China’s Capitalist Road

Originally published January 1, 1979

(Editor’s note – Occasionally the New Leader would print selections from correspondence in the form of a mini-article.  This is one)

NEW YORK-The United States probably could not and certainly should not do anything to advance or retard the palace revolution that now seems to be proceeding erratically in the Peoples’ Republic of China. We can and should, however, try to understand it, and our understanding will be clearer if we recognize at once that literal translations of Chinese political slogans and epithets are, let us say, inscrutable.

We of course have some experience ourselves with inscrutable politics. A long line of humorists from Artemus Ward through Mr. Dooley and Will Rogers to Russell Baker and Art Buchwald has found that taking political slogans seriously is always good for a laugh. And we are not alone among Western nations in this regard. The wit of W. S. Gilbert had a similar base; nor is political confusion dead in France, where one of the most conservative parties calls itself Radical.

The present Chinese epithet “Gang of Four” strikes us as a bit bizarre, but it is not likely in itself to mislead us. We know that the Chinese are fascinated by numbers; they have Five Kinds of Red and Seven Kinds of Black and much else. In the present case, the four people have been named, and there seems no reason to doubt that they shared similar ideas.

It is when we ask about these ideas that we run into trouble. The Gang was, we are told, counterrevolutionary, which is odd, because this is the very charge the Gang leveled against its successors. The Gang plotted a return to capitalism-again an odd coincidence. And the Gang distorted the Thought of Mao-still another odd coincidence.

Are we faced, then, merely with a clash of personalities? Is all the uproar caused by a personal aversion of Chiang Ch’ing for Teng Hsaio-ping? Or perhaps by his male chauvinism? Or, as in the ostensible occasion for the Great Cultural Revolution, by a dispute over a critique of a play produced two years ago? Such a reading of the situation is by no means impossible, and it does not exclude other complementary readings. There is plenty of precedent for this sort of thing, both in China and elsewhere.

A famous slogan of Teng’s may lead the way to clarification. “It doesn’t matter,” said he in 1967, “whether a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” Few Westerners, with the possible exception of doctrinaires like the late Joseph McCarthy, would dream of objecting to this sentiment, which seems the very model of no-nonsense, can-do, winning-is-the-only-thing pragmatism. Yet this apparently innocuous aphorism was an assigned cause of Teng’s fall from Mao’s grace in 1967 and again in 1976.

This happened for a reason surprising and simple: Mao Tse-tung, one of the greatest movers and shakers of history, one of the most successful of doers, one of the most eloquent proponents of dialectical materialism, was not, in the sense generally understood in the West, a materialist at all.

Mao and the Maoists were certainly proud of their material achievements. Wherever visitors went in the early ’70s they were informed that the farm or the factory or the school or the hospital had produced x before Liberation, 2x after Liberation, and 3x after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. At the same time, it was clear that material progress was not an end in itself. The real objective was equality, material equality to be sure, but liberty and fraternity, too. The Cultural Revolution everywhere shamed and degraded those who enjoyed power or status in industry, in education, in medicine, in the Army, in politics, or down on the farm.

That the systematic-unsystematic, rather-destruction of elites disrupted production may have been a surprise to Mao, but it was evidently a price he was willing to pay. “The class struggle,” he reiterated, “is by no means over.” He followed the Marx of The Critique of the Gotha Program in insisting that distribution was not the problem, that once socialist equality was achieved material progress would take care of itself. In any event, there was for everyone to see the degeneration of the Soviets into the totalitarian bureaucracy of Djilas’ New Class. It was this bureaucratic society that the Maoists saw as Right deviationism, as opportunism, as, in the end, capitalist roadism.

A capitalist roader, then, is not necessarily or even probably sympathetic to the ideals or practices of American society. It is unlikely that free speech and the free market hold charms for him. He is, indeed, more likely to understand and seek to emulate the achievements of the Soviets. Mao, on the other hand, was attracted to the United States just because he found Russia repellent.

In short, China’s capitalist road is not an extension of Wall Street. There are no capitalists or protocapitalists in China, in power or out of power, and we will only be misled if we expect ideological slogans to make allies-or enemies- for us. We will find allies, and enemies, too, but we should look for them on the grounds of real rather than imaginary national interest.

January 1, 1979

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