Revolution #159, March 22, 2009
On the Relation of Individuals, Classes and the Abolition of Classes
Editors’ Note: The following is an excerpt from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian, “Out Into the World—As a Vanguard of the Future,” to a group of Party members in the first part of 2008. This has been edited and footnotes added for publication here.
First, I want to speak to an important aspect of our understanding of what is the essence of capitalism and how this relates to certain philosophical and political-economic theories about what capitalism is, and what society is. One of the most important and fundamental aspects—one of the defining aspects—of capitalism is, as Marx pointed out, the historical separation of masses of producers from the means of production. This has a great deal to do with how we understand the role of classes and of individuals—and the relation between individuals and classes. Here a statement in America in Decline (from page 30) is very relevant: “the violent separation [note: the violent separation] of the immediate producers from the means of production constituted the social basis of capitalism’s rapid development in parts of Europe.”1 This is true historically, and in regard to capitalism’s rise in Europe, but it is also important to grasp that this continues to be an essential component of capitalism’s development, in the era of imperialism, and it takes place in this era, more than ever, on a world scale—and in this particular phase of the imperialist era, it is taking place on an even more globalized basis.
Here what I want to focus on—going back to the point about classes, individuals, and the relation between individuals and classes—is that, even with regard to individuals’ pursuing their own particular interests (which is a lot of the “outer form” of how things take place within a given society, and in particular capitalist society) it is of decisive importance (without in fact falling into reductionism) to grasp, and to emphasize, what Marxist analysis (scientific communism) makes clear: this “pursuit” takes place through definite social relations—and in class society, definite class relations—which shape and fundamentally determine the nature of those “individual interests” and the means of pursuing them. So where, and to the extent that, a proletarian and a bourgeois, or someone in the middle strata (petite bourgeoisie), may be pursuing their own individual interests, they are doing so within a framework which casts them (or has cast them) into very different positions—so that the definition of what those interests are, and the means for pursuing them, is very different in the one case and the other. This is a fundamental point which once again is covered over and distorted or ignored in the normal course of a society like this—as well as through the propaganda of its representatives and apologists.
This point that I’ve been emphasizing—about how the pursuit of individual interests takes place through definite social relations, and in class society definite class relations, and how even the character and content of people’s interests and the means of pursuing them is largely shaped by this—is very important in relation to the discussion in “"Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity,” Part 1, on “The crimes of this system—and the rationalizations for these crimes” (under the subheading “Historical Experience and the New Synthesis”),2 where it talks about how bourgeois apologists and philosophers, and so on, put so much emphasis on individuals and “individual rights” while in fact, under the domination of the bourgeoisie and imperialism, through the normal operation of the accumulation process, as well as through the functioning of the state apparatus and the superstructure generally, all this casts billions of people literally into a situation where their individuality and individual rights count as nothing and are stamped out, including for hundreds of millions of children.
This understanding, the grasp of this essential point about capitalism (and this would apply to other societies ruled by exploiting classes, but here I am speaking specifically of capitalism, and its particular production and social relations), that the pursuit of individual interests takes place through definite social and class relations which shape and fundamentally determine the nature of those individual interests and the means of pursuing them: this is a direct refutation of Adam Smith—of the basic Adam Smith thesis that somehow through individuals’ pursuing their individual interests, the greater societal good is achieved (so long as there are certain constraints in regard to this). The truth, however, is that not only is the greater societal good not what is being pursued in capitalist society, but the outcome is also not the greater societal good—precisely because of the historical role of the capitalist accumulation process and the social and class relations through which this takes place. Rather, what is achieved, the result and outcome, is that the interests of the ruling class are served and furthered—even while this takes place through a process that involves acute struggle among the ruling capitalists themselves, both more directly in terms of economic rivalry and in terms of different perceptions of the overall interests and strategic objectives of the ruling class.
