World communist parties debate strategy for the road ahead

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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.

The formal presentations by each party at the Lisbon meeting, and a list of participating parties, are available online.

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

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  • The U.S. communist comes from real struggles at our work places, our synagogues, mosques, and churches, our communities, our capitols, our schools and homes, our playgrounds, our literature.
    Central to these struggles, is the African and the Native American.
    Philosophically, it was the great Paul Robeson, along with others, who contributed greatly to our understanding this communist action and thought, never separating it from human kind's vast appreciation of universality, diversity and splendor of nature, and its place in it.
    Roberson, through song, language, and love, demonstrated- forerunning giants like Pete Seeger,
    how, although each people was unique, all embodied a sacred human pattern, which was both inseparable and indispensable for human kind.
    This is clear from his essays on native cultures (especially African but also Native American, Paul himself a fusion of Native and African blood)to his many, diverse folk and spiritual songs of many peoples(including both "primitive" and "modern" peoples).
    Paul assigned great dignity to African and Native's people's culture, their contributions to philosophy, art and science.
    On this basis, Paul saw a unity among all workers, all oppressed, and all communists everywhere on the planet. Paul's friend, musicologist and anthropologist, Kenneth Brown Billups, taught our class this at UM-St. Louis, years ago(about 1985).
    Like the polyglot, Paul of Tarsus, polyglot Paul of Mother Bethel loved, and demonstrated Othello of ancient Venice and Mother Africa like no one has since, transforming himself into, as Shirley Graham Du Bois called him-Citizen of the World.
    Close to both the classic bard William Shakespeare, and the modern composer George Gershwin, Paul, as citizen of the world, showed the world the indispensable contributions of the tortured, super-exploited, oppressed, pariah, African American to human civilization.
    This civilization develops in stages, and in leaps and bounds-but most importantly, in unanimity-as one.
    So it is with the Communists and Workers parties of the world-they develop both in diversity and unity.
    The more we recognize vast variety in unity of these movements of the working peoples, as Paul taught, the more advanced working class civilization becomes.
    In this, love and unity is key-we are the working people of the world, the authentic human race.
    Susan Webb's article reflects this unity in diversity, and is therefore a solid guidepost.



    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 02/18/2014 1:33pm (8 months ago)

  • The KKE seems to actually be more correct than much of the other Communist parties and organizations in their approach. Yes, it is a bit more sectarian in terms of struggle which at times can alienate the KKE, but the KKE at least hasn't totally succumbed to liberalism though extensive and broad coalition work with liberals.

    There are problems with the KKE no doubt, but when building a base with liberals for so long, it necessarily changes the dynamics of any Communist party engaging in such activities. That change is usually a right-shift because it's base is now so critical for maintaining what organization in it's work that it ends up recruiting from it and shifting so as to not lose that base or coalition.

    Rejection of Market Socialism isn't something to be ashamed of, but I highly doubt that they are dropping critical defense of certain processes.

    One point to be made about this is that the PSUV had made great advancements over the years and has marxist tendencies within it but it will not be able to achieve socialism so long as the bourgeois State still remains. Venezuela is still thoroughly capitalist and it is almost evenly divided (last election count, narrow victory) between support and opposition to the Bolivarian process. Nevertheless, the PSUV and the Bolivarian process must be defended and encouraged, but not without criticism.

    Posted by John, 02/17/2014 5:27pm (9 months ago)

  • Many thanks to Sue Webb for this important reportage. A couple of comments:
    1. The idea that there are no stages in reaching socialism is one of the worst pieces of nonsense being put out nowadays. There are stages in everything in nature. Right now those of us who fight for socialism here in the United States understand, for example, that the fights for democracy, against racism, sexism and homophobia, although they, in and of themselves do not bring us to socialism, are essential for the struggle for socialism too. They create the conditions for the advance to socialism, and are struggles that can't be avoided.
    2. The works of V.I. Lenin (What is to be Done, State and Revolution, Imperialism the Highest State of Capitalism, Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder) are essential readings for all who fight for socialism. They are the product of a subtle and scientific thinker who, moreover, even when in exile was deeply rooted in practical political work, and showed this by the flexibility of his approaches. He would have greeted the "no stages" idea with raucous laughter.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 02/16/2014 8:57pm (9 months ago)

  • The Communist Party of Greece appears to be falling into the same trap as the Left-Wing communists in Lenin's time, particularly those in Germany and Britain.

    Because of the gross errors and ultimate failure an uncompromising, purist approach generates, Lenin wrote a significant pamphlet on this.
    It is titled "Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder" where he points out the absurdity of a "no compromises" position and specifically recommends working within existing systems and governments to advance our goals.

