From Dictatorship and Democracy, And the Socialist Transition to Communism
Revolutionary Worker #1251, August 29, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the edited text of a recent talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party. This talk was given to a group of supporters of the RCP who are studying the historical experience of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and preparing to take up the challenge of popularizing this experience and engaging in discussion and debate with others about it, particularly on campuses but also more broadly.
The entire talk is online at rwor.org. Footnotes and subheads have been added for publication.
Now, certainly not the only, but one of the most important focuses at this time is the struggle to confront and combat the constant attacks on the experience of socialist countries, and in particular of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and especially the whole concept of totalitarianism; and at the same time, while doing that, to confront and critically examine the actual experience of socialist countries and the dictatorship of the proletariat, drawing the fullest lessons from this experience--mainly and overwhelmingly the positive lessons, but also facing squarely and digging deeply into the very real shortcomings and errors.
I was reading an interesting comment from someone--it was actually someone in the international movement-- and they made the point, "I uphold very firmly the experience of the socialist revolution so far, but I don't want to live in those countries" [laughter]. In other words, we have a lot of work to do, to do better the next time around. That's a very dialectical attitude. And a materialist attitude: we should uphold these things historically, there are great achievements; but we also have to build on it and go farther and do better in certain areas, or else people won't want to live in these societies--and probably we won't either.
So we do have to confront and combat these attacks, while at the same time squarely confronting and digging deeply into the very real shortcomings and errors. There is a real and very urgent and pressing need to refute the attacks on socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, in a thoroughgoing, deep and living way--not a dogmatic way or stereotypical way. This is a crucial focus of the class struggle right now in the ideological realm. And how well we carry out this struggle has profound implications for work that's guided and inspired by the strategic objectives of revolution, socialism, and ultimately a communist world.
This applies broadly, and it has important application among the proletariat and basic masses. First of all, it's a real mistake to think that these questions don't find their way among the masses. You know, the people have heard this, they've heard that. It doesn't mean they've read long dissertations or analyses, but they've heard this and they've heard that, and it has seeped down into the popular consciousness, and it's pumped at them all the time in various ways. These summations that are blared out, and sometimes elaborated on in intellectual theses, are also very simply boiled down and blasted at the masses all the time. Plus, they have some real questions that they come up against when thinking about whether the world could be different. There is not just propaganda from the bourgeoisie that raises questions in their mind, but real contradictions in life that they are wrangling with and legitimately want answers to. And we have to not only give them answers, but again, we have to draw them into the process of finding the answers. But there is work to be done by people who do have a more advanced understanding and a developed ability, or developing ability, to work with ideas, to grapple in this realm.
There is importance to combating these attacks on communism and to digging into these questions deeply among the proletariat, among the basic masses of people in society. But there also is particular and particularly important application of this in relation to the intelligentsia. And this goes back to what I was saying at the beginning.1
So let's dig into some of the key questions bound up with this.
First, I want to refer to a short statement--actually it was three previously unpublished sentences on democracy that are part of some unpublished correspondence from me which was then recently published in the RW . I don't have it before me, but I think I can remember the essence of it. First, the point was made that in a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequalities, to talk about "democracy"--without talking about the class content of democracy and whom this democracy serves--is meaningless at best, meaningless, or worse. Second, in a society that is divided in this way, with profound relations of exploitation and oppression, there cannot be any such thing as "democracy for all," or "pure democracy": there will always be the rule of one class or another, and whichever class rules will not only enforce that rule, but will apply, uphold and promote whatever kind of democracy serves its rule and its interests. And given this, the third point is that the essential question is: which class rules and in what way, and whether its rule serves to maintain and foster relations, deep-going relations of exploitation and oppression, or whether it serves the struggle to uproot and eventually completely abolish these relations.
