From Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism
Revolutionary Worker #1257, October 31, 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,USA. 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 to this excerpt.
One of the things that I also quoted in this polemic against K. Venu1 was a statement by Mao in the course of the Cultural Revolution. In the city of Shanghai, which was a stronghold of the Cultural Revolution, there was a mass uprising of more than a million people. Different factions or groups among the Red Guards united to overthrow the existing municipal committee that ran the city—which was following the revisionist line in all the different fields and was a powerful force within the overall government and Communist Party. Education was to train a new elite, health care was for a small elite, not for the masses, right down to the policies that prevailed in the factories, which basically chained the workers to their machines and made them once again just cogs in the machinery of producing wealth. All this was ultimately going to be producing a new capitalist system with party members presiding over it.
So they had this mass upheaval in Shanghai, and in the initial stages, after they overthrew the old ruling committee in the city, they established for a brief time what was called the Shanghai Commune. This was modeled after the Paris Commune, which in 1871 arose and briefly held power for about two months in the city of Paris, the capital of France, and then was drowned in blood by the counter-revolution. Marx had written about this, summing up some of the important lessons of the Paris Commune, emphasizing that this is what the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like in reality. And one of the things they did in the Paris Commune was that all officials were elected by direct popular vote, and could be recalled by direct expression of the masses in a popular referendum. And so they implemented policies of this kind in the Shanghai Commune, modeling themselves after the Paris Commune.
But, after observing and studying this for a short period of time, Mao came forward with a statement that, under the circumstances, the Shanghai Commune was not the appropriate form in which to exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat. And he made criticisms of this form in his typically "Maoesque" way. He said: "I’m afraid that this commune form is not strong enough to suppress counter-revolutionaries." I’ll come back to that in a minute. And he also said, "What are we going to do about international relations—what about all the ministers we have that are like the foreign minister, who is going to appoint the foreign minister? I’m afraid all these other countries wouldn’t recognize the ministers that would be appointed in this way."
Really, in a kind of provocative humorous way, he was saying: Look, we live in a world that has all these imperialist countries out there. He wasn’t really talking about Chinese officials, like the foreign minister, and who was going to recognize them, he was saying all these imperialist vultures out there are going to take advantage of us if we don’t have a strong enough centralized force to be able to resist them and withstand attacks by them.
And when Mao said that this commune form is not strong enough to suppress counter-revolutionaries, what he was saying was: We are in the early stages of socialism, and not only do we have all the imperialists and reactionary states surrounding us, but within our society, we still have all these inequalities that are left over from the old society. We’re far from having overcome all these inequalities. If you have everybody taking part in these elections, directly choosing all the political representatives in that way, then bourgeois forces are going to come to dominate these elections, and we’re going to get representatives of the bourgeoisie elected.
Why? Because the people are stupid and not capable of managing their own affairs? No. Because people who ruled in the old society and people they link up who want to go back to the old society have tremendous advantages over the masses of people because of the inequalities that existed for centuries that the revolution was only beginning to address and overcome.
For example, the mental/manual contradiction that I talked about earlier2 —the contradiction between the small number of people who do intellectual work, shall we say, and the great mass of people who do manual labor. This cannot be overcome all at once. Not only is it a question of what’s left over from the old society, but there is also a question of where are you at in the process of building the new society and transforming it. Because, in order for everybody to be able to engage in all these different spheres of society, you have to be able to produce the material requirements of life with a small amount of the total labor that would go into all the activity in society. If it still takes you a large part of the working day of most of the people in the society to produce the things that can meet the material requirements of society and provide enough to defend that society in a world dominated by imperialism, and to have something laid away for insurance against natural disasters and things like that—if it still takes you a large part of the laboring hours of people in the society as whole to produce those things, then you will inevitably have inequalities between different parts of your society, because you are not going to be able to free up everybody to spend the time that is necessary to go into these different realms and really learn to immerse themselves in these spheres and begin to master them.
