Are there stages between capitalism and socialism? Should communists be part of broad coalitions with non-communists? Should communists ever cooperate with capitalists? Can countries like Brazil play a progressive role in the world even though they are capitalist? These are some of the questions debated at a recent meeting of communist and workers' parties from around the world.
Since 1999 communist parties from countries around the globe have been meeting together annually to exchange experiences and insights, and promote cooperation on issues like solidarity, social justice, worker rights and peace. Originally convened by the Communist Party of Greece and held in Athens, these meetings are now organized by a working group composed of roughly 11 parties, and are hosted in rotation by different parties. The most recent one, the 15th International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties, was held in Lisbon, Portugal, hosted by the Communist Party of Portugal. I represented the Communist Party USA at this meeting. (See my presentation here.)
Attended by representatives of 75 parties in 63 countries (some countries have more than one communist party), this meeting featured vigorous discussion about the role and policies of communist parties in today's world.
These are parties that trace their history back to the communist parties founded around the world in the early decades of the 20th century. Part of their history was participation in the international formation that existed in the 1920s and '30s, the Communist International, and the Prague-based publication World Marxist Review, which was published from 1958 to 1990. Of course much has changed since those early years, including the emergence and subsequent decline of Maoism and, most notably, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist governments, but also profound changes in the world economy, and the rise of new left-wing coalition governments in Latin America, to name a few transformative developments. In addition, climate change, brought to crisis levels by capitalism's reliance on fossil fuels to drive its growth, has emerged as a global problem that has to be addressed in the construction of socialism.
Over the years some of the parties have undergone severe repression, and some have changed their names, or experienced splits or mergers, due to a variety of historical circumstances. In some countries there are more than one such party, stemming from past political divisions. In some of those cases, for example the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India Marxist, the two parties now cooperate on many actions. Not all have the word "communist" in their names: for example, the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) in Cyprus, the Workers Party of Belgium, the Palestinian People's Party, and the People's Progressive Party in Guyana.
Today, communist parties lead governments in China, Cuba, Guyana, Laos, Nepal and Vietnam. In Cyprus, AKEL led the government from 2008 to 2013. A number of other parties are part of governing coalitions - in South Africa, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and some other countries. And communist parties hold seats in parliament - and often constitute significant voting blocks, either by themselves or in coalition with others - in most countries that have a parliamentary system. In country after country they have played legendary roles in the struggles of their people (for example, here in the U.S., in the fight to form industrial unions), and today in many countries they are leading mass movements.
So is communism dead?
No! But is it monolithic, as used to be claimed by its opponents? Definitely not. It stands to reason. Marx, Engels, Lenin and other thinkers on whom these parties base their politics all emphasize carefully studying reality and its ever-changing evolution, and grounding ideas in that unfolding reality. These parties work amidst very differing conditions, cultures, and histories.
The international meetings of communist and workers parties since 1999 have been based on the concept that, as Lenin himself said, every country has to find a path to socialism in its own way, based on its own conditions.
However, at the meeting last November, the Communist Party of Greece, supported by a few others, took sharp issue with the policies of a wide range of other parties, arguing that they diverged from Marxism and represented opportunism. The Greek party's criticisms were so strong that it rejected and blocked issuance of any consensual final statement summarizing the thinking of the conference. In doing so, the Greek party and its supporters from a few other countries clearly went up against the thinking and policies of the overwhelming majority of parties represented at the meeting.
What were the points that the Greek party and a few others argued for?
1. There are no intermediate stages between capitalism and socialism. There is no basis for reform coalitions - these simply "manage" capitalism. Communists should not engage in alliances with sectors of capitalists - for example non-monopoly capital. Broad anti-fascist fronts are to be rejected. The only way to proceed is to struggle to overthrow capitalism.
2. Fighting for national sovereignty - for example in a capitalist country facing IMF dictates - is not a legitimate communist activity; it represents an alliance with capitalist elements.
3. The idea of a multipolar world is rejected. The concept of the BRICS countries - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - or others, such as in Latin America, emerging as challenges to Western imperialism is rejected - these are simply all bourgeois capitalist countries.
4. Identifying financialization as a particular feature of today's capitalism is a hoax, a diversion. Capitalism is capitalism.
5. "Market socialism," which has been or is being adopted by several parties that lead governments (including China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba), is rejected.
These points are discussed more fully in a statement issued by the Greek Communist Party after the conference.
The Greek Communist Party's criticisms are aimed in part at European communist parties who in one way or another associate themselves with the European Left Party, something the Greek party strongly opposes. But the sharpest criticisms seem directed at the many Latin American parties that participate in left coalition governments.
In its statement after the meeting, the Greek party speaks of "the necessity of a single revolutionary strategy" for all countries, one that complies with that party's interpretation of the works of Marx and Lenin.
However Lenin had a different take
Lenin himself had a different take on this. He spoke of the "variety ... in the path mankind will follow" from imperialism to socialism. Each country, he wrote, "will contribute something of its own to some form of democracy, ... to the varying rates of socialist transformations in the different aspects of social life." ("A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism," 1916)
"We do not regard Marx's theory as something completed and inviolable; on the contrary, we are convinced that it has only laid the foundation stone of the science which socialists must develop in all directions if they wish to keep pace with life," Lenin wrote ("Our Programme"). "[T]his theory provides only general guiding principles, which ... are applied differently in England than in France, in France differently than in Germany, and in Germany differently than in Russia."
Mainstream of today's world communist movement
It was evident at the Lisbon meeting that the arguments put forward by the Greek Communist Party are increasingly far out of the mainstream of today's world communist movement. In country after country, communists are engaged in struggles for national sovereignty and democratic rights in alliance with others, sometimes as part of left coalition governments. Many pointed to the parasitic "financialization" of their countries' economies as a current feature of capitalism that has to be studied, understood, and fought against. The struggle against financialization was expressed in our country recently by the Occupy Wall Street movement. All of these struggles, the parties say, are part and parcel of the fight for socialism.
For example, the Communist Party of Brazil, which is part of that country's governing left coalition, describes its role in federal and state governments and in electoral politics as part of multidimensional party activity - the other dimensions being "the movement of workers and popular masses and the struggle of ideas" - aiming to "promote the accumulation of revolutionary forces."
In another example, the Communist Party of Portugal, which participates in an electoral alliance (Broad Democratic Coalition - CDU) with the Ecology Party (the "Greens") and a socialist group called Democratic Intervention, calls for "struggle for a fairer, developed and sovereign country ... to defeat the course of disaster imposed by a right-wing policy and which will open the prospects for an alternative, patriotic and left-wing policy." It advocates "the construction of a patriotic and left-wing policy, an essential condition to ensure the defence of the interests and rights of the workers and Portuguese people and to affirm national sovereignty and free the country from the present course of social regression, economic decline and dependence." Similar policies are followed by most communist parties around the world. Our party, the Communist Party USA, pursues a similar approach based on our own experiences and conditions of struggle. The outlook and policies of our party fit well into the mainstream of the world communist movement as expressed at the Lisbon meeting last November.
Go here to listen to a live interview with the author about the meeting and the issues.
A version of this article also appears at Political Affairs.
Photo: "Transform dreams into life" reads the banner at the rear, at a massive rally held by the Portuguese Communist Party after the 15th International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties, Lisbon, Nov. 10, 2013. Portuguese Communist Party