Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Capitalism’s triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in 1991 has not worked out well for the ‘victors’. The US-led west’s expectation that the new situation that had emerged would lead to a unipolar world dominated by it remains unfulfilled. Instead, what humanity witnesses today is an increasingly multi-polar world. In this new milieu, the US-led west mounted unprecedented economic and military aggression against countries that contested its desired full spectrum hegemony in the absence of a countervailing or restraining factor such as the Soviet Union represented during the Cold War.
Nor has the US-led west’s dream of ‘peace’ under its tutelage that would allow the unbridled expansion and development of capitalism and its concomitant imperialism come to pass. Instead, continuing social unrest and explosions in the First and Third Worlds underline the abiding relevance of revolutions. It is important here to remind ourselves that it was revolutions that capitalism needed to usher it into history, as well as revolutions to usher it out. Revolutions against developed and nascent capitalism in various parts of the world therefore remain important and necessary.
A retrospective glance at the history of revolutions since the last two centuries or so leaves us struggling to recall, for example, the Soviet Union’s achievements, which today seem like a distant memory. Accompanying this difficulty in recall is the extreme splintering of the Left worldwide. The advent of WWI in the early twentieth century proved a turning point in the unity of the Left, represented at the time in the Second International. The war, interpreted by the revolutionary tendency in the Second International (the Bolsheviks) as an inter-imperialist war, drew a sharp line of demarcation between the Russian revolutionaries (Bolsheviks) and their allies on one side and what came to reveal itself as a social democratic, chauvinist, pro-imperialist tendency on the other. The latter succumbed to the wave of nationalist hysteria accompanying essentially a global war for the redivision of the world (colonies) and supported ‘their’ bourgeoisie against the impugned ‘enemy’. By the time the Bolsheviks demonstrated in practice that their analysis and position against the war was correct (in 1917), the Left had irrevocably split and splintered further. Revolutions inspired by, if not having an umbilical relationship with, the Russian revolution – the Chinese, Vietnamese, others – led to further divisions and even ‘fraternal’ armed conflict between socialist countries.
These revolutions of the twentieth century occurred during the 30-years crisis of capitalist imperialism (1914-1945) amidst popular upsurges, particularly the Russian and Chinese revolutions. After WWII, decolonisation and land reform (i.e. an agrarian revolution based on dismantling feudalism and redistributing land to the tillers) were the main driving forces of revolutions in the Third World. By the 1970s, decolonisation had largely played out in both revolutionary and evolutionary forms (the latter reflecting the inability of western colonial powers to hold on to their colonies any longer). The exceptions, for example Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), also succumbed to the independence wave by the 1980s.
This historic development tested the global capitalist system now having to operate without the benefit of the loot and plunder of the colonies. Falling profits and productivity, rising wages, inflation, and the now independent Third World’s assertiveness chastened and temporarily ‘leashed’ capitalism, which then mounted a ferocious neoliberal counter-offensive. Unfortunately, the historically divided Left failed to conduct an effective defence of socialist post-WWII regimes or develop them further in a revolutionary direction. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism in 1991, the surviving socialist regimes (e.g. China, Vietnam, Cuba) were forced or chose to ‘accommodate’ themselves to the new global realities and embraced capitalism to a greater or lesser extent in order to stay alive. Currently, the world is witnessing a wave of right wing, populist mobilisations of the discontents against neoliberalism instead of a critically needed reinvigorated Left.
This outcome was the result of a host of complex factors, but the intellectual ones proved to be the main concern. Neoliberalism constituted the third counter-revolutionary offensive by 20th century capitalism. The first was the fascisms of the 1930s and 1940s, the second the US-led west’s containment policies of the 1950s-1980s during the Cold War. During the first counter-revolutionary offensive, intellectual contestation between the Left and the Right was at its sharpest, while socialism and revolution enjoyed considerable popular legitimacy. After the defeat of the German revolution in 1918 (in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution), the country was wracked by a bitter class war led by the Communist Party on the Left and the Nazis on the Right. By 1933, this had yielded the outcome of the triumph of the Nazis and the defeat of the Left. Hitler took power in that year, but not without a fight. The belated Left strategy of Popular Fronts in the mid-1930s helped defend republican democracy against fascism in Spain (1936-39), succumbing finally to Franco’s forces after a bloody civil war that attracted Soviet and international fraternal involvement, and in France beat back fascism. In 1932, El Salvador’s fledgling Communist Party led by Farabundo Marti attempted to stage the first communist revolution in the Americas.
