From Lenin to Chávez – socialist leadership since 1917

Fidel Castro

By Brian Williams

The analysis of Marxism concludes that the interests of humanity as a whole coincide with those of the working class – i.e. the advance of the working class takes forward the general interests of humanity, including all of its oppressed layers, while setbacks for the working class roll back the interests of humanity. This therefore determines the attitude to all political forces. Those who take forward the interests of the working class take humanity forward, those who set back the working class set back the general interests of humanity including its oppressed layers. Nothing more clearly illustrates this reality than the history of the 20th century, above all the victory and then defeat of the Russian revolution, and the events following this in the 21st century.

The impact of the Russian Revolution

In the immediate aftermath of the October 1917 revolution in Russia there was no doubt who led the international working class movement. The Bolshevik Party established working class power on one sixth of the world’s surface. So great was the power of this revolution that it largely determined the history of the 20th century and beyond. Although the attempts to repeat such a revolution in Western Europe were defeated, it stimulated a series of struggles in colonial and semi-colonial countries – initially in China, India and Indochina – which culminated in the destruction of the colonial empires created during the preceding four centuries.

After 1945, fear that the Russian Revolution would spread forced the West European capitalist classes to create welfare states, making large scale social concessions to the working class. The impact of this revolution, most directly via its impact in the colonial countries, helped propel the civil rights movement in the US, as well as major advances of women and other progressive movements in the imperialist countries.

The final overturn of the Russian Revolution in 1991, and the successful restoration of capitalism, similarly unleashed a wave of reaction – which includes the inauguration of a more or less continuous series of imperialist wars (two Iraq wars, intervention in Yugoslavia, military attack on Libya, intervention in Syria, attack on Mali and others) which continue to the present day; deepening attempts to overturn the welfare states in Western Europe; the increasing resurgence of overt racism in Europe, and attacks on women and other reactionary trends.

The Russian Revolution, more clearly than almost any other event in human history, confirmed that the progress or regression of humanity depends on the advance or defeat of the working class, not on bourgeois ‘democracy’.

Alongside these immense objective achievements, the Bolshevik Party, particularly in the concepts of its acknowledged leader Lenin, made a series of contributions to Marxism that shape it to this day. The theories of imperialism, of the fundamental distinction between oppressor and oppressed nations, of the united front, of utilising tactics of participation in legislative and executive elections while understanding state power cannot be taken through these means, of the understanding of social democracy as working class in composition but bourgeois in terms of the class interests it defends, of the necessity of a disciplined working class party, plus numerous other contributions, took forward socialism’s theory permanently. All significant development of Marxism after this did not overturn but built on those gigantic achievements. No political force which did not accept their fundamental approaches has ever established socialist working class power. For both objective and subjective reasons the Russian Revolution was therefore a defining fact of the 20th century.

However soon after illness ended Lenin’s active political career in 1923, and under the pressure of the encirclement, isolation and bureaucratisation of the USSR, the Bolshevik Party – by then the Soviet Communist Party – and the Third Communist International which it led, began to make a series of fundamental political mistakes. By 1926 in China it was unprepared for the turn of the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang against the Communist Party and the subsequent massacre of communists that it carried out. In the period leading to 1933 the Communist International’s policies of the ‘third period’, the refusal to form a united front with the German Social Democrats against fascism, permitted Hitler to come to power in Germany without serious resistance – the key event which allowed the unleashing of World War II and the military attack on the USSR itself.

From these policies, and the failure of the Communist International to oppose them, in 1933 Trotsky – the second most prominent leader of the 1917 revolution after Lenin, and with whom Lenin had proposed a bloc to remove Stalin from the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party – formed the conclusion that both the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International were dead as a revolutionary force. His conclusion was therefore to call for the construction of a new Fourth International.

Trotsky’s analysis

It is crucial to accurately understand Trotsky’s analysis in 1933. Any presentation of Trotsky as fundamentally an ‘anti-Stalinist’ fighter is entirely false. Trotsky to the end of his life saw the fundamental enemy as capitalism. Trotsky’s criticism of Stalinism was not that it was ‘undemocratic’ but that it did not have a line for the destruction of capitalism. Consistent with this anti-capitalist framework Trotsky was unequivocal that the removal of the Stalinist leadership of the USSR was subordinate to maintaining state property in the USSR. As Trotsky wrote at the end of this life: ‘We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR.’ (In Defence of Marxism p26)

This position determined Trotsky’s practical attitude to other forces. At all times Trotsky refused to form an alliance against Stalin with the ‘Right Opposition’ led by Bukharin in the USSR as he analysed the latter as representing the interests of capitalism – an approach for which he was naturally condemned by those who considered that the fundamental issue was to defend ‘democracy’ against Stalin.

