Reaching for the Heights And Flying Without a Safety Net

Part 4: State Power: Learning from Historical Experience

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1199, May 18, 2003, posted at

Editors' Note: The following is taken from the transcript of a tape-recorded talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, toward the end of 2002. It was originally intended for distribution among Party members and others close to the Party, in particular revolutionaries of the newer generations, but we are happy to be able to share excerpts from this talk with our readers. They have been edited and footnotes have been added for publication here.

I started this talk by speaking about the crucial objective of seizing state power and holding onto it firmly, and then I talked about some of the contradictions in that.* Here I want to get into this further, drawing from some decisive historical experience.

Once power has been seized and consolidated by the proletariat, then especially in the early stages of socialist society--which can last for a while, historically speaking--the leadership of the vanguard party of the proletariat is essential and, to put things openly and honestly, the party does have its hands on the key levers of state power and in particular the armed forces of the new proletarian state, which embody state power in a very concentrated way. This is a profound contradiction.

I touched on this in the interview with Carl Dix** and this is also discussed in the polemic against K. Venu.*** The point is made that when Lenin wrote "State and Revolution," right before the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution, he was still conceiving of things in the way they had been understood up to that point, specifically the notion that you wouldn't need to have a big standing army once you had the dictatorship of the proletariat--the armed people would be the best and surest means of safeguarding the revolution. Well, historical experience--and not willful power-hungry grabs or desires on the part of communists--has shown that you do need to have an army, that simply armed militia of the people, organized in their workplaces, schools, and various other institutions, will not in fact be capable of standing up to the very real threats, and even outright attacks, from powerful imperialist and reactionary forces, so long as they remain in the world, and even within socialist society itself.

So it's not that we insist on the need for an army because that's the way the communist vanguard can exercise power over the people--it's because, without such an army, the revolution will be smashed and the masses of people suppressed and re-enslaved to capital in the most ruthless and murderous way. Of course, so long as there are class divisions and inequalities in society, including within socialist society, there will be some people who fall into seeking power out of personal ambition and for personal gain, and such people will repeatedly emerge within the vanguard party, including in its top ranks. But if that were the only problem, they wouldn't get very far. The deeper problem is that you've got imperialists out there and you've got counter-revolutionaries remaining and re-emerging within socialist society who seek each other out, make alliances with each other, find ways to hook up with other imperialists and reactionaries--all those kinds of things intermingle and pose a tremendous challenge. And, so long as this is the situation, you can't do without an army. Just think about what I was saying earlier--if we went through everything that's involved to have state power and then we said, "OK, that's it, that was fun while we did it, but now we're going to hand power back"--how ridiculous and outrageous that would be--outright insanity and at least objectively a profound betrayal of the masses of people. Well, that's what you'd be doing in essence if you said we're not going to have an army.

Just think about any experience we've had when the bourgeoisie sets out to reverse even a partial victory: they go on a rampage, they don't want anybody to think about waging this kind of struggle again, even in terms of a partial victory wrenched within the system. So it's not even just a matter that the old suffering will come back if you hand power back to the bourgeoisie--they'll go on a rampage. People will suffer tremendously and in an acute way in the immediate aftermath, as well as for generations, and they will be demoralized and disoriented, politically and ideologically. So if you don't want to have an army, you're just saying we don't want state power--come and take it back and do your worst. And we know what their worst is, OK? So we don't need to belabor that point any further here.


But then, on the other side of the picture, if you do have an army, you have real contradictions. This came out very acutely in the last great battle and the revisionist triumph in China right after Mao's death. I remember listening to the radio--you know, they didn't have CNN in those days, but I was listening to radio accounts of what was going on in Shanghai right after the coup, in 1976, when the people's militias were fighting against the regular units of the PLA (People's Liberation Army) that were sent to suppress them and to enforce the revisionist coup. And it was heartbreaking, because the militias had no chance, frankly. They were just crushed. Part of the reason was that the political momentum was lost, because at the moment of the coup, the leadership in Shanghai, which was supposed to mobilize the masses in the event of something like this, lost their nerve and vacillated until it was too late. So, by the time anything happened--by the time popular resistance (including the mobilization of the people's militias) took place--it was too late. I remember listening to those radio reports--and I was saying "let's go people's militias"...but they couldn't go. You know, they went a little ways--they fought for a day or two--and then they were crushed by the PLA. So you can see not just the potential but the agonizing realization of the potential for the army to be turned against the masses of people.

