Revolution in South Asia

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A sketch of four controversies: Communist strategy in the Third World

Posted by redpines on February 5, 2012

This theoretical essay originally appeared on our sister site, Kasama. It addresses a number of important issues, including: How has revolution occurred in the Third World? Can it occur in the same way under current global conditions? Can we apply the strategies for revolution in the third world in the advanced capitalist countries? 

by Mike Ely

A great many of us attracted to revolutionary politics in the U.S. (and similar “developed” countries) often see radical change through the prism of our surrounding society — where feudalism has been largely absorbed into capitalist agriculture, and where only a small-and-declining proportion of the working classes are on the land.

So when revolutionaries in the third world (for example: India, Nepal, Peru, Turkey) talk of the political tasks facing both communists and the people because of major feudal elements — the discussion often seems a bit strange. Their discussion involves problems of genuine national independence, village-level land reform, basic industrial development, basic infrastructure (roads, sewage, electrification…), ending the patriarchy of peasant life… burning questions that aren’t  concerns of any revolutionary movement in the U.S.

And meanwhile the face of the Third World is changing — rapidly — with profound implications for the politics, economics and revolutions of today’s world. Islands of imperialist-style production (and even social structures with broad bourgeoisified strata etc.) are emerging in former colonial areas and anchoring regional markets — within South Africa, Bangalore in India, Singapore in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, even in their own way, Israel and Dubai within the still impoverished Middle East. And tremendous transformations are happening in third world agriculture — including capitalist development (dams, factories) and capitalist farming that are changing the face of village life and provoking powerful resistance.

S0, for many reasons, revolutionaries in the U.S. need to understand the conditions, theories and  history  of Third World revolution. I want to open the discussion here by simply sketching some ongoing controversies and peeling back to show some ways they affect our global political unities and theoretical challenges.

Capitalism or socialism: Two roads in the poorer countries

Jan Makandal gave us one place to start when he wrote in a nearby discussion:

“A theoretical error made by the proponents of the bourgeois revolution stage, they identify two antagonistic modes of productions capitalism, however deformed and dominated it is, and feudalism as two modes of productions existing equally thus the concept of semi. This identification is a mechanical approach of contradictions. In the reality contradictory phenomenon always exist in struggle, even on their relative correspondence, and the objective of these struggle are for dominance and annihilation of the opposite and as materialist we do need to understand all the prevailing tendencies to understand the direction and the path this annihilation is going and mostly qualitatively. For example, most of those feudal landlords are heavily indebted to capitalist. For me even in most of those social formation feudalism is strong but it is stagnant as well and capitalism is deformed, dominated but emerging.

“So inside these social formation I would not deduct that they are semi feudal and semi capitalism but recognize the existence of these two modes of productions and as well recognize capitalism as dominant and making it the dominant elements to deal with into those social formations. Concluding no to bourgeois revolutions, an opportunist and revisionist political line but yes to a revolution under the leaderships of the proletariat.”

Jan is (i believe) critiquing a concept Mao developed– “semifeudal semicolonial” — which Mao used to describe conditions in China in the 1920s and 1930s, and which have since been applied(by Maoists)  to other countries in the Third World. Mao’s initial analysis was an important breakthrough — in ways that will become clear. And it is still a controversial one today — for reasons that Jan makes clear.

I welcome that Jan is broaching these questions… and i want to address some points he raises.

So lets start here: So what does this mean, “semifeudal, semicolonial,” and what kind of a strategic revolutionary road has that been connected with over the last century? And how does it relate to the changing forms of global oppression today?

The description of a single social formation

First, Mao was trying to explain the dynamics of a single social formation (even if a rather horrifically disarticulated one). Of that whole contradictory social formation. It is not as if this is (crudely) capitalism/colonialism in the cities, and feudalism in the countryside, and so (therefore by addition) the country is semifeudal and semicolonial (or one half is feudal while the other half is capitalist, as Jan implies). No. The term semifeudal semicolonial is a description of a dynamic and contradictory whole — where the economic base gives rise to politics and culture that too are semi-feudal semicolonial. The state is semifeudal semicolonial, the army is semifeudal semicolonial — with the specific characteristics that go with that.

