John Ross and the myth of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’

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By William Briggs

January 21, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Hardly a week goes by without a new book, commentary or academic paper being published about China in the 21st century. Most of these portray China as a threat and most link this to the idea that China is socialist. The demonisation is real. The threat is real, although it is a threat that comes from the United States and its allies. However, regardless of attacks from the West, China cannot be considered socialist.

The characterisation of China is a key part of the US campaign against China. China’s economic rise threatens US hegemony. The left, quite correctly, stands against the threats that emanate from the USA. Socialists can recognise that hundreds of millions have been brought out of poverty in China. But what they cannot do is accept that China is a socialist state, or that its advances are because of any socialist or Marxist policy.

There needs to be clarity in our analysis of just what China is. Some voices on the left promote the alleged socialist credentials of China. Their arguments, however, do not stand up to scrutiny. 

Who is John Ross?

In the 1970s, John Ross was a prominent member of the Trotskyist International Marxist Group in Britain. After working in Moscow in the 1990s, he returned to London as an adviser to the then London mayor, Ken Livingstone. He later moved to China, where he has been working as an academic, economist, and writer. His blog Learning from China, his contributions to the website New Cold War and his most recent book, China’s Great Road (1) all argue that China is socialist, is following a socialist path and that it is guided by Marxist theory.

For Ross, like so many on the left, the collapse of the Soviet Union was intensely confronting. Regardless of how sections of the left might have regarded the Soviet Union, the crisis that unfolded with its demise left a mark. 

Ross presents a view of the world that is decidedly shallow. The Soviet Union collapsed and China’s economy rapidly improved. This is presented, almost as proof, of the superiority of a Chinese grasp of Marxist theory. Both countries underwent deep going revolutions, but the societies that resulted were neither socialist nor capitalist. Their long-term future was either a transition to socialism or a restoration of capitalism. In the case of the Soviet Union, the results are, tragically, all too clear. For China, too, the restoration of capitalist relations has been completed, but the charade of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ continues.

Ross, in all his recent writing, compares and contrasts these two states as a means of validating the socialist credentials of China. He has been able to show by an abundant use of statistics that are on the public record, the remarkable advances in health, longevity, and literacy, that are hallmarks of the rise of China and especially since the 1970s and the ‘opening’ to the West. He doesn’t use similar available statistics to show the intensity of inequality that exists, the gap between rich and poor, and happily ignores the fact that China’s new wealth ultimately comes from Chinese labour and the surplus value that is daily extracted from that labour.

History and the long march from Moscow to Beijing

There is no better way of recounting the history of the 20th century and of the developments of political theory than from the perspective of the experience of the Soviet Union. Ross draws upon this in his work and especially in his recent Witnessing at first hand the USSR’s disintegration made me intensely understand the scale of China’s success.  The lengthy article, first published on his blog Learning from China (31 December 2021), and reprinted in New Cold War (3 January 2022) is partly potted history, potted economic history, and potted foray into theory. Much of the paper is devoted to the fall of the USSR and in comparing the USSR to China – one an abject failure and the other outstanding success.

It is an intensely personal and subjective account of the fall of the Soviet Union. How the Soviet Union came into existence and the nature of its founding revolution are ignored. Admittedly he is more concerned with endings than beginnings, but if his comparisons between China and the USSR are to be taken seriously, and if he still lays any claim to be a Marxist, then the birth of each ‘socialist’ state must be considered. One was the result of a Marxist-led, working class revolution. It owed much to deeply held theoretical propositions of the central role of the working class and was ‘proletarian’ in nature. The other was the result of a protracted civil war and based on the peasantry and on armed struggle. This is not to deny the fact that Mao’s approach was ultimately successful, but we must also recognise that the destruction of Chinese working class activists and the massacres of workers that took place before Mao became an advocate of peasant-led revolts were avoidable tragedies.

The Soviet experience, in Ross’s hands, becomes little more than a socialist-realist poster. It is all about struggle, patriotism, and nationalism. While economic crisis and stagnation was central to the collapse and restoration of capitalism, there is a clear link to the very nationalist, poster-view of history that he so clearly applauds. When Stalinism replaced Marxism, a view of great Russian nationalism became dominant.

