Introduction to The Colonial Revolution and Proletarian Bonapartism

Once the capitalist class of Europe had ridden out the storms and stresses immediately after the second world war, the political basis had been laid for what turned out to be a long period of economic upswing. Underpinned by levels of economic growth that put all previous productive achievements in the shade, the advanced capitalist countries were thus able to enjoy decades of relative social peace, in marked contrast to the instability of the inter-war years.

But in the colonial and ex-colonial countries, the so-called third world, the post-war decades have been a period of unprecedented upheaval, characterised by famine, social unrest, wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. There have been mass struggles encompassing tens and hundreds of millions in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the course of these movements, in China, Cuba, Burma, Syria, Kampuchea (Cambodia), Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and elsewhere, regimes have been established, all of which, from the standpoint of pre-war developments, were new and peculiar. They were revolutionary formations that resembled neither the revolutionary capitalist regimes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nor the 'classic' workers' government of October 1917.

As was the case with so many post-war political developments, the colonial revolution was shrouded in mystery and confusion to the leadership of what remained of the so-called Fourth International, as well as to the theoreticians of Stalinism and reformism. Different 'Trotskyist' sects took turns to idealise Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others, without a glimmer of understanding about what real political forces these leaders represented.

It was the Marxist tendency gathered around Ted Grant which was able to place all these leaders and movements in their correct context, explaining their origins and development. The extracts published in this chapter will demonstrate that these events can be explained, in Marxist terms, by the fundamental ideas worked out by Trotsky in his Theory of the Permanent Revolution, but showing how they find a completely novel and distorted application in the post-war period.

Before the Russian revolution, Trotsky had argued that the Russian capitalist class, because of its late entry onto the stage of history, was too weak economically and politically, too much tied to the old land relations and too subservient to its stronger international competitors, to lead the revolution in Russia. At the same time, the many-millioned peasantry was not able to play an independent political role. The leading role in the revolution, therefore, could fall only to the industrial working class, the proletariat, drawing the peasantry behind it.

But leading the revolution, carrying through the tasks of the capitalist (democratic) revolution, the proletariat would be bound by its social character and its methods of struggle, to progress immediately to the implementation of socialist tasks, and the establishment of a workers' state: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Trotsky accepted that Russia by itself was too backward economically to construct socialism, but he argued that on a world scale, capitalism was rotten-ripe for social change.

The Russian revolution, therefore, would begin what only the workers in the advanced countries could complete. Borrowing the expression from Marx, Trotsky characterised the coming revolution in Russia, because of the role of the working class and the necessity of an internationalist outlook, as a Permanent Revolution.

The correctness of Trotsky's prognosis, put forward years in advance, was shown by the process of the revolution in 1917. After the February revolution had overthrown the Czar, the capitalist class was utterly incapable of taking forward or consolidating even the most modest gains of the revolution. The 'democratic' tasks were in the end only achieveable by the coming to power of the working class, supported by the poorer peasants, through the October soviet revolution.

Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution forms the starting point of a Marxist description of the revolutionary processes in the underdeveloped countries: the colonial revolution. But in the transitional period between capitalism and the establishment of workers' states the picture has been enormously complicated: given the delay in the revolution in the advanced countries, the degeneracy of the world-wide Stalinist movement and the subsequent absence of mass revolutionary parties in the third world, all kinds of new social formations unforeseen by Trotsky have been possible.

Under these conditions, with social and economic crisis reaching a pitch, it has been possible for the revolution to unfold, not on the lines of the 'classic' Russian pattern, but in the manner of a distortion of the Permanent Revolution. Based upon the already-present model of the totalitarian bureaucracy in Russia, regimes have been established on the same lines: with state ownership and planning of the economy, one-party government and the suppression of democratic rights. Moreover, these have been established on the basis of peasant-based wars, with a variety of petit-bourgeois or Stalinist leaderships, with the working class playing a relatively minor role.

The following documents show a continuity and development of the Marxist position on the colonial revolution, worked out by Ted Grant as the leading theoretician of the RCP, and further deepened and extended in the period after the RCP broke up. The first item is an article from the January 1949 issue of Socialist Appeal. The background to this was the civil war raging in China, between the Peoples' Liberation Army (or the 'Red Army'), led by Mao Tse Tung, and the 'Nationalist' forces of the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai Shek.

