Orthodoxy and Economism.

            At the end of the Nineteenth Century, European Socialism had become theoretically Orthodox Marxist, but practically Revisionist.  Revisionist Socialism saw the spread of representative government, the legalization of labor unions, and the expansion—rather than contraction—of the middle class as evidence of a new world.  Reforms could be achieved through politics and union bargaining with employers.  Higher pay, shorter working hours, medical insurance, affordable housing, old age pensions all were within reach.  Not everyone wanted to toss overboard the idea of Revolution.[1]  Critics, notably Vladimir Lenin, argued that this “Economism” deluded and diverted the working class.[2]  The debate continues to this day. 

            Since the time of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist Party has argued that a single-party state offers a more efficient management of society than does a multi-party democracy.[3]  In effect, they said “Just look at the United States.”  Western businessmen responded “OK, whatever, so long as I don’t have to live there myself and can get my money out when I want.”  Chinese businessmen responded “Sounds good, so long as I do have to live here anyway and there isn’t any other choice.”  Decades of increasing prosperity followed, so it seemed to be true.  For that matter, it may even have been true—for a developing economy like China’s anyway.  The essential issue lay in the government keeping its mitts off a large sector of the economy. 

            Then came Zi Jinping.  He started by locking up the levers of power: control of the government, the Party, and the military.  He moved on to re-asserting government primacy in economic decision-making by publicly bullying leading businessmen and pursuing his “Zero Covid” strategy regardless of the economic harm.  Now, at the start of his third term in power, Zi has really started to scare the bejeezus of China’s business elite.  His almost endless speech to a Party Congress to mentioned “security” seventeen times more often than he did “markets.”  On top of that, he has stacked the national leadership with people who represent—in the language of the Cultural Revolution—“Redness” over “Expertise.”  That is, they’re his creatures.  China’s “age of economism” is over, at least for now. 

            The thing is that Economism as originally defined in Europe meant material benefits for the industrial working class.  The middle and upper classes already had a nice life.  In China, Economism meant material benefits for both the rural and urban working classes AND for a rapidly growing middle class.  It especially benefitted the entrepreneurs.  Now it is the entrepreneurs who fear getting it in the neck. 

            How will they respond?  One answer is flight abroad.  Several recent stories have related anecdotes of businessmen suffering from “political depression.”  Some of them say they will apply for permission to migrate to Europe or America or anywhere, really, where they and their families can exchange some money for passports.  China’s loss would be the world’s gain.    

            Another is what is currently known in the United States as “quiet quitting” and in other places as “work to rule.”[4]  Do exactly what you are told, but no more, and go home when your shift ends.  That approach isn’t what built China into an economic giant. 

[1] Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism (1955). 

[2] See, fir example, Lenin: A Talk With Defenders of Economism (marxists.org) from 1901. 

[3] Li Yuan, “Xi Is Scaring Away China’s Business Elite,” NYT, 8 November 2022. 

[4] See Quiet quitting – Wikipedia  But see Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk (1921-1923). 


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