Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF A TALK BY BOB AVAKIAN, CHAIRMAN OF THE REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST PARTY, USA, FALL 2009
UNRESOLVED CONTRADICTIONS, DRIVING FORCES FOR REVOLUTION
[Editors’ note: The following is the second in a series of excerpts from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian in Fall 2009, which is being serialized in Revolution. The first excerpt appeared in Revolution #184, November 29, 2009. The entire talk can be found online at revcom.us/avakian/driving.]
This "pyramid analysis" was first put forward more than five years ago now, in the question-and-answer session of the "Revolution" talk (Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About).1 To briefly summarize this, the point is that you can conceive of the political structures and the way that they relate to the larger society in the U.S. as something of a pyramid: At the top you have the ruling class forces, which, speaking in broad strokes and for general purposes, are divided on the one hand into the Republican Party and on the other hand the Democratic Party, and what these parties represent in terms of "conservatism" and "liberalism" (about which I'll have more to say a little bit later); and then, continuing the metaphor of the pyramid, you have lines extending (or angling) from the top of the pyramid, where the ruling class sits with its two basic wings, down to the social bases that these different wings of the bourgeoisie at the top of the pyramid seek to appeal to—on the one side the "right," and on the other side the "left," in the terms that are utilized commonly in the framework of bourgeois politics. These two ruling class forces, and the political parties that generally represent them, appeal to people on the two sides of this pyramid, in terms of seeking their votes; and they also, at times at least, appeal to them to become politically active—but always within the framework of the dominant capitalist system, and on terms conforming to the interests of the ruling capitalist class, of which both of these political parties are representatives.
What has been further pointed out in regard to this pyramid is not only that you can roughly conceive of the dominant or "mainstream" politics in terms of this kind of division, but also that on one side of the pyramid—that is, the openly right-wing side—the politicians of the ruling class who sit on top of that side of the pyramid are perfectly willing to, and often do, mobilize a social base "on their side of the pyramid"—right-wing and in fact fascist forces—which we see happening today in the context of what's going on with the Obama presidency in particular. These right-wing politicians (generally grouped within the Republican Party) can, will, and do actively mobilize this essentially fascist social base (and, even while they keep it on something of a leash, it's a long leash) yet, on the other side, the sections of the ruling class that are more generally represented by the Democratic Party are very reluctant to, and in fact resistant to, mobilizing their social base, if you want to put it that way—the base of people whose votes and support in the bourgeois political arena the Democrats seek to gain. This (Democratic Party) side of the ruling class generally is not desirous of—and in fact recoils at the idea of—calling that base into the streets, mobilizing them either to take on the opposing forces in the ruling class and their social base, or in general to struggle for the programs that the Democratic Party itself claims to represent and actually in some measure does seek to implement.
So you have on the one side (the "left" side, to use that term) a significant amount of paralysis, whereby the objective of the ruling class politicians is in fact to pacify and demobilize the people whom they appeal to to vote for them (their "social base" in that sense), whereas on the other side there is a very active orientation toward unleashing, revving up and mobilizing, in a very passionate and active way, the fascist social base that the Republican, right-wing part of the ruling class sees as its social base, or sees as a force it relies on among the population. This is not to say that the people down the sides and at the base of the pyramid, so to speak (the people in the middle strata, let alone those held down at the bottom of society) play any kind of decisive role in determining what the policies and actions of those at the top of society will be; but they are forces which in the one case—in the case of the right-wing politicians, the Republican Party—they're very anxious to mobilize; while, in the case of the other side, the people at the top of the pyramid are anxious to not mobilize into the streets the people they appeal to for support in elections. They are concerned to have this "social base" demobilized and paralyzed politically, other than to act, and very passively at that, within the dominant political framework, and always on the basis of seeking conciliation and compromise with the openly right-wing forces in the ruling class and the fascist base that they appeal to.
