Every communist in the world shares three objectives:
- Overthrow the ruling class that presides over the current system of social relations;
- Defend ourselves against the counterrevolutionaries who wish to destroy us and restore their power;
- Transform social relations such that a new system free from exploitation and oppression can be created.
There is a fourth objective which is not shared by every communist in the world: economic development. Communists in countries that lack adequate food, housing, healthcare, transportation, education, and technology are confronted with the urgent need to develop the means and forces of production in the territories that they seek to control. Communists in countries with advanced industrial economies can afford to concern ourselves more with transformation than with construction.
Revolutionaries in several places and times have successfully overthrown their ruling classes without organizing themselves into a party. The Communards seized control of the French capital in 1871, the anarchists liberated much of Spain in 1936, the 26th of July Movement deposed the Batista regime in 1959, and Portuguese revolutionaries overthrew their military rulers in 1974-1976.
The use of the Party-Form does not guarantee the successful overthrow of a ruling class. The revolution waged by the Communist Party of Germany was defeated in 1919, the revolution waged by the Communist Party of Greece was defeated in 1949, and the revolution waged by the Communist Party of Peru — Shining Path was defeated in 1992.
The communists who adopted the Party-Form in the US, UK, France, Italy, Canada, Australia, and Japan never launched revolutions.
The use of the Party-Form also does not guarantee successful self-defense against the enemies of a revolution-in-progress. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and the Communist Party of Indonesia were defeated by reactionary forces.
But revolutionaries who used the Party-Form to defend their successful uprisings have a better track record of repelling their enemies than revolutionaries who used other organizational forms. Empowered parties in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Laos were able to fend off their potent domestic and foreign political enemies for decades, although their universal depoliticization and the Soviet Union’s total collapse complicate the picture. The Paris Commune lasted just 72 days. The Cuban revolutionary leaders led by Fidel Castro embraced Marxism-Leninism after two years and organized themselves into a Communist Party four years later; the Communist Party governs Cuba to this day. The Spanish anarchists were overpowered by the Communist Party of Spain after 10 months, although the Party-Form did not save those Spanish Communists from defeat at the hands of Francisco Franco’s counterrevolutionaries.
In countries lacking a capitalist class capable of building systems of production and circulation sufficient to meet the needs of the masses, communist parties have demonstrated an incredible ability to improve living conditions through the construction of strong modern nation-states. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union developed a backwards agrarian region into a formidable industrial society. In the decades following the Chinese Revolution of 1949, life expectancy in China rose from less than 40 years to over 65 years — one of the most rapid and significant increases in human history. The Communist Party of China has turned its country from one of the poorest in the world into a global economic superpower capable of undermining America’s hegemony.
Develop or Transform?
The Party-Form’s successes in toppling ruling classes, holding onto political power, and building impressive national economies have not been accompanied by the successful creation of societies marked by the absence of alienated wage-labor, the division of labor, constitutive class distinctions/antagonisms, the logic of endless accumulation, and the persistence of the value-form. Is there something about the Party-Form which prevents revolutionaries from advancing towards communism, or can the failures of revolutionaries to transform social relations in countries like China, the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam be explained entirely by factors like economic underdevelopment, imperialist interference, or the potential impossibility of communist social relations in one country? Does the Party-Form deserve any blame for the indefinitely-postponed arrival of the “higher phase of communism” promised by the empowered Leninist revolutionaries of the 20th century?
I believe that the Chinese Cultural Revolution — an attempt to advance towards a communist society after 16 years of effective socialist developmentalism — offers important insights into this question. In August 1966, Mao Zedong called on the Chinese masses to “bombard the headquarters” of the Communist Party of China (CPC), advising them that “it is right to rebel against reactionaries.” But in August-September 1967, Mao issued directives to curb ultra-left “excesses” and crack down on “bad elements,” “traitors,” and “spies,” and the People’s Liberation Army implemented the orders from Beijing by viciously crushing radical worker organizations and student groups throughout the country. Between 1968 and 1971, rank-and-file efforts to “resolutely carry the Cultural Revolution through to the end” and establish a “People’s Commune of China” were thoroughly suppressed by Mao’s campaign to “cleanse the class ranks.”
