On Proletarian Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship: A Radically Different View of Leading Society
Revolutionary Worker #1217, October 26, 2003, posted at rwor.org
This series by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian is excerpted from a previously unpublished talk titled "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World."
There is a question of how to move--through the socialist transition to communism--in the direction of actually overcoming this contradiction (to which I referred earlier) between having a "core of leadership," which in socialist society is openly acknowledged and institutionalized in the form of the vanguard party of the proletariat, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the conscious participation of the broad masses of people in ruling and transforming society. *
We have to recognize this is a real contradiction. There has been a tendency in the history of the ICM to say: "Well, there's no contradiction. We have the party that represents the proletariat. It leads the masses, and the masses are the masters in socialist society. End of discussion. No contradiction." But historical experience has demonstrated very graphically that there is a real contradiction here, which can even become an antagonism, between having such a core of leadership--in particular the vanguard party, and in turn the leading levels of that vanguard party, and the recognition and institutionalization of that leadership--and on the other hand giving increasing expression and scope to the conscious participation of the broad masses in ruling and transforming society. This is a real, objective contradiction. It can be characterized simply as the leadership/led contradiction.
The question is: How are we going to actually overcome this contradiction through the socialist transition, as a part of the overall world proletarian revolution, rather than continually reinforcing and accentuating this contradiction? Of course, not recognizing this as a real contradiction can only lead to reinforcing and accentuating this contradiction. It's very easy to slip into thinking that the problem is simply that we have to have the correct line for the party, and as long as the party has a generally correct ideological and political line, and as long as it continues to implement that line and lead the masses in carrying out that line and policies flowing from it, then somehow the leadership/led contradiction will take care of itself. What I am emphasizing here is that this will not happen. Yes, ideological and political line is decisive. But part of having the correct ideological and political line is the recognition of, and practical attention to working on--that is, moving to concretely overcome--the leadership/led contradiction. There is no correct line which does not recognize that this is an acute contradiction within socialist society, and that the spontaneous tendency will be for this contradiction of leadership/led to be continually reinforced and accentuated, rather than for it to be continually struggled around and finally overcome, through the advance to communism, worldwide.
Let's move from the realm of theoretical abstraction, although that's important, and talk practically. In China, when it was on the socialist road, here you had Mao and the rest of the Communist Party Central Committee--they lived in their own compound. Of necessity, at that stage of things, they lived separated from the masses of people and in very different conditions. They had to have special security arrangements, and so on; they had a mode of life, and everything that went with it, which was vastly different from the situation of the masses of people. It's no use pretending that this wasn't the case. And Mao wasn't one to pretend that--he recognized this as a very important objective contradiction and a real problem.
Now, they were striving, especially through the Cultural Revolution, to break down some of these divisions. To have the leadership get out and engage in manual labor, to have them be subjected to the criticism of the masses through the Cultural Revolution, and all these various steps, which were tremendously important. But they didn't, and they couldn't, pick up all this leadership and move it out and say: "Just go live in the villages with the masses of peasants; let's abolish this leadership compound here." You know, there was even some historical symbolism that was associated with where and how the leadership lived, symbolism that expressed how this was a significant "leftover" from the older society. They were living in the old "forbidden city" where the emperors used to live. This became very acute. I remember talking to somebody about the Cultural Revolution and asking how they saw the necessity for it. This was someone who lived in China before the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and then during the Cultural Revolution. They answered this way:
"There is no question that the Cultural Revolution was necessary--you should have seen those leaders--the arrogance of those leaders before the Cultural Revolution. They were riding around like the old Mandarins and overlords over the masses of people. Driving around--or, actually, being driven around--in their cars, through the streets where the masses of people were walking and riding bicycles. In these cars there were window shades that could be drawn, and in general those leaders would have the shades drawn, which was often an expression of arrogance toward the masses. Many leaders were just acting like overlords. So, there was absolutely no question that there was a need for the Cultural Revolution. Just on that basic level you could see the need."
But the fact is that, with everything involved in the Cultural Revolution and all that it did accomplish in terms of overcoming differences in society, including between leaders and the masses of people, you couldn't eliminate all these differences right then, or through one Cultural Revolution. You couldn't even eliminate the need for limousines, altogether, at that point (including for the reason that there were "foreign dignitaries" that came to China, and so on). You couldn't do away, in the short run, with the need for the leadership to live in different conditions than the masses of people. Still less could you do away with the leadership/led contradiction in its entirety.
