China FAQ 常见中国问题解答系列 – Wasn’t China a communist country under Mao? 毛的中国不是共产主义国家吗?

This long read taken from the informative Chaung blog is a series in which the important FAQ is China a capitalist country is analysed.


Source > Chuang

This is the fourth entry in our ongoing series attempting to give straightforward answers to frequently asked questions about China. In this entry, we summarize some of the main themes from our journal article “Sorghum & Steel,” the first in a three-part economic history of China. Readers interested in the details of any of the arguments presented here should refer to that piece.

Compared to other entries in this series, this answer is slightly longer and focuses a bit more on what will seem to be specialized topics, but we feel this is necessary to provide sufficient context for the previous two entries, as well as for clarifying our position as communists in relation to that of the Chinese Communist Party at different points in time and popular images of China’s “communism” under the socialist developmental regime. Like parts 2 and 3 but in contrast with part 1, this response is collectively authored, though it includes a few individual responses by Chinese members and friends as well.

As always, we encourage readers to reformat these answers for use across platforms. If you’ve designed pamphlets, infographics or other media using these materials, please send them to us (e-mail: so that we can archive them here and repost on social media! 

This question involves two common misunderstandings. First, “communist country” is an oxymoron: communism requires the end of nation-states, so it would be impossible for China or any other country to be a communist island floating in a capitalist sea. This wording actually comes from the Cold War, when the US had a geopolitical interest in conflating “communism” with the social systems that actually existed in the USSR and China. Second, it is generally not a good approach to try and periodize history through the deeds of “great men.” But this is especially common in accounts of Chinese history, where the mass revolutionary fervor of an entire generation is reduced to the decision-making power of a single leader. Ultimately, Mao Zedong’s rule is not the best way to demarcate the different periods of China’s changing relationship to capitalism and the global communist movement. We offer an alternative method in part 1 and part 2 of our economic history of China. So, the simple response to the question is: No, China was not a communist country under Mao.

But wasn’t it a communist revolution? And wouldn’t that imply that the society built after the revolution was a “communist” one?

These common follow-up questions require some more detailed history: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did emerge from the global communist movement of the early 20th century, and arguably could have played a positive role in any social revolution that had gotten past the stage of local, short-lived proletarian uprisings like those in Shanghai in 1927 or Barcelona in 1936—in both of which Chinese communists participated.[1] But by the late 1930s, the CCP had already begun to subordinate its communist goals to those of national liberation in the face of immediate threats from Japan, the US, and later the USSR. Once the party came to power in 1949, it continued to prioritize the establishment of a Chinese nation-state as a supposedly necessary precursor to the creation of communism. This was a stark reversal of the basic communist strategy earlier in the century, which had prioritized the global character of revolution. But it was in line with events in Russia and Europe, where the defeat of the international revolution was rationalized as a new strategy to build “socialism in one country.” This position soon came to define the political orientation of all parties aligned with the USSR.

It’s important to remember, however, that neither the USSR nor China ever claimed to have implemented communism. In China, the “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s briefly popularized talk of a “transition to communism” that would begin with the collectivizations and social experiments happening throughout the countryside.[2] We could debate whether such a transition would have been possible under those conditions, and the extent to which such notions of “communism” differed from our own, but those experiments ended in three years of disaster, never to be revived. Then in the mass-mobilization phase of the Cultural Revolution (1967–1968), some participants took actions (general strikes, weapons seizures) and wrote manifestos pointing toward the beginning or renewal of a communist revolution, but even the “leftist” faction of CCP leaders (including Mao) denounced such “ultra-leftists” as a threat to state power and brutally suppressed them.[3] Moreover, none of the participants in the Cultural Revolution understood the society they lived in to be a communist one—even if some thought that a new revolution led by communists was emerging.

This is part of the confusion: “communism” as the name for a political project is often used to describe the activities of communists, including their many parties and political interventions throughout history, including successful revolutions. But this is not the same thing as “communism” as a form of social organization. The communist project is obviously aimed at establishing communism. But that doesn’t mean that it has been successful. Obviously it hasn’t, since we all still live in a capitalist society. The key thing is not to confuse the existence of communists with the existence of communism.

So, if China was not communist, then what was it?

