Ralf Ruckus, The Left in China: A Political Cartography (Pluto 2023), 240pp. Ralf Ruckus, The Left in China: A Political Cartography (Pluto 2023), 240pp.

An analysis of left-wing protest movements in China shows the country is no model for socialism, and never was, finds Reece Goscinski

In Western media, China is often caricatured as a realised version of 1984 or Brave New World. In many of its depictions, the Chinese state is portrayed as having such a firm grip on the thoughts and actions of its 1.4 billion population that resistance is impossible.

Such perceptions certainly play into the hands of Chinese Communist Party propaganda and fringe conspiracies decrying ‘fifteen-minute cities’, but such assumptions exclude the real lives, struggles, and politics of the Chinese working classes since 1949.

Similarly, the question of China has dominated online discussions in younger left-wing circles. On various platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Reddit, some have upheld China as a leading example of twenty-first century ‘actually existing socialism’, challenging the hegemony of the United States. Others have argued it is impossible to include China as a model for socialism due to its clear State Capitalist economy and the CCP’s roots in nationalist and agrarian culture. These debates also run within China itself, with sections of its youth using the works of Marx and Mao to question the party’s role in widening inequality within the country.

These are the questions Ralph Ruckus attempts to answer in his latest book The Left in China: A Political Cartography. The study looks at resistance movements within four key periods of China’s recent history: the socialist period (1950s – 1960s); the first reform period (1970s – 1980s); the second reform period (1990s – 2000s); and the capitalist period (2010 – present).  Within each of these phases, Ruckus argues that waves of left-wing resistance have manifested to challenge ruling hegemony in the Peoples Republic of China.

Economism vs. Socialism

The first movement of resistance the book identifies is the economist movement that developed during the Maoist period. Economism was a term used by Lenin to critique elements of the socialist movement who prioritised economic demands such as wages, working hours and employment over the wider working-class struggle. In the case of China, the term economism appeared to describe groups of workers late in the Cultural Revolution following a change in the CCP’s economic policy.

In the book, economism is used to describe resistance movements within the socialist period following 1949. Economic reforms implemented following the consolidation of the new state bureaucracy in the 1950s resulted in land collectivisation, nationalisation of urban industries, and the well-documented five-year plans.

Ruckus (pp.24–7) argues that the failure of these measures to increase living standards, ease workloads, or increase worker participation resulted in waves of strikes and protests within industrialised areas. Many of these movements were organised independently of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, taking their grievances directly to enterprise managers or CCP representatives.

Whilst the party managed to quash the protests through concessions and repressions, Ruckus (pp.24-5) argues that they exposed social divisions between temporary, migrant, and contract workers as well as within the CCP itself. For the Chinese proletariat, their new communist government had fallen short on its promises of liberation. These protests exposed a militancy amongst some workers, but also how disparate these resistance movements were.

By 1966, economism rears its head again during the Cultural Revolution. Following on from the Hundred Flowers campaign, Mao sought to re-establish himself by reversing ‘rightist’ reforms led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, unleashing the Red Guard, and cementing his grip on the Chinese population through his cult of personality.

'Smashing Economism', 1967
‘Smashing Economism’, 1967. Photo: Public Domain

Initially, the Cultural Revolution encouraged a “wind of economism” as workers pushed for higher wages, employment security, and the removal of bureaucratisation, to which the party conceded. However, once Mao had achieved his aim of dominating the CCP leadership, and wished to restore order and production targets, the economists were quickly denounced for being ‘capitalist roaders’. This resulted in a halt in the initial run of back payments of wages, rebel organisations being dissolved, and factories being placed under military control (ibid, pp. 31-9). In industrial hubs such as Shanghai, cadres blamed for fanning the flames of economism were paraded through the city cursed for their crimes.

Ruckus’ analysis of the rise of economism in this earlier period is no doubt useful when observing worker resistance to the authoritarianism in the early CCP. The analysis also exposes Mao and the CCP’s limitations as Marxist figures due to their willingness to turn against worker demands when they did not match their real priorities. Whilst material demands formed part of these movements, workers also made political demands by targeting specific power holders.