For example: The cities of China were not simply capitalist or colonial, Their class character was heavily marked by the influx of desperate peasants from the countryside. I.e. the poor in those cities were not simply proletarians of an urban capitalist formation, but dispossessed and landless peasants driven out of the villages. The city part of the Chinese social formation was marked by its semifeudal semicolonial nature.

Why was China not simply a “colonial feudal country”? (Why the “semi”?) For two reasons: First it was never fully dominated (colonialized) by any single power (the way, say, Angola was by Portugal) — though Japan did try to conquer coastal China outright in the 1930s.

Second the influx of foreign power and capital influenced the whole social formation (including radically changing life of the feudal areas).  China was clearly dominated — there were foreign “enclaves” along its coast in all major cities (most obviously Hong Kong, but also in cities like Shanghai and Canton, etc.) from which European, American and Japanese corporations exploited Chinese labor, invested in railroad infrastructure, influenced politics, imported (cloth, opium, cheap manufactured goods etc.) and generally profiteered from china’s weakness. Meanwhile there was a heavily feudal agriculture that stretched far into central Asia. The capitalist production and colonial trade profoundly affected the developments of the rural areas.

The revolutionary general Zhu De (in the wonderful book “The Great Road“) describes how living in a small rural village, he experienced streams of ruined artisans driven out of the cities by those cheap manufactured goods, turning into bitter penniless rural peddlers, and spreading (among the peasants who listened to their tales of the world) their hatred of the “foreign devils.”

Without going into endless further detail: The concept of “semifeudal, semicolonial” is not (as Jan implies) an idea of “two modes of production existing equally.” And the use of “semi” does not imply some magic dividing society perfectly into equal halves. And if it were to mean that it would be (as Jan says) mechanical. (Jan’s formulation above of  “semi-feudal semi-capitalist“  is his own invention. It tweaks the communist terminology in ways that matches an assumption of “two modes existing equally” — but  no one (as far as I know) uses Jan’s version.)

These are the dynamics that Mao called “semifeudal semicolonial” (in distinction from simply feudal or simply colonial countries). And this nature (with its broken central state power, warlordism, foreign domination of coastal areas, etc.) was part of what made it possible in China for many liberated communist zones to emerge, and be the basis for a remarkable and innovative path to power.

Mao wrote an essay “Why is it that red political power can exist in China?”

“The long-term survival inside a country of one or more small areas under Red political power completely encircled by a White regime is a phenomenon that has never occurred anywhere else in the world. There are special reasons for this unusual phenomenon. It can exist and develop only under certain conditions.

“First, it cannot occur in any imperialist country or in any colony under direct imperialist rule, but can only occur in China which is economically backward, and which is semi-colonial and under indirect imperialist rule. For this unusual phenomenon can occur only in conjunction with another unusual phenomenon, namely, war within the White regime.”

Part of this theory, by Mao, also involved some innovations of class analysis:

  • Mao talked about the comprador capitalists (who are local upper classes who work for foreign corporations in various ways) and
  • the bureaucrat capitalists (rulers of the large government machinery and militaries who use their position to gather their own capital, while facilitating the international exploitation of their people.)
  • And the national bourgeoisie — who were the small and stifled sections of capitalist life in a country like China — who often were made up largely of many many small businesses who nonetheless made up only a small part of Chinese production…  and who were, under some conditions, possible allies against foreign and feudal domination in the first stage of the revolution.

These categories of analysis have been very valuable over the following decades, when corporations penetrated further and further into economic life (corrupting and elevating waves of compradors) and when the third world governments became swollen and dominated by generations of the bureaucrat capitalists (like Chiang, Suharto, and now the post-Deng Chinese state capitalists).

Contrast to other kinds of social formation

To return to the question of semifeudal semicolonial for a second… we can understand the content of this category by seeing it in contrast to other kinds of social formation (also in the mid 1900s).

