Views on Socialism and Communism: A Radically New Kind of State, A Radically Different and Far Greater Vision of Freedom


Revolution, March 08, 2006, posted at

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.

Revolution is publishing this work by Bob Avakian in installments. Published so far are:

The Kantian Principle, Society, Social Relations and Individuals

Once again, we come to our old friend, Immanuel Kant. If you read carefully the "Conversations" book,1 you will see that Bill Martin didn't particularly like the way I dealt with Kant's categorical moral imperative in my book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?, and we had some discussion of this. Here enters in a point that Samuel Johnson, an 18th-century English writer and literary critic, raised about Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson said that for Shakespeare, the pun was the apple for which he would gladly give up all of paradise. In other words, Shakespeare, he alleged, was willing to torture his own text in order to get puns in there. Well, there's an application of this to the "Democracy" book. I really wanted to make this pun, which is in there, about how Kant's categorical moral imperative reduces itself ultimately to mere "cant." So I did. [laughter] But this formulation bothered Bill, so for that as well as more overall reasons, we discussed this further. He didn't like this dismissal of this as mere "cant"—and, just for the record, I did have more analysis than just that punning statement in the "Democracy" book. [laughter] But Bill raised some important points about this and we had further discussion about it, and it would be worthwhile to return to it here, the question of this transcendental moral imperative: Always treat people never as a means to an end, but only as an end unto themselves.

I pointed out in the "Democracy" book, and also in the conversation with Bill Martin, that this is unrealizable in a society divided into classes, and is not desirable in that situation; nor is it realizable or desirable in communist society. And this has to do with a materialist, a communist understanding of communism.

First of all, we should all understand that in essence anyone who insists that other people do things they may not want to do is violating this Kantian categorical moral imperative; and you cannot live in society and avoid violating this. And, yes, this does apply as well to leaders of a vanguard communist party and of a revolutionary struggle in which that party plays a decisive role. Clearly, in the conditions where there is a mass revolutionary struggle for state power, those who lead that struggle will, of necessity, send people into encounters and into battles knowing that some of them will not return—and if they did not do that, there could be no revolutionary struggle for power. But in doing this, those leaders will be grossly violating the Kantian categorical moral imperative—and for very good reasons and purposes.

But, more generally, why do I say that this Kantian principle cannot be carried out in a society divided into classes? Well, to get to something fundamental about capitalist society, for example, it is impossible for the bourgeoisie, the capitalist ruling class, not to treat members of the proletariat as means to an end—that's the very essence and definition of the fundamental relations of capitalism. And, on the other hand, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is also not possible for the proletariat not to treat the overthrown bourgeoisie, and those who constitute the bourgeoisie, as people whose individual strivings have to be suppressed and curtailed—they cannot be viewed as only an end in themselves—or else the danger of capitalist restoration will be greatly increased. Now, on a certain level, it's easier to see this in relation to class society; and, in fact, what we discover if we look at this further is that it is not a very far leap from the pronouncement of the Kantian categorical moral imperative of only treating people as an end in themselves, and never a means to an end—to the principle of each individual putting herself or himself at the center of everything and of ending up with the principle of everybody "looking out for number one," to put it simply.

What often goes along with this is a kind of "solipsism"—a philosophical outlook that says that the only thing you can be certain of is your own existence and your own experience, what you can perceive of and relate to from that foundation. And there is a kind of "me, Al Franken" solipsism that is a concentrated expression of this individualist outlook. What I mean by "me, Al Franken" solipsism is this: Al Franken used to have this satirical routine back in the '70s, on Saturday Night Live, in which the refrain, the punch line, was: "me, Al Franken." "Yes, I realize that there is a Cold War out there, somebody has to stand up to the Soviets, and I think many people should do it, but it should be somebody else who does it, not me, Al Franken. I'm not gonna do it—you go do it, but make sure it benefits me, Al Franken." Now, let's go back to the first sentence on democracy, the first of the three sentences I paraphrased earlier, which begins "In a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequalities"2 —well, if you set out to implement the Kantian categorical moral imperative in these circumstances, in reality you will be driven and compelled into a world of competition with other people in which you will either take on an "altruistic" view of subordinating yourself to other people, which will definitely be the minority at any given time, or the opposite—seeking to subordinate other people to yourself—which will definitely be the way the majority of people will approach this, and they will end up in "me, Al Franken-ism." The actual workings of society, the workings of a world and a society that are in fact marked by profound class divisions and social inequalities, and are driven by the compelling force of anarchy and commodity production and exchange, will not allow you, even in the relation of individuals, to carry out that Kantian principle in reality. Necessity will impinge on you, and on other individuals, and it will not be possible to implement this principle, even in terms of the relations among individuals, let alone in the society and the world at large, with their profound divisions and inequalities.

And even in communist society, it will never be the case that individuals do not need to subordinate themselves, in an overall sense, to the larger interests of society. This has to do with Marx's famous statement that "right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the culture conditioned thereby." Now, this will take a radically different expression in communist society than it does in class society—the subordination of individuals to the larger interests of society will take a qualitatively different expression in a communist world, even as compared to socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat. But it will never be the case that you could have a society where the organizing and "operative" principle of society is that every individual will treat every other individual as a completely autonomous unit, which always must be approached, regarded and treated as an end in itself. And if you try to do that, the necessity that you're up against, yes, even in communist society, will overwhelm you and push you backward. To take one important historical expression of this, Engels analyzed what all the lofty principles of the French revolution—which was, in reality, the most advanced and radical of the bourgeois revolutions—devolved down into in reality: the principles of freedom and equality, fraternity, liberty, etc., devolved down into what we can recognize today as the traditional and fundamental relations and conventions of bourgeois society. Why? Because those who proclaimed these principles were all hypocrites? No, in most instances that was far from the case. But things turned out as Engels analyzed them because the material conditions, the underlying economic base, and the corresponding superstructure will exert themselves—once again this goes back to the decisive point that people make history but not in any way they wish; and the point spoken to earlier about how there is no such thing as an economy in the abstract, or in the absence of definite relations of production—in any economy, in any society founded on a certain economy, people enter into a definite set of production relations and a corresponding set of social relations, and not in any old way they wish but as a result of the contradiction between necessity and whatever freedom they are able to achieve by transforming necessity at a given time.