There is a real problem here--that the spontaneous tendency is for this contradiction to get continually reinforced and accentuated because there is always necessity that asserts itself in the direction of having to reinforce this, if you want to get down to practical tasks. It's a little bit like the contradiction we find in our work, where we want to rely on other people to do things but we also find that (to invoke an odious slogan) "to rely on other people is messy." It's not so neat and simple as, "let's give people tasks to do, let's discuss what has to be done, and why, and they'll go do them and everything will work out." In reality, you try to rely on others, but then you have to intervene and help them; they run into contradictions and it takes time to even rely on them, and to get to the point where then they can take more initiative on their own and you don't have to intervene and provide so much assistance. In addition, people have their own ideas about what should be done, and why, and how to do it.
Now, from a strategic standpoint, we want this--we want diversity as well as unity, and we recognize that things can only be moved forward overall through a process of unity-struggle-unity. But this is often complex and at times can be "messy." This happens within the party and it happens in the work of the party more broadly with other forces. So the spontaneous pull, as we have continually seen, is to revert back to the same few people doing everything.
Analogously, the spontaneous pull is to say that above all we have to entrench and protect the core of leadership. In socialist society this core of leadership is crucial in the situation where people are faced with intense class struggle within the country and in the international arena they face this very great danger of direct imperialist attack, and the continual fact of imperialist encirclement and various forms of sabotage, and all the pressure that exists in relation to that and everything else. The spontaneous pull is always going to be to reinforce and accentuate the leadership/led contradiction. Finding and forging--and wrenching out of this very real necessity--the means to move in the direction of overcoming, rather than reinforcing and accentuating, this leadership/led contradiction is never going to be easy. The point I'm stressing is that it has to be a conscious part of the line and policy of the vanguard party, and it has to be made part of the conscious understanding of the masses of people. The materialism and the dialectics of this has to be understood by the masses too. What is the necessity that's involved here? Why do we have this leader- ship/led contradiction? And how do we move step by step, and leap after leap, to transform necessity into freedom in relationship to this--to move in the direction of overcoming this very pivotal contradiction.
Now, as part of this contradiction, the question of factions within the party often arises. It is important to understand how and why the Bolsheviks moved to outlaw factions in the party and why in a broader sense this is correct: why it is correct, in other words, for this to be "universalized" and made a principle of communist parties in general. We have to clearly understand the contradictions that are bound up with this, including the tendency to continually reinforce and accentuate the leadership/led contradiction and how the outlawing of factions in the party can contribute to reinforcing and accentuating the leadership/led contribution. This is very important because, while it's not the case, as people like Dahl and other bourgeois political theorists argue, that if you have competing interests among the elite in society there will be more role for the masses of people to influence affairs of state (or the affairs of the party, for that matter)--that's fundamentally false--on the other hand, it is true that if you don't have the correct application of the mass line within the party, as well as between the party and the broader masses, what you can and will get is a reinforcement of the situation in which it is possible for party leadership to exert its will by bureaucratic means. This is a problem in any party, but it's especially a problem, obviously, if a party is in power, is leading the proletariat in exercising its dictatorship.
In other words, once again, the spontaneous tendency--which can be reinforced in a certain context by not having factions in the party--is that the leadership will become removed from the masses, even the masses within the party; the leadership will tend toward existing in its own sphere--just as the leadership in China existed in its own compound--and in fact the leadership will begin to become divorced from the masses and to become institutionalized as an elite above even the rest of the party. And if it's a party in power, this obviously has very significant bearing on what kind of leadership it is, which class it is actually representing, and ultimately what the character of the state is, which class rule it embodies and enforces, and where it is leading society.
The solution to this can never be purely formal. But part of the solution does have to be working out the means and mechanisms whereby the mass line within the party is expressed-- is continually developed and applied. And this, in turn, has to be in the context of carrying out the mass line in the relation between the party and the broader masses in society, whether the party is in or out of power (I'm using that as a short-hand phrase--"party in power"--although the essence of the matter is not that the party, in and by itself, should hold power, but that it should be the vanguard of the proletariat in exercising its rule of society, and in continuing to revolutionize society).
In the polemic vs. K. Venu it is pointed out that "in the aftermath of the seizure of power, the Bolsheviks had to make another, further leap in conceptualizing and realizing a vanguard party that could lead the continuing struggle. One significant expression of this was the outlawing of factions within the party." This is correct--the outlawing of factions in the party is necessary--or else the character of the Party as a real vanguard party will be destroyed, and it will be riven, torn apart, by bourgeois rivalry and cliques. But this also raises more sharply the importance not only of inner-party life in general, and of inner-party ideological struggle, but also, as I have been suggesting, of finding and developing the means to give appropriate expression to dissent from the established party line in society as a whole. And, as I have been emphasizing, this is particularly important where the party is "in power."