In the second counter-revolutionary offensive, the US-led west mounted a vast ideological campaign against the threat of revolution, including critical academic theorising about revolution. This was nothing less than an attempted ideological hegemony, so brilliantly analysed earlier by Antonio Gramsci. As a result, the Marxist tradition became the marginalised exception. After 1991, a new tide of scholarship washed over (washed away?) the remaining positive conception of revolution. This was part of the counter-offensive against Marxist-inspired revolutionary movements of the 1960s-1970s. In western academia, new intellectual currents emerged in revisionist fashion to question Marxist interpretations of the French bourgeois revolution (1789), imperialism, colonialism and fascism. Imperialism in particular was reinterpreted in an effort to delink it from capitalism, leaving parts of the west’s Left supporting military interventions against Third World ‘dictators’ and susceptible to imperialist appeals. The litany of choice epithets (e.g. ‘There is no alternative’ – to neoliberal capitalist democracy) used in this trend were aimed at ‘proving’ that socialism had failed and revolutions were nothing but destructive, murderous deviations with no redeeming features or gains.
Since the beginning of the post-Cold War conjuncture (1989-91), the Left has been on the intellectual and political back foot. The Soviet Union’s achievements, in an extremely difficult situation of encirclement and aggression by imperialism in organising the transition to capitalism (anti-feudalism) and socialism notwithstanding, the neoliberal narrative today holds sway. Communism, it is argued, was destroyed by its economic failures (i.e. the absence of dynamism) and political ‘illegitimacy’ (the dictatorships of the proletariat and/or people proved insufficiently democratic, repressive of the people’s voice, and succumbed to bureaucratism, an alienation that rendered the people politically passive and disinterested in defending socialism). Revolution itself having been rendered ‘suspect’ thanks to the exertions of western academia, capitalist triumphalism’s hubris declared history had arrived at its terminus (e.g. Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The end of history’).
The Left was now called upon to rethink revolution in the light of experience, transcend the mixed Soviet legacy (implying shedding slavish acceptance of universal ‘models’), look forward more than back, although not without critically summing up the past. History, irrespective of subjective interpretations, wishes or aspirations, reasserted itself on the basis of the existing contradictions in the world, giving rise to uprisings such as the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and mass upheavals shaking France, Spain, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Venezuela, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Lebanon, etc. But unfortunately a historically badly splintered Left has not been successful in correctly diagnosing the complex conjuncture since the 1990s. Four decades of neoliberalism did not yield a western-dominated unipolar world. The current and continuing Long Downturn is afflicting the financialised western economies. Inequality the world over is increasing, growth and wages are stagnant, social fabrics are fraying, democracy lies hollowed out, and climate change disasters are upon us. Only the largest corporations are prospering. Western economies are losing ground with the rise of China and other economies.
The US-led west has reacted to its diminishing power with new, worldwide aggression, both military and economic, which has proved both murderous and vain. Unfortunately, as new forms of resistance emerged to contest neoliberalism and imperialism, both in the capitalist core and the periphery, assuming both national and class forms, the splits in the Left only multiplied. The burning need today is to bring revolutions, based on the actual historical record, out of the fog of mainstream discourse and understand them afresh.
The inter-relationship of imperialism and resistance to it, both national and class, needs to be understood to ground political solidarity across the imperial divide. Capitalism is not ‘natural’, ‘common sense’, nor are markets natural or conscious human organisation artificial. Marx described capitalism as a most unnatural manner of organising social production, founded on “…the separation of free labour from the objective conditions of its realisation, …from the soil as (our) natural workshop” (Grundrisse). This foundational brutality is the culmination of a long, contested history. In addition to revolutions that ushered capitalism into history, ushered it out in the periphery, and may yet usher it out in its ‘homelands’, there has been resistance of those threatened by its incursion, in the name of ancient rights, land, the environment, and solidarity-based social forms since capitalism’s birth.
Capitalism sought to keep revolutions at bay since the middle 19th century, beginning with blunting the edge of bourgeois revolutions. It then graduated to opposing the Russian revolution in alliance with authoritarian and eventually fascist forces, whose early form helped defeat the revolutionary wave in western Europe at the end of WWII. While the counter-revolution failed to defeat the Russian revolution, it deformed it through containment. Counter-revolution continues under the Anglo-US core of the capitalist world, assisted by other capitalist powers. Capitalism first tried to compromise with fascism in the name of ‘peace’, but was eventually compelled to defeat it when it became a menace to itself. It has now taken to employing a para-fascist combination of covert and overt strategies to pre-empt opposition to capitalism. This stratagem peaked in the phenomenon of the so-called ‘Colour Revolutions’.
