Or… Why did Lenin talk about World War 1 as a “stage manager” of revolution?…
And why did Mao say, We should thank Japan for invading China?
by Bob Avakian
July 10, 2023
Let’s begin with this: In the most fundamental sense, communist revolutions do not come about simply as a result of the revolutionary work and struggle of the communists.
Why am I raising this? To argue that what communists do is unimportant?! No—obviously not. It is of definite and vital importance for communists to work consistently, and struggle vigorously, with determination and creativity, to win masses of people to see the need for and become actively involved in preparing for and then carrying out the overthrow of the oppressive system, in order to bring into being a radically different and emancipating system. (And clearly revolutions could not come about as a result of the revolutionaries carrying out something other than consistent revolutionary work and struggle.)
But revolutions do not proceed in a straight line—and it is crucial to grasp, and act decisively in relation to, those rare times when a profound, qualitative change in the situation opens up the possibility for major advance for revolution, perhaps even the possibility of carrying things all the way to the overthrow of the existing system and the establishment of a radically different and much better system.
This possibility may not be, and generally is not, immediately apparent, and on the contrary what is often more readily seen on the surface is the way in which, in the short term, the situation is worsening.
The point is that all this can only be correctly grasped, and acted on, with a consistently scientific method and approach.
One of the most important things that such a scientific method and approach makes clear is this: Revolutions are made possible, in the most fundamental sense, as a result of the intensification of the contradictions of the oppressive system, leading to crucial turning points, providing rare opportunities for major revolutionary advance, even potentially opening the way for the victory of the revolution. And the prospects for revolution hinge to a great extent on whether the conscious forces for this revolution not only carry out consistent revolutionary work and struggle, but more specifically whether they recognize—and on that basis act boldly and with scientifically grounded determination, to take full advantage of—these crucial turning points and all-too-rare opportunities.
Of course, the role of communists is not to wait around passively for such crucial turning points and rare opportunities. On the contrary—and this is a basic point of orientation in the new communism which I have brought forward—communists must continually work to maximize the development toward, and accumulate forces for, the revolution that is needed: applying the approach of hastening while awaiting the necessary conditions that make it possible to go all out in the fight for revolution, with a real chance to win. And then, when the necessary conditions have come into being, it is of crucial importance to act decisively—to lead masses of people, in their millions, to actually seize power.
But simply going along carrying out “routine” work in the name of revolution, actually lacking any revolutionary orientation and sense of urgency—“tolling the bell” timelessly, like monks in a monastery, paying no attention to the larger developments in the world, and in particular the way the fundamental contradictions of the ruling system are becoming much more acutely posed than in “normal times”—this will result in failure to grasp the potential this opens up for revolutionary advance and will lead to throwing away the rare opportunity.
The successful communist-led revolutions, first in Russia and then in China, during the first half of the last century, illustrate these crucial lessons. (Even though the socialist systems that were established through revolution, first in Russia/the Soviet Union and then in China, were eventually overturned and capitalism restored in both countries, the essential points I have emphasized here are highlighted by the experiences of these revolutions in leading masses of people in overthrowing the oppressive old order and establishing a new, revolutionary society and government.)
Russia: World War 1 as a “Stage Manager” of Revolution
For the Russian revolution, it was World War 1, beginning in 1914, that greatly heightened the contradictions of the capitalist-imperialist system overall and in a particularly acute way within Russia. (This was a war between rival imperialist powers for the dominant position in the world, and in particular the domination and exploitation of vast colonial empires especially in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.) As this war unfolded over several years, and intensified the contradictions that led to the war, it made the objective basis and possibility for revolution more favorable, although this possibility had to be firmly grasped and actively worked on—and the opportunity to overthrow the old order had to be decisively seized, when that opportunity arose toward the end of this war.
But it is worth noting that for some time before the start of World War 1, and then during much of that war, the Russian communists (the Bolsheviks) were severely weakened—with their leader Lenin and some other leading figures in exile, desperately hanging on in extremely difficult circumstances (with some comrades living, and even dying, on the streets). This difficult situation was to a large degree the result of the defeat of a revolutionary uprising in Russia in the decade before the start of World War 1 and the severe repression that followed that defeat. In those circumstances, many former supporters, or intellectual sympathizers, of the revolution adopted “philosophical” rationalizations for turning away from Marxism, and more than a few people within the ranks of the Bolsheviks retreated into self-indulgent individualism. Further, for much of World War 1, because the Bolsheviks took and maintained the principled stand of refusing to support their own imperialist ruling class in that war—while exposing and denouncing the war overall as imperialist—they were very unpopular among large sections of the Russian people, who especially at the start of the war were swept up in patriotic fervor in support of Russia’s involvement in the war.