Chen Boda, the Chairman of the Cultural Revolution Group, reminded the mobilized Chinese workers that “it is a serious matter to disobey Party instructions” and haughtily warned the trouble-making rebels not to “wreck the social order and the process of production” — Maoist politicians like Chen concluded that “as workers, their main job is to work,” not to transform social relations, and “they must therefore go back to work.”
When Mao was forced to choose between the destabilizing masses he had inspired and the stabilizing state bureaucracy he helmed, the Chairman of the Communist Party decided to violently restore the status quo instead of encouraging the “ultra-leftists” who sought to transcend the CPC’s system of Party-State power and industrial modernization. The horrific bloodshed of the Cultural Revolution is typically perceived as a consequence of the chaos and factionalism unleashed by the Red Guards and other rebel groups, but the vast majority of the Cultural Revolution’s casualties were the result of military campaigns to reimpose order through brute force.
The instigators of the Cultural Revolution reversed course — siding with national developmentalism over international communism — because the Party leaders decided that the time was not yet right for the dissolution of the Party-State and its system of socialist accumulation. But won’t the political leaders, comfortable bureaucrats, and high-ranking military officials of the Party-State always decide that it’s too soon for their power to wither away, and that all arguments to the contrary are “ultra-democracy” or “anarchism”? In what situation would a post-revolutionary Communist Party conclude that its best course of action is self-abolition, gracefully handing its power over to the autonomous mass organizations which strive to replace it? I don’t dispute the necessity of a Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but I do dispute that a ruling party would ever allow the masses to decide that the revolutionary state no longer required the party’s services.
In January 1967 and again in January 1968, Mao’s Central Group for the Cultural Revolution was presented with two options: rebuild their mechanical Party-Form or embrace the radical collective-governance models offered by the Shanghai People’s Commune and the Shengwulian movement in Hunan province. Mao and his leftist inner circle picked the conservative option both times. To explain his rejection of the Shanghai Commune, Mao argued: “If everything were changed into communes, then what about the party? Where would we place the party? There must be a party somehow! There must be a nucleus, no matter what we call it. Be it called the Communist Party, or Social Democratic Party, or Guomindang, or Yiguandao [a Chinese religious sect], there must be a party. The commune must have a party… It would be better to observe the old method.” Chinese proponents of the Commune-Form like the Bei-jue-yang group in Hubei province argued that their model was a better fit for a Dictatorship of the Proletariat than the Party-Form was, but Mao replied that “communes are too weak when it comes to suppressing counterrevolution.” Unfortunately, the Chinese counterrevolution emerged from within the party that suppressed the communes. The consequences of Mao’s reinforcement of the Party-State were the mass killings of his disruptive followers, the beginning of political and economic collaboration between the Communist Party and the American Empire, and the Dengist turn towards partially-privatized state-capitalism. The victory of the CPC at the end of the Chinese Civil War had been a tremendous advance for the communist cause, but the triumph of the Party at the end of the Cultural Revolution was a catastrophe for communist politics.
CPC Vice Chairman Lin Biao (accurately) predicted in October 1966 that the failure of the Cultural Revolution would lead to “the rule of revisionism” and “the restoration of capitalism,” a situation in which “the imperialists and reactionaries would again ride roughshod over the people.” Lin believed the key to avoiding that defeat was for Communist Party leaders to “regard ourselves as a part of the strength of the revolution and at the same time constantly make ourselves a target of revolution. We should revolutionize ourselves in the revolution.” Lin called on his fellow Party officials to “let the masses educate and emancipate themselves… daring to trust the masses, daring to rely on them, and daring to rouse them boldly.” History revealed that he was asking too much of his Party.
I claim that the Cultural Revolution critically undermined the Maoist tenet that the contradiction between the Party-State and the revolutionary masses is essentially non-antagonistic. From 1966 to 1968, millions of Chinese people decided that they were ready to fight to progress beyond the bureaucratic-productivist status quo, but the CPC decided that the masses had gotten ahead of themselves and needed to be put back in their place. Mao’s disastrous betrayal indicates to me that the Communist Party will sacrifice communist transformation in order to reproduce its own institutional power.
