Since the 1980s the concept of the initial stage of socialism (also translated as the “primary stage of socialism”) has served as the theoretical foundation for the Communist Party of China’s embrace of market economics. The theory of the initial stage of socialism posits that the ideal socialist order—from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs—presumes a level of wealth that China simply does not have. China remains in the initial stage of socialist rule; in this stage the Communist Party of China must focus its work on creating the wealth that future generations will redistribute. The transition to that more “advanced” stage of socialism must wait until China’s productive capacity and COMPREHENSIVE NATIONAL POWER has caught up with or surpassed that of the leading capitalist nations.
The origins of the slogan begin with an oversight: Karl Marx did not anticipate that communist revolutionaries would succeed in economically underdeveloped agrarian empires. He theorized revolution as the inevitable end point of industrialization and saw socialism as the culmination of capitalist development. Marx’s writings, therefore, offered little guidance to any revolutionary leader who seized control of a country that had not yet industrialized. The attempts these leaders made to modernize their countries sans private property, market mechanisms, and the other trappings of capitalism led to some of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies—China’s own Great Leap Forward chief among them.
Having experienced these tragedies firsthand, the men who led the Communist Party of China in the 1980s did not need to be convinced that the economic programs of Stalin and Mao were disasters. However, theirs was a negative consensus: there was no widespread agreement on what positive economic program China should follow. Deng Xiaoping’s reform program was therefore both experimental and provisional. It drew criticism from both the “left” and the “right.” Leftists opposed the ongoing reforms out of fear that they undermined party authority and threatened a wholesale retreat from Marxist principles. The rightists, on the other hand, thought that Deng’s reforms did not go far enough. They hoped that economic reform might evolve into a radical overhaul of not only the Chinese economy but also the Chinese political system. It was in the context of this debate that the market-friendly Zhao Ziyang proposed the theory of the initial stage of socialism.
Though close antecedents to the phrase can be found in party documents as far back as the 1950s, the concept was neither fully explored nor codified as part of the CPC’s guiding ideology until General Secretary Zhao Ziyang used it to justify the sweeping market reform package that he introduced at the 13th Congress in 1987. By that point the phrase “initial stage of socialism” had been used at least three times before in major policy documents of the preceding decade (the 1981 resolution on party history, Hu Yaobang’s Political Report to the 12th Congress, and the 1986 “Resolution on the Construction of a Socialist Spiritual Civilization”), though it was never presented in a systematic way in any of them. However, as party leaders had already endorsed these documents, the phrase “initial stage of socialism” was a useful vehicle for Zhao’s new program.
Zhao’s version of the initial stage of socialism was carefully designed to parry criticism from both the left and the right. To leftists, Zhao emphasized the importance of socialist rule over China. China was still socialist—it was just that in China’s present “historical stage” [历史阶段] low productive capacity was a fundamental “national condition” [国情] that any program of SOCIALISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS could not ignore. “When a backward country is trying to build socialism,” Zhao explained, it is:
natural that during the long initial period its productive forces will not be up to the level of those in developed capitalist countries and that it will not be able to eliminate poverty completely. Accordingly, in building socialism we must do all we can to develop the productive forces and gradually eliminate poverty, constantly raising the people’s living standards. Otherwise, how will socialism be able to triumph over capitalism?
In the second stage, or the advanced stage of communism, when the economy is highly developed and there is overwhelming material abundance, we shall be able to apply the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ (Zhao 2009).
Yet even as Zhao’s commitment to communist rule placated the left, by promising that economic reform would remain at the center of the Party’s policy platform as long as the country remained in the initial stage of socialism Zhao also sought to ease the fears of the right. Zhao estimated that for China to enter an “advanced stage of communism” economic development must remain the focus of the Party for several generations—at least until the year 2050. This allowed Zhao to position himself in between extremes to both his left and right:
Under the specific historical conditions of contemporary China, to believe that the Chinese people cannot take the socialist road without going through the stage of fully developed capitalism is to take a mechanistic position on the question of the development of revolution, and that is the major cognitive root of Right mistakes. On the other hand, to believe that it is possible to jump over the initial stage of socialism, in which the productive forces are to be highly developed, is to take a Utopian position on this question, and that is the major cognitive root of Left mistakes (Zhao 1987).
Zhao was able to continue this dance until the Tiananmen protests of 1989 led to his removal from power. His favored phrase initially seemed to fall with him, but in 1997 Jiang Zemin returned the slogan to the center of the Party’s policy program. In his Political Report to the 15th Congress Jiang used the initial stage of socialism as a cudgel to silence critics who wished to walk back Dengist reforms. In a long section of the Report devoted to the concept, Jiang affirmed that “the true reality is that China is currently in the initial stage of socialism and will remain in this stage for a long time to come…. This is a historical stage we cannot jump over.” In this stage China will “accomplish industrialization,” “realize socialist modernization by and large,” “gradually narrow the gap between our level and the advanced world standard,” and “bring about a GREAT REJUVENATION OF THE CHINESE NATION on the basis of socialism.”
Taking the founding of the PRC in 1949 as the starting point of the initial stage of socialism, Jiang estimated that China “will take at least a century to complete this historical process.” He predicted that following 2050 “a much longer period of time to consolidate and develop the socialist system” will be needed. Attaining communism in this period “will require persistent struggle by many generations, a dozen or even several dozen” (Jiang 1997).
Like his predecessors, Xi Jinping has emphasized both that China remains in the initial stage of socialism and that cadres must have faith that communism will eventually be realized in the distant future. But where Zhao, Jiang, and other leaders of the reform generation closely tied their invocations of the initial stage to their judgment that they must make “economic development the central task of the entire Party and the whole country… and make sure that all other work is subordinated to and serves this task” (Jiang 1997), Xi has used the phrase to support party work on a larger set of priorities.
“We have laid a solid material foundation to embark on a new journey and achieve new and higher goals by our unremitting endeavors since the founding of the NEW CHINA, especially over the four decades since the reform and opening up,” Xi instructed members of the CENTRAL COMMITTEE in 2021. This “new journey” is possible because in Xi’s view the initial stage of socialism is “not static, but rather dynamic, active, promising, and permeated with vigorous vitality.” The task the CPC faces now is not merely to develop China’s productive forces, but to “advance from the initial stage [of socialism] to a higher one” (Xinhua 2021).
Xi describes this higher stage of socialism in terms of modernization and rejuvenation. If the first two decades of development under the “initial stage of socialism” schema made China wealthy, Xi Jinping believes that development during the last three decades of the initial stage of socialism will restore China to its proper place at the CENTER OF THE WORLD STAGE.
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