As an amplification of the basic point here, it is important to recognize this: Within the framework of the capitalist-imperialist system, and with the underlying dynamics of this system, which fundamentally set the terms, and the confines, of "official" and "acceptable" politics, fascism—that is, the imposition of a form of dictatorship which openly relies on violence and terror to maintain the rule and the imperatives of the capitalist-imperialist system—is one possible resolution of the contradictions that this system is facing—a resolution that could, at a certain point, more or less correspond to the compelling needs of this system and its ruling class—while revolution and real socialism, aiming toward the final goal of communism, throughout the world, is also a possible resolution of these contradictions, but one that would most definitely not be acceptable to the capitalist-imperialist ruling class nor compatible with the imperatives of this system!
All this is the fundamental reason why—as noted by the progressive observer and critic of the mainstream media, Jeff Cohen—it is not only conceivable but in fact very common these days to have "respected" commentators in the mainstream media whose position was captured by the recently deceased Robert Novak, who at one point expressed to Cohen that in the 1950s he (Novak) was an Eisenhower Republican, and every day since then he has gone further to the right; while, Cohen emphasized, it is inconceivable that there could be a regular commentator, treated as a reasonable and respected voice, who, from the other side of the political spectrum, could say: In the early 1960s I was a Kennedy Democrat, and every day since then I have gone further to the left!
To further illustrate what is captured in the "pyramid analysis," let's take an example from contemporary politics, the politics of the last couple of presidencies. Everyone recalls, or should recall, that in 2000 the presidential election was the most contested election at least in recent or modern history in the U.S. The conflict was not resolved on the day the voting took place (or early the next morning), but stretched out and became quite intense for weeks after that, with court cases and battles back and forth about whether Bush or Gore was the legitimate winner in Florida and therefore in the country—with all this finally being decided by a 5 to 4 decision of the Supreme Court.
Significant, and revealing, in terms of what I'm speaking to here—and, as so often happens in American politics, many people have no doubt forgotten this by now—is that in 2000 the conventional wisdom coming from the TV commentators and pundits and so on was uniformly, or at least overwhelmingly, that given the fact that this election was so contested and that it ended up in a highly controversial ruling by a sharply divided Supreme Court; and given, in addition, that Bush didn't even win the popular vote but in fact Gore did; Bush would have to "rule by consensus" and move "toward the center" in how he governed. Noooo. Exactly the opposite was the case. Bush took a very hard line, mobilized a hard core force of his followers in the ruling class and appealed, when he felt that he needed to, to a hard core right-wing, basically fascist, social base to back him up. And the whole notion of compromising with the other forces among the powers-that-be, and in particular those grouped in the Democratic Party ("reaching across the aisle," as they like to say) was not at all the way that Bush approached things, even before the 2004 election when he was "re"-elected and claimed that he had won substantial "political capital" through this election. But for all that time, up to that 2004 election, it was not at all the case, contrary to what was the conventional wisdom, voiced over and over again, that Bush would after all have to rule by consensus and move toward the center.
Now let's contrast that with the present situation. Obama did not become president as a result of a highly contested election, in terms of people calling into question the outcome. The outcome was clear, and by the standards of mainstream bourgeois electoral politics in the U.S., his victory was a decisive one. The result was not in doubt—by late on election night Obama's electoral victory was clear—and there was no controversy about who'd won the vote. On top of that, Obama has a clear majority with him from his party in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. In other words, in the Congress, the Democrats have a clear majority to go along with Obama's decisive victory in the presidential election.2 And yet, over and over again, it's insisted that Obama will have to seek consensus, "reach across the aisle," not become isolated from those who didn't support him, not alienate the Republican Party, and so on and so forth—and Obama acts in accordance with that, over and over again. In fact, whenever Obama carries out the actions that his role as chief executive of U.S. imperialism and commander-in-chief of the imperialist armed forces of the U.S. requires him to carry out, the rationalization that's frequently if not always given, particularly to those who voted for him but are disappointed by these actions, is that Obama, after all, has to compromise, he has to "reach across the aisle," he has to rule by consensus, et cetera, et cetera.
