Views on Socialism and Communism:
A RADICALLY NEW KIND OF STATE,
A RADICALLY DIFFERENT AND FAR GREATER VISION OF FREEDOM
Revolution #037, March 5, 2006, posted at revcom.us
Editors Note: The following is drawn from a talk given by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, to a group of Party members and supporters in 2005. It has been edited for publication here, and subheads and footnotes have been added.
Why Do We Want State Power--Why Do We Need State Power?
To get right into things, and to touch on a most essential question: Why did I begin "Reaching For the Heights, Flying Without a Safety Net"1 talking about state power? Why did I emphasize that we want state power?
Let's start with the simple and basic answer: It is right to want state power. It is necessary to want state power. State power is a good thing--state power is a great thing--in the hands of the right people, the right class, in the service of the right things: bringing about an end to exploitation, oppression, and social inequality and bringing into being a world, a communist world, in which human beings can flourish in new and greater ways than ever before.
All you have to do, in order to get a clear view on this, is to think about all the things that the masses of people are subjected to. I'm going to talk about this a little bit now and return to it as I go along. Think about all the things the masses are subjected to, and what could be done to uproot those things with revolutionary state power, and what cannot be done about them because we don't have that state power. Think about the way in which people in the inner cities, for example, are continually subjected to humiliation, abuse, outright brutality, and even repeated murder at the hands of the present state power, in particular the police. And think what it would mean if state power were in the hands of the masses of people, and the state apparatus backed them up in doing away with every remnant of that, and in approaching problems among the people in a completely different way, with state power backing that up in a different way.
Think about the problem of rape in society, a massive problem, which is deeply rooted in the fundamental relations of this society. Think about what can be done about that, even in a very short time, once capitalism has been overthrown and the socialist state has been established--greatly reducing the incidence of rape and changing it from a major phenomenon to one that occurs infrequently, and moving in decisive ways toward eliminating it altogether--by wielding state power, in a revolutionary way, on a communist basis (on the basis of communist leadership and with communist objectives).
You can go down the list of everything that's happening to masses of people all over the world because they do not have state power in their hands--all the things to which they're repeatedly subjected, the conditions of disease and malnutrition, what Marx captured so powerfully in the term "agony of toil" and the crippling poverty and brutality that accompanies and reinforces this for literally billions of people in all parts of the world, and a thousand other abuses and unnecessary suffering, essentially because state power is in the hands of their exploiters and oppressors instead of in their hands.
No one should call herself or himself a communist who at this stage of history does not want state power and is not anxious to get state power--and doesn't know what to do with it if they do get it. There are a lot of complexities bound up with this, but it's time, and way past time, to get rid of absolutely any apologies about wanting state power, or doubts and existential agonizing over whether proletarian states are a good thing. They're a very good thing. You can, and should, study the presentation that is being given by Raymond Lotta, beginning on a number of university campuses, "Setting the Record Straight" on the history of the exercise of state power by the proletariat,2 and see what was able to be done, even with real shortcomings, on the basis of proletarians exercising state power, led by their communist vanguards. If you are at all scientific, you can see that none of those positive and truly world-historic things could have been done without that state power. And you can look at all the things that need to be done in the world today--in terms of getting rid of all the horrors the masses are subjected to, and in terms of advancing to a stage of society where these things no longer exist or can have a basis--and you can see very clearly why state power is a very good thing and very necessary.
Of course, there are the fundamental questions of orientation: For whom and for what do we want this state power? But, with the correct orientation, wanting state power and the willingness, as well as ability, to lead people toward that objective are tremendously important, and indeed precious, things, precisely for the masses of people, for their emancipation and ultimately the emancipation of humanity as a whole.
A Balance Sheet
There is, today more than ever perhaps, a tremendous amount of slander and distortion in terms of what the history of socialist society and proletarian state power has been about. And without an honest and scientific approach to this, it is not possible to correctly understand either the great achievements or the significant shortcomings in this experience and to grasp the new synthesis3 that is required in order to, as I have put it, "do better" in the next round of proletarian revolutions and the socialist states they bring into being.
