Taking notes 36: Is China communist?


by Roland Boer

This is a question I am asked reasonably often in China: do you think China is communist? Many would not hesitate to say ‘no’. Not only do you find this position among the bland liberal commentators around the globe, but some quarters of the Left have bought into this position as well – either China was communist at some point in the past, or it never really was at all.

So my answer: not yet, but it also depends on what you mean by ‘communist’?

At least three points can be made, and usually form the opening of my response. The first two can be dealt with briefly. To begin with, the government is the Communist Party of China, for whom the official ideology is ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. No matter how much some may froth at the mouth and say that it is an empty shell of an ideology,[1] that the government must appear to hold the line for the sake of legitimacy, that nationalism has replaced socialism as the real doctrine, the reality remains: it is the Communist Party of China, with a history of almost 100 years. (For what it is worth, I would challenge each of those assumptions, but I have no need to do so here, since I merely wish to make the minimalist point).

Second and more strongly than this: Marx and Engels argued that the first step to communism is the ‘abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes’.[2] The fact is that there is no private ownership of land in China, for it is commonly ‘owned’. You can obtain usufruct of the land, that is, land use right from the state, either for a specific period of time or for specific purposes. You may obtain for a period of time either granted land use right or allocated land use right, with different laws applying to each, but you cannot acquire the land as private property.[3] This may come as some surprise to those who opine unthinkingly that China is the most capitalist country of all, even beyond the much-vaunted ‘free market’ of the USA. Instead, speculation on land – one of the cornerstones of a capitalist system – is simply impossible in China. You can of course own an apartment, or even the building that stands upon the land, but not the land upon which it is built. Even more, in cities like Beijing and Shanghai it is also forbidden to invest in accommodation – the purchase of additional apartments beyond one’s own dwelling for the sake of making money.


Third and in more detail, we come to the question of communism itself. Here I would like both to take a little more time and change tack. This change of approach tackles some mistaken assumptions, namely, that communism is a rational idea which needs to be realized, that it is an ideal toward which we strive and that it is singular. So let me begin with the position that communism is a rational idea, a blueprint that needs to be actualised. For the purists, this rational idea may be gleaned from Marx, Engels and perhaps Lenin: common ownership of the means of production; abolition of private property; eventual withering away of the state.

The catch is that these statements are general slogans, indeed rather vague and far from any detailed outline of a communist system.[4] Is it because they did not have the time to do so? Or that they felt the task was better left to others? Many have later tried to produce a blueprint, providing the guidelines for what a democratic socialist system might look like and criticising the forms that socialism has taken thus far.[5] Indeed, the temptation is always there, for we need at least some idea of the object of our striving.

However, this move also contains a trap, for it postulates a philosophical revolution that seeks to undermine the false rationality of capitalism, or indeed of the corrupted socialisms that have been, for the sake of the true rationality of communism.[6] In other words, you propose an alternative rational model that challenges and overthrows the rational model of capitalism. Now the trap springs, for this approach remains within the framework of what it seeks to overcome: Marxism remains a form of rationality. It even risks becoming a type of idealism in which the idea of communism is primary rather than its practice.


From this rationalist position the remaining assumptions flow, for now communism becomes an ideal and singular. With the ideal dimension we face a dilemma, since the communist ideal can act as both a negative and a positive force. Negatively, communism becomes a well-nigh romanticist and perfectionist ideal, one that has not yet been realised in any of the socialist revolutions that have taken place – and there are many of those. Compared to this ideal, they have all fallen short, becoming ‘totalitarian’, ‘state capitalist’, ‘rogue’, ‘outlaw’, or ‘failures’.[7] All too often the cipher for this assumption is none other than Stalin. For many Western Marxists, Stalin marks the betrayal and travesty of communism.[8] Pin the label ‘Stalinist’ on any government and it is automatically assumed not to be communism at all, for Stalin was a ‘brutal’ and ‘totalitarian’ dictator, no different from Hitler.[9]

Elsewhere, I have argued that this denigration of actual socialist revolutions in the name of the perfect revolution yet to come gives voice to resentment at the fact that no successful revolution has yet occurred in Western Europe or North America.[10] It enables a position that may be called ‘Before October’, in which one’s whole mindset is determined by preparation for the revolution rather than what one does after gaining power. Thus, Lenin before October, Mao before 1949, or even Ho Chi Minh before 1945 become the focus of attention. Less interest is shown in the much more difficult tasks of constructing socialism after the revolution. This assumption – or rather, unquestioned framework – for engaging with Marxism struck me at a conference on Lenin, held in Wuhan, China, in October 2012. Half of the delegates were Chinese and the other half foreigners.

