Getting Over the Hump

Breaking Down the Division Between Mental and Manual: Stalin and Mao

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #937, December 21, 1997

I want to tell a joke that I heard when I was first getting involved in the movement--I don't want to even say how many years ago that was--but it was the time of the Vietnam war and the early big demonstrations against that war. In Berkeley we had this committee, the Vietnam Day Comittee, which was organizing against the Vietnam war. We had this office in Berkeley, and one day this guy, who was kind of a social-democrat, came in while we were all sitting around talking about different tactical things, like organizing demonstrations and meetings, and about bigger political questions. And in the course of this discussion, he came up with this joke.

At the time I was a "radical," but I wasn't yet a communist, and the way I interpreted what he was saying with his joke was more or less that the changes that were achieved in the Soviet Union really didn't amount to all that much--really not that much had changed, even before Khrushchev came to power. But as I learned more, and not only became a communist but accumulated more experience and a deeper understanding about the basis for capitalist restoration in socialist society and the struggle against that--about the whole way in which the road is in fact tortuous although the future is bright--I have come to understand and treat this joke more in terms of its being a lesson about the class struggle continuing under socialism and the need to continue the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

It is a story about two soldiers in the Soviet Union in the dead of winter in the 1930s. They had the job of guarding some important offices of the Soviet government. And they would march back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And then whenever the clock struck the hour--this was in the dead of winter and in the still of night--they would stand at rigid attention next to each other until the clock finished ringing out the hour.

Now these are two very different soldiers. One of them is Ivan and the other is Igor. Ivan is very enthusiastic about the revolution, about socialism--he comes from a family of poor muzhiks, poor peasants from old Russia. His family was suffering terribly under the old system, and he threw himself fully, "body and soul," into the revolution, and he still has driving enthusiasm for the socialist transformation. But Igor comes from a rich family, an aristocratic family, part of the former nobility who, just at the last moment, when the civil war was starting up after the October insurrection, saw the winds changing and jumped on the revolutionary side and became part of the Red Army. And Igor has become an officer in the Red Army.

So these are their backgrounds, and they are walking back and forth, back and forth, and the clock strikes midnight. And they are standing rigidly at attention next to each other, in the dead of winter and the still of night. But while he knows he is supposed to be standing quietly at attention, Ivan just can't contain his enthusiasm:

"Igor! Igor!, isn't it vunderful?"

"Vat's so vunderful?"

"Vhy to live in People's Socialist Rhooshia."

"Vhat's so vonderful about that?"

"VELLL! Here ve are. You are the son of a rich rich aristocratic family; I'm the son of poor poor muzhaks; and yet we are equal!--equal in all ways in People's Socialist Rhooshia! You're in the people's army, I'm in the people's army; you're a luuftenant, I'm a luuftenant. Isn't it vuuunderful to live in People's Socialist Rhooshia?"

"Yeaahh, vunderful," answers Igor with evident disgust.

Then they start marching apart again. They go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until at one o'clock the clock rings. There they are once again standing rigidly at attention, next to each other. Ivan knows he is supposed to stand rigidly and quietly at attention, but he can't help himself, his enthusiasm comes bubbling up again:

"Igor! Igor!, isn't it vunderful?"

"Noww vat's so vunderful?"

"Vhy to live in People's Socialist Rhooshia."

"Vhaat's so vunderful about that now?"

"VELLL! Here we are. I'm the son of poor poor peesant, You're the son of a rrrich rrrich noble family; and yet we are equal!--equal in all ways in People's Socialist Rhooshia! You're in the people's army, I'm in the people's army; you're a luuftenant, I'm a luuftenant. Isn't it vuuunderful to live in People's Socialist Rhooshia?"

"Yeaahh, vunderful--now shat up!!."

So two o'clock comes, three o'clock, four o'clock, and every time Ivan just bubbles over with the same enthusiasm and Igor is just getting more and more disgusted. Finally it's five o'clock, and it's cold. They are supposed to stand at rigid attention, but they can't hold it anymore--they've got to take a piss. So they are standing there pissing, and even under these circumstances Ivan can't contain his enthusiasm! He starts up again:

"Igor! Igor! Isn't it vunderful!!"

"Now vhat can be so vunderful??"

"Vhy, to live in People's Socialist Rhoosia."

"Vhat can be so vunderful about that now??"

"Velll, here we are, you're the son of rich rich noble, I'm the son of poor poor peesant, yet we're equal!--equal in all ways in People's Socialist Rhoosia! You're in the people's army; I'm in the people's army; you're a luuftenant, I'm a luuftenant. But only one thing I do not understand Igor..."

"Yaahh, vhat's that!"

"Velll, when I piss in the snow, it is like the roaring of thunder in a storm, or wheels rolling over the cobblestone, or cannons firing! But when you piss, it is like soft velvet, or violins playing by candlelight...tell me Igor, vhy is that?"

And Igor pulls himself up--raises himself up to his full aristocratic height and says, "Vhyyy!! I'll tell you vhy peesant! Because I am PISSING ON YOUR COAT!!"

