The starting-point for any attempt to theorize socialist revolution must be the point at which conditions of exploitation are converted into the practice of class struggle. Socialist revolutions in the twentieth century have unfolded as complex processes decisively dependent on the emergence and growth of a revolutionary political organization. The central political organization (party or movement) passes through several crucial interrelated phases, each of which provides a unique contribution to the ultimate success of the whole enterprise. The sequence leading to the revolutionary transformation begins with the formative period involving the organization and ideology of the party. This is followed by class and political struggles in which forces are accumulated, roots are put down among the masses, a mass membership is won and, finally, power is seized. Subsequently, the socialist revolutionary process includes the establishment of a government, reorganization of the state and efforts to transform social relations.

While later influences play an important part in shaping the form and content of the revolutionary process, the origins and initial organization of the revolutionary party play perhaps the key role. Critical to an understanding of the embryonic revolutionary organization is the political culture in which it is embedded—the degree to which class struggle and social mobilization has occurred. The insertion of the embryonic revolutionary party into an ascending mass movement or within a politicized population is crucial in the creation of the collective experiences within which the cadres will frame their revolutionary programmes. The cadres are the distillation of class struggles and the bridges between past struggles and the future revolution. As carriers of the early formative class experiences, the cadres play a decisive role in determining the ultimate direction of the revolutionary process, and in weaving its specific organizational forms, leadership and ideology. But the cadres themselves, and the struggles they lead, are reflections of broader historic conflicts, that provide the parameters within which particular actions and movements occur.

In the case of Russia, the events of 1905—the uprising of the working class and the formation of Soviets—propelled the Bolshevik Party forward, strengthening the socialist component in its ideological armoury, creating cadres, and providing a historical reference for the social transformation in October 1917. In China, the early workers’ struggle provided the organizational and ideological direction which sustained the Communist Party on a socialist path, despite the shift of activity towards rural petty commodity producers. The continuity of the revolutionary movement in China must be stressed, against all those who attempt to submerge China’s socialist revolution in a host of special features and events related to China’s rebellious peasantry, the strategic wisdom of Mao, the nature of guerrilla war, the Japanese invasion (peasant nationalism, etc.)—all of which factors fail to explain the particular moment of revolutionary mobilization, or the substantive changes which took place after the revolution. China’s socialist revolution did not take place during centuries of rebellious peasant movements; nor did it occur during more than a half century of imperialist invasions and guerrilla warfare, nor was the socialist orientation a product of Mao Tse-tung alone. The peasantry moved towards socialist revolution only after the worker-based Communist party inserted itself in the country and after the peasants uprooted by Japanese imperial capital found an ideological and organizational expression in the Communist Party—and in no other party or army. Finally, Mao’s own strategic orientation towards the class—struggle road to socialism, and even his fundamental tactical commitment towards maintaining an autonomous army/party, were products of the experiences of the 1921–7 period (albeit drawing lessons from the negative experiences of subordination to the kmt).

If we conceptualize the revolution as a protracted and complex process, we capture the historical importance of the formative period: the qualitative ideological and organizational factors that enabled the party to gain the allegiance of the great mass of exploited Chinese and ultimately to succeed in revolutionary combat. Any periodization of the revolution that focuses exclusively on the ‘Yenan period’ (Mark Selden), the Japanese invasion (Chalmers Johnson) or the post-war disintegration of the kmt, fails to explain the politics that entered into each period.footnote1 For each such account presents particular features of an environmental setting (rural areas, peasantry; war-induced conditions, nationalism) as the basic determinants of the policy and direction of the revolutionary struggle. Yet these features affected all tendencies and political groupings within the political system, while only one—the Communist Party—was able to fashion a programme and accumulate forces capable of taking it to ultimate success. The basis of this success was not conjunctural, but the result of a painstaking and continuous effort to create the human political resources needed to formulate tactics, strategies and organizational structures through each conjuncture.

