Reaching for the Heights & Flying Without a Safety Net

Part 11: Being Bold, Being "First String," Actually Being the Vanguard

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1207, July 20, 2003, posted at

Editors' Note: The following is taken from the transcript of a tape-recorded talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, toward the end of 2002. It was originally intended for distribution among Party members and others close to the Party, in particular revolutionaries of the newer generations, but we are happy to be able to share excerpts from this talk with our readers. They have been edited and footnotes have been added for publication here.

Taking on the responsibility of being the vanguard means facing up to what's really involved in this and what will come at you, both from the enemy and even from among the people. And, while we should listen to and seek to learn whatever can be learned from criticism, even when it is raised in a nasty spirit, we can't allow ourselves to get distracted or thrown off by notions which actually represent other class viewpoints, including notions about what leadership is and ought to be. Nor should we in any way be defensive about the vanguard--about the need for a vanguard, about the fact that our Party is the vanguard, in the way that we should correctly understand that. We should base ourselves on, and popularize, the criteria and principles of communist leadership -- that leadership is represented by line and the demonstrated ability to grasp and apply line--and the fact that our Party meets those criteria and standards and is in fact the vanguard.

If we are going to do what needs to be done, if we are going to assume the responsibility that is required of a vanguard, we have to be prepared and ready to take on what has to be faced in persevering on the revolutionary road and not giving up or giving in. We have to be prepared for whatever the enemy may throw at us. But in some ways an even harder thing is what will come up at times from friends, from among the people, broadly speaking. One of the hardest things is dealing with contradictions among the people, including ways in which the people--the masses of people, or sections of them--don't want to do, or don't yet see the need to do, what needs to be done to bring about the necessary changes and ultimately to emancipate themselves. Sometimes it can even seem like, here you are doing everything you can to serve the fundamental interests of the masses, and yet they come up with a lot of backward bullshit. The fact is, people live in this fucked-up society. We are not "perfect"-- even though we strive to apply a radically different ideology, we are not entirely free of the influences of this society and its dominant relations and ways of thinking, and certainly the masses of people aren't spontaneously free of this either. And there are other trends out there in the movement, which represent different programs and are following different ideologies.

I remember Mao said that, as things were coming to a head with Lin Biao, who had been a close comrade of Mao's, one of the most painful things was to feel the arrow in your back and to look around and see your friend smirking at you. This happens. It even happens at times within the communist movement, but especially it happens in the broader movement and in society generally. Well, how do you deal with those things? Do you deal with them in a subjective way, in a manner of taking them personally? Or do you deal with them correctly by recognizing and distinguishing what Mao identified as the two different types of contradictions: contradictions among the people and contradictions, of a qualitatively different kind, between the people and the enemy. How do we handle contradictions which are among the people, no matter how acute they may be in a particular case--how do we distinguish them and handle them differently from contradictions which are with the enemy?

Sometimes the hardest thing is the shit that goes on among the people. And sometimes the hardest thing is to see people who proclaim themselves to be, or even in a certain sense are, trying to make a better world actually falling into some crap that you would expect to see from the enemy. But how do you deal with that? With what orientation? With what method? In what overall context do you put this and evaluate it? Mao said that one of the most difficult things in the high point of the Cultural Revolution was that the two different kinds of contradictions became very intensely intertwined--contradictions among the people often became intensely and acutely intertwined with contradictions between the people and the enemy. It was very difficult to sort that out. A lot of these anecdotal personal grievance accounts we hear about the Cultural Revolution are an expression of that, even while many of them also involve considerable subjectivity and distortion.

We should always listen and consider things when people express disagreements with us, but at the same time we should maintain our bearings and stick firmly to basic principles. If their criticisms are wrong, then frankly we shouldn't agree with them. We shouldn't be thrown off or get defensive in the face of things that don't in fact reflect objective reality and represent instead the misconceptions and biases that are characteristic of the bourgeois or petit bourgeois outlook. Why should we be defensive in the face of that? Now, to be clear, this doesn't mean that whenever somebody says something we don't agree with, we should start going off with, "Oh, that's just that same old petit bourgeois shit." We have to discuss the substance of things with people and not throw labels on people, either inside the Party or outside the Party. That doesn't do any good.

