In this centenary year, what is the greatest honor that Communist Parties of the world can pay to the October Revolution? Re-commitment to completing humanity’s transition to socialism, and reuniting our Parties for this purpose, is consistent with what the October Revolution stood for. (Capitalism’s escalating wars and social and environmental crises also urge us: Complete the transition!)
The October Revolution gave birth to our Parties worldwide and our organized unity through the Communist International. Lenin considered the founding of the International as important an achievement as the October Revolution. It met yearly while Lenin was alive at great cost of time and resources.
But isn’t it true that the International suffered from serious weaknesses and errors? Didn’t these errors result in severe setbacks to revolutions, including in China in 1927, leading to the International’s breakdown and dissolution? It is true. But this is not reason to reject international working class unity, just as the defeat of the Paris Commune was not reason to reject working class revolution. Our Parties’ central slogan remains, Workers of the world, unite. Our goal in uniting is not to party, but to complete the transition to socialism, so all of humanity can enjoy a healthy society and world that meets human needs.
To reunite effectively, we need a Marxist assessment of the International, its promise, and the reasons for its severe errors.[1.] This will allow us to rebuild international unity on more solid foundations, politically and organizationally. (Conscious unity also requires Marxist clarity on major economic and political developments, especially the greatest defeats in working class history – the counter-revolutions in the Soviet Union and eleven similar states. The lack of international Communist unity was certainly one of the factors contributing to those defeats.)
Fortunately, the October Revolution and the revolutions that followed have provided us with powerful methods based on ever-developing Marxism. Revolutions have also given birth to the basic organizations – Parties, states and unions -- and to significant material resources to help us correct errors and reunite to advance the transition. We must have confidence in Marxism, in the working class and our Parties, and in our capacity to face the truth and correct errors.
Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Communist Parties have been organizing important international conferences. These have included the World Socialism Forums in Beijing, the annual International Meetings of Communist and Workers Parties, and some regional meetings. This is significant.
The centenary in 2019 of the founding of the Communist International could be the occasion to reaffirm our Parties’ common commitment to completing the transition, and to begin the great work of rebuilding the International.
Incorrect direction from Comintern leaders set back revolutionary struggles in China and elsewhere. Thus, in 1927, Comintern leaders incorrectly advised the young Communist Party of China to place confidence in the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang. This advice came at a time when China’s workers were rising rapidly towards seizing power under CPC leadership. The Guomindang, guided by its class interests, attacked the unprepared CPC, unions and workers. The resulting defeat set back the victory of the Chinese Revolution by two decades. What was behind the incorrect Comintern advice?
THE THREE BROAD TASKS
AFTER THE WORKING CLASS TAKES POWER
After a socialist revolution, the working class in power faces three broad tasks. The tasks are inter-related, and at one time the emphasis may be placed on one task over the others. Communist leadership is essential for all three tasks. But the first two tasks involve the alliance between the working class and other oppressed classes, while the third is the responsibility of the working class alone.
The first task is organizing defense of the new state against the inevitable threats from exploiters, internal and external. The second is reconstructing the economy and society. The third is to advance humanity’s transition from capitalism to socialism.
The first two are basically the responsibility of the new government. Why? Because organizing defense (the army, etc.), and economic and social development both require joint efforts between the working class and other oppressed classes, such as peasants and self-employed. The latter must be represented!
The working class’s alliance with other oppressed classes – the hammer and sickle – is essential not only to win power but then to defend and build it. The new government, therefore, is a “workers and peasants’ government”, as Lenin described it. The state, on the other hand, Lenin emphasized, is a workers’ state.
The third task, extending the revolution, is one for the working class to lead. It is a task for the Communist Party. Without this leadership, the small-property owners, such as peasants or self-employed, will “naturally” press to become larger property owners, i.e. exploiters. The working class seeks to free humanity from all exploitation.
The Communist Manifesto provides remarkable guidance. As Marx and Engels wrote, Communist Parties “have no interest separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.” What distinguishes our parties is “this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.” And by ‘movement as a whole’, Marx and Engels clearly meant the world labor movement, as point 1 had already emphasized.[2.]
So, to represent the common interests of the working class after a socialist revolution, the Communist Party needs to maintain a relative separation from the new state’s government, which must address interests of more than one class. Thus, to conduct its business, the government may have to respect the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. The Party, however, is guided by the general interests of the international working class, which ultimately are to complete the transition.
Government leaders may have to learn ‘diplomatese’, while Party leaders must consistently speak the truth, however challenging. To do that, Party leaders must not only be deeply versed in Marxism and immersed in the working class, they can have no privilege other than of being first in battle. In State and Revolution, which was written before the October Revolution, Lenin, following Marx and Engels, already warned about the dangers of Party leaders becoming bureaucrats and privileged. [3.]
After a socialist revolution, contradictions exist and will regularly arise between the tasks of government and of Party. The solution is not to merge government and Party, but maintain the relative separation and focus on our specific tasks, while developing mechanisms to periodically address and resolve those contradictions. The Party needs to explain that that all we can do is to make the best out of a bad situation.
WHY DID COMINTERN LEADERS COMMIT THAT SERIOUS ERROR IN 1927?
After the October Revolution, leaders of the new Soviet state addressed all three tasks. They organized an extraordinary, and successful, defense of working class power against both the domestic exploiters and the imperialist countries which invaded the Soviet Union. They began work on the complex tasks of reorganizing the economy, education, housing, etc. And they also moved swiftly on the third task, advancing the transition, supporting the creation of Communist Parties worldwide and of the Communist International. Starting in 1919, Comintern congresses were held yearly, at great cost of time and resources.
