Revolution #73, December 17, 2006
Now, on the foundation of what has been said so far, I want to turn to the question of A MATERIALIST UNDERSTANDING OF THE STATE AND ITS RELATION TO THE UNDERLYING ECONOMIC BASE.
The State Is, In Its Essence, An Instrument of Class Rule, and Class Suppression
First of all, what is the state? In some post-modernist thinking, which finds expression in some leftist trends, you'll hear this formulation: "The state has agency." This is a fancy way of saying that the state is not an instrument of class rule, but is an institution that can be affected and influenced by different groups in society, depending on how much pressure they exert on it. Obviously, this is a reformist, as opposed to a revolutionary, viewpoint, and leads to a reformist as opposed to a revolutionary program. This notion that the state can be influenced and caused to act in different ways—it's not an unchanging thing, it can be influenced to have a different character and play a different role, depending on who's exerting more influence on it—this is just the old revisionist view of the state, finding expression these days in "post-modernist" language.
But an actual materialist analysis of the nature and role of the state is essential in terms of making revolution and actually transforming society, it is essential in understanding what the problem is and what the solution is. So, let's dig into the questions: what is the state, what is its essential character and its essential role?
Engels, also in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, made the very concise summation, from a lot of historical materialist analysis, that the state is an instrument of class rule, an instrument for the suppression by one class of the other classes it rules over, and that it arises with, and is a manifestation of, the split-up of society, not only into classes in general, but into antagonistic classes—into exploiters and exploited, for short.
Now, in the "Democracy" book (Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?), I quoted a statement by Raymond Lotta, that the state is an expression of a certain division of labor in society. This gives the state its particular class character. In other words, the state in general has the character and role of being an instrument of class suppression—or, another way of putting it, an instrument of dictatorship—but being an expression of a certain division of labor in society gives expression to the particular character of a given state. And in an all-round and fundamental sense, we can say that the state is an expression of the overall production relations in society; it reflects that and in turn serves to reinforce that. With one exception—the proletarian state, which seeks not simply to reflect and reinforce, but actually to be an instrument for the further transformation of the production and social relations in society. That's one of the things that gives the proletarian state a character that is qualitatively different from all previous forms of the state.
The proletarian dictatorship aims at the abolition of classes along with the others of the "4 Alls." It aims to do away—not by physical extermination, which is the caricature charged—but through the transformation of society, it aims to do away with classes and their material basis: it aims to do away with the bourgeoisie; it aims to do away with the petty bourgeoisie; and it aims to do away with the proletariat itself. And, as I put it in another discussion with some comrades, the proletariat is the only one of those three classes that doesn't mind. [laughter] Neither of the other two classes wants to go out of existence—which doesn't mean the dictatorship of the proletariat is also exercised over the petty bourgeoisie, that's a different question. But it does mean you have to transform circumstances and people, such that not only the bourgeoisie, but also the petty bourgeoisie and, indeed even the proletariat, no longer exist. But the proletariat is the only one that wants to go all the way with that, speaking in broad social terms.
Now if we understand the role of the state, and we hark back to what I was saying earlier about why we want state power, we can hopefully understand, much more profoundly, the truth and reality of the statement, that without state power all is, in fact, illusion, in terms of transforming society in any fundamental and qualitative way, in terms of getting rid of the oppression and exploitation in which the overwhelming majority of humanity is enmeshed and the nightmare that this involves. I was recently reading some articles from A World to Win News Service,1 ironically dated July 4 of this year, 7/04/05. There were two articles, in particular—one on globalization, the meeting of the heads of state of the major industrial countries, and the demand for debt elimination or reduction; and the other was an article about Africa, the Congo in particular. Anyone who hasn't read those articles should definitely read them, and they're worth reading over more than once, because they vividly bring alive the horrific conditions of the masses of people under the rule and domination of imperialism, and the local agencies of imperialism in these particular countries. The fact is that in the Congo, in the last decade or so, somewhere between 3 and 5 million people have been killed in warfare going on within the Congo, none of the sides of which represent anything positive, in terms of the liberation of the people there. There are all these military forces, sometimes literally gangs that have been pulled together by different capitalist corporations and consortiums to fight against rivals in plundering and looting the minerals and rich resources of those areas. It reminds me of the old Peter Tosh song "Fight Against Apartheid": "you steal my diamonds and finance your ballistic mis-siles." This is what's going on, in truly horrific terms. This is what went on for 40 years in Zaire, when it was called Zaire, after they got rid of Lumumba and civil war broke out and the imperialists imposed and backed the rule of Mobutu. And it's been going on very acutely, millions of people have been dying, during this decade in just this one part of the world. People dying not just from starvation, like in Niger and other places in Africa. But dying from this warfare, this internecine warfare, this reactionary warfare, organized by imperialists and even by different companies and consortiums that are looting the country.
