Editor’s Note: Kemal Okuyan is General Secretary of the Turkish Communist Party ( TKP). In early February 2023 he published an article Thinking Aloud on the “World Communist Movement”. The article raised profound questions about the unity of the world movement and it explored how revolutionary unity could be enhanced. We asked that Comrade Kemal develop the points he made back in February. Below is his response to our written questions.


What prompted you to write Thinking Aloud on the “World Communist Movement”?

We all know that in the world, within the left in general, and particularly among the parties that bear the name of communist, there are serious differences of opinion. As sharp as these differences are, they are veiled and almost hidden. There is no real debate. The absence of debate is not a matter of politeness or diplomatic behaviour. In fact, we have no ground for debates. When I say debates, I am of course referring to a process that involves interaction, transformation, and even, when necessary, disintegration. I wanted to draw attention to this extremely disturbing situation and to reflect a historical perspective that I think is related to the sources of it.

You repeatedly cite the need for “points of reference,” noting the 21 conditions for working class parties’ membership in the Communist International in 1919 as  “the sharpest expression of such points of reference.”

The Communist International set the bar very high when it was founded. Regardless of whether this bar was realistic or not, I think there are some historical and enduring aspects of the intervention in 1919. It is a pity that all the emphases we observe at the founding in 1919, including the 21 conditions for joining the Comintern, are generally attributed solely to the revolutionary conjuncture of that year. I believe this is a very dangerous approach. Yes, it is clear that in 1919 the Bolsheviks, thinking that they could make a fatal blow to capitalism, wanted to force the parties in Europe into a very drastic transformation, which in some respects was unrealistic. The interventions of 1920, which followed immediately afterwards and those we also observe in the Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder pamphlet, are in some respects almost the antithesis of the stance the year before.

Then, at the 7th Congress of the Communist International, we come across quite different standards. The danger lies in this perception: Our points of references were different in 1919 when the revolution was imminent, different during the retreat, and completely different under fascism. However, in many respects the framework drawn in 1919 when the Communist International was founded carries principles applicable to all periods, even now!

Communist parties cannot act with different strategies and theoretical propositions under conditions that is an outcome of relative stability in capitalist countries and in a revolutionary objectivity. After all, revolutions usually rise at sudden, unexpected moments. If you do not have a revolutionary strategy and a corresponding degree of organisation, the revolution may slip away. Undoubtedly, you have to act with different tactics and means in different periods, but there can be no such thing as communist parties constantly changing their references.

This is particularly important today because there is a widespread view that the balance in the international arena is not at all favourable for the working classes to practice a revolutionary strategy. This might sound reasonable and realistic in some aspects but if we adopt an understanding of struggle that is kept only within the existing balance of forces, it is possible that in the event of a revolutionary crisis that capitalism is likely to enter into (and that, from time to time, we see strong signs of), we may turn into a deer in the headlights.

But as you pointed out, in 1920, some of those references were withdrawn, and a quite different orientation emerged in 1934-35. What do you attribute this to? 

It is necessary to analyse the conditions and reasons well. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but the concern that the revolution in Europe would not take place as soon as they thought, was understood by the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s. The defense and survival of Soviet Russia, the only concrete achievement up to that point, quickly became the main issue. If we look carefully at this whole period, we can see that the intention was to strengthen the Soviet Union economically, politically and militarily, and to prepare the communist parties of the capitalist world for the next showdown.

In this sense, from 1920 onwards, we see that the Comintern developed initiatives in line with Soviet foreign policy needs. We cannot have any objection to this. However, if we fail to see the reasons in the background, we will draw wrong conclusions from Lenin’s Left-wing Communism and similar interventions; the new approach in the struggle against fascism in 1935, and we will discuss the mistakes and shortcomings of the communist parties in this whole period on a completely false basis.

The assumption that there used to be “sectarian and adventurous” tendencies in the world communist movement until 1935, but that a historical correction was made at the 7th Congress, which is still valid today, should be radically questioned. I repeat, the communist movement does have to form its references on the premise of the actuality of the revolution. I do not intend to belittle the lessons and accumulation of a long period when the defense of the Soviet Union became clear as a very special and revolutionary task (a period which should have ended in 1945).