    Posted by Keri Rautenkranz, 02/15/2014 6:20pm (9 months ago)

  • This article is historic. It's one of the few, if not the only, article put out in our press in past years that is not simply the statement of our delegate to the meeting......and the article contains links to the international communist movement. It is the kind of article that needs to be appearing in our press more often. The detailed explanation/critique of the Greek party is a move beyond some emotional [but now understandable] outbursts in past years. Much thanks to Sue Webb for this contribution.

    Posted by gary hicks, 02/14/2014 4:25pm (9 months ago)

  • It is unfortunate to see the Communist Party in Greece throwing away a chance at leadership for petty ideological purity. We see such behavior with our Trotskyite groups in this nation, unable to make any progress because of their unwillingness to work with working class and progressive organizations. Let's hope in this time of increasing right wing reaction towards workers that this party will find a way out of their sectarianism and start effectively fighting for the working class.

    Posted by David Fields, 02/14/2014 4:31am (9 months ago)

  • Enough with the petrified mainstream. It has led us nowhere. The points raised by our Greek comrades are essential features of the world capitalist system today. This is not about different national conditions of struggle, it is about understanding the core issues of latent capitalism.

    1. there was never a halfway house for socialism. The iron fist of the working class should be in power. immediate redistribution and national ownership of all sectors is a must. we have seen where halfhearted measures have led us in the past, that is why we are where we are today.

    2. the IMF is the principal economic extortion tool of imperialism. its policies should be opposed outright, no concessions should be made in respect to debt repayment from the sweat and blood of working people.

    3. the world today in an imperialist playground in which the interests of capitalists are united in the dollar and make redundant the notional boundaries of the past. The play on inter-imperialist contradictions should be the strategy and not blind alliances with Russians or their likes.

    4. Finance, the rule of fictitious capital is a form of absolute surplus vale drain measure, because through taxation it lowers the share of the labour. No one should be fooled by the fact that financialisation is a normal offshoot of the market economy. It is a product of weakening working class political power after which the money fetish grips enslaves working people.

    5. let us not get fooled by the word socialism. As Lenin made clear, not all that is called socialist is socialist. Socialism whether with the suffix market or non-market will deliver by the commitment of the party in power to the working class. it is this commitment, which is guaranteed by binding working class laws and military committees, that ensures that the interests of the working class are protected. So market socialism would work somewhat in Vietnam but in Syria, it became the Trojan horse to pauperizing the population and preparing the present imperialist-saudi Zionist onslaught on the whole of the social formation.

    It is relevant to note that first world communist parties should depart from their past reform measures that played the role of labour aristocracy so far. It is time for radical 'action directe' of all sorts. the points made by our American comrade adhere to past social democratic strategies that lulled the central working class to sleep or made killer armies of some of them to invade the third world. The time for this old rant is over. if the left is beneath the sacrifice, it should not be.

    Posted by soula, 02/13/2014 11:58pm (9 months ago)

  • A breathe of fresh air to calm the spirit!
    Unions were once considered illegal combinations and communist conspiracies by the capitalist class and its corporate elite, but they did not go away.

    Through the influence of Marx and Lenin, when workers unite, it is possible to avoid mistakes of the past. Today's challenge of excessive unemployment, affordable healthcare, decent education and unequal opportunity molds the social conscience of people to act in a deliberate, concerted way to protect what we have earned.

    The value of such effort to study, organize, march and vote to win a better world is the true test to put theory into practice. In this way, those intermediate stages which lead to a better world can take hold and "contribute to some form of democracy", no matter what the party designation.

    Posted by Richard Grassl, 02/13/2014 8:38pm (9 months ago)

  • I am pleased that there is a diversity of opinion within the Communist movement internationally. The rigidity of Communist parties in the past contributed to the problems Communists faced in implementing their programs. I am especially pleased that the CPUSA is exhibiting the flexibility needed to cooperate with many groups that challenge the supremacy of finance capital but are not yet ready to join a program that advocates socialism. Question: Is it still necessary to quote Lenin in support of an idea appropriate to the current period? It should not be necessary to engage in a scholastic appeal to authority to justify a program. I welcome Lenin's opinions, but suppose we disagree with him? Or, he disagrees with us. Do we have brains of our own?

    Posted by Noyma Appelbaum, 02/13/2014 7:48pm (9 months ago)

  • It unfortunate to see that the Communist Party of Greece, which holds in its hands an opportunity to help defeat the painful plague of austerity that is damaging the working people of their nation, has decided to go on a path where they will not be the leaders of the working class. This attitude smacks of Trotskyism, and reminds me of the Trotskies I meet who refuse to work with anyone to achieve their now unachievable goals because they have isolated themselves from the working class.

    Posted by David Fields, 02/13/2014 4:06pm (9 months ago)

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