Revolution #166, May 31, 2009

Revolution Talks with Raymond Lotta

Socialist Revolution in the 20th Century—Controversies and Lessons, Part One

Raymond Lotta is a Maoist political economist. He is author of America in Decline and editor of And Mao Makes Five and Maoist Economics and the Revolutionary Road to Communism. Since 2005, he has been speaking on college campuses and in the media as part of the Set the Record Straight Project, which is taking on the distortions and misrepresentations about the first wave of socialist revolutions in the 20th century. In December 2008, he helped organize a major symposium "Rediscovering China's Cultural Revolution" held in New York City. Raymond Lotta is a contributing writer for Revolution newspaper; recent articles and interviews have also appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly (India), (Canada), and Agence France-Presse.

Question: Raymond, there's a lot to get into, and I thought a good place to start might be with something that's been very central to your speaking and writing: how socialism really is different and better than capitalism. Here we are in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and it's worsening over the entire planet.

Raymond Lotta: It's an appropriate place to begin. Because we are talking about two systems: the capitalist mode of production and the state power that backs it up, and the socialist mode of production and the state power that backs it up. But only one system exists in the world today, and that's capitalism.

In its "normal" workings, capitalism rests on the exploitation of the many by the few, the domination of the entire planet by imperialism, and the subordination of all human activity to the imperatives of profit. It has organized vast and interconnected networks of production that turn human beings into mere instruments for the expansion of capital. In its "normal" workings, 25,000 children of the oppressed nations of the Third World die each and every day of preventable disease and malnutrition.

And when world capitalism lunges into crisis, the misery multiplies and the madness is magnified. We're talking about a situation now where the number of the world's hungry will, for the first time, exceed one billion; a situation in which vast swaths of humanity are rapidly losing livelihoods and shelter; in which ecological stresses are intensifying; and in which an already fragile social fabric in much of the Third World is tearing, so that basic needs like health are even more difficult to cope with, not to mention health crises and epidemics. A country like Zambia, which the IMF [International Monetary Fund] steered towards finding a "niche" in the world economy riding the raw materials boom, is now virtually flat on its back.

Too often people assume this is just the way things are, or that the best we can do is to try to adjust this framework and win some reforms and improvements. But for a good part of the 20th century, there were chunks of this planet where capitalism had been overthrown, where people not only did not have to go through this kind of misery … but where something radically new and liberating was being created.

Question: But, as you said, today there are no socialist countries. There are people, including people who consider themselves revolutionaries, who say that it is not at all clear that socialism as it was practiced in the 20th century actually worked. In particular, there is controversy over how the leadership of these revolutions went at the problems of confronting imperialism and whether they actually found the means to develop the requisite support and following in these societies.

Raymond Lotta: These are crucial questions. As the Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, points out, the first stage of the communist revolution has ended.

That stage began with the Paris Commune in 1871. Workers in Paris drove out the capitalist power, and set up a new state, if in a very embryonic form. But they failed to consolidate this power, and they were crushed after 80 days. Then things took a leap with the Russian Revolution of 1917. That revolution not only seized power, but established a proletarian state and went on to build the first socialist society and economy. But proletarian rule was overthrown in the Soviet Union in 1956, and capitalism was restored there.

But this first stage then went even further with the Chinese revolution and took a new leap with the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and was a successful attempt to not only defeat capitalist restoration but bring forward new things that were unprecedented even for socialism. This was the high water mark of the first stage. But finally the Cultural Revolution itself was defeated in 1976. Today, we have to go forward on the basis of correctly synthesizing the lessons of the first wave of socialist revolution.

Question: There's quite a bit to discuss. Let's start with what lessons should and should not be drawn from the experience of the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution.

Raymond Lotta: One lesson that can't be lost sight of was just how epochal were the changes ushered in by these revolutions. These societies were breakthroughs in liberation. This is what the conventional wisdom blots out and rewrites as "failure" and "utopian tyranny." But the truth remains: these were the most emancipating episodes in human history—precisely because these were new economic and social systems.

