What is a successful revolution?

At a minimal level, it is a revolution that has been able to withstand and defeat the counter-revolution (inevitably heavily supported by international capital, as with the ‘civil’ war in Russia). When it has done so, it can gain some precious space to begin the process of constructing socialism.

But I suggest there is another part to the answer: a successful revolution provides inspiration for other revolutionary movements. Let me give one example, from the 1930s in China and the sheer inspirational power of the Russian Revolution among Chinese communists.

America, England, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, and other capitalist or imperialist powers had sent thousands of political, cultural, economic, or missionary workers into China, actively to propagandize the Chinese masses with credos of their own states. Yet for many years the Russians had not had a single school, church, or even debating society in China where Marxist-Leninist doctrines could legally be preached. Their influence, except in the soviet districts, had been largely indirect. Moreover, it had been aggressively opposed everywhere by the Kuomintang. Yet few who had been in China during that decade, and conscious of the society in which they lived, would dispute the contention that Marxism, the Russian Revolution, and the new society of the Soviet Union had probably made more profound impressions on the Chinese people than all Christian missionary influences combined (Edgar Snow, Red Star over China, 352-53).

Ten Rules of Red Army warfare

In the long struggle towards 1949, the Red Army in China had learnt a few tricks, both from the communists in Russia during the ‘civil’ war and from their own experiences. With fewer fighters, inferior equipment and fewer resources against Chang Kai-Shek’s superior forces (supplied and trained by the Germans, Italians, Americans and English), they had developed a number of rules of engagement.

1. Do not fight any losing battles. Unless there are strong indications of success, refuse engagement.

2. Surprise is the main offensive tactic of the well-led partisan group. Static war must be avoided. The partisan brigade has no auxiliary force, no rear, no line of supplies and communications except that of the enemy.

3. A careful and detailed plan of attack, and especially of retreat, must be worked out before any engagement is offered or accepted. Superior manoeuvring ability is a great advantage of the partisans, and errors in its manipulation mean extinction.

4. The greatest attention must be paid to the mintuan (the landlord militia), the first, last, and most determined line of resistance of the landlords. The mintuan must be destroyed militarily, but must, if at all possible, be won over politically to the side of the masses.

5. In a regular engagement with enemy troops the partisans must exceed the enemy in numbers. But if the enemy’s regular troops are moving, resting, or poorly guarded, a swift, determined, surprise flank attack on an organically vital spot of the enemy’s line can be made by a much smaller group. Many a Red ‘short attack’ was carried with only a few hundred against an enemy of thousands. Surprise, speed, courage, unwavering decision, flawlessly planned manoeuvre, and selection of the most vulnerable and vital spot in the enemy’s ‘anatomy’ are absolutely essential.

6. In actual combat the partisan line must have the greatest elasticity. Once it becomes obvious that their calculation of enemy strength or preparedness or fighting power is in error, the partisans should be able to disengage with the same speed as they began the attack.

7. The tactics of distraction, decoy, diversion, ambush, feint and irritation must be mastered. In Chinese these tactics are called ‘the principle of pretending to attack the east while attacking the west’.

8. Avoid engagements with the main force of the enemy, concentrating on the weakest link, or the most vital part.

9. Every precaution must be taken to prevent the enemy from locating the partisans’ main forces. For this reason, partisans should avoid concentrating in one place when the enemy is advancing, and should change their position frequently – two or three times in one day or night just before attack.

10. Besides superior mobility, the partisans, being inseparable from the local masses, have the advantage of superior intelligence; the greatest use must be made of this. Ideally, every peasant should be on the partisans’ intelligence staff.

From Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China, pp. 275-76.

What is the proper role of reform?

One might expect that Lenin would opt clearly for revolution over against reform, for an abolition of the current system over against tinkering with it in order to make life more bearable. A selective reading of Lenin’s texts can give this impression. Reform is thereby described as a “tinkering with washbasins” (characteristic of the Zemstvos), that is, introducing reliable water supply, electric trains, lighting, and other “developments” that do not threaten the foundations of the “existing social system” (CW 10: 189; LPSS 12: 263). Such reform may therefore be seen as a response by the bourgeoisie to the strength of the working class, attempting to steer the workers away from revolution by emphasizing reform. Even more, reformism is “bourgeois deception of the workers,” who will always remain wage-slaves as long as capital dominates: “The liberal bourgeoisie grant reforms with one hand, and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery” (CW 19: 372; LPSS 24: 1). In other words, reform is a bourgeois weapon designed to weaken the working class. Yet, should the foundations of the system be threatened, when the proletariat begins its own onslaught of that system, all the various dimensions of “tinkering with washbasins” will be abolished before we can slip out a fart.

It follows that those socialists who see the prime task at hand to be reform miss the elephant in the room, for they wish to alleviate the conditions under which they work and do not realize that the problem lies in those conditions themselves (CW 5: 387; LPSS 6: 42; CW 10: 378–80; LPSS 13: 62–64). As Lenin observes in relation to debates, especially with the Mensheviks, over voting in the Duma elections, the danger is not whether some conservative party or other will win the elections, by fair means or foul, but in the very elections themselves: the danger “is manifested not in the voting, but in the definition of the conditions of voting” (CW 11: 459; LPSS 14: 277–78). One should never rest with what is given, but work to change that given. And the reason is that by fighting on the ground chosen by the enemy, reformists strengthen the power of their enemy.

What, then, is the function of reform? Is it to be dismissed entirely as a bourgeois deception and as a socialist compromise with the status quo? Contrary to initial impressions, Lenin does see a clear role for reform. In a daring formulation that is based on revolutionary experience, he argues that the opposition of revolution and reform is itself false. One cannot have either one or the other; instead, the condition for reform is revolution itself. Without any revolutionary agitation, reform would simply not exist: “either revolutionary class struggle, of which reforms are always a by-product … or no reforms at all” (CW 23: 213; LPSS 30: 282). In this light, reforms may be understood as temporary reconciliation with a partial victory or even failure in which the old system has been shaken but has not yet collapsed (CW 11: 30-31; LPSS 13: 221). More importantly, reform becomes a central feature of revolutionary agitation, a means of raising the consciousness of workers and peasants, a way of both alleviating conditions in the intermediate period and of pointing out that those conditions are the problem. In this way, workers will see through the false promises of reformism and utilize reforms to strengthen their class struggle. Or, to put it simply, as Lenin recommends to public speakers and the Social-Democratic Duma representatives, “five minutes of every half-hour speech are devoted to reforms and twenty-five minutes to the coming revolution” (CW 23: 159; LPSS 30: 221).