Monday, October 20, 2014

The SEP on the nature of Russia and China

Vladimir Putin

On Sept. 4 2014 we posted a comment on a resolution coming out of the recently concluded "Third Congress" of the SEP.   ( A comment on the resolution of the SEP on the fight against war.)  The "unanimously approved" resolution titled, "The Fight Against War and the Political Tasks of the Socialist Equality Party"   among other things excoriated anyone who thought that Russia and China were imperialist powers. Since the SEP's condemnation lacked any analysis on the nature of those societies, one section of  our critique challenged the SEP to tell us what exactly Russia and China were.  

Our piece elicited several comments including two that were sympathetic to the SEP's position.  Yet in no case could anyone produce a statement by the SEP on the nature of Russia or China. That is, until today.  This afternoon we received a comment by a reader, Michael, who did some research into the position of the SEP on Russia and China.  I am reprinting the entirety of Michael's comment below followed by my own comment:


Michael said...
I did a search on the WSWS regarding the issue of russian or chinese imperialism.
Here's what i found (may be incomplete):

Notwithstanding the attempts of imperialist propagandists to liken it to the Kaiser’s Germany, China is not an imperialist power. It operates within a world economy and financial system dominated by the imperialist powers, the US above all.

Unlike Germany in 1914, China is not an imperialist power. Rather it is a cheap labour platform, completely dependent on foreign investment and technology.

Russia is not an imperialist country.

Russland ist kein imperialistisches Land, sondern vom Weltimperialismus abhängig. Putin vertritt die Interessen einer Plutokratie, die das gesellschaftliche Eigentum plündert, sagenhafte Vermögen zusammenstiehlt und in internationalen Banken versteckt, während die große Mehrheit der Bevölkerung in bitterer Armut lebt.

Translation with Google translator:

Russia is not an imperialist country, but is dependent on world imperialism. Putin represents the interests of a plutocracy that plunders the social property, robs fabulous wealth and hides it in international banks, while the vast majority of the population lives in abject poverty.

The fact of the matter is that while China’s economy is indisputably capitalist, it is not an imperialist power. German imperialism’s economic dynamism at the beginning of the 20th century stemmed from its consolidation of a large internal market and the emergence of giant trusts and corporations, based on its pioneering role in the manufacturing and chemical industries. The Chinese economy’s expansion, on the contrary, has been the outcome of the operations of huge transnational corporations and international finance capital and their insatiable appetite for cheap labour. Domestic consumption in China amounts to just 35 percent of GDP, compared with 65–70 percent in the US and the UK. Foreign capital dominates the Chinese economy. In 2013, foreign invested enterprises (FIE) numbered more than 440,000 and accounted for 47 percent of China’s exports and 45 percent of its imports. Consequently the Chinese economy is extremely vulnerable to foreign investment flows and to the state of its export markets. While its economy is the world’s second largest, the International Monetary Fund ranks China by per capita GDP at 85th, between the Maldives and Iraq. Nor does China have colonies or semi-colonies. Its enormous demand for raw materials and energy constantly runs up against the domination of every part of the globe by the major imperialist powers.


Hm, some of these arguments seem problematic to me.

For example the first one: Isn't this true for nearly *every* country on earth (even the US itself)?

And for the last one: Would - according to most of these criterias - the old czarist Russia qualify as an imperialist country?

Michael deserves credit for doing this research and he is absolutely correct in pointing to the threadbare quality of the SEP's "arguments" in supporting their thesis that Russian and China are not imperialist powers. What strikes me about these statements that are gathered together from different news articles is their eclectic and impressionistic quality.  China, it is claimed, is not an imperialist nation because  "It operates within a world economy and financial system dominated by the imperialist powers."  Michael  is correct to note that this criteria can apply to practically any country. Moreover if you parse that statement, it is actually a tautology. If you exclude China from membership in the club of imperialist powers, then it follows by definition that it is not one of the members of that club and therefore "operates within a world economy...dominated by the imperialist powers." 

Another statement  provides yet another reason why China is not an imperialist nation - it is because  "it is a cheap labour platform,"   True, China is a source of cheap labour for many of the world's largest and most profitable corporations such as Apple.  But is that all there is to the Chinese economy? It seems rather arbitrary to isolate one part of the Chinese economy and use that as a definition of the entire society. Even Proudhon did better than that.  Furthermore, why does the fact that China is a source of cheap labour imply that it is not an imperialist power?  Have there never been imperialist powers that also provided cheap labour to the international market?  In this respect one can cite Czarist Russia.  Prior to the October Revolution, Russia was a source of cheap labour for German capitalists, who invested heavily in Russian industry.  Of course those investments were hardly on the same scale as those we see today in the global economy.  But all attempts to pigeon-hole China's relationship to the world economy into one distinct category must fall flat on its face given the complex nature of China's interaction with the world market.  China is the second largest creditor nation in the world today, behind Japan but fast approaching number one. At the same time huge sections of Chinese industry are heavily dependent on foreign investments making them debtors in the world economy.  It is both a source of raw materials for Europe and North America and a large importer of raw materials to feed its ravenous industries.  
Michael also located an article that cites several statistics,  none of which point to anything more than that the vast majority of the population remain mired in poverty and the economy is heavily tied to and dependent on foreign investments.  But one of the defining characteristics of social relations in China today is the vast disparity between the new enriched capitalists and middle class and the rest of the population.  While it is true that the ruling class and upper middle class is a small percent of the population, given the enormous size of China, that layer still comprises tens of millions of people. And that layer of Chinese society dominates China politically and are the driving force behind its imperialist ambitions. 
Xi Jinping

