Revolution #169, June 28, 2009
RUMINATIONS AND WRANGLINGS
On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science,
Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning
[Editors’ note: The following is the sixth excerpt from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian, earlier this year, which is being serialized in Revolution, beginning with issue #163. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 appeared in issues #163, #164, #165, #166, and #167. Part 6 is from the beginning of the section titled “The Social Basis for Revolution.” Other parts from this section will appear in future issues. The text of the talk has been edited and footnotes have been added for publication. The entire talk can be found online at revcom.us/avakian/ruminations/BA-ruminations-en.html]
The Social Basis for Revolution
This brings me to some other very important statements by Marx, which were cited in the book Ghana: End of an Illusion, by Bob Fitch and Mary Oppenheimer. This book was written more than 40 years ago, analyzing the rise and fall of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and the larger social and international relations bound up with this. In speaking about the partial revolution—or, in fact, reforms within the system of imperialism and exploitation that people grouped around Nkrumah were seeking to carry out in Ghana—Fitch and Oppenheimer quote Marx to contrast that experience with a “total revolution,” that is, a real revolution that involves the radical transformation of society. Fitch and Oppenheimer themselves put it this way:
“Another characteristic of a ‘total’ revolution is that the class which forms the basis of the revolutionary movement must be one which has ‘radical chains’ to break.... Marx says that it must be a class in but not of civil society.” (Fitch & Oppenheimer, Ghana: End of an Illusion, Monthly Review Press, 1966, p. 24, emphasis in original)
And then, in elaboration of this point, they quote Marx directly, emphasizing that the basis of the revolution must be a social group, or class, which represents a
“sphere of society which has a universal character because its sufferings are universal, and which does not claim a particular redress because the wrong which is done to it is not a particular wrong but wrong in general. There must be formed a sphere of society which claims no traditional status but only human status, a sphere which is not opposed to particular consequences but is totally opposed to the assumptions of the...political system.” (As cited in Fitch & Oppenheimer, p. 24)
This relates back to—it is in a sense another way of stating—what was discussed earlier in relation to Marx’s observations in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and specifically the profound differences in how different class forces and their political and literary (or intellectual) representatives see the problems and solutions. The Black bourgeoisie in the U.S., the forces grouped around Mandela in South Africa, Gandhi in India, the forces around Khomeini in Iran, and so on, see (or saw) things not in a universal way, but in a particular way; what they advocate and strive for embodies a particular or a partial redress, or change, not a universal redress—not a sweeping, radical transformation of the existing system. They represent, in fact, a traditional status—not, as the proletariat does (as it becomes a revolutionary force, on the basis of its fundamental interests as a class) a sweeping away of tradition’s chains.
Ghana: End of an Illusion also cites Marx speaking to what he refers to as a “partial, merely political revolution.” “What is the basis,” Marx asks, of such a “partial, merely political revolution?” Marx answers as follows:
“Simply this: a fraction of a civil society emancipates itself and achieves a dominant position; a certain class undertakes, from its particular situation, a general emancipation of society. This class emancipates society as a whole, but only on condition that the whole of society is in the same situation as this class, for example, that it possesses or can acquire money or culture.” (As cited in Fitch & Oppenheimer, p. 23, emphasis in original)
Now of course, Marx’s statement here embodies irony: he doesn’t actually mean that under the leadership of such a class, and in the remaking of society in the interests and the image of this class, all of society can actually do this (put itself into the same position as this class). The essential point is that this is how these more privileged and even exploiting strata and classes see the remaking of society, even when they are driven toward that objective: they believe, and insist, that the general conditions of society should conform to their particular interests and way of approaching things—in other words, their particular status and aspirations—rather than there being a “springing into the air” and a radical transformation of society as a whole, leading to the abolition of tradition and tradition’s chains.
Also, as something of an aside but definitely related to this, there is a very interesting and in some ways humorous observation by Engels which is cited in this same book, Ghana: End of an Illusion. Speaking about the counter-revolution which drowned in blood the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, Engels wrote,
“...when you inquire into the causes of the counter revolutionary successes, there you are met on every hand with the ready-made reply that it was ‘Mister This’ or ‘Citizen That’ who betrayed the people. Which reply may be very true or not, according to the circumstances. But under no circumstances does it explain anything, not even how it came to pass that the people allowed themselves to be thus betrayed. And what poor chance stands a political party whose entire stock in trade consists in the knowledge of the solitary fact that ‘Citizen So-and-So’ is not to be trusted.” (As cited in Fitch & Oppenheimer, p. 10)
How much has this kind of “analysis,” which Engels so rightly ridiculed, been repeated since then, including right around us today!
This, in turn, calls to mind that very insightful and concentrated observation by Lenin which for very good reason we have many times cited:
“People always were and always will be the foolish victims of deceit and self-deceit” [note very well: “and self-deceit”] “in politics until they learn to discover the interests of some class behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. The supporters of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realize that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is maintained by the forces of some ruling classes.” (Lenin, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism,” as cited in Phony Communism is Dead...Long Live Real Communism!, second  edition, p. 122, emphasis in original)
How profoundly true—and how profoundly relevant once again these days!
Indeed, this kind of approach, on which Lenin is critically commenting, is very pronounced today, especially when among the oppressed and exploited masses—and, in fact, among all strata of the people, including notably the intelligentsia—there is almost everything but a materialist understanding of things, and especially of society and its historical development. There is a glaring lack of understanding—and a crying need for people to understand—that there is a system whose basic contradictions and dynamics set the terms of things in a fundamental sense; and for people to be given, in a living and compelling way, a materialist analysis and a materialist estimate, as Lenin put it, of how this system actually works and of the role of different classes and social forces in relation to all this.
And here, speaking again about different social forces, their understanding of the problem and their aspirations towards a solution, there is a very relevant observation by Jack Belden in his book China Shakes the World, which was cited in a report by a leading comrade of our party recently:
“No social revolution, either good or bad, ever took place without the existence of a great mass of disinherited people who could furnish a new group with a base of support. In the women of China, the Communists possessed, almost ready-made, one of the greatest masses of disinherited human beings the world has ever seen. And because they found the key to the heart of these women, they also found one of the keys to victory over Chiang Kai-shek.”
This recalls the crucial analysis that is contained in the passage that was cited earlier from Marx, speaking to what is necessary in order to have a “total revolution.”
To be continued