It was clear by this stage that the Red Army, on the basis of its revolutionary policy towards the land and the peasantry, was making huge gains. Yet there were still leaders in the Fourth International who believed that Mao Tse Tung would make a compromise with Chiang, or even capitulate to him. The failure of these 'theoreticians' to face the reality that stared them in the face led to a jibe, in one debate, that 'Mao may want to surrender to Chiang but the trouble is, he can't catch him!'

Building upon the theoretical work which had already been undertaken in relation to Russia, Eastern Europe and the Tito-Stalin split, the article by Ted Grant puts forward a perspective in relation to China that is lucid and consistent from a Marxian point of view, and moreover, brilliantly prophetic. With the world 'leaders of Trotskyism' still humming and hawing, the article goes straight to the point and applauds 'the destruction of feudalism and large-scale capitalism, in this important section of Asia, even though it is carried out under the leadership of Stalinism. In its long-term implications, it is as important as the October revolution itself.'

While hailing the social change as a huge step forward for the Chinese masses, the article also anticipates the setting up of another Moscow-like state: 'only a horrible caricature of the Marxist conception of the revolution will result…Mao will look to Russia as his model.'

While all other theoreticians were hesitating to even accept the possibility of a deformed workers' state in China, Grant was already several steps ahead, predicting, years in advance, the inevitability of a break between the two mighty Stalinist states. Referring to the split that had already erupted beteen Yugoslavia and Russia, the article concludes: 'It is quite likely that Stalin will have a new Tito on his hands…Mao will have a powerful base in China with its 450-500 million population and its potential resources. The conflicts which will thus open out should be further means of assisting the world working class to understand the real nature of Stalinism.'

The clarity of the analysis and the perspective worked out in the above article did not mean that there was still not a great deal of confusion and questioning within the Trotskyist movement, not least in the ranks of the RCP. In a document that was in many respects typical of the doubts being raised, an RCP member, David James, wrote Some Remarks on the Question of Stalinism (dated February 1949). In this he questioned the conclusions arrived at in relation to China and Yugoslavia. This was published as a contribution to the internal discussion in the RCP, and precisely because it did reflect wider doubts about the leadership's (that is Ted Grant's) position it warranted a full reply.

This Reply to David James, forms the second part of this chapter. It deals once again with the Tito-Stalin split, in the same terms which it is dealt with in the previous chapter. 'The only difference between the regimes of Stalin and Tito', it says, 'is that the latter is still in its early stages. There is a remarkable similarity in the first upsurge of enthusiasm in Russia, when the bureaucracy introduced the first Five Year Plan, and the enthusiasm in Yugoslavia today.'

Using the method of Marxism to describe the regime of Tito, and hence explain the split with Stalin, the document takes the argument further and extends it to the example of China. It elaborates further the process by which Mao Tse Tung established his regime, explaining that it was, of necessity, 'deformed' from the very beginning: 'Basing itself upon the peasantry, it (the Chinese Stalinist leadership) enters the towns not with the aim and outlook of a genuine Communist Party, but with the aim of establishing its power by manoeuvring between the classes. It does so not by transferring its social basis to the proletariat - not as the direct representative of the proletariat as would a Bolshevik party - but in a Bonapartist manner.'

Just as Tito has been able to assert his independence of Moscow - because he came to power largely through 'his own' Yugoslavian movement - so, therefore, Mao Tse Tung would also be able to assert his independence, by resting on the Peoples' Liberation Army and a nation of 500 million…'the danger of a new and really formidable Tito in China is a factor which is causing anxiety in Moscow'.

By the late 1950s, the predicted differences between Chinese and Russian Stalinism had begun to appear. Exchanges between the Russian leader Nikita Kruschev and Mao Tse Tung became increasingly bitter until, in mid 1960, there was a complete rupture, with the Soviet Union withdrawing all the scientists and technicians previously placed in China to aid its development. The public divisions between the Moscow and Peking bureaucracies had a profound effect on the Communist Parties throughout the capitalist world, with almost all of them suffering some split to form 'Maoist' parties.

As they had done previously with Tito, a section of the remnant of the 'Fourth International', now composed of small ultra-left sects, put Mao on a pedestal and hailed him as some sort of 'unconscious Trotskyist'. Encouraging the formation of Maoist Parties, one 'Trotskyist' sect even managed the brilliant feat of losing its members to the organisation, the first time in history that a 'Trotskyist' group participated in creating a Stalinist Party.