So, how you relate to other individuals will be fundamentally shaped by this. This will be true even outside of class society, once humanity has moved beyond class-divided society. And certainly within class society, the way individuals related to each other will be shaped by production and social relations that take form as relations of oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited, class difference and opposition, and fundamentally class antagonism. And we see this expressed all the time. As with the French revolution, slogans like "freedom" are given different content by different people. The "freedom of the home owner"—a very important principle in American society, the freedom of the home owner. In my Memoir, From Ike To Mao and Beyond, My Journey From Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, I talked about a situation where there was a fair housing battle in Berkeley, back in the early 1960s, and this guy who opposed the fair housing initiative was on the Les Crane radio show, debating with someone supporting fair housing, and this opponent of fair housing was insisting "I'm not a racist, I just don't want the government telling me what I can do with my property, my house. I earned the money to buy my house." So I called up, got on the air and said to this guy: "Do you object when the government has regulations about how far apart you can have electrical outlets in your house?" "Oh, no, everybody understands that's reasonable." "Well, then," I concluded, "when you're raising the slogan ‘the freedom of the home owner,’ what you're really saying is you are a racist—you don't mind the government telling you about electrical outlets, but you don't want them telling you that you can't refuse to sell your house to Black people."

So this lofty principle of "freedom of the individual"—what content does it have here, with regard to "the rights of the home owner," given the existing social relations. If we were to treat that home owner as an end in himself, and never a means to an end, we would have to accede to his desire to do as he wished with his home, regardless of the question of the larger social good or harm. Now, particularly as communists, there is a contradiction we have to recognize and handle correctly—this is bound up with what Mao identified as the contradiction between the government and the people in socialist society—there is a contradiction between the larger societal good and the role of individuals. And there is the need to recognize the importance of not simply trampling on the latter in the name of the former. I'll come back to that more fully, a little later, when I discuss Rawls's theory of justice.3

But we see that these lofty principles about "freedom" find different social expression, take on different social content, depending on the larger matrix of social and fundamentally production relations and corresponding superstructure in which they exist. This applies to things like "equal opportunity" or "equality before the law." These are principles of the bourgeois revolution and bourgeois society, but they pose themselves in opposition to the communist principle and objective of moving beyond the calculation of social equality and inequality, moving beyond the realm where inequality, or equality, has meaning—or, once again, moving beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right. The communist slogan and principle "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" is a slogan which is beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right. It is beyond the calculation of equality and inequality. And in moving from socialism to communism we also will move beyond the sphere of the law, and therefore of equality before the law. Once there are no longer conflicting property relations, once there are no longer relations of commodity production and exchange, once there are no longer class antagonisms and in fact we have moved beyond class distinctions altogether, then there will no longer be a need for law to codify and institutionalize the relations among people. Once again, all this is involved in moving beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right.

Bourgeois Notions of Freedom and Bourgeois Right

Now let's look at some other fundamental views of freedom as refracted through the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie, in order to shed some light on the communist, the materialist as opposed to the idealist, and ultimately bourgeois, view of freedom, and of the relations among people. "Free markets," we hear a lot about that these days. And a "free labor force"—is that an advance over a labor force that's literally enslaved and held as the property of others? Yes. But is it really free, in relation to the objectives of communism? This came up in the debate around the Party Programme during the time when the newspaper was publishing articles and there was debate on the Web about the Draft Programme. Raymond Lotta wrote a series of articles about the market, because some people were on the Web arguing that it has been proven that the socialist planning mechanism has fundamental flaws, so we need to give more expression to the market under socialism. And he raised a question in those articles: If you're going to say that, then what about a labor market: should labor power, its price and distribution within the economy, and so on, be determined by the market? And if not, how can you really have a fully free market; or how can the market really operate if such basic things as labor power are not part of the market mechanism, and are not being determined by the operation of the market?

The fact is that these slogans, "free market" and "free labor," have a definite social and class content. "Free labor" corresponds to a labor force that is free and mobile, not owned outright and chained to a particular employer, a particular exploiter, but "free" to be employed and to be "let go"—to be hired and to be fired—according to the needs and dictates of capitalist accumulation and the pursuit of capitalist profit. And "free markets" have to do with reinforcing the narrow confines of bourgeois right. Leaving aside the specifics of the labor market, the operation of the market in general has to do with reinforcing the narrow confines of bourgeois right, forcing things to remain within the dynamic of commodity production and exchange, even if we were to leave aside the question of labor power becoming a commodity and that being the basis for the exploitation of the proletariat and in fact for the creation of wealth under capitalism. Even if we left that aside, "free markets" is a direct expression of the commodity principle—of the production and exchange of the material requirements of life in the form of commodity production and exchange and the corresponding production and social relations, and corresponding superstructure. And, within the confines of this form of the production and exchange of the material requirements of life, people will never be able to approach and to plan social production from the point of view of the overall needs of society, nor for that matter, to approach meeting the needs and wants of the individual members of society in a conscious and planned way; instead, all this will always take place "behind the backs" of the members of society and through a process that pits them in competition and propels them into antagonism with each other—and, again, this even without taking into account the fact that, in the actual development of things in a system in which commodity production and exchange are fully developed and generalized, labor power itself will inevitably become a commodity to be bought and sold, and the corresponding relations of exploiter and exploited will emerge and intensify, and along with that a whole ensemble of oppressive and antagonistic social relations. All that is bound to happen with the full development of "free markets"—and, in fact, it is bound to happen in any situation where the operation of "the market" is the pivotal and decisive factor in the economy and therefore in the life of society.