By 1949, after decades of protracted war in which the communist faction gradually won more and more territory from the retreating Japanese and the US-backed Nationalists, the CCP and its supporters had won decisive territorial control over most of the area once claimed by the Qing Dynasty. It’s important to emphasize here that this wasn’t an “authoritarian” seizure of power that went against the will of the populace. It was a legitimately popular revolution with deep roots among the country’s peasant majority, especially in the more populous ethnically Han areas—though support among minority populations along the Qing dynasty frontier was more uneven. The first few years following this victory were spent unifying the nation and reviving production, often using whatever inherited administrative mechanisms were at hand in the newly-won territories—including the collaboration of remaining capitalists in the southern cities and the adoption of planning mechanisms first developed by the Republican government or even by Japanese colonial administrators.

Soon after, these new administrative systems were put to the test in staving off the US invasion of Korea. By 1956, wartime mobilization had given way and the early elements of what we call “the socialist developmental regime” began to generalize across the country. This regime halted China’s capitalist transition that had begun by at least the 19th century, but it never cohered into a distinct mode of production (see below) and soon began to unravel under the weight of its own contradictions coupled with continued international pressures. By the 1970s, the party leadership (including both Mao and leaders from ostensibly opposing factions), faced with mounting protests and disaffection among peasants, workers and students, had initiated a series of diplomatic and market-oriented measures intended to save the developmental regime, but which soon took on a life of their own. These reforms would unleash domestic waves of capitalist development and, at the same time, slowly link China to the global market. Altogether, these trends revived the capitalist transition that had been stalled by the revolution and subordinated China to the global law of value.[4]

What is communism?

Before outlining the socialist developmental regime and clarifying how it differed from communism, we want to emphasize that, as a collective project, we might differ somewhat in our opinions on many of these details. Here we feel it’s important to highlight the voices of our Chinese members and friends, then move on to a more general review, so we’ll begin with a few individual responses to the question “Wasn’t China a communist country under Mao?” from the same subset of respondents who answered the first question in this series:

Kaixuan: No.

Xiao Hui: Depends how you define communism, but I would say no.

Ruirui: This term “communist country” itself is an oxymoron. I think the Mao era saw the replacement of private property with an economy based on public ownership in a state controlled by a bureaucracy.

Cheng Yang: Technically China under Mao didn’t ever call itself communist, but you could say leadership back then was (partly) trying to push forward what they thought of as communism, with the limited experience and lessons they could possibly have, and according to their existing model.

Qianxun: I think that Mao was one of the 20th century’s many failed experiments at using political power to push toward communism. I don’t think there has ever been an ideal communist power. Mao’s political power was similar to those other powers (to extremely varying degrees), with some successes in redistribution along the lines of gender, class and region (and maybe even ethnicity for a short time), but also alongside countervailing tendencies of bureaucratic hierarchy, urban-rural disparity (the “scissors effect”), etc.

Lao Niu: Strictly speaking, China never said it was a communist country, but that we could enter communist society only after a series of struggles, through “continuous revolution” while limiting bourgeois rights under proletarian dictatorship. Of course in American eyes, or those of the Soviet Union, they might think that China was a communist country, applying this label under the influence of geopolitics.

Xian Yu: Depends on your definition. If you use Marx’s definition in The German Ideology, “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things,” then no, because communism is not a state of affairs, much less a polity. If you use the one in the Manifesto “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all, then no, because there was no free development of each. If a country is communist because its leaders say it is, then no, because the CCP never called China communist. Hm, weird, I guess the answer is no regardless of your definition after all.

One recurring point to note here is that even the CCP has never claimed that China was communist, but only that it has been “building socialism” as a precondition for an eventual transition to communism. Moreover, the CCP’s few schematic descriptions of communism do seem generally consistent with our own sense of the term, but it’s also notable that these descriptions (and, in fact, all mention of communism) have become much more rare over time in official party documents. The party’s current constitution (revised in 2017) does not define communism at all, but its founding manifesto from 1921 opens with a clear three-part definition:

  1. On the economic level, communists call for society’s common ownership and use of the means of production: machines, factories, raw materials, land, instruments of transportation and communication, etc. When the means of production fall under common ownership and use, private property and the wage system will disappear, as will the exploitation of people by people, because the content of exploitation—surplus-value—will no longer have a place to be extracted.
  2. On the political level, communists call for the abolition of political power, including all state institutions and governments. Political power, armies and courts are instruments for protecting the interests of the minority and oppressing the majority—the laboring masses—so they are necessary when the means of production are privately owned by the minority. Obviously there will be no need for political power, armies or courts when private property and the wage system are abolished.
  3. On the social level, communists call for society to have only one class—the class of the laboring masses. (In other words, there will no longer be any classes.) Private property is the root of all privilege in our current society, so if no one is able to accumulate property, there will no longer be any privileged classes.[5]