First of all, let's put things on the scales and get a balance sheet. Let's weigh what we know about that historical experience in the Soviet Union and in China when they were actually socialist countries (and by that I mean in the years 1917-56 in the Soviet Union, and 1949-76 in China). Let's look at the ways in which the problems and the needs and the interests of the masses were addressed on the one hand, and put that on the scale, and let's put the shortcomings on the other side of the scale. Which one weighs far more heavily? Let's put on the scale the things that were done in terms of overcoming the exploitation and oppression of the masses of people in those countries, creating new social relations, new culture, new ways of thinking, new international relations. Put all that on the scale and weigh that against the alleged, or even real, ways in which, in the course of all this, some problems were not handled as well as they should have been, and some people, including among the artists and intellectuals, suffered as a result.
Does it matter that masses of people were not starving by 1970 in China, that for the first time in centuries and millennia, China had solved its food problem in basic terms, in the socialist society that had existed for just 20 years? Does it matter that for the first time, tens and hundreds of millions of peasants had health care? Do these things matter to anybody? Does it matter that masses of people could get up in the morning and walk down the street and not fear the police--or even each other, for that matter--because a new state power was making possible the creation of new social relations? Does it matter that, for the first time in the history of China--and, on the scale it happened, really this was something new in the history of the world--the masses of people were encouraged and led to take up affairs of state and to involve themselves in wrangling with the direction of society and the situation and struggles of the people in the world? Does that matter?
So, if you want to make a balance sheet--yes, it's bad that there were errors and, yes, even some real excesses, in the Cultural Revolution, and they do have to be taken account of and analyzed scientifically, along with everything else, but let's not lose perspective and a sense of what was really going on there, on the larger scale. A number of artists who lived in China in that period raised that, "We weren't allowed to put on certain artistic works during the Cultural Revolution." Yes, there were some real problems in that regard, and they do need to be summed up deeply and all-sidedly--and, again, we need a new synthesis that will enable us to do better with all this the next time around. But, once again, as a matter of fundamental orientation, let's put that in the balance scale, weighing it against the fact that, for the first time in the history of China--and in contrast to what goes on in every society throughout the world where the proletariat does not hold state power, including the United States--masses of people were not being worked like slaves in the factories, with one-man management, piecework, speed-up and all the rest of it, and were in fact increasingly becoming masters of society. Does that matter? How should we evaluate that in relation to the fact that, for example, you couldn't put on certain dance productions during the Cultural Revolution in China?
I remember hearing Baryshnikov talk about his experience coming from the Soviet Union to the U.S.--and this was when both of them were capitalist: one was revisionist (socialist in name, but capitalist in deed and in essence) at the time and one was, of course, openly capitalist. And at least Baryshnikov had a certain amount of honesty, he said that he left the Soviet Union because they wouldn't let people dance Balanchine, but on the other hand, in the Soviet Union from an early age if you were inclined to go into ballet, and you showed some talent for it, you got the real backing of the state, you got all the resources, you could learn how to do ballet. He was at least a little bit honest about how he availed himself of that until he got good enough to dance Balanchine and then he left to go to the U.S., where they'd let him dance Balanchine, and so on. And he was also honest about the fact that many, even most, of the dancers he knew in the U.S. were having a very hard time just making it--many of them working in restaurants waiting tables and similar jobs, just to be able to live--and were not able to devote themselves anything like full time to their art. Now, there we are talking about revisionism in the Soviet Union, not socialism. But let's say they wouldn't let you dance Balanchine in a real socialist country. Do we have more work to do to get a better synthesis on that? Yes. But, by the way, as part of accurately and scientifically evaluating things, it is very important not to overlook or downgrade the tremendous achievements and breakthroughs that were made, not only politically but artistically, through the Cultural Revolution in China, including in the arena of ballet and dance.