The moment we are talking about kinds of societies there is an obvious element of generalization that comes into play — and (naturally) all of these societies (and their external relations) have a great deal of particularity. By discussing large general categories we are not trying to dismiss particularities, but ironically help understand them better — and I hope we can also apply a communist method to understand the structure and dynamics of class society work in our current world (where things have changed considerably).

Mao, in several places, contrasts the semifeudal semicolonial formation to “capitalist countries” — which are generally not directly dominated from outside and are less defined by feudalism, have relatively integrated national markets and strong central states that are often bourgeois democratic.

But there is also a contrast to colonial countries and feudal (of that time):

For example, in those colonial countries, the social formation was completely, directly and openlyrun by a foreign colonial power. Mozambique, Algeria, French Indochina, plantation-era Puerto Rico, Angola, British East Africa, British Burma, Belgium Congo, etc.

There are distinctions within that: Some of these colonies had an element of settler state (Algeria, South Africa/Azania) where foreign nationals were imposed on the country and its indigenous people. This “settler state” colonialism also characterized North America, both Canada and U.S., too from the 1600 to the late 1800s — which were precisely colonial settler states, similar to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and  (more recently) Israel.

Unlike South Africa, the U.S. settlers carried out the systematic genocide of Native people — so that over time that systematic murder and removal of Native people eventually produced a class structure similar to Europe in much of the U.S. — with marginalized pockets of Native people often removed from the central arenas of production. Meanwhile, alongside and within that capitalist class society was the national domination of African American people taking castelike forms in the former slave areas, and the many-sided domination and exploitation of Chicano and Mexicano people in the border areas of the Southwest.  (So here too, terminology and analysis is complex, marked by particularities, and the source of important controversies both among communists and within movements like the Occupy general assemblies…. is the U.S. a colonial settler state today?)

Some colonial countries had a feudal agriculture which was sometimes wedded to the world market in commodities (sugar plantations in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Philippines during U.S. colonial domination). Some had more of a tribal village life in rural areas (Belgian Congo). Some had a mixture of plantations and tribal life (East Africa).

Countries we can consider  simply feudal were never actually colonialized (i.e. conquered and then ruled) by Europe powers, the United States or Japan. Ethiopia, Nepal. Thailand and Afghanistan (at various points in their past) seem to be the best examples (i.e. I am talking about the 1800 and early 1900s when the British tried, for example to conquer both Nepal and Afghanistan from their bases in India but failed, or when the Italians in the 1930s tried to extend their domination from Somalia to Ethiopia and failed.)

So the terminology of semicolonial semifeudal initially existed in contrast to the countries that were fully colonized or independent-feudal. With the emergence of the great wave of anti-colonial struggle, the term “semicolonial semifeudal” became part of the great debate within the communist movement, and represented an important part of that struggle over roads. What kind of change was possible or desirable in the Third World? What was the role of the people themselves (including the peasants) in that?

Controversy 1: Neocolonialism or Semifeudal Semicolonial?

This is a sketch of a historic controvery over these matters — in the space between world war 2 and the end of the cold war.

The European powers exhausted themselves in two world wars during the 20th Century and this greatly affected their ability to hold onto their vast colonial empires. Japan tried to exploit the weakness of Europe by seizing its own colonial empire along the western Pacific rim — and ended up broken and occupied itself.

Three things arose from the second world war:

1) A great wave of anti-colonial struggle and revolution (from 1945 to the 1970s), led first and foremost by China (with a quarter of humanity), but affecting almost every corner of the third world. Those powers trying to hold onto direct colonial rule (France in Indochina and Algeria, Britain in Malaysia and India, Japan throughout its WW2 “Greater East Asia Co-propsperity Sphere” etc.) faced intense armed revolutionary struggles among the people.

2) The colonial powers often retreated to a form of nominal independence — handing over the “keys of power” to various puppet governments. This produced a great deal of turmoil and local corruption — while maintaining (in fundamental ways) foreign imperialist domination.

2) The U.S. emerged as a major new world power (a superpower) eating up the British and French empires in the wake of WW2 — and exemplifying this trend of “independence without liberation.” The U.S. pioneered and championed these forms of government (and developed new forms of control, using CIA, “trainers,” advisers, etc. to maintain control). The names Marcos, Diem, Somoza, Duvalier exemplify this.