This is basically consistent with the various definitions currently in widespread use by communists today, as well as those of 19th century communists such as Marx and Engels, and those used by early anarcho-communists such as Kropotkin, alongside the earliest Chinese communists[6] such as He-Yin Zhen and Liu Shipei (who published some of the first translations of Marx and Engels into Chinese). Usually, definitions of communism are negative, mostly describing what communism will not be, and then offering minimal positive guidelines emphasizing free association, universal social support and collective, cooperative control over production. In the Communist Manifesto, for example, Marx and Engels wrote:

If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Another popular formulation missing from both these quotations is the slogan, popular in mid-19th century French communist circles and embraced by Marx, “From each according to ability, to each according to need.” This too was adopted by the CCP and became widely used as a shorthand definition of communism learned by schoolchildren: anxu fenpei (按需分配). For 21st century communists, this principle is often expressed using Thomas Müntzer’s 16th century Latin slogan omnia sunt communia, or its English counterpart “everything for everyone.”[7]

The main way current conceptions of communism differ from those of Müntzer, Marx or the CCP is that the abolition of classes is now more explicitly accompanied by a similar emphasis on the abolition of all social separations of humans into gendersraces, etc., and the elimination of society’s estrangement from the non-human world. These ideas actually draw from the work of Marx and other early communists, who sometimes observed that such separations functioned as essential features of capitalist society, but did not always articulate the need for their abolition as a core component of communist revolution.

So communists across the board, and even former communist organizations such as the CCP, are generally in agreement about the definition of “communist society,” and no one claims that China was ever communist—except in the sense that it is ruled by a party that once proclaimed communism as its ultimate goal (and today rarely speaks of it). Instead, the CCP has argued, since the mid-1950s, that China is “socialist,” and that socialism is a necessary “transitional stage” on the way to communism, during which economic development is the main priority. The exact conception of socialism and the nature of such a “stage” have changed over time. Today, the CCP officially claims that China is still in the “primary stage of socialism,” where a “socialist commodity economy” exists, mixing elements of capitalist production with state-ownership.[8] When this argument was initially formulated, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was based on observations of an economy where market imperatives were still held at bay. As the decades passed, however, this ceased to be the case. Today, there are no realms of life in China (including the realm of the state) where the law of value does not operate.

We already discussed the concept of “socialism” and the present character of the Chinese economy in part 2 and part 3 of this FAQ. For now, we can just emphasize that: (a) the socialist developmental regime ended many years ago, and (b) that regime, in retrospect, did not serve as a transition to communism.[9]

What was the socialist development regime, if it wasn’t communist?

This argument is laid out in detail in Sorghum & Steel, our economic history of that period. What follows is a simplified summary. Throughout the 1950s–1960s, what we call China’s “socialist developmental regime” supplanted the communist project as more and more was sacrificed to the bottom line of building a national economy. The term “regime” highlights our argument that the various administrative mechanisms and methods of production never cohered into a mode of production, and instead represented the breakdown of any such mode. Its constituent elements were often disjointed, coming together only through the constant (and constantly intensifying) effort of the state, if at all. For example, the rural agricultural and urban industrial economies were increasingly divided from each other during this period. They were effectively local autarkies, meaning closed-off spaces that reproduced themselves without much outside support. The integration between these units occurred only through state institutions, such as the state monopoly on the purchase and sale of grain to feed workers at industrial enterprises, the rationing and plan-apportionment systems for all but the most basic consumer and producer goods, the household registration (hukou) system, and the urban work-unit (danwei). These relationships were all constructed around the goal of siphoning grain surpluses from the countryside to the city in order to feed the developmental push. Social and productive life was “collectivized,” but it was never centralized or socialized, since life remained limited to autarkic and atomized local productive units. At the height of the system, migration (particularly urban-to-rural) was basically stagnant, aside from a few state-led industrial settlement campaigns.  

Probably the most common point of confusion in this argument is the idea that a mode of production did not exist during the socialist developmental regime.[10] Understanding this point requires a quick clarification of the basic terms: a “mode of production” is when particular methods of production and reproduction are all united by a shared social “totality” capable of reproducing itself independent of the intentional intervention of any individual. So it is a set of general social relationships—think of things like the relationship between worker and boss or between emperor and peasant—including relationships with the non-human world, that are passed down from generation to generation and which determine how the production of goods and reproduction of the human species occur. Modes of production can be categorized according to the nature of these social relationships, which tend to define many aspects of everyday life well beyond the productive sphere. By definition, a mode of production is relatively stable over time, or at least has the clear capacity to reproduce itself over many generations.