As Trotsky put it in 1931 in The Bloc of the Left and the Right: ‘The Rights have suddenly come to need democracy in order to have the possibility to conduct a consistently opportunist policy… a consistently Right wing policy, no matter what the intentions of Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky may be, is the policy of Thermidor. Where is the ground here for a bloc, or even the shadow of a bloc?’

In contrast to rejecting an alliance with the Right, that is the pro-capitalist opposition, Trotsky was prepared to enter into an alliance with the Soviet bureaucracy both to defend the USSR itself and to defend the social bases created by the October Revolution. As Trotsky wrote in 1938 in the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International: ‘If tomorrow the bourgeois-fascist grouping, the “faction of Butenko” [a supporter of Stalin diplomat who went over to fascism], so to speak, should attempt the conquest of power, the “faction of Reiss” [a supporter of Stalin in the Soviet security service who came to support Trotsky] inevitably would align itself on the opposite side of the barricades. Although it would find itself temporarily the ally of Stalin, it would nevertheless defend not the Bonapartist clique but the social base of the USSR, i.e., the property wrenched away from the capitalists and transformed into state property. Should the “faction of Butenko” prove to be in alliance with Hitler, then the “faction of Reiss” would defend the USSR from military intervention, inside the country as well as on the world arena. Any other course would be a betrayal… it is thus impermissible to deny in advance the possibility, in strictly defined instances, of a “united front” with the Thermidorian section of the bureaucracy against open attack by capitalist counterrevolution.’

Trotsky’s fundamental opposition to the Soviet bureaucracy was therefore clearly not that it was anti-democratic but that it represented the pressure of capitalism in the USSR. The objective role of this bureaucracy would finally be to restore capitalism. Trotsky opposed the Soviet bureaucracy as it represented, in the final analysis, the interests of capitalism within the USSR.

Trotsky also concluded in 1933 that parties following the line of this Soviet bureaucracy could not wage a struggle against capitalism internationally – this was the rational of the call for new Fourth International in July 1933. As he wrote in To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew, in that month: ‘An organisation which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of the bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it… In all our subsequent work it is necessary to take as our point of departure the historical collapse of the official Communist International.’ This remained Trotsky’s course until his assassination in August 1940. His condemnation of the role of the leadership of the USSR was, as he put it in The Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, because of ‘the definite passing over of the Comintern to the side of the bourgeois order.’

Within the USSR itself, Trotsky’s analysis was proved correct – if in a significantly longer timescale than the one he had envisaged. In 1991 the leadership of the USSR, under Gorbachev, achieved what Trotsky had seen as their trajectory – to create the conditions for the restoration of capitalism in the USSR.

China and Mao Zedong

What Trotsky never knew, indeed possibly no-one or at best a handful outside China knew, was that in January 1935, only 18 months after Trotsky called for a new international, Mao Zedong and his supporters at the Zunyi Conference of the Communist Party (CCP), defeated the representatives of Stalin, including the direct representative of the Communist International Otto Braun and party leader Bo Gu, to take control of the Chinese CCP. Prior to 1935 Mao Zedong exercised intermittent leadership and control of the CCP. From the Zunyi Conference until his death in 1976 Mao Zedong and his supporters led and determined the line of the CCP. Furthermore they utilised this control of the CCP to wage a revolutionary struggle for power in the most populous country in the world.

Mao Zedong’s policies involved at times very close cooperation with the leadership of the USSR. But never again did the Soviet bureaucracy control the CCP. When Mao Zedong’s policies and those of the Soviet leadership were in contradiction, as after 1945 when Stalin urged the CCP not to fight a war to the finish with Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang, it was Mao Zedong’s line which was carried out. This was a variant Trotsky had not foreseen in 1933: a Communist Party, in this case one of the world’s largest Communist Parties, had broken with the control of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Furthermore Mao Zedong, in first his periodic, and then after 1935 uninterrupted, leadership of the CCP introduced a series of analyses, tactics and strategies which, while they built on those of the Communist International nevertheless developed new concepts on their bases. The idea that working class revolution could combine both a proletarian struggle for power and the tasks of a bourgeois democratic revolution (destruction of feudal landlordism, establishment of national unity, freeing of an oppressed country from imperialism etc) was not new. In theoretical outline Marx and Engels had already introduced it, and it was the central concept guiding both Lenin and Trotsky in 1917. This concept had previously been that the working class would be the main social motor force of this struggle, breaking the power of the bourgeoisie and feudal ruling class in the cities, and that this decisive struggle would be supported by the struggle of the peasantry. This struggle of the peasants to destroy feudalism and its residues, and imperialist domination of the country, having as a decisive social goal the destruction of landlordism and foreign control of the country, was objectively bourgeois democratic in content. That is, in this strategy, the socialist revolution of the working class in the cities, the leading social force of the combined socialist and bourgeois revolutions, would be supported by the bourgeois democratic revolution of the peasantry in the countryside.

Mao Zedong introduced a strategy not conceived by any previous revolutionary leader and which recombined these elements of socialist and bourgeois revolution in a new configuration. Mao Zedong’s line was that the main social force of the revolution would be the anti-feudal/anti-imperialist revolution of the peasantry which would be led by a working class political force, the Communist Party which would destroy the political power of both feudalism and the bourgeoisie. This in turn would allow these bourgeois democratic tasks to be integrated with a socialist revolution that would not only politically but economically overthrow the bourgeoisie. The strategy and tactics that flowed from these concepts – ‘the countryside will surround the cities’, ‘prolonged people’s war’, the concept of the ‘principal contradiction’ – were triumphant leading the CCP to power and overthrowing capitalism in the most populous country in the world. The achievements that followed from this were among the greatest in history – the expulsion of foreign imperialism from China, the destruction of landlordism, the prolongation of life expectancy by 20 years, the establishment of universal literacy, eventually the most rapid economic growth ever experienced by a major country in human history, the most rapid growth of consumption in any major economy, and the lifting of 620 million people out of absolute poverty, more than the entire population of the European Union or the Latin American continent. So enormous were these achievements in creating the People’s Republic of China that right to the present, despite the later mistakes of Mao Zedong – the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – the overwhelming majority of the left wing forces of the Chinese working class, now the largest and most powerful in the world, define themselves as ‘Maoist’.

On the decisive issues which led to the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949 Mao Zedong was correct not only compared to the line of Stalin but also that of Trotsky. Stalin had urged compromise with the Kuomintang, Trotsky had urged the CCP to abandon its strategy based on the countryside and return to the cities – both policies rejected by Mao Zedong and his supporters. Mao Zedong enjoys to this day his unique authority among the advanced political forces in China’s working class for achieving both the national liberation of China and a socialist revolution, because his line was correct against all alternatives.

The result was an event which, together with November 1917, was the most important in the history of the 20th century. In 1949, after emerging victorious from decades of military conflict, culminating in full scale civil war with the Kuomintang, the CCP came to power in the most populous country in the world and after one of the greatest revolutions in human history. This was a variant Trotsky had not foreseen in 1933: a Communist Party broke from the control and line of the Soviet leadership and successfully oriented not just theoretically but in practice to the overthrow of capitalism.


If in 1935 the CCP had broken with the organisational control of the Soviet leadership, in 1941-45 a similar process unfolded with the Yugoslav Communist Party (CPY). After the invasion of Yugoslavia by the Nazis in April 1941 an enormous popular revolution unfolded in that country culminating in the creation of a partisan army which at its peak numbered 800,000, or five percent of the entire population – equivalent to an army of over 3 million in contemporary Britain, 16 million in the contemporary US, or 69 million in contemporary China. At least one million people were killed in the war against the Nazis – one in 15 of the population, equivalent to 4 million people in the contemporary UK, 20 million in the current US or 87 million people in present day China.

A nucleus of this revolution was formed, under the instruction of CPY leader Tito, of Proletarian Brigades – established in direct opposition to the urging of the Soviet leadership under Stalin. Apart from some secondary help by the Soviet army in the final stages of the war Yugoslavia was liberated by Partisan forces led by the CPY. This military and administrative control by the CPY meant that Stalin’s ‘excommunication’ of the CPY from the Cominform, and attempts to assassinate Tito from 1948 onwards, failed entirely. The CPY after 1945 initially followed a more left wing line than the Soviet bureaucracy, supporting the Greek Communist Party in the civil war in Greece and shooting down US planes overflying Yugoslavia territory. From the 1950s onwards the leadership of the CPY turned to the right, balancing between the USSR and imperialism, but this does not alter the reality that in the period after 1941 it led a mass popular revolution.


In September 1945 Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), proclaimed the independence of Vietnam. In December 1946, following unsuccessful attempts to reach an agreement, Ho Chi Minh formally declared war against the colonial power France. In collaboration with both the USSR and China, by 1954 the VCP had militarily defeated the French, culminating in battle of Dien Bien Phu, and secured the independence of North Vietnam.

After the US, the now dominant imperialist influence, refused to hold the promised presidential election in Vietnam in 1956, struggle renewed in South Vietnam. In 1965, after years of US support to the South Vietnamese government, US combat troops began massive intervention in South Vietnam. This met resistance not only by the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam but from the VCP leadership. In 1968 the Tet Offensive destroyed the illusion the US could win the war. By 1975 the VCP liberated South Vietnam, defeating the greatest imperialist power in the world.

The VCP did not find itself involved in overt struggle against the line of the Soviet leadership. But it led one of the greatest class struggles and revolutionary wars in history – losses from US actions in Vietnam resulted in three million dead. As Che Guevara wrote in April 1967:

‘In Vietnam fighting has been carried on almost uninterruptedly by the patriotic forces of that country against three imperialist powers: Japan, whose power collapsed with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; France, which recovered its Indochinese colonies from that defeated power, disregarding the promises made in time of duress; and the United States, in the latest phase of the conflict…

‘And – what grandeur has been shown by this people! What stoicism and valor in this people! And what a lesson for the world their struggle holds!’

Any idea that this struggle, one of the greatest in world history, was carried out against the line of the VCP is ridiculous – it was led by the VCP. Instead of acting as a bulwark of capitalism, the VCP defeated the greatest imperialist power in the world and overthrew capitalism in Vietnam.


The crucial leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, prior to the victory of that revolution in 1959, did not proclaim himself a Marxist or Communist. Certainly key leaders of the Cuban revolution, Raul Castro and Che Guevara, were Marxists and probably c/Communists – that is, with or without a capital ‘c’. But the Cuban Revolution itself for most of its duration bypassed the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party – which joined it only its later stages.

However after the taking of power in 1959 Fidel Castro oriented the 26th of July Movement, which led the Cuban Revolution, towards a merger with the Popular Socialist Party – the official name of the Cuban Communist Party. The Integrated Revolutionary Organisations (ORI) in 1962 became the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution and then in 1965 the Cuban Communist Party. In short, Castro’s movement integrated with the currents which came originally from the Third International.

The Castro leadership of the Cuban Communist Party in turn carried out outstanding acts of proletarian internationalism. It sent tens of thousands of troops to defeat the military forces of the South African racist regime – a critical moment in the defeat of apartheid. It helped inspire, and formed the closest possible links, with the FSLN after Nicaragua’s revolution of 1979. It was the most important ally of Chávez in Venezuela.


After 1917 for almost eighty years each successful revolution had followed in its broad outline the path inaugurated by Mao Zedong and followed by Tito, Ho Chi Minh, and Fidel Castro – an essentially rural based revolutionary movement, led by a socialist force, which conquered the cities in the last part of its struggle for power. These forces led a combined bourgeois and socialist revolution but with the rural petty bourgeoisie and rural working class as its main social driving force. This in turn determined the forms of organisation of these revolutions. These struggles were decisively military, necessarily requiring centralised military discipline, and without, until the last stage, the mass urban working class participation which typically acquires more democratic forms than those necessary to bind together more atomised rural forces.

However in 1998 something unseen for 80 years occurred. In Venezuela, one of the colonial world’s most urbanised countries, a leadership which pursued a course oriented towards revolution came to power after a prolonged period of urban struggle. In the 1960s and early 1970s Venezuela had also seen significant rural-based guerrilla movements, including the Armed Forces of National Liberation and the Revolutionary Left Movement. These had, however, ended their armed struggles after 1973. It was the massive urban based Caracazo rebellion in 1989, met by large scale massacres by the army, which was the decisive event leading to an attempted progressive coup led by Hugo Chávez in 1992. After being pardoned in 1994 Chávez won the presidential election of 1998.

Chávez’s victory, as an electoral one, continued to confront a bourgeois state apparatus. This led to the decisive confrontation in 2002 with a bourgeois military coup against Chávez. Although it did not involve direct fighting, due to the enormous scale of the popular mobilisation, what followed was in essence an urban insurrection restoring Chávez to power and leading to the purging of the military. The victory of the Chavistas was consolidated by defeat of the reactionary pro-capitalist ‘strike’ by Venezuela’s oil company management in the winter of 2002-2003, which for the first time consolidated the Chavistas’ control of the country’s decisive economic asset, and then the defeat of a presidential ‘recall referendum’ in 2004. Central political state power in Venezuela passed into the hands of the working class – although capitalist forces continued to control local administrations, sections of the police etc. Capitalist forces controlled powerful, indeed for a prolonged period dominant, sections of the media.

