Reaching for the Heights And Flying Without a Safety Net
Revolutionary Worker #1201, June 1, 2003, posted at rwor.org
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.
At the same time as we remain absolutely firm in our orientation of seizing and holding on to state power, there is a task and a challenge of continually expanding and transforming the "we" that is holding and exercising state power. This is a point that was made in the speech at the Mao Memorial a number of years ago.* The question is posed in that speech: if you're in power, there are many things you have to do, to not only maintain power but to continue the revolution, but who is the "you"? That's another expression of the very profound and often acute contradictions involved in socialism as a transition to communism. We have to hold on to state power and we have to wield state power in order to accomplish all these things I was talking about earlier that are impossible under the system**; but if we don't transform the "we" then that's going to undermine what we're seeking to do. These are world-historic transformations we're talking about, and they can't be accomplished by just a small number of people, even if that small number is thousands or tens or even hundreds of thousands--a relatively small number of advanced people, concentrated and organized in the vanguard, cannot by themselves accomplish the transformations we're talking about.
We can sit here and say: "We could run society a lot better than the bourgeoisie." In fact, I say that all the time--and it's true. But if "we" are just a relatively small number, we can't do this. We'll end up in the same place and demoralize the masses in the process. So we have to expand the "we" all the time. We have to be expanding the "we" even before state power is won--and, again, in a more magnified and concentrated way, after revolutionary state power is established and consolidated.
We have to do this until there is no more state power, until there is no more need for a vanguard, until there is no division between leadership and led and the potential no longer exists for that to be transformed into an antagonistic, oppressive relationship. And this has to be accomplished on a world scale. Nothing less than that is the magnitude of the task that we're undertaking. After all, as important as the seizure of power truly is, it is not an end in itself and is not the final aim--the final aim is the establishment of communism, with the abolition of class antagonisms and class distinctions altogether, the end of all oppressive social relations and divisions, not just in this or that country but throughout the world, and the establishment of a world community of freely associating human beings who are, as Mao put it, consciously and voluntarily transforming themselves as well as the objective world.
Speaking of the transition to communism and the seizure of power as the first great leap in that, to put this somewhat provocatively, it could be said that the goal is to move from where the vanguard is "an enlightened despot" to where there is no despot and no need or basis for one. Now that is, again, a deliberately provocative and even consciously outrageous way to say it. What do I mean by being "enlightened despots"? Obviously, I don't mean that literally--our outlook and methods can't be like those of Louis the 14th or Frederick the Great.***
Still, the fact remains that, when we come to power, there will remain great inequalities and social divisions, and notions of "pure democracy" would only serve to bring the bourgeoisie back to power. Think, for example, of what's said about the new state power in our Party's Draft Programme (see the appendices "Consolidating the New Proletarian Power, Developing Radically New Institutions" and "Proletarian Dictatorship, Democracy and the Rights of the People.") It makes the point that things proceed in waves, and that, in order for revolution to be possible there will have to be a whole, huge mass upsurge, but then it will not be possible to continuously maintain things at that high level.
Imagine what would be necessary to make revolution in a country like the U.S. Millions and tens of millions of people and all their revolutionary upheaval will be organized into an organized fighting force, and people will go through tremendous changes in their relations with each other and in their view of the world, in their ideological outlook. But then that's not going to stay on that same high level--it won't be possible to maintain things at that level all the time. Things proceed in waves and through spirals. When that initial great revolutionary wave recedes that has made it possible to seize and consolidate state power, we're not going to hand power back to the bourgeoisie. We're not going to say: "Oh well, right now there aren't as many masses as actively involved as there were at the high point of the mass revolutionary upsurge, so we should hand power back to the bourgeoisie, because after all we don't want to be a hierarchal dictatorship." No--that would be a monumental betrayal of the masses and all the ways in which they heroically struggled and sacrificed to make revolution and seize power.
So that's one side of the contradiction--once state power has been won, with everything that will be involved in achieving that, we must hold on firmly to that state power. But the other side goes back to that question of who is the "we"--to the task of expanding and transforming the "we," increasingly involving broader ranks of the masses in exercising power and revolutionizing society--and if we don't find the means to do that, then this state power will, in fact, be turned into another form of oppressive rule, into another form of bourgeois dictatorship.
What I mean by being an "enlightened despot," again to be deliberately provocative, is that it will be unavoidable that, especially in the early stages of the proletarian dictatorship, the party--and, in a concentrated way, the party leadership--will have a disproportionate influence, shall we say, over society. It will have a disproportionate influence over what happens in society. Not because we're determined to run everything--but because that's the reality of it. Anybody can say what they want, but just think realistically. Somebody gets up and says something and then a party leader gets up and says something else: Who's going to get more of an audience in the short run? And, in an overall sense, it will not be wrong for people to have respect for and to give great weight to what is said by representatives of the vanguard that has led them out of the horrors of this society. But there is a real contradiction there, because in any given situation it may be that the person who is not a party leader is right, and the party leader is wrong; and there is the general principle that right and wrong, correct and incorrect, have to be determined on their own merits, so to speak--on the basis of determining what actually corresponds to objective reality and what points toward a fuller understanding of the question. So you're dealing with all kinds of very sharp contradictions here, but the fact is that, no matter how you resolve any particular aspect of this, party members and in particular party leaders, and the party as a whole, are going to have a disproportionate influence for a while.
Everything's not going to be all equal, especially in the early stages of socialism--the whole point and objective of the socialist transition to communism is to eliminate social inequalities, but they will not and cannot be abolished all at once, or even in a very short period of time, even though it is crucial to continue in the direction of overcoming these inequalities to the greatest degree possible at every stage. But, for some time, it's not going to be all equal.
So, what do we do with that? Do we recognize that contradiction and then set out on the road of overcoming that step by step--and leap after leap--until we finally get to the point where these inequalities are overcome, and this contradiction between leadership and led is abolished? Or do we go off course in one direction or another: either giving full play to these divisions and inequalities, reinforcing and even heightening them; or, as the "mirror opposite" error, trying to just ignore these inequalities, or to abolish them all at a single stroke? Both of these wrong lines and approaches will lead, sooner or later, to the destruction of the socialist state and the restoration of capitalism, reversing the whole revolutionary process through which the masses can increasingly master and transform society toward the elimination of class divisions and social inequalities.
So, here again, we get into decisive questions that are taken up in the Draft Programme and are spoken to in "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy" and "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production"**** about the dialectical relationship between the need for leadership and centralism, on the one hand, and on the other hand, diversity, creativity and creative initiative, criticism and dissent. These things are all vital, just as holding onto state power and not handing it back to the bourgeoisie is absolutely vital.
Dissent--do we really value dissent, as it says in the Draft Programme, or is that just something we say? It's easy to say (relatively easy, anyway) that we should value dissent and we should encourage dissent--including, and especially, when we are in power. But what does it mean in practice when everybody doesn't yet have adequate health care and somebody comes and says, "We want some funding to put out an alternative newspaper that says you're full of shit"? Well, these are hard contradictions. And if we don't have a correct line on this, if we don't really value diversity and dissent-- not just as some sort of general or abstract orientation, but if we don't actually deeply understand what it means that dissent is important in socialist society--then, in fact, the means will not really be provided for this, for people like the Amy Goodmans in socialist society who are going to have their radio and TV programs poking holes in things we're doing, criticizing us for things we do wrong--and for some things we do right. The exception to the rulers--that's Amy Goodman's slogan--well, when we're "the rulers" it's a little different story. So are we really going to welcome that, in a basic sense?
Of course, particular things have to be analyzed concretely, not only in terms of what people are actually saying and doing, but also in terms of all the different priorities that you have to deal with. Are you going to let masses of people go without basic health care, for example, in order to fund all the people who may want to engage in dissent of various kinds? No. On the other hand, are you going to say, "Well, I'm sorry we can't fund any of this because people need health care"? No--that would be wrong too. Even if some aspects of health care might have to be developed a little more slowly--while we are making sure that people have the basic necessities of health care--it will be important to devote some funding to dissent--important to everything we're trying to do, strategically.
But this will not be easy. Will it be easy to have to tell people that we can't build a new clinic right away because we're devoting some funding to people who want to raise criticism and dissent? That's not going to be easy at all. And I'm sure the masses will have some things to say about that. So, again, it will be crucial to handle these things correctly. Undoubtedly, there will be times and circumstances in which it will be necessary not to allocate funds to certain vehicles of dissent in order to meet pressing needs of the masses, but it will also be of real importance to make sure that, in an overall way, funding is provided for such means of dissent and that in general there be a conscious effort and struggle to create the kind of atmosphere in which people broadly speak out freely and make their views known on all kinds of questions.
Of course, as I have stressed many times, this does not mean that we do not need the dictatorship of the proletariat; all of what I am speaking to here, including our approach to dissent, will only be possible, and will only contribute to the struggle for the full emancipation of the masses of people, if the overthrown bourgeoisie and others who have been clearly shown to be determined to overthrow the rule of the proletariat and restore capitalism, are prevented from doing so, through the restriction and when necessary the suppression of their political activity. But, as I have also stressed many times, the necessity for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the actual exercise of this dictatorship, should not lead to confusing dissent in general with counter-revolution, and should not diminish but should underline the importance of valuing dissent in socialist society.
These are the kinds of complex and often acute contradictions that we're going to have to deal with when we have state power. But think about it--are there no elements of that even now? Of course there are. Things of this kind are repeatedly posed in the work that we're doing today. They are posed somewhat differently today, but the methodology and the approach, the outlook and the ideology with which we take up these contradictions are essential, not only for building the struggle in the present but in advancing toward the future. Marx talked about the proletariat preparing (or "fitting") itself to rule. Well, this is part of what we're doing.
Why did we have an issue of the paper devoted entirely to the question of evolution? I saw a very interesting summation of a discussion with one of our supporters who was talking about what a big impression this made on him. He took the Party much more seriously because of the fact that we devoted this much attention to this issue, and the Party person talking to him about this made a very good point. The comrade said something like: "Well, yes, this is an important issue in its own right and there's all this religious fundamentalism that is misleading people; but it's also because giving people some basic understanding of things like evolution, and of the means and methodology for getting into questions like this, is part of preparing the proletariat to rule." That's another example in the present conditions of the principles I'm talking about.
Even now--even before revolutionary state power has been seized and consolidated, and as a key part of advancing toward that goal--the methodology and the means for recognizing and dealing with necessity, of correctly understanding objective reality, and transforming it, is the same, in essence, even though the particularities may be greatly different than when we have state power. Even now, there is the decisive question of bringing forward the masses and not only leading them in resisting their oppression today but preparing them for the future, preparing them to rule and revolutionize society.
As Lenin pointed out, there are masses and masses--what is meant by "masses" depends on the times and circumstances. In certain situations, masses may mean thousands or even just hundreds, while in other contexts it may mean tens or hundreds of thousands, and when society is convulsed in massive upheaval and a revolutionary situation approaches and ripens, masses will mean millions, even tens of millions. But whatever the context and whatever the numbers, there remains the fundamental necessity and principle of bringing forward the masses to increasingly take up all these different spheres of society and the struggle over the direction of society. This is important now and obviously will be all the more so once state power has been won.