When modes of production collapse or are overthrown, there is often a long period in which no mode of production is able to cohere. Instead, the social relations that once defined production are shattered and society scatters out into relatively small-scale, atomized and disjointed productive units that don’t have any set way of interacting with one another—or they are forcibly incorporated into the social relations of an invading society.[11] In the Chinese case, we argue that a slow process of local crisis and commercial growth, combined with competition, invasion and colonization from the rising capitalist system taking root in Europe and Japan, had led to a situation in which the decaying social relationships of the old imperial system (represented by the late Qing dynasty) were being overcome by the capitalist mode of production, evident in both domestic commercial activities and the pressure of foreign powers. At a key point in which both the decaying mode of production and the emergent one were both particularly weak (an extremely chaotic time colloquially understood as the “century of humiliation”), political forces emerged that sought to either spur on the incorporation of the territory into global capitalism (this was the program of both the Nationalists and the occupying Japanese) or to halt the transition and avert it (this was the program of the CCP).

Through successful revolution, the transition was effectively halted. Under the developmental regime, the competitive markets in labor, land and goods that had taken shape receded, decommodifying Chinese society to a great extent. While it is true that many urbanites (a small minority of the population) were “paid” in both “wages” and wage-like ration tickets, for the most part these were not set by a competitive market, but rather by state decree. Often, the “wage bill” was simply determined after the fact and written in a ledger without any money actually passing into the hands of the workers. More importantly: unlike the wage under capitalism, the money that was given to workers was not the primary means by which they acquired fundamental necessities. Only token rents were paid, with the state paying the majority of housing costs. When money was used to buy food, it was usually used alongside allotted grain tickets. Many enterprises also distributed additional locally harvested food for free to all members (for example: coastal enterprises often set up fishing teams). Overall, the ad hoc nature of the system meant that the exact methods differed substantially by place and time, making it difficult to generalize. But, even for the non-grain food that had “prices,” these prices were not set by competition between enterprises or food distributors, but were instead planning calculations based on quantity and scarcity, which were converted to monetary units after the fact. The main points are simply that: first, if you didn’t receive your wage, you weren’t subject to starvation or homelessness; and second, there was no market character behind any of these monetary exchanges, nor was there enough coherence to the system to accommodate any systematic bureaucratic competition over planning resources (as some argue was the case in the USSR).

Even if money was not required for subsistence, work was. The vast majority of people in China in this period worked on rural collectives, gaining workpoints (gongfen) for labor completed. But even these workpoints did not amount to a “wage,” market or not. Workpoints simply entitled one to receive a certain percentage of the total amount of goods produced by the collective, mainly grain. The exact methods by which workpoints were set varied by place and time. In certain cases, they were set collaboratively, in community meetings. In others, they were effectively just dictated by higher levels of government. Similarly, the exact relationship between workpoints and labor contribution differed. In certain times and places, they may have had a quantitative relation to labor time. Elsewhere, it was simply an indicator of whether or not someone was actively participating in collective labor in the village, graded only according to gender and age. While localities were encouraged by local cadres to meet (sometimes quite high) grain quotas, these quotas were not set by market competition, nor were there any real incentives to increase productivity beyond the quota.

Although the CCP proclaimed equality between men and women and in some ways improved women’s conditions, in other ways the socialist developmental regime merely adjusted the gendered division of labor into new but still highly unequal roles—especially in the countryside. This adjustment, championed as “women holding up half the sky,” was considered a necessary means for mobilizing the female workforce in the national drive for industrialization. It effectively amounted to a siphoning of additional labor from women, both in the form of recognized labor (allotted workpoints, with fewer points almost always assigned to women than men by the way tasks were categorized) in fields and factories and unrecognized labor (not allotted workpoints or otherwise socially acknowledged) in the form of housework, clothing production, etc. Though some of this labor was briefly socialized during the Great Leap Forward, the trend, over time, was for more and more work to fall back on the shoulders of women. This gradually weighed down gains that had been made in women’s lives after the revolution, even if some of these gains remained substantial (such as vastly expanded educational access).   