One last argument made in the pages of the WSWS is that "China does not have any colonies or semi-colonies."  Even if that were true, it ignores the fact that imperialism in the 21st century functions largely without "having colonies" as was the case in the 19th century and the earlier part of the 20th century.  New forms of imperialism have arisen to replace the old colonial system that was once dominated by Great Britain.  The United States, the worlds' number one imperialist power, functions largely without any formal colonies except for a few small islands in the Carribean. In any case, the statement that China does not have colonies is only true if you ignore China's occupation of Tibet and its insistence on keeping several national minorities within the boundaries of China despite the desires of those ethnic groups to be independent.  It is true that these are not colonies in a formal legal sense but then again neither were the countries that were absorbed by the old Czarist Empire.  In fact  there are many parallels between China today and Czarist Russia including the fact that like Czarist Russia's rivalry with the dominant imperialist powers of a hundred years ago, China is a minor imperialist power compared to the dominant one of the 21st century, the United States. 
So much for arguments about China not being an imperialist nation.  The WSWS doesn't even venture to provide a coherent argument as to why Russia should not be considered an imperialist power. 
The branding of Russia and China as mere victims of imperialism, while a fiction from the viewpoint of the Marxist theory of imperialism, has a very practical purpose.  It enables the SEP to side with Russia and China in the inter-imperialist rivalries that have broken out between those countries on the one hand and the U.S. and Western Europe on the other, as if Russia and China held the same status of clearly oppressed nations such as Bangladesh or Peru. In our previous comment on the SEP's resolution, we called this the Politics of As If.  And this fictitious identification of these countries with the oppressed nations of the world becomes the justification for the failure of the SEP to formulate an independent role for the working class within these conflicts.  Instead the SEP has championed a form of anti-imperialism that is divorced from socialism and adapts itself to the Chinese and Russian ruling classes. 
And we are still waiting for an explanation from the SEP as to what exactly Russia and China are. If they are capitalist countries - which the SEP acknowledges - but not imperialist powers - then what exactly are they?  
Alex Steiner 


Michael said...

Just a small addition: North himself supports the thesis that Russia and China are not imperialist powers:

A wide range of issues were discussed in the question-and-answer period including: how to fight the militarization of police in the United States; the development of socialist consciousness; the role of the pseudo-left in limiting the class struggle; the wars in the Middle East and America’s military spending; why Russia and China are not imperialist; and the ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Now, when we consider the rather "threadbare quality of the SEP's 'arguments'" i think we should reason and ask further.
Therefore, it would be very informative if the (supporters of the) WSWS could answer the following questions and substantiate their answer(s):

Is it in principle possible that an formerly oppressed country (like China) becomes an imperialist power (albeit a minor one)?

Is it in the case of Russia (that left the circle of imperialist powers with the october revolution) possible to rejoin the circle of imperialist powers after the capitalist restauration?

Is the circle of imperialist powers (i.e. the "club of imperialist powers") fix since let's say 1910, and/or is it is only possible to "drop out" of this circle?

I think that these questions have to be answered to understand the WSWS's position better and to orient the discussion to the real controversial issues.

JP said...

"And we are still waiting for an explanation from the SEP as to what exactly Russia and China are. If they are capitalist countries - which the SEP acknowledges - but not imperialist powers - then what exactly are they? "

Is the implication here that the distinction between imperialist and semi-colonial countries is no longer valid? Or is it that it is inconceivable that China or Russia could fall into that category?

Alex Steiner said...

No such implication follows from what we have written. What we are saying, and I have now repeated this a number of times, is that while the SEP/WSWS has a great deal to say about what Russia and China is NOT, it has nothing to say about what they ARE. No matter how you slice it, they do not articulate any coherent theory about the nature of Russia and China. Instead they provide hints here and there but nothing of any substance. Its as if there is some esoteric doctrine behind their statements to which only the initiated are privy. A typical example are the following remarks made by the leader of the British Socialist Equality Party, Chris Marsden, to an audience in Australia:

"But we also insisted that, “the dangers confronting Russia—which threaten its dismemberment and reduction to semi-colonial status—cannot be lessened, let alone overcome, by the Putin regime’s resort to military force. No support can be given to the actions of Putin. His response to the aggressive actions of US and German imperialism is bereft of any progressive content.
“Putin represents oligarchs who enriched themselves by plundering state industry following the dissolution of the USSR … The Putin regime is an organ of capitalist restoration and the product of the degeneration and overthrow at the hands of Stalinism of the economic and social foundations of the workers’ state established by the 1917 October Revolution. It is a comprador regime with no real independence from imperialism.”
British Trotskyist leader addresses Australian SEP congress

