Revisionism is one of the most misunderstood terms in the Marxist-Leninist lexicon. In this article I seek to situate the term historically and define its limitations.
The term originally described “democratic socialists” such as Eduard Bernstein, who identified with the Marxist tradition but believed that capitalism can be reformed into socialism. “Revisionism” continued to denote socialists who rejected the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as Karl Kautsky, who Lenin also slammed for capitulating to German imperialism. The term was also leveled at the Trotskyist faction during the inner struggles of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in the 1920’s and 30’s.
The term was revived in the 1960s, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used it to criticize the Khrushchev leadership of the USSR, whom they claimed had revised the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism primarily through (1) adopting a collaborationist attitude towards U.S. imperialism (“peaceful coexistence”) and (2) decentralizing production.
No doubt, there were many valid reasons to criticize the CPSU, given the rightward shift of the party and its policies that manifested in denunciation of Stalin, a weakening of proletarian internationalism, and slowed economic growth. However, by around 1966, the CCP were declaring that capitalism had been restored in the Soviet Union due to Khrushchev’s rightist policies.
No theoretical or economic argument was elaborated; instead, phrasemongering and sectarianism colored the CCP’s declaration. While significant portions of the Soviet Union’s leadership held a revisionist line, this does not constitute a change in mode of production; mere policy cannot do that. Ultimately, the CCP’s critique never went beyond policy to the root cause of the CPSU’s rightward turn, which originated in the growth of a shadow, capitalist economy in the Soviet Union.
The antagonism between the rightism of the CPSU and the ultra-leftism of the CCP erupted in the Sino-Soviet split, one of the most tragic events in the history of socialism. The divide in the socialist camp only exacerbated the opportunism of both parties. By the late 1970s, Beijing’s foreign policy was more destructive than Moscow’s had ever been, including full capitulation to Washington against Moscow and a counter-revolutionary policy in Angola, Egypt, Iran, and other places.
Meanwhile, the New Communist Movement (NCM) was developing in the United States. Groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party and the October League uncritically followed the CCP’s political line in denouncing the Soviet Union, some even claiming that Soviet “imperialism” was a greater threat to the world proletariat than U.S. imperialism. These groups, in claiming “anti-revisionism”, actually fell into dogmatism. While revisionism uses specific conditions to dismiss well-established, generalizable theories, dogmatism uses theory to dismiss specific conditions.
In response to the ultra-leftism of these groups, an “anti-dogmatist, anti-revisionist” trend formed in opposition to both the uncritically pro-Beijing groups and the revisionist, pro-Moscow CPUSA. The anti-dogmatist trend of the NCM produced insightful critiques of the dogmatist trend that still hold weight in the 21st century.
Today, many communists use “revisionist” more or less synonymously with “right-opportunist”; this is a serious mistake. The use of revisionism should be restricted to describe the rejection of any of the core principles of Marxism-Leninism that are generalizable. A few examples would include the Labor Theory of Value, the right of nations to self-determination, and the need for a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
Revisionism is not the same as tailism or right-opportunism. A ruling party with a revisionist political line in a socialist country is not the same thing as capitalist restoration. Revisionism is not some virus that magically infects communist parties. Revisionism is an historical phenomenon rooted in real material causes.
While right-opportunism and revisionism will remain threats as long as they have a social basis, unbridled “anti-revisionism” without anti-dogmatism is a recipe for sectarianism and ultra-leftism.