These changes triggered a number of complex struggles over strategy among communists. And it was reflected in a debate over terminology. And here I am talking about the debate that was part of the great struggle  and split within the international communist movement that broke open in 1963 — and touched on virtually every theoretical and practical issue of the world and the possibility of revolution.

To put it crudely:

Some communist forces argued that many nominally independent states (South Vietnam, India, South Korea, Philippines, Peru, Central American states, Mexico) should be considered semifeudal semicolonial states, and that the struggle against continuing capitalist/imperialist domination should be closely connected to the agrarian revolution of the rural peasantry against the continuing feudal conditions. This view (associated with Maoism) emphasized the importance of relying on the peasantry (and mobilizing them under communist leadership) in protracted revolutionary struggles of the Third World.

By contrast, other lefy forces emphasized the new term “neocolonial” — and saw the newly independent states as relatively divided between those states dominated by imperialism (the neocolonial ones), and those under the control of bourgeois nationalist forces (Sukarno, Nasser, etc.), whose governments were seen as potential progressive (if inherently vacillating by their class nature). In this scenario, there was a special role for the Soviet state to play — in encouraging progressive governments where they emerged  propping them up with aid, trade, advisers. This had many implications: including a tendency to encourage “get rich quick schemes” among third world revolutionaries (colonels’ coups, focoism) in contrast to the protracted work of relying on the internal class forces and developing the basis for an independent revolutionary country (politics, economics etc.) And such debates continue today as some forces exaggerate the strategic importance (and progressive character) of the Iranian theocratic resistance to the U.S., and downplay the role of Iran’s people in forcing radical changes from below.

Again to put it crudely:

“Semifeudal semicolonial” was the analysis of forces who saw the need for a protracted revolutionary process, rooted among the peasants, to develop a genuinely independent new society developing on the socialist-communist road. (the model of Mao’s china was prominent in this thinking.)

“Neocolonial” was a term that conspicuously left out rural conditions. And its use was associated with Guevarists (especially urban Guevarist forces) who imagined themselves shocking the current structure into collapse (the fragile “gorilla” military governments of Latin America for example) by bold exemplary armed actions and sacrifice, and then (slipping into power during the crisis based on their creds if not their actual organization) finding an international sponsor to help them weather the subsequent storms (and U.S. attacks).

Often this view is associated with the idea of bypassing Maoist-style “land to the tiller” agrarian revolution — and “going straight” to state farms that are often expected to (as the plantations they nationalize) produce commodities like sugar, coffee, bananas, for the world capitalist market. (And obviously, the model of Cuba was prominent in this thinking.)

So (for example) in a country like Turkey, the Guevarists emphasized an urban strategy and a nationalist presentation of radical politics, while the Maoists (of the TKPML) were much more focused on leading an armed agrarian revolution in the semifeudal countryside and identifying with the aspirations of the oppressed Kurdish people. There was, in short, less focus on “relying on the people” in the theory of neo-colonialism, and less focus on a protracted building of a basis for a durable and self-reliant new order.

There were other analyses contending of course:

Particularly there were those who (essentially) denied there was much feudalism left in the world, and who did not see the rural labor of the third world as peasants. The world was essentially capitalist to them, the third world were “developing capitalist” countries, the path to power was (as in Russia) a socialist urban-based revolution. This view was associated with Trotskyism, and then later with the Progressive Labor Party in the U.S.

Further: I am simply unfamiliar with how controversies among anarchist revolutionaries played out over these matters. My contact with anarchists (off and on) often revealed a paucity of analysis of how anti-colonial and antifeudal liberation could happen in the third world… but there may be more sophisticated approaches than I encountered.

Controversy 2: New Democracy, the first step of socialist revolution

What are the strategic implications of being a “semi-feudal semicolonial” social formation?

Well it is that in such countries, the opening stages of the socialist-communist revolution takes the form of combining national liberation struggle with agrarian revolution.