Now, the first question that arises in relation to this--and these are things that, in the popular culture and so on, are commonly misrepresented and distorted, so it's important to speak directly to them--the question is: What is democracy? Well "cracy" refers to a form of rule and "demos" is the people. So it technically means rule by the people. And if we look at history from Greek society up to the present time, democracy has basically been applied among the ranks of the people who actually ruled. There may have been, as there are in this society, formal procedures and structures which seem to apply certain aspects of this democracy to the population in general. But, in essence, the democracy that has been applied--the right to rule the society, and the right to really be involved in determining the direction of society--belongs essentially to the ranks of the ruling class and those who serve it.
That was true in ancient Greece and Rome, for example, as I pointed out in the book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?2 These were societies founded on slavery. Most of the people--when they refer to democracy, most of the people were excluded from this democracy. They were slaves or they were non-citizens, and they didn't have any part to play in the determination of the direction of society. And that's still true in modern bourgeois-democratic society, where in reality the political decision-making process is removed from and stands over the masses of people, and their role is reduced to a charade of a kind, in which at most they are allowed to play a secondary role in relation to struggles within the ranks of the elite ruling classes in society.
We have seen illustrations of this in recent times, for example, with the selection of the Democratic Party nominee. This is written about in the RW , both in articles on Kerry himself, but also in the examination of what happened to Howard Dean [laughs]--which is an interesting experience to sum up. We did it in one important article in the RW ,3 but we need to keep going into this more deeply and from different angles.
What did happen to Dean? Here's a guy who came forward and made some noises--he did two things--he made some noises about opposing the whole Bush direction, and he said I'm going to go raise some funds a different way, I'm going to go on the internet and get a bunch of people all to pledge $100 instead of a small number to pledge $100,000 or a million dollars.
Of course, he represented the same system. If you examined his positions, as we did in the RW,4 you'll see that he represented the same system. But these particular things he did were not even what the party bosses, if you want to put it that way, the real determining figures in the Democratic Party, wanted in terms of running against the Bush crew. So, all of a sudden--Dean is the front runner and all of a sudden we come to the Iowa caucuses, which are really just meetings of Democratic Party hacks, and they vote for Kerry, put Kerry in first place and Dean's down. And all of a sudden the entire media is proclaiming that Dean is finished, and Kerry is the virtual nominee already. Dean got up and gave a speech, and he was a little too "glowing," or whatever. They just blasted it all over. He might have been up for 24 hours or whatever.
But look, you can take a Bush speech and really go to town with it. Even David Letterman had a 40- second segment where he had Bush saying "uh" every third word. The media, if they so wished, could just take that and run with it, and by the time they were through, Bush would look like--you know--what he is . But they have no interest in doing that. It is the same class of people who run the media who generally run this society, and who generally are the ones to whom the political representatives are beholden, without getting mechanical about that and thinking they just pay them money. There are a lot of dynamics involved. These people, the politicians, do have their own interests, they do have their own programs, they even have their own philosophies and views of the world, and they fight for them. So it's not as simple as some committee of the ruling class sits down and decides this one or that will be the nominee, and gives them more money while others get less money. That's an element of what goes on. Different people giving money to both parties, or more to one or another, depending on what they like. But there is a lot of dynamics and tension and struggle. It's a very living process.
When we use the term "the ruling class" it's a real term, it has real meaning, but it's full of contradiction. It refers to something real, it's a real phenomenon. But it's a phenomenon that is full of contradiction and struggle. We shouldn't oversimplify it.
But the fact is, there was a consensus among the people who own the media that they didn't want Dean, and that the Democratic Party leaders didn't want Dean as the candidate. It wasn't that he really had a program that would be fundamentally opposed to what they wanted to do, or that they couldn't bring him into the fold. But some of what was being unleashed around this was not what they wanted. And they didn't want a candidacy that ran on the idea that Bush is fucking up America. The debate had to be on different terms than that. And we can see how Kerry is conducting it: "I can do better in the war on terrorism." "We need more troops in Iraq." "Yes, I voted for that war in Iraq, but in any case, maybe I have some criticisms, we should have done it more multilaterally--but now that we are there.." And it is a good question to ask a lot of people: Why does John Kerry say: "Now that we're there, we can't pull out, we have to have more troops"? It's a good question to ponder and to ask people. Why is that? What does that reflect about what interests he's serving?