In socialist China they were only beginning to break down these inequalities. When I went to China I talked to peasants who were reading Engels’ Anti-Duhring , which is a very complex philosophical work—well it actually talks about politics and economics too, but it’s very complex. They were reading Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio- criticism , which is a long and complex philosophical essay and polemic. But they were not reading it with the same facility as the intellectuals were able to read it. That’s just a fact. Because the peasants, in their masses, had not developed the facility to engage in this realm and wrangle with it in the same way as the intellectuals were able to do this. So they were beginning to overcome this, but they were a long way from fully overcoming it.
What Mao was saying is this: If you just have direct elections and direct recall of all officials, what you’re going to have is a situation where people who have more facility with ideas and can articulate things better will come to dominate this process, or else you’ll have people who don’t know enough to actually deal in the realms that have to be dealt with to keep society going and keep the revolution going forward, and we’ll lose it that way. So this is not a form we can adopt now.
Instead, Mao proposed and popularized a form that had been developed in another part of China, a place called Heilongjiang province, in the northeast of China, where, through the Cultural Revolution, they brought forward what were called revolutionary committees, which combined representatives of the masses with representatives of experts and party members in various forms to actually be the administrative body in all the different institutions: the educational system, the factories, the health care system, and so on.
This, Mao said, more corresponds to where we are in the process of transforming society. This is something that we can actually implement which will keep power in the hands of the masses of people and will actually help to develop the struggle to transform these unequal relations but doesn’t overstep where we’re at in that process and thereby open the door to a small handful once again dominating the whole process.
Of course, there are many people (even some so-called "communists," such as the Progressive Labor Party) who just jumped up and down denouncing Mao for this and declaring that he wanted to institute once again the rule of oppressors instead of letting the people themselves run the society. But Mao was absolutely correct. He was saying: We have to have things like foreign ministries in a socialist country at this point because we have to deal with the outside world. If we don’t, if we’re infantile and we don’t try to deal with the outside world and maneuver in the face of all these contradictions, we’re just going to allow the enemies to unite against us more powerfully.
They had trade delegations come from capitalist countries, which they needed to do. And they had to provide limousines. Now they didn’t provide whores, but they provided limousines [laughter] for the capitalists. So that shows you where they’d gone and where they were yet to go. There were certain things that they would not do, but there were certain things they couldn’t help doing. And that was a reflection of where they were at, and where the world struggle was at.
So, as much as it sounds "undemocratic" Mao was profoundly correct—what he was arguing for was based on a recognition that the forms that we develop to give expression to the rule of the masses of people and to the revolutionary transformation of society by the masses of people have to correspond in a fundamental sense to where we are in the process of transforming the economic base and all the social, political, and ideological institutions and structures of society, and where we are in the process of the world revolution overall. If we overstep that, then we’re going to get thrown back—back into the horror of the old society. You can end up in that place by directly going off the road of socialism, but you can also end up in that place by trying to overstep what the actual conditions allow you to do. Rather than making a leap that corresponded to the advances they’d made in transforming the relations among people and the thinking of people—which is what these revolutionary committees represented —if, instead, you try to make a leap beyond that to something that doesn’t correspond to where you are within that society and where you are in relation to the rest of the world, then you’re laying the basis for the whole thing to be undone and destroyed.
There are some very profound lessons that have to be drawn out of this and have to be popularized. Not just the particular policy—what’s more important is the outlook and method with which Mao approached this, and with which he sifted through, studied, and drew the appropriate lessons out of this tremendous experience of masses rising up, literally in their tens of millions, and hundreds of millions, all over the country.
As the world exists today and as people seek to change it, and particularly in terms of the socialist transformation of society, as I see it there are basically three alternatives that are possible.
One is the world as it is. Enough said about that. [Laughter].
