Revolution #72, December 10, 2006

The Role of Dissent in a Vibrant Society1


Revolution is running a series of essays and talks from Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, USA, on issues and contradictions involved in the socialist transition to communism. This series will address in depth a range of questions, including epistemology and method; the theory of the state; dictatorship and democracy in socialist society; the forms of the new state power; the role of and policy toward classes and strata intermediate between the proletariat and the imperialists in the new society; the importance of dissent; the communist view toward art; the overall approach of “solid core with a lot of elasticity”; and a host of other questions involved in bringing into being a society that would move toward communism and be a vibrant society in which people would actually want to live.
This week’s essay is taken from Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, Bob Avakian, Insight Press, Chicago, 2005. 

Socialist society should be a very lively and vibrant society, full of wrangling and struggle over all kinds of questions, in which we’re moving step by step to narrow and finally to eliminate the differences and inequalities that mean that some people are locked out of whole spheres of society. But that’s a process that’s going to go through stages, and through twists and turns, and not in a straight upward line. And at each stage there will be a very acute contradiction between holding onto power and continuing on the socialist road while at the same time drawing ever greater numbers of masses of people into this process, overcoming these inequalities to the greatest degree possible at every stage, and laying the basis to make further leaps in the future with regard to things that you cannot overcome at the present time.

The challenge is one of developing and applying the correct principles and methods so that all of this develops in such a way that it serves the advance toward communism, toward a communist world, so that socialist society is a vital and vibrant society in which masses of people are, in a great diversity of ways, increasingly wrangling with and engaging all kinds of questions having to do with the nature and direction of society; and, through all this, not only is political power maintained in a way that serves the fundamental interests and needs of the masses of the people and the world revolution, but the advance is carried forward toward the eventual abolition of state power altogether and the emergence of a community of freely associating human beings all over the world, a communist world where, to quote Mao, human beings consciously and voluntarily transform themselves and the objective world. And all this will be achieved through a wrenching process of struggle and wrangling, and not in some orderly, neat straightline way, and not with uniformity of opinion about everything all the time, by any means.

So democracy under the dictatorship of the proletariat, democracy for the vast masses of people, has to take in all these dimensions. It doesn’t just mean that they have the right to speak out freely without being suppressed—which it does mean and must mean—but it means much more than that. It means not only their ability to associate politically and to demonstrate and to criticize, to raise disagreements with the official policy at any given time, or even with the leading ideology at any given time. But it also means that this has to be done in such a way that it’s moving toward the withering away, first of all of dictatorship—that is, rule in society by one class over another and its use of an apparatus of repression, that is, armed forces, police, courts, and so on, to enforce its rule and to suppress those who would seek to overthrow it. Not only do we have to be moving toward the eventual withering away of all this and developing and applying concrete steps which actually lead to that—not just mouthing the words that we’re working toward this withering away, but actually developing concrete forms and institutions that lead in that direction. But, together with that, we also have to be moving toward the withering away of democracy.

That, of course, is a very controversial statement. What do I mean by that? What I mean is not that through the advance of the dictatorship of the proletariat there is less and less democracy for the masses of people, until eventually it’s eliminated altogether! That’s not what we mean by the withering away of democracy together with the withering away of dictatorship. What we mean is, in essence, the opposite of that. We mean that the forms and means are developed through which the masses of people, in a certain sense, “naturally” take up, wrangle with, and ultimately make decisions about all different spheres of society.

As I spoke to in a series that was printed in the RW—excerpts from a talk I gave, Getting Over the Two Great Humps (2)—it means that the institutions and structures that are necessary to ensure that the rights of the people are upheld, and that one part of society, even among the people, is not being suppressed by another part—those structures and institutions no longer are necessary, and new structures and institutions are brought into being which correspond to and give expression to the fact that among the people there are no exploiters and exploited, there are no profound social divisions that lead to exploiters and exploited. At that point it will no longer be a question in society about whether one group among the people is going to oppress and dominate another. We will have moved, both in material reality and in the thinking of the people, beyond the point where that is even a possibility, because the economic and social conditions have been brought into being and, together with them, the political structures and institutions and political processes, and the ways of thinking and the culture have developed in such a way that the idea of one person, or one group in society, exploiting and oppressing another will be understood to be outrageous, absurd—and impossible.

