Revolution #221, January 9, 2011



Editors' Note: The following is an excerpt from a recent talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA; this is one of a number of excerpts from that talk that are being published in Revolution. The first three excerpts appeared in Revolution #218–#220. The entire Part I of the talk is available at This has been edited, and footnotes have been added, for publication.

Democratic Intellectuals, Idealist Notions, and the Need for Materialism

So this brings us back, once again, to the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper (our old acquaintances to whom, in an important way, we were introduced by Marx). The ideas of "absolute equality" and ultrademocracy, of which certain democratic intellectuals are so fond, correspond to the objective social position of both the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper, even with their "heaven and earth" differences, as Marx characterized them. The desire of the democratic intellectuals (or at least some among them) to have no "hierarchies," no inequalities of authority and power, and especially no institutionalized ones, corresponds to the outlook of the "shopkeepers" (or, more broadly, small property owners and proprietors), enmeshed in capitalist commodity production and exchange, who want that commodity production and exchange to be on an (ideally) equal basis without any force having a monopoly or built-in advantage (or at least no force which is other than, and in competition with, them!); who want (at least so long as they are not in the advantageous position) no barriers to the "pure operation" of the dynamics of commodity production and exchange—when in reality these very dynamics lead, and can only lead, precisely to conditions of inequality, polarization, and in fact monopoly by a few.

The attitude of this kind of petit bourgeois (whether, again, in the persona of the shopkeeper, or of the democratic intellectuals of various kinds), and specifically their attitude as posed against the materialist-based understanding and program that is put forward by communists, can be compared to that of an extended-beyond-its-limit and in-need-of-a-nap toddler, whining: "Wah, wah, wah—I want to level everything off right now...Wah, wah, wah—you won't let me...Wah, wah, wah—I hate you!"

In contrast to this more humorous, somewhat "higher (or perhaps lower) than life" representation of a certain particular form of the petit bourgeois outlook—and in contrast to this outlook in all its forms—the communist viewpoint, method and approach leads to a scientific understanding of historical development and the pathways for change; and the communist revolution represents the path to radical change which is really possible—and is really liberating—leading to the emancipation of the exploited and oppressed throughout the world, and of humanity as a whole, from all relations of exploitation and oppression and the destructive antagonistic conflicts to which these relations continually give rise.

This is the whole point of Marx's emphasis on the need to move—for society to advance and human beings to advance—"beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right," beyond all the relations that are reflected in the bourgeois concept of "right." Here it is worth referring again to and reflecting on what is said in the opening sections of "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity"1—on what is bound to go along with the assertion of bourgeois right: all the relations that are dominant in the world now, with all their horrors that are necessary in order for bourgeois right to be operative and in effect. As emphasized in "Making/Emancipating," you can't have bourgeois right without all those other things, either already being present or being restored where they have been, in at least significant dimension, overcome and eliminated. This gives perspective and emphasis to the need to in fact move beyond what is in reality a very narrow horizon of bourgeois right and everything bound up with it.

This relates to another important statement from Marx, which has very vital meaning and vital relation now especially to the environmental emergency facing humanity as well as broader meaning and importance. And this is Marx's observation that:

From the standpoint of higher economic forms [socialism and communism], private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one human by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and must hand it down to future generations in an improved state. (Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 46)

We are having dramatically illustrated for us today how and why under capitalism it is utterly impossible for human beings and their society to be fit caretakers of the earth. And why, in fact, things are as Marx emphasized in the statement cited above. Living within the confines of this system, and with the prevailing ideas in this society, it seems like a jolting statement to say: "From the standpoint of higher economic forms, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one human by another." But if you think about it, it should seem absurd in that way—and it already does, once one has begun to get a glimpse of the future that is actually possible.

This statement by Marx speaks both to the role of human beings as caretakers of the earth, and to the way in which it is only with socialism, and more fully with communism, that conscious planning and regulation of production can take place, in a qualitatively new and radically different way, as compared with what happens under the capitalist system, shaped as it is by the driving force of anarchy (and as compared with the blindness to the consequences of production and other activity which also to a very significant degree marked previous human society). These higher economic forms, as Marx refers to them, enable human beings, especially when we reach the stage of communism throughout the world, to actually be caretakers of the earth on a whole new level and in a whole new, radically different way.

So the point that keeps coming through here, and that we need to keep bringing out in a living way and from many different angles, drawing from reality constantly—which does provide the basis for making this point over and over again—is that it is necessary to proceed from what is, and to go forward on that basis, rather than trying to conjure up what you would like to be and then trying to impose that on reality—which, in reality, does correspond to the outlooks and schemes of the petit bourgeois (and in particular the democratic intellectual) and not to the outlook and objectives of communism.

The hierarchical nature of this society… the deeper roots and larger implications

Now a lot of people, including those who are caught up in various utopian schemes and idealist notions, respond on the level of looking at capitalist society (or the present society, however they conceive of it in theoretical terms), and seeing that this society, like those that preceded it and were also societies divided into different classes and groups (including, for example, feudalism), is extremely hierarchical. What they are objectively confronting is the fact that this society is ruled through a dictatorship of a class, the economically dominant capitalist class, which constitutes a small minority of society but monopolizes political power as well as having a dominating role and influence in the economy and every other sphere of society. But here is a very important point: While many, including many of those who are alienated by the operation of the current society, recognize the "hierarchical" character of a society like this, there is, especially in these times, very little understanding of the real reasons why this is so—and therefore very little understanding in regard to changing this, both in terms of the possibility of changing it and in what way to change it. As I put it in an exchange with some other leading comrades of our Party recently:

The world is very lopsided, every society is very lopsided. You're not going to overcome that with ultra-democracy. Everyone can see that this is a hierarchical society, but most people don't see that there are deep-seated material reasons for that. It's not arbitrary. Capitalism is not in its essence greed, and undue influence on the part of certain people or groups in society is not a matter of the arbitrary assertion of authority, at least not in its essence. There is very little materialist understanding of how societies actually function. If you think that it's just greed and arbitrary assertion of authority, you think the solution is much easier than it actually is... and when people get a whiff of how difficult and complex it is, they're out the door—they give up on really changing the world in any fundamental way—unless, of course, they make a leap to a real materialist and dialectical understanding.

1. "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity," a talk by Bob Avakian, was serialized in Revolution beginning October 21, 2007, in issues #105 through #120; it is also available online at and is contained in Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation, a Revolution pamphlet, 2008. [back]

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