How the anti-capitalist Cultural Revolution led to the revival of capitalism

Andrew Walder’s essay “Bending the Arc of Chinese History: The Cultural Revolution’s Paradoxical Legacy” was recently recommended to me, and indeed it is an excellent piece (sadly, the full source is behind one of those ludicrous academic paywalls). In it he argues that “the Cultural Revolution laid political foundations for a transition to a market-oriented economy whilst also creating circumstances that helped to ensure the cohesion and survival of China’s Soviet-style party-state.” The reason this legacy is paradoxical is, of course, that the professed goals of the Cultural Revolution were to tear down the Soviet-style party-state and prevent the re-emergence of capitalism. The exact opposite happened.

Furthermore, the historical effects of the Cultural Revolution are one of the fundamental reasons why China and the Soviet Union ended up on such different trajectories. China’s economic reforms of the 1980s were successful in part because they were part of a project of restoring state power and national greatness, and contributed to the strengthening of institutions. The USSR’s economic reforms of the 1980s were not successful because they were a battle against entrenched bureaucratic power, and undermined institutions. Here are some excerpts on this point:

One of the most consequential accomplishments of the Cultural Revolution was that it severely damaged the national bureaucracy, leaving it weak and divided. At the end of the 1970s, it was anything but an entrenched and powerful force capable of defending its privileges and vested interests. Officials at this point in time were grateful to be returned to responsible positions, given real authority over their designated areas of operation, and freed of the constant threat of political accusations for alleged errors. …

Deng would become the acknowledged hero of all those who sought to rebuild the structures of the party-state, purge it of disruptive rebels, and rebuild the Party, economy, and scientific and technical infrastructure. The way in which Deng rose to supplant Hua Guofeng as the Party’s pre-eminent leader at the end of 1978 is testament to the widespread political support that he earned for his efforts during Mao’s last years. …

Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping in 1989

Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping in 1989

When Gorbachev set out to restructure the Soviet economy along more modern and market-oriented lines in the late 1980s, he faced a fundamentally different situation. The Soviet Communist Party, its national apparatus of ministries and bureaus, its massive security apparatus and huge military establishment had not experienced extensive purges for almost 40 years. These centralized structures had grown and enhanced their authority, had accumulated bureaucratic privileges, and were well prepared to defend both against reforms that threatened the status quo. Gorbachev quickly found that his attempts to initiate economic reforms met with delay and obstruction. …

He eventually concluded that the only way to overcome bureaucratic resistance to reconstruction, or “perestroika,” was to reduce the power and influence of the bureaucracy and neutralize the security services and armed forces. This was the origin of “glasnost,” a greater transparency and openness about the flaws and inequities of the Soviet system, past and present, which was a prelude to an attempt to restructure the political system through competitive elections to new national assemblies. By the spring of 1989, Party secretaries of regions and cities were made to stand for election to legislative assemblies, and many of them lost. The momentum of democratization within Soviet structures, however, split the Communist Party and turned into nationalist mobilization that tore the Soviet Union apart. …

Gorbachev’s progressive ideas threatened the vested interests of an entrenched bureaucracy that had grown undisturbed for decades and which now oversaw an enormous military-industrial complex. Deng Xiaoping was in a fundamentally different position. … Deng represented the resurrection of the same forces whose vested interests stood in the way of Gorbachev. Deng was leading the way to their recovery towards a more secure and prosperous future, and as it turned out, an integral part of this package of national revival was the restructuring of China’s command economy. The Cultural Revolution eased the politics of economic reform by bundling that programme together with the revitalization of the party-state. This opportunity was not available to Gorbachev.

Walder also makes the point that the Cultural Revolution, which featured vicious ideological attacks on the Soviet Union, helped push China toward the US; the eventual normalization of relations with the US and the intellectual exchanges with Western economists that followed were also a big factor in the success of Deng’s reforms.

This explanation of the failure of Gorbachev’s reforms is quite close to that in Chris Miller’s new book The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economywhich I recently recommended. Such a historical perspective suggests that the key factor behind the very different Chinese and Soviet outcomes was not gradualism versus shock therapy, or privatization versus state control, but whether the government bureaucracy was enabling change or defending the status quo.


  1. Convincing argument, but Vietnam required no such prerequisite. Neither did Yugoslavia back in the 1950s. Also, the article assumes that the natural position would be for the PRC’s industrial and planning bureaucracy to oppose the reforms. But why? Did they really see reduced privilege and power in the 1980s and early 1990s? If not, did they really have to be weakened in order to go along? That sector remained a state-owned, planned sector with a bit more competition, but also more freedom of action for planners, including freedom to rent seek. Not clear why that’s something they would have wanted to resist.


  2. I think you are restating Walder’s argument rather than contradicting it — economic reform was a boost for the bureaucracy, because they got more resources and more authority, so they supported it. That is exactly the point. Economic reform in China was linked to the revival of state power and national greatness, rather than opposed to it.


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