Bukharin articulates a vision of the Chinese Revolution at the 6th Party Congress which is highly colored by the non-revolutionary Marxism of the 2nd International.
Nikolai Bukharin, “On the International Situation and the Tasks of the Chinese Communist Party”
Andre Gunder Frank, World Accumulation, 1492–1789
Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, vol. I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century
Mao Zedong, “The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party”
Vladimir Lenin, “Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”
Vladimir Lenin, “Once Again on The Trade Unions: The Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Bukharin”
Hung Hsueh-ping, “The Essence of ‘Theory of Productive Forces’ is to oppose Proletarian Revolution”
Some names from this episode:
Nikolai Bukharin, general secretary of the executive committee of the Comintern
Chen Duxiu, Co-founder and first general secretary of the Communist Party
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang during the period of the first united front
Welcome to episode 103 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we talked about the first part of the speech that general secretary of the executive committee of the Comintern Nikolai Bukharin gave during the first two sessions of the 6th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in the summer of 1928. And in particular, we discussed how Bukharin laid out the thinking behind the Comintern strategy for what was considered to be a ‘third period’ of the world revolutionary movement which was just beginning in 1928. Now I want to move on to talk about the rest of the talk that Bukharin gave there.
The second section of Bukharin’s talk at the congress was titled “The Worldwide Significance of the Chinese Revolution.” In this section of the talk, Bukharin mainly made the case that revolutionary events in one part of the world affect other parts of the world, and so it was important for Chinese comrades to conceive of what they were doing as affecting, and potentially facilitating, revolution in other places.
Here’s a representative excerpt from this part of Bukharin’s talk:
Now, for someone who has done graduate work in the field of world history, where the ways of thinking about global interconnectedness that Bukharin deploys in his argument are taken for granted, or are kind of starting premises for the field itself, a lot of this portion of Bukharin’s talk can seem like a no-brainer. But the amount of time that he clearly felt that he needed to spend on this question I think indicates that it could by no means be taken for granted that revolutionaries in one country understood that their own revolutionary movement potentially could have important ramifications for people elsewhere in the world, and vice versa.
And just as an aside here, for me, that realization gave me occasion to reflect once again on the distant intellectual origins of the academic field of world history. One of the key early moments in the development of this academic field was when, coming out of the movements of the 1960s and early ‘70s, scholars like Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein developed something called world-systems theory. The work that they did, which was at times highly derivative from (but also built on) Marx’s and Lenin’s thinking about global interconnectedness, was one of the foundational streams for the academic field of world history. And so, when someone steeped in that literature, like me, reads this speech of Bukharin’s, it’s hard to avoid a first reaction of “ok, dude, this is some really basic stuff, did you really have to explain this to these guys?” But of course, he did have to explain it. And the familiarity (for historians) of the line of thinking that he developed in the talk is precisely due to the common origins that Comintern global strategic thinking shared with one of the main streams of thinking that fed into the formation of the field of world history.
Of course, in the academic field of world history, the original motivation for the analysis of global interconnectivity as a way of thinking about the global liberation of humankind has more or less been completely removed, while that motivation was front-and-center in the speech that Bukharin gave. And that too is an opportunity for reflection. As much as I admire the work of, say, Andre Gunder Frank, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that to the degree that a line of thinking is assimilated into a systematized, academic discipline, it is simultaneously defanged of its original revolutionary content and, to be put back to use by people who are really trying to make the world a more just and equal place, it kind of has to be seized back and rearticulated in order to be remade the common property of the oppressed masses again.
OK, enough navel-gazing on my end, let’s move on to the next section of Bukharin’s talk.
The next section is titled “The Nature and Future of the Chinese Revolution” and this is where concretely Bukharin makes the case for what the tasks are that the Chinese Communists should take up in the period ahead.
In the first part of this section of Bukharin’s talk, Bukharin goes to some lengths to make the argument that the Chinese revolution is in the stage of being a ‘democratic revolution of a bourgeois nature’ rather than a socialist revolution.
The importance, for Bukharin, of making this distinction is because the tasks before the Chinese Communist Party will be determined by what stage the revolution is at.
