The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Underdeveloped Countries that Broke with Imperialism

Jan 21, 1976

A few underdeveloped countries – China, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Albania, and North Vietnam – have benefitted from very special historical circumstances, which enabled them to break politically and economically with imperialism. These circumstances allowed them to undertake a number of economic and social reforms, by which they were able to survive but not to develop. These measures lead “Third World” ideologues – even some Trotskyists – to define these states as workers’ states.

These states originated in different ways. None of them were installed by a proletarian revolution. In none of them did the proletariat even play a distinct role as a class conscious group. Neither Mao, Tito, nor Castro claimed allegiance to the revolutionary proletariat when they took power. They spoke in the name of national unity of all social classes with the bourgeoisie out in front. These states are in no way workers’ states; they are bourgeois states. However, they are very different from other underdeveloped countries.

These radical representatives of their national bourgeoisie, whether vaguely humanist like Castro, or with a communist label like Mao or Tito, led successful peasant uprisings. With the support of the peasantry, they were able to conquer power in the name of the radical reform program of the national bourgeoisie.

The fact that this was carried out in every case (except for Cuba) under the leadership of a party which called itself “communist” does not change the class nature of these states. Some of these parties (the Albanian CP, for example) never had anything to do with the proletariat, either politically or in terms of a class base. The Chinese CP (and to a certain degree the Yugoslavian CP) was a proletarian party at the beginning. It was later cut off from the proletariat and ended up consciously turning its back on the proletariat. The Chinese CP opted for the political program of the national bourgeoisie: condemnation of the class struggle in the name of the bloc of four classes and national anti-Japanese resistance. It chose the peasantry as its troops under the command of the intelligentsia. Despite their label, the Chinese CP acted as a bridge, to use Trotsky’s phrase, between the peasant movement and the urban national bourgeoisie. This afforded the national bourgeoisie a political alternative if all else failed. When Chiang Kai-Shek was dislodged from power, the CP was able to offer a political alternative to the Chinese bourgeoisie.

It is not unusual in an underdeveloped country for a political group defending a bourgeois radical program, with the support of the peasantry, to fight a state tied to imperialism and to the most reactionary forces in society. It is unusual for it to push this struggle to the end and come to power.

This situation occurred in China, Yugoslavia, Cuba, etc., because the emancipation movements in these countries faced state apparatuses propped up by imperialism. They were corrupt, bloody states which had become unbearable even for the bourgeoisie. Furthermore,

these bourgeois movements ran no risk of being overtaken by the masses, because no revolutionary socialist organizations existed on a national or an international scale which could organize workers on a class basis and direct the seizing of power.

These countries benefitted from the national feeling generated by an extremely hateful foreign oppression during World War II. They also benefitted from the weakening of imperialism by the end of the war. More generally speaking, the Soviet bloc, coming into existence in the late 1940s, aided these movements as well.

Because imperialism was unable to prevent the victory of these emancipation movements, it chose to try to stifle them by means of a severe economic blockade. The breaking away of these states from the imperialist world was not what these states would have preferred. Imperialism forced them into such measures as nationalizations, the completion of rural reform, the total or partial expropriation of the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, and the monopoly of foreign trade. These measures were necessary in order to develop a national economy, in order to take shelter from the economic pressure of imperialism, in order to survive outside the world market.

Though these regimes have been able to stand up to imperialism and to survive despite blockades, they have no chance to develop their economy, to industrialize to the level of the advanced industrial countries.

These countries may have abruptly broken off economic relations with the Western powers, but they remain dependent on the Western powers, because the international division of labor is controlled by imperialism. So their dependence is revealed in other ways, such as the low productivity of labor. These countries, like other backward countries, cannot break out of the vicious circle. To develop, they vitally need the international division of labor. But under the world domination of capital, this division completely favors the capitalist West. It is the very means by which the underdeveloped countries are exploited.

Second, there has been no primitive accumulation of capital in these backward countries. The surplus value extracted from the local proletariat has not been amassed by the local bourgeoisie. It has accumulated in the imperialist countries. Even if the local bourgeoisie were radically expropriated – which has rarely been the case – there would not be sufficient capital for development. The leaders of these regimes sacrifice a revolutionary international policy in a vain attempt to build a national economy. They call this economy “socialist” and hide this sacrifice under false revolutionary airs. Their populations are deceived and, in fact, betrayed by their “revolutionary” leaders.

