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The Great Struggle to Escape Capitalism

Petrograders examine campaign posters for elections to the Constituent Assembly

Petrograders examine campaign posters for elections to the Constituent Assembly. Jonathan Sanders Collection. (p. 67)

Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor of Economic and Political Weekly.

The crisis of the ruling order that unfolded in Russia in 1917 brought on an enormous social upheaval, culminating in a revolution—a process of fundamental transformation of the society’s socioeconomic and political structures and institutions. This revolution—history’s first major attempt to transcend capitalism—inevitably provoked a counterrevolution that sought to turn back the clock. Such life-and-death struggles have recurred in the periphery and semi-periphery of the world capitalist system since 1917, right up to the present.

In what follows—going by the dictum that the truth is the whole, but without trying to achieve the impossible, comprehensiveness—I look at revolution and counterrevolution as interdependent processes, the latter inevitably accompanying the former, and whose principal base has been in imperialism. I stress the fact that post-revolutionary society, in its efforts to combat counterrevolution, not only had to overcome the appalling heritage of the past, but was also confronted with its own contradictions, and with the persistent threat that an exploiting class could reemerge. Instead of the intended socialization of the economy and democratization of the polity, what resulted was (largely) state ownership of the economy and stultifying bureaucratization of both the economy and the polity, a cultural revolution in China notwithstanding.

Revolution even undermined itself by doing things that delegitimized it. But it was also an enormous step forward, for the people were enabled to move from a subhuman existence to levels of development worthy of human beings. Cuba, for instance, solved problems—of inequality, of health care, of education—that had never been solved in Latin America. The example of post-revolutionary society, especially in the Soviet Union and China, appealed to the people in the periphery of the capitalist world, who also wished to escape capitalism and build a more just social order based on human needs. But counterrevolution, with its basis in imperialism, came down upon them with a heavy hand in Malaya, Kenya, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Chile—the cases I have chosen to mention in desperate brevity. I also touch upon fifty years of the Maoist movement in India, for that country has been crying out for revolutionary change.

Revolution broke out in the periphery and semi-periphery of the world capitalist system primarily because the people of these regions have been capitalism’s principal victims, making them the ones most likely to revolt against it. For them, moving beyond capitalism has been at once the most rational and radical first step in the solution to their problems. But the defense of human dignity requires socialization of the economy and democratization of the polity, and below I reflect on prospects for such a transformation in the prevailing difficult circumstances—revolution constantly facing the loss of its lifeblood and heartbeat in the course of its inevitable life-and-death confrontation with counterrevolution.

1917: “All Power to the Soviets”

After years of war, by the winter of 1917, the situation in Russia had become intolerable for ordinary people. With severe shortages of food and fuel, and prices skyrocketing, workers and their families had been dragged into misery. On February 23—March 8 in the Julian calendar—throngs of women textile workers, seething with indignation and revulsion against the Czarist regime, poured into the streets of Petrograd, demanding bread. No one would have imagined that International Women’s Day might come to mark the first day of the February Revolution, for these women workers, who had taken the initiative with courage and determination, literally had to drag the Bolshevik-led metal workers of the Vyborg district, otherwise noted for their radicalism, behind them.

From then on, the numbers protesting on the streets rapidly multiplied. The demand for bread was joined by more politically explicit slogans—”down with the autocracy,” “down with the war.” The women workers even confronted the soldiers who had been sent to restore law and order, crying out to the servicemen: “Comrades, put down your bayonets, join us!” The soldiers, many from peasant backgrounds, were moved, and began to mix freely with the demonstrators. By February 26 (March 11 by the Julian calendar), a mutiny began. The soldiers had reckoned that “the people” might win, and so they joined the masses. The women workers certainly played no small part in bringing this about. By March 12, the mutiny was complete and the tsar abdicated.

But this triumph of mass insurrection notwithstanding, it was bourgeois ideology that called the shots—even the victorious workers were made to feel that only bourgeois power was destined to replace the authority of tsarism! In parallel, nevertheless, with the formation of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies—councils that the workers and soldiers had elected during the February Revolution—an alternative center of power came into being, steering the Food Commission, the army, the railways, the postal and telegraph services, and more. The provisional government, dominated by Kadet Party leaders, however, stood in the way of the revolution’s goals.

It did not take long for workers, soldiers (peasants in uniform), and peasants to realize that neither this new government nor any other bourgeois government had any intention of meeting their demands—a democratic republic, confiscation of the lands of the rural aristocracy and their free distribution among the peasants, a renunciation of Russia’s imperialist intent in the ongoing world war, a strong bid for peace, and an eight-hour workday. Facing the threat of a counterrevolutionary military coup aided by a lockout by the capitalists, the workers, soldiers and peasants came to realize that achieving these ambitions required the overthrow of that government and the formation of a government of soviets, which did take power in October. The great hope was that revolutions would follow in the West—for this was thought to be a fundamental condition of the October Revolution’s survival.

Sadly, though, the soviets as independent self-governing organs did not last beyond the summer of 1918. What an irony that the Russian working class, including the women who played a major role in the capture of state power, were eventually deprived of power in the soviets and in the factories.

Bloody Transition

The subsequent “Transition Period”—a phase thought to lie between the political overthrow of capitalism and the consolidation of socialism—was a very difficult one. Four years of bloody civil war, imperialist blockades and interventions, massive United States, British, and French military aid to the White armies up to late 1919, food shortages, and organizational disarray left the workers scattered and decimated. The Bolsheviks adopted emergency measures—political repression, complete suppression of civil liberties and democratic rights, centralization and monopoly of power, reliance on the conservative bureaucracy and specialists of the old regime, one-person management of the enterprises. All these turned the 1917 state backed by the soviets into an authoritarian party-state.

Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, though enthusiastically supportive of October, was among the first of the revolutionary socialists to write that the Russian Revolution—in its suppression of what should have been a democratic role model for the masses—would not lead to socialism. But she still hoped that October would help ignite social revolutions in the developed capitalist nations, especially Germany. Tragically, however, counterrevolution triumphed there, leaving the Russian Revolution desperately isolated in an impoverished, war-ridden country. V. I. Lenin, in his last writings—he died in 1924—called for popular self-governance, for which, he felt, there must be a genuine revolution, where culture flowers among the people.

A cultural revolution, so that ultimately an educated, cultured, and enlightened working class might democratically take control of the intended workers’ state? It was not to be. The year 1921 had already witnessed the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion and the banning of factions within the Bolshevik party; 1927, saw the defeat of the left opposition; 1929–30, the forced collectivization that broke the worker-peasant alliance; and in the 1930s, show trials and purges, especially the Great Purge of 1937–38—all of which led to the defeat of the socialist project. The structures and mentalities of the past, despite rapid, radical attempts to break with them, still seemed to exert a dangerous power in the aftermath of the revolution and beyond. Here it is important to recall the insights of the historian Moshe Lewin, who passionately researched Soviet history, showing that even after revolutionary upheavals, societies carry with them many flaws and failings of their past, often deep in their marrows.1

The Making (and Unmaking) of a New Social Formation

By 1924, the Soviet Union seemed to have little choice but to take on the seemingly impossible task of building socialism in one country, with little time to establish the country’s economic and military might to take on imperialism. Harsh and ruthless, Joseph Stalin seemed to have great confidence in the ability of the backward land to defend itself and build socialism. With the immense sacrifices made by the Soviet people, he led the Soviet Union to victory over fascist barbarism in the Second World War. In the aftermath, more revolutions unfolded, most prominently in China, but the Soviet Union was forced into the Cold War—not a direct military conflict, but a decades-long arms race and series of proxy wars predicated upon a publicly financed production of waste in the form of weapons. A society that should have been striving to achieve socialist goals was thereby driven in a totally negative direction, ultimately leading to its collapse. Capitalism won the Cold War, and in the process smothered whatever chance there may have been for the Soviet Union to provide a working model of socialism.2

The Cold War was a potent counterrevolutionary strategy, in that it compelled the Soviet Union to allocate an outsized proportion of its resources to military defense. But counterrevolution apart, the fatal shortcoming common to all post-revolutionary societies of the twentieth century was the lack of democracy—most people were excluded from political power. Government did not accord with their will.3 From an international perspective, democratic rights, including hard-won victories of the labor movement from the Chartists onward, were curtailed: freedom of expression and organization; the right to peaceful assembly; universal suffrage; political pluralism; representation in a legislature independent of the executive, which can oblige accountability on the latter; independence of the judiciary, etc. Some of these rights were what working people, in the process of struggle, had achieved for themselves. These democratic rights were people’s rights, because they had been won in a process of struggle by the people.

Their curtailment was tragic, especially if we recall Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’s political and intellectual role in the struggle for democracy in Europe, and the centrality of the worker-peasant alliance in their vision of the socialist struggle. Indeed, the Communist Manifesto had proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage as one of the first and most urgent tasks of the workers’ movement. As far as Marx and Engels were concerned, whether it was in the Communist League, the 1848 upsurge, the First International, or the Paris Commune, a democratic breakthrough—within or beyond capitalism—was of vital concern. The ultimate winning of suffrage and civil liberties owed much to the self-organization of the working class in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

But tragically, in the Soviet Union a nomenklatura acquired a monopoly of power, and even identified Marxism and socialism with the new formation it created. What emerged was domination by a new ruling class whose power and privileges derived from unmediated control of both the one-party state and its coercive apparatuses, and of the economy and its surpluses, the utilization of which became the central focus of party politics. Post-revolutionary society was nevertheless totally unlike capitalism, wherein private capitalists own and control the means of production; the total social capital is split between many competing units of capital; and most goods and services are commodities produced by workers obliged to sell their labor to these various units of capital to survive. In the Soviet Union, following the transition period, the one-party state owned and controlled the means of production, there was no competition between the various public enterprises, and although the actual producers remained propertyless workers, their situation was significantly different from that of workers under capitalism.4 Soviet workers had guaranteed employment, housing, education, and health care. The threat of unemployment thus no longer hung like the sword of Damocles over their heads—capitalism’s principal disciplinary mechanism. But their jobs nevertheless remained boring, debilitating, and degrading. Naturally, they did not take much interest in them, and performed as little work as they could get away with.

Gone was Marx’s dream of workers inculcating a radically different attitude to work, one that would make discipline superfluous, where humanizing the labor process would become a collective responsibility, and workers themselves would organize and control the economy, the community, and the political realm. In short, the Soviet Union, and the Eastern European post-revolutionary societies that emulated the Soviet model, had reached a dead end before their great leap backward to capitalism. (One might just note in passing how politically central the working class was in 1917, and how marginalized it had become in 1989–1991, when the country was at the threshold of that great leap backward.)