Like Mao said, the method of striking a pose to intimidate is no good. It doesn't work with the enemy and it does great harm among the people. We should keep that in mind. The bourgeoisie will not be intimidated out of power. And among the people, striking a pose to intimidate does a great deal of harm. And so does putting labels on people rather than dealing with the substance of things. We should discuss the substance of things with people in real terms, breaking our line down for people in a way that they're capable of grasping it, to the best of our ability, and then learning from that experience. But we shouldn't be defensive in the face of things that are objectively other class viewpoints and are wrong. Nor should we be in any way hesitant about putting forward our Party and its leadership, as the leadership that is necessary for this revolution and that is willing and able to play the role of leadership of this revolution.

Standards of Leadership

We should maintain a lofty, but not arrogant, stance in the face of any kind of petty accusation and false standard. To speak for a moment to what appears to be (but fundamentally is not) a personal dimension to this, there is a fair amount of this kind of stuff that is directed against me--talk about being a "white chairman" and even more "low road" stuff. Well, first of all, I am not a "white" chairman -- I don't seek to represent "white people" but the revolutionary interests of the proletariat and masses of people, of all nationalities, and not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. And second of all, it's just the wrong criterion. It doesn't have anything to do with what we're about and what we need to be about. And we shouldn't get thrown off by that kind of stuff. We should discuss the substance with people of what is involved here, what is the problem, what is the solution, what do the masses of people really need, where do their fundamental interests lie, how do you go about actually doing what needs to be done, and what are the criteria and standards, principles and methods that have to be applied in order to do that? We should struggle with people about that.It's not that we shouldn't listen to them or just wave away their questions or disagreements or even their accusations. But we should stick to the essence of what's involved here and not get thrown off by these things or dragged down into petty bullshit.

Mao said we should "toughen our skin." He meant it is necessary to listen to criticism, even when it is not raised in a good spirit. We should sift through and see if somebody has a point, even when they raise really raunchy shit. But we shouldn't get thrown off by it. We should stick to principle and stick to the essence of things, and stick to the criteria and standards that conform to what we're all about and need to be all about.

Now, as I've said before, there is a real need to continue to develop leaders, and people on all levels in the Party, from among the oppressed nationalities, from among proletarians as a whole, women as well as men. There is a need to win to revolution and communism and to train and to develop as revolutionary communist leaders many, many more proletarians, including many from the oppressed nationalities. And this is particularly important in terms of people from the new generations. This is an objective we should willingly and eagerly take up. We should bring forward people from among those who have the most fundamental interest in the proletarian revolution. We should bring MLM home and bring people forward on that basis. We should also win revolutionary-minded intellectuals and people from all parts of society to MLM and recruit them into the Party. But, at the same time, it is really crucial to grasp that this must be done and can only be done on the correct basis, on the basis of winning people to communism and developing them as communists, and not on the basis of various trends--nationalism or other outlooks-- which fall short of correctly analyzing reality and correctly identifying the problem and the solution. It can be done and must be done on the basis of MLM and MLM criteria and methods of leadership--and no others. Or else, what are we doing this for and for whom are we doing it?

In this connection, I wanted to refer back to the interview I did with Carl Dix, in particular the section "Leadership, the Right and the Wrong Standards and Criteria."*

Carl Dix : "What about moving on to this viewpoint that a yardstick, in fact the crucial yardstick against which revolutionary organization should be measured, is whether its leadership is predominantly people of color? And that if its leadership isn't predominantly people of color, then it's not going to be able to stay on the revolutionary road--that it's going to conciliate with the system and the white supremacy that this system is based on."

Bob Avakian : "Well, I think one thing that we have to face up to, just to come at it in a certain angle and be a bit provocative, if you want to put it this way: Anybody can sell out to the system who wants to. I don't care who you are, if you want to sell out, they'll find a way very quickly to enable you to sell out. So being of any particular nationality is not any guarantee against selling out. And also there are pressures on people and pulls on people to seek easy ways out which amount to giving up on the struggle, and this is going to true for any leadership, whatever its nationality, its gender, whatever.