If you are a Marxist and you look at this, you say: "what a crying need for proletarian state power in these countries." But people are being subjected to these horrors because they haven't made a real revolution and don't have proletarian state power. You can criticize the state as an institution all you want—but goddamn it, let's get a proletarian dictatorship and then we'll let people criticize it! As I have pointed out before—for example in an interview I did with Michael Slate2—people should mainly extol the proletarian state, even while they're raising some criticisms. That's another unity of opposites—uphold and extol the proletarian state, while criticizing its shortcomings. And if you understand this as a Marxist, as a communist, you can see the crying need for people to have state power to be able to put a stop to the horrors they are subjected to. Tribe is being pitted against tribe in this warfare in the Congo, slaughtering each other. Even what went on in Rwanda is linked up with the larger network of imperialist relations and the battle among competing imperialists, much as they cried crocodile tears over it, and used it as a way to build up public opinion for their intervention all over the world. They're even doing that now in relation to Nepal: "Nepal could become another Rwanda, another Cambodia, humanity cannot allow this to happen, cannot allow this society to be plunged into chaos, with the attendant mutual slaughter." Public opinion is being actively created in this way right now in relation to Nepal and the prospect of the Maoist-led revolution winning victory in Nepal. But this is very vivid and real in Africa, the horrendous suffering of the people, because they don't have a proletarian state. Now, the proletarian state, where it comes into being, still has to stand up to the imperialists and other reactionary forces militarily, but you don't even have a chance, you're not even in the contest, if you don't have proletarian state power and therefore can reorganize society accordingly and provide a material foundation underneath that state at the same time as you're transforming the society and supporting revolutionary struggles in other parts of the world, all over the world.
Once More: Without State Power All Is Illusion
If you look at this as a communist, it just jumps out at you, how much the people are suffering for lack of proletarian state power, and for having every other kind of reactionary state power brought down on them and being hurled against each other in these mutual slaughters for the interests of people wielding other state power and serving imperialism and oppression and exploitation. This is true throughout vast parts of the world, and in the world overall. And you can't do anything about it without proletarian state power. Look, I have enormous respect for the people who go become part of Doctors Without Borders. But there's a tremendous burnout rate among these people, too. The problems are so enormous and grow at such exponential dimensions while they're trying to do something. Because people haven't wrenched themselves free of the imperialist system and established a proletarian state power. And this suffering will go on and on and get worse until that is what happens. When you see this and understand it—not refracted through a bourgeois or revisionist prism, but when you see it from a communist standpoint—it leaps out at you: the crying and urgent need for proletarian revolution and proletarian state power. Yes, this revolution has to go through different phases. But in essence, and in the final analysis and fundamentally, proletarian revolution and proletarian state power is what it must be aiming for, as the first great leap toward the final goal of a communist world. We've had every other kind of state, and the imperialists have used this experience with every other kind of state to reinforce the idea that, after all, their domination and even outright colonialism is the only thing for people in Africa and other parts of the Third World. "Look what they've done since independence," they say—negating the actual fact that the people in these countries have never really had real independence. Mobutu—is that independence?!
If you want to understand why "without state power all is illusion," once again I say: just think about all the things that do—that should—drive you crazy, that will, if you're a communist, drive you crazy, that drove you to become a communist in the first place, because you realize the enormity of this and the fact that there isn't any way to deal with this within the confines of this system. All those outrages that keep growing to larger and larger dimensions, that you can't do anything about, in any fundamental terms, because there is not yet proletarian state power, because the idea of doing anything about these things without that state power is, in reality, nothing but illusion.