China: Failure to Go Beyond “New Democracy”

In China, there were two revolutionary stages, the “New Democratic” and the “socialist,” the former with two main goals: a domestic one—the break-up of the semi-feudal system, especially agrarian landlordism—and an international one, focused on the liberation of the country from imperialist intervention and control. The first stage was accomplished in 1949, both militarily and politically, with the latter entailing winning the hearts and minds of an extraordinarily large majority of the Chinese people. Tragically, however, although the administration of that other bastion of semi-feudalism, the centralized bureaucratic state under Chiang Kaishek, was broken up, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders “quickly reconstructed a traditional hierarchical (state) apparatus of their own,” in which state office holders “found that loyalty and conformity, not skill and zeal, opened the road to promotion.”5 Socialists should have a strong antipathy toward such a state bureaucracy, with its hierarchical structure, its rigid principles, its secrecy, its passive obedience, its deference to authority, and its careerism. Shouldn’t we revisit the conception of New Democratic Revolution (NDR) in light of all this?

After the CCP’s huge defeat in 1927, it regrouped and conceived of a new revolutionary path, under the leadership of Mao Zedong. In this conception, the national bourgeoisie was relegated to a supporting role, with leadership of the revolutionary movement placed firmly in the hands of the party of the workers and the poor peasants, who would seize power and institute New Democracy, followed by a transition to socialism. The CCP’s seizure of power in China depended mainly on the political mobilization of poor peasants in the creation of a people’s guerrilla army; the building of base areas where a miniature New Democratic state was sought to be established; the use of the countryside in the transition from guerrilla warfare to mobile warfare; and the encircling and winning over of the cities—all of these while adhering to a policy of self-reliance.

At the heart of the New Democratic revolutionary strategy was the peasant question, for it was the countryside that provided the space for the revolutionaries and their people’s army to maneuver relatively freely and to build their base areas. The land reform was truly ingenious, involving a progression from “land to the tiller” to mutual aid teams, and then to elementary cooperatives, with incomes based on productive capital ownership and labor time committed to cooperative production, with the ratio of the labor to capital share of net output increasing over time. These would be followed by advanced cooperatives, in which the capital share of net output would be eliminated altogether. Finally, in the socialist phase, these would be incorporated into larger units of collective economy and government—the communes.6

The gradual process of collectivization was to be predicated on open-ended relations among and between the forces of production, the relations of production, and the superstructure. In practice, the introduction of high-yield varieties of rice followed the changes in the relations of production with the formation of the people’s communes. And underlying the agriculture-industry relation was a rejection of the Stalinist practice of “primitive socialist accumulation,” which ran counter to the interests of the peasantry, and in fact severely undermined the worker-peasant alliance in the Soviet Union, contributing to the consolidation of a far more repressive state there.7

The other defining feature of Maoist strategy in the transition to socialism in China was the realization of the need for a series of cultural revolutions—mass mobilization and initiative on the part of students, workers, and peasants in major “class struggles” against a powerful and privileged stratum that had emerged in the party, the government, the enterprises, the communes, the educational system, and elsewhere, groups with a stake in maintaining their favored position and passing it on to their progeny—in other words, a ruling class in the making.

The Cultural Revolution began on August 5, 1966, with the release of Mao’s big-character poster titled “Bombard the Headquarters.” Three days later, the Central Committee of the CCP adopted a “Decision…Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” which, in its view, marked “A New Stage in the Socialist Revolution,” “to struggle against and overthrow those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road.” A huge campaign was to be undertaken to “transform education, literature and art and all other parts of the superstructure not in correspondence with the socialist economic base.”

Indeed, if one goes by the Central Committee decision, which came to be known as “the sixteen points,” there was also a plan “to institute a system of general elections [my emphasis], like that of the Paris Commune, for electing members to the Cultural Revolution groups and committees and delegates to the Cultural Revolutionary congresses,” which were to be “permanent, standing mass organizations.” Indeed, the Central Committee even intended to give the people the right to recall, a principle of the Paris Commune. The “boldly aroused masses” that it hailed were, of course, the student-intellectual Red Guards and the workers. The latter rose up in early 1967, in China’s main industrial city, Shanghai, in what came to be known as the January Storm, overthrowing the municipal government, and, on February 5, staging a million-strong rally to proclaim the formation of the “Shanghai Commune.” Here, for the first time, a post-revolutionary society sought seriously to confront its own bureaucratism and elitism—or, at least to undertake a radical experiment in direct democracy, to find a viable solution to these problems.

Sadly, though, Mao did not approve. Indeed, he summoned the main leaders of the Shanghai Commune, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, to Beijing, called them “anarchists,” and ordered them to disband the commune. All the other nascent Paris-type communes also met with premature extinction. Mao’s alternative to the commune was the tripartite “revolutionary committee,” composed of unelected People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel, CCP cadres, and representatives of the “revolutionary masses.” Those who held steadfastly to the Paris Commune-like early days of the Cultural Revolution were now denounced and dismissed as the “ultra-left,” to be punished by PLA personnel, in alliance with rival Red Guard groups.8

Clearly, the fresh shoots of radical democracy were nipped in the bud, and for those communards who persisted, still worse was in store. The so-called ultra-left’s time was up. Unprincipled factional strife, excessive violence, personal tragedies, and the cult of “Mao’s thought”—this last in ridiculously distorted form and harmful to scientific temper—had muddied the waters. Of course, the context was that of a protracted political struggle between the “capitalist roaders,” headed by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, and the “proletarian roaders,” headed by Mao. But even as Mao seemed to take the lead politically, the Liu-Deng faction dominated organizationally, and tactically it even paid lip service to Mao’s thought and ideals.9 Very soon, the struggle was no longer about what the communards had envisioned: the student-intellectual Red Guards and workers (both guided by Maoist intellectuals) took on the elites of the party, the state, and the PLA. The Maoist principles of handling contradictions among the people and those of the “mass line” (i.e., the involvement of ordinary people in policy making and implementation through practice of the leadership principle “from the masses, to the masses”) were all but lost.