Historically, in Europe, it was the bourgeois revolutions that consolidated the modern nation state and unleashed the peasants to attack feudalism in the countryside.  In Marxist terminology, those have been describes as “bourgeois democratic tasks” — i.e. in the emergence of Europe from medieval feudalism, the urban merchant and capitalist classes led a series of struggles to create modern states (and corresponding national markets) like France, Germany, Italy, etc. out of loosely connected feudal monarchies (that had large internal divisions). And these bourgeois classes allied with restless peasants to undermine the feudal lords that stood in their path.

Part of what happened (after 1850) is that the victorious capitalists increasingly stepped away from carrying out these “bourgeois democratic tasks” with the revolutionary fervor of their class’ youth. In the U.S. the capitalist class (fresh from its victory over the slavocracy) first supported the Radical Reconstruction — that established bourgeois democracy and wage labor in the South. But they shied away from agrarian revolution, did not support African American fight for land, supported the maintanence of the plantation system — and (in the betrayal of reconstruction) they withdrew federal troops from the South, and allowed the former slave owners to establish a form of planation feudalism (based on share cropping). The capitalist class of the U.S. had backed away from carrying through the “bourgeois democratic revolution” to a full conclusion.

The close connection between international capitalism (i.e. imperialism) and plantation production meant that in many places in the world imperialism was not politically supporting the destruction of feudalism that capitalism was previously associated with in Europe.

The communist movement of the early 20th century analyzed that in many places around the world “bourgeois democratic tasks” (specifically, the creation of genuinely coherent national markets and independent national states, and the destruction of feudal relations in the countryside) had “fallen” to the proletariat.

How does the communist movement (which often called itself “the proletariat”) lead the “bourgeois democratic tasks” of countries like China and India — and how does it develop such revolutions (national liberation and agrarian revolution) into socialist societies on the road toward communism? In other words, there was a burning question: How can the anti-colonial revolutions be part of the world socialist revolutin and not be confined to the global development of capitalist relations and politics?

Mao’s answer was New Democracy — and what was “new” about this is precisely that the bourgeois democratic revoluti0nary tasks were being carried out a) under “the leadership of the proletariat” and b) as the opening stages of a socialist revolution (which are two ways of saying the same thing).

In other words, I am arguing that Jan is wrong to associate the analysis of “semifeudal semicolonial” with the idea of a bourgeois revolution separate from a socialist revolution. Inside communist parties (historically in China, and obviously currently in Nepal) there were forces who were essentially bourgeois democrats, and whose idea of “the revolution” went not much further than breaking the stranglehold of imperialists and feudals, and creating a rapidly modernizing capitalist state. (Mao called such people, within his own party “bourgeois democrats becoming capitalist roaders” and he fought them his whole life.)

But Mao’s vision of New Democracy was a radically different (and diverging) road from that: It involved mobilizing the antifeudal revolutionary power of the peasants, but conceiving of the victory of the revolution as the opening shot of socialist transformation. The New Democratic state was (in the Maoist conception) a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the emerging post-revolutionary China saw itself (obviously) as part of a world socialist camp, and also as a beacon for anti-imperialist revolution around the world.

In China, the New Democratic revolution did not nationalize the many small “national bourgeois” factories and expanded artisan shops — but they did nationalize traitors and imperialist corporations (and create on that basis an embryonic socialist economy that encompassed, I believe, the great majority of Chinese industrial production from the beginning). New Democracy was not a form of capitalism — it was the beginning of the socialist revolution, and the establishment of a revolutionary state that saw itself as a form of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” (i.e. a form that rested on the alliance of workers and peasants, and had brought other revolutionary classes into an ongoing process).

Because the “bourgeois democratic” tasks had (at a world historic level) fallen to the communist movement (i.e. “the proletariat”), it was both possible and necessary to proceed through two stages toward communism: to lead the antifeudal national liberation struggle, and then (seamlessly and quickly) press on to socialist transformation (including the creation of a socialist industry and international relations).