But we need to get rid of the confusion which has led the communist parties to the following conclusion: “the imperialist-capitalist system is strong, the balance is not in favour for the working class, therefore our point of departure cannot be the actuality of the revolution”.

You also mention other points of reference for the communist movement such as, before 1914, ‘categorical opposition to a future imperialist war’, or ‘not participating in a bourgeois government.’ 

Even at a time when social democracy was a movement representing the working class and the Second International was recognised as a revolutionary organisation, we see that some schemes were used. Schemes are not always bad. If theoretically and practically they have stood the test of time, such schemes facilitate the struggle.

Even the Second International, which decayed over time but long before 1914, had some presuppositions. We know what kind of reactions arose when the principle of not participating in bourgeois governments, and not giving representatives to those governments, was attempted to be broken for the first time. So was “opposing an imperialist war”. It was seen later that opposing the war was not enough, but what I want to say is this: Even during the Second International, which we criticise, the member parties had some distinctive features.

Do you have suggestions for comparable points of reference today? 

Whether we call it a point of reference or something else, it is clear that the communist parties today face an ontological problem. Why do communist parties continue to exist today? What is the historical reason that communist parties exist today with this name and identity? Is it the defense of democracy? Is it the struggle for peace? To put an end to fascism? Is it to roll back and eliminate US imperialism? All of these are among the primary tasks of communist parties. But none of them can be the raison d’être of communist parties.

Communism took its place in the political arena both in 1847-48 and in 1917 for a single reason: To overthrow capitalism and bring about the revolutionary transformations necessary for the establishment of a communist society. This historical mission cannot be glossed over. There is a need for references related to this. In particular, references that encourage ideological and political opposition to the exploiting classes on both international and national scales. This issue has nothing to do with excluding the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie from the revolutionary processes and enabling the working class to form an alliance with them in various forms. We all know that by exploiting classes we mean those sections of the ruling class in capitalist countries which are represented in the political sphere by different elements, from nationalism to liberalism, from conservatism to social democracy.

Communist parties do not have infinite options in their relations with the bourgeoisie. In the past, in European countries where monopoly capitalism was highly developed, we have seen that the working class movement held back for years by fictitious alliances which in reality were based on politically very reactionary capitalist groups, and were complementary elements to the domination of the monopolies. This misconception has not disappeared today.

Let’s look at popular examples, at the root of the pro-Trump or, conversely, pro-Biden, pro-Putin or pro-Erdoğan attitudes observed from time to time in our ranks lies the fact that we have moved away from a simplicity that would leave us alone with our historical mission. “There is no co-operation with the bourgeoisie on any level” may well be accepted as a point of reference. If there is a particular, very particular occasion that requires us put this on hold, we will evaluate it in that particular condition. But at the moment, the communist parties must first of all secure their own historical mission.

In your article you write “What we need is the following: establishing a clarification of the theoretical and political points of references from which each communist party acts.”  What exactly do you mean by that? Please give examples. 

In the previous question, I explained the TKP’s approach with an example. In order to have a healthy discussion, all communist parties need to make their strategic preferences clear. The first question is, why do they exist as a communist party? Then, what kind of means do they use to achieve that goal? For example, if a communist party sees “the establishment of democracy” as its main, or even the only goal for a long period of time, it must create a road map that is a natural extension of this goal.

If there is no coherent approach that constitutes a set of aims and means, there is nothing to discuss here, and the very existence of the communist party may become questionable. Including the ruling communist parties, I am saying that none of the concepts such as peace, democracy, independence, sovereignty, development, industrialization have the power to make sense of the existence of communist parties on their own. As I mentioned, this is our approach. But if the opposite is true, if other aims also constitute a sufficient basis for communist parties to function, then there is a serious need of theoretical and political “production” in this direction.