Among other things, we hear a lot of distortions these days about how, during the Cultural Revolution, many intellectuals were sent to the countryside. As I have pointed out a number of times, nobody asked the hundreds of millions of peasants in China if they wanted to go to the countryside. Now, is that the complete answer to how intellectuals were dealt with in the Cultural Revolution? No. We do need another leap, we do need a further and new synthesis. But if we have to weigh these things, where do we start from in seeking to achieve a new synthesis? What's our starting point? Where are our feet planted, so to speak? What is our basic orientation? Is it with the masses of people and their needs and interests and the goal of revolutionizing all of society and the world and ultimately emancipating all of humanity, including the intellectuals and other strata, from the shackles of class-divided society and all the consequences of that? Not in some crude way of pitting the masses versus the intellectuals in some economist sense--and in a sense of seeking revenge against the intellectuals and other strata among the people who have historically occupied a more privileged place but are not the rulers of the system and the exploiters and oppressors of the masses of people--but instead looking at the needs and fundamental interests of the masses of people and revolutionizing all of the world and emancipating all of humanity.
Where do we start from? Do we start from the individual and individualistic concerns? Or do we start from fundamental questions, concerning the masses of people and the essential economic, social, and political relations in society, and the world, and then move forward from there, synthesizing on that basis? As a fundamental point of orientation and approach, we have to proceed from the right place. As I have emphasized a number of times, we must not have an approach of trampling on the rights of individuals and individuality, but instead must strive to make this flower more fully among the great majority of people in society, and ultimately among humanity in the world as a whole; yet, at the same time, we cannot make the concerns of particular individuals weigh more heavily than the larger questions of how to uproot all exploitation and oppression and advance to the emancipation of all of humanity. As I'll come back to, there is a lot more work to be done, and we cannot and must not be narrow and philistine in our orientation and approach; we must not promote philistinism, economism, and a "revenge-line" among the masses of people, if we are going to do what we need to do; if we are really aiming, as we must, for the emancipation of all humanity, we have to rupture thoroughly with all that, but not on the basis of springing backward to bourgeois democracy and bourgeois individualism, but springing forward to what is, in fact, a new and higher synthesis on this, which is grounded in and aims for the goal of a communist world, where exploitative and oppressive relations among the people, of all kinds, will have been overcome and buried in the past forever.
"Firmly Uphold, But Wouldn't Want to Live There"--Correctly Understood
Now I want to speak to how do you correctly understand and correctly apply the statement, by a comrade in the international communist movement, with which I have expressed strong agreement: "I uphold very firmly the experience of the socialist revolution so far, but I wouldn't want to live in those countries."4 This is a statement whose meaning can be, and has been, misunderstood and misconstrued. Some people who should know better, who are partisan to the cause of communism but who themselves have been influenced and even somewhat disoriented by the seemingly endless and ever more deafening crescendo of attacks on communism, have even fallen into seizing on the orientation in this statement to say: "Oh, finally, we can unload all that Stalin stuff--we don't have to talk about that anymore. We can even shake Mao off our shoulders and say, ‘no, no, that's not us, we have a new synthesis, we don't want to live there, so we're not held accountable for that.’" That is a total perversion of what's being said with "firmly uphold but wouldn't want to live there."
To begin, with what is the meaning, after all, of "firmly uphold"? And what is the principal aspect here? The principal aspect, looking at this with historical perspective, is firmly uphold. These were positive, very positive, unprecedented breakthroughs that were achieved in the historical experience of socialism; and, at the same time, there were real and in some cases very serious shortcomings that we don't want to repeat, and should not have to repeat, even with all the necessity we're going to be up against. We ought to be able, at least in crucial spheres, to make leaps and ruptures beyond this. But, here comes that old question from the song back in the day--when you say "firmly uphold, but wouldn't want to live there," here comes that punchline from that song: compared to what? This statement has been distorted. If "wouldn't want to live there" is interpreted to mean, compared to bourgeois society--NO. Once again, put things on the scale: If I have to live in bourgeois society or those countries where the proletariat held state power, I don't even have to take time to pack my suitcase, I'm heading for where the proletariat held state power. [laughter] That's not the comparison. That's a complete perversion and distortion. "Wouldn't want to live there," compared to what? Compared to what we can and must achieve the next time around. That's the point here. Building on, but leaping further--and yes, making ruptures, and yes, doing better. So the standard is: compared to what we need to and can achieve the next time around. That's the meaning of the deliberately provocative statement, which it obviously is: "firmly uphold, but wouldn't want to live there."