To return to Jan’s initial statement for a second, he writes:

“A theoretical error made by the proponents of the bourgeois revolution stage, they identify two antagonistic modes of productions capitalism, however deformed and dominated it is, and feudalism as two modes of productions existing equally thus the concept of semi.”

I discussed early the error of viewing semifeudal semicolonial as “two modes of productin existing equally.” But I want to point out that it is wrong to view the Maoist strategy as “proponents of the bourgeois revolution stage.” New Democracy is a view of socialist revolution in two stages, the first of which completes “bourgeois democratic” tasks (in those countries where those tasks are urgent and defining), and it doesn’t produce capitalism but (in Mao’s conception and practice) it produces socialism.

It was one of the contributions of Lenin that he envisioned the emerging world revolutionary process connecting the anti-colonial antifeudal revolutions of the Third World in a great alliance with the (expected) socialist working class revolutions in the developed countries. This did not exactly develop — though that vision was at the core of the work of the Third Communist International. And Mao’s conception of New Democracy emerged as a key theoretical breakthrough in understanding ways the great wave of anticolonial revolution could develop as such an integral part of the world communist revolution.

Controversy 3: Developing Capitalism

Some things did not work out, some did. The working class revolutions of Europe, U.S. and Japan didn’t come (and were defeated in Spain, Germany etc.) And what emerged was a question of uniting the anti-colonial wave (which did emerge) to the various socialist countries (that temporarily made up a “socialist camp” and then split). How to unite these things was at the heart of the debate over neocolonialism (which I discussed above) — and connected directly to the question of “what is socialism,”  what is capitalist restoration, and whether revolution was still desirable and possible in a nuclear world.

There was briefly a socialist camp after World War 2 (from 1945 to its rupture in the late 1950s). But in general, the anticolonial wave receded after the 1970s (with the great victory in Vietnam and the major post-Mao shift of China away from socialist revolution). And with the end of the Cold War (about 1992) a great rift within the world capitalist market closed — with profound affects everywhere.

One of the trends of recent decades is the transformation of many feudal areas into capitalist agriculture. Another is the penetration of capitalist manufacturing into the third world (so instead of producing bananas or raw materials, countries outside the previous imperialist powers are now producing highly manufactured goods, steel, ships, etc.)

These are the changes loosely called “globalization.” And they have profound implications for communist theory:

First, it is hard to casually apply the term “semicolonial semifeudal” to large swathes of the Third World. Quite a few countries there no longer have feudalism — but have clearly capitalist agriculture. And there are parts of larger countries where this seems also true (Kerala and Punjab in India for example). The emergence of huge shantytown mega-cities (Lima is a third of Peru), and then the development of increasingly sophisticated manufacturing there, all suggest changes (especially when compared to the structures of 1930 China that gave rise to the term semifeudal semicolonial).

Countries like South Korea and China now routinely export capital (something indicated by Lenin as one of the characteristics of imperialist countries, not the dominated ones).

Put another way: It may have been wrong for trotskyism to minimize the anti-feudal and anti-colonial aspects of the world socialist revolution — in opposition to the Maoists (and other revolutionaries) in the 1950s and 60s. And it may have been wrong (in the end of the 1900s) to deny the existence and importance of feudalism in the world (as some people essentially did). But in rapid and profound ways, the world has been changing since then (especially since break up of the two superpower blocks) — and an ongoing assessment needs to be made of the expansion of capitalist relations into previously feudal agriculture.

Without jumping to superficial conclusions: These changes mean that the world is not the same as in the 1930s (simply divided between imperialist and colonized countries), or like the 1950s (with socialist countries, imperialist countries and empires in turmoil). And it means that the term “semifeudal semicolonial” (which was once such a dividing line between revolutionary and non-revolutionary politics) doesn’t have the same applicability it once had. Certainly there are still countries whose overall social formations are “semifeudal semicolonial” — and certainly significant stretches of the world characterized by feudalism (Nepal being an example, but hardly the only one).

But there is a sharp controversy over how to adjust the characterization of countries like India — where the society has gone through profound changes, but the terminology and understanding of communists has often lagged.