The existence of these unusual underdeveloped countries can be explained by the belatedness of the world revolution in the advanced capitalist countries and by the absence of a revolutionary party in the world.

But their existence is precarious, due to certain historical contingencies. These countries have no possibility of becoming powerful states with advanced economies. They cannot catch up or overtake the capitalist West. The very road they have chosen, that is, capitalist accumulation through maximum exploitation of the peasant masses, leads them to a dead end.

Choosing this road means exploiting the working people of the country in order to develop the national economy. With this kind of exploitation, a democratic regime is not possible in these countries.

In the past these regimes were supported by a mass movement and struggled against imperialist domination. Thanks to this popular support, they were able to by-pass the military dictatorships often prevalent in underdeveloped countries. These regimes are more “popular” on paper than the dictatorial ones, but their policies can only lead in an oppressive direction.

This inevitable degeneration is illustrated by the evolution of Cuba, which is becoming more and more of a police state. The Chinese state also illustrates this phenomenon. “Revolutionary” China had to organize repression, baptized the “cultural revolution,” on a vast scale. The cultural revolution was aimed at disciplining the proletariat in order to prevent it from appearing as a class with its own interest and its own claims.

In the conflict between imperialism and these countries, revolutionary Marxists are on the side of the latter, just as they are on the side of any underdeveloped country. But this support must be accompanied by a clear understanding that no fundamental difference exists on a social level between these countries and such independent states of the Third World as Egypt, Ghana, or Guinea.

For example, the U.S. broke politically with China for a long period and doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba at the present time. So the U.S. maintains a deep political difference between these states and other underdeveloped countries. But these political choices change nothing about the class nature of state power.

Furthermore, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China, and the possibility of a resumption of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, illustrate the circumstantial nature of this break.

When judging the class nature of a state, neither nationalizations, planning, the monopoly of foreign trade, nor the partial expropriation of the bourgeoisie are sufficient criteria. For these reforms have been carried out to various degrees in other countries which have not broken with imperialism, yet neither Egypt nor Ghana, to use two examples, is called a workers’ state.

Such measures aim to allow the state the maximum means to intervene in the national economy, in order to compensate for the weakness of private capital and to overcome the divisions among the capitalists. Even the imperialist countries, at certain periods in their history, like war, have used state intervention to defend the general interests of the bourgeoisie.

Finally, opposing imperialism as these states did is also no proof of their class nature. In all underdeveloped countries, the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie cannot hope to develop the national economy unless they fight against imperialist domination in their country. They must fight with imperialism for their share of the surplus value. This is pure and simple nationalism.

The only consistent anti-imperialist stance is that aimed at overthrowing imperialism, and consequently, at overthrowing bourgeois power in its bastions, namely, in the advanced capitalist countries. The only consistent anti-imperialist stance is in the camp of the international proletariat, agitating for world socialist revolution.

This is not the case in either China or Cuba.

Imperialist pressure seems to justify unfaltering support of national unity behind the regime. The pressures make it difficult to develop an independent class consciousness on the part of the proletariat in these countries. Furthermore, the proletariat is not numerous because these countries are underdeveloped; the proletariat is submerged in the petty bourgeois mass of peasants.

Nonetheless, because of their own particular conditions of existence, the workers must finally put forward their own demands. Awareness of their own interests will inevitably bring the workers up against their own state and against imperialism. Often the amount of time needed for workers to become aware and the capacity of the state to block this process depend on the numerical importance of the working class in these countries. It also depends on the degree of concentration of the working class, its traditions, and above all, on the nature of the imperialist threat.

However quickly or slowly the working class becomes conscious, this process must be made real by the building of independent organizations and revolutionary working-class parties, which aim to seize power by proletarian democracy. Because the proletariat of these countries is an integral part of the world proletariat which bears the socialist future, it is the only class which can open up a real future for these countries. Even if it is weak in numbers on a national level when compared to the enormous petty bourgeois peasant mass, the proletariat is strengthened by the weight of the world proletariat. But only a revolutionary International can mobilize this strength.