Of course, relatively few people have heard about this uprising in Shanghai right after the coup and how it was crushed by the PLA, while on the other hand the bourgeois media, in the U.S. and other imperialist countries, widely covered and still at times make reference to the Tiananmen events in 1989, where the PLA massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands. That was another example of a bourgeois dictatorship--not a "communist dictatorship" but a revisionist-bourgeois dictatorship--using brute military force to suppress a popular uprising, but what happened in 1989 was very different than the events that immediately followed the coup in 1976, where it was a class-conscious, revolutionary-minded proletariat rising up to try to retain state power but unfortunately being defeated.

So, there you see laid out in very stark terms the contradictions involved, and it isn't as if the revolutionaries in China were unaware of these contradictions within the Chinese Communist Party at that time. The history of the PLA, particularly in socialist China, after liberation in 1949, is very interesting. I don't have time to go into all of it, but they actually carried out sort of a dress rehearsal for the Cultural Revolution, on sort of a modified scale, inside the PLA in the early '60s as part of a socialist education movement. They widely distributed what became the famous (and world best selling!) book of Quotations from Chairman Mao inside the PLA (except at that time the cover was not red--it was not yet the "Little Red Book"). They circulated it within the ranks of the army and they carried out a whole campaign, not with the same degree of upheaval, but a whole massive campaign of ideological education and struggle within the army. And that's one of the reasons why, when the Cultural Revolution broke out (in the mid-1960s) and Mao recognized that it was necessary to basically suspend the leading role of the Party, because it was riddled with revisionist cliques and revisionist influences from the top to the bottom, the army was able, for a certain period, to play that leading political role in place of the Party.

But that was very complicated and full of contradiction, because the army's not the Party--it's an armed body. It's one thing if a Party member tells you that you should do something; it's another thing if a PLA member tells you that--it's not quite the same thing. But, much as it has been distorted, the main role the army was playing, particularly in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, was as a revolutionary political force. Yes, it was used to restore order in some places when things got totally out of hand; but the main thing Mao was trying to do was to use it as a political instrument, because the Party couldn't be used as a vanguard in that context. But then you had all these complications because Lin Biao was the Defense Minister and, in a day to day way, he was the acting head of the PLA. And at that time, when you would read the Peking Review (which came out weekly from China) it would talk repeatedly about "Comrade Lin Biao, Chairman Mao's closest comrade in arms and chosen successor." And then, after a certain period, with another twist in the complicated course of the Chinese revolution, profound differences developed between Mao and Lin Biao over a number of questions --including Mao's insistence that, through a process of "open-door" criticism and rectification involving the masses of people, the Party must again be reconstituted as the political vanguard and the army's political role in society must be reduced. This resulted in outright betrayal by Lin Biao and his death in 1971.

Now what do you do? There was a whole clique that had been grouped around Lin Biao in the army, which was very powerful, a bunch of generals and commanders and everything. So Mao had to try to carry out a campaign to clean that up inside the army--but, frankly, they had sort of a mess in the army. And, to make it even more complicated, while you're going up against all these Lin Biao forces in the army, at the same time you had other long-time leaders in the army who were supporting a more straight-up revisionist line--these were veterans of PLA who had gone on the famous Long March and had fought battle after battle, crossing deep marshes and snow-capped mountains--they had red stars on their caps but now they were following the capitalist road, taking their lead from Deng Xiaoping and getting support from Chou en- Lai, both powerful veteran leaders. And here again is the complexity of things and the acuteness of the contradictions: it was necessary, in the short run, to unite with forces like this, or at least some of them, in order to clean out the Lin Biao mess in the army--which, in immediate terms, posed the greatest danger to socialism and the continuation of the revolution. And the result was that these forces, grouped around Deng Xiaoping, became stronger. By the mid-1970s, it was clear that everything was coming to a head and that an all-out confrontation was shaping up, between these revisionist forces and the revolutionary camp led by Mao, who was in failing health and clearly going to die before long.