Capitalism may not be leading “bourgeois democratic” revolutions (and armies of peasants) against feudalism (as it did occasionally in Europe). But the world capitalist order has absorbed many national movements (and all major previously socialist countries). And capitalist production relations have in many previously feudal places aggressively “eaten up” feudal production relations (replacing sharecropping or peonage with wage labor, transforming peasants into rural workers, connecting agricultural commodity production more and more closely with world capitalist markets and circuits (including the use of chemical fertilizers, manufactured pumps, etc. etc.)

There was a theory called “general crisis” popular among communists (around world war 2) that said capitalism was too moribund to transform anything anymore — that it was simply decadent, parasitic and stagnant. And this theory exaggerated what capitalism had “laid down.” In fact, we can see around us that capitalism is both highly energetic and profoundly crisis ridden. It does continue to transform feudalism (contrary to previous “general crisis” theorists), it does continue to institute major innovations of technology and production efficiencies, it does continue to transform the world

This has theoretical and strategic implications.

First, we need a new systematic analysis of modern class society, capitalism, imperialism — including the condition of the billions of rural people and the relations in agricultural production that surround them.

Running on aging (and exhausted) formulations (as if the world is still colonial, or as if there is still and ongoing/permanent anti-colonial wave of storms in the Third World) won’t do. Even the divisions of First, Second and Third world need to be rethought — and even the previous stark division between imperialist countries and third world countries is not so simple or stark (what is Argentina? How is it different from Spain in class formation? What are the class relations of  South Korea and Taiwan — and what is the nature of their local ruling classes?)

Second, it means that successful models from the past (like China’s path to revolution, or even perhaps the October Road of Russia) can’t be simply or directly applied. There is need for major creative thinking (for example) of how to combine the great democratic struggles of the Andean peasants (which has major elements of struggle against both their own oppression as Indians, and the oppression of Peru/Bolivia as countries — see Mariatigui) with uprisings of the vast working class shantytowns of Lima. There are major problems to consider about how to maintain socialist economic life in a world of tightly woven circuits — when being severed (blockaded) is a major tool of the imperialists with deep and immediate consequences (oil? markets? inputs? new technology? participation in the internet? etc.)

Controversy 4: Making protracted peoples war a universal principle?

There are those in the world today who think that “protracted peoples war is universal” — meaning that the methods (which Mao repeatedly said were special to China in the 1930s) should be seen asgenerally applicable today (!) when state power in almost all countries is much stronger than in the 1930s, and when this phenomenon of weak central states and even rural warlord warfare is limited to the very poorest and remote countries (places like the high Andes, Afghanistan, border regions between Thailand and its neighbors, etc.)

Several things are remarkable to me about this assertion of “protracted peoples war is universal” –

First it strikes me as impossible (for many of the reasons Mao discusses). Protracted peoples war (the creation of base areas, the development of ‘red political power” there, the encircling of the city by the countryside) requires a particularly weak central state, large areas of the countryside to maneuver that are ordinarily outside central control, etc.

Second, it is radically different from Mao’s own views connecting protracted peoples war to semifeudal conditions — i.e. capitalist social formations have a far more integrated national market, and so it is much harder to imagine pulling a small geographic area of an imperialist country (say some counties in France, or an urban ghetto) and excluding the police/army, and developing a base area with a functioning economy and parallel political power. It simply cannot be done, and the people cannot be fed, and the central armed forces cannot be excluded. For that reason communists (including Mao) historically held that revolution in more developed and integrated states would need forms of urban insurrection developing to countrywide power in a relatively rapid (i.e. non-protracted) sequence of events. The struggle for power is protracted everywhere, but the conditions for “protracted peoples war” don’t exist in highly developed, integrated national markets with strong central states and armies.

