Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party

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Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party. A. James McAdams. Princeton University Press, 2017.


James McAdams has provided a compendious but readable account of communist parties from 1848 until now when he claims communist parties have died or withered away. McAdams, in my opinion rightly, does not consider the dynastic authoritarianism of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un to be a genuine communist party. McAdams (490) also says of contemporary China under the leadership of Xi Jinping that Xi “had nothing to say about whether it should matter that China was ruled by a specifically communist party and not some other autocratic organization.” Indeed, it would appear that Xi may be reverting to the Maoist “cult of personality” that accompanied the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and had been supplanted by the principle of party consensus to avoid what Deng Xiaoping and his followers thought to be the disastrous effects of Mao’s revolutionary campaigns. Mao would certainly think that the number of billionaires in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the utter failure to provide medical care to the rural poor to be signs that Deng and Xi were “capitalist roaders.” McAdams thinks that Communist Cuba will not long outlast the death of Fidel Castro. His verdict is that communism is dead or dying.

A curious feature of the death of communism is that, as McAdams observes (496), no one, either inside or outside the communist movement, knew in the late 1980s that the Soviet Empire was coming to an end. Hindsight proverbially is better than foresight by a damn sight. McAdams thinks that Gorbachev’s advocacy of openness and economic liberalization may have precipitated the collapse by a few years. He cites the resistance movements in the satellite countries, most notably Poland and Hungary, and costs of the arms race and the Afghan mission against the American-backed Mujahedeen in Afghanistan as significant factors accounting for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The racist and unconstitutional regimes of contemporary Hungary and Poland might be said to be costs in the overall benefit of the decline of the Soviet Empire, as might be the shot in the arm provided to Islamists around the world by the defeat of the Russian “crusaders” in Afghanistan.

Perhaps McAdams underemphasizes the role of nationalism in communist movements, while he appropriately recognizes the role of nationalism in Eastern European anti-communist movements. For example, he attributes the authority of the Kim dynasty in North Korea to “an advantage that was unavailable to most of the communist world—a sustained military threat” (414). But, surely, McAdams’ exception is the rule for all the communist movements other than those imposed by force on Eastern Europe after the Second World War. McAdams acknowledges that Tito’s legitimacy in Yugoslavia derived from his partisans’ opposition to German invasion. He acknowledges that the invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs preceded Castro’s conversion to communism, and the American blockade of Cuba continues to provide patriotic legitimacy to the Cuban regime. McAdams never mentions Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh’s conversion to communism arising from the failure to implement Woodrow Wilson’s right of national self-determination, and the continuing French and then American occupation of Vietnam. The war between the Red and White armies in which eleven allied armies joined the White armies in Russia transformed, Lenin lamented, proletarian internationalism into “Great-Russian chauvinism”. I would have thought much of Mao’s legitimacy derived from his opposition to British and then Japanese imperialism. McAdams’ account of Mao’s ascent is curiously devoid of an explanation (340):

When the war with Japan ended in August 1945, Chiang Kai-shek’s National Revolutionary Army (NRA) had nearly four times as many troops as the newly named People’s Liberation Army and enjoyed a vast superiority in weaponry. It controlled most of China’s territory and nearly all of its major cities.  Furthermore, Chiang was officially the country’s president. He had both the United States and the Soviet Union at his side, each seeking to expand its sphere of influence. Nevertheless, through a combination of shrewd diplomacy, guerrilla warfare, and patriotic appeals, the PLA and the CCP turned these adverse conditions to their favor.

This inexplicable turn around, McAdams implies, gave Mao the dangerous over-confidence to embark on the brutal Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution’s violent and unsuccessful attempt to overturn the Confucian tradition of separating a scholarly elite from the manual labor endured by the Chinese masses. Deng Xiaoping’s stabilization of the party and his economic reforms led people to wonder “what made the Chinese Communist Party communist” (477). If single party-rule is the characterizing feature of communism (11), then the Chinese adoption of capitalist methods of incentive, production and distribution do not vitiate its claim to being communist. What then is the distinctive feature of communism from 1848 to 2018?

