Great Objectives and Grand Strategy

The Basic Masses in Their Revolutionary Expression, and Winning Over the Middle Strata: Communism vs. "Calvinism"

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1132, December 23, 2001, posted at

The RW is currently running this series of excerpts from an unpublished work by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy." Although written over a year ago, this work--and these excerpts in particular-- contain much that is very relevant to the current crisis and war. This is the sixth in this series.

In relation to the very important question of "legitimacy crisis"--and how it can, under certain conditions, be part of an actual revolutionary crisis--an important point is this: In the decisive event, with the all-out struggle for power--and in all the work of preparing for that decisive event--the middle strata, or the largest possible part of them, must come to see the struggle for power on the part of the revolutionary proletariat (and its allies) not as "chaos," "anarchy," and "destruction of legitimate authority and order" but as the replacement of illegitimate power and a no longer legitimate order by a new power that represents a legitimate and just resolution of acute social (and international) contradictions and conflicts.

They must be won to see the basic masses, in their revolutionary expression--in their mobilization and conscious struggle as the basic forces of the proletarian revolution--not as "alien barbarians" who threaten a valued way of life, but as forces representing and embodying a better way of life, in opposition to a discredited old way of life.

In this regard, it is worthwhile pondering what Edward Luttwak (the "conservative" author of the book Turbo Capitalism) argues are governing "Calvinist rules" in American society--what we would call "legitimating norms." It is worthwhile evaluating this from the perspective of determining how much of what Luttwak says actually applies and how the overturning of these rules (or "norms") could contribute to the development of a legitimacy crisis--and perhaps even a revolutionary crisis. Here are some of the more relevant passages from Luttwak:

"Few Americans consciously believe in Calvinist doctrines in a religious sense. Yet a great many of them, of all religions and none, who may know nothing at all about Calvinism as such, nevertheless act in accordance with its principles....

"The Calvinist rules are quite simple, and binding. Rule Number One is for high-earning winners. Rule Number Two is for the great mass of working people of varying affluence or poverty, but often losers in their own eyes. Rule Number Three is for the non-Calvinists among the losers, i.e., those who refuse to accept Rule Number Two, most of them poor.

"The underlying Calvinist doctrine that governs Rule Number One--whereby earned wealth is no impediment to virtue, as Jesus reportedly said, but rather a sign of divine favor for the predestined--has long been forgotten [that is, the underlying Calvinist doctrine has long been forgotten]. Yet its pervasive effect induces Americans to view the desire to become rich as most praiseworthy, and success in doing so as a moral achievement as well, for it is seen as the result of both sacrificial exertion in earning money, and self-denying restraint in spending it. Far from being viewed as self-seeking materialists, those who accumulate wealth are respected in rough proportion to the amount, so long as it is the fruit of [or, we should say, is seen as the fruit of] their own individual efforts.

"There is, however, a puritanical catch: winners are not supposed actually to enjoy the wealth they accumulate. Instead they are obliged to keep working hard to become even richer, refraining from the leisurely and sexual diversions of their non-Calvinist counterparts of Europe, Latin America or Southeast Asia. With the exception of entertainers, high-paid athletes and a few eccentrics, high-earning Americans of working age conform to Rule Number One to a remarkable extent.

"The overall effect of Rule Number One is to legitimize both morally and socially the accumulation of wealth. The further effect of the rule is to reduce envy greatly, and thus its political or even violent expression. Why should the poor envy those who enrich themselves if they neither enjoy their wealth nor keep it all for their own families? All that is left to envy is the satisfaction of hard work, the moral rewards of charitable gifts and bequests, and social prestige. That is still quite a lot, of course, but not enough to inspire violent hatred or even the ordinary political forms of resentment.

"Rule Number Two, for the economy's losers, reflects exactly the same Calvinist doctrine as the first rule, but in reverse: failure is the result not of misfortune or injustice but of divine disfavor. Just as the ability to become very rich is next to sanctity, an inability to do so is next to sin, indeed almost sinful in itself. Many Americans who may be rather affluent, but who cannot earn whatever amounts of money they consider adequate and proper, are oppressed by a powerful sense of guilt. Living in a country that so greatly respects and admires high-earning winners, losers find it hard to preserve their self-esteem.

"Rule Number Two has powerful political consequences. More than any other factor, it explains why the United States has never had a significant socialist party: losers blame themselves rather than the system, they hate themselves instead of resenting the winners.

"True, there are also plenty of non-Calvinists among the losers; mostly they are actually poor rather than just under-achievers by their own estimate. It is for them that there is Rule Number Three: those who do not accept Rule Number Two, who are not paralyzed by guilt and who are too uneducated to express their resentment legally, are destined to end up behind bars....