The third item in this chapter, The Colonial Revolution and the Sino-Soviet Split, is a document written in 1964, and first published by Sussex University Socialist Society. As the title implies, it once again explains the nature of the split between the Russian and the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracies, this time after the event, but it also extends the analysis of the Chinese revolution to encompass the broader processes of the colonial revolution.

At this time, at the height of the post-war boom, the ultra-left sects condemned the working class in the West as 'bourgeoisified', and turned their attention to the students and to the struggles for national liberation in the colonial world. For them, the centre of gravity of the world revolution was shifted from China to Cuba, from Cuba to Algeria, from Algeria to Vietnam, on each occasion slavishly and uncritically supporting the leadership of the liberation movements.

This document, therefore, was largely a polemic against these middle-class infatuations, providing a broad review of the colonial revolution. Building on the analysis first made in relation to China, it showed how similar processes could take place in smaller countries, like Burma, Vietnam and Cuba.

Referring to the war of liberation waged by the Vietnamese workers and peasants against US imperialism, the document pointed out that a victory for the Vietnamese people would be an historic step forward. But it correctly predicted that the regime that would be likely to be installed would be, like the government in North Vietnam, a deformed workers' state.

The general analysis gave a penetrating insight into the processes of the colonial revolution as they unfolded in a number of countries. It pointed to the tendency for the 'statification' of the economy, where there were radical regimes that faced grave economic crisis and the pressure of the masses, even though in some cases, like Egypt and Algeria, the process did not go all the way to the complete expropriation of landlordism and capitalism.

The fourth section of the chapter, The Colonial Revolution and the Workers' States, is yet a further development of the broad themes already worked out above. It was first published in the Militant International Review, in July 1978. In the fourteen years since the publication of the previous document, there had been a number of revolutionary movements in the third world which had resulted in the formation of proletarian Bonapartist states on the same lines as China and Russia.

These included Syria, Vietnam (unifying South and North), Laos, Kampuchea, Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia. The formation of these states was consistent with the analysis of the colonial revolution already worked out in 1949, and elaborated since then. But in addition, in confirmation of the analysis of the origins of the Sino-Soviet split, some of the divisions between different bureaucracies had gone to the point of armed conflict. There had been armed clashes on the Russian-Chinese border, and on the Vietnamese borders with Kampuchea and China. There is no other explanation of the conflict between these alleged 'socialist' states, other than the basic position developed by Ted Grant at the time of the Tito-Stalin split, elaborated in relation to Chinese Stalinism and then further developed in his writing on the colonial revolution.

Particular attention is paid in this article to the position of Cuba and Ethiopia. In the case of the latter, a revolutionary movement overthrew the emperor, Haile Selassi, in 1974, and soon afterwards a military regime around Colonel Mengistu was consolidated by basing itself on the expropriation of landlordism and capitalism. This government, however, adopted the totalitarian methods characteristic of all the third world Stalinist states. In its policy towards its national minorities, it was no less repressive than the regime it replaced, and it became involved in wars against Eritrean guerrillas in the North and against Somali-backed sucessionists in the Ogaden region.

It was at this point that the Russian Stalinists switched their support from Somalia (also a proletarian Bonapartist regime) to Ethiopia and began to give active assistance to the latter. The sectarian remnant of the old Fourth International now found itself in the impossible position of having to explain how a 'healthy workers' state' (Cuba) could be giving active support to a 'fascist state' (Ethiopia).

Once again, it was only possible to understand the events through the analysis previously worked out by Ted Grant, explaining how Stalinist states had come to be created in both Cuba and Ethiopia. This article, like the previous document, also illuminates the general processes taking place in the colonial revolution, referring, for example, to the coup in Afghanistan in 1978. This coup established the deformed workers' state which the Moscow bureaucracy set out to shore up by its invasion a year later, in December 1979.

No study by socialists of the colonial revolution today would be complete without the solid theoretical foundation - tested, re-tested and confirmed by events - laid down by Ted Grant in the form of the items in this chapter, as well as other related documents and articles by the same author, too numerous to be included.

Go back to contents page or go on to next section, The Chinese Revolution

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.