What would happen if the U.S. actually pulled out of Iraq? Well, it's true there would be a lot of chaos in that part of the world, and a lot of people who hate the U.S. coming from all kinds of directions, including the reactionary religious fundamentalists, but others as well, would take heart from that and jump out more and do more things. So, if you are someone who thinks that this system has got to be maintained and fortified at whatever cost, even if you think there are certain things about it that should be improved, then there is a certain logic that says, "Well, once we are in there, we have to stay the course." We heard this all the time about Vietnam, too: "We can't get out of Vietnam because there is a credibility question." Well, what is the credibility question? You know, it's just the godfather principle. You are ruling over people by force. I was reading in the newspaper the text of one of the leaflets the U.S. military dropped over Falluja in Iraq recently. It was just a straight gangster leaflet: We're coming to pulverize you, you had better give up now. It wasn't any appeal to any lofty thing, let me tell you. Just straight-up on- the-ground gangsterism. We're coming, we are going to pulverize you, and those of you who are determined to oppose us, your last day was yesterday. All that kind of shit.
But if you accept the logic of this system, as Kerry does, as the Democratic Party does, then you have to go along with this, because the credibility of the U.S. will be hurt if it pulls out of Iraq. More people will do more things to oppose it. And so, when you come to this question of what should we do now that "we" are in Iraq--maybe "we" didn't go into Iraq the right way, or maybe "we" shouldn't have even gone in at all, but what position you take about the fact that "we" are in there now has everything to do with how you look at the whole nature of this system, and whether you think it ought to maintain its credibility and ought to be fortified, or whether you understand that it's an oppressive system that lives by eating the flesh of people all over the world, literally. Using up and destroying people. Either employing them in these most horrendous conditions that are almost unimaginable. Little children working 12 hours a day, sleeping under machines in Turkey or Iran or in Latin America, or many other places you can name. Or else they are just cast onto the garbage heap as far as the imperialists are concerned. They can't even be profitably exploited, so they are cast off and allowed and encouraged to slaughter each other, whether it's in the ghettos and barrios of the U.S. or Rwanda or other places.
If you understand that, then the idea that we ought to maintain the credibility of this system, and the force that's behind that credibility, looks very different to you. But if you basically think this system should be doing what it's doing around the world, even if there should be some adjustments and minor reforms and tweaking and tinkering, then you have a very different outlook on it. And if you think you want to run this system, or be the chief executive of it, then you definitely have a certain view that's very different than that of the masses of people. You have very different interests, shall we say. Sometimes the masses' views are shaped and influenced by the ruling class. That happens to a significant degree. But the interests of the masses of people do not lie in working small children to death in factories all over the world, or uprooting peasants from the countryside in their tens of millions every year and casting them into shantytown slums ringing the cities. The interests of the masses of people don't lie in bludgeoning and pulverizing people who don't want to go along with that, or have a different idea about how the world ought to be and could be.
So, we can see that, in terms of the question of democracy and the "democratic process," in particular the electoral process, as is pointed out in the book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?,by the time it gets to you, the voter, the citizen, even if you are allowed to vote and take part in some way in this struggle within the ranks of the ruling class, the terms have already been set. The candidates have been chosen by somebody else, and what issues and debates are "legitimate" issues and debates has already been determined. And then you come in--and you get to play around in that. You get to have the illusion that, by so doing, you are determining something essential about the direction of this society, when really all of the choices have been predetermined, any choice that you get to be involved in has already been shaped and predetermined by the ruling class and by the workings of the system even more fundamentally.