So, again we have to be clear on what is principal here. Boldly uphold is what's principal--not because we'd like it to be--let's "accentuate the positive." No, it's because this is true, it conforms to objective reality. If the first round of socialist states and proletarian revolutions were in fact mainly negative, we would have to say so. We'd have to confront it, we'd have analyze deeply why that was so, and we'd have to share that assessment and that analysis with people. But when that is not so, to go around acting as if it is so because it's easier to tail spontaneous bourgeois prejudice and systematic anti-communist propagandizing, is a betrayal of what we're about. It is not true that this historical experience has been mainly negative. That's not real. And simply trying to tail the spontaneity of what people have been propagandized and conditioned to think--that's going to land you, as Lenin pointed out, firmly in the swamp. You won't be able to stand on anything, if you try to bend and twist what you say to fit the prejudice of people who are being pounded--that's not too strong a characterization, bombarded and pounded--with anti-communist propaganda, distortion, lies, slander. It's like a cottage industry, this anti-communism these days. Or to refer to another phenomenon in popular culture these days, it's like betting in poker: "Mao killed 10 million," someone says. "I'll see you those 10 million and raise you another 10 million." <[em> laughter] This is what's going on with the intellectual camp followers of imperialism, and it is being swallowed uncritically by way too many people who should know better, and would know better if they hadn't suspended their critical thinking when it comes to the assault on communism. Many good people--including many people in the arts, intellectuals, people in the academic world--are being taken in by this.
I pointed this out about Jared Diamond. He writes a book that has some unscientific aspects and some mechanical aspects, but Guns, Germs and Steel is a very good book overall, and in the middle of that and then when he's at a bookstore talking about the book, he says the most ridiculous, ignorant things about China and the Cultural Revolution. I saw a tape of a C-Span thing he did on Book TV, where he says, "and then in the middle of all this, in the Cultural Revolution in China, some idiots decided to close down the educational system." And I felt like reaching into the TV and pulling him off of that tape and saying to him: "Jared, what happened to you? Here you are trying to apply all this science, really thoroughly, about why there's all this inequality in the world, and then you got to this and you just dropped all your science altogether, and just picked up the latest attack, pandered to or accepted yourself the latest prejudice. Come on, Jared, be systematic, be scientific all the way. And, while we're at it, let's talk about some Marxism, too, so you can really be systematically scientific." I think he knows some Marxism, by the way. I doubt that he has not read Engels on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, for example. He is out of the '60s period himself. But that's what goes on, this anti-communism is the currency now, so many people have forgotten what they know, or become convinced--on frankly the shoddiest of bases--that they were wrong in knowing what they knew before.
Someone was explaining to me--I kept asking, "how can these people do this, how can they go along like this, being pretty systematically scientific, then all of a sudden, BLAM, it's just like they went into a different universe?" And the person, the comrade I was talking to, said, "Well, first of all, you have to understand, these people are not like you. They don't think the same way you think. Yes, they apply science, but they've been taken in by the idea that to say these things, these anti-communist things, is no more controversial than to talk about the Holocaust. They don't think anybody who's a reasonable person who should be listened to would ever conceivably disagree with these things"--referring to the slanders against communism. These things have become "common sense"--in other words, they've become things that are deeply embedded in the culture, so deeply that people accept them without questioning them. That's why one of the big aims of "Setting the Record Straight" is to bust these questions open to being questions again. That's one of the aims, is to make people think about these things: no, that is not a settled verdict--and in fact it is not true.
What we want to do, in terms of orientation in "Setting the Record Straight," in taking all this slander on in a big and bold way, is to say: "Here are the lies you're told, here's the truth-- and we can prove it." But people don't know this. People, broadly in the intellectual, artistic, academic circles, assume these are settled verdicts--socialism and communism is a failure, it is a disaster, a catastrophe, it leads to a form of tyranny, to totalitarianism. And they suspend critical thinking when they get to this, because they accept certain assumptions. Now, it is a fact that you can't engage your critical mind about everything thoroughly, all the time; so you put in your mind those things where you think: "that's pretty much settled." Nowadays, we're finding settled things are becoming unsettled all over the place. For example, evolution. Who knows what's next, the Copernican system? I'll have more to say about that later.