Marx said about the future world, the world of communism, that it will seem as ridiculous and outrageous for one part of society to privately own the land, and everything that goes along with that, as it now seems for one human being to own another. Communism will mean that we have reached the point where the very idea that the way society should advance is for a few to benefit and then to proclaim that to be in the general interest of the society, where that idea will seem so ridiculous and outrageous that in a certain sense, to put it simply, it couldn’t get a hearing. Where people would investigate what is the problem mentally [laughter]—what chemical imbalance has caused someone to talk in this way. [laughter]

Now we have to be careful, because dissent and people disagreeing with the established norm is always going to have to fight an uphill fight. This will undoubtedly be true in communist society as well. As Mao put it, newly emerging truths are always in the hands of a minority. So even under communism that will be true. The point is that there won’t be organs of political suppression, so that if you bring forward unpopular ideas or new and different proposals for how things ought to be, people might think you are odd, but you are not going to become the object of political suppression or of social suppression, even without a state.

You can see why this requires not only transformation of material, economic and social conditions, but also the thinking of the people. Even the slogan “from each according to their ability to each according to their needs” would never work under the present ideological conditions we have. What are my needs—well, you know, I need some new rims for my car. You could just go on, and the whole thing will come flying apart. This requires an ideological transformation where people see needs very differently. Needs are socially conditioned in any case. The idea that you need rims for your wheels is socially conditioned. That’s not something that you thought of all on your own, in a vacuum. So, as you transform the material conditions, you transform the thinking of the people—so that individuals are thinking about their needs in relation to the larger interests of society, and are “naturally” subordinating their own individual interests to the larger interests of society, while still not obliterating the role and the needs of individuals and individuality. That requires a major ideological transformation. That’s part of what has to go on too, in order to advance to communism.

Now, another aspect of this that I want to speak to briefly is what I call “the synthesis of the points that were emphasized in the polemic against K. Venu and some arguments made by John Stuart Mill.” Now, in this polemic against K. Venu (3) I basically made the point that we can’t have bourgeois democracy, we have to have the dictatorship of the proletariat. If we try to implement all these instrumentalities of mass democracy, without any distinction among the people, we are going to hand power back over to the bourgeoisie, after everything people have gone through to seize power in the first place, and all the sacrifice that that has required. In socialist society, we still have to have a vanguard party that leads, and we have to have an ideology that leads. Even if we don’t want to insist that everybody has to profess that ideology whether they agree with it or not, we still have to have a vanguard party that leads, and an ideology that leads. This is one of the points that I was stressing in that polemic. But what I am referring to by synthesizing that, combining it in the correct way, with arguments of John Stuart Mill is that Mill makes the argument that no opinion should be discounted, let alone suppressed in society, until all those people who wish to argue for it have had an opportunity to do so. And he goes on further to make the point that it is not enough to hear ideas characterized by those who oppose them, it is necessary to hear them put forward by people who are ardent advocates of those ideas—in the book Democracy Can’t We Do Better Than That (4) I addressed this.

Well, of course, as I spoke to earlier, what he argues for can never literally be implemented. There is always somebody who wants to make one more argument for an idea. [laughs] There does come a time when you have to close the debate, at least for the time being. There are material reasons underlying that, and there are also reasons of politics. Decisions have to get made at certain points. You can’t just go on arguing endlessly and conducting searches to see if there is anybody else who wants to argue for a point of view that nobody else agrees with.

