Nikolai Bukharin kicks off the party congress with a very long speech.
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Chang Kuo-t’ao [Zhang Guotao], The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party (2 volumes)
E. H. Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy, vol. 3
Nikolai Bukharin, “On the International Situation and the Tasks of the Chinese Communist Party”
Nicholas Kozlov and Eric Weitz, “Reflections on the Origins of the ‘Third Period’: Bukharin, the Comintern, and the Political Economy of Weimar Germany”
Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw
Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression
Some names from this episode:
Nikolai Bukharin, general secretary of the executive committee of the Comintern
Zhang Guotao, Leading Communist
Qu Qiubai, Top leader of the Chinese Communist Party from the August 7, 1927 emergency meeting until the 6th Party Congress
Eugen Varga, Hungarian communist economist
Welcome to episode 102 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode we talked about some of the events and issues leading up to the 6th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, so now let’s jump into talking about the Congress itself.
Just as a refresher, the dates for the Congress were June 18 to July 11, 1928, and it was being held on the outskirts of Moscow.
The first two sessions of the Congress were taken up with a report that was delivered by the general secretary of the executive committee of the Comintern, Nikolai Bukharin. The report was titled “On the International Situation and the Tasks of the Chinese Communist Party.” Now, before we dive into the content of this report, just a couple of words about this. First, it is highly significant that the first speaker, and the one delivering the main report that kicked off the Congress, was from the Comintern executive committee and not from the Chinese Communist Party. This very clearly expressed the dynamic that was at play in the Congress overall, which was that of the elder brother Comintern/Communist Party of the Soviet Union telling the younger brother Chinese Communist Party what the situation was and what the Chinese party needed to do. And also, that, so far, in the Comintern’s eyes the Chinese Communists had kind of not been doing a very good job, or maybe they wouldn’t be in this situation of overt tutelage.
Zhang Guotao relates the prevailing attitude in the Chinese Communist Party toward the Comintern at this time in the following passage from his memoir:
“the leaders of the young CCP lacked experience, so obeying instructions of the Comintern was the proper obligation of these subordinates toward their superiors. We believed in the Comintern, acknowledging the fact that the old revolutionaries of the Comintern were more worldly-wise than we were. Whenever our views differed with the directives of the Comintern, we invariably regarded ourselves as a group of pupils who dared not show any confidence in their own judgment. Consequently, we sacrificed our own convictions in order to accommodate the Comintern directives. We even looked upon any instruction given by the Comintern representative as Holy Writ which had to be followed blindly. In brief, the situation had reached the level of superstitious faith in the Comintern—which was a sad fact.”
Now, on some level, there is going to be an ongoing elder brother/younger brother or teacher and student dynamic between the Soviet and Chinese communist parties up until the Sino-Soviet split, which takes place during the late 1950s and early 1960s. But the level of subordination of the Chinese communists to Moscow is going to go through some ups and downs in that timeframe, with a major change happening after Mao Zedong asserts a large degree of independence in the wake of the defeats that lead to the Long March in 1934. But even then, once Mao is the top leader, there will certainly be some level of deference to Moscow and certainly to the lessons to be learned from the Soviet experience, at least until the late 1950s. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves here.
So, aside from the significance of how it was Bukharin delivering this opening talk, this main political report, to the 6th Congress, rather than Qu Qiubai or one of the other major Chinese leaders, the other thing aside from the actual content of the talk that I want to draw attention to is the length of the talk. As I mentioned, this talk lasted for the first two sessions of the Congress. And we’re not just talking about sitting for an hour, taking a pee-break, and coming back for another hour.
A lot of people who don’t study the concrete experience of Communist organizations are not necessarily aware that there is a major practice, pretty much across the whole history of international communism since 1917 and around the world, of party congresses opening with what can only be described as very long speeches. We’re talking about multi-session, multi-day affairs in some cases.
Now, I can’t say exactly how long this speech of Bukharin’s took. But we can make an educated guess. In 1970, the academic journal Chinese Studies in History printed an English translation of the speech. It took up one entire issue of the journal, and part of the following issue, because it was too long to print in one issue. It was 89 pages total. And keep in mind this speech would have been delivered in Russian, with periodic pauses for translation into Mandarin. This took a long time to deliver.
