits to the Chinese people from sustained economic growth. And as China has stood up, so too has the global South, forming a loose pole of opposition to imperialism, albeit not in its 20th-century form.

It has done that through using a plurality of economic mechanisms, some of which clearly carry risks of ultimately upsetting the class nature of the PRC. Massive income inequality and persistent unemployment must be put down on the negative side of the ledger—neither can be reconciled with any serious notion of socialism.

Chinese communists have, however, been quite consistent in arguing that the transition to a socialist society is the work of centuries, not the relatively quick sprint imagined in Soviet times. The CPC took that view even under Mao’s sometimes leftist leadership, and under subsequent leaders, too.

That is perhaps a hard concept to embrace. After all, socialists would like to see their efforts for a better society consummated within their own lifetime. Moreover, the menace of climate change and catastrophic war may make a perspective of such protracted progress an unaffordable luxury. Nevertheless, it is not unrealistic, based on the evidence.

And while one may regret that the CPC does not see itself at the heart of the world revolutionary movement in the same way that the CPSU once did, it is inarguable that the perspective of socialism in the world today rests heavily on Chinese shoulders.

It is recounted, probably apocryphally, that Lenin danced in the snow in Moscow on the day his Soviet government outlasted the first workers’ regime, the Paris Commune. It is hard to imagine Xi Jinping skipping in celebration, but that should not stop the rest of us from acknowledging the immensity of the achievement of the CPC and the Chinese people.

Morning Star

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the views of its author.

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Andrew Murray
Andrew Murray

Andrew Murray is a British trade union and Labour Party official and activist. He was an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, from 2018 to 2020. He contributes to Morning Star, the social daily in the U.K. His latest book: "Is Socialism Possible in Britain?" published by Verso.