This basic reality is also a refutation of Immanuel Kant, once again—and, specifically, of his attempt to make it a universal principle (or a categorical moral imperative) that everyone should be treated never as a means to an end but only as an end in himself or herself. If you understand this basic point that I quoted from America in Decline, and the basic phenomenon it is speaking to—the separation, indeed the violent separation, of producers from the means of production, and everything that flows from that—you can see that in capitalist society in particular, and in class-divided society in general, this maxim (or attempt at a universal principle or categorical moral imperative) of Kant’s is impossible to realize in such a society. The operation of the capitalist accumulation process—and, along with that, the operation of the state and the superstructure as a whole in capitalist society, and all societies ruled by exploiting classes—makes this impossible to achieve. In fact, as I have discussed previously (for example, in “Views On Socialism and Communism”3 ), in communist society there will still be definite production and social relations, even though they won’t have the character of class relations, let alone class antagonisms.
There will still be the contradiction between the economic base and the superstructure, as well as between the forces and relations of production (and the inter-penetration and inter-action of these two contradictions), whatever particular forms this takes at any given point in communist society. And in communist society, this will have an impact on the dimension in which individuals are pursuing (and even how they perceive) their own wants and needs—this will still be shaped by the larger society (and the contradictions that define that society, in an overall sense—as discussed here as well as in “Making and Emancipating” and other works). Here, once again, is the basic point that freedom does not lie in the ignoring of necessity, or in the attempt to evade necessity, but in the recognition and the transformation of necessity, and that this takes place in any society—including socialist society and, yes, even communist society, at any stage—through definite social relations (and in the context of certain defining and driving contradictions) which are fundamentally independent of the wills of individuals and which in fact have a decisive influence in regard to the wills of individuals.
How to correctly handle that phenomenon—now, in the struggle for a new society, and then, once power has been seized and consolidated and socialism established in a basic sense, in the transition toward communism—how to correctly act in accordance with and on the basis of the recognition of this reality, so as to handle in the best way possible the relationship between individuals and classes, all in the context and framework of moving to the abolition of classes (but not the abolition of all social relations or social constraints): this is a very important question that we are going to have to repeatedly return to—and the more we deepen our materialist understanding and foundation in regard to this, the more we can not only expose the actual mainsprings and workings of capitalism and bring to light, in a compelling way, why we have to abolish the capitalist system and bring a new, socialist (and ultimately communist) society into being, but the better we’ll be able to handle the whole struggle toward that goal, including once the dictatorship of the proletariat—revolutionary state power representing the interests of the proletariat, in the largest sense—is in fact established and the communist vanguard has the responsibility of leading the new society.
A dialectical materialist,
not a mechanical, understanding of individuals and classes
With regard to the relation of individuals and classes, it is very important that we deepen and apply—and continue to further deepen and to better apply—a dialectical (as opposed to a mechanical) materialist view of all this, correctly taking into account and approaching the contradictory aspects involved in all this. The polemic against K. Venu speaks to the relation of individuals and classes by way of refutation of a distorted use by Venu of a statement by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, which was utilized by Venu in the service of undermining scientific Marxist class analysis and promoting bourgeois democracy and bourgeois individualism. There was, on K. Venu’s part, a whole encomium, I guess you could say (a whole hymn of praise), to how bourgeois society fosters individuality in a way that was never before achieved or possible in any society (or at least any class society). It is worth reviewing this discussion of individuals and classes in the polemic against K. Venu.4
This refutation of K. Venu is very correct and very important, but it is also important not to actually adopt a reductionist approach to this question—treating existence as part of a class in a way that would be more appropriate (to the degree it would be appropriate at all) to analysis of feudal (or slave) society, where there is an extremely limited social mobility for individuals, and in a way that tends toward negating the particularity of capitalism, as well as individuality, with a one-sided emphasis on what is in fact principal (the fact that, in class society, individuals exist as part of social classes). We should not fall into eclectics—we should recognize what is principal, which is the fact that individuals are part of classes in class society and that this largely shapes and determines even how they perceive and attempt to realize or pursue their individual interests. But we should not, because that is principal, negate the secondary aspect. We should grasp firmly the division of society into classes and the overall decisive role this plays in terms of the life of individuals, but we should not therefore and on that basis negate the role of individuals or individuality—which, as we know, has been an historical tendency in our movement (and in the experience of socialist society).
Such a reductionist approach, can of course also go along with reifying the proletariat: negating individuality while (ironically) at the same time identifying the interests of the proletariat as a class with individual proletarians—who, we should remember, may as individuals cease to be proletarians and become part of some other class or strata, and who in any case do not, as individuals, embody the interests of the proletariat as a class. The decisive point, from a materialist and dialectical standpoint, is the position and role of the proletariat, in the broadest sense, as a class and as a motive force in resolving the fundamental contradiction of capitalism—between socialized production and private appropriation—and advancing to communism.