Mao himself said it best: “the form of revolutionary organization is determined by the requirements of revolutionary struggle. If an organizational form does not meet the requirements of a revolutionary struggle, it must be abandoned.”
In light of my skepticism about the long-term communist potentials of the Party-Form, am I logically required to call on Maoist parties in countries like India, Turkey, and the Philippines to radically revise the structure of their movements? No, for two reasons:
- That would be laughably arrogant;
- The struggle for national liberation and the improvement of living conditions in countries subjugated by imperialism and colonialism are inherently worthwhile even if they do not lead to communism.
I think the examples and arguments I have presented in this essay are sufficiently compelling to cast reasonable doubt on the feasibility of using the Party-Form to create a communist society, but at the end of the day I’m just some guy living in the United States. I wrote this piece because I see value in drawing attention to the shortcomings of the international communist movement’s traditional organizational form, but I have much less credibility and much less at stake than a Filipino or Indian communist waging a People’s War against their oppressive regimes and the imperial powers their governments serve. There are obvious problems that come with using “standpoint epistemology” as the condition for the validity of an argument or perspective — “lived experience” does not grant immaculate insight — but the fact remains that I derive direct benefits from living in the imperial core and I have never personally engaged in a revolutionary war. It’s easy for me to attempt to shift the emphasis of the Party-Form debate towards communist transformation — implicitly shifting the emphasis away from the seizure of power and the development of the means and forces of production — in my current position as a powerless communist in a wealthy country, but would I pay this much attention to the “end goal” of communism if I lived in a poor country targeted by imperial violence? Probably not.
Even if my position on the Party-Form is correct, it isn’t clear what Maoists in peripheral countries could do with this information in the immediate future. Engels denied that communist transformation could “take place in one country alone,” while Lenin pointed out the absurdity of expecting “everybody to stand still in expectation,” “waiting until the working classes bring about a revolution on an international scale.” If there’s reason to doubt that any single nation-state within the capitalist world-economy could achieve communist transformation, and particularly strong reason to doubt the possibility of achieving this transformation in an underdeveloped/subjugated country, then the Party-Form’s position as an obstacle to the achievement of communist transformation won’t be a relevant issue for revolutionaries in countries like Myanmar and Afghanistan until the global political situation has been drastically altered. The exception that proves the rule is Nepal — several Nepalese Maoist party leaders betrayed their revolution and capitulated to imperialism upon successfully gaining state power in the 21st century, but the potential for communist transformation in one barely-developed country wedged between post-socialist China and ultra-reactionary India was not high.
As such, I propose that my fellow Party-Form Skeptics in the imperial core get to work applying these ideas to our own political practice in our own situations. Rather than using a critique of the Party-Form to castigate communist militants living in the periphery — who have much stronger résumés than communists in the imperial core — we should focus on building a new type of Dictatorship of the Proletariat for the purpose of creating communist societies in the regions that we live in. We can start offering suggestions to the anti-imperialists fighting to establish “New Democratic” systems once we have significant assistance to provide and achievements to point to. Besides, what’s the use in volunteering solutions for a problem that can’t be solved under present conditions? The question of the Party-Form’s ability to deliver communism will only become urgent once communists throughout the world transform abstract speculation into concrete possibility.
This analysis suggests some cause for optimism — a communist movement that successfully takes power in the imperial core would still need to defend itself against intimidating enemies, but the lack of a pressing need for economic development would remove an obstacle which has served as a political stumbling block for every previous communist-led revolution. Even so, the logic of national developmentalism is not the only endogenous impediment to the creation of an entirely-new mode of production/social formation. If we want to achieve the communist transformation of our societies, the disasters of 20th century Leninist projects instruct us to look beyond the saturated Party-Form. In our search for more effective methods, we should devote serious thought to the renovation of the Commune-Form, which has appeared in contradictory and inadequate but infinitely-promising manifestations in Paris, St. Petersburg, Barcelona, Shanghai, Chiapas, and Caracas. This formal revision is a necessary advancement in the struggle for 21st century communism.