Volume 5, No. 5, May 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
One Marxist theoretician who stands out in the period between the two world wars is Antonio Gramsci, writing from his long imprisonment (he died in Mussolini’s fascist prisons). Gramsci staked out a position in his writings that was neither in harmony with the ultra-leftism of the Third Period (1929-34) or the Popular Fronts strategy (1935-43) of the Third International (Comintern). Gramsci proved unique amongst the communists of his time in persisting, at the nadir of the defeats of the 1930s, that Russian experience could not merely be repeated in the developed West, and in trying to understand why.
Here follows an abbreviated (and perhaps wholly inadequate) summarisation of Gramsci’s contribution.
While Gramsci was attempting from prison to articulate the strategy required in a situation where the revolutionary wave after the end of WWI had passed and capitalism, particularly in the developed West, had seemingly consolidated itself, events were moving along sinister lines. The Great Crash of the late 1920s and early 1930s fed into Italy first (1922) and Germany later (1933) adopting fascism, with the subsequent fateful consequences that transpired. WWII involved a titanic struggle between Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union, which the latter won virtually single-handedly at great cost after Europe had been overrun by Hitler’s hordes, Britain was locked in an air and sea war with Germany, the US was concentrating more on the war in the Pacific against Japan, and the Allied invasion of Europe (the Normandy landings in 1944) were still some time and distance away.
The historic defeat of European fascism and Japanese imperialism brought the festering issue of liberation of the colonies of European empires centre-stage. If India (and Pakistan) achieved independence through peaceful struggle (as did most British colonies after the Empire could no longer be sustained as a result of the devastation wrought by WWII), other European empires (the French, Dutch and Portuguese) saw bloody armed liberation struggles throughout Asia and Africa.
The historic victory of the Chinese revolution under Mao Tse Tung’s leadership in 1949, the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro’s guidance (1959) and the earth-shaking final victory of the Vietnamese national resistance (1975) provided role models for many successful (and even some unsuccessful) guerrilla struggles in the Third World. However difficult, bloody and requiring great sacrifices as these struggles proved, liberation posed new (eventually intractable) problems.
If Socialism in One Country in the Soviet Union provided proof of the difficulties of constructing a socialist state and society while surrounded by hostile capitalist-imperialist states, Third World liberation soon ran up against the economic and political structures of the post-WWII world. Colonialism had been replaced by the extractive processes of the neo-colonial (and now neo-liberal) world order.
China, after its split with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, was convulsed by Mao’s attempt to ward off a revisionist, bourgeois turn through the Cultural Revolution. Magnificent as the mobilisation of millions of young people in support of the principles of socialist revolution were, the ultra-left tendencies that soon emerged eventually led to the defeat of the project and the very restoration (or embrace) of capitalism Mao feared in the light of the post-Stalin developments in the Soviet Union. Today, China sports a hybrid system of capitalist development (highly successful because China got onto, and now dominates, the global supply chains architecture of the world that starting emerging in the 1970s), leavened by the remains of the socialist system and its protections for the people.
North Korea is still bogged down in the ‘no war, no peace’ that has dominated the Korean Peninsula since the armistice in 1953. Cuba is still struggling against US-led sanctions imposed soon after liberation. Vietnam has cut its cloth according to the global situation today by allowing capitalism where found beneficial, while retaining largely its socialist character.
Given the fact that the surviving socialist countries have been rocked on the back foot by global developments since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism in 1991, there is no ‘model’ of revolution left for aspiring revolutionaries today. That has imposed on them the challenging task of revisiting the historical experience of revolution and national liberation in the 20th century, educating themselves about the ‘new world’ in the 21st century, and formulating Marxist revolutionary strategy in the changed conditions today.
Whatever answers today’s revolutionaries come up with, certain undeniable truths have stood the test of time. First and foremost, the idea of some form of ‘peaceful’ road to socialism, which keeps rearing its stubborn head in every period of defeat and retreat, needs to be laid to rest. Class society may be infinitely more complex today than its seeming division into two great contending classes when capitalism arose, but the question of the character of the state (bourgeois or proletarian) still cannot be resolved without battle. What form this battle may take has finally landed in the tray of today’s revolutionaries to work out the best way forward in the light of their own conditions and circumstances. Various movements aspiring to this goal the world over can and should learn from each other’s contemporary experiences, but each movement will have to find its own path. Nevertheless, without the seizure of political power through armed struggle (whether protracted or conjunctural), no project aspiring to a genuine socialist, people-oriented future can hope to succeed.