Years ago, a Chinese social theorist with links to Deng Hsiao-Ping’s daughter told me an interesting anecdote. When Deng was dying, an acolyte asked him what he thought his greatest act had been, expecting the usual answer: namely that he would mention his economic reforms, which had brought such development to China. To the surprise of the questioner, Deng answered: “No, it was that, when the leadership decided to open up the economy, I resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also political life to multiparty democracy.” (According to some sources, this tendency to go all the way was pretty strong in some Party circles and the decision to maintain Party control was in no way preordained.) We should resist here the liberal temptation to dream about how, had China also opened up to political democracy, its economic progress would have been even faster: what if political democracy had generated new instabilities and tensions that would have hampered economic progress? What if this (capitalist) progress was feasible only in a society dominated by a strong authoritarian power? Recall the classical Marxist thesis on early modern England: it was in the bourgeoisie’s own interest to leave political power in the hands of the aristocracy and keep for itself economic power. Maybe something homologous is going on in today’s China: it was in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Communist Party.
Some years ago, I heard an anecdote from a friend of Willy Brandt. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mikhail Gorbachev – at this time already a private citizen – wanted to visit Brandt, and he appeared unannounced at the door of his house in Berlin, but Brandt (or his servant) ignored the ringing of the bell and refused even to open the door. Brandt later explained to his friend his reaction as being an expression of his rage at Gorbachev: by allowing the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, Gorbachev had ruined the foundations of Western social democracy. It was the constant comparison with the East European communist countries that maintained the pressure on the West to tolerate the social democratic welfare state, and once the communist threat disappeared, exploitation in the West became more open and ruthless and the welfare state also began to disintegrate. Simplified as this idea is, there is a moment of truth in it: the final result of the fall of communist regimes is the fall (or, rather, the prolonged disintegration) of social democracy itself.
A Left that Dares to Speak Its Name, Untimely Interventions