Revolution #70, November 26, 2006
I am going to talk for a while—I don’t know how long, but usually the smart money bets that it’ll be a little while. [laughter] And then we can have some questions and discussion. So I’m very excited about all this.
As you know, the title of this talk is “Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism,” but before getting more directly into questions relating to that, I want to talk about the importance of working with ideas, and the struggle in the realm of ideas. Many of you have probably read the article on this subject which was printed in the RW a while ago now by Ardea Skybreak, titled “Working with Ideas.”2 And the article stresses the importance of actually getting deeply into this realm in its own right, really wrangling with ideas, and having an open mind about what you’re dealing with, and then ultimately taking your ideas into the real world, into the realm of practice and testing them out there.
This is a very important approach generally for people in the sciences, or people generally who work in the realm of ideas. And it is something that people who seek to apply the outlook and methodology of communism should be the very best at. But that takes work. It isn’t an automatic thing. Just because you take up the most scientific, the most comprehensive and systematic world outlook and method doesn’t mean that you are therefore automatically good at working with ideas, or that you automatically arrive at the truth about something. And conversely, as we have also emphasized, there are people who not only don’t apply this outlook and method, but who disagree with it—or even detest it—who nevertheless discover important truths. And understanding that is also a very important part of really grasping and applying the world outlook and methodology of communism. That’s the contradictory nature of it.
So working with ideas is a struggle in its own right. It’s something that has to be gone into deeply in its own right, while of course ultimately it can’t be divorced from the real world, from the world of practice, from people struggling to change the world, and from the masses of people in all the different endeavors and spheres of life that they engage in. But even while we keep that in mind and remain firmly grounded in that as a basic point of understanding and orientation, it’s nonetheless crucial to recognize that in any sphere, if you are really going to learn about it and make changes in that sphere, you have to immerse yourself deeply in it, you have to engage other people who are also working in that sphere, and you have to take their ideas seriously.
One time someone wrote me a letter and asked: how do you read things, do you do what’s called “proof-texting”?—which is a way of reading to refute something. Do you read it in order to make your point? What he was referring to was the approach of only looking for things that confirm what you already believe; for example, you start out with a disagreement with somebody and in reading what they write you look for those things that you don’t agree with, things that prove your point, and then sort of tautologically you go around in a circle. You end up with: “Aha, it’s wrong.” And I replied, no I don’t approach things that way. Even things I vehemently disagree with, going in, I still try to look to see what there is that they are grappling with, what ideas they may hit on even inadvertently or may stumble on, or may actually wrangle with more systematically. There are things to be learned even from reactionaries. There are things to learn from reactionaries, even about politics and ideology, let alone other spheres. That doesn’t mean we take up their outlook or their politics. [laughs] But there are things to be learned. And this is an important point of orientation.
Now, I’m stressing this because, on the one hand, we know that the backbone of the revolution will be the masses of exploited and oppressed proletarians; but there is a great importance to winning people, and to bringing forward people broadly, from among other strata. And in particular there is an importance to bringing forward people from among the intelligentsia—winning them to sympathy and support for our project and our vision of a radically different world, a communist world. We need to increasingly win as many of them as possible to become revolutionary communist intellectuals, actively partisan to our cause, and more than that, to become part of the vanguard. There can never be a communist revolution without this.
And there is a real question that comes up and is often raised: Can you actually work with ideas in a critical and creative way and be a member of a vanguard communist party? Or can you really do creative work in the arts or sciences and be a member of such a party? Many people answer this by adamantly saying no—that, by definition, a party that is disciplined, that applies democratic centralism, that has a strong central core of leadership, and in some cases has a very strong individual leader, by definition will stifle the initiative of other people, will prevent them from really thinking creatively and critically, and will prevent them from bringing forward anything new; that by the dint and weight of the discipline and “bureaucracy” of such an organization, it’s bound to crush and suffocate any kind of creative and critical impulse.