The restoration of capitalism in the USSR

The experience of capitalist restoration is worth noting. The bureaucracy in the Soviet Union both selected Joseph Stalin and was shaped by Stalin. While it did not become an exploiting class, it was later to provide the basis for the development of exploitative capitalist relations. The dissolution of the USSR gave the bureaucracy the opportunity to become the new capitalist class. It was in the early days a crude and vulgar capitalism.

The break-up of the USSR saw opposing forces in sharp conflict. This was far less ideological than some would have us believe. Key moments of that conflict were the coup and countercoup of August 1991 and the images of pro-Yeltsin forces attacking the Russian parliament or ‘White House’. Ross describes this event and speaks of ‘patriots and socialists’ in struggle against the destruction that was to come. But there was nothing heroic in any of this. The conflict involved rival bureaucratic groups both committed to restoring capitalism but seeking maximum benefits for themselves.  Some of these ‘patriots’ went on to become the oligarchs whose shock therapy tactics enriched the few while impoverishing the many. This conflict demonstrates Trotsky’s assessment that the bureaucracy was “the bourgeois organ of the workers state.” (2)

The move to restore capitalism in China had little of the brutal overtones of the Soviet experience. The bureaucratic nature of the Chinese party and state, however, bore a striking resemblance to its Soviet counterpart. There was an all-but-inevitable transition to capitalism for both states. The Chinese bureaucracy, organised on a hierarchical basis, enjoyed significant material privileges not available to the general population. At a certain point it too wanted to cement its privileges by actual private ownership of the economy. China’s path to capitalism had been progressing steadily. It had re-established capitalist relations before the convulsions that marked the end of the Soviet Union. Again, this is overlooked by Ross.

A deeply flawed economic argument

China’s economic growth in the most recent period has been remarkable. Nobody can or should deny that. The problem lies in whether or not it can be shown to be a success of socialism. The statistics for China’s economic development are undeniably impressive. Are they down to innovative socialist policies or the result of a restoration of capitalist relations under the auspices of an authoritarian regime? Ross goes to great pains to prove, statistically, that China has economically outstripped the world. He pays particular attention to “economic failure of the USSR [and that] China after 1978 achieved literally unprecedented economic success – the most rapid longer than four-decade growth in a major economy in world history. By 1990, the last year of the USSR, China’s GDP had grown by 767% from 1950 – compared to 299% for the US, 290% for the USSR, and 409% for the world average.”  The statistics are ultimately meaningless. While Chinese growth rates in the immediate post-1949 period were sound, the real boom and explosion of growth occurred from the 1970s, when capitalist relations were restored.

How, then, did China achieve such a miraculous economic rise? Its desire to embrace a capitalist future was naturally enhanced by the crisis in capitalism. Capital flowed to China. Industries quickly established themselves. China was seen as the saviour of capitalism. By the early 1990s it had become a substantial borrower from the World Bank. Capitalist development in China has seen its economy grow from $113 billion dollars in 1972, when Nixon made his famous visit, to over $21.4 trillion in 2020. (3)

Chinese capitalism was boosted in its early post-Mao period by encouragement from advanced capitalist states and by flows of capital into the country. The period from 1984-89 saw foreign direct investment (FDI) into China of $2.3 billion. By 1995-99, that figure had risen to $40.6 billion. Capital beat a path to China. In a very short space of time, China began to play a prominent role in FDI outflows to the world. In 2018 the total FDI from China had reached a total of $137 billion. The Chinese road to capitalism is obvious. (4)

Ross’s worldview is a simple and uncomplicated one. The USSR failed and China succeeded. China was able to understand Karl Marx, adapt Marx and apply Marx. He bases this on the failure of the Soviet economy to grow in the post-WWII period as opposed to China’s rapid expansion in the period from the 1970s. He is quick to point out that China’s success is down to a particularly astute reading of Marx. The gap of about 30 years, from the end of the war until China’s opening to the West is rather telling. For most of those 30 years, despite the rift between Beijing and Moscow, China’s path of development was not dissimilar to the early years of Stalinist economics in the USSR. The more astute interpretation of Marx, that so enchants John Ross cannot have happened until after those 30 years. The period after WWII, when the Soviet Union’s economic and planning credentials were being shown to be a failure, coincided with China’s Great Leap Forward, with its mirroring the Soviet model, and with a deep reluctance to have much to do with Marxism and everything to do with Stalinism.