Despite this, Ruckus does assume that, prior to 1949, the CCP had a genuinely Marxist aim to create a communist society but lost its way once it consolidated the state:

‘After taking power in 1949, the CCP followed a Marxist-Leninist strategy and constructed a socialist state economy and nation state …  [by the 1950s] the CCP subsequently installed a new rigid class structure with social hierarchies that involved economic and political discrimination …’ (p.14).

‘The CCP changed from a leftist force during the socialist period and early transitional period to a rightist force during the late transitional and the capitalist period’ (p.154).

Much like in his previous book The Communist Road to Capitalism, Ruckus does seem to imply that Mao initially constructed a workers’ state in 1949, but transitioned to authoritarianism once Soviet democratic structures were not incorporated into the state. By classifying the CCP as ‘left wing’ during this period, it reduces the books criteria of socialism down to merely nationalisation and the collectivisation of land. This leaves the political analysis askew in the grand scheme of things. Socialism is seen as a more authoritarian ideology in comparison to workers’ demands for economic democracy.

Ruckus also downplays Stalin’s influence on Mao before 1949. Whilst early on, he notes the influence of the 1920s Comintern on the CCP’s disastrous alliance with the nationalists, which led to the massacres of communist and leftist workers in cities under nationalist control in 1927 (p.14). Thereafter the communists were dependent upon controlling rural enclaves for the organisation’s survival. Ruckus ignores the party’s early use of legal structures in the peasant Soviets to enforce CCP policy over the demands of peasants. This suggests that the CCP was not a workers’ party after the 1927 disaster, for repressive impulses were already built into the CCP before taking power in 1949.

The strength of this section is its implicit identification of the shortcomings of the resistance movements. Whilst the author uses no quantitative data to indicate strike numbers, his narrative of events does show how widespread the resistance movements were. This highlights the difficulties workers had in organising a larger resistance movement which is a continuing theme throughout the rest of the book.

Reform vs Resistance

Between 1970 and the present, Ruckus argues that China embarked on a gradual path to capitalist reform. Throughout this period, China’s left took on various forms as a reaction to authoritarianism and marketisation in China. Ruckus concedes that today the CCP holds an anti-leftist record and has resisted attempts from left movements to reorient its politics.

The author details workers’ involvement in the 5 April movement, Democracy Wall Movement, and Tian’anmen Square where activists advocated for a democratic socialism. Ruckus also details peasant uprisings in the 1990s to resist tax rises and land grabs (pp.79-85); urban (p.86) and migrant (pp.107-8) workers’ resistance to neoliberal reforms; as well as the nostalgic rehabilitation of Mao amongst the New Left (pp.91-102) and Critical Socialist Feminists in the face of market reforms (pp.132-5).

The response to all these movements was increased repression and censorship as well as the continued privatisation of the public sector. Ruckus also notes that the New Left and Critical Feminists’ rehabilitation of Mao allowed the CCP to develop a new narrative for nationalist ends. Whilst Maoist nostalgia took hold of China and initially challenged the policies of the party, Xi Jinping and the CCP would eventually use this rhetoric and the party’s legacy to spin a nationalist narrative for the maintenance of power.

This reflects a concerning trend in post-Soviet nations as nostalgia for Stalinist regimes glosses over the terror of the periods. Within China, the Maoist era is viewed by many as a period with clear purpose and lower levels of inequality. Increased sales of Mao’s red book and films such as Feng Xiaogang’s award winning Youth (2017) reflect these sentiments whilst ignoring the hardship, death, and terror brought about by the regime.

Whilst the book is very short given its scope (161 pages), The Left in China does present some interesting case studies and shines a light on the international nature of workers’ struggles. As an in-depth study, the book lacks the quantitative detail needed to give the reader an idea of how large these resistance movements were and are. That said, the text is extremely useful for those who have bought into Xi Jinping’s communist rhetoric as it highlights the regime’s historic repression of workers and peasants.

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