But as the war dragged on, with the Russian ruling class continuing to be actively involved in this war that was causing enormous casualties for the Russian troops and terrible suffering for the masses of people in Russia, the Bolsheviks were able to increasingly win growing numbers of people and organize them into a powerful revolutionary force—including a section of the government armed forces that came over to the side of the revolution—and in the latter part of 1917 this revolutionary force succeeded in seizing power as the contradictions continued to intensify, largely as a result of the continuation of the war and the way it concentrated the underlying contradictions of the system of capitalism-imperialism.
That is what Lenin meant when he said that this war, with all of its massive destruction and terrible suffering, was a “stage manager” of revolution. But this did not happen “automatically” as a result of the mounting horrors of the war. There would have been no revolution in Russia then if the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, had not, first of all, maintained a principled stand in opposition to the war—going against the powerful tide of patriotic fervor at the beginning and for a good part of the war. Beyond that, there would have been no revolution in 1917 if Lenin had not provided decisive leadership in making the scientific analysis of the ways in which this war was greatly heightening the contradictions of the capitalist-imperialist system, overall and in a particularly acute way in Russia—or if the Bolsheviks had failed to apply this analysis and seize on the rare situation toward the end of the war when, as Lenin also put it, years and even decades of “normal times” became concentrated in months or even weeks of intensified contradictions and accelerated developments.
The Chinese Revolution and the Japanese Invasion and Occupation of China
In the late 1920s, after the slaughter of large numbers of Chinese Communists by reactionary forces headed by Chiang Kai-shek in Chinese urban areas, Mao Zedong led in making a crucial leap for the Chinese revolution: he headed a force of revolutionaries, recruited especially from among desperate sections of Chinese youth, to retreat into remote mountains and launch an armed struggle—a people’s war—against the oppressive and murderous government headed by Chiang Kai-shek (backed by “western” imperialists, including the U.S.). For several years, this people’s war succeeded in establishing and extending revolutionary base areas in the Chinese countryside and defeating successive attempts of the counter-revolutionary forces to suppress and liquidate these base areas and the revolutionary forces leading them. But, finally, in the mid-1930s, the Chiang Kai-shek government adopted new military strategy and tactics, which succeeded in forcing the revolutionaries to abandon the base areas and embark on what became known as the Long March, covering thousands of miles and ending up with the establishment of a new base area centered in Yenan in the interior of China.
Particularly with the eventual victory of the Chinese revolution—with the final defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s forces and the establishment of nationwide revolutionary political power in 1949—the Long March has come to be seen as a great revolutionary achievement. And it was. But it is also the case that, although this Long March did make possible a new and crucial stage in the Chinese revolution, the great majority of the revolutionary forces that embarked on this Long March—numbering in the tens and tens of thousands—died in the course of it. And it is entirely possible that not only those massive numbers of revolutionary fighters, but the revolution itself, could have been killed off—at least for a whole period of time—as a result of having to abandon the original base areas and carry out the tortuous Long March.
As it turned out, even with the great losses, a significant force survived the Long March, and this force—having fought many battles and overcome many hardships—was further tempered and steeled. Then, as a result of the invasion and occupation of large parts of China by Japanese imperialism, it became both necessary and possible to rally broad sections of the Chinese people in opposition to this invasion and occupation. And the need for the broadest possible resistance against the Japanese occupation, as well as the weakened position of Chiang Kai-shek’s government as a result of this occupation, established both the necessity and the basis to enter into a united front with this Chiang Kai-shek government to fight the Japanese invaders. (Because of “the reality on the ground” Chiang Kai-shek was forced to agree to this united front, even though, during the course of the war of resistance against Japan, Chiang continued his attempts to wipe out the communist-led forces, while giving up more and more ground to the Japanese.)
The result of all this was that, through the course of World War 2—which began in 1939 and finally ended in 1945 with the defeat of Japan and its allies, including Nazi Germany—the revolutionary forces in China led by Mao grew in numbers and strength; and, after a relatively brief interlude of attempted but failed negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek, through three more years of people’s war the revolution succeeded in thoroughly defeating the reactionary forces of the old order in 1949, capturing power throughout the Chinese mainland and forcing Chiang Kai-shek to flee to the island of Taiwan.