But people in these various fields think this negative verdict on communism is a settled question. For most of them, it's not their particular sphere to sum up the experience of socialist countries, but it's been done by others and "everybody knows what the truth and the verdict is." So we have to shock them: "Wait a minute, you didn't investigate this. You're making pronouncements, but you don't have any foundation underneath these pronouncements. If someone came into your classroom and did the equivalent with the subject matter that you're teaching, you would tell them to go back to the drawing board and start studying before they come in and make pronouncements. But here you are, doing exactly the same thing." So these are the objective conditions we're faced with, in general and specifically in "Setting the Record Straight." And if we're going to pander to that, we're going to be in a world of trouble; and, even more fundamentally than that, we're not going to be doing what we're supposed to be doing--which is knowing the world as it actually is (and knowing history as it has actually been), in order to change the world, in line with the way in which it's tending and in line with the way it needs to go in the interests of the masses of people all over the world.
So, yes, we should boldly uphold and boldly criticize the experience of socialist revolution and socialist society so far, but boldly uphold is the principal aspect--not because, proceeding a priori, and from the point of view of idealism, we have gone around in a circle and tautologically declared it to be so, but because, proceeding as materialists and applying dialectics, this actually is the truth--the positive aspect of this experience is the principal aspect. As Mao taught us, the principal aspect at any given time determines the essence of a thing, while the secondary aspect does not. The secondary aspect may be very real, may be very important, may be very necessary to thoroughly investigate and study, dissect and synthesize, but it is not the decisive and determining aspect of things. So, when I say these things, "firmly uphold" or "boldly uphold" the experience of socialist society and the communist revolution so far--when I say the positive aspect of this experience is the principal aspect--it's because it's true. And because, in order to know and change the world the way it needs to be understood and changed, we should proceed on a scientific basis. Yes, there are truths that make us cringe, and we shouldn't shrink from them, or shirk our responsibility to dig into them deeply. But it is not a truth--whether it makes us cringe or not, it is not a truth--that the experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist society so far has been a catastrophe, a disaster, one endless reign of tyranny, a totalitarian nightmare, or even, principally, or anywhere close to principally, a negative thing. Exactly the opposite. And as materialists, as people who are scientific, we should grasp this and we should apply it, and we should do so boldly, in both aspects: boldly uphold, as the principal aspect; and boldly criticize the secondary but very real and significant shortcomings.
So, returning to the question with which I began: Why do we want state power? Because it's absolutely necessary to get to the next stage of human history, because it's essential for the liberation of the overwhelming majority of the people on the earth and ultimately for humanity as a whole. It's absolutely essential. And, if you want to really deeply understand this, just think about everything that frustrates you, that you can't do anything about right now. Whether it's what happens to people crossing the border into the U.S., what happens to people in the inner cities, what happens to people in the sweatshops, what happens to children working in Pakistan or Haiti, what happens to people in Africa, starving or being mutually slaughtered for the interests of exploiters and oppressors, whether it's women being brutalized and raped and abused and degraded. Go down the line and think about everything that you're frustrated about and why you became convinced of the need for radical change in the first place, and then you'll know what state power is good for and why we should want it--and, yes, in the correct sense, with a correct understanding of what and whom this is all for, why we should crave greatness in this respect too.
1. "Reaching for the Heights, Flying Without a Safety Net" was a talk given by Bob Avakian toward the end of 2002. Excerpts were published from April 20 through August 17, 2003 in the Revolutionary Worker (now Revolution).
2. The talk referred to here, "Socialism is Much Better Than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be a Far Better World," is currently being serialized in Revolution and is available online at revcom.us.
3. In addition to what is said throughout the course of this talk on this subject, Bob Avakian speaks to this new synthesis in Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism (available online at revcom.us) and in the book Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, by Bob Avakian (Chicago: Insight Press, 2005).
4. This statement was first cited by Bob Avakian in the talk Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism.