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Socialist Forum - Winter 2020

As socialists we must espouse a truly internationalist politics, one that supports democratic and working-class movements around the world. We support such movements in their struggles against tyrannical governments and the ruling classes of all countries, just as we welcome their solidarity with us. As U.S. socialists we oppose the imperialism of the United States, but as internationalists we must also oppose the authoritarianism and imperialism of other states, regardless of what those who run those states call themselves. That is, we must oppose “campism.”

Campism is a longstanding tendency in the international and U.S. left. It approaches world politics from the standpoint that the main axis of conflict is between two hostile geopolitical camps: the “imperialist camp,” today made up of the United States, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Israel (or some such combination) on one hand and the “anti-imperialist camp” of Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and other less-industrialized nations on the other. The anti-imperialist camp is generally defined as all formerly colonized nations and especially all avowedly anti-imperialist governments in the Global South. This ideology has been a hallmark of political currents defining themselves as Marxist-Leninist, though others who don’t identify with that term also embrace it. Campism, somewhat surprisingly, considering the organization’s political lineage, now exists even within parts of DSA. We hope that our brief account and critique of campism will convince those in DSA who are attracted to it to reject it, for it distorts the very meaning of democratic socialism and leads socialists away from “an injury to one is an injury to all” and “workers of the world unite!” to the inverted nationalism of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In this framework, the division of the world between rival geopolitical blocs overrides other questions and provides the dominant political explanation for world events. It seldom addresses the internal class character of the nations of the “anti-imperialist camp,” and, regardless of the nature of their governments and economies, attribute to those nations a progressive character. It almost never criticizes the “anti-imperialist nations” and tends to ignore, denigrate, or outright oppose movements for democracy or economic and social justice that arise among the working classes of such states.

Contemporary campism, as described above, runs counter to the Marxist and broader democratic socialist tradition insofar as it stresses solidarity with states rather than international working-class solidarity. This tendency generally supports clearly capitalist states (such as Iran and Syria) or states that claim to be socialist (like China or North Korea), which have authoritarian or totalitarian governments. In the past, socialists from Karl Marx to Eugene Debs, from Rosa Luxemburg to C.L.R. James, always emphasized that workers in each country should support those in another in their struggles for democracy and social justice. But when it comes to states in geopolitical conflict with the U.S., campism often opposes support for democratic movements, even ones clearly led by the working class, on the grounds that such movements jeopardize ostensibly progressive governments, and that supporting them would thus make U.S. socialists allies of our own ruling class. For example, this typically entails support for the Chinese state and the ruling Communist Party, even though it promotes a highly repressive form of capitalism and opposes workers’ self-organization and workers’ power. This viewpoint distorts the Marxist political tradition with its roots in humanism, the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth century workers’ movement, and which is first and foremost about the fight for working-class political power.

The Origins of Campism in the Russian Revolution

There was a time when identification with an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist camp made a certain amount of sense. The Russian Revolution was supported by millions of workers around the world, and it led to a split in the international labor movement between those who remained in Social Democratic parties and those who joined the newly-organized Communist parties and the Communist International (Comintern). So, for a decade after the 1917 revolution one could say that there were two camps: one defending a workers’ revolution and striving for socialism, versus a capitalist camp that promoted counterrevolution around the world. 

However, international Communism was transformed by developments in the Soviet Union in the period after 1927. A faction led by Joseph Stalin rose to dominance in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the Comintern, with its affiliated parties throughout the world. Stalin carried out a counter-revolution within the movement, imprisoning, exiling, and executing nearly all of the Bolsheviks who had led the transformation of the former tsarist empire through its first ten years. Under his leadership, the CPSU also subordinated the soviets, labor unions, and all other institutions to Stalin and his cronies. He used the state to transform the Soviet economy—through nationalization of all industry and the forced collectivization of agriculture—into a bureaucratically centralized and defectively “planned” system under the total control of the Party. ...
Read full commentary at Socialist Forum