Views on Socialism and Communism: A Radically New Kind of State, a Radically Different and Far Greater Vision of Freedom
MATERIALISM VS. IDEALISM...THE FUNDAMENTAL CONTRADICTION OF CAPITALISM, AND THE REVOLUTIONARY RESOLUTION OF THIS CONTRADICTION.
Revolution, #039, March 19, 2006, posted at revcom.us
Editors Note: The following is drawn from a talk given by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, to a group of Party members and supporters in 2005. It has been edited for publication here, and subheads and footnotes have been added. This work by Bob Avakian is being run in Revolution newspaper in 6 parts. The first part appeared in issue #37 (March 5, 2005). The whole work can be read and downloaded online at revcom.us.
Communism Is the Most Thoroughly, Systematically, Consistently, Comprehensively Scientific Outlook and Method
To paraphrase Marx: The fundamental question is not what the proletarians, and broadly the masses of people, may be thinking or doing any given time but what they will be compelled to do by the contradictions and dynamics of the system. It is the underlying and driving contradictions in society, and the world, that will continue to confront the masses of people, and those who seek to lead them at any point, with necessity—not static but dynamic and changing objective necessity—that will compel them to respond to it, in one way or another. And how they respond can be greatly influenced by those who more consciously grasp material reality and its actual motion and development. This is true in an overall sense and especially when contradictions are more acutely posed. This underscores why it is so important to have a scientific, materialist and dialectical, as opposed to what amounts to a religious, or some other form of idealist (and metaphysical) outlook, method, and approach.
Why have I, in my writings and talks, repeatedly emphasized that communism represents the most consistently, thoroughly, systematically, and comprehensively scientific outlook and method? Well, to introduce a formulation and refrain that you'll hear repeatedly through this talk, the main reason I do it is because it is true! And it is important. But let's go further: What does this mean—why is it true? It is true because communism, as a world outlook and method, is both thoroughly and consistently materialist and thoroughly and consistently dialectical, and that is true of no other world outlook and method. Communism reflects, in its outlook and method, the fundamental truth that all of reality consists of matter in motion and nothing else: It grasps each of these aspects—that all reality consists of matter and nothing else; and that, as Engels put it, the mode of existence of matter is motion, that all of matter is constantly moving and changing, and that this leads to qualitative leaps and ruptures—and communism grasps the dialectical relation between these things.
A dialectical materialist outlook and method, and its application to human society and its development, historical materialism, reveals that the defining contradictions of any society, and the motive force of change in society, is the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, along with the contradiction between the economic base (or the mode of production) and the superstructure (of politics, ideology, and culture). Engaging with this, in its more sweeping dimension, will establish a stronger foundation for grasping more clearly and deeply the essential reality that, in this era, and in the world right now, it is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, and other decisive contradictions which this continually gives rise to—it is this, and the motion and development this gives rise to, more than anything else—that is setting the overall framework of things and is compelling and driving change in the world, even as we, the conscious and organized vanguard forces, are striving to transform this motion and development from what it is to a course leading to the realization of communism—a possibility which itself lies within the fundamental and defining contradictions of capitalism and can be achieved through the revolutionary resolution of these contradictions, throughout the world. Let's explore and dig into this more fully and deeply.
A Scientific Understanding: The Decisive and Determining Contradictions in All Societies
In Phony Communism Is Dead, Long Live Real Communism I examine the development of these contradictions between the forces and relations of production and between the economic base and the superstructure. One of the important points I brought out—which is often obscured, overlooked, denied, buried, and so on, and yet might seem almost like a truism, but is a profound truth and is very important to grasp, and to unearth in a certain way—is this: there is no such thing as production or an economy in the abstract. On the one hand, the basic economic activity of producing and distributing the material requirements of life, and reproducing the basis for life, is the most fundamental thing about the life and society of human beings. This is something that Marx very powerfully pointed to and raised to a central role in the understanding of human society and its historical development. But, at the same time, there is no such thing as carrying out production, or no such thing as an economy, which exists in the abstract, or exists without certain very definite production relations—and, in class society, class relations—that people enter into in the process of carrying out this production and distribution of the requirements of life. It's very common to hear, the "such and such economy" ("the French economy," "the U.S. economy," and so on), but very rarely do you hear someone on CNN say: "Today there was a dip in the performance of the U.S. economy, which we should understand is a complex network of production relations, which is also in turn embedded in the deeper international network of production relations." Very rarely do you hear that on CNN, let alone Fox News. [laughter] Because this is covered up all the time. Yet, at the same time, it is fundamental to an understanding of society at any given time and in its motion and development, and in its potential for and the actuality of transformation.