Overall, however, the exact details of how local production was organized in this period tend to evade summary because of the amorphous character of the system. The only constant was the fact that grain was being extracted to fuel urban industrial centers, which required that peasants be fixed in place on the land through strict internal controls on migration. It is the amorphous and ad hoc character of production that indicates the lack of any totalizing mechanisms that spanned the entire country. While some forms of local competition certainly existed—particularly bureaucratic competition between some cadres in some places, but not as an effective structuring principle for the entire bureaucracy—they tended to either be suppressed or die off over time. In any case, the mere existence of scattered competitive activities does not make a system capitalist. Similarly, the extraction of surplus from the countryside in the form of grain, which implies the existence of something like a basic class divide, does not indicate a specifically capitalist class system. If these features were unique to capitalism, then we’d have to concede that the East Asian mainland had always been ruled by capitalist production, since it had vibrant local examples of commercial trade for millennia, alongside systematic taxation in grain designed to siphon surplus from the countryside into the imperial core. But these local commercial activities never grew to dictate the productive activities of the entire society. Similarly, the existence of a forcibly extracted surplus product is not the same as the existence of surplus value. Even compared to these previous polities, the socialist developmental regime saw far fewer markets and far less competition between productive units.  

Under these conditions there was no law of value that could emerge to subordinate social reproduction to its dictates. There was no generalization of market relations, and thus no market imperative to produce more efficiently—a key dynamic of capitalism. But there were also no organic social relationships capable of generalizing across society and ensuring its reproduction (as had existed in the previous dynastic systems). This meant that, even though the transition to capitalism was halted, it was not effectively diverted toward a different mode of production. Instead, it got caught in a limbo where social relationships had shattered into small autarkies that had no established conventions for coordinating with one another. In such a condition, the CCP used all the resources at hand to force through coordination manually, establishing a system whereby the state’s meager administrative power was used to accomplish a few simple goals: siphoning grain from the countryside to urban productive units, funneling resources into key industrial projects, and building up the capacity for military defense against the continuing threat of global imperialism. The problem was that, because the system had no organic ability to produce totalizing social relationships to reproduce itself, it had to rely more and more on direct state interventions. Meanwhile, these interventions had to become more and more aggressive, since the state itself was subject to the same dampening effects, growing more immobile and less responsive over time (a process we call “ossification”). This was a major part of why the developmental regime collapsed.

Throughout this period, there were, of course, direct imperatives to produce more. It was only these state-led strategies of development that pushed forward the expansion of productive forces in general. We therefore use the term “developmental” to point out the very different dynamics of this regime compared to those of both capitalism and earlier social systems. It indicates that the state was primarily interested in an increase in absolute production of specific goods. In other words, the state wanted the production of more steel and more grain, but not the accumulation of surplus-value, as in capitalism. “Value” simply did not exist as the social form of wealth under the developmental regime.[12] The goal of absolute production was tied to international defense against capitalist powers and the USSR, and the interests of the nation-state stood above any possibility of a transition to communism. Meanwhile, China was not integrated into the global market. By the mid-1960s, even the minimal trade that had existed with the Soviet bloc had all but ceased. Central and regional planning (both as quotas and through set quantities that were post facto converted into “prices”), together with decentralized political command and mass mobilization campaigns, were used to push material developments. No stable incentive system guided industrial organization or new rounds of development and investment, even as much of the state ossified into a rigid bureaucracy. Chaotic fits and starts were the dominant tendency as a bricolage of makeshift responses were posed against an accumulation of myriad local crises. The result was that no mode of production fully cohered, and when the state began introducing new types of measures (including market-oriented ones) to save the regime from continuing shortages and popular unrest in the 1970s, those measures gradually took on a life of their own that would revive the capitalist transition. That transitional period is documented in detail in the second part of our economic history, “Red Dust.”


[1] On the Shanghai uprising of 1927, see Underground: The Shanghai Communist Party and the Politics of Survival, 1927-1937 by Patricia Stranhan (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999); Shanghai on strike: The politics of Chinese labor by Elizabeth Perry (Stanford University Press, 1995); The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution by Harold Isaacs (1938 edition online, revised 2010 edition from Haymarket); and The Chinese Labor Movement, 1919-1927 by Jean Chesneaux (Stanford University Press, 1968). On Chinese participation in the Spanish Civil War, see The Call of Spain: Chinese Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) by Nancy Tsou and Len Tsou (Renjian Chubanshe, 2001), reviewed here: “Duo shines new light on role of Chinese volunteers in Spanish Civil War” (China Daily, 2021).

[2] See our account of the Great Leap Forward in “Sorghum & Steel,” Chuang journal, issue 1: Dead Generations (2016). For a detailed case study, see “A Commune in Sichuan?