That's one point,'s true that in the U.S.--and this is a general principle--that any revolution, as we've been talking about, has to bring forward as its backbone and driving force that class and those groups closely allied with it that have the most interest in and have the most strategic position for making such a revolution. In the U.S., that obviously involves a lot of people from the oppressed nationalities in the proletariat and people from other strata within the oppressed nationalities. That should be reflected in the vanguard party itself, including in its leadership, over any period of time. That is a basic truth. But, with all that, the essential thing is going to be--again it goes back to what's the line of the party, what is its analysis of objective reality? And I keep using this phrase--I heard somewhere or read somewhere that someone said if you go around using the phrase "objective reality" that in many circles you are immediately identified with the party. Because we do believe that there is such a thing as objective reality and that you have to base yourself on objective reality--not in a static way, but on what it is but also how it is changing, what is its motion and development. But if you don't begin from objective reality, then you are bound to go off the track somewhere.

If you are out of line with really understanding what's really going on in the world, what the real problem is and therefore what the real solution is, you are bound to get off the track and not be a real vanguard and not lead people to where they need to go, regardless of your gender or nationality or whatever. So, the most important thing is line --do you have a correct outlook and methodology for understanding the world and do you correctly apply it to come up with an actual analysis and programme that can lead to the solution to all this and can actually lead people in making revolution? And that takes revolutionaries drawn from anywhere--whether they're intellectuals, whether they're people from the proletariat, whatever, who take up the world outlook and methodology and line of the proletariat and apply it concretely to making revolution as part of the overall world revolution, because we are part of a world revolution which involves people, nations and countries all over the world.

We need revolutionaries, all revolutionaries--of whatever nationality in particular, speaking to the nationality question-- who take up and unite around that proletarian world outlook and method and apply it to develop that political line that corresponds to and leads forward to that kind of revolution. So, that's the decisive question: Is your leadership actually united on the basis of a correct line--understanding that not in some absolute metaphysical sense, that you develop a line and that is the end of it and you have nothing more to learn. It's not like that. Life is always changing, you are always learning more, there is always a contradiction between ignorance and knowledge, between what you understand and what you still have to learn. Conditions change. I mean, in an essential sense, in a basic sense, is your line correct and have you united revolutionaries as a vanguard force around that correct line? That's the essential question. And, on the basis of that line you should bring forward people from among the proletariat and among the oppressed nationalities in increasing numbers, and that's what our party is working to do and that's what we're doing."

Being First String

This leads me to, and lays a foundation for, another important point of orientation I want to speak to here. I think you've heard this phrase a number of times: "being first string" (as opposed to being "second string"). This is another metaphor drawn from sports of course. But it has great relevance to what we're all about.

As I was saying earlier, we need some of that old spirit of the Black Panther Party, with their challenge to "relate to vanguard,"** although we do need to understand and apply that not in a sectarian way but as part of actually being the vanguard in the correct sense--taking responsibility for everything that is required in order to wage and win the struggle through which the masses of people emancipate themselves. Certainly there are positive aspects of this BPP orientation that we need to also apply, boldly. We need to be first string. This is not a matter of going around with your chest puffed out and trying to gangster people into following you, or whatever. But, once again, it's a matter of objective reality: this is what we objectively are, the vanguard party of proletarian revolution in the U.S. And we're not going to be anything less, because this is what's needed and this is the responsibility that we need to assume.

Now, there was a negative aspect in how the BPP at times put forward "relate to the vanguard." There was an aspect in which that did get applied to mean essentially: "We're it, and you've got to follow us, whatever we say." We have to learn from that, but as a negative example. We don't want to fall into that, for all the reasons that I've been talking about. But we do need an understanding on our own part --and we do need to convey it, in the correct way, to particularly the advanced masses, but also more broadly--that this is the vanguard, this is the leadership, this is the program, this is the line. And, yes, there are a lot of things we don't know, including some very important things about how to actually make revolution. So we have a lot of work to do and a lot to learn from a lot of people and a lot of experience. But objectively we are the vanguard--and we need to assume the responsibility that implies, in the fullest sense. That's what it means to be first string.

We need the correct side of that BPP orientation. We need some of that spirit that they had, which was very infectious, in a good way. Yes, especially advanced revolutionary-minded people should "relate to the vanguard"--we should work in the correct way to bring them forward, to develop their partisanship for our Party and to bring them into the Party. If we don't do that, then what are we doing? And what are we doing everything for? It's not that we can turn aside from all the other struggles and immediate tasks and just concentrate on building the Party. But if we don't pay attention to that in its own right, and if we don't in the correct way integrate it into everything we're doing, then we've forgotten our fundamental objectives and our whole reason for being. We should be very bold about putting forward the Party and building it as the vanguard, because that is what is required --that conforms to the fundamental needs and interests of the masses of people.

Now, some people say, in response to this (or just in general), that our Party is after all small, it doesn't have that much of a following and influence. This, too, was spoken to in the interview with Carl Dix, where it discusses what influencing and leading "masses" means in different situations--in a non-revolutionary situation, it may mean influencing and leading thousands; while in a revolutionary situation, it involves millions, even tens of millions--and what are the correct criteria for evaluating whether a party is actually a vanguard.*** And applying the criteria in that interview, at every point we should be straining against the limits in building the ranks of the Party as well as developing the struggle overall with our strategic revolutionary objectives as our fundamental guidepost.

We should never be complacent. First of all, there's not that much reason for us to be complacent: there are great challenges before us, great obstacles to be overcome, much work to be done and struggle waged to make the "impossible" possible--revolution right within the most powerful and murderous imperialist power. And second of all, even if there were more reason, we still shouldn't be complacent. Mao said that, even when China objectively becomes a great power, we should never have great power chauvinism. Well, no matter what gains are made, and especially when in the future the revolutionary movement has made great advances and the seizure of power has become the order of the day, complacency is the last thing that is needed! We should never adopt bourgeois methods or the bourgeois world outlook of seeking to turn anything and everything into capital, even the gains of the revolutionary struggle.

Our orientation must always be one of contributing all we can to the emancipation of the masses of people, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. As Mao said, "So many deeds cry out to be done, and always urgently." That's definitely true today, including in terms of building the Party and expanding its influence as well as its organized ties among the masses of many different strata. But, again, the point of all this is to enable us to continually strengthen our ability to fulfill our responsibilities as the vanguard, to lead the masses to liberate themselves through increasingly conscious revolutionary struggle.

Now, it is very important to grasp what a struggle it has taken to maintain this Party as a living force persevering on the revolutionary road and persevering in our strategic orientation of bringing forward the proletariat as the backbone of the revolution and building the united front under the leadership of the proletariat. Sometimes we can lose sight of that, because there are so many things that cry out to be done, and so many shortcomings we do have that we have to strive to overcome. But let's step back for a second and look at it objectively. It is tremendously important that there is our Party in the U.S. at this time--that it has not just been preserved but that it has persevered on the revolutionary road. There were a lot of MLM forces (or things approximating that) which came out of the '60s. And none of them except our Party persevered on the revolutionary road and continued to advance on that road--even with twists and turns and even with setbacks. That is hardly insignificant. We should not underestimate the significance of that and what it has taken to do that. That's not a minor achievement for our class and our cause. Of course, if we don't do anything with it, then it doesn't mean anything. But we ourselves should not fail to recognize the importance of such a Party, with such an orientation--a Party that has accumulated valuable experience and summed up crucial lessons, a Party that is carrying out active work among the proletariat and basic masses as well as other sections of the people, based on that line and orientation.

