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‘Neither Washington nor Beijing’ means objective support for Washington

In the first of a new series, CARLOS MARTINEZ explores the weaknesses of latter-day ‘third campism’ in relation to the emerging new cold war on China

A NEWCOMER to politics would likely assume that members of the global left support the People’s Republic of China. 

It is after all led by a communist party, with Marxism as its guiding ideology. 

During the period since the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power in 1949, the Chinese people have experienced an unprecedented improvement in their living standards and human development. 

Life expectancy has increased from 36 to 77 years. Literacy has increased from an estimated 20 per cent to 97 per cent. 

The social and economic position of women has improved beyond recognition (one example being that, before the revolution, the vast majority of women received no formal education whatsoever, whereas now a majority of students in higher education institutions are female). Extreme poverty has been eliminated. China is becoming the pre-eminent world leader in tackling climate change.

Such progress is evidently consistent with traditional left-wing values; what typically attracts people to Marxism is precisely that it seeks to provide a framework for solving those problems of human development that capitalism has shown itself incapable of satisfactorily addressing. 

Capitalism has driven historic innovations in science and technology, thereby laying the ground for a future of shared prosperity; however, its contradictions are such that it inevitably generates poverty alongside wealth; it cannot but impose itself through division, deception and coercion; everywhere it marginalises, alienates, dominates and exploits. 

Seventy years of Chinese socialism, meanwhile, have broken the inverse correlation between wealth and poverty. 

Even though China suffers from high levels of inequality, even though China has some extremely rich people, life for ordinary workers and peasants has continuously improved, at a remarkable rate and over an extended period.

Yet support for China within the left in countries such as Britain and the US is in fact a fairly marginal position. 

The bulk of Marxist groups in those countries consider that China is not a socialist country; indeed many believe it to be “a rising imperialist power in the world system that oversees the exploitation of its own population … and increasingly exploits Third World countries in pursuit of raw materials and outlets for its exports” (Socialist Worker, 2019). 

Some consider the China-led Belt and Road Initiative to be an example of “feverish global expansionism” (Counterfire, 2020). 

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, with characteristic crudeness, describe China as being “functionally little different from, and in any case not better than, a fascist regime,” every bit as imperialist as the US and politically much worse.

The growing confrontation between the US and China is not, on these terms, an attack by an imperialist power on a socialist or independent developing country, but rather an example of inter-imperialist rivalry. 

On this basis, sections of the left are advocating the construction of a “third camp” around the slogan “Neither Washington nor Beijing, but international socialism.”

It’s an attractive idea. We don’t align with oppressors anywhere; our only alignment is with the global working class. 

Furthermore it’s an idea with historical roots: a significant proportion of the socialist movement — particularly in Britain — rallied behind the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow,” withholding their support from a Soviet Union they considered to be state capitalist and/or imperialist.

Then as now, the third camp position drew theoretical justification from the strategy promoted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in relation to World War I. 

The communist movement in the early 1910s recognised that a war between the two major competing imperialist blocs (Germany on one side, and Britain and France on the other) was near-inevitable. 

At the 1912 conference of the Second International in Basel, the assembled organisations vowed to oppose the war, to refuse to align themselves with any component part of the international capitalist class, and to “utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule” (Manifesto of the International Socialist Congress at Basel). 

Rather than rallying behind the German, British, French or Russian ruling classes, workers were called on to “oppose the power of the international solidarity of the proletariat to capitalist imperialism.”

The theorists of “Neither Washington nor Moscow” in the 1940s insisted that the cold war was analogous to the European inter-imperialist conflict of the 1910s — that the US-led bloc and the Soviet-led bloc were competing imperialist powers and that it was impermissible for socialists to ally with either of them.

The third camp has apparently survived the storm generated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and simply pitched its tent a few thousand kilometres south-east — “Neither Washington nor Moscow” has reappeared as “Neither Washington nor Beijing.” 

Once again invoking the spirit of the Bolsheviks, several prominent left organisations call on the working class in the West to oppose both the US and China; to fight imperialism in all its forms; to support workers’ struggle everywhere to bring down capitalism.

If their assumptions are correct — if the new cold war is indeed analogous to the situation prevailing in Europe before WWI, if China is an imperialist country, if the Chinese working class is ready to be mobilised in an international revolutionary socialist alliance — then perhaps their conclusions are also correct. 

Conversely, if China can be shown not to be an imperialist power, and if the new cold war can be shown not to be an inter-imperialist struggle, then the slogan “Neither Washington nor Beijing” can be safely rejected.

In this series of articles, we explore the assorted claims that China has become an imperialist country. 

We conclude that these claims are specious; that China is not an imperialist country; that China is in fact a threat to the imperialist world system; that the basic character of global politics in the current era is not that of inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and China, but rather a struggle between the US-led push for its continued hegemony and the China-led push for a multipolar world order.

This series does not address the question of whether China is a socialist country. 

We believe that broad forces can and must unite against the US-led new cold war, regardless of their assessment of China’s political and economic system. 

The prominent Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel was by no means a supporter of Soviet socialism, but he insisted that the Soviet Union must be defended against imperialism. 

Arguing against Tony Cliff’s slogan of “Neither Washington nor Moscow,” he wrote: “Why, if it is conceivable to defend the SPD [German Social Democratic Party] against fascism, despite its being led by the Noskes, the assassins of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, is it ‘inconceivable’ to defend the USSR against imperialism?”

Let the latter-day third-campists answer the same question in relation to China.

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