And like I said, this was not abnormal in terms of the practice of the International Communist Movement. And I have to say that, as someone who has, like probably most people who teach, attended workshops where we are taught that any lecture over 20 minutes sees massive drop-offs in audience attention, and also endured many lectures about how bad lecturing is supposed to be compared to other ways in which people can absorb knowledge and make it their own, I just find the whole “I say it and you absorb it, and we don’t get to do this often and it’s really important, so this is going to take a couple of days for me to tell you this” way of thinking about delivering knowledge about political line and strategy and tactics from a leadership figure to a room full of high and middle level cadres, to be just a mindboggling thing. Of course, a room full of professional revolutionaries hearing summations of prior practice and guidance about revolutionary strategy and the current world situation is a very different audience than the audience that college professors have to work with. One assumes that the audience at Bukharin’s talk was a lot more rapt than the audience in one of my typical 100-level world history survey classes with a bunch of freshmen who just woke up and are stoked to finally be out of their parents’ houses. But even so, there is something about very long lectures that I can’t help feeling indicates an incorrect assumption about how knowledge can be transferred from a teacher to students, or from a high-level leader to lower-level leaders. And, given the ongoing frustration that higher level party bodies usually seem to have with lower-level party bodies’ grasp of the party line (much less their ability to apply the party line) throughout the history of international communism, really just about everywhere in the world, across at least the past century of world history, I think I’m probably on to something.
Now, over the years I’ve interviewed people who have sat through any number of these sorts of speeches, from a number of different parties around the world and whose experience spans the second half of the 20th century and even into this century, and I’m always amazed that they treat this sort of thing as just how it is done. I don’t think I could sit through it myself. And to be clear, we are talking about uninterrupted speech here, not something with questioning and discussion coming from the audience.
OK, so, with that said, let’s dig into the actual content of Bukharin’s talk.
The speech was divided into six parts. They were: “The Situation of the International Revolution,” “The Worldwide Significance of the Chinese Revolution,” “The Nature and the Future of the Chinese Revolution,” “Experience of Past Struggle,” “Present Stage of the Chinese Revolutionary Movement,” and “The General Line of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The first section of the speech, the one titled “The Situation of the International Revolution,” previews a major concept that is going to be introduced to the world immediately following the Chinese party congress. At the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, which begins in Moscow on July 17, 1928, so just six days after the Chinese party congress ends, the thesis is going to be put forward that the world is entering what was called a ‘Third Period’ of revolutionary development following the 1917 Russian Revolution. At the Comintern congress, the significance of the idea that the global revolutionary movement was entering a new, third period was that the global revolutionary movement was on an upswing, and so more radical action was called for than had been the case in the recent past. This was highly significant for Communist Parties around the world, and in many countries, including the United States, it served as kind of a spur to more radical activity and helped the local parties to shake off, for at least a short time, some of the really not very radical people who had been contending for leadership in those parties. For example, in the United States these new third period policies are associated with some of the most heroic things that Communists ever did in the United States, such as organizing sharecroppers in the South, as documented in the oral history of Ned Cobb that is commonly assigned in African-American history classes (All God’s Dangers), and also in Robin Kelley’s book Hammer and Hoe.
The application of this thesis to China is going to somewhat more complicated, as we’ll see. After all, one of the main themes going into the 6th Party Congress is that the Party has been too radical, too eager to jump off with armed revolts wherever possible. So, we’re going to see a simultaneous call to pull back on what the Party had been doing, along with trying to implement what turns into a global Comintern policy change to become more radical. We’ll see how this plays out later.
Right now, let’s talk about the content of this analysis of the three periods of global revolutionary development that Bukharin put forward in his talk to the Chinese party congress.
So, Bukharin defined what he called the “First Period of the Development of the World Revolution” as [CSiH 261-262].