Let’s see here how Bukharin defines socialism, and what he considers some of the prerequisites for a country to have a socialist revolution:
So here, Bukharin is saying that, unless a country has developed a certain level of heavy industry, then it can’t have a socialist revolution. I think that it is instructive to compare this statement of Bukharin’s to a statement of Lenin’s from the 2nd Comintern Congress (in 1920) that we talked about back in episode 15. Here’s Lenin:
“The question was posed as follows: are we to consider as correct the assertion that the capitalist stage of economic development is inevitable for backward nations now on the road to emancipation and among whom a certain advance towards progress is to be seen since the war? We replied in the negative. If the victorious revolutionary proletariat conducts systematic propaganda among them, and the Soviet governments come to their aid with all the means at their disposal—in that event it will be mistaken to assume that the backward peoples must inevitably go through the capitalist stage of development. Not only should we create independent contingents of fighters and party organizations in the colonies and the backward countries, not only at once launch propaganda for the organization of peasants’ soviets and strive to adapt them to the pre-capitalist conditions, but the Communist International should advance the proposition, with the appropriate theoretical grounding, that with the aid of the proletariat of the advanced countries, backward countries can go over to the Soviet system and, through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass through the capitalist stage.”
One theme that we have come back to every so often in this podcast, and which will continue to be an issue during the whole course of the Chinese Revolution, is the influence of something called the Theory of the Productive Forces. This was a highly deterministic reading of Marx’s ideas that was highly influential in the Second International and which remained highly influential among people who valued Marx’s ideas because of their power in helping to reveal the dynamics of the development of capitalist society. But these people were much less interested in the ways in which Marx hoped these ideas could be put to use by people who were straining to take advantage of any opportunity to do away with capitalism. So, there was this powerful intellectual framework for understanding capitalist development, and its supposed inevitable development toward socialism, which was championed by most of the leading Marxist intellectuals and socialist leaders in the period before World War I.
According to this way of thinking, according to the Theory of the Productive Forces, a country had to have a certain level of development of heavy industry in order to have a socialist revolution, or that even if a communist party led a revolution in a country without enough heavy industry, there was no way that the communists could prepare the way for industrial development to take place once they had taken power in one of these less developed countries. According to this theory, the Russian Revolution should never have happened. So, the Russian revolutionaries went against this way of thinking, and as we talked about back in our early episodes, this Russian example inspired the people who founded China’s communist party. But the influence and weight of the Theory of the Productive Forces was pretty big. In episode 23 we talked about how already in 1923 these ideas had seen a resurgence in the Comintern, and how Chen Duxiu and Mikhail Borodin were very influenced by the Theory of the Productive Forces, and as we saw over the course of many episodes, this influenced their willingness to sacrifice the interests of the workers and peasants in the name of maintaining a united front with the left-wing of the Guomindang, who they saw as the necessary leaders of a bourgeois revolution that China had to pass through in order to later on have a socialist revolution.
And we can see here in Bukharin’s speech a very clear expression of the Theory of the Productive Forces. Later on in the revolutionary process, Mao is going to develop the idea of what he called the New Democratic Revolution, to counter the idea flowing from the Theory of the Productive Forces that communist ability to lead a revolution to socialism is contingent on the prior development of heavy industry. Here’s how he explained this idea in his 1939 work “The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party:”
“What, indeed, is the character of the Chinese revolution at the present stage? Is it a bourgeois-democratic or a proletarian-socialist revolution? Obviously, it is not the latter but the former.
“Since Chinese society is colonial, semi-colonial and semi-feudal, since the principal enemies of the Chinese revolution are imperialism and feudalism, since the tasks of the revolution are to overthrow these two enemies by means of a national and democratic revolution in which the bourgeoisie sometimes takes part, and since the edge of the revolution is directed against imperialism and feudalism and not against capitalism and capitalist private property in general even if the big bourgeoisie betrays the revolution and becomes its enemy — since all this is true, the character of the Chinese revolution at the present stage is not proletarian-socialist but bourgeois-democratic.