Jim Wallis, in the aftermath of the 2004 election and the prominent role of Christian fundamentalist fascists in the so-called "re-election" of Bush, is now trying to promote the idea—and getting some backing from sections of the ruling class in promoting the idea—that the only really good opposition to this Christian Fascism is an opposition that shares a great deal with it, shares many of the same fundamental religious underpinnings, even if this opposition wants to give this a somewhat different expression. And, as I pointed out in Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones,3 a number of years ago now, even while recognizing and condemning, or at least lamenting, ways in which masses of people are suffering throughout the world, Wallis's whole attempt has been to preach reconciliation between oppressors and oppressed and to promote reform within the existing system and relations of oppression and exploitation, within the U.S. and on a world scale. He insists that reform, and not revolution, is the only way to bring about positive change—and he openly polemicizes against communism, accepting and repeating many of the more crude distortions and slanders against the historical experience of socialist society and the communist movement. In his book The Soul of Politics, written during the 1990s (he now has a new book out, God's Politics), Wallis attempted to cite examples of how reform, reconciliation and peaceful change within the system hold out the hope—as he would have it, the only hope—for improvement in the situation of the masses of suffering people. One example he gave involved Brazil—the following story, whether true or apocryphal I don't know, but let's take it as true, and look at the content of it: Peasants were being driven off their land in one little part of Brazil, so the peasants called up the wives of the Senators in Brazil—look at the social relations that are being reflected here, by the way—they called up the wives of the Senators and in some sort of re-enactment of (or a variation on) Lysistrata,4 I suppose, the wives put pressure on their husbands, the Senators, to intervene and keep the peasants from being driven off their land. Wallis makes a big deal about how this is the paradigm, this is the model for how we can bring about change. And I went and I did some research—see you have to do work—I did some research [laughs] into what was going on in Brazil at this time. And during a period of about 10 to 15 years, which covered the time he was talking about, 15 million peasants were driven off their land in Brazil. Now, even if you allow that the story Wallis tells is true, and these particular peasants in this one little part of Brazil were not thrown off their land right then, let's look at the larger picture. First of all, these peasants, or most of them, are very likely gone from their land now. And even if somehow they remained as a little pocket for a while, during the same period 15 million peasants in Brazil were driven off the land into the slums and shantytowns. Many of you no doubt saw the movie City of God; and in general you know what this leads to among the people who are driven into the cities. Brazil has its glittering facades and enclaves—and then, both in the countryside and in the slums, tremendous poverty and people being driven into conflict with each other, and setting up gangs and slaughtering each other over unofficial capitalism. This is the reality of what happens without proletarian state power. This is the reality of what's gone on because, for decades, there hasn't been proletarian state power in these places.
And the same thing is true of the U.S. Look what's gone on because we haven't had proletarian state power. The growth of even more horrific economic and social conditions. The spread of religious fundamentalism, including among the basic masses. The weighing down of the masses with oppression and deliberately spread and inculcated ignorance. Because we weren't able to make revolution, particularly during the great upsurge of the 1960s, with its widespread revolutionary ferment and sentiments. I'm not putting the blame primarily and essentially on those of us who became revolutionaries in that time, but the fact is that because, for a combination of reasons, revolution didn't break through, and because proletarian power wasn't seized and held onto, look what's come about in the world and in the U.S. over decades. And the idea that somehow you could change all this without proletarian state power, and that some other way could be found even to alleviate the suffering of the masses, let alone eliminate it, is the most outrageous and harmful of illusions.
What Coercion Is Good For
Now, along with talking about what state power is good for, I want to talk specifically about the element of coercion and what coercion is good for. This is related to the "constraints" point that a comrade has raised, to which I referred earlier—all constraint is not bad. Let's dig into this. I've used this example before, that another comrade raised, from the movie Remember the Titans. It's not about the dictatorship of the proletariat, but it is about a significant social change that was brought about, and in which state power exercised a certain role on the part of liberal reforms at the time. Remember, or for those of you who have forgotten or never saw the movie, it's about this city in Virginia in the early '70s where the high school became integrated, the football team became integrated, and the white football coach, who was an award-winning coach, was replaced by a Black football coach, transferred from a Black high school. Now, the point has been made about what would have happened if they had gone to the white people in the town, and specifically those white people whose kids went to high school, and said, "Let's have a fair democratic vote: how many of you want to integrate the high school; how many of you want to integrate the football team; how many of you want to have a Black football coach?" Are you fucking crazy? [laughter] But because this was a necessity that people were confronted with, because that coercion was exercised, then it provided a different foundation on which people's thinking could be changed—and, importantly, as other people have also pointed out, it provided a more favorable ground on which the advanced elements could be brought forward rather than being suffocated. The people within the football team, first of all, and then more broadly in the community who did, actually, either initially favor this but were afraid to speak up, or who got won over to it, gained more initiative because these were the terms that were set.
So you can see here the value of coercion. All coercion is not bad. Just as there will never be a society or a world without necessity, in the same way there will never be a society without coercion, even when there's no more state power and there's not political coercion, in that sense, and dictatorship is no longer being exercised by one part of society over others. Still, you'll never get rid of necessity. And, related to that, you'll never entirely get rid of coercion. Not everybody in society, including in communist society, gets to do exactly what they want all the time. The difference is that, in communist society, people will voluntarily submit themselves to that situation because of the greater good that they consciously grasp—understanding that "I may not get `my' way this time, but in the context of everything overall, this is much better for everybody, and therefore, much better for me."