The second one is in a certain sense, almost literally and mechanically, turning the world upside down. In other words, people who are now exploited will no longer be exploited in the same way, people who now rule this society will be prevented from ruling or influencing society in a significant way. The basic economic structure of society will change, some of the social relations will change, and some of the forms of political rule will change, and some of the forms of culture and ideology will change, but fundamentally the masses of people will not be increasingly and in one leap after another, drawn into the process of really transforming society. This is really a vision of a revisionist society. If you think back to the days of the Soviet Union, when it had become a revisionist society, capitalist and imperialist in essence, but still socialist in name, when they would be chided for their alleged or real violations of people’s rights, they would often answer "Who are you in the west to be talking about the violation of human rights—look at all the people in your society who are unemployed, what more basic human right is there than to have a job?"
Well, did they have a point? Yes, up to a point. But fundamentally what they were putting forward, the vision of society that they were projecting, was a social welfare kind of society in which fundamentally the role of the masses of people is no different than it is under the classical form of capitalism. The answer about the rights of the people cannot be reduced to the right to have a job and earn an income, as basic as that is. There is the question of are we really going to transform society so that in every respect, not only economically but socially, politically, ideologically, and culturally, it really is superior to capitalist society. A society that not only meets the needs of the masses of people, but really is characterized increasingly by the conscious expression and initiative of the masses of people.
This is a more fundamental transformation than simply a kind of social welfare, socialist in name but really capitalist in essence society, where the role of the masses of people is still largely reduced to being producers of wealth, but not people who thrash out all the larger questions of affairs of state, the direction of society, culture, philosophy, science, the arts, and so on. The revisionist model is a narrow, economist view of socialism. It reduces the people, in their activity, to simply the economic sphere of society, and in a limited way at that—simply their social welfare with regard to the economy. It doesn’t even think about transforming the world outlook of the people as they in turn change the world around them.
And you cannot have a new society and a new world with the same outlook that people are indoctrinated and inculcated with in this society. You cannot have a real revolutionary transformation of society and abolition of unequal social as well as economic relations and political relations if people still approach the world in the way in which they’re conditioned and limited and constrained to approach it now. How can the masses of people really take up the task of consciously changing the world if their outlook and their approach to the world remains what it is under this system? It’s impossible, and this situation will simply reproduce the great inequalities in every sphere of society that I’ve been talking about.
The third alternative is a real radical rupture. Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto that the communist revolution represents a radical rupture with traditional property relations and with traditional ideas. And the one is not possible without the other. They are mutually reinforcing, one way or the other.
If you have a society in which the fundamental role of women is to be breeders of children, how can you have a society in which there is equality between men and women? You cannot. And if you don’t attack and uproot the traditions, the morals, and so on, that reinforce that role, how can you transform the relations between men and women and abolish the deep-seated inequalities that are bound up with the whole division of society into oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited? You cannot.
So the third alternative is a real radical rupture in every sphere, a radically different synthesis, to put it that way. Or to put it another way, it’s a society and a world that the great majority of people would actually want to live in. One in which not only do they not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or if they get sick whether they’re going to be told that they can’t have health care because they can’t pay for it, as important as that is; but one in which they are actually taking up, wrangling with, and increasingly making their own province all the different spheres of society.
Achieving that kind of a society, and that kind of a world, is a very profound challenge. It’s much more profound than simply changing a few forms of ownership of the economy and making sure that, on that basis, people’s social welfare is taken care of, but you still have people who are taking care of that for the masses of people; and all the spheres of science, the arts, philosophy, and all the rest are basically the province of a few. And the political decision- making process remains the province of a few.
To really leap beyond that is a tremendous and world-historic struggle that we’ve been embarked on since the Russian revolution (not counting the very short-lived and limited experience of the Paris Commune)—and in which we reached the high point with the Chinese revolution and in particular the Cultural Revolution—but from which we’ve been thrown back temporarily.