At any particular time, given, relatively speaking, the character and level of the productive forces—the technology, whatever the scientific understanding is, whatever the understanding about nature is, to put it more generally, and the people, with their knowledge about these things and their abilities—whatever the general character and level of that is, we can say, without being vulgar materialists, that generally speaking there will be a corresponding set of social production relations. And I emphasize the word social production relations, because this is a matter of how society is organized. Everyone is not necessarily conscious of this. An artisan in feudal society making household items, for example, is not conscious of the way in which that fits into the overall division of labor of that society (and trade relations and other relations beyond that society as well), but it does nonetheless. This is true in a society characterized by more or less developed commodity production, such as capitalism, and even within feudal society—in fact, in all societies.
So these are social production relations and yet, especially with capitalism, where this is more highly developed, it is at the same time hidden that these are social production relations. You hear this all the time—especially in America, land of Individualism with a capital I—"I" developed this, "I" came up with this idea, this is "my" thing. And I'll be talking more about commodities and commodity fetishism, which this is an expression of. But this is hidden, the fact that this thing of "yours" is actually embedded in—and, in fact, is even the product of—a whole societal and, especially these days, more and more an international, process, which is marked by and defined by definite production relations. And you find a certain place in those production relations. People do not consciously choose, or get to choose, the production relations that they would like. You don't have people coming together and then saying, "Hmm, I wonder if we should all go off and gather food and other necessities for the whole week, and then go hunt for a month," because that's very inefficient—even if you're in an early communal society, it doesn't work. In such a society, if you try to go off and hunt for a whole month, you will come back with very little and the whole society will be falling apart and people will be starving, because you can't get enough meat and protein that way to sustain people.
So, first of all, the relations of production have to correspond to the material conditions at hand that you're confronted with, to the level of productive forces at a given time, which includes "what nature provides"—the raw materials at hand—as well as what tools, instruments, and ways of thinking and ways of utilizing these tools that people have at a given time. So that's one sense in which you don't get to just choose whatever you want for production relations.
The people at the beginning of capitalist society, a couple of centuries ago, didn't get to sit down and say: "let's have a vote, let's have different people come forward with different ideas of what production relations they'd like to have and what corresponding superstructure, and then we'll have elections with competing parties, representing different ideas about this, and we can decide which one we want." No. You don't get to do that because, again without being mechanical and determinist, there is a basic correspondence between these production relations and what the level of productive forces is, in the way I've been speaking of that.
But there is another sense in which you don't get to "make this choice" just any way you might like. These are historically evolved production relations. That goes back to the point about the coherence in history that Marx spoke to, which I have referred to in a number of works, including the book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?1 With all the upheavals and dislocation and destruction—and even sometimes a collapse or in some other way the ending of a whole society—with all that, there's still a certain coherence in human historical development because the productive forces do continue to develop and do tend to be handed down from one generation to another. And yet these productive forces confront each generation as an external force, especially in a society in which people do not have the basis and the understanding to approach them in a conscious and planned way. Even in a situation where they can do that, in a socialist and still more in a communist society, there is always necessity that confronts people—I'll come back to exploring that more fully later. But especially when it's the case that people do not have the basis and understanding to approach the utilization of the productive forces in a conscious and planned way, these productive forces present themselves as an external force to people. You get up in the morning in this society, and if you want to live you don't say, "I wonder, let me see, I think today what I'll do is try to figure out how I can reconfigure the production relations of society." No, you say, "where the fuck can I find a job or some other way to live today." And the way you do that is established by the necessity that exists because of the production relations that are already confronting you, and everyone else in society—even the bourgeoisie, in a real sense—as an external force, as some necessity that has to be dealt with.
So, whenever people enter into any kind of production, they enter into definite production relations which are not determined by their will, but are historically evolved and generally correspond to the character of the productive forces, even though this goes through revolutionary leaps, and has gone through revolutionary leaps throughout history. And just as there is the economic base of society, just as there is the mode of production and the corresponding production relations, again without being determinist and mechanical materialist, there is a superstructure which more or less corresponds to—which arises on the basis of and more or less corresponds to—this economic base, even while this superstructure of politics, ideology, and culture has relative autonomy, and a lot of initiative, and a lot of struggle goes on in the realm of the superstructure.