Let's take another example. There's a big controversy being kicked up now around evolution. The only reason there is a controversy about evolution is because a section of the ruling class in this country, a powerful section, has decided that it is in its interests to undermine the acceptance of evolution as a scientific fact, at least among the general populace. Oh yeah, they'll let some scientists do some science based on the fact of evolution. Remember the book, The Handmaid's Tale, and the movie? They had a very straitlaced morality that was imposed on people in society as a whole, but then the members of the ruling elite got to go whore around and stuff on the side. Well, perhaps it's something of an odious analogy, but if they end up insisting that science classes teach that evolution is not a proven fact, they will still have scientists who will be allowed to do the work that the bourgeoisie thinks is necessary, and among themselves they'll say, "Of course, we know evolution's a fact, we couldn't do anything if it weren't." But with regard to the general populace, they want to spread this other ideology—not only trying to redefine the question of evolution and whether it's true or not, they're trying to redefine science to bring supernatural and theistic elements into it—which, guess what, means there's no science. [In a satirical sounding voice:] "Well, you may stay on the earth because of the force of gravity—or it may be because God wants you to. We don't know. Shouldn't both explanations be discussed in the schools? Are you trying to suppress ideas and keep people from having a chance to decide for themselves?" [laughter]
I was talking to another comrade about evolution and they said, "You know, if you were to demand of me right now that I provide you, right at this instant, a proof of the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, I could not do it. I could go study up on it and come back and tell you, but I accept this because the whole scientific community for centuries has determined this to be true and it's been verified to the satisfaction of people over and over again, and it conforms to what I do know about reality. Could it be wrong, theoretically? Yes, but it doesn't seem so." There is no controversy among scientists and, at this point at least, there is no controversy in society about that point—whether the earth is the center of everything and everything, including the sun, goes around it, or whether, instead, the earth is part of a solar system and revolves around the sun. Still, this comrade went on to say, "But, you know, if it were in the interests of a section of the ruling class, they could make this question (of whether the earth goes around the sun) controversial as well, in the same way as they are doing about evolution. And even though there would be no controversy among scientists, they could create a controversy politically and societally, if a section of the ruling class saw that as being in their interests."
There is a political struggle, a class struggle ultimately, which is taking place essentially in the realm of epistemology, but it is a political struggle over contending epistemologies. It's a complex struggle, and the terms are not communism versus other ideologies. It's basically science and the Enlightenment versus things opposed to that. This is another reflection of the complexity of what we have to deal with.
So the only reason this question of evolution is controversial, has become controversial in U.S. society, is because a powerful section of the ruling class wants to promote a different epistemology, in the service of a certain political, social and economic program, an all-around and openly reactionary program. There is no controversy among scientists about evolution—the overwhelming, overwhelming majority of scientists, and particularly those in the field of biology, recognize that evolution is not only a fact but one of the most fundamental truths in all of science. Essentially, there hasn't been a controversy about this among scientists for over a hundred years, and increasingly actual science continues to verify the truth of evolution. But a controversy about this is being manufactured on a political basis. Well, here's another thing state power is good for and coercion is good for: The proletariat comes to power, and evolution is taught in the schools. [laughter] End of discussion. [laughter] No "flowering of ideas" about whether evolution is true or whether we are all the product of some grand designer. That's it, it's set. Now, you deal with that. In other words, that's part of the core curriculum that we're going to have in socialist society: Evolution is a scientifically established fact that's going to be taught, and that's it.
That, again, is an expression of why it is important to have state power, and in fact it is an expression of the positive aspect of coercion—in that case, using state power to set terms that correspond to reality, and to the interests of the masses of people and ultimately to humanity as a whole. Some things have to be settled, or nothing can get done and you can't go forward. Does that mean we don't want intellectual ferment over all kinds of things? Of course not. And if somebody could bring forward proof—actual scientific proof, arrived at through the application of the actual scientific method—that evolution is not a fact, then it would be necessary to recognize that. But everything cannot be "up for debate" all the time, or nothing could get done and society could not function. This is certainly the case in a socialist society, whose fundamental and guiding principle is to enable the masses of people to more and more consciously know and change the world in their interests and advance to the point where class divisions and instruments of class suppression do not obstruct and distort the process of humanity's knowing and changing the world in its interests. There has to be some solid core as well as a lot of elasticity and, if we throw everything up for grabs in socialist society, the bourgeoisie will be back in power very quickly.