Still, there is a point that Mill is getting at with this argument that it’s not enough to hear positions characterized by those who oppose them, it is necessary to hear ardent advocates arguing for these positions. This relates to something that I think we have to incorporate more into the dictatorship of the proletariat and the rule and transformation of society by the masses of people. And this goes along with not just tolerating but encouraging dissent: we have to allow for people to explore many different ideas, and to hear advocates of many different ideas—without giving up the whole game, without losing power, without undermining and destroying the dictatorship of the proletariat. And that, once again, is a very complex and acute contradiction.

In order to handle this correctly, there are a couple of principles that I think are very important. One was actually articulated for me in a conversation that I had not long ago with a spoken word artist and poet. I was laying out to him how I saw socialist society and some of the same points that I’m making here about how we have to hang onto power and keep things going in a forward direction toward communism, while on the other hand there is a need for a lot of experimentation in the arts, a lot of critical thinking that needs to go on in the sciences and all these different spheres, and you have to let people take the ball and run with it, and not supervise them at every point on everything they do. And I asked him, for example: could you write your poetry if every step of the way there was a party cadre there looking over your shoulder, examining what you are writing. He said “no way.”

Then, as we discussed this for a while, he came up with what I thought was a very good formulation. He said, “It sounds to me like what you are talking about is ‘a solid core with a lot of elasticity.’” And I said “yeah, you’ve really hit on something there,” because that was exactly what I was trying to give voice to—that you have to have a solid core that firmly grasps and is committed to the strategic objectives and aims and process of the struggle for communism. If you let go of that you are just giving everything back to the capitalists in one form or another, with all the horrors that means. At the same time, if you don’t allow for a lot of diversity and people running in all kinds of directions with things, then not only are people going to be building up tremendous resentment against you, but you are also not going to have the rich kind of process out of which the greatest truth and ability to transform reality will emerge.

So this is another expression of a very difficult contradiction that we have to learn how to handle a lot better. Mao had some good ideas about this, and struggled a lot to get the party to implement them. Mao was wrangling with this, but he was only able to get so far with it. As he pointed out, human life is finite. He was only able to get so far with it, and then he died and what happened in China happened. And people—in particular the people now ruling that society—no longer were concerned with wrangling with that contradiction.

So we have to take this up and go further and learn to do even better with it the next time around. And in order for that to happen, those who are won to or seriously grappling with the question of this whole revolutionary process have to start engaging these questions now, and prepare ourselves as well as bring forward broader and broader ranks of the masses to be wrangling with these things, so that when we do seize power here and there, we are further along in our ability to be dealing with these things in a much more practical sense, even while, as I said, continuing to wrangle with them in the realm of theory.

Now what goes along with the principle of “solid core with a lot of elasticity” is another very important principle and method, which I characterize this way: being able to distinguish the difference between those times and circumstances where it is really necessary to hold the reins tightly, and pay very detailed attention to things, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, those times and circumstances where it is not necessary to do this, and in fact it is much better not to do so. And if you think about it, this contradiction applies to all kinds of things on all kinds of levels. In anything that you take up at any given time, there are always aspects that, if you don’t pay great detailed attention to them, and even in certain ways insist that “this is the way this has to be done,” the whole thing flies apart and comes undone. And there are other aspects where, first of all, if you try to pay that much attention and insist on “just this way” about them, you can’t even do it. And to the degree you can, you make a mess of things.

Think about any process that you want to undertake, even writing something. There are certain core, central ideas that you really have to get right. You might spend a long time really coming to grips with those things and understanding them. And then there are other things—it’s not that you don’t care what you say—but you can’t, and shouldn’t, pay the same amount of finely calibrated attention to those things.

