Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Secretary international affairs, Political Bureau, In Struggle

Communist Workers Party analyzes the history of socialism: Right questions, wrong answers

First Published: In Struggle [Canadian newspaper] No. 282, March 9, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The Communist Workers Party is one of the larger and more influential sections of the Marxist-Leninist movement in the USA. Last summer their General Secretary, Jerry Tung, published a book entitled: “The Socialist Road: Character of Revolution in the U.S. and Problems of Socialism in the Soviet Union and China”.[1] This book caused a lot of immediate debate in the American left, because it reversed the CWP’s position on the U.S.S.R. Instead of their past position that the Soviet Union was capitalist internally and reactionary in world affairs, the CWP now says that the U.S.S.R. is socialist and plays a mainly progressive role in the world, fighting U.S. imperialism and aiding the liberation movements. This book is an important one to read and debate for two reasons. First, because it represents a growing trend, among what is left of the Marxist-Leninist movement around the world, to abandon the historical opposition to the Soviet Union which was one of the distinguishing features (“lines of demarcation”) of this movement. Second, because the CWP has arrived at this kind of conclusion through a process of study and reflection much like that IN STRUGGLE! has gone through. Like us, the CWP was shaken by the events in China after Mao’s death. Like us. they refused to react to this new crisis of communism just by aligning with the left in the Chinese party, or Enver Hoxha and Stalin, or Stalin without Hoxha, etc. Like us, they saw the necessity to sum up the history of the struggle for socialism, and to break with an idealist conception of this history in which leaders determine everything and material factors are ignored.

What are the arguments?

Most of the content of the book is an attempt to define what socialism is, the forms it takes in countries like the Soviet Union and China, and the implications of this for socialism in the U.S.A. The arguments are complex and varied.[2] But the essence of Jerry Tung’s position is simple. Capitalism is an economic system where the profit motive prevents the rational use of the socialized productive forces for the benefit of the majority. Socialism is nothing more and nothing less than the negation of these economic laws of capitalism. Countries like the Soviet Union and China are socialist because they have abolished private capitalism and established State planning.

What about the arguments that these societies are a kind of State capitalism or a new form of exploitation? Tung says this is not possible, because their rulers rule in the objective interests of the working class and masses – so the masses can’t be exploited. He also says that the restoration of capitalism is impossible in countries where socialism is established. For Tung, capitalist restoration is only possible in the initial stages of socialist revolution, like in Allende’s Chile.

Generally Tung argues that material conditions and the productive forces are the determining factor in the progress of socialism, especially in the underdeveloped countries where socialism has taken power. But he also insists on the importance of the leadership of the communist party in correctly building up the productive forces and mobilizing the masses.

What about democracy in these countries? Tung admits there is very little, in the sense of real control by the working class and people. For him, this is a problem to be gradually resolved through mass struggles like the Cultural Revolution in China or the Polish workers’ revolt. The goal of these struggles is to strengthen and improve the role of the communist party.

What about the foreign policy of these countries? Tung admits that it is often reactionary. He himself gives many examples of this, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the conflicts among China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. But he claims what distinguishes these countries from the capitalist or imperialist countries is that they have no material basis or economic imperatives which lead to such policies. These things are just “mistakes” made by the ruling parties, mistakes which these parties must correct.

Generally the book argues that in the existing socialist countries, the masses have taken control of their economic destiny (through the party), and thus political policies or ideology have become independent of-the economic base. Socialism makes mistakes, but, it can correct them. Capitalism, on the other hand, is driven by economic forces to economic crisis, political repression, and war.

What does this mean for the CWP?

Jerry Tung argues that his party must draw two major conclusions from this study. The first is the need to change its line on the U.S.S.R. (NB the CWP always considered China socialist). The second is the need to massively recruit among intellectuals of all classes to build up the party as a truly professional “government in exile” which can seize and run State power. These two tasks are linked together; the change in line on the U.S.S.R. will aid the massive recruiting of intellectuals. Why the stress on recruiting intellectuals? Because communists in imperialist countries must solve problems before seizing power that communists in underdeveloped countries solved after. This means imitating lessons like the New Economic Policy of Lenin, and avoiding the leftist excesses of China’s Cultural Revolution that destroyed a whole generation of professional cadre.

These policies are supposed to aid the CWP to be prepared to seize power and build socialism during the current crisis of American capitalism. The CWP will still fight against “revisionists”, which are defined as forces like the Eurocommunists and the CPUSA which have abandoned violence in their strategy. But the CWP will now unite with the “socialist camp”, including the Soviet Union, and help the ruling parties in these countries to correct their errors.

What’s wrong with these arguments?

One way to judge a theory is its ability to explain what really happens in the world. Here I’ll just give one example among many possible. Six months before the military coup in Poland. Tung’s book tells us on p. 84: “... the Polish army stands of the side of the workers. The revisionists in the Polish Party do not dare call on the army to suppress the strikers”.

This kind of mistaken prediction comes from a theory that is riddled with holes. One problem with Tung’s analysis is that he completely denies any material basis for the bureaucracy, political repression, corruption, economic crisis, capitalist investments and planning methods, and chauvinist and imperialist foreign policies that characterize the “socialist countries”. He admits these things exist, but continually claims they are independent of the socialist economic base. With this kind of argument, in the name of fighting idealism, Tung can only imitate the idealist “deformed socialism” argument put forward by the world Trotskyist movement for the last 50 years.

But a more fundamental problem is Tung’s whole conception of what it means to fight for socialism. For Tung, the working class and people can’t understand the “ideal” of socialism: only the party can; and a socialist strategy is based on economic factors and not people’s “desires”. And socialism is not judged by whether the working people rule, but by whether the new rulers can plan the economy in the name of the “objective interests” of the people. Tung reduces the Marxist vision of socialism to a putchist version of social-democracy, where the intellectual Marxist-Leninist elite battles the capitalists with the goal of better managing the economy for the ignorant masses.

Behind the errors in Tung’s book lies an important heritage of the Marxist-Leninist movement, a heritage also reflected in our own programme. And that is the idea that genuine socialism can be built in either backward or developed countries according to the same laws; so that revolutionary socialism in an imperialist country like ours is the imitation of the experience of the Soviet Union. China, etc. If we want to avoid the kind of errors that Tung makes, or other errors that come from the same kind of logic, we need to break with this heritage. That means developing an understanding of what is historically progressive about the social revolutions in the backward countries without pretending these countries are yet socialist. It also means developing a theory and practice of revolution based on the real objective and subjective conditions in the imperialist countries, like Canada. And, linked to both these tasks, it means reestablishing the Marxist tradition of socialism as meaning both the economic liberation and the political rule of the working masses.


[1] Jerry Tung, The Socialist Road, Cesar Cauce Publishers and Distributors.

[2] For a broader outline of the different theses by Marxists on the nature of the Soviet Union. see International Forum, no. 4.