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Notes on the Revolution / Column #39

Notes on the Revolution

Column #39

December 4, 2019

The taking of power by the people

By Charles McKelvey


  In Monday’s episode of Notes on the Revolution, I maintained that, for persons of the North that seek to understand the world-system, the path to understanding is taking seriously the understandings that emerge from the social movements of the neocolonized, and especially the popular socialist revolutions of China, Vietnam, and Cuba, which have accomplished long-standing projects in defense of the sovereignty of their nations, with significant advances in protecting social and economic rights. 

    In this episode, we focus on the fundamental insights of the Third World socialist revolutions with respect to the taking of political power by the people.  We begin with the issue of the revolutionary subject. 

    Marx, writing during the emergence of the proletarian movement in Western Europe in the 1840s, formulated the concept that the Western proletariat would become a revolutionary class that would act politically to establish a socialist society.  Although many in the North, since the time of Marx, have applied literally the concept of a working-class vanguard to social contexts different from that of Marx, when we observe the Third World socialist revolutions, we see that revolutionary leaders creatively adapted the concept to the particular social and economic situations of their nations.  This process of adaptation began with Lenin.  Observing the revolutionary action of the peasantry, Lenin reformulated Marx, with the concept of a revolution forged by workers and peasants, led by workers.  Similarly, in China, Mao formulated a concept of a revolutionary peasantry in opposition to the Chinese landholding class, a relatively weak Chinese bourgeoisie, and foreign capitalist penetration of China, that were led in practice by Chinese intellectuals.

  In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the concept of a vanguard composed of “workers,” but Ho had a dynamic concept of workers.  In his view, during the transition to socialism, peasants will be transformed into agricultural workers; and intellectuals will learn to complement their intellectual work with manual labor.  Thus, peasants and intellectuals are workers in formation, and as such, they could be integrated into the vanguard, if they possessed advanced political consciousness.  The Workers’ Party of Vietnam, the vanguard political party, was composed of intellectuals, peasants, and workers, with intellectuals being in the majority, but with peasants and workers also playing a significant role.  Such subtle reformulations constituted an adaptation of Marxist-Leninist concepts to the colonial situation of Vietnam.

    Fidel had been profoundly influenced by Marx’s insight into the importance of class divisions in human societies and by the concept that humans act in accordance with their class interests.  But he freely adapted Marx to the neocolonial situation of Cuba, and his 1953 call to revolution did not give emphasis to the working class.  He called the people to revolution, and the people consisted, in his words, of the unemployed; of agricultural workers who work only four months of the year and who live in miserable shacks; of industrial workers without adequate salary, pension, or housing; of tenant farmers, working on land that is not theirs; of teachers and professors who are poorly paid; of small businessmen who are weighed down by debt and plagued by graft imposed by corrupt public officials; and of young professionals in health, education, engineering, law, and journalism, who find that their recently attained degrees do not enable them to find work.

    As the concept of a working-class vanguard was reformulated in Third World revolutionary practice, the notion of a vanguard that leads the people was given more emphasis.  This too began with Lenin.  On the basis of revolutionary practice in Russia, Lenin arrived to the understanding that it is necessary to form a vanguard political party that leads the people in the taking of political power.  He maintained that a vanguard political party, characterized by democratic centralization and discipline, is necessary for protecting the masses from the centralized and amoral power of the bourgeoisie.  For his part, Ho Chi Minh sought to form a vanguard that consisted of the most politically conscious intellectuals, peasants and workers, in order to educate the people in the correct path.  Similarly, Fidel worked for decades to create a politically mature vanguard, that was formed from the people, consisting of those among the people who were the most committed.  The teaching of the revolutionary leaders is that a vanguard must be formed to organize and educate the people in order to lead them to the taking of power, and to guide the revolutionary process after the taking of power.

    The revolutionary leaders also demonstrated that the road to political power involves the clear identification of the decisive steps that will be taken when the revolution comes to power.  For Lenin, these steps were the distribution of land to peasants, the withdrawal of Russia from the First World War, and the replacement of parliamentary power with the power of the soviets or popular councils that were being formed by workers, peasants, and soldiers.  The issues of war and land also were central to the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions.  Mao and Ho led para-military units that distributed land to peasants as they advanced against the Japanese military occupation.  Fidel in 1953 announced a program that included the ceding of land to tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and squatters; the granting of the right of tenant farmers to a percentage of sugar profits; profit sharing for workers and employees in commercial, industrial, and commercial enterprises; the nationalization of (US-owned) electric and telephone companies; and the confiscation of property that was fraudulently obtained through government corruption.  These proposals were central to the gaining of popular support by the revolutionary parties in the four nations.

    In these four cases, we see a politically intelligent identification of the issues that are important to the people, based on an understanding of the needs of the people.  And the promises made were credible in the eyes of the people, because of the demonstrated self-sacrificing commitment of the revolutionary leaders, who possessed the moral authority to make promises to the people with credibility.

    In the socialist revolutions in China, Vietnam, and Cuba, we see the emergence of revolutionary leaders who studied and appreciated the writings and political practice of Marx and Lenin, and who forged a creative intellectual synthesis of Marxism-Leninism with nationalist traditions in their own nations.  Mao and Ho began their revolutionary careers by participation in nationalist movements that were influenced by Western democratic ideals, and Fidel was formed in the thinking of the Cuban revolutionary José Martí.  Influenced by these nationalist traditions, who basic tenets they never abandoned, the three great socialist revolutionaries of the twentieth century intelligently adapted Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of their particular nations.

    We are able to observe, then, common elements in the taking of political power by the people in three Third World socialist revolutions, all of which involved a conscious strategy to take control of the state, with the intention of creating revolutionary governments that would defend the sovereignty of the nation and promote its economic and social development, thus responding to the social and economic needs of the people.  All three revolutionary processes were led by exceptional leaders who made credible and politically intelligent promises to the people and who formed vanguard political parties that were dedicated to the organization and education of the people.

      The important lesson of these revolutions is their politically intelligent strategies.  In all three cases, the guerrilla war was an effective strategy for the taking of political power in the name of the people, given particular conditions.  But an armed struggle in one form or another would not be politically intelligent in most nations today.  It is a question of formulating a politically intelligent strategy for the taking of political power.

    Once the three socialist revolutions took political power, they demonstrated that the state can act decisively in defense of the nation and the people, thus pointing the way toward a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system.  We will look at the socialist revolutions in political power in our next episode.

    This is Charles McKelvey, reflecting on the unfolding global popular socialist revolution forged by our peoples in defense of humanity.

Edited by Ed Newman
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