Well [laughs] this is a real question, and it doesn’t have an easy answer. I do believe that fundamentally the answer is and must be resoundingly yes, this can be done. But again, it’s not easy, and it’s not simple and we haven’t entirely solved this problem in the history of the international communist movement. There is much more to be learned, critically summed up and brought forward, that is new in this regard. There is important experience of the international communist movement and socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat, very real positive experience in this sphere, but also considerable negative experience, which again, needs to be critically examined and deeply and all-sidedly summed up. And, frankly, we need to learn how to do a lot better.
For example, I have spoken a number of times in various writings and talks about the Lysenko experience in the Soviet Union.3 Lysenko was an agronomist, a botanist, who claimed to have brought forward new strains of wheat that would make production leap ahead in agriculture. And this was a real problem in the Soviet Union, that agriculture was seriously lagging industry. And, of course, if that gap continues to widen it throws the whole economy out of whack and basically unhinges your attempts to build a socialist economy. So this was a very severe problem they were facing, particularly in the early and mid 1930s. And Lysenko basically brought forward a theory which contradicted basic principles of evolution and fell into the whole idea of the inheritability of acquired characteristics and so on, which is not scientifically correct. But pragmatically it seemed like a way to solve the agricultural problems, so Stalin and others threw a lot of weight behind Lysenko. And this did a lot of damage. Not only in the short run and in a more narrow sense—it didn’t lead to the results that they were hoping for—but it also did a lot of damage in the broader sense in terms of how people were being trained to think, and how they were being trained to handle the relationship between theory and practice, and reality and understanding and transforming reality. There’s a way in which this has had long- term negative consequences. First of all, it did in the Soviet Union. And it did in the international communist movement, because it trained people to think in a certain erroneous way.
Now, this situation was very complicated, because many of the people who were the experts and authorities in the field of biology, botany, and so on in the Soviet Union were carried forward from the old society. And many of them were political and ideological reactionaries. So here you see the contradiction is very acutely posed. Lysenko was trying to make a breakthrough to advance the socialist cause, and being opposed by authorities, many of whom—not all, but many of whom—were political and ideological reactionaries. But it just so happened that they were more correct than him about the basic point at issue. Yet political expediency dictated what was done there, and the people who were critical were actually suppressed.
So you can see the complexity of the problem. And it’s not so easy to handle. These are real life and death questions. Whether people eat is a life and death question. That’s what was at issue, was whether people eat, whether they have clothes in the winter. And the Russian winter is worse than Chicago, okay?
When you have a socialist economy you are not relying on the imperialists any more. And you are not relying on exploiting the masses of people. So you are trying to bring forward new forms, new relations in which to carry out production, and “it’s all on you”—it’s all on us, it’s on the proletariat, it’s on its vanguard, it’s on the masses of people. How do you solve these problems?
Well, Lysenko was trying to solve this problem, but the method he came up with wasn’t correct. But what was worse, was that he was supported out of instrumentalist thinking. In other words, you make your ideas an instrument of your desires or aims. You want something to happen, so you “reconstruct reality” so it falls in line with what you want. You make reality an instrument of predetermined aims, rather than proceeding from what reality actually is, and then figuring out how to transform it on the basis of what it actually is and how it’s actually moving and changing and developing, which reality always is. So this is a fundamental question of outlook and methodology.
And, beyond this particular experience of Lysenko, there is overall a real contradiction and real tension that objectively exists between the line and discipline of a party at any given time, and creative, critical thinking and work in the realm of ideas broadly speaking. There is a real, objective tension. The Party is trying to mobilize its own ranks and the masses to change reality. It has to make its best estimate of what the key aspects of reality are at any given time, and how to go about mobilizing people to change them. Which means by definition that there are many things that it can’t pay attention to at any given time. And we have to resist the tendency to “know-it-all-ism.” Communists are people who by definition have strong convictions [laughs]. So, there’s nothing that goes on that communists don’t have an opinion about. [laughter] But it is very important to know the difference between your opinion and what’s well established, scientific fact, that has been determined and established from many different directions through a whole process to be the best approximation you can make of reality at a given time. You go into a movie, you have an opinion coming out. But your opinion is just that. And it’s very important, especially for communists, and especially for leaders of a communist movement and a communist party, to know the difference between their impressions and opinions and what is scientifically grounded fact that is established through many different pathways, has been deeply and all-sidedly confirmed to be true.