So we need to make a further leap on the basis of summing up very deeply all that experience. There are some very real and vexing problems that we have to confront and advance through in order to draw from the best of the past, but go further and do even better in the future.
Now I want to say a few things in this context about totalitarianism. Just as an aside here, I find it very interesting that you can read innumerable books delving deeply into the psyche of Stalin or Lenin or Mao—"What went on in the deranged minds of these people [laughter] that led them to think they could remake the world in their maddened image?" [laughter] and led them, in the name of some greater moral good, to bring great catastrophe on the humanity that they were affecting?" I don’t know how many books I’ve seen like that. I have never yet seen—maybe there are some, but I have never seen—a study of the deranged psyche of Thomas Jefferson [laughter] or George Washington: "How is it that a person could come to believe in their own mind [laughter] that they were benefiting not only humanity in general, but other human beings whom they owned? [laughter] What depth of psychological derangement must be involved in that? [laughter]. What is more totalitarian than actually owning other human beings?"
Or what about the study of the depths of the depraved minds of Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan, [laughter] who murdered millions of people, including vast numbers of children? "What must have gone wrong, somewhere in their childhood or somewhere else in their lives? [laughter] What demented ideas must they somehow have internalized that led them to believe that in the name of the shining city on the hill, or whatever [laughter], they had the right and the obligation to slaughter thousands and millions of innocent people?"
I have never seen those studies. Certainly I haven’t read about them in the New York Times Book Review section. [laughter]
Still, there are some real questions that are raised about totalitarianism by the ideologues and the "intellectual camp followers" of the imperialists that do need to be taken on. In particular, they make the charge that in a society which they call totalitarian, but which is in reality the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is first of all an official ideology that everyone has to profess belief in, in order to get along in that society. And there is an official politics that everyone has to be involved in, in order to get along in that society and not get in trouble. Well, what about this?
Fundamentally, this is a distortion of what has gone on in socialist societies: why these revolutions were necessary in the first place, and what they were seeking to accomplish and to overcome, and how they were going about doing that. The reality is that, for the great masses of people in capitalist (and certainly in feudal) society, they are barred from really being involved in any significant way in official politics and the politics that actually affect the affairs of state and the direction of society. And they are indoctrinated with an outlook and methodology and ideology that prevents them—discourages them and actively obstructs them—from really understanding the world as it is and changing it consciously. And that is what socialist revolutions seek to change, as well as bringing about fundamental changes in the economy and the social relations.
But what about this question of official ideology that everyone has to profess? Well, I think we have more to sum up about that from the history of socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat so far.
With regard to the question of the party, I think two things are definitely true. One, you need a vanguard party to lead this revolution and to lead the new state. Two, that party has to have an ideology that unifies it, an ideology that correctly reflects and enables people to consciously change reality, which is communist ideology.
But, more broadly, should everyone in society have to profess this ideology in order to get along? No. Those who are won over to this ideology should proclaim it and struggle for it. Those who are not convinced of it should say so. Those who disagree with it should say that. And there should be struggle. Something has to lead—the correct ideology that really enables people to get at the truth, and to do something with it in their interests, has to lead; but that doesn’t mean everyone should have to profess it, in my opinion. And this is just my opinion. But it’s worth digging into this a bit, it’s worth exploring and wrangling with the question.
In China they used to have mass demonstrations in the main square, Tiananmen Square, in support of the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam war. A million and a half people would rally in Tiananmen Square. It was very powerful. Well, do you think that everybody who was there was really deeply committed to sacrificing to support the struggle of the Vietnamese people? And this did require real sacrifice on the part of the people of China. People went without things so that they could send aid to the Vietnamese people. They sent rice to Vietnam. People didn’t eat that rice in China. Do you think that everyone was uniformly and deeply committed to that? I don’t think so. There was undoubtedly an advanced force, and during the Cultural Revolution this became a huge force; but, as there always is, there were more advanced, more intermediate, and more backward people on that and every other question.