You write that we need to have bold debates.  But you also observe: “Today, we do not have a functional mechanism to examine the fundamental differences that can be observed when we look at not only the Solidnet member parties that participate in the International Meetings of Communist and Workers’ Parties, but all the parties that identify themselves as communist.” So how can this debate organized?

That’s exactly where the problem is. There is something that unites us, but we don’t know what that is. We say we have a common past, but this is not entirely true. The October Revolution, the Comintern tradition, the USSR in general seem to be strong historical references, but this is actually misleading. A little digging down reveals that we draw very different conclusions from all these.

Look, when I was still in high school, we used to argue fiercely at school with people from different revolutionary groups about the socialist revolution or the democratic revolution. These discussions were primitive, mechanical in some aspects, but we were discussing the real problems in the integrity of ends and means. Moreover, all this was due to the fact that we had different revolutionary strategies.

Now, in order to have such differences, we have to have certain strategies of one kind or another. I think that the communist parties, as independent political actors, have run out of strategic goals. Both the perspective for a revolution and the strategy have disappeared, they have evaporated. In this sense, the debate allows us to see our weaknesses and to face the real problems. 

You point to the need for unity on what is the primary task of the world revolution. According to you, this common ground should be defined by the task of making socialism a viable option. Wouldn’t defining the common ground between the communist parties in this way cause them to distance themselves from certain agendas in their own countries?

Such common ground does not detach us from the realities of the home country, on the contrary, would broaden our horizons regarding our channels of intervention in the reality of that home country. It takes internationalism beyond a culture of solidarity and paves the way for a revolutionary interaction and coordination. Look, as TKP, we came out of a recent election. The size of our vote was so small, that had no relation to the political and organisational strength of our party. We are not proud of this, we discuss our inadequacies, the reasons for our low number of votes.

However, TKP did not enter the elections with the goal of “getting high number of votes”, we did not have a priority such as sending representatives to the parliament. TKP participated in the elections to establish ties with the working people in line with its own revolutionary strategy, to organise, to open a space for itself in a country with very different ethnic and religious fault lines. Getting votes would have been very meaningful as long as it was in line with these goals. This did not happen, of course we are concerned about it. However, we did not change our strategic calculations due to the number of votes we received, because when we look at our country and our world, the things we focus on are not holding a place in the balance within the system, but the deep cracks of the system, potential points of crisis.

We know that we cannot do anything without a strong support among the working people, which is also reflected in the vote, but we do not measure this support and organisation only through elections, nor do we want to harm our historical mission by approaching the voting practice, which now has a completely different mechanics, in a pragmatic way. “Elections go, TKP stays” this is not an expression of ours, but that of our friends. I am not telling these things to prove that the TKP is taking the right attitude. History will judge what we were able to do and what we were not able to do. However, I should remind you that all communist parties should enter into a strategic planning in line with their missions. Even a very small, not yet so influential party has to start with this.

You write “The aim is certainly not division. The aim should be to help the communist movement, which claims to be the vanguard of the uneven and combined world revolutionary process, transform into a joint movement above and beyond the single elements.”  Please elaborate. What would such a joint movement look like, concretely?

A revolutionary strategy needs a coherent analysis on both national and international scales and the will to transform. Marxist theory is a great strength here. In my opinion, a communist party does not have the right to ask the question whether the socialist revolution is actual or not. What should be asked is how to prepare for a revolutionary crisis in the given conditions and from which points and by which means to intervene. The question is: Yes, we are primarily responsible for the struggle in our own country, but is not the struggle in our own country part of a world revolutionary process?

If we respect ourselves, we will examine the issues bravely, we will not wrestle on the run and we will at least open the way for strategic interaction in a revolutionary direction. If different, incompatible strategies emerge, this is an opportunity for healthy convergences and, by the same token, for healthy divergences. This should not be feared. Because the “unity” that is preserved without such a clarification has no value. We all know this. If we are not going to look for ways for these moves, if we are going to constantly remind each other of the current realities of the world and say it is not the time, we will inevitably face the question of whether there is really a need for communist parties at all.