Great Objectives and Grand Strategy

The Revolution Must Not Be Reversed...
The Role and the Contradictions of Vanguard Leadership

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1137, February 3, 2002, 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The RW is currently running this series of excerpts from an unpublished work by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy."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 11th in this series.

I want to speak to an important aspect of how the principle of the link between our ultimate goal and where we are in the struggle toward that goal at any point applies in socialist society, under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Specifically in this connection, I want to address--and to encourage further grappling with--a point raised by Eric Hobsbawm in his book The Age of Extremes. In Chapter Thirteen, "Real Socialism," he says:

"The possibility of dictatorship is implicit in any regime based on a single, irremovable party. In a party organized on the centralized hierarchal basis of Lenin's Bolsheviks, it becomes a probability. And irremovability was merely another name for the total conviction of the Bolsheviks that the Revolution must not be reversed, and that its fate was in their hands and nobody else's.... Nevertheless, even if the assumption that the party was a political monopoly with a 'leading role' made a democratic Soviet regime as unlikely as a democratic Catholic Church, it did not imply personal dictatorship. It was Joseph Stalin who turned communist political systems into non-hereditary monarchies." (p. 389)

Despite Hobsbawm's social-democratic --and fundamentally bourgeois-democratic--viewpoint, I think he has touched on some very important questions here. So it is worth digging into this as a way of grappling more fully with the essential and decisive contradictions, as they are actually posed in real life, in relation to all this.

Now, on the one hand, even putting aside here the question of Stalin (which we have analyzed at some length and in some depth elsewhere), there are some real problems that Hobsbawm is identifying and pointing to. As we know--as we now understand in a profoundly materialist and dialectical way -- as a result of the pathbreaking analysis (and synthesis) that Mao made, there is the possibility for the vanguard communist party to be turned into its opposite; and, more specifically, once the dictatorship of the proletariat has been established, there is a basis for the party to become an instrument of bourgeois dictatorship over the masses. This basis lies in the contradictions within socialist society--and the interrelation and interpenetration between these contradictions and those defining the world situation as a whole--and in how this is focused, and in some important ways concentrated, within the party itself as well as in the relations between the party and the masses. That's on the one side of this: there are real and profound contradictions here which Hobsbawm, from a standpoint other than that of the proletariat, is touching on.

But what about the other side of it? To get into this further, let's take a pivotal sentence in what I quoted from Hobsbawm: "[I]rremovability was merely another name for the total conviction of the Bolsheviks that the Revolution must not be reversed, and that its fate was in their hands and nobody else's." The other side--and the deeper problem--is that the last part of this statement is essentially true! That "total conviction" of the Bolsheviks was correct and well-founded. This is where we get to the real "rub"--to the essence of the problem.

First of all, we should and do insist that the revolution must not be reversed. Second, the revolution is in the hands of the vanguard, in a certain sense; and as for the aspect of "nobody else's" (the revolution must be in the hands of the vanguard party and nobody else's) this is not true-- but it is also true. It is not true in the fundamental sense that the vanguard cannot replace, and is not more important than, the masses in the exercise of political power and in the revolutionary process as a whole. But it is true in this sense: until the final aim of communism is achieved, there will be a need for leadership representing the revolutionary proletariat; if the communist vanguard hands over leadership to any other force, that will be a force representing some other class; and if any other class gets leadership, the revolution will be reversed.

So that's what makes this so difficult in the real world. It would be simple if we could say, like good liberals and reformists, "it doesn't matter if the revolution is reversed." It would be easier if it were really the case that there are plenty of people who could take responsibility for carrying the revolution forward, and so we don't need leadership to remain in the hands of the party, and nobody else's, in order for this to happen. But the fact is that we do need this--the revolution must not be reversed, and it is crucial for the party to retain leadership in order for it not to be reversed.

To "get right down on the ground," if there is not the leadership of the proletariat, particularly as embodied and expressed through the role of its MLM vanguard, will the broadest united front be developed and strengthened, in accordance with the interests of the vast masses of people? Will narrow and sectarian interests be correctly overcome in the service of the highest interests of the people and ultimately of humanity as a whole? Will an atmosphere of "air to breathe" and room for criticism and the critical spirit, initiative and creativity--not just for the intellectuals but for the masses of people --be developed as fully as possible? Will the correct synthesis be achieved between moving society forward toward the goal of communism, representing the highest interests of the people--and ultimately of humanity as a whole--and at the same time relying on and increasingly bringing forward the conscious activism of the broadest masses and their wrangling with all kinds of questions, having to do not only with the development of the economy but also with affairs of state as well as the arts and sciences and the superstructure as a whole, in carrying forward the struggle for communism? The answer to all this is definitely NO. And, "to come at this from the other side" and put it in positive terms, the more the leadership of the revolutionary proletariat and its MLM vanguard is exercised and expressed in the way I have been stressing here, the more all these "positive factors" will be brought into play and fully developed in carrying forward the struggle for the final aim of communism.

The answer, the synthesis on this, lies in an understanding of the specific character of the dictatorship of the proletariat: how it is distinguished from all previous forms of the state, in that it must mean the rule over society, and the transformation of society, by the masses themselves, and how that qualitatively different character must be strengthened and take greater expression the more that the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat is carried forward--and the more, in that sense, the dictatorship of the proletariat is strengthened.

This also applies with regard to the party. The party does have to retain leadership in its hands, or else the revolution will be reversed, and the revolution must not be reversed. Where the proletariat has seized power, we must do everything we can to prevent this from being reversed. Even while recognizing, in a broader historical sense, that there will be reversals and setbacks along the way, we still have to fight against such reversals and setbacks at every given point and all throughout the historic transition to communism. And, at the same time, we must keep in mind as a strategic objective, and consciously work toward, the goal of overcoming--step by step, and wave after wave--the contradiction between the vanguard and the broad masses (and the contradiction between leadership and led within the vanguard itself) as a crucial part of moving toward the elimination of the social conditions that make necessary the existence and vanguard role of the party. Such is the unity of opposites here.

As I said, it would be very easy just to be liberal and say "well fine, we'll hand over leadership to somebody else." But the greater and tougher challenge, with regard to socialist society and the transition to communism, is how to retain leadership and at the same time give expression to all the principles I've been stressing about the character of socialist society and in particular the unique character of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and how that unique character must be more fully developed, the more that the dictatorship of the proletariat is strengthened and the more that the struggle advances under the dictatorship of the proletariat toward the goal of communism worldwide. Therein, I believe--not as some kind of "magic formula" but as a road and means of struggle--lies the answer to these very real and difficult contradictions that Hobsbawm, from a different class viewpoint--and in too facile a manner, frankly--has put his finger on.

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