Well, here’s a question to ponder and wrangle with. It’s not an easy one to answer. Which is better: a demonstration of 200,000 people in Tiananmen Square who are deeply committed to this— or a demonstration of 2 million, some of whom are committed, but many of whom are, to varying degrees, less committed to it? That’s a tough question. Because you’re not operating in a vacuum. First of all, you’ve got the imperialists there. And they have their media. If you call a rally and say "those who really want to come out, come out" and 200,000 come out, the imperialists will say, "200,000, that’s a pittance in China! Even in the capital city of Beijing, that’s a pittance! That’s pitiful! See—we told you—nobody really supports the Vietnamese, even in China they don’t support them."
Well, that has a concrete effect. You’re not operating in a vacuum. On the other hand, if you just sort of say "okay, everybody gets off work, everybody in every unit, you all organize to go, and if you don’t go you’re going to be in for a lot of criticism"—well, that has problems too. This is not something that has an easy answer, but it’s the kind of thing that needs to be wrangled with. We need to sum up this experience and learn more deeply. Sometimes it might be better to do one thing and sometimes another.
Fundamentally, you have to rely on people really being won to these things. But there is an element, you know, of coercion that plays a role in some of this. Someone, for example, commented on the movie Remember the Titans. I don’t know if you all saw that movie (it’s about the integration of a high school and the high school football team in Virginia in the early 1970s). This comrade pointed out that there was a certain positive role for coercion there. The schools were integrated and that was it—you had to deal with the reality of it. The football team was going to be integrated, that’s it. If they had just gone to all the white people and said, "How would you like to integrate the school and the football team?" what do you think would have happened?
So it’s not like there’s no role for coercion, but even in that movie they worked through a lot of contradictions within the confines of what they were doing. If they hadn’t worked through those contradictions, it would have turned from a good thing into a bad thing. And more fundamentally, in transforming society through revolutionary struggle, if you don’t work through these contradictions and increasingly bring forward people who are consciously and voluntarily fighting for these things, then you’re going to go backward after a certain period of time, especially under the pressure of everything you’re up against, including the imperialists in the world.
So there are not easy answers to these questions. We have some things to wrestle with more deeply and learn more fully about this question of official ideology that everybody has to profess and official politics that everybody has to take part in. And we should even allow—this is one of the things that our party has been stressing and I’ve been emphasizing in things I’ve written and talks I’ve given—we should not only allow but even encourage oppositional politics under the dictatorship of the proletariat, because we have to conceive of this process not as a neat and orderly one but as a very tumultuous one—and a volatile and chaotic one at times—through which a lot of things get brought forward and thrashed out by the masses. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can just turn power back over to the bourgeoisie indirectly or inadvertently by "loosening the reins" so much that there’s no core that’s driving the society forward to where it needs to go and is leading the masses of people to ever more consciously and voluntarily strive for those things. But that shouldn’t be seen as like just an engine on a track that’s going straight ahead. It’s a much more tumultuous and tortuous process where a lot of different things are going to get into the mix and a lot of different contradictions are going to be wrestled over, and a lot of different ideas are going to be brought forward about how to do that, and where increasingly the masses are being relied on and involved consciously in the process of thrashing these things out themselves.
Now that sounds good, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy to do that without giving up power. And if you give up power, what’s the point? So these are things we have to do more work on, to understand more deeply—and, as soon as we can, to learn through the practice of actually having some new socialist states, some new dictatorships of the proletariat, where people seek to apply these lessons in a practical way, as well as continuing to wrangle with them in the realm of theory.
As I have pointed out, 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 straight-line 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"3 —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 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.
TO BE CONTINUED
2 See Part 1 of this series, "The Struggle in the Realm of Ideas," in RW #1250, August 22, 2004.
3 "On Proletarian Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship: A Radically Different View of Leading Society," excerpted from a talk by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World." Published excerpts available online at rwor.org.