Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 29May 1992

Left and right swings in the communist movement

by Spiro Anthony

Many factors, both internal and external, were involved in the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. However, the blame must ultimately fall on the communist parties in power for they were in a position to act for the protection and development of socialism. It was their basic political orientation which failed them and failed socialism.

In relation to the CPSU and the path of socialism in the USSR, which had significant influence on other socialist states in Eastern Europe, there is evidence of errors in the orientation of the party since socialism was established.

The major deviations which were felt in Soviet society were left sectarianism which was practiced for many years and which was followed, in the 1980s, by a swing to right opportunism under the banner of perestroika and “new thinking”.

Within the periods of left sectarianism, there were shifts in policy under different party leaderships after the death of Stalin, but the orientation of the party continued on essentially unchanged.

The main flaw of the party leadership in that period was a lack of trust in the people and an expectation of too much from workers with too little, politically and economically, in return.

The party became divorced from the people and made decisions from ivory towers. There were many great achievements, nationally and internationally, but the party became self satisfied and could not make the required evaluation of its basic direction.

The swing to the right occurred as a response to the situation dominated by left sectarianism.

Right opportunism, characteristically, abandoned fundamental principles and theory. The concept of class struggle was discarded. Capitalism and imperialism were no longer the enemy. The party relinquished leadership of society. Order was turned into disorder, in the name of “democracy”. Right opportunism, characteristically, promoted nationalism which led to the breakup of the socialist nation.

The abortive coup in August 1991 was a manifestation of left sectarianism in response to right opportunist developments. Coup leaders made their decisions from above and failed to enunciate a clear socialist program with proper analysis of past errors. They failed to see the critical importance of involving the people in mass activity to carry forward their objectives.

Swings from left to right have been reflected in the development of the communist movement in some other countries.

There would be few if any communist parties that have not at some stage faced problems with left or right deviations. However, a swing from one deviation to the other has not necessarily occurred.

In the People’s Republic of China, for instance, the Maoist “Cultural Revolution” was a left sectarian adventure with tragic consequences. The subsequent “open door” policy made some concessions to capitalism but right opportunism did not take hold.

Survive or self-destruct?

Some points can be made about the left and right swings.

Both left sectarianism and right opportunism are in their own ways harmful to the communist movement. However, their methods and the consequences have proven to be different.

A now historical fact is that socialism can be retained as a system under a party leadership, which has a left sectarian orientation. In such cases, socialism does not function well and many people suffer unnecessarily, but the system survives.

On the other hand, it is patently evident that right opportunism leads to the destruction of socialism and the liquidation of the party as a Marxist-Leninist party.

Left sectarianism can be self-perpetuating because of the forceful vigour used in promoting the movement and an unquestionable belief in the singular correctness of its views. It relies heavily on constant hostility towards this or that enemy to maintain momentum. It uses self-glorification and other emotional devices, and thereby creates a self-reinforcing sect. It provides leadership, of a form, which gives it possibilities of survival.

Right opportunism is characterised by a lack of conviction in itself. It prefers others to do the leading. It capitulates to contrary views or will otherwise seek to excuse or accommodate them. It underestimates the capacity of people to take up class struggle and prefers to focus on other issues, such as nationalistic or moral issues, for the sake of popularism.

The fear of asserting a political role makes them uncomfortable about a Marxist-Leninist party and uncomfortable about building socialism, which requires strong political leadership. Under its influence, the Marxist-Leninist party necessarily degenerates and transforms into a non-communist party. Socialism cannot survive under its influence.

In cases of parties not in power, such as the CPI in Italy or the CPA in Australia, there was a gradual course towards liquidation of the parties under the continued influence of right opportunism.

Where parties in power adopt right opportunism, the destruction of the party and the socialist government can be swift.

No doubt many historians would like to record that it was the policies associated with periods of left sectarianism that brought down socialism in Eastern Europe. That is not what happened.

The danger of fight opportunism to the communist movement in any country cannot be overemphasised, but at the same time this does not condone the perpetuation of left sectarianism.

Are deviations inevitable?

There are various factors – historical, cultural, economic, international and critically, class factors – which put pressure on parties to adopt left or right positions.

However, it is not inevitable that one or the other deviation will be manifest in the general party line. Nor is it inevitable that one deviation will produce a swing to the other deviation, despite some tendencies for this to happen.

There would be elements of left and right trends in any Marxist-Leninist party at any time. However, to say that all parties do or must project a left or right deviation in their general position is untenable. This would be tantamount to saying that Marxism-Leninism can exist only in a left or right opportunist form. In actual fact, neither left nor right deviations are forms of Marxism-Leninism: they are both contrary to Marxism-leninism.

Many non-communist parties, as in Australia, have internal political trends, which could be broadly defined as left and right wings. Some parties, such as the ALP, legitimise their factions. The factions and trends are accommodated within the ideological framework of the parties. It is possible for the parties to switch to one or another dominant tendency, to suit particular circumstances while retaining the general political philosophy.

In countries like Australia, the major pro-capitalist parties enjoy a degree of luxury. If a party ceases to hold power through the fault of the dominant tendency, the party is nevertheless likely to survive and furthermore the system of capitalism survives.

With a communist party, however, the stakes are much higher, because the political direction of the party is crucial to its very existence. Deviations, particularly of a right opportunist kind, can bring an end to the party and, as we have seen in Eastern Europe, a disintegration of the whole socialist system.

Political wings or factions are not and must not be part of the nature of a Marxist-Leninist party. The party cannot be an umbrella organisation which legitimises various tendencies and so makes it vulnerable to left or right swings. It cannot be a party with a “general philosophy” and at the same time accept differing forms of interpretation of that philosophy. Right or left deviations are alien to the Marxism-Leninism of the communist parties.

Guarding against deviations

Basic to our belief in socialism is the view that the communist party will not necessarily manifest deviations in political orientation. Serious errors in the position of parties are not inevitable. The onus is on the parties to develop their ideological level and have sufficient wisdom and flexibility to correct errors. It is part of life that the parties must be constantly finding ways to promote the ideas and initiative of members within the framework of a sound ideological position.

As much as a communist party is subject to ongoing influences and pressures, it is, nevertheless, a matter of the party organisations weighing up situations and making rational decisions about the general direction and the specific line it adopts at any point in time.

Party leaderships in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe certainly had the chance to size up what was going on and correct the errors of the past without falling into the theoretical traps of right opportunism. Well before the critical events in the 1980s, there were numerous warnings from other communist parties about the anti-Marxist ideas being peddled, such as the “theory of human values”, but these warnings went unheeded.

Opportunists frequently regard their theories as something new or creative. However, the directions pursued were essentially no different from forms of opportunism found in other countries or in the history of the communist movement. The opportunism of the CPSU under Gorbachev had the hallmarks of classical right opportunism.

The political line was not unique to the Soviet Union. To this extent it is not sufficient merely to blame circumstances in Soviet society or in the international arena for the collapse of socialism. Rather, it was the political position of the party in the Soviet Union, which led to the collapse.

Furthest from the truth is the notion that socialism or Marxism-Leninism has failed.

Socialism in Australia, or any other country, will not necessarily duplicate the errors made in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. We must make this clear through our assessments of what a future socialist Australia will be like and through our behaviour in the present.

Our task in building the communist movement depends to a large extent on learning the historical lessons and acting in a way that avoids both left and right deviations.

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