Why is it that, if you look at these two very sharply contrasting examples, logic would seem to indicate that Obama should be able to rule with a clear hand and come out fighting and not have to compromise with the opposition forces within the ruling structures but, in fact, he does constantly compromise with them, and it is repeatedly insisted that he must; whereas Bush, according to "conventional wisdom," should have been compromising and "seeking consensus" yet refused to do so and, in fact, had a more or less free hand in acting in such a way as not to seek compromise and consensus?
To get at this further, and from another important angle, it is necessary to look at some particular characteristics of these social bases, these class forces who tend spontaneously to support the one or the other of the mainstream ruling class political parties. I'll come back later to the divisions within the ruling class itself, and how this influences things in a larger sense, but here I want to return to a famous statement by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, on the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper—and how this relates to repolarization for revolution. It is important to examine carefully what Marx said about this. Not because we're religious types engaging in "hermeneutics" (detailed interpretation of scripture), but because Marx was intentionally precise, and there is profound meaning concentrated in the various things he said in this statement.
There are two essential points—which form a kind of "unity of opposites"—in what Marx said about this in The Eighteenth Brumaire that I want to focus on here. On the one hand, he made the point—the very important point, which we have, for very good reason, repeatedly stressed—that the democratic intellectual in the realm of his or her thinking does not escape the limits and the confines that the shopkeeper cannot escape in practical life. In other words, the democratic intellectuals, in their thinking and philosophy, are still trapped and confined within the framework of commodity relations and capitalism. Even when they conceive of how the world ought to be, and when they conceive of what the rights of people ought to be, when they conceive of the need to redress and correct injustices (or however they would formulate that), they do so within the same delimited framework of commodity relations and capitalist conditions. And in that sense, these democratic intellectuals can't get beyond the framework within which the shopkeeper is confined and entrapped in practical activity, namely, the dynamics of commodity production and exchange and more specifically capitalist economic relations.3
But Marx also makes a point which stands in contradiction to this, because he is being very dialectical: he is looking at the overall picture and the contradictory relations of these things and how they interact. He emphasizes how, although in the final analysis, the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper both are bound within the same confines, in their education and in their way of thinking they may be as far apart as heaven and earth. It is this latter aspect that can be overlooked in the emphasis on the very important conclusion Marx reaches: that they are trapped within the same confines, ultimately—the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper respectively, the one in the case of philosophy and the other in the case of practical life. But it is very important to recognize that the difference—which Marx emphasized as being as far apart as heaven and earth—has real import and ramifications also. It has real political meaning and implications.
The democratic intellectuals, in their political tendencies and political "impulses" (so to speak), are very different from the shopkeeper. And going back to the "pyramid analysis," what we often see, or a general trend that we see, is that these intellectuals, insofar as they are still confined within the dominant bourgeois political framework, tend to line up "on the left" of that framework; in terms of U.S. electoral and bourgeois politics, they tend to be in the camp of the Democratic Party. Not exclusively, but to a very large degree. On the other hand, again not exclusively but to a very large degree, the actual shopkeepers—and using "shopkeepers" more broadly as a metaphor for other small proprietors and small property owners—tend, spontaneously at least, to be in the camp of the other side, to be on the right-wing side of the social division. Especially when they feel their interests are being acutely threatened or called into question, they tend toward the fascist position, toward becoming a social base for fascism.
And this has real importance, in terms of understanding the actual political alignments in the U.S. at any given time, including now, and the challenges this poses in terms of repolarization for revolution. It won't do, just because Marx says that in the final analysis they are confined within the same framework, to ignore the very real differences between the democratic intellectuals and the "shopkeepers," in terms of how they act within that framework politically. Our task, the task viewed from the strategic standpoint of revolution toward the final aim of communism, is on the one hand working and struggling to break the democratic intellectuals out of the bourgeois-democratic framework, even while uniting with them where their democratic sentiments impel, or at least incline, them toward opposing crimes and outrages perpetrated by this system—crimes which, in many instances are, or at least seem to be, in conflict with the proclaimed democratic principles of this system. At the same time, however, it would be wrong and harmful to allow the shopkeepers (again, using that as a metaphor for broader groupings in the middle strata, small proprietors and petty property owners and others in a similar situation, with similar spontaneous sentiments) to simply remain in the camp of reaction, and to gravitate more and more toward fascism. It is necessary, even while recognizing the very real difficulties in this, to maintain a strategic orientation of also seeking to politically win over, or at least politically neutralize, as much as possible, the shopkeepers, understanding that as emblematic of broader petit bourgeois strata.
