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Variations and Gradations of Democracy in China

From the series Giats of Asia: the dillemas of Chinese single-party pluralism

Only the materialist analysis of the intraction between structure and superstructure can explain the variety of the political forms. Why did the entrenchment of the capitalist mode of production in China occur in populist and Maoist forms? Why does Chinese imperialism express itself in CP single-party pluralism and not, for example, in the classical multi-party system of imperialist democracy? This specific political analysis does not regard the study of the economic causes which determine China’s political struggles, a scientific investigation which is its premise, “but the way” in which these struggles present themselves in the superstructure. “By analysing basic economic facts, Marxism can identify at first the interests which find expression in the political struggle. The form in which these interests appear politically, however, is a question which only a further analysis of the ideological notions can answer” [Arrigo Cervetto, The Political Shell, éditions Science Marxiste, 2006].

We have seen that the political forms of global capitalist economic development in China establish themselves through many superstructural factors. Accidents and uneven political development, the role of personalities, and superstructural feedback on the course of development can be decisive tools for the political analysis of the concrete course of struggles.

In his letter to Ludwig Kugelmann on April 17th, 1871, Marx wrote: “World history would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances. It would, on the other hand, be of a very mystical nature, if ‘accidents’ played no part. These accidents themselves fall naturally into the general course of development and are compensated again by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very dependent upon such ‘accidents’, which include the ‘accident’ of the character of those who first stand at the head of the movement.”

In his letter to Conrad Schmidt on October 27th, 1890, Engels wrote: “The government may react to economic developments in three ways: it can take the same direction, in which case things go faster; it may take a contrary one, in which case, as conditions are today and in any of the larger nations, it will eventually come to grief, or it may block certain lines of economic development and lay down others - which will ultimately amount to the same as one of the two foregoing instances. But it is obvious that, in instances 2 and 3, political power can wreak havoc with economic development and cause energy and materials to be squandered on a vast scale.” The so-called “cultural revolution” inevitably comes to mind.

The tool of the “variations and gradations” of specific political forms is recalled in L’Europa e lo Stato [Europe and the State, Edizioni Lotta Comunista, 2006], starting from the theoretical bases of the Marxist conception of democracy. In Capital, the specific forms of the state are always linked back to “the direct relationship [between] the owners of the conditions of production [and] the direct producers.” Marx wrote in its volume I that, on the one hand, the buyer and the seller must be juridically equal for the free exchange of labour power to take place in the sphere of capitalism circulation; on the other hand, in the sphere of production, the capitalist appropriates the surplus value produced by the wage earner who is free to sell his own labour and free from the means of production. On the one hand, the law of property changes into its dialectical opposite, the law of capitalist appropriation on the other. Equality in the circulation and appropriation of the production of surplus value are the bases of democracy as the best shell of capitalism. But Marx warns: “This does not prevent the same economic basis - the same from the standpoint of its main conditions - due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc., from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.

This caveat allows us, on the one hand, to analytically embrace the forms of pluralist centralisation in the Chinese political shell under the conceptual umbrella of imperialist democracy. This is the political form corresponding to the capitalist economic base in the imperialist stage, which emerges in infinite variations and gradations. On the other, given the imperialist economic base in China, the notion of “variations and gradations” opens up a vast field of comparison of political forms, in which to weigh the efficacy, limits, and potential of Chinese single-party pluralism both in space (against other political forms of the old and new powers) and over time (in the historical process of the establishment of the democratic form as the best shell of capital, and therefore in the long term alsc the political forms in China itself).

In The Political Shell, Cervetto examined the “variety of forms” of political concentration, reviving the polemic between Lenin and Yury Pyatakov’s imperialist economism. Trusts and big banks, said Lenin, are inevitable in every evolved capitalism, but they take on different concrete forms in different countries: despite their substantial homogeneity, “there is a still greater difference between political forms [...] in the advanced imperialist countries - America, England, France, Germany.”

