Our third (and last) close look at Bukharin’s speech at the 6th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held in Moscow in the summer of 1928.
Nikolai Bukharin, “On the International Situation and the Tasks of the Chinese Communist Party”
Lenin, “Speech at the First All-Russia Congress of Working Women”
Some names from this episode:
Nikolai Bukharin, general secretary of the executive committee of the Comintern
Peng Dehuai, Guomindang colonel who was secretly a Communist and who launched an uprising in July 1928
Welcome to episode 104 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
For the last two episodes we have focused on the speech that Nikolai Bukharin, the general secretary of the executive committee of the Comintern, gave at the 6th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. We went into quite a bit of detail in those episodes in order to flesh out a couple of key concepts for understanding the history of the international communist movement. Two episodes ago, that was the idea that the world revolution had entered what was called a ‘third period’ in which more radical policies were called for internationally in order to take advantage of what were seen as favorable developing conditions. And last episode, we talked about something called the Theory of the Productive Forces, a highly deterministic reading of Marx’s ideas, according to which the possibilities for having a revolution or reshaping the world into a more just and equal place following the success of any revolution were overwhelmingly contingent on the development of heavy industry.
After giving his thoughts on the importance of the presence of heavy industry for a socialist revolution, Bukharin turned to discussing why, as he phrased it, “The Chinese Revolution at the Present Stage is a Democratic Revolution of a Bourgeois Nature.” Now, you might remember from episode 99, when Peng Dehuai’s Fifth Red Army united with Mao and Zhu De’s Fourth Red Army, that Mao gave a speech where he said that “Conditions are ripe for making revolution in China. Even if a socialist revolution cannot triumph, a democratic revolution will.” And Peng explained in his memoirs, which I was quoting from, that he and his troops really weren’t very clear on the differences between these two revolutions at the time. And so, this widespread confusion within the Chinese Communist Party about how to conceive of the immediate tasks of the Chinese revolution, and how to think about the relationship between a democratic revolution and a desired future socialist revolution, is what prompted Bukharin to take a lot of time on this question at the Sixth Congress.
And here, in this next subsection of his talk where Bukharin spoke about the agrarian, anti-feudal nature of the Chinese Revolution, his ideas are much more consonant with Mao and Lenin’s thoughts, unlike his emphasis on the theory of the productive forces that we talked about last episode. But I’m a little hesitant to just summarize Bukharin’s main points here. Here’s why: Bukharin’s speech at the 6th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party really set the agenda for the line that was laid down for the party at this congress, and, as we’ll see in this episode (especially when put together with things that he said that we talked about in the last two episodes), Bukharin said some things that, in my opinion (and in the opinion of a bunch of other people who have looked at this talk), are pretty contradictory. And as a leading intellectual of the Russian Revolution, I really would rather err on the side of quoting too much from his speech, rather than risk caricaturing what he was saying. Not only out of respect for the historical record, or for his position as a leading Bolshevik, but also because I think that the contradictions in his own articulation of the direction that the Chinese Revolution should take are a good illustration of the difficulty that often arises in reconciling theory and reality in formulating overall political strategy. And so even though Bukharin was wedded to a revolutionary strategy that was much more determined by levels of development of the productive forces than what Mao would ultimately articulate, I think that there is more to be gained from quoting at length from Bukharin’s speech than from me briefly summarizing his main points.
So, let’s take some extended excerpts from Bukharin’s talk here, to understand what he was saying to the Chinese Communists about the nature of their revolution. I’m picking up Bukharin’s speech here with a subsection following his discussion of heavy industry (that we discussed last episode), which is titled “The Chinese Revolution at the Present Stage is a Democratic Revolution of a Bourgeois Nature.”
So, there is a lot in that piece that someone interested in analyzing different shades of communist ideology could unpack.
In the main, what Bukharin does in this subsection of his speech is to emphasize how the current tasks of the Chinese Revolution involve mobilizing the peasantry to lead a revolution to reshape social relations in China’s countryside, and that this means that the revolution should be understood as a democratic and not a socialist revolution. There was a lot of confusion within the Chinese Communist Party on this point, and that’s understandable. When you join a socialist party and want to fight for communism, it’s disconcerting perhaps to find out that you are actually, in the immediate struggle that you are engaged in, only fighting for a democratic revolution.
And at the time, there was really no conception of any other kind of democratic revolution than a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution. As we discussed last episode, Mao later developed the idea of a ‘new democratic’ revolution as a label for democratic revolutions led by communist parties and which were to go directly on to building socialism once the democratic revolution had been completed. But even though Mao drew heavily on Lenin (and on the Soviet experience) in articulating the concept of ‘new democratic’ revolution, there was at the time of Bukharin’s talk no other way that socialists conceived of democratic revolutions except as ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolutions.
However, what Bukharin has not clarified, and what I think he is going to continue to introduce confusion about later in this talk, is what does the bourgeois democratic nature of the current stage of the Chinese Revolution mean in practice for the Chinese Communists? As we just read, Bukharin indicated that the Communists should be leading the agrarian revolution. But on the other hand, in the directly preceding part of his speech that we read last episode, Bukharin had said that “even if the working class seizes political power, it still cannot, in the final analysis, avoid defeat because it cannot build socialism.” (This because of the lack of heavy industry.) Now, in the Soviet Union and in general in the discourse of the International Communist Movement, the working class seizing political power was understood to be more or less coequal with the Communist Party taking power, because the Communist Party is understood to be the political representative of the working class. So, are we to understand, then, that the Communist Party should lead an agrarian revolution but then step back from taking power if the opportunity presents itself? Clearly, fighting to take political power and waging a peasant war without wanting to actually take power are very different things. And if the Communists were not to take power, who would prevent a counter-revolution? So already, just comparing what Bukharin says here to what he had just said before this, he introduced confusion of a very significant point of revolutionary strategy.
