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Marxism in China: it’s a museum piece

rally with flags and enormous marx, engels & lenin bannerSomehow the most vibrant capitalist economy on the planet still lends itself ideological legitimation by claiming adherence to Marxism. What is happening in China plays havoc with key theoretical assumptions of the socialist left and the free market right alike.

How does the obvious disjunction between base and superstructure, at least at the level of ideology, square with traditional readings of historical materialism? Had Hayek lived a little longer, would he have approved of the place as much as he obviously approved of Pinochet’s Chile?

Topics for a blog post another time, perhaps. But what caught my eye today is word that the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau is to launch a China Marxism Museum in Beijing before the end of the year.

The CCTB, for those that have never heard of it, is an offshoot of the central committee of the Communist Party of China. It employs the best part of 300 people to translate Marxist classics and to research the history of world socialism.

State news agency Xinhua reports:

The museum will contain eight sections, each devoted to a different period of Marxist development in China. Photos, sculptures, photographic reproductions of historic documents and archives will be on display, allowing visitors to see how Marxist works were translated and spread throughout China.

Sounds riveting. But how is Marxism doing outside the confines of this worthy exhibition? Well, according to China Daily, about 50 million people in China now form what its reports openly describe as a ‘new social class’ based on the ownership of private enterprises.

Many of these people are organically linked to the Communist Party of China. A few years back, the central committee itself revealed that more than 2.86 million party members worked in privately-owned enterprises. Some 810,000 ran their own businesses

Oddly enough, Xinhua can’t quite bring itself to give this new social class a name. Perhaps they could ask the scholars at the CCTB to suggest an appropriate designation, based on their understanding of Marxist theory?

And how well is this new social class doing, again according to Marxist criteria? Perhaps the closest equivalent metric to the rate of exploitation found in mainstream economic statistics is the overall wages bill for a given country, expressed as a proportion of gross domestic product. This represents, very roughly, the workers’ share of the social product.

In western Europe, even after the onslaught of neoliberalism, it typically amounts to around 55%. But a study by Chang Xiuze, an economist with a National Development and Reform Commission think tank, revealed that the salary component of China’s GDP dropped from 17% in 1980 to just 11% in 2007. What appears to be happening is that employers are taking a substantially greater cut.

The social impact can be measured by the so-called Gini coefficient, an objective measure of income inequality. On this yardstick, a score of zero implies income is shared equally between all individuals, while a coefficient of one would mean one person within the population had all the income and everyone else had none.

In Britain, the net effect of Thatcherism followed by New Labourism has seen the Gini coefficient reach 0.36; in China, it has now topped 0.47, making it a society fractionally more inegalitarian than the US, itself one of the most unequal places on earth.

So much for Marxism outside the Museum. I am reminded at this point of Karl Marx’s famous remark, when confronted with some of the distortions to which his ideas had been subjected by his self-proclaimed followers.

All I know,’ he reportedly said, ‘is that I am not a Marxist’. If China is what Marxism has come to in 2011, neither am I.

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