"To lock up 400,000 non-Calvinist losers for drug offenses alone, and at least as many again for drug-connected crimes, is a very major contribution to the total of 1.8 million [now over 2 million] successfully removed from circulation, most of them male, most of them young, most of them poorly educated, and more than 1/3 of them Blacks, the least Calvinist of the American poor. Should drugs be decriminalized, as Mr. Soros and many others would wish, on what grounds could non-Calvinist losers be locked up?....

"The three rules are interconnected, in what one might call the `Calvinist system', in which winners diminish envy by self-restraint, most losers blame only themselves for their fate, and both vent their frustrations by demanding the harsh punishment of rebellious losers." (Turbo Capitalism, pp. 17-18, 20, 21, 22, 23-24, emphasis in original.)


Also, the book Fortress America, Gated Communities in the United States (by Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder) discusses the presently growing phenomenon of more affluent strata in the U.S. separating themselves from the rest of society, retreating into the suburbs or even privileged enclaves within the cities, and fortifying themselves especially against those "beneath" them; and it links all this to changes in the economy and social relations of the U.S. This book raises some important questions, both in terms of social and political trends we must take into account and work to reverse and in terms of the big question of whether the "center" can "hold"--or whether the social order will "unravel" in a qualitative way. The following in particular raises some provocative questions:

"When privatization and exclusion become dominant, and neighborhood connectedness and mutual support structures disappear, we must question whether an American democracy founded on citizen and community remains possible. Abraham Lincoln said that 'a house divided against itself cannot stand.' Just as certainly, a nation that cannot achieve its ideals cannot offer much to itself or to the world." (p. 177)

These social trends do raise the question of "whether an American [bourgeois] democracy founded on citizen and community remains possible"; and it is true that "a nation that cannot achieve its ideals cannot offer much to itself or to the world." This relates back to the question of legitimacy crisis and to what we have called the "Humpty Dumpty" point--and the "center" not "holding"--the "unraveling" of society. It underlines yet again the need for the proletariat to lead in a "re- synthesizing," achieving a more favorable re-polarization. And, more specifically, it points to the need for at least major sections of the middle class to be won to a positive attitude toward the revolutionary movement of the class-conscious proletariat and its vanguard--to increasingly come to see this as the struggle to bring about the replacement of illegitimate authority by a new and more legitimate rule, as spoken to above. The basis for this also has to be laid over the whole period of preparation, before the emergence of the revolutionary situation.

In this regard, it might be useful to seek some lessons from the experience of Hannibal in his war against the Romans, in particular his experience in attempting to rally peoples who had been under the rule of the Romans. It is worth pondering the reasons for both the partial and temporary successes he had in this and the ultimate difficulties he had in maintaining this.

As Hannibal made his historic march across the Alps, and then as he moved toward Rome, he went through the territories of various peoples who were under the rule of Rome and, particularly in the initial stages, he had a fair amount of success in breaking them away from the Roman camp and winning them to be his allies. But, even with some of Hannibal's initial and great military successes, as things further developed--as the Romans fought back and also used various political means--they were able to "peel away" some of these allies that Hannibal had temporarily won. As these peoples were brought back under Roman sovereignty (Roman domination), Hannibal was correspondingly weakened.

In reading about this recently, I was thinking not only about our strategy of United Front under the Leadership of the Proletariat (UFuLP) and its application in general but more particularly how the "fight for the middle" (as we have sometimes described it) will go on throughout the whole period of political preparation for revolution. And then, when a revolutionary situation finally emerges, this "fight for the middle" will be intensified. There will be intense struggle for the allegiance of significant sections of the middle strata, and in this regard this experience of Hannibal's may hold valuable lessons.

As I have said, one of the reasons why Hannibal was unable to thoroughly defeat the Romans is that he was unable to keep many of these allies firmly in his camp, although he did remarkably well. (To cite just one difficulty he had to overcome, he often and generally fielded an army of diverse soldiers--drawn from different peoples--who had very little in common and didn't even speak the same language; he had to have many different interpreters, or leaders speaking different languages, to try to move his troops in a coordinated way. And, given this, he did remarkably well.) Now, Hannibal obviously did not represent the revolutionary proletariat, and he was not capable of the kind of synthesis that I've been continually emphasizing here in terms of ideology and program that can rally allies to the cause of the revolutionary proletariat, particularly as its revolutionary movement expresses itself more fully as a material force and gains strength. But (ultimately by negative example in this regard) Hannibal's experience provides further material for strengthening our grasp of the importance of applying our UFuLP strategy.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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