So this is another contradiction we have to deal with. You are trying to change reality, and you are trying to grasp reality in its changingness, so to speak—because it doesn’t stand still and wait for you to understand it, it’s moving, changing—and you are trying to mobilize people to grasp and to change reality. And you have to all pull together to do that. In a real vanguard party you can’t have people all going off in different directions, all implementing their own lines, and still mobilize masses of people to change reality. But by definition when you do that—when you all pull together to mobilize masses of people—there is a danger and a tendency to impose thinking from the top. It would be simple if it were just a bureaucratic problem, but there is a necessity to mobilize people behind what you understand to be true, and that does require leadership and, many times, mobilizing people “from the top.”
How do you handle that contradiction—between mobilizing people around what you understand to be true, while at the same time having a critical attitude and being open to the understanding that you may not be right about this or that particular, or even about big questions? That’s a very difficult contradiction to handle correctly. It’s something we have to sum up and learn how to do better on as well. And it’s not easy. But we do have to do better.
The essence of the problem is not, as people sometimes say, learning to think for yourself. In something I wrote a number of years ago, I pointed out that, on the one hand, this is kind of a truism, thinking for yourself. It’s impossible to think with anybody else’s brain. [laughter] So, in one way or another you are always thinking for yourself. You are always using your own mind to think. The question more essentially is, are you thinking according to one outlook and methodology or another. That’s the fundamental question that’s involved. It’s not “free thinking” in the abstract, or as some principle raised above everything else, but thinking in accordance with and by applying the outlook and methodology of communism in order to arrive, in the most comprehensive and systematic way, at an understanding of reality. Not all of reality—that’s never possible—but the essential things that you can identify at a given time that you need to deeply go into, understand and transform, while having an open mind about both those things you’re not paying attention to, and even those things you are. And you have to do this even while you are moving forward to change these things.
So the essence is not free thinking, but what outlook and methodology you are thinking with. But there is an element of free thinking that has to be involved. And this should certainly be no less true for communists than for other people. It should be more true. And that’s where you do run into contradiction and tension. Because free thinking in a communist party—a disciplined, democratic centralist party—doesn’t come automatically and spontaneously either. Or if it does, it often goes off in directions that are harmful. How to get that right, how to handle that contradiction correctly, is something we need to do more work on.
All that I have been speaking to so far has a lot to do with a principle that Mao emphasized—that Marxism embraces but does not replace all these different spheres of society and human endeavor. Each of them has their own, as Mao put it, particularity of contradiction. Each of them has its own particular features. Each of them has things that have to be dug into deeply and wrestled with and wrangled with in an all-sided and deep-going way. That was the point of that Ardea Skybreak article. And whether it’s music, or physics, or biology, or any sphere that you can think of, there are particularities to these things that people who are in these fields are grappling with all the time.
In the history of the Chinese revolution, and in particular through the Cultural Revolution, they brought forward the principle of red and expert, with red leading expert. In other words, the communists and communist line should lead experts in various fields. Which is an important principle because otherwise other ideologies are in command, and they are leading away from the ability to actually synthesize correctly all that people are engaging and learning about, even to arrive most deeply at the truth about a particular sphere.
So this is an important principle—combining red and expert, and red leading expert—but if you are going to lead in a sphere, the first thing you have to do is be good at learning. And you have to be good at drawing forward those people who are in that field who are also advanced ideologically and politically. People like that are a very important lever and link. Now, as Mao said, if you go to the opera—which is a popular form in China—if you go to the opera long enough you can become an expert, even if you can’t sing or compose at all. But to be able to comprehensively understand something requires really being immersed in it.
This relates to one of the big divisions in society that we have: the “mental/manual contradiction,” as we call it for short. Masses of people are locked out not only of particular fields of knowledge, but are locked out of the chance to grapple with the whole sphere of working with ideas. Now, there are exceptions. Everybody knows exceptions. People who go to prison, in the most horrific conditions, who become very developed intellectuals. Some of them become revolutionary intellectuals and even communists. But those are the exceptions, because the conditions are working overwhelmingly against that. Just think about the masses of people and the conditions that people have to work in and the conditions that kids grow up in. Where do they develop the ability to work with ideas? It’s suffocated out of them, it’s squeezed out of them, from a very early age.