Conceptually and practically this involved a breakthrough of inestimable importance: the need for and establishment of a new type of state power and the institutionalized leadership of a vanguard communist party.

Vanguard Leadership—Essential in Socialist Society

Question: But this is a highly controversial point, whether a vanguard party that institutionalizes its leadership in socialist society and the kind of state system that the October and Chinese revolutions established … whether these forms were actually necessary. In fact, many people—even some people calling themselves communists—say that the party's leading role should NOT be institutionalized.

Raymond Lotta: If you want to reform capitalism, if your goal is to try to rearrange the deck of the existing order ... well, none of that is needed. Just participate in elections, or become radical opposition ... in permanent opposition. But if you want what Marx called "total revolution," and to truly transform society, then historical experience has shown these instrumentalities are essential.

The Soviet revolution was the initial breakthrough. I can't overestimate the importance and impact, and the continuing importance and impact, of that revolution. It opened a whole new world of possibility. The first two measures of the revolution were stunning. One ended Russia's involvement in World War 1. The other decree empowered peasants to seize the vast landholdings of the tsarist crown, gentry, and church. Together these signaled the beginning of titanic social change: the masses' day had come. There was a new state power.

Lenin teaches us something very basic and fundamental, though too often lost in current discourse: "the state is nothing but a machine for the suppression of one class by another." The bourgeois state is an instrument of class domination—the bourgeois-capitalist class over the rest of society. The Soviet state, like all states, was a dictatorship of one class, the proletariat led by its vanguard… it was a class dictatorship over another class, the former exploiters and counterrevolutionaries. You needed state power—the ability to suppress the exploiters—in order to carry through those measures.

But this was also a different kind of state, because it was leading the struggle to get to communism—and that means overcoming the division of society into classes and the conditions that require that one social group in society dominate another through the instrumentality of a state. In other words you are working to ultimately abolish the state. And it is a different kind of state, because it is empowering the great majority to rule. But it is a state: one class dominates another… in this case the proletariat is suppressing the old and new exploiters.

The imperialists certainly recognized that this revolution stood for something utterly different to their system of exploitation and privilege. Never for a moment did they let up in trying to strangle it and counter its influence and inspiration.

Question: This raises an important question. How did these revolutions, we're talking more specifically right now about the Russian Revolution ... how did they view this problem that world imperialism would seek to crush them?

Raymond Lotta: To begin, there is an ideological orientation. The fact is, there is a "price" of fighting for emancipation. So how do you look at that?

Just a few short months after the Bolsheviks came to power, reactionary forces representing the old order launched a counterrevolutionary assault against the regime. Britain, France, the United States, Japan, and other powers intervened with troops and military assistance in support of these reactionary forces. They wanted to destroy proletarian revolution in its infancy. This was the Civil War of 1918-21.

The role of the vanguard and the new state power were pivotal in reorganizing society and mobilizing forces to fight this civil war. The party took responsibility to coordinate military activity. It led in developing economic policies to meet social needs and to hold society together. It led in creating new social institutions. Through the instrumentality of the state and the revolutionary press and other means of communication, the party spread Marxism and the socialist vision of a new economy, new political institutions, and new values. It ignited a whole new emancipatory "discourse," if you want to use that word, in society—and this was a very powerful and positive mood-creating factor. Things were very dire during the Civil War, but there was exuberance as well.

What I am saying is that the new society was facing this international assault—and the economy was literally on the verge of collapse at times—but there is a profound lesson here. Communist leadership held strong. And it set out to solidify, expand, and mobilize a base among those who wanted to hold on to liberation with everything they had. I am talking about sections of workers, peasants, intellectuals, youth, and middle-class professionals. On other hand, there were tremendous pressures to capitulate coming from both within and outside the party. But the Civil War was won in 1921.