Now, there is a certain problem, or limitation with this joke: it could encourage a kind of mechanical materialist, economist approach--as though the class origins of people were the decisive thing in terms of the danger of capitalist restoration under socialism. (This is a part of the question, but not the heart of it.) But this joke can be interpreted in a way to help illuminate important aspects of the world-historic problems and contradictions involved in carrying forward the revolution and in making the transition to communism; and, after all, it is a good joke.


Earlier I talked about how one of the problems for the world proletarian revolution was the "leftovers" from the old society and how, for a long period in socialist society the tasks of leadership and administration and intellectual work generally are the main province, and cannot help but be the main province, of a minority of society. Here I want to come at this world-historic problem from another angle--to examine it in another major dimension--in terms of the history of how Stalin and Mao dealt with this problem.

In the history of socialist countries and the International Communist Movement, Stalin's approach to the differences and inequalities left over from capitalist society, and in particular the mental/manual contradiction, was somewhat mechanical. This shouldn't surprise us, given that we've analyzed, drawing from Mao, certain metaphysical, mechanical tendencies in Stalin. But that can't be looked at in isolation from the fact that when Stalin first started dealing with these contradictions there wasn't any prior historical experience for Stalin to learn from in this regard--for almost the entire time that Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union, it was not only the first but the only socialist country facing unprecedented challenges.

For a combination of these reasons, Stalin's approach to handling this mental/manual contradiction was to change the class origin of the people who were doing intellectual work, in other words, to train intellectuals from among the workers and peasants. Stalin made a number of speeches (to Party Congresses and so on) in which the way he presented this question was essentially to say: we are increasingly training intellectual and administrative workers from the ranks of the workers and peasants, so the situation (with regard to the mental/manual contradiction) is qualitatively changed; now, increasingly, in place of intellectuals trained in the old society, according to the old outlook, we have people in the new society among the ranks of the laboring masses who are being trained to carry out the intellectual and administrative tasks.

Well, unfortunately, it's not that simple. It's not that there's no importance to what Stalin was emphasizing. But one of the things we have learned is that there have been plenty of examples in the revolutionary movement generally, including in the communist movement, where people from among the basic masses have adopted the bourgeois world outlook and acted against the interests of the proletariat. There have been negative, but also positive, examples where people desert their class, betray the interests of the class in which they started out.

There's that old story involving an alleged conversation between Bevin and Vyshinsky. Vyshinsky was a leading person in the Soviet Union during the period of Stalin's leadership, who like Igor in the joke about the two soldiers, was from an aristocratic background. But, unlike Igor, Vyshinsky had come over to the side of the proletariat. Bevin, on the other hand, was a leader of the thoroughly reformist, pro-imperialist British Labor Party, but he came out of the working class--he had the proper bonafides, as far as class origins, but he had become just another bourgeois politician. The story goes that at one point they're having an argument and Bevin says to Vyshinky "Look, you can say all this stuff about the proletariat, and this and that, but you're from an aristocratic background, and I'm from a working class background. You're telling me I'm serving capitalism and our Labor Party is not revolutionary and doesn't represent the proletariat, but I'm from a working class background, while you're from an aristocratic background." And Vyshinsky smiled and said to Bevin: "It looks like we both betrayed our class."

There's an important point bound up with this story: the problem of class origin is not the essence of the matter--there's something to it, but it's not the essence--and what Stalin ran up against objectively was that you can change the class origin of the people doing intellectual work, but you cannot in the short-run change their class position. Doing intellectual work puts them in a different class position than the masses of laboring people. Even if people are brought forward from among the workers and peasants (the basic "popular strata," or however you want to put it), their social position changes when they become people who are predominantly doing intellectual work. And this is going to have an effect on their outlook. You can't just wish this contradiction away, nor can you get rid of it simply by making reference in your policy to class origins. It's not that there's nothing to class origin, but it's a secondary aspect of the situation--it doesn't and can't deal with the essence of it. So, Stalin's approach didn't solve the problem, as we know only too well.


On the other hand, learning from this experience, as well as generally applying a more dialectical materialist approach and methodology, Mao, in particular through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, adopted a much better approach. This found expression in all the policies of the Cultural Revolution that involved people carrying out both mental and manual labor. These policies involved having the people who were primarily doing intellectual work increasingly also take part in manual work together with the masses of working people; having the masses take on intellectual and administrative tasks; leading the masses to take up every sphere, including philosophy and science; open-door science, combining the masses with professional science workers; similar policies in educational policy, and so on--everything that we know is associated with the great upheavals and the great transformations brought about through the Cultural Revolution. This represented a great qualitative leap beyond what Stalin did and beyond any previous experience and advances in the socialist revolution.

Mao was drawing on and summing up the experience of the Soviet Union under Stalin, its negative as well as its positive lessons, and in particular how it dealt, and didn't deal, with these contradictions. Not only was Mao's a better approach, to put it simply, but it also led to qualitatively greater advances. And, along with that, it indicated for the whole international proletariat the basic means and methods for dealing with this mental/manual contradiction and related major contradictions in society, like the worker/peasant and city/countryside contradictions.

