Nirvana or ceaseless contradictions?

Steve.Keen at Steve.Keen at
Fri Dec 30 15:19:47 MST 1994

Chris Burford made an interesting post some days ago, while I was on
holidays, about the apparent development of a "theoretical attractor"
on this list arguing that dialectics and the concepts of complexity
analysis are consonant, but which has the implication that Marx's
belief in socialism escaping contradiction is "undialectical".
To refresh memories, an extract:

|In order to reclaim the scientific right to try to change the
|structure of human society, it seems we have to accept a
|theoretical stance that implies there is no such thing as a
|socialist nirvana. I agree with Ron and Steve on this and I think
|the price is worth paying.

He then posted a quote from Mao, which acknowledged the continuing
existence of contradictions in socialism, and concluded with:

|*socialist society will grow more united and consolidated through
|the ceaseless process of the correct handling and resolving of
|contradictions*." (my emphases)

I agree with Chris about the "attractor", and that the belief that
socialism escapes contradictions has to go, and I found the quote
from Mao interesting. My post is tangential to this central
agreement, to some extent, but the point I'd like to make is
that tensions, dialectical or otherwise, aren't necessarily
progressive (ie, as change which enhances the well-being of the
vast majority, or change which advances the techniques of
production, etc.).

(I spent a short time in China in 1980, taking a tour of Australian
journalists to a conference which discussed the coverage of
each country in the other's press, and my views reflect that
exposure to post-Mao China more so than any academic study.)

The contradictions which emerged in China hardly exemplified
"the ceaseless process of the correct handling and resolving of
contradictions". In my opinion, the contradictions in China since
the time of that quote (1957) were dynastic and regressive, and
were a manifestation of the impossibility at that time of centrally
directing production in an economy as vast as China's.

By roughly 1975, the Communist Party of China had about 30 million
members, out of a population of 1,000 million. Its Central Committee
decided policy, and that was transmitted through the Party to
local cadres. Given the exigencies of communications in that country,
the transmission was "sloganised": so that the need, for example,
to expand grain production became "grow grain".

The local consequence of that would be the ploughing over of
legume crops and the conversion of that land to grain. A bumper
crop of grain ensued; but a shortage of legumes and hence protein.
A short time later (a year or more), children start to develop
symptoms of protein deficiency, and the peasants (who themselves
knew better get angry (and start to think about getting even).
Panicked Party cadres in the regions try to import legumes, but
the shortage is general, so legume crops are shipped to areas where
the peasants have revolted (killing a CP official or two, burning
down an office, or maybe just painting slogans), leading to
a revolt in the regions from whence the crops came.

The general clamour gets transmitted back up the Party hierarchy,
leading to a shift in power at the top, the discrediting of those
who pushed for higher grain production, and a "witchhunt" to
attribute blaim. In this witchhunt, the only defence for the
happless surviving CP members is the line "I followed the
policy directives of the Central Committee of the Communist
Party of China".

(The quote above is a literal one: I heard it a dozen times if I
heard it once in interviews with commune officials, city party
bosses, etc.)

The shift in power is of course followed by a shift in directive:
now it becomes "promote protein". And in response, once the
message gets transmitted down to local level, the new local
official directs the ploughing in of grain fields, and the
planting of legumes.

A season later, there is a grain shortage...

The above is part hypothetical, part recollection. We did see
a region of Schezuan where children of about 2-4 years of
age had clear signs of protein deficiency disease; and, as I
think I've mentioned on this list once before, when officials
in Shanghai were asked why heavy industry production fell 7%
in a year when light industry production rose 17%, they
explained that "the CC of the CPC directed that we promote
light industry", and that in consequence they stripped
heavy industry factories and turned them into light industry
factories (and this was in *post-*Mao China!).

The above is clearly a pattern of contradiction; but it is
hardly a creative dialectic. In dynamic terms, the only "correct"
response, to borrow Mao's phrase, to resolving the above
contradiction was to find a way to "damp" responses of officials
to party directives, because the centralised system as it
stood lead to further and further amplification, until
"sloganism" seemed to dominate not just lower-Party interpretation
of Central Committee directives, but Central Committee
debate itself.

I suspect that behind the pro-market policies of the current
regime is the belief that the market provides such a damping
mechanism (though, of course, it has its own instabilities).

Steve Keen


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