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September 21, 1997

To Deplore Capitalism Isn't Always to Fight It


PARIS -- For Karl Marx, the right approach to private property was simple: abolish it. But from Beijing to Paris, two cities where Communists are in government, the question of how to deal with property has become a complicated one, exposing the strangely divergent hues of Communism today.

Announcing the sale of more than 10,000 Chinese state industries to shareholders, President Jiang Zemin this month took his country's Market-Leninism to a new apogee. The measures -- though dressed in official gobbledygook about "public ownership" -- clearly had nothing to do with communism as Marx understood it.

They did, however, have much to do with the global market's power to absorb 1.2 billion Chinese in the quest to get rich and with Lenin's exploitation of Marxism to arrive at something unimagined by Marx: the dictatorial concentration of power. For Jiang, China's future appears to lie in a bizarre marriage of Leninist expediency and Silicon Valley worker-ownership: Mao meets Microsoft by way of "Deng Xiaoping theory."

Four days after the 15th Chinese Party congress opened with its message that state ownership was bunk, Robert Hue, the leader of the French Communist Party, told a large rally in Paris that it might be time to accept the principle that some of France's state-owned industries should admit "small minority stakes of private capital." A wave of booing greeted the suggestion.

Privatization remains anathema to French Communists even as it is embraced -- albeit with semantic obfuscation -- by the Chinese and energetically pursued in all frankness, if with some fiddling, by the former Communists of central and eastern Europe.

Communism has come a long way since the Manifesto published 149 years ago by Marx and Friedrich Engels. It no longer poses a threat to capitalism or to America, but it has survived gulags, barbaric social engineering and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In China and a few other parts of the world it still retains the aura of theology, as the debates this month on how to enshrine the thoughts of Deng illustrated.

En route, however, political communism, as opposed to academic Marxism, has shed its original content to survive as an extraordinary mishmash, a late 20th-century potpourri marked by the loss of the very quality that distinguished Marx: the immanent potency, the singular danger, of ideas vividly expressed.

Marx urged the proletariat to wrest "all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class."

He then postulated that because political power "is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another," and because the proletariat's victory would sweep away "the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally," the state would wither away and a new society emerge.

Of course, it did not happen. In countries from the Soviet Union to North Korea, wherever private property was abolished, state ownership rather than collective, public ownership took its place. Far from withering away, the state extended its tentacles, and the Communist Party became the vehicle not for the proletariat's victory but for the transference of power to what Milovan Djilas of Yugoslavia scathingly called "the new class" of apparatchiks.

In China, it is those apparatchiks who still hold sway today, maneuvering with ingenuity along economic lines broadly backed by the United States that may prolong, rather than condemn, their political dictatorship in the post cold-war era.

In the West, by contrast, Communists find themselves battling to defend the very workers' rights -- social security, free medical care, unemployment benefits and pensions -- with which the bourgeoisie maneuvered to stave off Marx's predicted revolution.

"Communism has lost every sort of bearing," said Jonathan Eyal, the director of studies at London's Royal United Services Institute. "In China, it is essentially a mafia offering rising prosperity in exchange for political submission. In the West, it has given up all talk of seizing the commanding heights of the economy in exchange for a rearguard action against the sweeping advance of market forces."

Indeed, the current campaigns of the people who still call themselves Communists in China and the West are, in many ways, diametrically opposed. In China, it is Realpolitik and the co-option of globalization to Chinese ends that drives the Communist Party. In France and Italy, the defense of what is sometimes called "the European model of civilization" against the pressures of globalization is of primary concern.

"We absolutely condemn the latest Chinese decisions," said Ramon Mantovani, an Italian Communist and member of Parliament. "They illustrate the way in which the Chinese have become one of the bulwarks of American-driven globalization, the very force that is threatening European workers."

Or, put another way, why should a multinational pay heavy social-security charges for Italian employees when it can set up in China and pay almost nothing?

Of course, globalization would have come as no surprise to Marx. Even in 1848, he noted that modern industry "has established the world-market." He was, as Robert Bowles, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts noted, a "very acute observer of the workings of capitalism."

But what Marx never predicted was that Communism would take hold in pre-industrial societies like Russia and China, rather than Germany or Britain, where the processes he described as preconditions for Communism were far advanced. By an odd twist, Communism became a prelude to capitalism rather than the force that overthrew it.

What practice, rather than theory, has shown since Marx's death is that Communism has a great deal of trouble reforming itself -- witness Dubcek, Khrushchev and Gorbachev. Thus if Jiang pulls off China's current lurch, it will amount to a first, if the result can still credibly be called Communism. Practice has also shown the irrepressible vitality of capitalism and its inherent cruelty; the forces that European Communists are fighting are thus very powerful ones.

The views of property and society held by the Communists of Paris and Beijing are quite distinct; but in both cases, the barricades are defensive ones.

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