From Dictatorship and Democracy, And the Socialist Transition to Communism
Revolutionary Worker #1258, November 14, 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.
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.
Well, to move closer to a conclusion here, I wanted to talk just a little bit about some aspects of the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist society so far, and try to draw some lessons from both the very real achievements, the world historic achievements that really are the main and essential thing, but also the very real shortcomings and mistakes, in the attempt to learn from both aspects of this.
Now, Marx made this famous statement about the goals of the socialist revolution, which sometimes the Maoists in China and we in our Party have represented in the short-hand form of the "four alls." And what Marx said was that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the necessary transit—now let’s see if I can get this right—to the abolition of class distinctions generally, or all class distinctions, to the abolition of all the relations of productions on which those class distinctions rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to those production relations, and to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that correspond to those social relations. Well, that’s a very pithy and at the same time very complex statement. There’s a lot of materialism and a lot of dialectics concentrated in that statement. Obviously, we could spend a long time talking about it, and we don’t have time to do that here. But I did want to say a few things about it.
First of all, you can see the materialism in this, in that he doesn’t just talk about eliminating class differences, or class distinctions, but he immediately moves to talking about what underlies these class distinctions. He immediately roots it in the most fundamental thing of society, namely the system of production and the production relations through which the economy functions. Unless you uproot and transform that underlying system of production and its production relations, you can’t abolish the oppressive differences in society, the inequalities in society, the class distinctions, and the other social inequalities.
But Marx talks about not only the production relations, but the social relations that correspond to them, such as the inequality and oppressive relation between men and women, which is very much bound up with these production relations of exploitation and oppression. You can think of other oppressive social relations as well, including in the sphere of politics and relations of political power in society.
And then Marx goes on to talk about how it is necessary to revolutionize all the ideas that correspond to these social relations (this more or less corresponds to the second radical rupture spoken of in the Communist Manifesto —the radical rupture with all traditional ideas). And again, it’s like the relation between the democratic intelligentsia and the shopkeepers. Ideas don’t correspond to social relations only in a narrow, mechanical sense. They correspond in an ultimate and fundamental sense. In other words, when someone says, "I don’t really think anybody can know what’s true," that kind of agnosticism doesn’t directly, in a narrow, mechanical sense, correspond to the production relations and social relations of capitalism. You can’t transfer it in a narrow, mechanical, economist sense to say, well, that’s a direct expression of the fact that the capitalist system of production is based on producing and distributing things as commodities and it has the particular feature that labor power itself, the ability to work, has become a commodity, and that people have to sell that in order to live, and that’s the whole foundation of the exploitation of the proletariat.
All of that is not expressed directly and mechanically in the idea that you cannot really determine what’s true. But, in an ultimate sense, the idea that you can’t determine what’s true is influenced by the way in which the operation of the system, and fundamentally the economic system, is filtered through social relations, political relations, and ideological and cultural relations and expressions. So that ultimately you get to a position that says: if you can’t really know what’s true, then you can’t really transform society, you can’t really get beyond the kind of society we have now. This is an idea which, even though it is not a direct and conscious expression of celebrating the production relations of capitalism, nevertheless serves to reinforce them. Because it promotes the idea that one idea is just as good as another, you can’t really know the truth, you can’t really know the world, you can’t really understand the essence of important aspects of reality and change them, so therefore you are left with accommodating to "what is."
So that’s not necessarily a direct expression of someone who studied the production relations of capitalism and then made this statement to reinforce them. But it is an idea which, filtered through all the different institutions and relations and expressions in society, of the dominant forces in society, gets reflected in the mind. This is a whole bunch of material reality, including the social and production relations and class relations of capitalism, getting reflected in the mind in the form of an agnosticism that denies that you can really understand all this and can change it. And therefore it is an idea that will be promoted in many ways by the ruling class.
So you can see the interconnection of these four alls, but you can’t see it in a crude, determinist, mechanical way. It’s much more complex than that. This is an additional reason why you can’t deal crudely in the realm of ideas. Mao made that point. He said ideas are not like other things, you can’t deal with them crudely—not that you should deal with other things crudely, but it’s especially important not to deal with ideas and the struggle in the realm of ideas crudely. Things have to be sorted out, they have to be struggled through, they have to be sifted through to determine what’s actually true. That goes back to what I was saying at the beginning.
So you can see here the materialism of Marx’s statement about the "four alls," as they are called. All the class distinctions, all the production relations, all the social relations, all the ideas. Those are the four alls. And you can also see the dialectical interplay that he is talking about between these different things. This is another way of expressing the complexity of the process of advancing beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right, of getting beyond the whole epoch in which things ultimately get reduced back to the production relations of capitalism.
One of the problems that we have had is that Marx made this statement, if I’m not wrong, in the 1850s, and we are now in the 21st century, and the transition that he is talking about has turned out to be a very long—a much more long and complex transition than Marx anticipated. When he said the dictatorship of the proletariat is a transition to these four alls, I think it is pretty clear he had something much more short-term in mind. And yet we have seen that, in the experience of the Soviet Union and in the experience of China, there were decades of only beginning to carry out this transition.
And this is an expression of what can be referred to as two great contradictions that face socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat. One is the fact that socialism is a transition to communism, and not yet communism itself. It carries within it, as Marx put it, the birthmarks, the leftovers, from capitalism. And for a long time these persist in fairly powerful ways—all the things that I’ve been touching on, including the mental/manual contradiction, the difference between the countryside and the city, unequal and oppressive relations between men and women—all these things are carried over from the old society and cannot be uprooted all at once. And at the same time, and interacting with this, dialectically related to it, is the fact and the problem that in historical experience so far—and what is likely to be our experience for some time to come—socialist countries emerge into a world still dominated by imperialism, and are in a real sense surrounded and encircled by imperialism. And these two things, or great contradictions, interact with each other.
So the problems that we have had in socialist society are not, as some think, essentially one of bureaucracy, or just a matter of individuals, or of individual leaders in particular, who "go bad." It’s much more complex and deep-seated than that.