One form of confusion on the Left regarding imperialism, particularly since the 2014 confrontation between the west and Russia over Ukraine, which by now has engendered a war, is the theory of Russian imperialism and/or the clash of two imperialisms, western and Russian. This smacks of an attempt to fit the situation into a ‘traditional’ Marxist paradigm of the clash of competing imperialisms that led to WWI (and its concomitant WWII). However, the current situation sits uneasily within this theoretical framework. Post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine are oligarchical capitalisms relegated to the periphery and semi-periphery respectively. This differential placement left Ukraine prey to imperialism while permitting Russia a certain degree of autonomy to resist it and seek to assert influence over post-Soviet space, especially in areas where there is a Russian population dating from Soviet times or even earlier. This put Russia on a collision course with the expansionist west fomenting a ‘colour revolution’ in Ukraine by exploiting, diverting and yoking to its own purposes grievances against Ukraine’s oligarchical capitalism.
There has been a long standing contest between positivist and determinist ‘scientific’ Marxism and its active and creative element, the latter being less concerned with the ‘laws’ of capitalism, more with the possibilities of human liberation (Marxism as a guide to action). The Russian and Chinese revolutions with their iconoclastic understandings of imperialism and people’s war are instances of the latter. Though not successful in achieving human liberation fully, they constituted critical advances towards it. Today, as scientific Marxism keeps taking new forms in response to new developments in capitalism, it is critical to keep alive the active, creative element of Marxism if we are to progress towards human liberation. The Russian revolutionaries considered revolution not merely the negation of the previous order or ancien regime, but also a dialectical and dialogical co-creation of a new culture in which the masses expressed their essential creativity. The building of this culture, in an essential sense, is communism. This culture is universal in its significance and the common heritage of humankind struggling for liberation.
The umbilical link between the Russian and Chinese revolutions bookended the Thirty Years Crisis of capitalism (1914-45) and the larger matter of anti-imperialist solidarity, which is today obscured by the dominant focus on the early mistakes of the Comintern in China, the later Sino-Soviet split and the general disparagement of the ‘national’ character of these revolutions. The Comintern adopted a schematic interpretation of the classical Marxist heritage, over-generalising the Russian experience into a universal model, but did play a critical role in the formation of the Communist Party of China and aiding its theoretical foundation. The process in turn affected the Comintern’s own evolution and its theory was influenced by the Chinese revolution as Mao and his comrades successfully Sinicised Marxism (thereby reinforcing its national form). The Russian and Chinese revolutions were as much anti-imperialist as anti-capitalist and involved national and class struggles, as have revolutions ever since. Revolutions in our own time in the poorer parts of the world require, amongst other innovations, to contest the hegemony of the privately owned media with a popular media strategy for people to create their own, alternative media.
Interest in the history of revolutions and the study of how revolutions are made is expected to grow as consciousness of the necessity of revolutionary change increases globally. There are however, historically unprecedented obstacles to this course. First and foremost is repression, surveillance, disinformation and counter-revolution, with war and the threat of violence being the weapons of choice. Second, for every revolutionary country today there are a half dozen or more counter-revolutionary examples, where the possibilities of mobilising under the banner of middle class populism and fascism are all too real. Third, there is the very different role of the educated classes (intelligentsia) in politics today. In the century-long cycle of mobilisation against capitalism and imperialism since the late 19th century, intellectuals sided with the working, popular classes. Lenin amongst others spoke of the proletariat being joined by sections of the bourgeois intelligentsia. Today, however, the educated classes are absorbed in the corporate private sector or the neoliberal state. Few, therefore, are left for mass political revolutionary activity.
These are powerful obstacles but not necessarily the last word. Force is no longer always effective as the global geopolitical economy becomes more multi-polar. This is clear from the long series of imperialist failures from Vietnam to Syria and Afghanistan, to take just a few examples. The threat of a resurgent fascism is becoming more real while the intelligentsia is failing in its historic duty to reverse it.
However, people’s war or the mobilisation of the masses in new forms – levee en masse, urban street-fighting, mass peasant armies, village-based guerrilla warfare – have their own history, which is constantly being reinvented as a critical factor in successful revolutions, as witnessed since the later part of the 18th century to the later part of the 20th, and hopefully today.