So all these things have a social content which reflects, once again, the relations between the forces and relations of production and between the economic base and the superstructure. Now, especially with the beginning of the bourgeois era, although even before that in different ways, every ruling class identifies its interest and its notion of freedom with the general interests of society and the general freedom of the people in society. Every class—particularly once you get to the bourgeois era, but in a different way with the feudal nobility and the monarchy, and even with the slave-owning class—they all have proclaimed, in one way or another, that their particular interests were the general interests of society. And in this era, the ruling classes and their conscious political representatives, whether bourgeois or proletarian, whether in capitalist society or in socialist society, have each in their own way put forward that the interests of their class represent the general interests of humanity, and that the freedom their class was striving for represented the general embodiment of freedom for humanity, or liberation for humanity. In the case of the bourgeoisie, we know and we have seen all too vividly what that means. In the case of the proletariat, it means moving beyond the narrow confines of bourgeois right, moving beyond the underlying basis in commodity production and exchange and the corresponding economic laws, such as the law of value (which gives expression to the fact that the value of any commodity is determined by the socially necessary labor time involved in the creation of that commodity). So general proclamations about freedom, or about the rights of individuals, have to be viewed in a materialist and dialectical way to see what, in fact, they mean, and what they become embodied as, in actuality. In other words, the essential question is: these ideals are a superstructural expression of what?—of which set of production and social relations and which corresponding political relations, structures and institutions? That's always the question we have to ask. Just as when we hear about an economy we have to ask: what are the production relations and the corresponding social relations and the corresponding superstructure?

And, again, even in communist society, it is not going to be the case that you are going to have some loose amalgam of individuals, who all come together for the greater good, but fundamentally are proceeding from being autonomous entities who are ends in themselves. Communism will never be achieved on that basis, it will never be realized and take shape on that basis and in that way. And in fact, for the same reason, the greater freedom of individuals will never be realized and take shape and find expression in that way.

Now, with regard the question of freedom and democracy, and the rights of the people, a fundamental point is that when the relations of production are such that the masses of people are denied ownership of the means of production—and therefore are dependent, for their very life and livelihood, on a small group, or class, that monopolizes ownership of the means of production—there is, in the very essence of things, a situation in which these masses have been denied the fundamental ability, or "right" if you will, to exercise essential control even over their own lives, let alone over society. Even over their own lives, let alone over society as a whole. And not only does this economic relationship—in which one class exercises the power of life and death over others—qualitatively limit, in many ways, the ability of those "others" to take part in and to play any decisive role in determining the direction of society (and this is spoken to in a number of dimensions in the talk Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism); but this economic relationship is, and can only be, reflected in the superstructure, in particular in the ways that political power is embodied and exercised to reinforce the exploitative economic relations.

Now, in examining further the relationship between the base and the superstructure and the relative autonomy of the superstructure, on the one hand, and how the superstructure reacts back on the economic base—we see that in the world today such phenomena as "neo-liberalism," the further unleashing of more unfettered commodity operation and capitalist exploitation, and globalization are leading to less solidity and stability, more volatility and anxiety, economically and, yes, socially for broad strata of people, including in the imperialist countries. Not only is this bringing tremendous upheaval in the Third World, which I referred to earlier—peasants being driven off the land in massive numbers and into urban shantytowns, and people being driven from their home country to far-flung places across the globe, in the desperate search for survival and a livelihood—but in imperialist society as well. This is something Edward Luttwak pointed out in Turbo-Capitalism: Even where people make a lot of money quickly, which for example was a marked phenomenon of the 1990s, there was not the same stability and solidity that there was in previous times in the U.S. You could make a lot of money and then be "out" the next week. There is no guarantee of hanging onto a job for a lifetime, let alone of "passing it on," in essence, to your children and having them advance to yet another level beyond what you attained. And, along with this, there is the destruction of the New Deal, and "Great Society" programs, and the whole unleashing of "free market fundamentalism" as the increasingly dominant ideology, along with, and reinforced in many ways by, religious fundamentalism, particularly Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. So we see "fiscal conservatism," the ending of a lot of the concessionary programs characteristic of the "Great Society," the ending of a certain government role in the economy and in society characteristic of what was brought forth through the New Deal (about which I'll have more to say later)—we see that in conjunction with "fiscal conservatism" (slashing of social programs, tax cuts for the rich, and so on), and we see how, despite certain contradictions, this meshes with "social conservatism" buttressed by religious fundamentalism. And all this has to do with the point of "turbo-capitalism" and the heightened globalization, where people are feeling, as Luttwak put it, an urge toward non-economic expressions flowing from economic causes, from economic instability and the corresponding anxiety. This is one of the important things on the terrain that we have to deal with; it has to do with all these slogans of "freedom," and it has to do with the whole direction of society now.

As a matter of fact, the workings of "neo-liberalism" and fiscal conservatism (again: slashing of social programs, tax cuts for the wealthy and corporate interests, etc.) along with globalization, are actually against the economic interests of not only the masses of proletarians and poor people but also much of the petty bourgeoisie, many of whom actually suffer significant economic dislocation, uncertainty and even hardship as a result of these programs and the forces driving them. So, on the part of the ruling class—and in particular those sections most determined to get rid of remainders of the New Deal and "Great Society" programs—there is a need, which they are recognizing, to "cohere" and organize people around "social conservatism," grounding it to a significant degree in religious fundamentalism, or Christian Fascism, as we correctly call it. Again, there is the point that Luttwak formulates as "the non-economic expression of economic dissatisfactions." And this is all very complex.