This criterion is also valid when comparing greatly different political forms through time, i.e., in the process of the consolidation of imperialist democracy, the general political regularities of which are dealt with in L’Europa e lo Stato: “There exists a regularity in the trend towards imperialist democracy. There exists a regularity in the development of every political process between deviations, oscillations and contradictory movements. Only the dialectical method is able to embrace all the implications of the political cycle. The generalisation and consolidation of imperialist democracy mean oscillations and contradictions with respect to the ‘median’ of the pure form; it is the process itself of consolidation of imperialist democracy which generates Fascism and Nazism among its collateral, partial and historically provisional outcomes. The regularity of the contradictory movement of the political processes ensures that there is no deep political transformation which does not take place thanks to this contradiction, in which the movement itself is a continually generated, recomposed and superseded imbalance.”

Variations and contradictions are the way in which imperialist democracy establishes itself. Imperialist democracy is a global process which links the single unilateral manifestations of the political forms of imperialism as a unitary economic phenomenon.

In our May 2019 editorial “Ideologies and Powers of the Imperialist Democracy, this is placed among the conditions for dealing with the Chinese question of imperialist democracy. The history of bourgeois consolidation in Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Italy and so on is examined, in order to explain the “variations and gradations” which have emerged from the development of democracy in its “different institutional solutions” of parliamentary government, presidentialism, chancellorship, etc. In the same way, “it is always the concrete history of the struggle among the classes and states that explains withdrawals and deviations from the specific democratic form, in the weak periods of bourgeois pluralism embodied in Nazism and Fascism, when the storms of the 1920s and 19305 saw the sectors of the world bourgeoisie scrabbling about for the forms of imperialist democracy that would, instead, be generalised only in the post-WWII period.” These are “imperfect forms of pluralistic centralisation,” in which a plurality of powers is present in any case, “albeit in a weak, potential, and unexpressed form.”

The italics in this quote are ours, with the intention to highlight the connection with the expression of pluralism in all the impure - that is, real - political forms, which include the Chinese shell. If this occurs in every imperialist political shell, it is because pluralism “more than an ideology is an economic reality.” Cervetto further clarified: “The pluralism of big groups at the imperialist stage, as well as [their direct determination] of politics, transcends the democratic form. Even if this form is the most suitable shell, the pluralistic content of big capitalist groups can find a shell also in the fascist form.” All the more reason for it to find expression in the Chinese political shell, which is not a fascist form, but the specific continental form in which the Chinese Dragon’s provinces, military regions, big capitalists and so on have expressed themselves historically.

In our November 1998 editorial “Monetary Power and European Imperialist Democracy, the study of the given empirical circumstances, which lead to variations and gradations of the specific political forms, is developed in the analysis of the uneven imperialist maturation of the powers. “Firstly, the different metropolises of unitary imperialism reach maturity in the economic field with different times and rhythms. Secondly, the consequences of this imperialist maturation at a political and institutional level reveal the uneven trends of the different degrees of correspondence.”

The main powers mature the economic features of imperialism in different times and degrees: we need only think of the different forms and levels of concentration of capital and financial centralisation, of corporate forms or the differentiated formation of the big continental groups in the United States, Europe and China. Above all, the powers adapt their political and state tools to the new imperialist condition with uneven rapidity and efficacy. In its turn, “this imperialist political maturation occurs starting from different pre-existing state, institutional, cultural and ideological conditions. Finally, the transformation of this superstructural material takes shape within the framework of changing relations among the powers, including interimperialist wars and alliances, which hinder or favour this political process.”

We must observe that wars form part of the framework of relations within which Beijing must develop and adapt its tools of the imperialist state. Power relations affect the times and forms of the process of consolidation of imperialist democracy through deviations and contradictions.

This is what we find theorised in the Chinese thesis of the “strong state” as a condition of “functioning democracy”. When this presupposes the Chinese Dragon’s rise to the development of democracy in China, and with the only apparent paradox that, if anything, it would be the old democracies that would resist the rise of the new power and would therefore slow democratisation down, or would take advantage of it in order to weaken and divide it again. Even in this version, however, the times of China’s strategic rise, the crucial questions of the South China Sea and Taiwan, and the wars and crises of imperialism are an integral part of the “multiform combination of those ‘given empirical circumstances’ which substantialise the ‘variations and gradations’ of the pure political forms in uneven political development.”