For example, in early communal society, given the level and character of the productive forces and the corresponding way that people organized their way of life, to put it simply, if someone were to jump up and say, "everybody has to be organized into a hunting party to go out and hunt for me"—well, that wouldn't work. People would just say: "Fuck you! You can go off and starve if you want, but we are organized a different way here." So you can't just have any old superstructure, and you couldn't have the laws and customs that would reinforce such an idea. You couldn't have those production relations nor could you have the laws and customs and culture that would correspond to and reinforce that idea of one person making everyone else work (in this case hunt) for the benefit of that one person.
But when things do change and when it does correspond to the character of the productive forces for society to be divided into classes—for there to be a great gap between physical and intellectual labor, and between the masses of people in society and a small part of society that monopolizes not only economic life but cultural and intellectual life—then you do get a superstructure that expresses that, and which reinforces it. With this kind of society we are all too familiar. Slave society, for example in the southern United States before the Civil War, had this kind of superstructure, with the slave-owners sitting on the veranda, drinking mint juleps and all the rest of that shit. And they had a corresponding organization of the society overall. I was watching a program about slave chasers on the History Channel. You know, there are all these white people in the South, backward white people, who say about the Confederate flag, "I don't uphold that because it stands for slavery, it's just a way of life and a culture that I'm upholding." Well, what was the way of life and culture there?! As this program on the History Channel pointed to, it was a way of life and culture founded on slavery and then, after slavery was abolished, that way of life was still grounded in serf-like oppression of millions of sharecroppers; it was a way of life, and of oppression, deeply rooted in and suffused with white supremacy. And this was reflected in the superstructure of politics, ideology, and culture. This program on slave chasers brought out that not only did they have slave overseers during the period of slavery in the South, but they organized the entire white population to reinforce the slave system. People who always say, "well, my family never owned slaves"—yes, but your family went chasing them down! See, that's the thing, they organized people to be slave chasers who didn't own slaves. They organized them into militias, the whole (white) society, even with the class differentiation within it, was organized around the pivotal thing of the whole economy and the whole production relations—which was slavery. The rest of the production relations found their place in relation to that, even though there were contradictions. And the superstructure—of politics, ideology, and culture—did too. This was a very different superstructure than in early communal societies where, before there was a basis, even economically, for slavery to be profitable, you couldn't have had a corresponding superstructure, a politics, and culture and ideology that served, defended, and reinforced slavery. It wouldn't have been able to be sustained.
So this is the way we have to understand and apply a materialist understanding, a dialectical materialist understanding of history that actually corresponds to and embraces all the contradictoriness and complexity of it, and at the same time brings to the fore the essential dynamic forces, or contradictions, that are actually moving and compelling things. This is why Mao said that dogmatists are lazybones. And reformists—or, more specifically, so-called "communists" or "socialists" who degenerate and settle into reformism—are lazybones, too. And often the two are very closely intertwined, reformism and dogmatism. Because you have to do work, you have to keep digging to find out what actually are the underlying contradictions that are driving and shaping the character and the motion and development of things.
Now, Marx did a lot of the work for us, but things keep moving and changing. Marx generally studied and wrote before the period of imperialism—before the capitalist system made a leap to its imperialist stage and became much more fully monopolized and internationalized—although there were some features moving in that way in Marx's time. Marx did a lot of work for us, and that is very important. I remember people in the early period of our Party who were mired in economism—completely caught up in tailing the "practical struggle" of the workers for improvement in their conditions within the capitalist-imperialist system—used to say, "well, you know, Lenin, he couldn't have been all that great because he spent all that time writing What Is To Be Done?,2 instead of organizing the workers." [laughter] If you want to talk about Lenin that way, what about Marx? He spent something like 11 years in the library of the British Museum studying history and economics in order to give us this great gift that he gave us, which is the basic materialist understanding of history as well as of capitalism in particular. So, a lot of the work has been done for us, but the need for continuing this work is ongoing; there is a lot of work for us today to do. We have to keep digging down to see even what Marx taught us—even what Marx gave us as a foundation, you have to keep digging down to grasp that and see how it applies today—to understand what is actually at the base of things in society and its ongoing historical development—you have to keep digging down to see how this is actually working itself out at any given time. What are the actual dynamics of the contradictions we are confronted with and seeking to transform, and how are these different contradictions interrelated? This is why it takes continual work. This is hard, it is hard work. Yet it's about something that's worth it—and more than just "worth it," it's about the emancipation of all humanity from relations of inequality, oppression, and exploitation.