The Bolshevik leadership was aware that it would be difficult to hold out—and they expected the new Soviet state to be joined by other socialist states fairly soon. Lenin established the Communist International in 1919, recognizing the special responsibility of the first socialist state to promote revolution. But revolution did not spread as quickly as they had counted on.

In this setting, the new proletarian state had to make some compromises in foreign relations—after it became apparent that they would be fighting for survival in difficult conditions. I mean the world's first oil embargo was imposed on the Soviet Union. Then, after Lenin's death in 1924, there was intense struggle in the Bolshevik leadership as to whether it would be even possible to construct socialism.

But the Soviet revolution under Lenin and then Stalin did not cave in. It stood up to imperialism. It pressed forward with revolutionary transformation. If the communist leadership had not been firm in the face of imperialism and had it not led the masses to keep a firm grip on state power, it would not have been possible to stand up to imperialist attacks, pressure and sabotage, and imperialist support for counter-revolution.

Yes, this involved tremendous sacrifice and struggle. But it did not mean that everything would be lost. The point was to fight through—analyzing and transforming necessity, forging new freedom, and doing this by relying on the masses, and continuing to support the advance of the world revolution. Mistakes, and even big ones, were made. But, as I said, something new and liberating was being created.

Proletarian State Power and Historic Breakthroughs

Question: Maybe you could give some more concrete examples of the kind of breakthroughs that were made.

Raymond Lotta: The new proletarian state created the world's first multinational state based on equality of nationalities. During the Civil War, these policies were popularized and began to be implemented in some of the more remote and less developed regions of the old Russian empire—and brought new forces forward in defense of the revolution, and in taking up revolutionary transformation. The former "prisonhouse of nations" was now an example to the world's oppressed for how to combat national oppression.

The Bolshevik Revolution moved decisively to take up the liberation of women. The Soviet Union was the first European state to legalize abortion. It abolished the whole church-sanctioned system of marriage that codified male authority over women and made divorce easy to obtain.

In the mid- and late 1920s, the socialist state mobilized masses to challenge oppressive, patriarchal customs bound up with Sharia codes—that is, Islamic religious law—in some of the Central Asian regions. The state budget allocated funds for the creation of local organizations of women to combat bridal price and arranged marriages. Communists went to these areas, and local activists were brought forward. A major offensive was launched against the forced veiling of women. Women (and enlightened men) were receiving the backing of the proletarian state.

The Soviet state under Stalin in 1928-29 moved to create a new kind of economy. For the first time in modern history, social production was being carried out consciously according to a plan, shaped by social aims and goals and coordinated as a whole. This was an amazing breakthrough. In this one piece of liberated territory, a new proletarian movement had come to power and was now, under the leadership of the Communist Party, going to plan an economy to serve the people. While the world lunged into Depression in the early 1930s, in the Soviet Union, people had gained unheard-of freedom. The slogan of the first five-year plan captured this: "we are building a new world."

Again, none of this would have been possible without the leadership of the Party, not just holding firm and decisive in the face of imperialism, but mobilizing the most oppressed sections of the people as the backbone base of the new power.

And the same is true of the Chinese revolution. There was the Long March of the communist-led forces, which laid the foundations for the protracted people's war. There was the grueling war of resistance against Japanese imperialism. And then there was the civil war against the reactionary forces of the Kuomintang backed by the U.S. The Chinese Communist Party had been leading this heroic and complicated struggle—working out correct policies for alliance, developing base-level popular organization among the masses, solving problems of military strategy. And masses of people had endured tremendous sacrifices under this leadership, to win liberation.

In 1949, the struggle culminated in victory. Imagine if the party had told the masses, "okay, we led you this far ... but you're on your own now." No way! The challenges were even greater. The task was to build a new society, and the Maoist leadership was giving leadership and leading struggle to build that new socialist society. The imperialists did not give any quarter: not long after the revolution triumphed, the Korean War broke out, and U.S. troops were moving up the Korean peninsula towards revolutionary China.


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