The central notions of class struggle, combining social and democratic revolution, derived from Marx and Lenin and embodied in the Chinese Communist cadre, contributed immensely to establishing a revolutionary strategic direction. The adaptions and nuances of application in the surrounding agrarian areas by Mao and his colleagues were innovations at the level of applied theory. The particular forms that armed struggle took—efforts to destroy the state—were based on classical Marxist-Leninist notions of the class character of the state. The same can be said concerning the politics of the revolutionary forces vis-`-vis the national bourgeoisie (though here Mao’s analysis at times ran counter to his organizational practice: while arguing that such classes existed, he never allowed the party to become enmeshed in a subordinated alliance). The party, founded on the principles of class struggle, baptized in the fire of mass urban struggles, proceeded to the countryside and re-educated a whole generation of rural labourers, petty commodity producers and their uprooted brethren in the ideology of class struggle and class politics. The fundamental politics of Yenan originated in the 1920s, as did the anti-imperialism that brought forth the anti-Japanese alliance. Without the basic cadre formed in the earlier phase, the mighty waves of peasant masses might have broken before the onslaught of the organized Japanese or kmt forces—leaving little long-term, large-scale change in the society. Thus, the study of revolution as a process requires us to emphasize the continuity and interrelatedness of each period. Particular events mark historical moments, with particular configurations of forces. But without an understanding of the preceding sequence, the molecular processes of accumulation of forces, the end-product of successful revolution, cannot be grasped. Each differential moment in the revolutionary process contributes to the understanding of the whole. The issue is to understand the relationship between each sequence, in determining the final outcome.

The second basic requirement for a theory of socialist revolution is the ability to differentiate correctly the periods in which different classes enter the revolutionary process. In periods of profound societal crises, classes enter into political and social combat unevenly, and in many cases political parties are not present to provide the organizational mechanisms through which they can act. Moreover, the moment of entry of a class—especially during a massive and tumultuous eruption—can bend the direction and orientation of the revolutionary movement. For example, in the case of the Cuban revolution the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie entered the revolutionary movement in the late 1950s: after, that is, the early founders of the 26 July movement, but before the mass of workers and peasants who joined early in 1959. Thus these bourgeois—anti-socialist—forces neither held the organizational leadership, nor had ties with the newly awakened rural and urban workers. The prior presence of the Castro leadership—shaped ideologically by the earlier workers’ struggles of the 1930s—ensured that the key posts and measures would not be controlled by bourgeois forces. The subsequent entry of the working class into the revolutionary movement, facilitating (and reflecting) the transformation in state power, undermined the position of bourgeois representatives in the government. The urban/rural workers became the dominant force in the revolutionary process after the uprising that overthrew Batista. The latter was merely one moment in the revolutionary struggle, whose crucial significance was that it facilitated the massive arming of the working class, which in turn was the critical factor permitting the overthrow of class relations.

The importance of periodizing the entry of different classes into the revolutionary process is highlighted by the fact that many writers, in seeking to identify the class character of a party, adopt an excessively numerical approach which downplays the determination by specific social forces. In the case of China, for example, many scholars write off the relative importance of the working class because of the rural setting of much of the fighting and the fact that the revolutionary movement was predominantly composed of peasants. In the case of Cuba, the same writers emphasize the presence of middle-class participants in the mid- to late fifties as the central characteristic in defining the nature of the revolution, but overlook both the earlier working-class struggles, which established a popular, anti-capitalist political culture, and the later massive entry of rural and urban workers into the political movement. While the revolutionary process encompasses a variety of social forces, and the timing of entry of these forces varies from situation to situation, it is important not only to count heads but to identify the qualitative position (power) of each social force within the movement. Early or late entry of the working class can be the decisive factor in propelling a revolutionary party or movement towards overthrowing capitalism and collectivizing the means of production. In Russia, the working class was the central force initiating and sustaining the revolution; in China, it initiated the struggle and the organization of the party; in Vietnam, it initiated the struggle and sustained activity on a secondary plane; in Cuba, it created a revolutionary culture that was vital for the formation of the Castro leadership, and subsequently played a central role in the decisive social struggles after the political régime was transformed. In all cases, the revolution had a socialist character because working-class struggles profoundly influenced the ideas and practices of the revolutionary organization.