Had the voyage through the rough and stormy seas of the Cultural Revolution brought the vessel of the party-state perilously close to shipwreck? Mao retreated. At the Party Congress in April 1969, he justified the pulling back from the Paris Commune-inspired agenda he had himself endorsed. The Cultural Revolution in its original form was over, but Mao promised that the future would bring more cultural revolutions. He probably did not think a “People’s Commune of China” with a commune state was, theoretically and practically, a coherent proposition. So the powerful and privileged stratum that had emerged within the party, state, and cultural institutions won the day. Perhaps Mao realized that the Chinese people were as yet not ready to carry through the Cultural Revolution and so he pulled back. In the circumstances, what else could he have done?

The Maoist leadership had failed to lay the basis for a genuine workers’ state. How otherwise could the Deng leadership dismantle fledgling Maoist structures and institutions, and that too without serious opposition? I however think that post-Mao China has merely stepped back from the transition to socialism and embarked once more on the New Democratic path, this to rapidly develop and modernize the productive forces and be better able to defend the country from imperialist intervention and control.

Cuba: In Defense of Human Dignity

The great struggle between revolution and counterrevolution, with the latter backed to the hilt by imperialism, has always been a very unequal one. The 26th of July Movement led by Fidel Castro, which in 1959 overthrew the Batista dictatorship and with it U.S. neo-colonialism in Cuba, can be better understood in terms of the legacies of Simón Bolívar and the Cuban revolutionary poet José Martí, as well as Fidel’s understanding of Cuban history and the failures of anti-imperialist progressive forces since the country won independence in 1898. As Martí said, “All true human beings must feel a sting when another human being is slapped in the face.” For Fidel, and for his close comrade Che Guevara, the struggle was about achieving this kind of human dignity. As Marx once said: “The proletariat needs dignity even more than it needs bread.”10

Who made the Cuban revolution? The main force of the revolution was the campesinos who worked on plantations owned and managed by corporations (most often American-owned, if it was a sugar plantation). What did the rural proletarian campesinos want? Adequate wages, steady employment, humane working conditions, and dignity. But U.S. neo-colonialism was written all over Cuba, although the country was formally politically independent. Batista was Washington’s stooge; U.S.-owned business entities ran everything from the plantations to the telephones and the telegraph, the electricity, gasoline stations, radio, and television, and supplied the cars, refrigerators, and foodstuffs. Indeed, even the influential gamblers, gangsters, and the other shady wheeler-dealers operating in Cuba had come from Miami, Chicago, and New York. The Communist Party played no part in organizing the campesinos, and even in the immediate aftermath of Castro’s takeover, it did not side with his 26th of July Movement. In one of the first extended studies of the revolution, MR founding editors Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy observed that “this is the first time—ever anywhere—that a genuine socialist revolution has been made by non-Communists.” Indeed, even the urban déclassé section of the working class seemed to have had better political sense. The Communist leaders came on board only after the revolutionary government nationalized the industrial enterprises and the industrial workers had shifted allegiance to Castro. In the face of Washington’s unremitting hostility, the revolution began to embark on the transition to socialism.11

But it has remained in the “transition period” ever since. Why? In the case of Cuba, counterrevolution has its base in Washington, D.C.12 A small country like Cuba was left with two options: surrender to Washington or turn to Moscow for support. Cuba had little choice but to opt for the latter, even though Castro shared Herbert Marcuse’s criticisms of Soviet “socialism.” Indeed, in 1960, he had told Jean-Paul Sartre and C. Wright Mills that Cuban socialism would allow freedom of speech and expression; state security personnel were to have no say in such matters. Since then, Cuba has certainly failed to protect civil liberties, largely because of the onslaught of the U.S.-led counterrevolution.

But the real danger of the Cuban Revolution from Washington’s perspective, was that Castro and his comrades would solve problems that had never been solved in Latin America. Nevertheless, despite decades of counterrevolution—in the form of military intervention, blockade, attempted assassinations, espionage, propaganda, and more—Cuba has succeeded in health care and education; indeed, not only did it far surpass the neighboring Dominican Republic in these fields, but its literacy levels are higher and its infant mortality rate lower than those of the United States!

Cuba faced a desperate economic and social crisis in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent rise of “naked imperialism.”13 But the devastation caused by neoliberal capitalism inevitably brought progressive movements to the fore, leading to the victory of Lula da Silva in Brazil, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. This new lease on life for anti-imperialist Latin American solidarity helped Cuba weather the storm. But more recently, this progressive phase has been receding. In the meantime, there has been a sort of rapprochement between Havana and Washington, leading to reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, culminating in Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016. Washington perhaps thinks that now is the opportunity to turn the clock back. But Fidel, in one of his last columns in the Cuban media, published just after Obama’s trip, maintained the dignity of the Cuban people, concluding that “we are capable of producing the foods and material wealth that we need, with the efforts and intelligence of our people. We do not need the Empire to give us any gifts.” Even as U.S. imperialism and its agents killed Che fifty years ago, they have not been able to kill the example he set; and they will never be able to kill his ideas and his spirit. The Cuban people have made remarkable achievements under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

No Middle of the Road

Cuban-style guerrilla insurrections suffered a series of defeats in Latin America in the 1960s, and the election of Salvador Allende as president of Chile in 1970 kindled expectations of a “peaceful road to socialism”—until September 11, 1973, when Chilean armed forces crushed liberal-political democracy and the Marxist left.