The title of McAdams book, The Vanguard of the Revolution, is derived from Lenin’s writing, not Marx’s. The Communist Party, according to McAdams, is the vanguard to the revolution that aims to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat with the ultimate aim of establishing an egalitarian or classless society. Marx and Engels, in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, referred to the communist party as one of many working class parties, a party willing to ally with such groups as the British Chartists and the American agrarian reformers striving to broaden the suffrage and promote workers’ interests. With Lenin, the Communist Party, or specifically the Bolshevik branch of Russian Social Democracy, became the party of the proletariat. Lenin wrote, in What is to be Done?, that workers by themselves could only rise to a trade union mentality, aiming at higher wages and better working conditions, and needed the leadership of an intellectual vanguard to lead them to a revolutionary dictatorship. Marx, on the other hand, was a strong supporter of trade unionism. British unions formed the International Working Man’s Association in 1864, which attempted to prevent outsourcing of work to countries where union movements had not established the standards of safety and health in working conditions for which British unions had successfully fought. Marx became the secretary of the International, which accepted women in 1865 and carried forth the progressive agenda of British unions.

Marx did adopt the dangerous and indeterminate notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat in opposition to the French revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui, who advocated that a conspiratorial party impose a tutelary dictatorship on the French until they became sufficiently enlightened to accept socialist ideals. Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, however dangerously indefinite in terms of time and of structure—pointing to the Paris Commune of 1871 was insufficient (42-44)—emphasized the rule of a class, not as Blanqui and Lenin had it, the rule of a party (134). The conspiratorial character, and the top-down command structure, of the Bolshevik party were essential to prevent infiltration and arrests by the Tsarist secret police; Russian Social Democrats, unlike Marxists parties in Western Europe, could not compete in an electoral path to power.

If there was a discontinuity between Marx’s ideas and those of Lenin, McAdams thinks there was no inevitability that Stalin follow Lenin, or that the brutality of Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture and forced industrialization of the 1930s would have occurred if Bukharin, not Stalin, had led the Communist party (13, 177, 361). McAdams does not consider whether the bloodbath of the 1930s that accompanied Stalin’s rapid industrialization might have been the chief factor impeding the Nazification of Europe in the 1940s. On the other hand, the greatest novel of the Second World War, Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, set in the battle of Stalingrad, speculates that if Russia wins the war, the Soviet Union will turn nationalist and anti-Semitic and if the Germans win, National Socialism will become more internationalist in outlook.

Despite their common murderous quest for absolute power, Stalin and Mao differed with respect to their different understanding of the party’s functions. “Stalin viewed the organizational party as a hotbed of independent thinking and an impediment to his particular brand of socialism. Hence he subordinated the idea of party rule to an all-powerful state. By contrast, Mao was driven by the conviction that the organizational party should be reinfused with its original ideals” (338-9). Mao used the People’s Liberation Army to attack the party establishment in the Cultural Revolution and to foster an unending revolution against Confucian hierarchy and “bourgeois” acquisitiveness.

McAdams thinks the last gasp of communist ideals is dying away in Cuba. That is not to say that radical demands for economic justice and social equality have vanished. In a broad generalization, McAdams asserts that Latin Americans “preferred populist demagoguery over democracy and foreign tutelage” (315). If democracy paired with foreign tutelage means reluctance to adopt American political economy and culture, then “populism” most probably will remain a feature of Latin American societies. McAdams sharply distinguishes populism from Marxism. He writes (497):

“[W]hen the socialist politician Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999, he undertook a program of rapid social transformation that was reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s policies in the 1960s. He instituted antipoverty programs, turned major industries into state enterprises, and experimented with self-governing communes. Yet the party that put Chavez into office was a mass organization that primarily served the populist and nationalist instincts of its leader. It had little in common with the institution that spurred Marx and Lenin’s followers into action.”

Perhaps McAdams has underestimated the nationalist instincts of the Castro brothers and of the Cuban people. It is also possible, and indeed quite likely if America intervenes militarily, that Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro will opt for single party authoritarianism. Perhaps the antithesis between populist nationalism and communist internationalism is overdrawn. Perhaps the Comintern was simply a cover to advance Russian national interests, a matter particularly distressing to communists during the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939-41).

James McAdams’s Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party is a fine reminder of the destructive character of vanguard parties and the cramped lives people lived in one-party states. Those who know this fact will find ample material to support their view. His analysis of the politics of post-war Eastern Europe is particularly illuminating.

Ed Andrews

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Ed Andrews is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His book include Shylocks Rights: A Grammar of Lockian Claims (Toronto, 1988); The Genealogy of Values: The Aesthetic Economy of Nietzsche and Proust (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995); Conscience and Its Critics (Toronto, 2001); The Patrons of Enlightenment (Toronto, 2006); and Imperial Republics (Toronto, 2011).