Nearly all of the foreigners revealed an interest in the Lenin before the October Revolution, positioning themselves in the process of preparing for a revolution to come. By contrast, most of the Chinese delegates were interested in the Lenin after October, in the many difficulties faced after seizing power – international opposition, corruption, the position of women, forms of the state, maintaining the appeal of socialism and the government’s legitimacy, to name but a few. Obviously, their perspective was directly related to the situation and difficulties facing China today. These perspectives may not have been consciously articulated, but they revealed a distinct divide. Implicitly, most of the foreigners indicated by their perspective that China too is a failed socialism, and thereby awaits a true socialist revolution.


So, the negative dimension of the ideal of communism leads one to dismiss all the revolutions that have taken place, in the name of a perfect revolution that lies in the indeterminate future. This approach also leads to the continual neglect in studying in any sustained way the many historical examples of socialist revolutions and constructions of socialism. In other words, discussions that assume an ideal communism seem to float in an ahistorical ether, replacing careful analysis with exegesis of the occasional small and select piece by Marx, Lenin or perhaps Mao that fits in with this perspective.[11]

At the same time, communism as an ideal does have a beneficial dimension. In this case, the ideal functions not so much as a goal to be achieved, but as a reminder that no form of communism can say ‘this is it, we have achieved real communism’. Here we need to shift focus, for the emphasis is not on some perfect and romanticist ideal, but on the need never to be satisfied with what one has achieved so far. I would prefer to follow Lukács and speak of communism as a process of becoming rather than being,[12] or in the concrete language of Marx and Engels: ‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’.[13]

However, this position has its own dialectical dimension. If we accept that the idea of becoming – through Hegel, Nietzsche, Whitehead and others – is itself only possible within capitalism, then communism itself both ends and transforms this idea. That is, becoming undergoes an Aufhebung through communism in a way that relies on capitalism as a prerequisite but simultaneously overcomes capitalism for a very different mode of production. By now it should be obvious that the notion of an ideal has itself undergone a transformation, functioning as a signal of communism as becoming rather than being.


The final point concerns singularity and multiplicity. One of the more pernicious forms of dismissals of Chinese socialism, let alone the many others of Eastern Europe or of Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, Cuba or even Venezuela, is the notion that communism is a singular goal. The blueprint of which I spoke earlier has a tendency to be seen as one rather than multiple. Thus it becomes all too easy to define communism in a certain way, claim that it is this and nothing else, and thereby dismiss anything that does not measure up to the standard. Instead, I would like to take up Deng Xiaoping’s phrase ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.[14] The slogan has implications greater than he may have imagined, although it is consistent in some ways with Mao’s own idea of the ‘sinification’ of Marxism.[15] I do not want to enter the specific debates around this phrase here, but seek to deploy it in the direction of multiplicity.

If there is a socialism with Chinese characteristics, then there is also – to name but a few – socialisms with Russian, Romanian, Yugoslavian, Vietnamese, and even North Korean characteristics. Or, to avoid the culturist associations of such terms, we may also describe them variously as authoritarian communism, new democracy, democratic centralism, socialist democracy and so on. Countries with longer histories of socialist government – such as the USSR and China – find that they pass through more than one of these at different times. But the point is that multiple possibilities for socialism have opened up with the rich history of socialist revolutions.

So my answer to the question with which I began – ‘do you think China is communist?’ – is ‘not yet, but what do you mean by communism?’ Or rather, the initial question should be, ‘do you think China is becoming communist?’ Practice rather than some form of rationalism that must be actualised, becoming rather than being, multiple truths rather than a singular truth – these are the features of communism I prefer to emphasise. In other words, as Yermakov put it in a moment of insight: communism is ‘a search for the correct path to the unknown’.[16]



Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken, 2004 [1951].

Boer, Roland. “Before October: The Unbearable Romanticism of Western Marxism.”
Monthly Review (2011). Published electronically 8 October: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/boer081011.html

Cockshott, W. Paul, and Allin Cottrell. Towards a New Socialism. Nottingham: Spokesman, 1993.

Deng, Xiaoping. “Opening Speech at the Twelfth National Congress of the Communist Party
of China, September 1, 1982.” People’s Daily Online 3 (1982).

Douzinas, Costas, and Slavoj Žižek, eds. The Idea of Communism. London: Verso, 2010.
Engels, Friedrich. “Principles of Communism.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 6,
341-57. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1847 [1976].

Guo, Sujian, ed. Political Science and Chinese Political Studies: The State of the Field.
Heidelberg: Springer, 2013.

Kluver, Alan R. Legitimating the Chinese Economic Reforms: A Rhetoric of Myth and
Orthodoxy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Losurdo, Domenico. Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera. Translated by Marie-Ange
Patrizio. Rome: Carocci editore, 2008.

———. “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism.” Historical Materialism 12,
no. 2 (2004): 25-55.

Mao, Zedong. “On New Democracy (January 15).” In Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary
Writings 1912-1949, vol. 7, edited by Stuart R. Schram, 330-69. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1940

Marx, Karl. “The Abolition of Landed Property.” Marxist Internet Archive (1869).