It's a game they like to play. They like to get people thinking that they have a stake in this. You hear people talking, ordinary people, masses of people: "We ought to do this and that." What the fuck are you talking about? [laughter] We aren't doing shit. Somebody told me about how they were working among some Black people who were talking about,"We got to do this and that in Iraq." I told him, why don't you go say: "What do you mean we,white man?" That was an old joke back in the days of the '60s. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were surrounded by Indians, they were in a really bad way, and the Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, "Man, we're in a lot of trouble, what are we going to do, Tonto?" And Tonto says: "What do you mean `we,' white man?" [laughter] Not applying this in just nationalistic terms, but in terms of fundamental divisions in society, "we" aren't deciding these things, and these aren't "our" interests being decided here. What we ought to do in Iraq is force the U.S. to get the fuck out. That's what we ought to do. But we are not deciding what the U.S. imperialists are doing in Iraq. They are deciding that. But they not only like to make you think that you have a choice by voting, but also to get you in a mentality like you are sitting in a seat of power, like you are really deciding and determining things when you vote. You're not sitting in a seat of power--they're sitting in the seats of power--but they love it for you to think like they do. And to even play act as if you somehow are sitting there making these decisions. "We ought to do." Bullshit! "We" ought to do something radically different, is what "we" ought to do.
And this has to do with the nature of this democracy. This democracy is in effect a dictatorship, in essence a dictatorship. And that's another concept we have to clear up. Because dictatorship--you think of how Khrushchev got up in the UN, and, in a statement that has been completely misrepresented and distorted, said: "We will bury you"--and banged his shoe on the podium at the UN. This was back in the '50s. And that was the classic image. Or you know, like Charlie Chaplin--it was a good movie, making a good point about Hitler--but he is dancing around with the globe in that movie. Modern Times is that the movie? [Response: Great Dictator ]. The Great Dictator , that's right. He was dancing around with this globe. That's the image you have of a dictator--or this sort of dark, obscure figure, the tyrant who is demented, and in his dementia just arbitrarily decides to murder millions of people.
You can point to certain superficial aspects like that, but even if you are talking about a Hitler, that is not the essence of what was going on. Hitler was an extreme representative of German imperialism, in extreme conditions, and was acting fundamentally to try to strengthen the position of German imperialism in the world, ultimately unsuccessfully. That didn't mean he didn't have a particular ideology that was different than most of the rest of the German ruling class, and that he didn't take particular extreme measures that do stand out in history, like the mass genocide against the Jews. Those are real things. They are not just "normal workings of imperialism," although its normal workings are plenty horrendous, and millions of people are killed every year, tens of millions, by the normal workings of imperialism. This is imperialism carried to an extreme, and to grotesque forms. But it is still the same fundamental system. It's not just one guy acting out of his dementia. Actually Hitler was rather clever, in coming to power and in seeking to carry out his aims. Maybe there was an element in which he was demented, but that's not the essence of the matter, and dictatorship is not a matter of somebody getting up and pounding his shoe on a podium in the UN, or just being demented.
Actually, just as an aside, the reason I said that whole thing with Khrushchev was distorted is that it was always presented in the media in America as if Khrushchev were threatening a military attack on the U.S. What this was actually part of was his revisionist program where he started promoting what were called the "three peacefuls": peaceful coexistence between capitalist and imperialist states; peaceful competition between socialism and capitalism; and the illusion (which the other two were as well) of peaceful transition to socialism.
Khrushchev was promoting the line that, "We will prove the superiority of socialism just by producing more consumer goods and having more production in general." That was the irony. When he got up and said, "We will bury you," that was what he was actually saying. But, of course, in the U.S. propaganda machinery it got converted into the notion that he was threatening a military attack on the U.S.
But whatever the particulars of that, returning to the more general point, that is not what a dictatorship is-- banging your shoe, or one-man rule, or the idea of an infallible leader, or so on and so forth. Dictatorship in its essence is the rule over society by one group and in particular one class. It means that that class has a monopoly, not only over the economics of this society--not only over the economic base of society, in Marxist terms--but also over the superstructure that arises on the basis of that economic base. In other words, the politics, the ideology and the culture. It has a monopoly in particular of political power, and most especially, and in a most concentrated way, it has a monopoly of armed force--and specifically, a monopoly of "legitimate" armed force.
In other words, if you look at this society--and I'm not advocating this, I'm just giving an example--if someone were to go out and take a gun and shoot a cop on the basis that the cop is brutalizing somebody, they would be up for murder. There is no question about it. But time after time after time, when the police murder someone, even if there are many, many witnesses, and there is no doubt about what happened, first of all there is almost never an instance where the cop is arrested and charged in the first place. But if that is forced by mass outrage and mass upsurge, it is almost always the case that they end up being vindicated on the basis of "justifiable homicide." Why? Because the police, along with the armed forces, represent the monopoly of armed force of the ruling class, whose interests they serve and protect--and in particular, a monopoly of "legitimate" armed force.
Their violence and force, which is carried out every day, sometimes in the most brutal and grotesque ways, is legitimated by the whole workings of society and by the political power and by all the educational system and all the ways in which people are indoctrinated and trained to look at the world in a certain way. That's "legitimate." That's "justifiable" violence, "justifiable homicide." Whereas, any violence that is not carried out by the state, or at least not carried out in the interests of the ruling class, is by definition, and by the force of all the propaganda and the functioning of all of the machinery of society, illegitimate violence, "non-justifiable."
That is a reflection of rule over society which is in fact a dictatorship. You don't have to have a single leader who is promoted as an infallible person. It's rule by a class . It may be disguised. In the case of the kind of society we live in, it is valuable, often, to disguise this. But nonetheless, if you examine it concretely, and really dig into it, you will see that the political power is monopolized by the same class of people who dominate the economy, who monopolize the economy, who are the ones that have the great share not only of income, but of wealth in property and wealth in means of production, who own factories, who own banks, who own insurance companies. The people who dominate those things also dominate the political process and the political power--and, in a concentrated way, armed force that is exercised to maintain a certain form and function of society. It is exercised ultimately in their interests. And if it isn't, they'll move to get rid of the people who are exercising political authority, and get other people who will do that.
It is impossible to go into such a system and do anything but end up serving it. You cannot change the way in which the underlying economic system functions, and you cannot change the way in which the political institutions and structures function in accordance with that underlying functioning of the economy. If you tried to do that, you would bring total chaos to society.
Just think about it. Suppose you passed a law that people had a right to eat regardless of whether they had a job or not [laughter], and you just said to people: "You have a right to eat. If you cannot get food by earning an income, then go take it." [laughter] Well, if you stand back it makes perfect sense that people should have a right to eat. If the fucking system can't give them a job, why should they suffer for that. But you can't implement that principle. They can do certain things--welfare and unemployment insurance--but you cannot implement the principle, you cannot operate on the principle in this society that people have a right to eat regardless.
So if you try to do things in the superstructure of politics and ideology that run counter in a fundamental way to the economic base and functioning of the economy, you will create chaos. And if you try to do that, the workings of the system will bury you, if they don't win you over immediately. This has happened time and time again. It's more fundamental than that "you have to go along to get along" when you get into the political structure. That is true. You go into Congress, it's all set up with committees and everything. If you want to get anything done you have to make compromises. That's all true. But more fundamental is that there is a way this system works, and if you don't act in accordance with that, you will be chewed up and spit out by that system. Or else you will learn to go along with it very quickly.
So this is in essence a dictatorship. It's a dictatorship, and the political rule reflects and serves the underlying functioning and relations of the economy. And this is a very important point to understand.
TO BE CONTINUED
1See Part 1 of this series, "The Struggle in the Realm of Ideas," in RW #1250, August 22, 2004.
3 "The Rise and Fall of Howard Dean: Lessons in U.S. Democracy," RW #1233, March 21, 2004.
4"Howard Dean Hype: The Pro-War Views of an `Anti-War' Candidate," RW #1225, January 18, 2004.