It’s the same thing in a meeting, for example. You go to a meeting, and despite what some of the anarchists think, you have to have an agenda [laughter], and you have to have some organization to the meeting, or it won’t go anywhere. And if people get totally off the subject, you have to insist, “Hey, we are not talking about that, we are talking about this. We can talk about that next, but if we talk about everything at the same time, we’re not going to be able to resolve anything.” But, on the other hand, while people are talking—and they want to talk from different angles on the subject—you are not going to step in at every point and say, “No, that’s not the way to do it, you have to talk about it this way.” Because, first of all, that’s going to be the end of the discussion pretty quickly, and you are not going to have a meeting. Everybody’s going to get up and leave. Or never come back after that one meeting. And second of all, you won’t have any richness if you try to sit on top of everything everybody says. You will certainly not learn anything that you don’t already know. And you will actually undermine some things that you do know.

And you can break all these things down into different levels. Even with the things where you say “this is the point on the agenda,” you have to allow a certain flexibility about that, or else people can’t express themselves. So, even while on one level you are insisting this is the point on the agenda, on another level you are letting a lot of points come out within that, and allowing a lot of diversity. And sometimes, yes, that crosses over to where people are actually talking about a different point; but if you are too quick to stomp on that, you won’t really get good discussion about the point that is on the agenda.

So, on one level, you are insisting this is the way it’s got to be—for example, this point, and not another point, is what is on the agenda now—but, on another level, you are letting a lot of different things come out in relation to that. And if you don’t, you are not only stifling particular people, but you are stifling the process through which a lot of richness is going to come out that you can then synthesize and get the most truth out of.

And you can go on and on with things in life. If you think about anything, you’ll realize that there are those things where you really should insist that “this is the way it has to be done, and we have to very finely calibrate this,” and many, many things in the same process where you not only don’t have to do that, but where you should not do that.

And this applies especially to the whole realm of working with ideas. If you are going to have a lot of wrangling in society, then you have to have wrangling within the vanguard. While there is a difference between the vanguard and the masses and that shouldn’t be obliterated—the people who are part of the conscious vanguard take things up in a different way, and have different structures for how they wrangle with questions—if you make an absolute out of that, and erect just a complete wall between the party and the masses in that regard, you won’t get the kind of liveliness that you are seeking.

So you have to determine, even within a party, what are the things over which we absolutely have to have firm unity. Where do we need this “solid core,” in other words, and what are the things over which we can have a lot of differences and diversity, and we don’t have to put our foot down and resolve it and say it is this way or that way. Every movie you go to, you don’t have to have a unified line about that movie. [laughter] Things will be awfully boring if you insist on that—and, of course, much more severe problems will arise.

When you are going into a realm of science, there are a lot of questions that are unresolved at any given time among the people who are deeply immersed in that field. Why should you have to step in and—to borrow a metaphor from Mao—the moment you alight from the horse, you start issuing proclamations about what’s true and untrue. That’s very harmful.

Within a party, you need to have the kind of living process I have been talking about—even while you also definitely need your “solid core.” You need “elasticity” on the basis of a solid core. The solid core is principal and essential, but if you don’t have the elasticity and a lot of wrangling and diversity on the basis of that, you are going to dry up and you are going to lose everything.

So we can’t let go of this solid core. There are things we really do have to insist upon. Think about it. I was having another discussion with another poet, and he was arguing that you really shouldn’t suppress ideas, you really have to let all these ideas come out, and then criticize the things that you think are wrong and let people learn. And I said: “Well, that’s good as a principle, and it should be applied to a significant degree, but you can’t make an absolute out of that.” And I gave this example: imagine if you were trying to build a new society, and you go down the street and at every street corner are paintings of women being raped and Black people being lynched. Do you think you could build a new society with those images assaulting people at every turn? Some things you have to put your foot down and say “This will not be allowed, because if it is, the masses of people are going to be demoralized and disoriented, and the reactionaries are going to be emboldened.” So there are some things—as I said it’s not so simple—there are some things you just cannot allow.

But there are many, many things you can, and should, allow. For example, how do we uproot male supremacy and white supremacy? You can allow a lot of debate about that, and should allow a lot of debate about it—and a lot of criticism and struggle over many different things. So there again, you have your solid core, and a lot of elasticity. You have those things where you have to put your foot down and say yes, or no—this is the way it is, and this is the way it is not.