The urban character of this struggle in Venezuela determined its different organisational forms to those in China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam or Cuba. Its organisational forms were significantly more democratic than those issuing from rural based struggle. Chávez showed a repeated ability to win elections. But the key international alliance of Chávez was clear. It was with the Cuban Communist Party.

The end of the Fourth International

Trotsky’s policy on the critical issue of the Chinese Revolution had been incorrect and Mao Zedong’s right. The leading of revolutions by Communist Parties in China, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam, together with the emergence of the USSR victorious in World War II, necessarily led to the Fourth International being a tiny minority force. Only in a few places where the leaderships of the Communist Parties followed a determinedly wrong course when confronted with mass struggles did Trotskyism emerge as a mass force – for example in Sri Lanka large scale workers’ struggles against the British colonial power, which were opposed by pro-Moscow forces, led to the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party becoming a mass party. Trotskyism acquired a significant following in one of two few Latin American countries for the same reason. But overall Trotsky’s Fourth International acquired no mass following.

Nevertheless for five decades after the Fourth International’s founding it remained on the right side of the class divide. It played a creditable role in solidarity with the colonial revolution – particularly its international organisation of solidarity with the Vietnamese and Algerian revolutions.

But this organisation subsequently degenerated. Confronted with the rise of Gorbachev in the USSR the Fourth International ‘discovered’, and wrote in its publications of a (classless) ‘democratic revolution’ in Eastern Europe and the USSR – talk of ‘democracy’ with no class content is an invariable sign of a revolutionary organisation has lost its bearings. Yeltsin, the leader of the capitalist counter-revolution in the USSR, was identified as the most progressive force and those in the ambit of the Fourth International dedicated books to the leader of the capitalist counter-revolution. Trotsky had written: ‘We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR.’ But for the Fourth International preservation of the state property in the means of production in the USSR had become subordinate to the overthrow of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Trotsky himself, despite being wrong on key issues, had always remained within the framework of the defence of the working class. But the Fourth International broke even with Trotsky’s ideas and placed itself outside of this framework. The Fourth International as founded by Trotsky as a revolutionary force ceased to exist.

On what was Trotsky right and on what was he wrong?

What, therefore, is the balance sheet of the events after 1917 and of Trotsky’s decision in 1933 to call for a new International due to: ‘The definite passing over of the Comintern to the side of the bourgeois order’?

As regards the leadership of the USSR itself, as already seen, Trotsky was proved correct in the last analysis. The Soviet bureaucracy did not represent any form of stable social formation in historical terms – unlike alternative analyses to Trotsky’s.

The Soviet bureaucracy restored capitalism. This took longer than Trotsky expected, and it did not prevent the USSR emerging victorious from World War II. It took until 1991 for the Soviet bureaucracy to restore capitalism in the USSR, but that was its final destination. Trotsky’s analysis of the fundamental dynamic of the Soviet bureaucracy was therefore proved correct. Furthermore, internationally no party led by, or under the control of, the Soviet bureaucracy took power in any country – the states in the rest of Eastern Europe outside Yugoslavia were created by the Soviet army, not by popular revolution.

But as regards the whole of the Communist International Trotsky was proved wrong. A small but decisive number of Communist Parties – in China, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam – broke from the control of Moscow and oriented towards the conquest of power and the destruction of capitalism. Any idea that these parties were ‘forced’ to take power, or were bad leaderships is nonsense. The revolutions in China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Cuba and today Venezuela were with Russia the greatest and most important revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries. Tens of millions of people, and millions of members of the parties involved in these struggles, died in them. The political forces which led these struggles are matched only by the Bolshevik Party in their capacity for revolutionary leadership. Some of these leaderships, as in China, introduced major theoretical innovations in Marxism. Others, such as Fidel Castro and the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party, undertook some of the most important internationalist actions in history, and made the most balanced assessment of the global relation of forces.

The leadership of the socialist revolutionary struggle after 1933 therefore did not pass through the leadership of the USSR, but neither, for both objective and subjective reasons, did it run through Trotsky’s Fourth International. It ran in a line through the Chinese Communist Party, the World War II period of struggle of the Yugoslav Communist Party, the Vietnamese Communist party, that is through the left wing of the Communist International, through the Castro leadership of Cuba, and via Hugo Chávez. Chávez led the most advanced urban-based struggle seen since 1917.

That is the objective balance sheet of the continuity of socialist struggle after 1917. It is therefore the reality on which the struggle for the progressive interests of humanity must also base itself.