A number of people, like Thomas Frank, who wrote What's the Matter with Kansas, have tried to put forward some sort of a social-democratic, populist view—not a proletarian and not a scientific communist view, but a social-democratic, populist view—to speak to this phenomenon. And even more crudely, some people coming from a kind of narrow economist, social-democratic point of view have fallen into insisting that all this "social conservatism," or religious fundamentalism, is just a diversion to keep people from actually acting on their own economic interests. This is a serious error and involves failing to grasp the way in which these superstructural things, in particular this whole religious fundamentalism, while it has an ultimate basis in economic changes in society and social changes in society, takes on a relative life of its own, has a relative autonomy as an ideological expression. And so people like Thomas Frank are trying to figure out: how can we get these strata, like small farmers who are being driven under by Monsanto and these other big agro-corporations, how can we get them to recognize that these very forces they're supporting by voting Republican are actually grinding them under? Or workers who were laid off, how can we get them to understand that the attacks on unions and the slashing of the New Deal and "Great Society" is undermining their position and is actually against their interests? But, along with the fact that this is confined within the narrow framework of Republicans vs. Democrats—within the narrow confines of the dominant bourgeois politics—it is being approached, by these social-democrats and bourgeois-democratic progressives, in a way that underestimates the relative autonomy of the superstructure and the way that this, in turn, reacts back upon things in the economic base and in the social relations.

In a certain way, there is an expression here or a parallel with Marx's point in "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" about the relationship between the shopkeeper and the democratic intellectual.4 But here, too, it is very important to understand this dialectically, not mechanically. What did Marx say? He said that, in their daily life, in their way of approaching things, the democratic intellectuals, on the one hand, and the shopkeepers, on the other hand, may be as far apart as heaven and earth—that's quite a ways apart—but in their thinking, in the realm of ideas, in their conception of how society ought to be and what are the driving forces in society, and so on, the democratic intellectuals do not get farther in that realm than the shopkeepers get in everyday practical life. Marx also said, in the same work, that these intellectual representatives of the petty bourgeoisie want to be above classes, but they are actually being buffeted by the contest of the two major classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, in between which they find themselves. And so Marx is bringing to light that the expression that this gives rise to in the realm of theory may be airy and may be very far removed from the everyday humdrum exchange of commodities which characterizes the life of the shopkeeper; but the fact is that the thinking of the democratic intellectuals does not rupture out of the bounds that are ultimately conditioned by commodity production and exchange. Even the way such intellectuals conceive of notions of freedom and democracy, and so on, are a reflection of these underlying commodity relations. That is the point of Marx, his extremely profound point, in the "18th Brumaire." His is a very dialectical materialist approach and analysis, not a vulgar, mechanical, determinist and reductionist one.

And there's a parallel here with people who rally to religious fundamentalism, for example: for the great majority of them, their actual situation is such that their economic interests are in conflict with the policies and programs toward which these people are being pulled. It is important to understand the complexity of what's going on here. This is not just a gimmick, this religious fundamentalism: This is giving organized, reactionary expression to a general feeling among significant sections of the intermediate strata of society, as well as among some of the masses at the base of society, that the things that "anchored" their way of life, and give stability to their livelihood, are being undermined and uprooted—it is a way of identifying this with the loss of traditional, and in particular patriarchal, values, conventions, and relations, and in turn identifying this with the need to forcefully assert not only traditional but literalist, fundamentalist, absolutist religion, in particular Christian fundamentalism. We should understand the complexity of all this. It is, once again, Marx's the "heaven and earth" point. There is not a direct one-to-one crude mechanical correspondence between what happens to people economically and how they conceive of that, as refracted through all the different social relations—as it is bent, if you will, when it enters into the whole superstructural realm of ideas and culture, and so on. These ideas and this culture, including reactionary Christian fundamentalism, find ultimate determination in the underlying economic base, but that is its ultimate determination. We have to grasp the dialectics of this, and crude, mechanical materialism will not help.

Bourgeois Democracy Is Bourgeois Dictatorship

Now one of the things that I brought up in the polemic against K. Venu 5 is that people like him, as I put it, take bourgeois democracy "more seriously" than the bourgeoisie does! They actually believe, or get taken in and swept along by, the idea that this is, after all, some sort of democracy which is extended to individuals without regard to class content. Whereas the bourgeoisie knows, or senses very well, that—guess what?—this is a dictatorship. It acts on that understanding, and its most conscious representatives particularly act on that, or they do not remain representatives of that class. Not that somebody's sitting there, giving them a "pass" or flushing them out, but this is the way it works out through all the dynamics. We should never forget this point. Bourgeois democracy is bourgeois dictatorship. It is a means of political rule that often corresponds most appropriately to the interests of the bourgeois ruling class and its forms of exploitation, but it is that, and not something else. It is a form of dictatorship.

We can look at examples in history to see what political expressions and political actions this has taken with regard to important representatives of the bourgeoisie. We can go back to Kant. I made the point to Bill Martin that just because Kant thought Frederick the Great was really great doesn't mean we should ignore and not engage his philosophical writings, and his writings on ethics and so on. But the fact is that his lofty notions of freedom and autonomy, and so on, did boil down to supporting "an enlightened despot." And that has meaning. There is a reason for that. As I pointed out, it's not right to just dismiss someone's philosophy because it is accompanied by a reactionary political viewpoint, but it is a legitimate question: what is the connection between a philosophy and the political expression it takes?