1. In addition to what is discussed in this talk on the "pyramid analysis," and in part 4 of the DVD Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About, where this "pyramid analysis" was first put forward, see "The Right Wing Populist Eruption: Yes, It Actually IS Racism," in Revolution #178, October 4, 2009; also available online at revcom.us. [back]
2. At times it is said that, although the Democrats have a clear majority in both houses of Congress, they do not have a "filibuster-proof" 60 (out of 100) votes in the Senate. Without going here into all the "fine points" of bourgeois politics in the U.S. (and in particular the mechanics of Congressional procedures and related phenomena) the fact is that during the presidency of George W. Bush the Republicans did not have a "filibuster-proof" majority in the Senate either, and yet Bush and the Republicans were not, on this account, passive or conciliatory in their approach, and on the contrary were very aggressive in pushing their programs and policies and in countering any talk of "filibuster" by the Democrats. The fact that Obama and the Democrats are not now taking the same kind of aggressive stance, but instead are seeking compromise and conciliation with the Republicans, flows from what is discussed here, in regard to the "pyramid analysis."
It is also sometimes argued that Obama does not have a "free hand" to implement the policies he would like to implement because there are "conservative Democrats" in his own party with whom he must compromise on a number of issues. But this is another argument based on bourgeois logic—on the logic of bourgeois politics and the dynamics of capitalist economics which set the terms and determine the limits of those politics. And the fact is that the heads of the Democratic Party itself chose to throw their weight, and finances, behind those "conservative Democrats" in order to get them elected. If it is argued that they had to do so in order to have a majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress, well that is another expression of the same kind of bourgeois logic, and it is, on a deeper level, a circular argument: the Democrats never really tried to best the Republicans by going aggressively after the Republicans on issues around which they are potentially quite vulnerable, but instead, for the reasons touched on here, have conciliated and compromised with them, ceding more and more ground—and then claiming that they cannot beat the Republicans except by ceding yet more ground to them. The crucial question of abortion—where the Democrats have consistently yielded ground to the Republicans politically and ceded the "moral initiative" to them, allowing them to define the issue as one of "the right to life," or even more crudely "baby killing," rather than what is really and essentially at issue: the fundamental right of women to reproductive freedom—sharply illustrates this. And then there is the question of evolution, and more broadly the scientific method and approach to reality, as opposed to the denial of the reality of evolution and generally the flagrant irrationality that to a very significant degree characterizes the thinking and approach of the Republican Party: Instead of vigorously going after the Republicans around this—instead of emphasizing the very basic point that anyone who is so ill-informed and/or so irrational as to deny something as basic as evolution, and everything that is bound up with this in terms of a rational approach to reality (or anyone who would encourage, or cater to, people with such a mentality, rather than struggling to enlighten them about such decisive matters) should not be allowed anywhere near the levers of power, especially in a nuclear-armed country like the U.S.—instead of that kind of approach, the Democrats have sought to avoid confrontations, or even real controversy, around questions like this. Or there is the undeniable, and often overt, racism that is clearly a hallmark of the Republican Party and the mobilization of its base. Why does the Democratic Party and its leadership, including Obama, not call this out for what it is, without equivocation, and wage uncompromising struggle against it? Once more, the reasons for this have to do with what is concentrated in the "pyramid analysis." [back]
3. The following is the quote from Marx, speaking of the relation between the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper, which is being paraphrased and discussed in the text above: "According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petite bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions...."
As cited in "Ruminations and Wranglings" and in "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That," which is also included as an appendix in the book Phony Communism Is Dead... Long Live Real Communism!, RCP Publications, second (2004) edition. [back]