As was the case with World War 1, this second world war came about because of the intensification of the basic contradictions of the system of capitalism-imperialism. But the course of World War 2, including the Japanese occupation of China and the war of resistance waged against that occupation, in which the revolutionary forces led by Mao played a decisive role—all this resulted in a major change in the power relations within China, in a direction more favorable for the revolution; and this prepared much of the ground for the fight for the final victory of the revolution in 1949. In a real sense, the Japanese invasion and occupation of China constituted a kind of “fulcrum,” shifting the terms of the revolutionary struggle and providing the objective basis for a crucial advance of the revolution, after the devastating setback (the need to abandon the initial base areas of the revolution) which made necessary the Long March, with not only its real achievements but also its great losses.
This is what Mao meant when he said that Japan should be thanked for invading China. Obviously, Mao was not unaware of, or unconcerned about, the terrible atrocities which Japan’s occupation forces imposed on the Chinese people. His point was that the Japanese invasion and occupation, with all the destruction and suffering it brought for hundreds of millions of Chinese people, and for the Chinese nation as a whole, ended up contributing, in a major way, to the eventual victory of the Chinese revolution, and with it the possibility of uprooting the fundamental and overall causes of the horrific exploitation and oppression to which the masses of Chinese people had been subjected not just for years and decades but for centuries and millennia.
Mao’s ironic statement—we should thank Japan for invading—reflects the reality that the invasion and occupation of China by Japanese imperialism ended up contributing, in a major way, to the success of the Chinese revolution. But this revolution could not have succeeded if those leading it, and in particular Mao, had not grasped and acted in accordance with the changing objective conditions brought about by the Japanese invasion and occupation, particularly as this took place in the overall context of World War 2—and then the qualitatively changed conditions again, within China and in the world as a whole, with the end of World War 2, in which Japan was defeated and its occupation of China ended.
Crucial Lessons for This Rare Time When Revolution Has Become—More—Possible
Of course, no one can say with certainty that the Chinese revolution could not have eventually succeeded even if Japan had not invaded (or that there could never have been a communist-led revolution in Russia without World War 1). As Mao also emphasized, Marxists are not fortune-tellers. Marxism—communism—is a continually developing science, which proceeds on the basis of analyzing a continually changing objective reality.
The point, once again, is that revolutions do not proceed in a straight line, but through many twists and turns, including setbacks and defeats, sometimes very serious setbacks and defeats, along the way. The actual process is in line with another statement by Mao, which applies to even a successful revolution—that it is a matter of fighting and failing, repeatedly, until victory is finally achieved. And, all along the way, there is a need to apply a scientific method and approach to learn not only from advances, and from what prove to be correct policies, but also from mistakes, difficulties, setbacks and defeats, to continually make a scientific analysis of the constantly changing situation, and to recognize and seize on openings for advance, especially situations where there are profound, qualitative changes in the objective situation providing the potential for major advance, even perhaps the victory of the revolution.
Through the application of this scientific method and approach, it can be, and has been, firmly established that there is a basis and a possibility—not a certainty or “inevitability” but an actual basis and possibility—for revolution aiming for a communist world to ultimately triumph. And even while today the conditions in the U.S. and the world are vastly different than they were during the different phases of the Chinese revolution, in the first half of the last century, or the Russian revolution in 1917—and revolution in this country obviously will not and cannot come about as some kind of “copy” of either of those revolutions—especially in these tumultuous times now, the possibility of an actual revolution is real, yes right in this powerful imperialist USA. But this possibility cannot be grasped without the scientific method and approach of communism, as it has been further developed with the new communism. And a revolution will not, and cannot, be brought about without applying this method and approach to continually make, and act on, a scientific assessment of the constantly, and now rapidly, changing objective reality—including the daunting challenges and vexing difficulties, but most fundamentally the development of the contradictions of the system of capitalism-imperialism and the consequences of this, on a world level as well as within this country itself.
This scientific approach is especially crucial in those times when the contradictions of this system are changing in a major way—and, above all, those rare times when, as Lenin noted, years and decades of “normal times” become concentrated in months or even weeks, when contradictions are repeatedly intensified and changes rapidly accelerated, heightening the prospect of great disaster for humanity but also the possibility of wrenching a radically different and far better future, through revolution.