Why don't we, in the schools, teach "two alternative theories" of epilepsy: one based on what medical science has learned about the actual, material causes of epilepsy, and one that says epilepsy is caused, after all, by demon possession? [laughter] Now, one thing to be aware of in this regard, while we are laughing at this notion, is that today's satire is tomorrow's horrific reality. In talks I have given about religion, I have used this example of epilepsy, and how Jesus didn't get it right about epilepsy—how, in the Bible, it says that Jesus cured epilepsy by casting out a demon. Well, if it becomes politically expedient on the part of a powerful section of the ruling class, we may have a debate opened up, [voice marked by sarcasm:] "Well, there are alternative explanations for epilepsy. Some people believe that it's caused by what goes on electrically and chemically in the brain, but there are a lot of holes in that theory. [laughter] Other people are coming to see that perhaps, after all, it is a matter of demon possession." [laughter] Why don't we teach that in the schools? No, we should not do that, because it is not true—it has been scientifically established that this is not true. And it is just as much the case that it has been scientifically established that evolution is true and that intelligent design is not a truthful explanation of the emergence and development of life, including human life.
So, there is a value to coercion, and we should understand the value and the role of coercion, while at the same time grasping this in dialectical relation to the fundamental reality and what must be the fundamental orientation that revolution and the advance to communism, both now and in socialist society all the more, must be the self-conscious liberating act of the masses themselves. Grasping that contradiction correctly is once again a matter of materialism and dialectics, as opposed to idealism and metaphysics, with regard to what communism is and how we're going to get there.
From all this, the point should clearly emerge that the proletariat, as expressed in a concentrated way through the role of its vanguard party, must seize power and must be the decisive and determining element in the state, and does not, and cannot in any essential way, share state power with any other class, even while it applies the strategic orientation of building the broadest united front, under its leadership, in continuing the advance toward communism. At a later point in this talk, I will discuss more fully the application of the United Front under the Leadership of the Proletariat all the way through the transition to communism, because that's another very important contradiction. But here I want to emphasize that the proletariat, as expressed in a concentrated way through the role of its vanguard party, must lead in the state and in the exercise of state power. And that's also something in motion, that's also "a moving target," because, as we advance toward communism as part of the overall worldwide revolution, the role of the party should be increasingly replaced by other instrumentalities that represent the masses themselves exercising state power. But the role of the party—and the need for the party—will not be eliminated completely until we actually get to communism and there's no more need for a state, either. So that's another contradiction we're going to have to handle correctly and, yes, even better than before, even with all the great achievements, particularly through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China under Mao's leadership.
Relentless Struggle Against Spontaneity
Another thing that we always should be clear on is that there is a need for a continuous resolute struggle against the pull of spontaneity. One of the things that I've continued to learn more about and to understand more fully and deeply is Lenin's formulation, in talking about the struggles of the masses, where he refers to their "spontaneous striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie." This is actually a very important formulation. He doesn't just say, "Well, these struggles tend spontaneously to go in a direction where the bourgeoisie can come to dominate them." He says, "There is a spontaneous striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie." This is, in fact, what gets expressed, repeatedly, in the struggle to rupture people out of the whole killing confines of the dominant political framework in the U.S., in relation to World Can't Wait. We see this spontaneous striving of people repeatedly and continually to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, or a section of the bourgeoisie (as represented generally by the heads of the Democratic Party). And this spontaneity, and even this spontaneous striving to come back—if not directly and organizationally, then politically—under the wing of the bourgeoisie will also exist under socialism. This striving to keep things within, or to bring them back within, the confines of bourgeois relations and their reflection in the superstructure—the confines of bourgeois right, for short—will, even in socialist society, continually reassert itself, for real material as well as ideological reasons, and the constant interpenetration between material and ideological factors. This has to do with the continuing existence of classes and social inequalities in socialist society, and with real material conditions and pulls on people, as well as the fact that socialist states will almost certainly exist, for a long period of time, in the midst of and surrounded by imperialist and reactionary states.
So there's a need for a consistent, and in a real sense relentless, struggle against spontaneity and to divert spontaneity onto a revolutionary path. This will be true not only in capitalist society and in building toward the seizure of power and the establishment of a new, socialist state, but also in socialist society itself and in order to continue advancing toward communism.
Part 2 next week
1. A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the foundation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement. Information on subscribing to the news service is available online at http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/AWorldToWinNewsService/
2. Audio files of Bob Avakian's interview with revolutionary journalist Michael Slate are available online at bobavakian.net. The point mentioned here can be found in the part titled "March 29, 2005: Michael Slate interviews Bob Avakian on China, the Cultural Revolution, and Dissent."
3. Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: We Need Morality But Not Traditional Morality (Chicago: Insight Press, 1999).
4. Lysistrata is an ancient Greek play by Aristophanes in which the women refuse to sleep with their husbands until they put an end to the war that they are engaged in.
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