It is perhaps telling that Ross neglects to acknowledge the fact that the crisis of capitalism encountered by the West and its need to forestall a growing threat to the global rate of profit, coincides with China’s opening up to the West. This is important and needs to be in the forefront of our thinking.

Marx’s theory of the tendency for profit rates to fall was rapidly being proven once more in practice. The capitalist crisis of the early 1970s led to a qualitative change in capitalism. Where once capital attracted workers, domestically or from other countries, to move to where there was work, the need to salvage profitability meant a reversal of that strategy. Capital now moved to where the cheapest sources of labour could be found. The rapid rise in capitalist globalisation resulted. It briefly solved capitalism’s immediate problems and helped to resolve some of China’s.

China offered crisis ridden Western capitalism a vast reservoir of labour. It became the ‘factory for the world’ and the massive infusion of capital allowed for the development of Chinese capitalism to the extent that it now rivals the US and is exporting capital to low-wage regimes. 

Ross ignores all this in his naïve argument designed to prove the socialist credentials of China. He sticks to his story. It is a simple story of the USSR’s failure and China’s success. All is explained by simply pointing out that by the mid-1970s the USSR’s economy was entering a crisis that finally resulted in its collapse, while China was beginning a new ‘long march’ to become an advanced economic power. The crisis of global capitalism in the 1970s was real. The theory of the tendency for a falling rate of profit was being shown to be an existential fact for capital. Globalisation resulted in a decimation of manufacturing industries in the West, as capital moved to low wage regimes. This coincided with China’ s recognition that it must open to the West or stagnate. This was more the work of a pragmatic approach to politics and economics on China’s part rather than any careful adaptation of Marxist theory.

Distorting theory

China, according to Ross is socialist. However, 60 per cent of China’s GDP, 80 per cent of its urban employment and 90 per cent of all new jobs are the product of the private sector. Private capitalists account for 70 per cent of all investment and 90 per cent of exports. Sixty-six per cent of all economic growth in the country comes from the private sector.  Ross has accumulated a significant array of statistical evidence to show the development of the economy but ultimately destroys his argument by proclaiming in China’s Great Road that “almost 40% of investment is carried out by the state.” 8 It is absurd to claim anything like socialist credentials or legitimacy on such grounds. If it were so then, in 1949, when the British state controlled the Bank of England, the coal mines, telecommunications, transport, energy supply and steel production, Britain was socialist. Was Britain a socialist state? The answer is obvious. Socialism, we need to bear in mind, is an economic system based on the production of use-value and not on the exploitation of surplus value for private profit. Social, political, and economic equality remain the objective.

China’s ‘socialism’ is clearly based on exploitation and inequality. The Hong-Kong based China Labour Bulletin (CLB) records protests, strikes, and labour unrest in China. They rely on press reports and their own contact base in China, which are understated due to Chinese censorship. CLB recorded that in 2019, there were more than 1,700 strikes and worker protests; a rise of 36 per cent from 1,250 reported cases in 2017. Chinese capitalism is riven with crisis and the contradictions that so haunt capitalism everywhere. The disparity in wealth distribution alone makes a mockery of any claim that China is building socialism. An urban worker earns, on average, 2.5 times the wage of a rural worker, private ownership of homes has been encouraged but it takes 43.5 times the average annual wage to buy a flat. The wealth of the top ten per cent of the population is equivalent to that of the bottom 50 per cent. These statistics have been getting progressively worse in recent years.

Ross sees himself as something of a disciple of Deng Xiaoping. One of Deng’s aphorisms, ‘to get rich is glorious’ was taken to heart by some in the new socialist China. There are a great many extremely wealthy individuals, including Chinese 698 billionaires. China remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet. While abject poverty has been eliminated, relative poverty has grown. More than 600 million Chinese earn about $2000 per annum. The gloriously rich rival the obscenely rich in the US, but the US does not claim to be anything other than what it is – a rapacious capitalist economy. All of this is ignored. Socialism, in Ross’s hands, is quantified by a degree of state ownership and investment.