Or look at another historical figure who is generally associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie, Martin Luther. With Luther, it is another one of those cases where he didn't intend to at the beginning, but he ended up leading, or giving rise to, the Protestant Reformation. He nailed his theses on the door of a church, and basically began to elaborate the principle that you don't need the institutions and officials of the church to get to god, you could go directly to god yourself as an individual. This was in the realm of the superstructure—and the ways in which this served the rise of the bourgeoisie and capitalism do not find expression in some crude and reductionist sense. It's not that Martin Luther articulated these principles, or theses, and pounded them on the door of the church because he wanted to open up a sweatshop. No. These were superstructural expressions which, however, arose in relation to bourgeois relations of production that were beginning to emerge at that time, and things like Luther's theological ideas in turn gave further impetus to those bourgeois production relations as well as to the corresponding superstructure. What was happening in that realm—attacking the church and basically its embodiment of feudalism in the superstructure, or the role of the church and its doctrines and dogma in reflecting, in the superstructure, the relations of production and social relations characteristic of feudalism—had a lot to do with the emerging bourgeois revolution and the unleashing of more initiative and creativity to develop science and other things, which were utilized by the bourgeoisie. This is so, not in a crude determinist way or reductionist sense, but in a dialectical sense.

But what did Martin Luther do when the peasants in Germany rose up? He demanded that they be nailed to the wall, literally. He advocated the most sanguinary, bloodthirsty suppression of these peasants—and, in so doing, he acted perfectly on behalf of the bourgeoisie, which proclaims "freedom" insofar as the constraints on its relations of production and corresponding superstructure are removed by the realization of its concept of "freedom," but which exercises dictatorship in the most ruthless way when necessary over the classes that it exploits and oppresses.

Or let's go back to John Stuart Mill. Without repeating everything that has been said earlier with regard to Mill, and his ideas on liberty, let's keep in mind here what he thought were necessarily the very severe limitations on that liberty, including for colonial peoples and proletarians who were even attempting to strike, to say nothing of class-conscious proletarians who were moving to overthrow and abolish capitalism altogether.

Or what about Thomas Jefferson? There was recently an article, I think it was in the New York Times Book Review section (or it might have been in the New York Times Magazine, I can't remember which) but it's about this other slave owner who wrote to Thomas Jefferson, talking about how he wanted to set his slaves free, and trying to figure out what was the best way to do this, and looking for backing from Jefferson, because, of course, freeing his slaves would be controversial among the slave owners. And, as discussed in this recent article, Jefferson came back very firmly, saying, No, you must absolutely not do this. Yes, eventually slavery will be ended, but right now it's very important that we protect the ownership of this form of property. And yet Jefferson was an advocate of the Enlightenment, and articulated many principles of the bourgeois revolution. This is a peculiar feature of America, where slavery was mixed in with the development of capitalism for 100 years or more. But here again you see that these bourgeois notions of freedom are historically and socially conditioned and have meaning and content in relation to the actual conditions in which they arise and are articulated. They are not abstract and universal principles which all should strive for, and which will be applied to all, regardless of class content.

I was joking around with people, talking about this movie which came out some time ago, with Anthony Hopkins, called Magic. Hopkins played this ventriloquist whose personality was taken over more and more by the alter-ego of the dummy, and pretty soon he couldn't distinguish the two and, in fact, "the dummy" more and more became his personality. And at a certain point, a friend of his said to the Anthony Hopkins character, this is becoming a serious problem. But Anthony Hopkins' character refused to recognize this, he wouldn't acknowledge the problem. So finally his friend said: Look, I'll tell you what, put the dummy away in its case for a day—just for a day—don't talk to the dummy, and don't talk in the dummy's voice for a whole day. Well, finally, Anthony Hopkins' character tried to do this, and he couldn't. The compulsion was overwhelming. Well, for many people who are progressive-minded but don't have a scientific, materialist understanding of things, they can't go a single day without talking about democracy in a classless way. This is how they see the world.

To refer again to the statement by Marx, in "The 18th Brumaire," about the relation between shopkeepers and democratic intellectuals, these people who are so enamored of an idealized notion of democracy are not shopkeepers, but they reflect in their thinking the underlying relations of commodity production and exchange. And some of them, in their thinking about how to reform society, try to proceed from this notion of democracy, a classless democracy, to superimpose that on the actual underlying economic base. You will hear them say things like "well, we need to `democratize' the economy." This is inverting the reality of things. The democracy they are talking about is actually an expression of the existing production and social relations, and has a definite social and class content—in reality it is bourgeois democracy and is the outer form whose inner essence is bourgeois dictatorship—but then they're trying to take that and superimpose it on the reality of capitalism, in order to "democratize the economy." What would that even mean, in a society marked by profound class divisions and social inequalities? And even if you could somehow "wipe the slate clean" and eliminate all the big corporations, for example, as long as you left intact and in effect the underlying foundation of commodity production and exchange, then the profound inequalities and class divisions, and the emergence of monopolies, etc., would all reassert itself rather quickly.

So this is the fundamental idealism of these views and ways in which underlying relations get reflected in the superstructure. To refer again to Marx's extremely insightful and important observation, the ideas of the democratic intellectual are not a direct expression of what the shopkeeper does in everyday practical life, but these ideas do not rupture beyond the realm that the shopkeeper deals in, in everyday practical life—they do not rupture, in other words, beyond the narrow confines and horizons of bourgeois right. So the point in talking about Kant, or Martin Luther, or Jefferson, or Mill, or others that we could cite, is not that these exponents of "freedom" and "liberty" were all simply "hypocrites," but that their "lofty ideals" represented and expressed a certain world outlook—which, in turn, was the reflection and in a certain sense a concentration, of certain definite social, and fundamentally production, relations. And if we go back and look at the "Democracy" book and "Phony/Real,"6 we see there discussion and illustration of the contrasting proletarian and bourgeois views of these things like freedom and liberation, and an examination of what the bourgeois ideal of freedom amounts to and devolves back into in the real world—how it is an expression of relations of exploitation and oppression—and how one's ideas will inevitably be that, so long as one does not rupture beyond the bounds of bourgeois right.