This is one of those rare times.
Why? As explained in Organizing for an Actual Revolution: 7 Key Points,
Brutal and murderous white supremacy, male supremacy, and other oppressive relations, the deepening crisis in society and the world overall, including the constant wars and the continuing destruction of the environment: all this cannot ultimately be resolved, in any positive way, within the confines of the system that rules in this country and dominates in the world as a whole—the system of capitalism-imperialism. Under the rule of this system, all this will only get worse. The deepening divisions within this country now, from top to bottom, mean that those who have ruled in this country for so long (the capitalist-imperialist ruling class) can no longer rule, as a “unified force,” in the “normal” way that people have been conditioned to accept—with a system of government that has an outer shell of “democracy” to cover over the fact that it is an actual capitalist dictatorship at its core, relying fundamentally on the armed force of the institutions of “official violence,” the police and the military. Because of big changes in this country and the world overall, one part of the ruling class, represented by the Republican Party, has become fascist: they no longer believe in or feel bound by what have been the “norms” of “democratic” capitalist rule in this country. And the other section of the ruling class, represented by the Democratic Party, has no real answer to this—except trying to maintain the “normal way” that the oppressive rule of this system has been enforced for hundreds of years, while the fascists are determined to tear up those “norms” and rule through more openly and aggressively oppressive means, without the traditional disguise of supposed “democracy for all.”
The crisis and deep divisions in society can only be resolved through radical means, of one kind or another—either radically reactionary, murderously oppressive and destructive means, or radically emancipating revolutionary means. And this resolution could quite possibly happen, one way or the other, within the next few years. This rare situation, with the deepening and sharpening conflicts among the ruling powers, and in the society overall, provides a stronger basis and greater openings to break the hold of this system over masses of people. In a situation like this, things that have basically remained the same, for decades, can radically change in a very short period of time. This rare time must not be wasted— it must be seized on to have a real fighting chance to bring about a truly emancipating revolutionary resolution, and not be subjected to a terrible, reactionary, murderously oppressive and destructive resolution.1
This, once more, requires resolutely “going against the tide” of spontaneous mass sentiments, including the stubborn tendency of many to remain stuck in the well-worn rut of relying on “the way things have always been,” even as that “way” is being profoundly disrupted and shattered by the intensifying, and even potentially existential, “earthquakes” erupting in this country and the world overall. As I have emphasized before, people—masses of people, in different parts of society—need to be shaken awake, through sharp, and at times fierce, struggle to get them to confront the very real horrors shaping up on the near horizon but also the real possibility for a revolutionary way forward out of this madness. This means breaking with the dominant relations and ways of thinking of this putrid system of capitalism-imperialism, including its quicksand trap of elections to choose between the Democrat and Republican representatives of the ruling class of this system.
The following, which I wrote years ago now, has greatly heightened and urgent meaning today:
Indeed, if and when conflicts among different sections of the ruling class reach the point where they are beginning to assume antagonistic proportions themselves, that is a sign of extremely deep and acute cracks and fissures in the entire established order; and such a situation must be seized by the oppressed not to side with one section of the bourgeoisie against another—thus helping the ruling class to “repair” the rupturing old order and reinforce its dictatorship, in one form or another—but instead to rise in revolutionary struggle to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie altogether.2
Masses of people: all those who suffer so horribly in the “normal times” of living under the rule of this system of capitalism-imperialism…all those who hunger for a more just world and a future worth living in, but whose future will be something truly terrible if things are allowed to continue on the terms set by this system… Masses of people, in continually growing numbers, must be made aware of the meaning and implications of this rare time, including through fierce struggle as necessary to win them to raise their sights and recognize not only the necessity but the possibility to seize on this rare time to make revolution and wrench something really positive, yes something truly emancipating, out of this rare time.
1. Organizing for an Actual Revolution: 7 Key Points is available at revcom.us. A fuller analysis of why this is a rare time when revolution becomes more possible, even in a powerful imperialist country like the U.S., is contained in the major work by Bob Avakian Something Terrible, Or Something Truly Emancipating: Profound Crisis, Deepening Divisions, The Looming Possibility Of Civil War—And The Revolution That Is Urgently Needed, A Necessary Foundation, A Basic Roadmap For This Revolution, which is also available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org and at revcom.us. [back]