by Robert Griffiths
On June 6-7, a seminar was held in Brussels on ‘China in the 21st Century’. It was organised by the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) group of MEPs, the China Centre for Overseas Social and Philosophical Theories (CCOSPT), the Gabriel Péri Foundation (France), OSPAAAL (Spain), and International Correspondence.
Communist Party of Britain general secretary Robert Griffiths made the following contributions:
I want to concentrate my remarks around two sets of issues. The first concerns China’s global impact and role in the immediate future; the second concerns labour relations and China’s trade union movement.
If the 20th century was known in some circles as ‘The American Century’, so some Western commentators are beginning to talk of ‘The Chinese Century’ today.
Estimates differ about exactly when China’s domestic economy will surpass that of the US in terms of economic output, regardless of how it is measured. Of course, I’m referring to total output, not output per head of workforce or population.
The OECD believes the ‘passing point’ will come very soon, as early as 2016. The US National Intelligence Council reckons it will occur a little later, around 2027. Various other financial analysts put the passing point at some time in the 2020s or as late as the 2040s.
But they are all agreed that this will happen. And the speculation has begun about the implications, whether political, economic, social and military.
Obviously, many of these analysts and commentators in the West can only view the prospects through Western experience, through the rise of capitalism and the spread of imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. They tend to see the future in terms of the economic, political and military threat that China – as the world’s biggest economy – will present, not least to the USA and Europe.
They find it difficult to contemplate the future without seeing China through the prism of imperialist rivalry, equating China’s future economic power with aggressive economic and political expansionism, backed up by massive Chinese military power.
My view is that China’s own analysts, commentators and political representatives should consider how to participate as fully as possible in this debate, particularly in the West itself.
The danger, otherwise, is that the debate could become dominated by those in the West who emphasise only the negative possibilities, raising scares and fears instead of considering how China’s rise can benefit not only the people of China, but people – including workers – across the world, especially in the developing countries.
China’s approach to investment in other countries needs to be clarified, explained and publicised more widely. I am reminded here of the excellent chapter on Chinese and Western investment policy in Africa by our comrade Gourmo Abdoul Lo, in the book Arise in Unity produced by International Correspondence in 2011.
China’s approach to foreign and defence policy also needs to be more widely understood in the West, which is in part the responsibility of communists, socialists and progressives in the capitalist countries, as well as a responsibility of China’s own representatives and the Communist Party of China.
By the way, we could point out some obvious facts – such as China’s lower per capita level of development and how that provides continuing and new export possibilities in the West and the Third World.
But we should also provide some longer historical perspective on ‘The New Chinese Century’.
In truth, such a century will in itself be nothing new. China had the world’s largest domestic economy from the early 16th century up to the 1880s, when it was overtaken by US capitalism. Before that period, India reigned supreme – and then the British arrived!
And when contemplating China’s return to its previous position, as Marxists we can highlight the dialectical process at work: China’s transformations are now taking place on a new and higher basis, where the state, the party, macro-economic planning and public ownership are at the core of economic and social development.
Finally, comrades, I wish to say something about labour relations and trade unionism in China – not because I’m an expert on the Chinese experience, but because in Britain we have long experience of representing workers employed by capitalist monopoly corporations.
I would urge our Chinese comrades to give even greater priority to building democratic and participative trade union organisation in workplaces in every sector of their economy, building it organisationally and politically.
One of the fatal weaknesses of the Soviet system, in my party’s analysis, was the failure to maintain trade unions as vibrant, active, inclusive representatives of workers’ interests at work and in the economy.
We recognise that trade unions function in a different context in China’s society, in a system in the primary stage of building socialism. We recognise the central and leading role of the Communist Party, which trade unions cannot replace.
But, in our submission, strong trade unions can also contribute to the feeling by workers that they really do constitute the ruling class in a socialist society.
We also have to say that, while Western transnational corporations in China have to operate in a very different context, compelling them to respect policies, laws and institutions that put the interests of the people and workers first, ‘leopards do not change their spots’, even when they operate outside the capitalist jungle.
Communists, socialists and trade unions in Britain and other developed capitalist societies have long experience of their tricks, of how capitalist corporations will seek to undermine and roll back progressive legislation and collective agreements.
I would finish, therefore, by urging our Chinese comrades to develop closer links between the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and trade union bodies in Britain as well as other countries. Greater understanding and more extensive exchanges of information would be mutually beneficial, not least in encouraging positive perceptions about the ‘The New Chinese Century’ and its positive possibilities.
My second contribution has been inspired by Sitaram Yechury and – I mean this in a comradely way – provoked by that of Samir Amin.
In his remarks earlier this morning, comrade Sitaram warned of the dangers presented by the creation of Chinese capitalists and their admission into the Communist Party of China (CPC). Similar points were made by others in the course of yesterday’s proceedings. But we have paid no attention to one of the issues I raised yesterday, namely trade unionism in China.
British and western European delegations from communist and workers’ parties have been to China and visited the chemical plants and the car factories. What we have witnessed is the formation of a vast industrial proletariat in that country.
Yet, if we consider the composition of the CPC, we see that manual and industrial workers comprise only 9 per cent of the party’s membership. Professional and technical workers comprise an additional 23 per cent, but these are among the best paid workers and they include adult students.
While the social composition of CPC membership broadly reflects that of Chinese society more widely, we might expect the industrial working class to be ‘over-represented’ in the ranks of the country’s communist party. In a socialist society, they will ultimately decide the future course of development. Indeed, they will determine whether the socialist system continues to exist at all.
Here we must bear in mind the experience of the socialist systems in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. As communists, we once considered that progress there was inevitable, whatever the ups and downs at any given time. Instead, we saw how workers can come to feel that that this is not their system. They can become alienated from it. Here, we have to remember the distinction between class consciousness and revolutionary political consciousness. The former will develop when workers are collected together in large workplaces. That will happen – and no doubt is happening today – in China. However, as Marxist-Leninists, we also understand that the development of revolutionary political consciousness is something different and additional. What are the roles, respectively, of the trade unions and the CPC in this process? How can the development of revolutionary political consciousness be ensured?
In response to comrade Samir, it is important to clarify our analytical concepts. Measures that can be described as ‘state capitalist’ are not the same in a capitalist society as they are in a society that is in transition to socialism or under socialism itself: state capitalist policies will be different in terms of what they actually are, how they are operated with what objectives.
It is also important to be clear about the distinction between a transition period and the period in which society has arrived at the stage of socialism – the lower stage of communism – where the means of production, distribution and exchange are largely public property, through one form or another of social ownership, where the capitalists have mostly been dispossessed, and where society is governed according to the principle of ‘from each according to their means, to each according to their contribution’.
I would argue that the transitional phase existed in the Soviet Union – with zig-zags, advances and strategic or tactical retreats – from 1917 until the first Five Year Plan. I would argue that China, too, went through that transition from 1949 to the point where public ownership, centralised planning and the governing principle of distribution began to predominate.
The danger is – as we saw in the last quarter of the 20th century – that social development can be reversed. The negation of the negation does not always result in a higher level of development, but can take society back to a lower level. The danger may be that China slips back from the stage of building socialism to the transitional phase before public ownership and the governing principle of distribution predominated.