So, everything which found mass expression and which was able to be crystallized into and implemented as line and policy through the Cultural Revolution (and which thereby achieved what Lenin called "the dignity of immediate actuality as well as universality")--or, to put it simply, everything that was proved in practice in the Cultural Revolution--was a great advance in terms of these transformations, in terms of moving forward in the direction of overcoming these differences and contradictions. All this was a great advance beyond what had been done in the Soviet Union in the first attempt at dealing with these contradictions.

Beyond that, as Mao said, this Cultural Revolution indicated a basic means and method--and I underline the word basic means and method--for dealing with these contradictions. Basic, because this means and method will have to be further developed through the whole world-historical process of advancing through all the twists and turns--the great leaps but also the reversals and setbacks, and then further great leaps--to the overcoming of these contradictions and the achievement of the "4 Alls,"* on a world scale. As Mao repeatedly stressed, these contradictions are not going to be resolved with one Cultural Revolution; it's going to take many Cultural Revolutions, and it's going to take the advance and the ultimate victory of the world proletarian revolution.


And as we have continued to grapple with this, we've come to see more clearly and deeply how that's true--that it's going to take many cultural revolutions in socialist society; and even more fundamentally, it's going to take the triumph of the whole world revolution. So any particular policy--or even one truly great historical event, like the Cultural Revolution, which definitely was of world-historic significance--cannot resolve these contradictions. That's why Mao emphasized during his last great battle, focused particularly against Deng Xiaoping, that even with the establishment of proletarian state power and the basic but still far from complete transformation or socialization of ownership, the struggle to uproot the basis for capitalist restoration was far from over and was in fact still in its beginning stages. While the seizure and consolidation of proletarian state power and the initial, basic socialization of ownership were really profound qualitative changes that did, in one sense, make all the difference, did represent a great leap from the old society--a leap which opened up all kind of possibilities for further transformation--on the other hand, in broader perspective, not all that much had changed. Far greater and more profound transformations remained to be made, over a whole historical period.

During this period of his last great battle, Mao issued a series of statements which were basically variations on this theme, hammering at this: There are still significant differences in wage scales; there is still the contradiction between mental and manual labor, along with the worker/peasant and city/countryside contradictions; the contradictions involving the oppression of women are far from overcome; and so on. In this sense, he said, not that much has changed. He kept emphasizing that this is going to be true, in a fundamental sense, for a long time--that, while it is crucial to restrict these differences to the greatest degree possible at every stage, such things can only be restricted, and not completely eliminated, under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Of course, when Mao said this he was giving emphasis to the need to restrict these differences as much as possible at any given point, and to continue through the revolutionary struggle and the transformation of society to develop the basis to further restrict them, in order to continue the advance toward communism.

When the revisionists came to power, for a certain period of time they tried to use these quotes from Mao against Mao's whole point, his whole line. They twisted the emphasis and meaning inside-out. They put their emphasis on the word "only", as if to say: "Why worry--Mao himself recognized that these things can only be restricted, so why worry about them? Let's not be concerned with them. We can't do away with them, we can only restrict them, and since we can only restrict them, why don't we in fact give full play to them?! Why don't we actually expand rather than restrict these differences, so that--by relying on those who have more privilege and advantage, and by increasing that privilege and advantage as an incentive to them--we can develop the national economy and then, someday in the future, we can move to restrict and eliminate these differences." That's the program that they put into effect, which has given rise to a polarization in which a small portion of society has prospered but for the masses of people the consequences have been disastrous.

So, upon seizing power through a military coup, these revisionists found it necessary and useful, for a certain period, to appropriate and pervert Mao's words and use them in the service of the very thing Mao was warning against--capitalist restoration. The revisionists put emphasis on the word "only," to say why worry about these differences, whereas Mao's whole thrust and intent was the opposite: these differences can only be restricted, so we got a lot of worries--and a lot of class struggle to wage--because these differences provide a material basis for revisionists to come to power and restore capitalism. He kept hammering at this theme. And during the campaign to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius, and more generally during the period of his last great battle, Mao referred to Lin Biao and Confucius in an Aesopian way, as a symbol for Deng Xiaoping, Chou En-lai, and all the other capitalists-roaders grouped around them. Using Lin Biao as a symbol of these capitalist-roaders, Mao said if people like Lin Biao come to power it would be quite easy for them to rig up the capitalist system, because of all these basic contradictions. And, unfortunately, we found out that Mao knew exactly what he was talking about, because people like Lin Biao--that is, Deng Xiaoping, Hua Guofeng and all--did come to power and they were able, relatively quickly and easily, to restore capitalism and to reintegrate China into the structure and network of accumulation of imperialism and the whole imperialist framework, with all the disastrous consequences for the masses of people, not only in China but throughout the world.

* The "Four Alls" are a concentration of communist aims. They are drawn from a summary by Marx of what the communist revolution aims for and leads to: the abolition of all class distinctions (or "class distinctions generally"); the abolition of all the relations of production on which these class distinctions rest; the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production; and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.

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