Now, if we want to be very generous with Bukharin, we can say, look, in what we just read, he said the proletariat would take power in alliance with the peasantry, and only after a very long period of time move toward the dictatorship of the proletariat. And that’s true, Bukharin talks about the peasants starting off as allies holding power jointly with the proletariat and then, talks both about the peasants changing their attitude toward private property over decades, but also speaks about the proletariat, at some point (presumably at some higher level of development of the economy), instituting the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants suddenly not being part of a class alliance holding power. This is all very vague. And for a Communist like Bukharin, the question would not just be one of which class was in power, but which political party representing that class. What political party did the peasants have which would jointly run a government with the Communist Party functioning as the political representative of the working class? There was none, and as Bukharin himself had said, the Communists themselves needed to lead the agrarian revolution.
And even if there had been a revolutionary representative of the peasants which might function as an ally of the Communists in the agrarian revolution, would Bukharin really have thought that a joint governing alliance would have been feasible with such a party? The experience with those Left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists who the Bolsheviks tried to work with in the early days of the Soviet Union had been pretty miserable, as attested to by the bullet that was lodged in Lenin’s body near his neck from 1918-1922. So, Bukharin couldn’t seriously have been recommending this sort of arrangement.
Anyways, before we move on to see what else Bukharin says here about the nature of the Chinese Revolution, I thought it was very interesting how his focus on the economy led him to say that changes in gender relations, while he approved of them, “does not have the slightest taste of socialism.” If ever there was a litmus test for having gone too far in emphasizing the role of the development of the forces of production to the point of forgetting about the social and cultural changes that represent people’s daily experiences and which really matter in changing the world and that have to be part of making the world a more equal and just place, statements like this about gender relations are a good candidate. I think that Lenin was getting at this sort of a point when he said that “the experience of all liberation movements has shown that the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in it.”
So, again, this was a very long excerpt to read out, but, again, I think it’s worth it because it gives us a real sense of the content and tone of Bukharin’s speech in a way that I don’t feel like I can adequately capture by briefly summarizing it.
We get a sense here of a kind of browbeating quality to this speech, which can’t have sat well with the Chinese comrades in attendance. And we also, I think, have more confusion about the concrete tasks of the communists introduced here. Bukharin expounds further, and I think correctly, on the limitations of equal distribution of property as a conception of social equality and how in fact this form of equality lays the basis for further capitalist development if things are left at that. Mao and the Chinese Communist leadership came to see this very common understanding that many peasants had of equality as property redistribution as something to be built upon and, through mass movements led by the Communist Party, something that could be transformed into a more communist form of consciousness. They did this through getting peasants to form first labor cooperatives, and then to progress through higher levels of working together and holding property in common to achieve a much more thoroughgoing conception of social equality. This was a whole process in socialist China that began with the land reform that was instituted after the seizure of power in 1949, and which reached its highest from in some of the model communes that were formed during the Cultural Revolution. And I look forward to someday getting to that point in history and looking at the process in depth in this podcast. Although we can already see some of the preliminary thinking that led in that direction in some of the debates about land reform that took place even in the Jinggangshan base area experience. And I hope that I signaled that clearly enough in the episodes where we talked about that.
But Bukharin here, being very focused on the level of the productive forces, and also very much influenced by the problems that the Soviets had in transforming peasant consciousness, a situation where the peasants and the Soviet government had very antagonistic relations at the time that Bukharin was giving his talk, and which was one of the tremendous weaknesses of the Bolshevik party, especially when compared with China… Bukharin here again introduces this concept of the Communists seizing power alongside the peasantry and, in his words, establishing “the democratic popular dictatorship of the working class and the peasants.” A fine enough concept in the abstract, but, in practice, very difficult to conceive of except in a form that would have the Communist Party take power not only in the name of the working class, but also in the name of the peasantry.
But the Communist Party was not the political representative of the peasantry, and as someone who was vigorously polemicizing about the penetration of ideas rooted in the peasantry into the Communist Party, Bukharin would have been appalled by the notion.
I think that the difficulty of this problem was most likely apparent to Bukharin at the time (and really, it is only overcome by a concept like Mao’s of New Democratic Revolution, which was not an idea available at Bukharin at the time). So, the fact that Bukharin did not address this issue in his talk seems to me to indicate that he must not have thought that the Communist Party had much prospect of actually waging a successful revolution, and so it wasn’t necessary to try to come up with a way of finding a form of practice to match his abstract idea of a “democratic popular dictatorship of the working class and the peasants.” Certainly, the tone that he takes in this talk, and there is another section of the speech in which he sums up the past errors of the party in a pretty biting manner (and which takes no responsibility onto the shoulders of the Comintern), all this makes it seem to me like he was fairly pessimistic about the future prospects of the Chinese party.
Anyways, next episode, I want to move away from Bukharin’s speech and talk about other aspects of the 6th Party Congress and what came out of it. But I did want to do this one final episode on Bukharin’s talk so that we could have a concrete sense of the sort of guidance that was coming from Bukharin and the Comintern for the Chinese Communist Party at this time. From the standpoint of the main revolutionary thrust of the revolutionary process, which stems from Mao’s experience in the countryside, this can all seem like an irrelevant sideshow. But the experience of the Congress, and of partnership (or rather, tutelage to) the Comintern, and learning in Russia from the Soviet experience, was very formative and important to a great many Chinese Communist leaders, some of whom will be coming back to China very soon and trying very hard to impose a vision of revolution on the Chinese Communist Party that is very much at odds with Mao’s vision, and those people are going to see Mao as representing a major problem to be dealt with.