In Allende’s last public address before the Unidad Popular radio stations went off the air—their transmitters bombed or taken over by the military—he affirmed: “I am certain that the seeds we have sown in the conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans cannot be completely eradicated.” Following the coup, “every day new corpses were found floating in the Mapocho river or dumped in the gutter in working-class neighborhoods—perhaps deliberately, to maintain the climate of terror, but also to get rid of the bodies from the prisons and stadiums where the people had been executed.”14 In a word, genocide—to ensure that those “seeds” were “completely eradicated.” The Chilean experience clearly demonstrates that one cannot rule out blood on the “peaceful road to socialism.” Indeed, a year before the military coup, Paul Sweezy, in a reply to Andrew Zimbalist, had unequivocally stated: “There is no middle of the road between revolution and counterrevolution; either the one or the other will have to triumph in, historically speaking, the near future.”15

Domino Paranoia

In other parts of the third world, run-of-the-mill nationalist leaders in newly independent former colonies simply strove merely to replace the former colonial powers, substituting a foreign elite by a domestic one. They were least concerned about dismantling and replacing the colonial political structures and institutions. In turn, the underdeveloped bourgeoisies of these countries were also least bothered about transforming the prevailing socioeconomic structures and institutions. The states in these formally independent but structurally dependent countries simply continued to function as before as instruments of repression of the people, the only change being the multiplication of offices, titles, privileges, and pelf of the political leaders and the civilian-administrative police and military officials.

But there were other nationalists, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist in their political leanings, who conceived of decolonization not merely as national independence but as part of a wider social transformation. Predictably, the left-nationalist movements that they led faced massive repression and bloodshed, from the Communist rebellion in Malaya between 1948 and 1960; to the Mau Mau rebellion between 1952 and 1960 in Kenya; to the Vietnamese liberation struggle from 1945 to 1975; to the murder of hundreds of thousands of unarmed, alleged Communists and their sympathizers and the liquidation of the Communist Party in Indonesia in 1965–66.

Common to these cycles of repression, resistance, and further repression were the imperialist or colonial armed forces entering remote hamlets and villages; resort to “strategic hamlets” to isolate the guerrillas from the local populations that supported them; divide-and-rule tactics; and cultivation of a stratum of local collaborators. More generally, counterrevolutionary strategy stemmed from the paranoia that “domino theory” instilled—the belief that if one country “went Communist,” contiguous countries would also fall like a stack of dominoes.

The “G30S” events of September 30, 1965, in Indonesia, in which six top officers of the Indonesian Army High Command were assassinated, led to the overthrow of President Sukarno, his replacement by General Suharto, and the massacre of half a million or more alleged Communists and their supporters. More recently, declassified records have enabled a better documentation of U.S. involvement in exploiting the G30S event to justify the subsequent genocide, both in planning the massacre itself, and in the subsequent establishment of a repressive capitalist order under Suharto’s military dictatorship that was to last three decades.16 Western imperialism’s fear of the Communist threat reached its bloody height in Vietnam. The country had won independence in 1945, even earlier than India, but its “crime” was its refusal to remain economically and politically subservient to imperial powers. For the leadership of the Vietnamese anticolonial movement, independence was only a precondition of a broader democratic and social transformation. Thus the French colonialists were determined to re-establish direct rule until their crushing defeat in 1954. But the Geneva Conference agreement of 1954 notwithstanding, the United States, refusing to be a party to that agreement, created and backed a puppet regime in the South, thus provoking a war of national liberation of the Vietnamese people.17

By the mid-1960s, Washington stepped up the deployment of ground troops, accompanied by massive aerial bombardment. The war between the United States and the North was horrendous—the late ’60s and early ’70s saw the deployment of hundreds of thousands of regular U.S. forces, carpet bombing of the North, the creation of strategic hamlets in the South, and U.S. forces seizing and pillaging remote villages. But the massive antiwar movement in the United States and the powerful resolve of the Viet Minh and the National Liberation Front left Nixon and Kissinger with no choice but to sign the Paris accords in 1973, and the division of Vietnam came to an end after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Vietnamese independence thus required a long, dreadful war with U.S. imperialism. A nation that had fought and won the right to determine its own future more than two hundred years ago, now an imperialist power, was bent upon denying other countries that same right.