But this won't be done by lazybones, and it won't be done with philosophical idealism—thinking that ideas in people's heads (or in the mind of some non-existent god or other supernatural beings) are what determine the character of reality. It won't be done by revenge, it won't be done by saying "oh, it's easy to tell, some people are rich and some people are poor, what else do you need to know." That leads to disaster, and where it's been applied it has led to disaster—I'm going to talk a little bit later about Cambodia and Pol Pot, for example.3 It leads to disaster—you can't differentiate things that way. You can't correctly understand the motive forces and you can't correctly distinguish friends from enemies on that basis. There's a whole phenomenon of right-wing populism in society today, organized by the most openly reactionary sections of the ruling class, to whip up the lower petty bourgeoisie, and labor aristocratic and other sections of the working class, broadly defined, into resentment against people who are actually taking important progressive stands—so-called "limousine liberals" in Hollywood, New York "snotty intellectuals," and so on. It takes work to dig down and understand what are the actual dynamics and what are the actual forces at play, how are things tending, on the basis of the contradictions driving things, and how can we wage this struggle to get them where they need to go—not in some narrow pragmatic sense, but in a sweeping world-historical sense.
Really grasping the underlying and driving character of these contradictions—between the forces and relations of production, and between the economic base and the superstructure—and how they continually interrelate and interpenetrate, and what actual expressions this takes at a given time in the world: this is fundamental, it's indispensable, for being able to actually lead a revolution in the way it needs to be led. And this is all the more urgently and acutely posed now. We can't do this without science. And you can't do it with just a little bit of science. Yes, we don't have to know everything before we can act. There is a relationship between theory and practice—that's the value also of having all this theory that's been developed over a historical period of more than a hundred years now, beginning with the breakthroughs that Marx brought forward. That's the value of having a collectivity of a party and an international communist movement. Each individual doesn't have to do all the work by himself or herself, starting back at zero every time. But you do have to ground yourself in this science as you are going into practice. And we do have to correctly handle that theory and practice dialectic as we go forward. And not be lazybones, which will land you in disaster, sooner or later—and, these days especially, not that much later.
So these contradictions between the forces and relations of production and between the economic base and the superstructure are the decisive and determining contradictions in all societies—including early and basic communal societies, on through various forms of class society—and they will be decisive and determining in communist society as well, although in a radically different context and radically different way. Mao, as part of his whole "Mao-esque" approach to things, made these comments that are captured in things like Chairman Mao Talks to the People, where at one point he says: You don't believe that in communist society there will still be the contradiction between the forces and relations, and between the economic base and the superstructure? I do. Ten thousand years from now, what's outmoded will still have to give way to what's new. He was talking about these driving forces. There's never a time—there never was a time, there never will be a time—in which people do not have to come together, in one form or another, to reproduce the material requirements of life, however that is done, with whatever the level of technology. And there will never be a time—this is something I'm going to keep coming back to—there will never be a time when people, not only individually, but above all, societally, will not face necessity.
To be continued. The entire work is available online at revcom.us.
1. Bob Avakian, Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (Chicago: Banner Press, 1986).
2. What Is To Be Done? was a crucial theoretical work, written by V.I. Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution, who emphasized in that work the decisive fact that, because of the influence and the power of the dominant ideas and institutions in capitalist society, the struggle of the exploited workers, or proletarians, and other oppressed people within capitalist society will, left to its own spontaneity, continually come back under the wing of the capitalist class and its political representatives and will be reduced to reformist demands that leave in power the capitalist system, and its whole network of exploitation, oppression, and repression. Lenin showed that to become a revolutionary class, fighting to abolish all oppression, the proletariat must have a vanguard communist party which brings to the masses of proletarians and other oppressed people the communist consciousness that they can never gain simply through carrying out their daily struggle for survival: an understanding of the fundamentally exploitative and the all-around oppressive nature of this system, of its utter unreformability, and of the necessity and possibility of revolution to overthrow the capitalist system, bring into being the political rule of the proletariat, whose mission is to lead the formerly oppressed masses of people, and the broad ranks of people in society, including the intellectuals and others who have occupied a more "middle position," toward the goal of abolishing all oppression and exploitation, and all unequal social relations, including the great gap between intellectual and physical (mental and manual) labor, throughout the world—the goal of communism.
3. The discussion by Bob Avakian of Cambodia and Pol Pot took place in another part of this talk, which is not included in what is now being published in Revolution.
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