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Red Theory: Against the theory of a peaceful transition to socialism

By J. Sykes |
October 9, 2022
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Marxism-Leninism is the science of revolution. The purpose of revolutionary theory is to guide revolutionary practice. Nevertheless, since Marxism was young, there have always been opportunists and revisionists who tried to distort its revolutionary essence. The leading edge of this attack on Marxism - from the misleaders of the Second International, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky in the early 1900s, to Khrushchev’s modern revisionism, beginning with the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956 - has been the advocacy of a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism.

Can the bourgeois state be reformed and led peacefully towards socialism? What is there to learn from past attempts? Even as recently as Bernie Sanders’ campaigns for the presidency, we saw the ruling class unite to deny the possibility of a Sanders candidacy. Even his mild, social democratic reforms were too much for the U.S. monopoly capitalist class.

As Lenin said, and history has proven, “Never…will the exploiters submit to the decision of the exploited majority without trying to make use of their advantages in a last desperate battle, or series of battles.” Just look at the revolutionary movements of the past: for example, the U.S. aerial bombing of the coal miners of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921, or, more recently, the FBI and police repression of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 70s, and the jailing and murder of its leaders like Fred Hampton. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., in spite of his firm commitment to non-violence, was assassinated. All of these movements were met with counter-revolutionary violence. 

Summing up the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx said, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Instead, it must be smashed, and this is especially true of its military, the force that maintains the power of the ruling class. This is why Marx said that “under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.” Gun control leaves working and oppressed people defenseless. 

Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “communists disdain to hide their views and aims.” Revolutionaries must always be honest and clear. Nobody wants war or violence, but the reality is that history has never moved forward without it. The bourgeoisie knows this. They’ve enshrined revolutionary violence in their founding documents. The U.S. Declaration of Independence even calls it a “right” and a “duty.” And to this day, the monopoly capitalists maintain their class dictatorship with violence against working and oppressed people through their police and military. But for them, it is violence for the sake of capital and profit. 

Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution, “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution.” Unfortunately, many communist parties, especially during and after the Second World War, became confused on this question. They came to believe that a desire for peaceful coexistence between capitalist and socialist countries likewise meant the possibility of a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism. In 1944, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) leader Earl Browder took the wartime alliance between the U.S. and the Soviets against Hitler so far as to liquidate the party entirely. This was resisted by the international communist movement as a whole, and the party was restored. But this wasn’t the first such error for the CPUSA, and it wouldn’t be the last. Even prior to Browder, the CPUSA had already been criticized by Stalin and the Communist International in 1927 for the “American exceptionalism” of Jay Lovestone, who argued that America wasn’t subject to the laws of history, including the need for revolution. 

According to the outstanding African American Marxist-Leninist theorist and revolutionary leader, Harry Haywood, “it was right opportunism, this time expressed largely in the slogan of ‘peaceful, parliamentary and constitutional transition to socialism’ which plunged the Party into its third and fatal crisis.” This was in 1957. Haywood writes that “The Sixteenth Party Convention was a fateful turning point in our Party’s history—the point from which the Party turned inevitably and unalterably down the road to revisionism, the point from which the task of building a new anti-revisionist communist party became the primary task of Marxist-Leninists.” 

In the late 1950s many parties, especially in Europe and the United States, were following Khrushchev’s lead in advocating for peaceful transition to socialism. The Communist Party of China (CPC) intervened in 1957 with the article, “Outline of Views on the Question of Peaceful Transition.” There, the CPC said, “If too much stress is laid on the possibility of peaceful transition, and especially on the possibility of seizing state power by winning a majority in parliament it is liable to weaken the revolutionary will of the proletariat, the working people and the Communist Party and disarm them ideologically.”

Later, in 1963, in one of the most important documents of the Great Debate between the CPC and the CPSU, The Proletarian Revolution and Khrushchev’s Revisionism, the CPC wrote, “The proletariat would, of course, prefer to gain power by peaceful means. But abundant historical evidence indicates that the reactionary classes never give up power voluntarily and that they are always the first to use violence to repress the revolutionary mass movement and to provoke civil war, thus placing armed struggle on the agenda.” Everyone knows this is true. But the advocates of peaceful transition would leave the masses unprepared for such an eventuality, instead feeding the working class a pipe dream of a peaceful, electoral, and constitutional road to socialism. For the socialist revolution to be successful, the working class requires what Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists called the “three magic weapons” of the revolution: the party, the armed struggle, and the united front.

Of course, to deny the possibility of peaceful transition shouldn’t be taken to mean that the immediate task is the revolutionary overthrow of the monopoly capitalist class. A revolutionary struggle is a struggle of the masses in their millions. It requires objective and subjective conditions to be successful. Objectively, the economic crisis must bring about a political crisis, where working and oppressed people can no longer live in the old way, and the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way. On the subjective side, the proletariat must be class-conscious and organized, and must have a Marxist-Leninist Party capable of serving as the advanced detachment and revolutionary general staff of the class.

Revolution is a protracted struggle and the tactics that struggle uses depend upon time, place and conditions. Currently, the material conditions of a revolution do not yet exist. There is no revolutionary economic and political crisis, the working class has a relatively low level of class consciousness and is disorganized, and there is no vanguard, Marxist-Leninist party. We must therefore proceed step by step. At this stage and under these conditions, the main work of revolutionaries is mass organizing, prioritizing party building and the united front against monopoly capitalism. The present aim must be raising the level of consciousness and organization of the working class. We must engage with the masses around immediate demands for basic reforms, better wages, ending police violence, stopping imperialist war and intervention, and so on, to strike blows against the enemy and win all that can be won for the people. We can and should even engage with bourgeois elections - not with any reformist aims, but with the aim of affecting and optimizing the conditions of struggle. Our tactics must keep pace with where the masses are at, politically, and seek to move them forward. The long term goal in the midst of the day-to-day struggle is to prepare the working class and oppressed nationalities to be able to seize the time when such a revolutionary crisis arises.

Communists must be forward looking. Even now, when revolutionary struggle is not an immediate task and we are in a period of generally legal mass organizing, communists should study the strategy, tactics and experience of past and present revolutions around the world in light of our own particular conditions. 

In the last analysis, a revolution is the highest form of class struggle, a life or death struggle between the exploiting class and the masses of working and oppressed people. It is, as Mao Zedong said, “an act of violence where one class overthrows another.” 

From the October Revolution in 1917 that established the world’s first socialist state, to today - wherever the working class has taken power we have done so through revolutionary means. To recognize this fact isn’t to seek out violence. Truly, communists want peace, and abhor violence. It is a matter of facing facts. It is merely to have an objective, materialist, and scientific view of the role of force in history. The monopoly capitalist class backs up their rule with force - they will use force to maintain their rule. And for our part, the working class will never be able to gain any power that they are not organized and prepared to take.