The short pamphlet I wrote some years ago on the U.S. Constitution7 speaks to the basic point that this Constitution is indeed, as the title of that pamphlet puts it, "An Exploiters' Vision of Freedom," and that, besides enshrining slavery—and even after slavery was abolished and an Amendment added to the Constitution which institutionalized the illegality of slavery—there was a fundamental relation of exploitation that was not prohibited by this Constitution: the relation in which someone hires the labor power of another (or in reality many others) and derives profit from the employment of that labor power. As seen through the worldview of capitalism, the ability to do this is the quintessential and highest form of freedom—and there is no recognition of the fact that this involves a fundamental negation of the freedom of the many whose labor power is controlled and used in this way by a force that stands over and above them as an alien and indeed oppressive, and repressive, force. This relationship is very well captured in the fact that, at least when I was coming up, as they say, particularly among Black people, it was very common to refer to a job—a job in which labor power is exchanged for wages—as a "slave."

Of course, from the bourgeois standpoint this relationship is not only not exploitation, but is the defining principle of a good society. Just read Ayn Rand, if you want to see a celebration of it, in undisguised and unapologetic terms. Again, there is no recognition that this is a fundamental negation of the freedom of the many who are in this position of being exploited and oppressed. And the point, once again, is that, given a generalized commodity system, which is characteristic of capitalism—and its "freedom"—the principles and operation of commodity production and exchange will lead inexorably to the reduction of labor power itself to a commodity, to a situation where masses of people are forced to sell their ability to work to someone else (or to a succession of other people, a succession of owners of means of production, of capitalists) in order to be able to live. And even with the overthrow of capitalist rule and the establishment of socialism, unless you continue to move toward uprooting and abolishing all commodity production and exchange, and its reflection in the superstructure, you will revert back to a situation where labor power once again becomes a commodity, in other words, back to capitalism.

A Basic Truth, A Simple Test

So when we look at these notions of freedom, and if we think about the importance of not falling into the error of K. Venu (and he is not alone in this, even among communists), the error of taking bourgeois democracy more seriously than the bourgeoisie, and believing in it beyond the ways in which the bourgeoisie believes in it—with all this in mind, we can take a lesson from things like the incident I cited in the speech, "Revolution," which is now on DVD8: the example of when I was doing a speaking tour and doing media appearances in 1979, and as part of that I did a program in Cleveland with several Black journalists. The moderator of this program was a young Black woman, and there were three other Black journalists, and (I have made this observation before) this was actually one of the most interesting discussions I had with people in the media: these Black journalists actually asked serious questions: Why do you think revolution is possible? What would you do about this problem? How would you deal with that? They were actually substantive questions, instead of the cynical and even snotty questions you get from a lot of the media, much of the time. And then there's the story of what happened—and I tell this story, again, because it captures so much—after the program was over, and in an almost off-hand way, the woman who had been the moderator of the program turned and said to me: " My, you're awfully brave." I was sort of taken aback, and I asked, "Why do you say that?" And she replied, very matter-of-factly: "You know, they kill people for saying what you're saying."

Now just think about what that captures. She didn't say they kill people for doing certain things, she said they kill people for saying what you're saying. A lot of times people, particularly in the middle strata, think we're exaggerating things, when we talk about bourgeois democracy as a dictatorship, they don't believe that really corresponds to reality. So I have a test for any who are willing to take it up. Go into any neighborhood in any inner city in the U.S., and get to know the people well, so they'll talk to you honestly, and put to them a very simple question: If there is a revolutionary leadership and a revolutionary leader who is calling for revolution in the U.S., just calling for it, and if they are getting a real mass following among many people like you, what will happen to them, what will the government do or try to do to them? And if you can find one in ten who won't say they'll either kill that person or in some other way move to silence them and effectively remove them from the scene, I'll give you a big prize. This response—which, again, I am confident would be the overwhelming response from people, like those in the inner cities, who have felt the hard blows of this bourgeois dictatorship—this response would be a reflection, even if not a scientific summation nevertheless a very real reflection, of the reality of bourgeois dictatorship.

Of course, the challenge for us, for our Party and its leadership, is to develop a mass following, among the millions and millions of people in the inner cities and indeed among all sections of the people, to give this an organized expression—and to do this without the leadership being killed off and destroyed. But that, again, is in recognition of the reality we confront—in particular the reality that this society is, in fact, ruled by a bourgeois dictatorship.

So we should not be taken in by the lofty-sounding slogans of "freedom" and "democracy." When these are put forward without class content—and especially when they are put forward as a defense, or a celebration, of what exists in the U.S., and/or of the role of the U.S. in the world—this is, "at best," an expression of thinking that is confined within the narrow framework of bourgeois right, and it is an expression that objectively serves to cover over the reality and actual nature of bourgeois dictatorship reinforcing the underlying production and social relations of capitalist-imperialist exploitation and oppression from which these ideas ultimately arise and in which they are ultimately rooted. This is the actual relation between the base and superstructure in capitalist society.