India—Crying Out for Revolutionary Change

Unlike Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh, India settled for a middle-of-the-road approach. Soon after the transfer of power in 1947, the new regime headed by Jawaharlal Nehru and home minister Vallabhbhai Patel sent its army into Telangana in 1948 to, among other things, liquidate peasant rebels directed by a Communist Party of India (CPI) leadership determined to complete the democratic revolution against semi-feudalism there. The Indian army, in fact, actively promoted semi-feudal restoration in the Telangana countryside. From the time of independence in 1947, India has had the resources and the potential to achieve a high level of human development—yet the great majority of the country’s people have remained desperately poor. Tragically, India remains among the most poverty-stricken countries of the world, with most of the population still inadequately fed, miserably clothed, wretchedly housed, poorly educated, and without access to decent medical care. Hundreds of millions have been the victims of Indian capitalism’s irrationality, brutality, and inhumanity. It is no wonder that for fifty years, the one persistent message of the nation’s Maoists, the Naxalites, has been that India’s deeply oppressive and exploitative social order is crying out for revolutionary change.18

Fifty years ago, in March 1967, a Maoist faction within the CPI (Marxist)—the party had split in two in 1964—organized an armed peasant struggle in a remote North Bengal area called Naxalbari, but by mid-July of that year, it was brutally crushed. A few months later, Charu Mazumdar, who subsequently became the CPI (Marxist-Leninist)’s General Secretary, declared that “hundreds of Naxalbaris are smouldering in India…Naxalbari has not died and will never die.”19 Subsequent events suggest that he was not daydreaming, for the power of memory—of the armed peasant struggles of the colonial period—and the dreams unleashed gave the movement a fresh dynamic. Many Naxalbaris “smoldered” in different parts of India from 1968 to 1972, most significantly in Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh and Bhojpur in Bihar—but they too were cruelly crushed by the military and police. The revolutionaries attributed these losses in part to their own failure to practice the “mass line,” as well as to neglect of the long, hard, patient underground organizational work, which should have preceded the launch of armed struggle.

The second phase of the Naxalite movement, from 1977 to 2003, was marked by mass organizations and mass struggles, especially in North Telangana and other parts of the then-province of Andhra Pradesh, and in what was then central and south Bihar (the latter now the province of Jharkhand), as also in parts of what is called Dandakaranya, the forest area situated in the border and adjoining tribal districts of the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Orissa. The Bastar region in southern Chhattisgarh slowly began to emerge as a stronghold. Armed squads and village-level militias were organized in self-defense. “Land to the Tiller” and “Full Rights to the Forest” were the core demands, and within the movement, emphasis came to be placed on sensitivity to issues of gender and caste. Especially in Bihar, the Maoist movement, with the backing of its armed squads, combated the upper-caste landlord senas (armed gangs) with considerable success.

With this expansion, however, the Indian state launched a full-scale counterinsurgency, and the party suffered the loss of some of its best leaders, especially in Andhra Pradesh. However, by the beginning of the new millennium, the movement became more difficult to subjugate, and having put in place a people’s guerrilla army, it was ready to fight on even in the face of impossible odds. Mergers in 1998 and 2004 of Maoist parties committed to the practice of “protracted people’s war” (PPW) made the movement a formidable force. Indeed, 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Maoists as the “single largest internal security threat” to the country. Since 2004, with two remarkable mass organizations already in place, the Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan and the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangh—one of tribal peasants and workers, the other, of tribal women—and a Bhoomkal Militia (its name derives from a 1910 tribal rebellion) that feeds into the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, the Bastar region has become a bastion of Maoist resilience. It has successfully prevailed over a state-backed, state-armed private vigilante force called Salwa Judum (translated as “purification hunt”) and has even kept a major armed offensive of the paramilitary and armed police, called Operation Green Hunt, at bay. It has also managed to engage in “construction in the midst of destruction,” putting in place Janathana Sarkars, or people’s governments, albeit in embryonic forms, within its guerrilla bases.

What explains the persistence of revolutionary mobilization over five decades? Alpa Shah, a social anthropologist who has carried out long-term ethnographic research in a Maoist guerrilla zone in Jharkhand, has concluded that it is the “relations of intimacy” that have been built between the Maoist organization and the people in its areas of struggle that are crucial to understanding the movement’s growth, development, and longevity.20 Shah holds that “an enormous effort was made to supersede and negate the specificities of caste and class divisions among all the people brought into the revolutionary fold. This involved, in particular, paying great attention to treating lower castes and tribes with respect and dignity as equals.” On outreach to ordinary people, she emphasizes “the tone of the voice in which one was spoken to, the way one was greeted, the way one’s house was entered, whether one sat on the floor like everyone else or required a chair to be found.” She finds that the Maoists are “gentle and kind in everyday interactions…. They did not want special treatment and even insisted on doing things that no villagers would expect of their outside guests—like washing their used plates and cups and helping with household chores.” They “treat the villagers as equals, overriding differences of caste. They had built relations of respect and dignity, but equally important, relations of joking and teasing…. [N]ot only was it common practice for high-caste Maoist leaders to eat from the same plate as low castes or for them to make a point of eating beef or rats to undermine quintessential markers of ‘untouchability.'” Basically such an approach has “enabled the Maoist guerrillas to be accepted by the local people as one of them.”21

Where, then, is the Indian Maoist movement going? The Indian state wants to sever these “relations of intimacy” of the Maoists with the wretched of the Indian earth, and is aggressively working to wipe out the movement by all available means, fair or foul, even violating with impunity Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II, relating to non-international armed conflict. The Maoist movement is, in turn, bent upon overthrowing the Indian state, through a combination of protracted armed struggle, mass mobilization, and strategic alliances with the oppressed nationalities. Neither of these possibilities however, stands a chance of success at this juncture.