[3] See our account of these communist actions and writings in “Sorghum & Steel” part IV: “Ruination.” This makes use of detailed archival research and interviews with participants by Yiching Wu in Cultural Revolution at the Margins (Harvard University Press, 2014).  

[4]  This transition process is documented in our article “Red Dust,” Chuang, Issue 2: Frontiers. Note that by “law of value” we refer not to Ricardo’s “labor theory of value,” but to the capitalist value-form’s subordination of the world as a whole to capital’s need for endless self-expansion, such that even political parties attempting to regulate the market for some social or ecological ideal end up yielding to capital’s authority if they want to mitigate economic disaster. It’s not parties or legislators that make the ultimate laws of our world, but value. This understanding of the value-form is explained throughout “Red Dust,” but we also recommend Michael Heinrich’s Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, recently translated into Chinese as 政治经济学批判:马克思《资本论》导论(著:米夏埃尔·海因里希,译:张义修 、房誉),南京大学出版社,2021

[5] Translated from 中国共产党宣言 (composed in November 1920, submitted to the Comintern in 1921), from 《中共中央文件选集》 第一册(1921—1925年).

[6] Until the 1920s, the Chinese term for “communist” (共产主义者) referred by default to anarcho-communists, since they were the first to embrace that term and translate texts by Japanese and European anarchists and Marxists into Chinese. Several founders of the CCP were anarchists, and the distinction between anarcho-communism and Marxism was not clarified until a series of debates throughout the 1920s, documented in Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution by Arif Dirlik (University of California Press, 1993).

[7] In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow demonstrate that the modern concept of communism, including the notion that individual freedom can only be achieved through social equality, also owes a great deal to European encounters with indigenous American societies since the 17th century, and subsequent discussions about their implications for the transformation of European society along the lines already proposed by earlier proto-communists of the Radical Reformation such as Müntzer. “Since the early nineteenth century, there have been lively debates about whether there was ever a thing that might legitimately referred to as ‘primitive communism’ [where] ‘communism’ always refers to communal ownership, particularly of productive resources.” While many indigenous American societies were ambiguous in this regard, combining communal with individual ownership or switching back and forth over time, most did exemplify “the original sense of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’”—an arrangement that “guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life—or at least ensured no man or woman was subordinated to any other. Insofar as we can speak of communism, it existed not in opposition to but in support of individual freedom” (2021, pages 47-48).

[8] Though Mao is often credited with coining the term, this idea was not developed until the late 1970s and early 1980s, in a series of ideological debates within the Party. Xue Muqiao is often credited with being the first to systematically theorize the “primary stage of socialism” in his book China’s Socialist Economy, first published in 1979 and then substantially revised in 1983 to account for the many changes that had occurred in the intervening years.

[9] We don’t, however, turn around and take the opposite position, arguing that socialism was merely part of China’s long and tortuous transition to capitalism. This is an equally deterministic argument that is inconsistent with a communist approach to history. It also contradicts many of the evident facts about the nature of the socialist developmental regime, which was unstable and doomed to be replaced—if not by capitalism then by a global communist revolution (in which militant Chinese workers and even some CCP members might have played a role), or some other social formation—but it was only through a series of historical contingencies that the transition played out as it did.

[10] Sometimes, this confusion is caused a minor definitional issue where people think that “mode” just refers to any “way” of producing things. But for Marx and communist thinkers more generally, the term “mode of production” has always had a more specific meaning and should not be confused with the concrete methods of production.

[11] This doesn’t mean that all seemingly small-scale or local societies have no mode of production, however. The key thing is whether or not there are prevailing, “total” social relationships that define the way that humans relate with one another and with the non-human world to produce goods. The argument here is deeply influenced by the work of the communist historian Jairus Banaji, whose book Theory as History covers the debates on the mode of production in extensive detail. Similarly, the theoretical framework was informed by current scholarship on the nature and extent of the feudal mode of production in the European Middle Ages.

[12] This also means that the system was not “state capitalist,” since it was not “capitalist” in the first place. Others might argue that there existed a distorted or degenerated form of value, insofar as the developmental drive was induced by defensive geopolitical conflict with the capitalist world (and, later, with the USSR as well). But this is simply to say that areas not yet subsumed into capitalism feel its pressure. On the one hand, the point is mundane. On the other, it muddies analytic clarity about the nature and pace of the transition to capitalism since it implies that a society becomes capitalist as soon as it begins to feel any pressure from external commercial interests.

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