Marsden's comments are very confused to say the least. In the first paragraph he says that Russia faces the threat of being thrown into a semi-colonial existence. But in his second paragraph he seems to think this has already happened as he calls the Putin regime a "comprador regime with no real independence from imperialism." This is quite a muddle. He also calls the Putin regime "an organ of capitalist restoration". But capitalist restoration took place more than two decades ago and while you can certainly say that the Putin regime rests on the reactionary legacy of this historical event, it is not now promulgating capitalist restoration for the simple reason that they don't need to because it's already happened.

The definition of semi-colonial countries in the tradition of classical Marxism is that of countries that are nominally independent but who are in fact completely subservient to imperialism. In his address to the Second Congress of the Communist International Lenin cited several countries as examples of semi-colonies:

"Before the war of 1914, the population of the colonies was estimated at about 600,000,000, and if we add countries like Persia, Turkey, and China, which were already semi-colonies, we shall get, in round figures, a population of a thousand million people oppressed through colonial dependence by the richest, most civilised and freest countries."
Lenin Report to Second Congress of the Communist International

Note that Lenin considered China in 1920 a semi-colony, which indeed it was. Is the SEP seriously saying that the China of 2014, the world's second largest creditor nation, has the same status as the China of 1920? China was then a backward, semi-feudal country forced to pay tribute to the imperialist powers and suffered numerous occupations of Shanghai, Hong Kong and other major cities? If so let us hear the case.

Alex Steiner

JP said...

"No such implication follows from what we have written. What we are saying, and I have now repeated this a number of times, is that while the SEP/WSWS has a great deal to say about what Russia and China is NOT, it has nothing to say about what they ARE."

I see. I'd be interested to know how you yourself answer the question? What exactly are they?

"Marsden's comments are very confused to say the least. In the first paragraph he says that Russia faces the threat of being thrown into a semi-colonial existence."

This is not new, actually. I've seen the same sort of things said about Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, etc... At the same time, many of these countries are called "oppressed countries." It seems at some point the ICFI began to use "semi-colonial" to refer to a situation in which imperialism exercises more direct control. Seems to me to be the result of playing loose with terminology in their journalistic stuff rather than any serious theoretical distinction.

As far as the usage of "oppressed country," I was able to find an article from 1999 describing China as "historically oppressed country and not an imperialist power," but that's it.

You appear to be right that it is quite a muddle.

Walter Daum said...

I just came across some of your discussion of the nature, imperialist or not, of Russia and China; and of the WSWS’s position on these issues. A few years ago I searched the web to survey positions by various left theorists and organizations on a) whether, when and how China had become capitalist; and b) whether, when and how China had become imperialist. In this survey I came across some pieces on the WSWS site that your discussion so far seems to have overlooked.

For over 10 years, John Chan had written more than 500 articles for the WSWS on China, many of them containing valuable reports and analysis. His articles, which had been appearing more than a dozen times per month, suddenly stopped at the end of 2013. I’m curious as to whether you know anything about him or his disappearance. In any case, at least two of his analytical points are relevant to your discussion.

1. Throughout his articles, he strongly rejected claims that the People’s Republic in any way represented socialism or the interests of the working class. In one article, and as far as I know only in one, he went so far as to say that China had never been a workers’ state.

“Rather than some kind of deformed workers’ state, it would more accurate to characterise Mao’s China from the outset as a deformed bourgeois state. The anti-working class character of the regime has been apparent ever since 1949, as the Beijing bureaucracy suppressed any independent role of the workers. Under “market reform,” Beijing has consciously acted as the collective representative of the interests of both Chinese capitalists and foreign investors, using police-state measures to enforce the ruthless exploitation of the working class.”
– “The implications of China for world socialism, Part Three,” 11 March 2006.

2. I don’t think he ever commented directly on whether China had become imperialist. But at one point he wrote about China’s export of capital, perhaps suggesting that it might have:

“While still in its early stages, the export of capital reflects the changing character of Chinese capitalism. Since China opened up to foreign capital in 1978, a new propertied class has accumulated considerable capital through the plunder of state enterprises and primitive sweatshop exploitation – all enforced by the police-state regime. In addition, the overseas Chinese business elite in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South East Asia has developed close relations with China, accelerating its capital accumulation.

“Now rather than simply functioning as the world’s largest cheap labour platform for existing transnationals, China is investing abroad and challenging the economic and strategic position of the existing major powers. Amid a deepening global economic crisis, this rivalry can only exacerbate political tensions and set the stage for future conflicts.”
– “China emerges as a major exporter of capital.” 19 May 2009.

Alex Steiner said...

I have no knowledge about Mr. Chan. Your question is probably better directed to the WSWS editors.