This is one of the big contradictions that we have to overcome through the whole transition to communism. Because, as long as this contradiction exists, there is always the basis for it to turn into a relationship of oppression and exploitation. To run a society, you have to work with ideas, you have to think. There’s no way around it. You can’t just do it by taking revenge on the people who used to rule it. That may bring very momentary satisfaction for some. But it’s not what this is about, and it doesn’t lead to the kind of transformations we need. You have to think. You have to work with ideas. But on the other hand, you have to do it without reinforcing, and in fact overcoming, this great divide, between a small number of people, relatively speaking, in the world who have been able to really get into this whole sphere of “working with ideas,” and on the other hand the masses of people who have been essentially locked out of this.
Remember that movie Contact, I think it was called. It was based on the Carl Sagan thing about contact with people from outer space, and Jodie Foster was in it. And there is this character played by Matthew McConaughey who at one point says to her, basically: “What makes you such a smart-ass? 95% of the people of the world believe in religion. And you don’t. What makes you think you know something that they don’t?” Well that’s the contradiction. Because, the “5%” of the people (it’s actually more than that) who don’t believe in religion are right. But the masses of people don’t have the ability to come to the conclusions that this minority of people has come to, because the masses are not only locked out of certain knowledge, they’re locked out of learning how to work with ideas and wrangle in this whole realm.
So this is one of the big things we have to overcome, and we can’t do it by crude methods. We have to do it by applying some of the principles that Mao emphasized, including the principle of “embraces but does not replace.”4 We have to do it by learning how to work with and learn from and synthesize what people in these spheres are bringing forward, and then win them over, particularly the advanced, to that synthesis, and unite with them to win and influence the broader ranks of people, while continuing to learn from them.
This is one of those tricky things. There is a lot of resentment among masses against the intellectuals. In China, for example, the Mandarins, the people who were the educated classes, really lorded it over the masses of people. They grew long fingernails just to make the point that they didn’t have to do manual labor. This was a sign of distinction. “I’m not in that class. You carry my luggage. I don’t do that kind of thing.” Well, in this society you don’t have that. But you do have great gaps. And there is, on the one hand looking down on people, and on the other hand a lot of resentment. And we have to overcome that from both sides. People have to understand the role and the importance of theory and working with ideas. We have to bring forward those among the masses who have more ability to do that at any given time, not because they are superior to the others, but just because through a lot of accident and particular circumstances they’ve been able to develop some ability to do that. And we have to use them as levers and links—I don’t mean use them in a narrow, utilitarian sense of using people—I mean unleash them to be levers and links to bring forward broader masses of people.
When people come forward from among the masses who develop the ability to work with ideas and to take up theory, it’s important that they work in that sphere in its own right on the one hand, but also that they be a lever and link to broader masses of people, to help break some of this down for the masses of people and show them that it’s not a mystery, and help them begin to take up some of these questions themselves.
And that’s not easy. We’ve had experience which has driven home that it is not so easy. We used to think, when we first started out, well you bring forward people who come from among the masses, and naturally they will be able to go talk to other people about all these questions. But there’s another leap involved there. You are not the same as you were. You are not the same anymore and you are not the same as the other masses, and they don’t see things the way you do. So it’s not so easy. It requires leadership and work to take another leap to where you really grasp it deeply enough that you can break it back down to people and open the door to them to begin to grapple with these ideas.
We won’t be able to do this on a massive scale until we have state power. This mental/manual division cannot be broken down in this society, but we can make advances toward it. And we should never accept it in principle, or bow down to it in any kind of strategic sense. But it’s another reason why we need revolution. We cannot overcome this within the confines of this society. This society will continue to reinforce these divisions, even as we are working against them. All of this has to be part of a revolutionary movement to overthrow this system and to bring into being a new society where then we can really go after these contradictions and overcome them in the correct way. Not in a narrow philistine way, where we denigrate and downgrade and look down upon work in the realm of ideas, but where we appreciate it fully and yet bring the masses into it fully in the correct way. It’s a very complex and arduous, long- term struggle to achieve that. And it’s one of the most important aspects of advancing ultimately to communism.