Imperialism and the Foundation of Bourgeois Democracy

And particularly in this era of imperialism, there is another dimension to this—and that is the relations between bourgeois democracy, especially in the imperialist countries, and imperialism itself. In Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That? I quoted a statement from The Science of Revolution9 about the "worm-eaten platform of democracy" in the imperialist countries and how the foundation for this is not, in political terms, represented by the Bill of Rights (I'm paraphrasing here) but is embodied in the military dictator, the torturer, and similar types carrying out openly tyrannical rule throughout the Third World. In the era of imperialism, this is the relation between bourgeois democracy—and, for that matter, social-democracy (bourgeois democracy with a weak "socialist" coloration)—and imperialism. This applies, of course, not only to the U.S., but to imperialist countries in general. Just as in the economic sphere, to the degree that concessions are made and spoils are dribbled out to sections of the labor aristocracy and broader sections of the working class at times, and to the petty bourgeoisie, so too, in the superstructure, in the political sphere, to the degree that certain strata are able to not feel immediately the sting of dictatorship in an imperialist country, it is because of imperialist plunder throughout the world and imperialist relations of domination and exploitation on an international scale—even though, for the intermediate strata in the "home" imperialist country, as soon as they do anything, politically or otherwise, that would pose any threat in the eyes of the political operatives of the ruling class, they would, indeed, feel the sting of dictatorship coming down on them. But to the degree that this can be mitigated and modified at times, particularly for more intermediate and more privileged strata within "the home country," this has to do with the relationship between imperialism and the Third World, and it has to do with the relationship between imperialism and bourgeois democracy.

And here we get to the hero of Christopher Hitchens (and of others, of course), George Orwell. When I first went to France, for some reason I got into reading a lot of Orwell. I read his Homage to Catalonia, and other writings about the Spanish Civil War, and then I went on and read some other books of his, and I came across this most astounding statement—for which I guess he should get some kind of recognition for candor. But here's what he said: Intellectuals and others in England, who are left-leaning, are all pro-empire—for one very basic reason. We all know that, if it weren't for the British empire, we would all be stuck living in a very cold, rainy, gray, dreary place where we would all have to work long hours and eat lots of potatoes. [laughter]

Well, I guess you couldn't ask for a better self-exposure of the relationship between social democracy, with all of its anti-totalitarian rantings, and imperialism. Now, again, this doesn't mean that we should simply dismiss all of Orwell's writings out of hand. I learned some things by reading him. But, in essence, he was giving conscious expression to an important phenomenon and an important relationship: the basis on which people who claim to be socialists, as he did, or some kind of leftists, gravitate towards support for imperialism, for the reasons that he said. And if you expand out from that, while this may take different forms in different countries, you can certainly see that Orwell captured the heart and essence of this very well.

And this has to do with the discussion in GO&GS10 of how the Enlightenment divides into two. How, on the one hand, Marxism unites in basic terms with the core principle of the Enlightenment that people should seek to know the world by rational means and scientific means, in essence. On the other hand, we have two fundamental differences: One, we do not think that the truth will set you free by itself. Even though the truth is the truth and does not have a class character, whether or not truths get recognized in society as true—and we can see this once again with evolution—has to do with the struggle between classes, in any class-divided society. And, further, we do not agree with the way in which the Enlightenment has been used as an apology and a justification for imperialism—with the John Stuart Mill argument that some people need the civilizing hand of imperialist domination to bring them into the modern world—which we see being enacted now, first of all by Clinton, who articulated it as a theoretical expression, and carried it out in places like Yugoslavia, and now by Bush, et al, on a whole other level.


Just to go into a few more points and then conclude on this general theme. From the point of view of a communist understanding—and specifically a communist understanding, as opposed to a utopian and ultimately bourgeois-democratic view, of communism itself—we can say that communism does not represent a "rebirth," or a "revival," on a world scale, of scattered early communal society. This has to do with what this phrase that we've used, and it is a good phrase to use —"freely associating community of people"—when we speak of communism, what does that mean, and not mean? Once again, as I've spoken to up to this point, it does not mean that communism is this loose confederation of individuals, each of whom is pursuing their own thing as an autonomous end in themselves, and somehow this works out for the greater good. Actually, if we think about it, this conforms more to Adam Smith's view of the good society than it does to communism—that if each individual pursues their own individual interests, and this is expressed through and modified by competition, then the greater social good will be served. That actually corresponds to a classical bourgeois view of freedom and the greater societal good, and really has nothing to do, fundamentally, with communism, which is not a society in which there's a loose confederation of individuals all acting as autonomous ends in themselves. Without repeating everything I've said about that so far, it should begin to be clear why that is so.

So we have to understand "a society of freely associating human beings" in a materialist and dialectical sense, in terms of what I began with, about freedom being the transformation of necessity and the fact that there will always be necessity, including under communism, even while the contradiction between the forces and relations of production and between the base and the superstructure will not take shape and expression in communist society as class relations and oppressive social divisions, and there will not be political institutions of repression and social suppression of groups that are on the "losing side" of the division of labor. So "freely associating community of people" has to be understood in a materialist and dialectical way, including a dialectical materialist grasp of the fundamental relation between freedom and necessity.

This is linked to Mao's formulation that communism will be characterized by people consciously and voluntarily changing themselves and the objective world. Does this mean—can that be taken in absolute terms, once again divorced from necessity—does it mean that people are conscious of everything, and that everything is voluntary? No, there will still be necessity. The voluntary aspect comes in, in that people will voluntarily recognize that it is in the societal interest—and therefore in their own interests—for them to voluntarily subordinate their own particular individual wants and needs to the greater societal good, and to seek their own individuality and individual expression within that framework, rather than rupturing, or attempting to rupture, out of it. And the consciously is real, but it's relative, once again. It means people are conscious on a whole other level than they have been able to be and have been in previous forms of society—even early communalist society, to say nothing of class society with its division of labor, particularly between mental and manual labor. These are relative terms and things in motion. People will be conscious in a qualitatively greater sense than they have been in any previous time, but at any given time, they will not know everything, of course, and they will not know as much as people who come after them. And, again, they will be voluntarily doing things in the sense in which I characterized this, but everything will not be voluntary. If there is a flood in communist society (or something comparable, whatever that might be, some kind of natural disaster) people may be called on to do things and this will be voluntary, in that it will flow from the conscious and voluntary subordination of the individual to society and the greater societal good—here we can see the interconnection between the conscious and the voluntary aspects of all this—but it might not be voluntary that you have to go do certain specific things in relation to that particular natural disaster, even under communism.