Then, he moved on to discuss a second period that set in around 1922 or so, which he describes as being characterized by the partial stability of the capitalist economy. Here’s how he characterized this period:
This stabilization, however, revitalized the economies of the imperialist countries, and now these countries were competing with each other ever more aggressively for markets, and Bukharin saw this as leading both to inter-imperialist war in the near future, and, along with this prospect for inter-imperialist war, also the possibility for revolutionary movements to take advantage of those conditions and seize power, just as happened in Russia during World War I.
And so, this period of increased inter-imperialist contention signified the onset of a new, third period, which called for more radical communist activity than during the period of relative stabilization of global capitalism.
Here’s how Bukharin described it:
So, just a few comments here. One of the reasons I wanted to read all this out from Bukharin’s speech is that this way you can get a firsthand sense of the sort of reasoning that went into formulating Comintern policies.
One thing that stands out to me here is the way in which really short-term changes in economic growth, industrial change, and technological advancements were scrutinized by the Soviet leadership and how their analysis of appropriate revolutionary strategies and possibilities were affected very directly by these short-term changes.
On the one hand, I think one potential strength of this approach, and I think that this was why the Soviet leaders did this, was that it was a way of being poised to seize on whatever opportunities presented themselves, and there was a sense in which they wanted to be ready to pivot as quickly as possible to meet the demands of the objective situation.
But a real weakness of this approach is I think shown here when we see comments like, for example in what we just read, about how “now all are extremely clear about it: England and the United States have become mortal enemies.” With the benefit of hindsight, this is clearly a ridiculous statement, and it really didn’t take too long for that to become clear. There was a real weakness in seeing the competition for markets between imperialist powers as translating in a one-to-one way into more aggressive forms of imperialist rivalry. But this is how the Comintern was formulating its policies at the time.
Bukharin had actually first put forward this thesis about the world revolutionary movement entering a third period back at the 7th plenum of the executive committee of the Comintern at the end of 1926. It somewhat countered what had been, and what would become again, the dominant economic thinking of the Comintern, which was articulated by the Hungarian economist Eugen Varga, which was basically that capitalism was caught in a general crisis that would only continue getting worse and then finally it would be overthrown. Bukharin’s ideas both about the possibility of renewed capitalist growth, and how that growth itself would lead to further competition, war and crisis among the imperialist powers, better captured the actual dynamics of capitalist development than Varga’s ideas, even if the particulars of Bukharin’s analysis were a bit lacking, as in the example about US-British rivalry I just mentioned a minute ago. When the depression hit, that ended up giving a big boost to Varga’s ideas about a general crisis of capitalism, and it didn’t help that Bukharin had decisively lost his struggle with Stalin by that point. Despite the reversal of the Comintern’s commitment to the theoretical underpinnings of the idea of a ‘third period of the world revolutionary movement,’ the radical ‘third period’ policies would not be revised until the middle of the mid-1930s.
Now, we’ll get more into what happens with the Chinese party in the near future. But I do want to preview things here, because I think if you are paying attention you can see where things are going.
The 6th Congress of the Chinese Party, as we discussed last episode, had been called in large part in order to end what came to be called ‘blind actionism,’ the policy of launching armed struggles whenever and wherever it was remotely feasible. However, the policy shift that the Comintern was undergoing called for all communist parties everywhere to push as hard as possible in a radical direction to take advantage of what were seen as the emerging favorable conditions for world revolution. Thus, what we are going to see, is Qu Qiubai getting blamed for all the bad things that he had done which were inappropriate to the situation in China, and then a new leadership being put in place which is going to be tasked with carrying out policies largely similar to those that Qu Qiubai had been pushing for. This new policy is going to end up being called the “Li Lisan Line,” and we’ll have ample opportunity to discuss it in upcoming podcast episodes.
This situation is going to result in some fairly catty exchanges between Qu Qiubai and Bukharin at both the Chinese party congress and at the sixth Comintern congress, where Qu will repeatedly call into question whether there is any difference between the second and third periods, essentially being the only person in the room who is willing to say it out loud, but clearly a lot of Chinese communists had to have agreed with him. And, from the standpoint of China, it’s hard to fault them for that.
Alright, we’ll dig further into Bukharin’s talk at the 6th Party Congress next episode.