“However, in present-day China the bourgeois-democratic revolution is no longer of the old general type, which is now obsolete, but one of a new special type. We call this type the new-democratic revolution and it is developing in all other colonial and semi-colonial countries as well as in China. The new-democratic revolution is part of the world proletarian-socialist revolution, for it resolutely opposes imperialism, i.e., international capitalism. Politically, it strives for the joint dictatorship of the revolutionary classes over the imperialists, traitors and reactionaries, and opposes the transformation of Chinese society into a society under bourgeois dictatorship. Economically, it aims at the nationalization of all the big enterprises and capital of the imperialists, traitors and reactionaries, and the distribution among the peasants of the land held by the landlords, while preserving private capitalist enterprise in general and not eliminating the rich-peasant economy. Thus, the new type of democratic revolution clears the way for capitalism on the one hand and creates the prerequisites for socialism on the other. The present stage of the Chinese revolution is a stage of transition between the abolition of the colonial, semi-colonial and semi-feudal society and the establishment of a socialist society, i.e., it is a process of new-democratic revolution. This process, begun only after the First World War and the Russian October Revolution, started in China with the May 4th Movement of 1919. A new-democratic revolution is an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal revolution of the broad masses of the people under the leadership of the proletariat. Chinese society can advance to socialism only through such a revolution; there is no other way.”
So, we can see here that Mao was saying that, essentially, what happened in Russia was the first new democratic revolution, where the communists took power, carried out the necessary reforms required for further developing the economy (such as land reform and developing industry), and transitioned toward building socialism without having gone through a period of rule by a capitalist class. And so, what he saw China as doing was following in the footsteps of what the Russians had done.
Bukharin does anticipate this line of argument in his talk. Here is how Bukharin compares how the Theory of the Productive Forces applied to Russia as opposed to China and other countries which had less heavy industry than Russia had in 1917:
So basically, Bukharin is like, look guys, I know Russia was kind of underdeveloped when we had our revolution, but we just happened to be lucky enough to have somehow reached the minimum required level of heavy industry to be able to have a socialist revolution. You guys just haven’t leveled up your heavy industry enough for you to take the socialism ability in the heavy industry skill tree.
Now, this begs the question, back in 1917, when Lenin was outnumbered by other members of the central committee who argued that Russia wasn’t ready for a socialist revolution, did Lenin bring out some heavy industry charts and somehow convince the other Bolshevik leaders that Russia had in fact reached some threshold of heavy industry so that they could in fact seize power for the working class? Or did Lenin win them over to launching the 1917 insurrection with some other argument.
Well, let’s see.
As far back as 1905, in fact, Lenin had argued for, regardless of the level of development in Russia, for what he called a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” which would strive “to make the very most of the democratic revolution in order to attain the greatest success in the further struggle of the proletariat for Socialism,” essentially prefiguring Mao’s concept of a new democratic revolution.
Then, in 1917, he consistently argued that after the overthrow of the Czar in the February Revolution, that the capitalists and landlords who had power in the new republic had taken the revolution as far as they were going to, and that to keep the revolution moving forward the Bolsheviks needed to seize power. He constantly referred to Russia as a petty bourgeois country and as a peasant country. But his arguments for taking power were always political, and never hinged on the level of economic development of Russia.
My point here is not to use Lenin to bash Bukharin, that would be pointless and, in any case, would be pretty low-hanging fruit. Rather, I bring it up to show just how specious Bukharin’s argument was. Not even 11 years after the 1917 seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, here was one of the top Bolshevik figures telling the Chinese revolutionaries that there was some sort of essential difference between their revolution and the Russian revolution because Russia was just barely on the other side of some essentially theological hinge point having to do with relative levels of development of heavy industry. It is highly illustrative of the continuing influence of the theory of the productive forces in the Comintern. And this theory is going to have continuing influence in the Chinese party itself, not only in how it thinks about its revolutionary strategy in the short-term coming out of the 6th Congress, but also later on, during the period of socialist construction, and it’s going to be one of the points of contention between conservatives and radicals in the party during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.
As far as Bukharin himself goes, his emphasis on economics over politics was a point of contention between himself and Lenin. There’s a well-known article by Lenin from early 1921, called “Once Again on The Trade Unions: The Current Situation and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Bukharin” where Lenin famously chides Bukharin (and Trotsky) that “Politics cannot but have precedence over economics.” And while Bukharin won’t be a major figure in the Comintern for much longer after this congress, the theory of the productive forces will be very influential long past Bukharin’s departure from the scene.
OK, now that I’ve gotten myself a little worked up about the theory of the productive forces, which people like me who have spent a good part of their adult lives studying communist peasant movements find just viscerally offensive on some level, perhaps because of experiences like speaking with teenage peasant rebels who can articulate Marxist ideas much better than just about any worker who we’ve met in the United States, let’s bring this episode to a close. Next episode, we’ll talk some about the concrete tasks set for the party in Bukharin’s speech, and probably move on to talk about how the recent experience of the Chinese Revolution was summed up at the 6th congress.