State control or nationalisation of this or that instrumentality may indicate a socially progressive trend, but it is not to be confused with socialism or a practical application of Marxist economics. Ross, the Marxist, might have spent a moment collaborating with another Marxist before venturing into dubious terrain, but Friedrich Engels seems to play second fiddle to Deng. Engels comments, in his notes in Anti-Duhring are relevant:

“Certainly, if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of socialism. If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic compulsion, took over for the state the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway employees as voting cattle for the government, and especially to create for himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes — this was, in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be socialistic institutions.” 

Socialism is, of course, linked to the ownership of production, distribution and exchange and seeks to eliminate class oppression and disparity. While economic issues remain central, how socialism might work in practice becomes important. This remains an untried practice, but the democratisation of society and the workplace, the equality of access for all, the collective nature of a society that promotes security, health, education, and welfare are all tangible objectives. Economic growth may be important, but so too is the social growth of society.

Ross is happy to take his cue from Deng Xiaoping, who in his estimation is the greatest economist the world has seen and a towering figure in Marxist theory. Deng’s real achievement was to set in train the restoration of capitalism in China. He paid lip service to Marx and did what so many have done – cherry-picked selected phrases from the body of Marx and Engels work. He used Engels’ The Principles of Communism to ‘prove’ that private property could only be abolished when certain conditions had been met. He quoted the Manifesto to further establish this idea and went on to remind people of the period of the New Economic Policy that had been introduced in the Soviet Union in the very early years after the revolution. The arguments were spurious, but when one controls the apparatus of state, things become a whole lot easier to sell. Ross is now ‘selling’ the same product.

 This brings us to Ross’s contribution surrounding some of the theoretical issues that emerge. This deserves, at least a passing glance. China, we have been told, was ‘better’ at Marxism than was the Soviet Union. This is such a strained argument and especially when neither state could be seriously accused of being Marxist. Stalin had moved beyond such inconvenient theoretical positions and Mao had never really bothered himself with Marx.

 Ross expresses the view that Vladimir Lenin “in 1917 had shown how socialism could be created in an imperialist country – rightly creating ‘Marxism-Leninism’. But it was the CPC, led by Mao Zedong, which for the first time in history in 1949 showed how socialism could be created in a developing country – establishing Mao Zedong, with Lenin, as the greatest political thinker of the 20th century and ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, as it is known in China, as a fundamental contribution to Marxism.”  Such a proposition is profoundly disturbing. Lenin never accepted the idea of building socialism in one country. The claim that Mao was the greatest political thinker of the 20th century and that his ‘thought’ is a fundamental contribution to Marxism really needs comment.

 How Mao became invested with the mantle of not merely Marxist but great Marxist is a puzzlement. Mao actually had no Marxist theory when he joined the CCP and although that is hardly an issue, it has been shown that he made no serious moves to acquire any theory. Politically and theoretically, he was called more to the ideas of the nationalist Kuomintang. He is on record as acknowledging not Marx but Sun Yatsen as his inspiration and the inspiration for action by the peasantry. He repeatedly insisted that his ideological preferences were those of Sun’s ‘Three Principles of the People.’ These were; the promotion of a nationalist perspective that owed much to western nationalist movements, the promotion of a western view of democracy, and a major transformation of the economy and opening of that economy to the world. The only aspect of Sun’s vision that has not been adopted is the promotion of a western-styled democracy. (5)

China is not socialist. It is a thriving capitalist state that is still able to support some aspects of welfare-statism. China is the focus of virulent attacks from the US. This has nothing to do with any perceived ideological difference and everything to do with the struggle by the US to maintain economic supremacy and global hegemony. This needs to be at the forefront of campaigns by the left. It is not so much a case of defending China, as opposing the imperialist war drive.


1 Ross, J 2021 China’s Great Road, Praxis Press

2 Trotsky, L1972 The Revolution Betrayed Pathfinder Press: New York

3 Guthrie, D 2000 ‘Understanding China’s Transition to Capitalism: the contributions of Victor Nee and Andrew Walder’ Sociological Forum, vol. 15 no. 4: 727-749

4 Lardy, NR 1995 ‘The Role of Foreign Trade and Investment in China’s Economic Transformation’ The China Quarterly, no. 144 (December): 1065-1082

5 Yu, GT 1991 ‘Revolution: Past, Present, and Future’ Asian Survey vol. 31, no. 10: 895-904