So that’s by way of background to the main points I want to get into.
And I want to say that, in light of all this, it is crucial that we ourselves develop and deepen our own grasp of first of all the importance of working with ideas and the struggle in this whole realm, and of the correct orientation and method for approaching work in relation to this, which has to do with for whom and for what this is all for, and has to do with what outlook and methodology you bring in working and struggling in the realm of ideas.
Now, certainly not the only, but one of the most important focuses at this time is the struggle to confront and combat the constant attacks on the experience of socialist countries, and in particular of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and especially the whole concept of totalitarianism; and at the same time, while doing that, to confront and critically examine the actual experience of socialist countries and the dictatorship of the proletariat, drawing the fullest lessons from this experience—mainly and overwhelmingly the positive lessons, but also facing squarely and digging deeply into the very real shortcomings and errors.
I was reading an interesting comment from someone—it was actually someone in the international movement—and they made the point, “I uphold very firmly the experience of the socialist revolution so far, but I don’t want to live in those countries” [laughter]. In other words, we have a lot of work to do, to do better the next time around. That’s a very dialectical attitude. And a materialist attitude: we should uphold these things historically, there are great achievements; but we also have to build on it and go farther and do better in certain areas, or else people won’t want to live in these societies—and probably we won’t either.
So we do have to confront and combat these attacks, while at the same time squarely confronting and digging deeply into the very real shortcomings and errors. There is a real and very urgent and pressing need to refute the attacks on socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, in a thoroughgoing, deep and living way—not a dogmatic way or stereotypical way. This is a crucial focus of the class struggle right now in the ideological realm. And how well we carry out this struggle has profound implications for work that’s guided and inspired by the strategic objectives of revolution, socialism, and ultimately a communist world.
This applies broadly, and it has important application among the proletariat and basic masses. First of all, it’s a real mistake to think that these questions don’t find their way among the masses. You know, the people have heard this, they’ve heard that. It doesn’t mean they’ve read long dissertations or analyses, but they’ve heard this and they’ve heard that, and it has seeped down into the popular consciousness, and it’s pumped at them all the time in various ways. These summations that are blared out, and sometimes elaborated on in intellectual theses, are also very simply boiled down and blasted at the masses all the time. Plus, they have some real questions that they come up against when thinking about whether the world could be different. There is not just propaganda from the bourgeoisie that raises questions in their mind, but real contradictions in life that they are wrangling with and legitimately want answers to. And we have to not only give them answers, but again, we have to draw them into the process of finding the answers. But there is work to be done by people who do have a more advanced understanding and a developed ability, or developing ability, to work with ideas, to grapple in this realm.
There is importance to combating these attacks on communism and to digging into these questions deeply among the proletariat, among the basic masses of people in society. But there also is particular and particularly important application of this in relation to the intelligentsia. And this goes back to what I was saying at the beginning.
1. This selection is excerpted from the talk Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism, the edited text of which is available online at revcom.us. This particular section was published in Revolutionary Worker [now Revolution] #1250 and #1251 (August 22 and August 29, 2004). [back]
2. Ardea Skybreak, “Working with Ideas and Searching for Truth: A Reflection on Revolutionary Leadership and the Intellectual Process,” Revolutionary Worker #1144 (March 24, 2002), available online at revcom.us. [back]
3. See “The Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie…Soaring to Great Heights…and Grubbing in the Dirt,” Revolutionary Worker #1086 (January 14, 2001); “Once Again on the Intellectuals,” Revolutionary Worker #1087 (January 14, 2001); and “We Can’t Know Everything—So We Should Be Good at Learning,” in the book Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy. All of these articles are available online at revcom.us. [back]
4. See “Marxism ‘Embraces But Does Not Replace’,” in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy. Available online at revcom.us. [back]