So we have to understand these things in a materialist and dialectical—and not in a utopian and idealist, and ultimately bourgeois or bourgeois-democratic, way (in a way that does not get beyond the narrow confines of bourgeois right). And this does relate to Marx's point that "right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the culture conditioned thereby." And, in turn, this relates back to the point about how wants and needs are socially determined and historically evolved. Not only what rights people are able to exercise, but even what people conceive of as their rights, arises out of, and in turn reflects, the underlying character and motion of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, and the economic base and the superstructure. That's why, to go back to an earlier example, the "right of the homeowner" can take the form of the right to be a racist. Or what about the right of people in the world today not to be subjected to hunger and starvation? As I pointed out in the "Democracy" book, there is no such right, because the economic base and the superstructure that predominate in the world do not give people that right. The people in Niger today may feel the desire not to be starving to death and see their children pecked apart by vultures as they starve to death, but there is no superstructural right for that not to happen, because the conditions do not exist in which that can be made a reality. The conditions in which such things as mass starvation and massive malnutrition and preventable disease can actually be eliminated, can only be brought into being through the revolutionary transformation of society, and ultimately the world as a whole. People can proclaim such rights, but it can't be realized, for the masses of humanity, under the existing economic base and corresponding superstructure—which is a fundamental reason why you need revolution.

But even in the realm of conception, people in early communal society did not say, "I demand the right not to be enslaved by my grandmother." Why? Because the question didn't arise. In that form of society, there was no question of being enslaved by your grandmother, so how could you formulate it as a right. Rights such as that only arose once slavery arose. And if you project ahead into the future, that demand would also have no meaning in communist society—not to be enslaved, whether by your grandmother or anybody else. In fact, I don't even know if there will be grandmothers in communist society—probably not, not in the way we think of them anyway. So there you have it—even the concept of grandmothers probably won't exist, let alone the concept of the right not to be enslaved by your grandmother. [laughter]

So from this we can see that right is an expression, once again, of the contradiction, and the motion and development of the contradiction, between the forces and relations of production and the economic base and the superstructure. Or, as Marx put it, right "can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the culture conditioned thereby." You cannot demand, even in communist society, the right to do absolutely whatever you want to do, because there's not a material basis for that. Even under communism, where the sphere of individuals and of individuality will, yes, be far greater than it is now, there will not be a material basis for that. The sphere of individual initiative and individuality will be far greater, qualitatively greater, in a communist world than ever before, but it will never be absolute.

So there always will be this phenomenon of necessity and of constraint—and, as stressed a number of times, we should not view this entirely in a negative light. All constraint—it's like all coercion—is not bad. These things are historically evolved and they exist in terms of their opposites, and when necessity cries out to be transformed, or when constraint cries out to be ruptured, objectively, then yes, that is what we are called on to do, as indeed we are in relation to the constraints and necessity imposed by the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and everything it has given rise to and gives rise to.

Here it is worth recalling what was said earlier, in referring to the passage from Engels's The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State on rights and duties and how in early communal society there was not any separation between these things; and we can understand how, in a whole different way in communist society—on a different foundation and in a different framework—there will not be a separation between rights and duties. Indeed rights and duties will not be in antagonism and will have been transformed qualitatively in terms of their meaning.


1. The full title of the "Conversations" book is Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics.(Chicago: Open Court, 2005)

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2. The three sentences on democracy are: In a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequality, to talk about “democracy” —without talking about the class nature of that democracy and which class it serves—is meaningless, and worse. So long as society is divided into classes, there can be no “democracy for all”: one class or another will rule, and it will uphold and promote that kind of democracy which serves its interests and goals. The question is: which class will rule and whether its rule, and its system of democracy, will serve the continuation, or the eventual abolition, of class divisions and the corresponding relations of exploitation, oppression, and inequality.

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3. The discussion by Bob Avakian of Rawls's theory of justice took place in another part of this talk, which is not included in what is now being published in Revolution.

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4. " must not form the narrow-minded notion that the petite bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petite bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent....

"But the democrat, because he represents the petite bourgeoisie, that is, a transition class,in which the interests of two classes are simultaneously mutually blunted, imagines himself elevated above class antagonism generally. The democrats concede that a privileged class confronts them, but they, along with all the rest of the nation, form the people.  What they represent is the people's rights; what interests them is the people's interests. Accordingly, when a struggle is impending, they do not need to examine the interests and positions of the different classes." (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [Moscow: Progress Publishers], pp. 40-41, 43-44, emphasis in original)

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5. This polemic, titled "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That," appears as an Appendix to the 2 nd edition of the book Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism! by Bob Avakian (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2004). The polemic originally appeared in the 1992/17 issue of the magazine A World to Win.) Also available online at

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6. Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (Chicago: Banner Press, 1986). Phony Communism Is Dead…Long Live Real Communism (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2004).

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7. U.S. Constitution: An Exploiters’ Vision of Freedom (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1987).

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8. Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About. Available in DVD (Eng/Span), VHS (Eng), and VHS (Span.). $34.95 + $4 shipping. Order online at or; or check/MO to Three Q Productions, 2038 W Chicago Ave. #126D, Chicago, IL, 60622).

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9. Lenny Wolff, The Science of Revolution (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1983).

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10. GO&GS refers to a talk by Bob Avakian, Great Objectives and Grand Strategy, which was given in the late 1990s. Excerpts from this talk are available online at

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