Mao makes this contrast sharply in  Problems of War and Strategy (1938):

“Internally, capitalist countries practise bourgeois democracy (not feudalism) when they are not fascist or not at war; in their external relations, they are not oppressed by, but themselves oppress, other nations. Because of these characteristics, it is the task of the party of the proletariat in the capitalist countries to educate the workers and build up strength through a long period of legal struggle, and thus prepare for the final overthrow of capitalism. In these countries, the question is one of a long legal struggle, of utilizing parliament as a platform, of economic and political strikes, of organizing trade unions and educating the workers. There the form of organization is legal and the form of struggle bloodless (non-military). On the issue of war, the Communist Parties in the capitalist countries oppose the imperialist wars waged by their own countries; if such wars occur, the policy of these Parties is to bring about the defeat of the reactionary governments of their own countries. The one war they want to fight is the civil war for which they are preparing.[1] But this insurrection and war should not be launched until the bourgeoisie becomes really helpless, until the majority of the proletariat are determined to rise in arms and fight, and until the rural masses are giving willing help to the proletariat. And when the time comes to launch such an insurrection and war, the first step will be to seize the cities, and then advance into the countryside, and not the other way about. All this has been done by Communist Parties in capitalist countries, and it has been proved correct by the October Revolution in Russia.

“China is different however. The characteristics of China are that she is not independent and democratic but semi-colonial and semi-feudal, that internally she has no democracy but is under feudal oppression and that in her external relations she has no national independence but is oppressed by imperialism. It follows that we have no parliament to make use of and no legal right to organize the workers to strike. Basically, the task of the Communist Party here is not to go through a long period of legal struggle before launching insurrection and war, and not to seize the big cities first and then occupy the countryside, but the reverse.”

Third, it has a general problem with “exaggerated universality“which (unlike successful communist revolutionaries) greatly underestimates the creative process of identifying distinctive roads to revolution and power. It is, to put it mildly, severed from reality and materialism. And this is manifested in the way this so-called principle of “universal protracted peoples war” is asserted (dogmatically) but never seriously explained (the way Mao carefully explains “why red political power can exist in China”).

One Response to “A sketch of four controversies: Communist strategy in the Third World”

  1. siva said

    It will be useful to take into account the following objective realities:
    Imperialist globalisation has penetrated the rural economy far deeper than under colonialism or the earlier years of neo-colonialism.
    The revolutionary potential of the national bourgeiosie as a class has been virtually depleted and now, if at all any section of the national bourgeiosie is contributiong to the anti-imperialist struggle, it is because of specific conditions obtaining in countries and regions under specific global conditions. (The danger of generalising the ‘socialist experience’ of Venezuela as Socialism of the 20th Century, should be understood in this context. It is an anti-imperialist project but runs the risk of overthrow all the time).
    The national bourgeoisie was never a reliable let alone permanent ally, and motivation for it to be anti-imperialist is far less than in the era of anti-colonial struggles.
    As much as imperialism has shown its ability to coexist with the ‘national bourgoisie’, feudalism too can adopt to the bourgoisie.
    There cannot be a universal revolutionary strategy that can be applied across the globe. Even within countries class formations and class contradictions vary in nature. While being conscious of the untimate goal and the main enemy of the people, the revolution to take off has to pay particular attention to objective conditions under sopecific conditions.
    That is not to say that the revolutionary task can be limited to those specific to an existing condition. (That is what makes possible right opportunism which draws the line at bvourgeois democratic revolution).
    The working class has failed to display its revolutionary character in advanced capitalist countries for too long. That is becoming the pattern in many developing countries, especially where there is a failure on the part of the working class leadership to take a comprehensive view of the local and global situations. But to reject the eventual leadership of the working class will be suicidal.
    Attention has to be paid to contradictions among people which are taken advantage of by the reactionaries. Failure has thus far only helped the reactionaries to the detriment of the oppressed people.
    The national strggle, the struggle against oppression by caste, gender and other identities have much revolutionary potential; but when allowed to develop without reference to class struggle, they eventually serve reaction.
    What is needed desperately is an ability to share experiences with humility and in a spirit of equality and comradeship.
    It is important to reognise that all just struggles supplement each other.
    An attitude of learning from others is far more helpful than on of teaching others what we think is right.
    May suggest that we try to figure out what is apprpriate in each of several different situations across the globe; identify where they share common features and where they seem to be in conflict; seek to resolve the differences in a truly internationalist spirit than impose solutions on others.

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