Again, the key to this is not formal structures or mechanisms as such. But the principles of democratic centralism do have to be applied--and there is a formal aspect to this. That is, while the essence of democratic centralism is not form, but content--the actual exercise of the mass line within the party in the larger context of exercising the mass line in the relation between the party as a whole and the broad masses--there is a dialectical relation between form and content. If democratic centralism doesn't take expression in concrete structures and forms, then in fact it cannot be fully exercised. That's why we have a Constitution in the party rather than just a general statement: "let's practice the mass line between the leadership and the led, within the party as well as in the relation between the party as a whole and the broad masses." General principles such as this are the thing from which our organizational institutions and formal structures and procedures flow, but we do bother, for good reason, to have a Constitution to give concrete and even, yes, formal expression to these principles. There is a dialectical relation between those formal expressions and structures and the actual carrying out of the principles. If the formal structures become totally meaningless, then in fact the content of democratic centralism will become transformed into its opposite.
So, democratic centralism is a very important principle within the party, and in socialist countries it is the operative principle in the society as a whole. It is very important that there be a dialectical and not a mechanical application of this--in other words, that there not be a total negation of the role of forms and structures within this, and a one-sided stress on simply the basic principles, divorced from and without finding expression in concrete structures, institutions and forms. (I'll speak to this further, a little later, when I talk about the character and role of the Constitution in socialist society itself.)
An important principle within this: The advance through the socialist transition to the goal of communism--as part of the world proletarian revolution--and, more specifically, the overcoming of the leadership/led contradiction and specifically the contradiction between the party and the masses--should not be equated, in any kind of one-to-one sense, with the increasing enrollment of the masses in the Party. In other words, there has been a certain tendency in the history of the ICM to say that the way that we're going to deal with the leadership/led contradiction, and specifically the contradiction between the party and non-party masses, is through a sort of quantitative approach. We will keep enlarging the ranks of the party, and eventually the overwhelming majority of society will be in the party, and then we'll be at the threshold of eliminating the contradiction between the masses and the party and between leadership and led. But that is not going to work. Because, for one thing, as I have just spoken to, the contradiction between leadership and led finds very acute expression within the party, as well as between the party and the masses more broadly. So just simply enrolling people in the party is not going to do away with the leadership/led contradiction.
But more broadly than that, to simply think that continually enlarging the ranks of the party is the answer to overcoming the leadership/led contradiction doesn't really recognize the need to eventually abolish the party itself. It is not correct to think that the way that the party will eventually be eliminated is that it will simply grow quantitatively, and then at a certain point, when it has become nearly the whole of society, it will just wither away as a formal institution.
To be honest, I don't know the exact answer to this contradiction that I am posing. At this point, I don't even feel that I can speak to this problem and its solution in any kind of full way. But I do believe that the question of how to resolve the leadership/led contradiction is going to have to involve, yes, continually enrolling broader ranks in the party; and yes, working to overcome the leadership/led contradiction within the party as well as more broadly in socialist society, in the overall context and framework of the world revolution; but it's also going to involve the creation and development of other forms and institutions in society, beyond the party itself, which begin to realize a certain kind of decentralization of authority and leadership in dialectical relation with the centralization of leadership represented by the party. It's going to be somehow in the dialectical interplay of those things, in the context of the overall advance worldwide to communism, that we are going to achieve the withering away of the party, as well as the withering away of the state.
Once again, it is a much more complex and many-sided phenomenon than simply enlarging the party, in order to overcome this contradiction. The withering away of the state and, with it, the withering away of the party will not be achieved by quantitatively adding more and more people to the rolls of the party, but will be achieved in a more all-around sense, through overcoming the material and ideological basis underlying the leadership/led contradiction and, in a certain sense, working at this leadership/led contradiction "from two sides": continually revolutionizing the party, as a crucial part of the overall revolutionization of society as a whole, and at the same time continually creating the basis, outside the party, in society "at large" (and in the world as a whole) for "spreading out," among increasing ranks of people, the tasks and the responsibilities that are, at the beginning in socialist society, overwhelmingly the "province" of the party as the leading force within the state and society as a whole. This, I feel, is the basic way in which this contradiction will have to be resolved, although this is the extent to which I can carry my thinking on it at this point.
*See Part 2 "Proletarian Dictatorship, Bourgeois Dictatorship--What is Similar...And What is Profoundly Different," RW No. 1215, online at rwor.org
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