In taking on one of the most powerful capitalist states and ruling classes in the global South, the Maoist movement has become increasingly militarized, and the Indian state has in turn been striving to limit the movement’s other strategic options, pushing it toward armed confrontation. Consequently, the movement is finding the going more difficult. The absence of “base areas” means that the party’s mass-line politics has little chance of being popularly perceived as a superior form of representation to the establishment’s discredited and corrupt form of liberal democracy. Nevertheless, there have been calls for “simultaneous uprisings in a wide range of geographic and social settings” in opposition to land grabs, creating great turmoil that might result in a revolutionary upheaval and herald a critical leap forward.22

Revolution Confined to the Periphery

How then may we put revolution and counterrevolution in perspective? The life-and-death struggle of revolution and counterrevolution since 1917 is the outcome of more than four centuries of the history of capitalism. Based as it is on the exploitation of human labor and of nature, capitalism generates inequality, a tendency only exacerbated when the system operates without restraint, as it has for most of its history—so much so that the system is now heading toward catastrophe as a result of the cumulative ecological degradation it has caused. Revolutions and people’s wars are not matters of choice, nor are they mere historical accidents: they spring from the very internal contradictions of the capitalist-imperialist system. Tragically, so far, none have succeeded in fully overcoming the system that breeds them. Everywhere ruling classes have managed—by any means, including counterrevolution—to preserve their monopoly over wealth, power, and privilege.

In sharp contrast, liberal-reformist intellectuals hold that nothing had to happen the way it did, and what will likely happen depends on the choices “we” ultimately make. Revolutions are very costly in terms of human lives and suffering, they scold, and so “we” are shocked that “you” radicals even consider them as options. Far better to reform the system, the liberal-reformists say, to fix and tinker. The liberal-reformist view is both ahistorical and in effect assigns volition only to privileged elites, i.e., the “we” who decide and the “cookbooks” of “choice” drawn up by them. Let us return to the radical position on revolutions.23 Capitalism as a global system, even as it is deeply rooted in the mercantilist age of the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, has increasingly since the late nineteenth century come to decisively shape its various parts and their relations to each other. The center of the capitalist system subordinates the periphery economically, politically, and militarily for the benefit of the center and its ruling classes. A much higher rate of exploitation in the periphery, and a sharing of its surplus among the ruling classes and professional elites of both center and periphery, and to a certain extent the working class of the center, have long formed the core of the system’s exploitative institutional structure.

As a result, from the late nineteenth century on, the revolutionary struggle has shifted from the center to the periphery and semi-periphery (in the latter, a country like Russia, which was both victim of imperialism and beneficiary). One has only to look at the dispossessed masses of the periphery, their lived experience, which represents “the focal point of all inhuman conditions in contemporary society.” It is in this mass of humanity that “the human being is lost,” but “has won a theoretical consciousness of loss and is compelled by unavoidable and absolutely compulsory need…to revolt against this inhumanity.” The young Marx and Engels in The Holy Family wrote what I have just paraphrased about the industrial proletariat of Western Europe in 1844. Although within a few decades this depiction no longer captured that proletariat’s situation, it began to describe with painful accuracy the oppressed masses of the periphery.

No wonder then that the people of the periphery, who are global capitalism’s principal victims, are the ones most likely to revolt against it. And no wonder that counterrevolution there has been so cruel and brutal, for it is the much higher rate of exploitation in the periphery that is the capitalist system’s structural imperative. The principal victims of the system cannot be expected to stop after a February 1917 kind of revolution—a bourgeois revolution—for that would not even ensure them the benefits of genuine liberal-political democracy. They have little choice but to push on, to complete the tasks of an October 1917 kind of revolution. But with relatively low levels of development of the productive forces in the periphery and the chronic failure to respect even conventional civil and political rights, the success of any Marxist revolution has been doubly difficult.

In Russia, the February Revolution was not followed by the institutionalization of a capitalist superstructure, for it was rapidly surpassed by October. In fact, when the transition project following October suffered severe setbacks, as was inevitable because of the counterrevolutionary onslaught, what was left was much of the previous tsarist superstructure. The envisaged democratic role model as far as the masses were concerned was a far cry. What, then, of the prospects of genuine democracy following a revolution in the periphery? Must the odds necessarily be so dim?

Thinking about Socialist Democracy

Here it is time to turn to the last of the “Theses on Feuerbach,” penned by the young Marx in 1845. The purpose of struggling to gain a thorough understanding of the world, of “learning truth from practice,” was to lay the basis for revolutionary change. Learning truth from practice, of course, means, as Paul Sweezy once wrote: “learning truth from history, from economics and politics, from culture in the broadest sense—in a word, from the real world of social relations and class struggle, as distinct from the imaginary worlds of revelation and pure thought.”24 What about the third thesis on Feuerbach, especially the part involving “educating the educators”? The creation of a decent human society might ultimately come about, after many defeats and setbacks, but only in a process of struggle by ordinary people, who may not yet be ready to emancipate themselves, but who can become capable of doing so by launching and sustaining revolutionary struggles. Marx expected that the transitional period after the revolution would witness a negation of capitalism, which would develop its own positive identity through a revolutionary struggle, in which ordinary people would remake society, and in the process remake themselves.

It must be remembered that the workers, or more generally, the masses, the ones who Marx and Engels expected would emancipate themselves in the course of remaking society, are society’s foremost productive force. But the advance of their capabilities is hindered by the relations of production and the corresponding deprivations they are made to suffer. And, as Rosa Luxemburg knew so well, the workers, because they are forced to spend most of their waking hours struggling to earn a livelihood, are often unable to act politically independently. What can drive them to independent mass political action?