Here again, it is important to keep clearly in mind the reality that has been previously spoken to (for example, in “The End of a Stage, the Beginning of a New Stage”5 ) that the position of the proletariat, as a class, is not only not that of an absolute, undifferentiated and unchanging “category” under capitalism, but it is also not that under socialism.
In fact, under socialism the position of the proletariat is qualitatively different than it is under capitalism—and becomes more so the more the advance through socialism toward communism is carried forward. And this divides into two in some significant—and in certain aspects, acute—ways. In “The End of a Stage, the Beginning of a New Stage,” this point was made: Under capitalism the proletariat is the exploited class, and this has a great deal to do with its revolutionary role (it’s not simply that it is exploited, because there are other exploited classes that don’t play the same role in relation to resolving the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, but the exploited condition of the proletariat does, after all, have a great deal to do with its revolutionary role); under socialism, however, while this is contradictory and in motion, the proletariat is becoming less and less an exploited class—and in fundamental terms is not an exploited class, although there are remnants of exploitation in the remaining production and social relations in socialist society.
Does this have any effect on socialist society? Yes it does. This is something to which insufficient attention has been paid in our movement, historically and today. (This is related to points which will be spoken to later in this talk, concerning the separation of the communist movement from the labor movement and the dialectical—that is, the contradictory—relation between driving forces for revolution, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, key forces for socialist transformation once you’ve entered the socialist stage, after seizing and consolidating revolutionary state power—that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat, in one form or another.)
As opposed to a reification of the proletariat (and related viewpoints and approaches) what, after all, is the point? Here I can’t resist repeating a little story that I’m fond of telling, which concerns Monday Night Football back in the 1970s when it first came on the air and there was the trio of announcers: Don Meredith, Howard Cosell, and Frank Gifford. Frank Gifford was the main play-by-play announcer, and then there was this back and forth commentary between Howard Cosell, with his inimitable style, and Don Meredith (or “Dandy Don” or “Danderoo,” as Howard liked to call him). Well, at one point there was a play in one of these Monday night games (I don’t remember which) where a pass was thrown by one team and a defensive back for the other team intercepted the pass, and Howard Cosell made this observation: “Look at that wily and furtive veteran, hiding behind the line backer and then emerging out to intercept the pass.” And Don Meredith, who played the role of the rube (the representative of the uninitiated populace), said: “The what, Howard, the what?” “The wily and furtive veteran,” Cosell repeated. To which Don Meredith replied: “Just who are you talking to here, Howard? You talking to just a few folks, or to everybody out there?” And then Howard Cosell came back with a very good punch line: “The point, Danderoo, is to educate the masses!” Well, the point for us is not simply to educate the masses—although that’s part of the point, as well as learning from them—but the much more profound point is to get to communism, with the abolition of classes, the production relations on which classes rest, and everything bound up with this—all the exploitative and oppressive relations, and the corresponding customs, traditions, and ways of thinking in which, for thousands of years, the great majority of humanity has been enchained—and from which it can now be finally and fully emancipated.
1 Raymond Lotta, with Frank Shannon, America in Decline, An Analysis of the Developments Toward War and Revolution, in the U.S. and Worldwide, in the 1980s, Vol.1, Banner Press, Chicago, 1984. [back]
2 “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity,” Parts 1 and 2, is available at revcom.us and in Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation, a Revolution pamphlet, May 1, 2008. [back]
3 Views on Socialism and Communism: A Radically New Kind of State, A Radically Different and Far Greater Vision of Freedom appeared as a series in Revolution #37, #39, #40, #41, #42, and #43; a complete online version is available at revcom.us/bob_avakian/views. [back]
4 This polemic, titled “Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That,” appears as an Appendix to the book Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism!, 2nd edition, by Bob Avakian (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2004). The polemic originally appeared in the 1992/17 issue of the magazine A World to Win. [back]
5 “The End of a Stage, the Beginning of a New Stage” by Bob Avakian appeared in Revolution magazine, issue No. 60, RCP Publications, Fall 1990. [back]