Karl Gerth


On his book Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China's Communist Revolution

Cover Interview of March 10, 2021

The wide angle

At the heart of Unending Capitalism (and my two other books) is the concept of consumerism. Consumerism—especially compared to identity, race, ethnicity, gender, and class—is underappreciated as a driving force for understanding the twentieth-century world and since, and not just China.

At the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China was not mass producing or mass consuming much. But that changed fast. China began to mass produce goods, the lifeblood of industrial consumerism. As China industrialized, consumerism expanded.

China was also under constant assault from foreign powers. As a latecomer to industrial capitalism, China needed to overcome its relative backwardness as fast as possible with state-led industrial capitalism, or “state capitalism.” Communist Party leaders felt they could not simply rely on markets and private capital to industrialize fast. The state had to set priorities rather than have markets allocate scarce resources.

The state not only prioritized what the country produced but also what and how it consumed. State consumerism is my term to describe the state involvement in all three aspects of consumerism: what got produced and who got it; the ideas associated with mass produced products; and how possession of those things began to define people’s identities. People began to want specific branded products to communicate that they were a rich farmer, a powerful cadre, a successful manager, an intellectual, a city-dweller, or someone who knew how to work the system. My sources show, for instance, that by the late 1960s, there was an elaborate social hierarchy of local, national, and international brands of wristwatches.

In the early years of the PRC, the state was more desperate to maximize labor and minimize consumer desires. However, the state sometimes needed the population to consume. Even in the austere 1950s, as I show in the book, the state promoted Soviet clothing and fashions. And, as China successfully industrialized, it also promoted consumption of other items as an inducement to work harder. The losers were the same losers they always have been with industrial capitalism everywhere: rural farmers, women, manual laborers, minorities, and so on. And the winners were those in cities, working in state factories, and those working with their heads rather than their hands.

The contradiction between socialist words that sounded egalitarian and capitalist policies that led to inequalities was not lost on the population. My sources told me to doubt the state’s definition of China as “socialist.” So, I go beyond esoteric debates over what is “capitalism” and “socialism” to involve the people living in these countries and how they think. We often assume that people thought whatever the CCP was up to was “socialism” because state sources insist on it—and some of the winners such as those who got the first wristwatches believed it to be so. Instead, I follow my sources and focus on pervasive doubts across the entire society, from Mao Zedong on down, over what the Communist Party was actually building: a state-led version of capitalism, not the socialism of its claims.