For Luxemburg, a revolutionary upheaval was the moment, when despite having to spend all of one’s days in a sheer struggle for survival, one is still moved to engage in a collective struggle. Only then does radical politics assume a mass character. Despite capitalism’s binding constraints, the majority participates freely in mass public action. But after the takeover of state power, if the revolution fails to maintain this realm of freedom, then it loses its lifeblood. The maintenance of that lifeblood—mass public participation in the politics of the transition period, in the soviets, in the constituent assembly, in universal franchise, in mass strikes when necessary—is the only thing that can sustain a successful revolution.

In the face of the many challenges of the revolutionary road, however, I still think a Leninist party of the 1917 kind is essential. The guiding role of middle-class revolutionaries in the vanguard party of the 1917 type is indispensable until an enlightened working class emerges—of course, with the proviso that the middle-class educators must themselves be educated by “learning truth from practice.” The Cultural Revolution’s central idea—that political, managerial, and bureaucratic power-holders entrench themselves as a ruling elite and, over time, assume the position of a ruling class, and that the people must constantly be mobilized to struggle against this tendency—should, however, never be forgotten. The persistence of class, patriarchy, racism, and caste over millennia, even in post-revolutionary societies, makes clear that power and domination are deeply rooted in social reality. Indeed, they have almost become a part of the basic inherited—but not unchangeable—”human condition,” which only clarifies the need for civil liberties and democratic rights, themselves gained through historic struggles waged by the oppressed.

The sooner socialist democracy comes, the better—for now more than ever before, we can no longer afford the luxury of thinking in terms of historical time, for capitalism has become an existential threat to humanity and other forms of life.


  1. Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (London: Verso, 2005).
  2. Paul M. Sweezy, “Socialism: Legacy and Renewal“, Monthly Review 44, no. 8 (January 1993): 1–9.
  3. Michael Lowy, “Twelve Theses on the Crisis of ‘Really Existing Socialism’,” Monthly Review 43, no. 1 (May 1991): 33–40.
  4. Paul M. Sweezy, “Post-Revolutionary Society,” Monthly Review 32, no. 6 (November 1980): 1–13. This paragraph and the following one draw on Sweezy’s essay.
  5. William Hinton, “The Chinese Revolution: Was It Necessary? Was It Successful? Is It Still Going On?Monthly Review, 43, no. 6, (November 1991): 6.
  6. William Hinton, “Mao, Rural Development, and Two-Line Struggle“, Monthly Review 45, no. 9 (February 1994): 1–15.
  7. Paul M. Sweezy, “Theory and Practice in the Mao Period,” Monthly Review, 28, no. 9 (February 1977): 1–12.
  8. I am drawing on a thought-provoking essay by Hugh Deane, “Mao: A Lamentation”, Science and Society 59, no. 1 (1995): 69–81.
  9. William Hinton, “On the Role of Mao Zedong,” Monthly Review, 56, no. 4 (September 2004): 51–59.
  10. Michael Löwy, “Che’s Revolutionary Humanism,” Monthly Review 49, no. 5 (October 1997): 3-4.
  11. Two of the best early writings on the Cuban Revolution are Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy, “Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution,” Monthly Review 12, no. 3 (July–August 1960), and Paul A. Baran, “Reflections on the Cuban Revolution,” in two parts, Monthly Review 12, no. 9 (January 1961): 459–70, and 12, no. 10 (February 1961): 518–29.
  12. I draw on a perspectives essay by Saul Landau, “Understanding Revolution: A Guide for Critics,” Monthly Review 39, no. 1 (May 1987): 1–13.
  13. During the Cold War, U.S. military actions were partially constrained by Soviet military power. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism has vastly expanded in scope and intensity. See John Bellamy Foster’s Naked Imperialism: The U.S. Pursuit of Global Dominance (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005).
  14. Joan Jara, Victor: An Unfinished Song (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), 226, 249.
  15. Paul M. Sweezy’s reply to Andrew Zimbalist in “Correspondence,” Monthly Review 23, no. 10 (March 1972): 52–53.
  16. See, for instance, Bradley Simpson, “The United States and the 1965–1966 Mass Murders in Indonesia,” Monthly Review 67, no. 7 (December 2015): 31–49.
  17. My account of the Vietnamese liberation struggle draws on Jayne Werner, “A Short History of the War in Vietnam,” Monthly Review 37, no. 2 (June 1985): 14–21, and Paul M. Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, “The Historic Victory in Indochina,” Monthly Review 27, no. 1 (May 1975): 1–13.
  18. I provide a detailed account of the Maoist movement in India in three chapters of my forthcoming book India after Naxalbari, to be published in India by Aakar Books and internationally by Monthly Review Press.
  19. Sumanta Banerjee, In the Wake of Naxalbari (Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad, 2008), 112.
  20. Alpa Shah, “The Intimacy of Insurgency: Beyond Coercion, Greed or Grievance in Maoist India,” Economy and Society 42, no. 3, (2013): 480–506.
  21. Shah, “The Intimacy of Insurgency,” 496, 497, 499.
  22. Robert Weil, Is the Torch Passing? Resistance and Revolution in China and India (Kolkata: Setu Prakashani, 2013), 223.
  23. In this and the following paragraph I draw on Paul M. Sweezy, “Marxism and Revolution 100 Years after Marx,” Monthly Review 34, no. 10 (March 1983): 1–11.
  24. Paul M. Sweezy, “What is Marxism?Monthly Review 36, no. 10 (March 1985): 1–2.
2017, Volume 69, Issue 03 (July-August 2017)
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