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “The Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 6, 477-519. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1848 [1976].

Yermakov, A. A. Lunacharsky. Moscow: Novosti, 1975.


End notes:

[1] For a relatively recent instance, see the essay by Alessandro Russo in Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek, eds., The Idea of Communism (London: Verso, 2010).

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 6, 477-519 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1848 [1976]). See also Karl Marx, “The Abolition of Landed Property,” Marxist Internet Archive(1869), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1869/12/03.htm

[3] See the full statement of the 2007 property law in http://www.lehmanlaw.com/resource-centre/laws-and-regulations/general/property-rights-law-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china.html. See also http://www.doingbusiness.org/data/exploreeconomies/china/registering-property. This situation does, of course, cause consternation and confusion among global capitalist advocates like The Economist. See ‘China’s Murky Ownership Rules: Who Owns What?’ The Economist, June 7, 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/18928526.

[4] Even Engels’s more direct effort remains at the level of general prescriptions. See Friedrich Engels, “Principles of Communism,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 6, 341-57 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1847 [1976]).

[5] For instance, W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism (Nottingham: Spokesman, 1993).

[6] Bruno Bosteels is particularly guilty of such an approach in his contribution to Douzinas and Žižek, The Idea of Communism.

[7] For a recent assertion of the ‘failure’ of communism, see the essay by Judith Balso in Douzinas and Žižek, The Idea of Communism.

[8] For instance, see the essay by Alain Badiou in Douzinas and Žižek, The Idea of Communism, 10.

[9] The most influential example of such propaganda regarding Stalin and Hitler is still Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken, 2004 [1951]). Her work enabled the Western European and US Left to find significant common ground with liberal and conservative criticism of communism. See the compelling destruction of this argument in Domenico Losurdo, “Towards a Critique of the Category of Totalitarianism,” Historical Materialism 12, no. 2 (2004); Domenico Losurdo, Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera, trans. Marie-Ange Patrizio (Rome: Carocci editore, 2008).

[10] Roland Boer, “Before October: The Unbearable Romanticism of Western Marxism,” Monthly Review (2011), http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/boer081011.html

[11] This mystifying effect is particularly noticeable in most of the items in Douzinas and Žižek, The Idea of Communism.

[12] Lukács 1970 [1924], pp. 72-73.

[13] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 49.

[14] “In carrying out our modernization programme we must proceed from Chinese realities. Both in revolution and in construction we should also learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical application of foreign experience and copying of foreign models will get us nowhere. We have had many lessons in this respect. We must integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China, blaze a path of our own and build a socialism with Chinese characteristics – that is the basic conclusion we have reached after reviewing our long history.” Xiaoping Deng, “Opening Speech at the Twelfth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, September 1, 1982,” People’s Daily Online 3 (1982).

[15] “China must assimilate on a large scale the progressive culture of foreign countries, as an ingredient for enriching its own culture. Not enough of this was done in the past. We should assimilate whatever is useful to us today not only from the present-day socialist and new-democratic cultures but also from the older cultures of foreign countries, for example, from the culture of the various capitalist countries in the Age of Enlightenment. However, we absolutely cannot gulp down any of this foreign material uncritically, but must treat it as we do our food — first chewing it in the mouth, then subjecting it to the working of the stomach and intestines with their juices and secretions, and separating it into essences to be absorbed and waste matter to be discarded — before it can nourish us. So-called wholesale Westernization is wrong. China has suffered a great deal in the past from the formalist absorption of foreign things. Similarly, in applying Marxism to China, Chinese Communists must fully and properly integrate the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution, or, in other words, the universal truth of Marxism must have a national form if it is to be useful, and in no circumstances can it be applied subjectively as a mere formula.” Zedong Mao, “On New Democracy (January 15),” in Mao’s Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, ed. Stuart R. Schram, vol. 7, 330-69 (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1940 [2005]), 367-68. The debate over scientification/Westernisation versus sinification/indigenisation continues in political science today; see Sujian Guo, ed. Political Science and Chinese Political Studies: The State of the Field (Heidelberg: Springer, 2013). See also Alan R. Kluver, Legitimating the Chinese Economic Reforms: A Rhetoric of Myth and Orthodoxy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 63.

[16] A. Yermakov, A. A. Lunacharsky (Moscow: Novosti, 1975), 107.


[Thank you for your contributions Roland.]

The writer is a left-winger from Australia, based in the industrial city of Newcastle. His main interest concerns the intersections of Marxism and religion, having written a five-volume series called The Criticism of Heaven and Earth (Haymarket, 2009-13). He has recently completed a long study on Lenin and religion. He frequently visits Asia and teaches at Renmin University of China (Beijing).

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3 thoughts on “Taking notes 36: Is China communist?

  1. Surprisingly, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (www.icij.org) finds that Chinese billionaires have more money hidden away in tax havens around the world than other countries’ ultra-rich.

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