But then the complexities of tasks began to overwhelm the young Soviet power. Lenin fell ill in 1922 and died in January 1924. Under conditions of hunger and shortages, it did not take much for Party/government leaders to gain first access to scarce resources – food, housing, etc. -- and to become relatively privileged. The leadership of the Soviet Party and government, instead of being separated, became increasingly entwined in one and the same persons under a single discipline.
And control of the Communist International fell into the hands of Soviet leaders, who were now focused on tasks of national government -- and protecting stability and their privileges. They hoped working out a deal with the Guomindang, not the young Chinese Communist Party, would help the Soviet Union avoid war and develop economically.
In reality, the incorrect Soviet/Comintern direction to the CPC, which led to the severe defeat in 1927, had the effect of weakening the Soviet Union and soon exposing it to much larger economic and military challenges. A socialist revolution in China in the late 1920s would almost certainly have also led to revolution in Korea, and with a little help, probably also in Japan. Revolution in China would not only have strengthened the Soviet Union economically and politically, it would have weakened world capitalism and its capacity to wage war.
But the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had dropped commitment to the third task – uniting the workers of the world to complete the transition. It was not long before the Comintern itself stopped functioning.
The Communist Party of China suffered a severe defeat in 1927, and learned to think. Not many other Parties suffered such defeats. The CPC was at the head of the great Chinese Revolution of 1949.
For more than a decade after that momentous victory, the CPC correctly tried, again and again, to resolve differences with the Soviet Party to further advance world Communist unity and the transition. But CPSU leaders were now caught in the framework of the imperialist-led “United Nations” -- and rebuffed the CPC. The CPC was left to fend for itself against imperialism. China’s leaders began to focus on developing the productive forces, and at least temporarily set aside the commitment to the third task.
Today, the productive forces in China are relatively developed. The indications are that the overall productivity of labor in manufacturing is higher than in any capitalist country. (Agriculture and basic industry still lag.) [4.]
But in part because China followed the Soviet model, the Communist Party and the government in China are largely entwined. Re-commitment to the CPC’s original goal for human liberation, campaigns in solidarity with workers in capitalist countries, etc. can also help the CPC move to greater relative separation from the government, and to place all its tasks in historical perspective. This would allow the CPC to provide more effective leadership not only to strengthening working class power within China but to Communist Parties worldwide seeking to complete the transition.
HEALTHY ORGANIZATION OF INTERNATIONAL UNITY
How can international communist unity be properly organized to avoid the errors and overcome the weaknesses that led to the Comintern’s dissolution? Some of the answers come from lessons from the fall of both the Soviet Union and of the Comintern.
Part of the answer is to maintain relative separation of the Parties belonging to the International, encouraging each to learn to think for itself, while developing mechanisms to resolve contradictions between tasks of each Party. Marxist clarity needs to be reached on the major political and economic developments, including China’s rise, the general crisis of capitalism, the environmental crisis, and, avoe all, the fall of the Soviet Union and eleven other states where the working class held power (Albania, Yugoslavia, etc.)
And we need to recommit to complete the transition, and the conscious international working class unity required to lead that transition.
This essay was presented to the Eighth World Socialism Forum, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, October 14-15, 2017, by Wadi’h Halabi, a member of CPUSA-Boston, the CPUSA Economics Commission, and a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education, Massachusetts, USA
The opinions expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.
QUOTES FROM LENIN AND MAO ON COMMUNIST GOALS
In November 1918, a few months before the founding of the Communist International, Lenin wrote, “We are not only fighting Russian capitalism. We are fighting the capitalism of all countries, world capitalism – we are fighting for the freedom of all workers. Long live the world proletarian revolution.” (Volume 28 in the English edition of Lenin’s Collected Works.) With the founding of the Comintern in March 1919, Lenin was calling on workers to march “to the complete victory of the world communist revolution.” (Volume 29)
On December 21, 1939, in the midst of the brutal Imperial Japanese aggression, Chairman Mao wrote, “We must unite with the proletariat of all the capitalist countries, with the proletariat of Japan, Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy and all other capitalist countries, before it is possible to overthrow imperialism, to liberate our nation and people, and to liberate the other nations and peoples of the world. This is our internationalism, the internationalism with which we oppose both narrow nationalism and narrow patriotism.” (“In memory of Norman Bethune,” Vol. II of the Selected Works in English)
Fourteen years after the victory of the Chinese Revolution, in his August 8, 1963 “Talk with African Friends”, Mao said, “The people who have triumphed in their own revolution should help those still struggling for liberation. This is our internationalist duty.” Mao frequently explained that the victory of new revolutions depends on international help, especially from previous revolutions.
[1.] A first step will be to organize and publish the Communist International’s basic documents in accessible form and in many languages. The Soviet press, to my knowledge, failed to do this. This is a task for our Movement today.
[2.] Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848. Edition published by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1965
[3.] State and Revolution, August 1917. See especially Chapter VI, the polemic against Kautsky. Edition published by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1965
[4.] For some of the implications of this extraordinary development, see “Two Sea Changes” by this author, available in Chinese in the Yearbook on International Communist Movement Research, Vol.1, No.5 (January 1917), published by the Center for Marxist Parties in Foreign Countries at Central China Normal University, Wuhan.