What are you going to do about this? If you are Mao and the revolutionary forces facing this very severe situation, how are you going to create the conditions, politically and ideologically, where the army's going to do the right thing? One of the things that was done was that Chang Chun-Chiao--one of the so-called "gang of four" and actually a leading person fighting for the revolutionary line, alongside Mao--was made basically the political commissar of the army, in charge of carrying out a new campaign of rectification and socialist education inside the army. But that didn't really go anywhere --it was effectively blocked by all these long-time revisionist leaders. They said: "Fuck that shit. You're not carrying out any kind of education and transformation ideologically in this army." I'm trying to describe it somewhat humorously, but it's tragic at the same time. It proved not to be possible to succeed with that rectification campaign, because the terms of the class struggle were not favorable right then, and Mao was failing and not able to play much of a direct role in this. Plus, you don't want to just always rely on Mao. If you can't bring forward new layers of leaders to do this, what's going to happen when Mao dies? And what did happen?

Now, the revolutionaries were trying-- they were trying to deal with all these contradictions. It isn't like they didn't identify the contradictions and they didn't try to come up with methods to deal with them. They did--they were striving for ways to develop and unleash mass criticism and struggle against the revisionist lines and the forces behind them. But, in the end, they didn't succeed. The fact that they didn't succeed, because of all the factors I've tried to very briefly characterize--and in all this we have to remember the larger context of the encirclement of China by reactionary and imperialist powers, including the social- imperialist Soviet Union, which was posing a very great and direct threat to socialist China--this gives you a sense of the real and profound contradictions you're dealing with: because of the imperialist and reactionary states and their continuing encirclement of the socialist country, because of the remaining classes and class struggle in socialist society, you have to have an army, but there is a potential for that army to become the instrument of capitalist-roaders within the party--to become a force suppressing the masses of people and their attempts to carry forward the transformation of society.

The line of the anarchists and others on this--which in essence says that an army is, by definition and by its very nature as an army, bound to become a force oppressing the people--that line is wrong and misleading, because it fails to recognize the fundamental difference between reactionary armies and revolutionary armies, in terms of not only doctrines and methods of fighting but also their relations with the masses of people and the whole purpose for which they exist and for which they fight. But there are very real and profound contradictions involved in all this (which the anarchist line also fails to correctly understand) and, so long as there are oppressors and exploiters in the world, so long as there are inequalities within socialist society itself, so long as the soil for all this has not yet been thoroughly dug up, and so long therefore as there is a need for armed forces to defend the socialist revolution, there will also be the danger that these armed forces can be turned into their opposite. This is a profound challenge we have to confront, and continue learning how to correctly handle.




  1. * The first three installments of this talk include: "Without Revolution There Can Be No Fundamental Change, Without State Power All Is Ultimately Illusion," ( RW #1195, April 20, 2003); "We Want State Power--and We Should Want It," ( RW #1197, May 4, 2003); and "The Vanguard: The Profound Necessity, and the Profound Contradiction," ( RW #1198, May 11, 2003). [Return to article]
  2. ** See "Seizing Power and Exercising Power--The Relation Between the Vanguard and the Masses" in RW #1182 (January 12, 2003). The full interview, "Bob Avakian Speaks Out--Interviewed by Carl Dix: On War and Revolution, On Being a Revolutionary and Changing the World," appeared in RW #1155-56, 1158-64, 1166-68, 1171, 1173-74 between June 16 and November 10, 2002. Audio available on CD from Revolution Books stores and outlets or RCP Publications. Also available online at [Return to article]
  3. *** "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That," by Bob Avakian published in the international journal A World To Win, #17, 1992. [Return to article]