But, again, this “you” needs to be constantly expanding. Still, at any given time, that leading core does have to lead in that way. It does have to correctly combine a solid core with as much elasticity as possible on the basis of that solid core. Even while it is an expanding core, at any given time it has to determine when to hold the reins tightly and pay very detailed attention to things, and what are those conditions and times and circumstances where it is not necessary to do this, and in fact it is better not to do so.

Now, in this regard it is interesting to think about us in relation to the ruling class. To a significant degree, what is happening in the ruling class in the U.S. at this time is that you have a group of people, open and unabashed reactionaries, that has a very solid core. They are constantly launching attacks on relativism. It’s interesting though—a lot of them, the people grouped around Bush, and a lot of the people who want to promote religious fundamentalism—they actually in some ways like to promote post-modernism. Because they like relativism in a certain way and up to a certain point. They like it when it is directed against science. [laughter] They like it when it argues that science is “just another narrative” that is neither inherently true or not true, but just expresses its own “paradigm.” Because then they can promote all kinds of shit like creationism on the basis of having knocked down the idea that science can lead to any truth.

But in general these people hate relativism. And they want to promote absolutes. So they have a certain absolutist solid core, these people that are more—just a short-hand description—grouped around Bush, and in particular those who are part of what we call the Christian Fascist grouping, which has a powerful representation and support from powerful sections of the ruling class.

So they don’t really go in for much elasticity. And it’s interesting that the sections of the bourgeoisie that do tend to go in for more elasticity, the “liberal” sections of the bourgeoisie—and their reflections among more popular sections of the society—are actually very incapable of answering this absolutism. Their relativism doesn’t stand up very well to this absolutism, because it’s a relativism without a center, without a solid core. That is, without a center or a solid core that can answer the core assumptions of this other force, this more fascistic force. So the “liberals” are constantly ceding ground to this more fascistic force, because liberalism actually shares many of the same assumptions, and it can’t find a solid grounding for its differences. It wants to be the nice guys in the face of very mean-spirited people, and sometimes the latter allow that, with the orientation of “all the better to eat you with.” In other words, these more fascistic types are perfectly willing to allow the liberals to be tolerant of them. The problem is, you can’t fight a force like this with that kind of tolerance. It’s interesting when you hear about things like this new liberal radio station (“Air America”) and so on—it’s kind of a dud. Because they don’t really have an answer.

We do have an answer. But our answer cannot be an absolutist solid core that’s just the opposite of theirs in outward form (the “mirror opposite” of it). It has to be one that really is a solid core with a lot of elasticity, and in that way really brings to the fore the actual interests and increasingly the conscious initiative of growing numbers from among the masses of people.


1. This selection is excerpted from the talk Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism, the edited text of which is available online at This particular selection was published in the Revolutionary Worker [now Revolution] #1257 and 1258 (October 31 and November 14, 2004). [back]

2. Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World is a talk given by Bob Avakian in the late 1990s. Excerpts from this talk appeared in the Revolutionary Worker and are available online at The series “On Proletarian Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship—A Radically Different View of Leading Society” appeared in RW #1214 through 1226 (October 5, 2003–January 25, 2004). The series “Getting Over the Hump” appeared in RW #927, 930, 932, and 936-940 (October 12, November 2, November 16, and December 14, 1997 through January 18, 1998). Two additional excerpts from this talk are “Materialism and Romanticism: Can We Do Without Myth” in RW #1211 (August 24, 2003) and “Rereading George Jackson” in RW #968 (August 9, 1998). [back]

3. Bob Avakian, “Democracy More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That,” appendix to Phony Communism Is Dead…Long Live Real Communism, 2nd edition (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2004). [back]

4. Bob Avakian, Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (Chicago: Banner Press, 1986). [back]

Send us your comments.