The fact that this Party exists and is working in this way, with this orientation and these revolutionary objectives, right within the belly of the beast itself--right within "the world's only superpower"--this is a great thing for the people of the world. And, again, this is not a matter of being complacent or turning this into capital or anything like that -- this is objective reality, this is part of objective reality that we should recognize, in the correct way, with the correct orientation and objectives. Otherwise, we're not going to build on it and we're not going to make leaps and advances that are urgently needed. We should grasp the potential not only for the revolutionary movement to grow in a general sense but the potential for it to grow by leaps and bounds at critical junctures, and for the number of people brought forward by the Party and the Party itself to make qualitative leaps, to even increase geometrically with the intensification of and qualitative leaps in the objective situation, combined with our work to maximize our gains and wrench the most freedom for our side out of this whole tumultuous situation. All of this, of course, is highlighted very sharply now with the whole imperialist juggernaut of war and repression with which we are confronted.

And if, as a matter of fact, our Party is not as big as it should be, even now, and if our influence and our organized ties are not as extensive as they should be -- which they are not -- the answer is to go out and actively work to build our Party, as a decisive part of our work to build the all-around struggle with our strategic revolutionary objectives in mind. Or again, what are we doing all this for? What are we motivated by? What are we guided by? We have to set our sights high in this crucial aspect too. To use a phrase from Mao that I have cited a number of times, we should strive for greatness in this, not of course for ourselves or for our Party in a narrow sectarian sense, but yes for the Party as the vanguard of the revolutionary struggle in the U.S. and for the world revolution. We must do this in a systematic and bold way, step by step, but also through leaps, particularly in those times when contradictions become concentrated and greater numbers of people are being called into political life, where many are questioning and growing numbers are feeling compelled to act in opposition to the whole direction of things. And of course our all- around work, including systematically and boldly bringing forward our Party's revolutionary program and building our Party, can not only "swim within that growing sea" of people but can contribute to the expansion of that sea and to its positive turbulence, to put it that way.

Keeping Our Sights High

It is crucial to grasp all this firmly and to recognize and rise to the challenges and responsibilities that are involved, including the challenge of not just being an activist or even a leader among the masses, as important as that is; and not just being a dedicated active Party member, as important as that is; but contributing as much as possible in the realm of theory as well as practice and daring to develop as a Party leader as well. This is important for all comrades, but it has particular importance in terms of revolutionaries from the newer generations. And there is a daring involved. Harking back to what was said earlier, the ability to lead, and in particular to meet the challenge of providing all-around leadership to the vanguard, to be a Party leader, is something that is not innate, certainly not genetic, nor something that only some people are constitutionally or genetically able to do, or more capable of doing than others. Notions of that kind are a reflection of the bourgeois world outlook. Everyone's orientation should be to contribute as much as they can and to continue struggling to develop the ability to contribute more and to develop as communist leaders among the masses and leaders of the Party.

Not all leaders will be or are the same in their individual experiences, and the social context in which those experiences take place varies; and they're not all going to be the same in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. And, it wouldn't be good if they were all the same. We'd be like they portray us--a bunch of automatons who are cut out of a cookie mold--everyone acts exactly the same. I read a report recently which recounted how someone said to one of our people: "You guys always say the same thing." Well, in one sense that's true, because we have a unified line. We should explain that to people openly. This is why, in one sense, we "all say the same thing." On the other hand, it better not be true that we all literally say the same thing. We shouldn't be interchangeable, so that, if you go and talk to any Party member about anything, you get exactly the same answer. That would be a real problem. Of course, it would be difficult, not to say impossible, to make that happen, but it would also be very undesirable if it were possible. And we don't even want tendencies in that direction. We want living people who, yes, carry out the Party's unified line in a fundamental and overall sense, but who also take a lot of initiative and are immersed among the masses of people, explaining things to people and learning from people in a living way, according to the actual dynamics of how that happens, with many individuals contributing on all kinds of levels and in all kinds of different ways. But with all of our individual qualities and different strengths and weaknesses, we should all strive to keep developing, we all need to keep advancing and learning more from each other, and from others broadly, and struggling in a good way within the Party and with others we are working with in building the struggle.

Again, as Marx said, we have to pick ourselves up when we make mistakes and learn from our mistakes, rise from the dust, brush it off and go forward again -- even from devastating defeats like the reversal of the revolution and the restoration of capitalism in China, as well as lesser setbacks. We also have to build on our strengths and achievements and go forward.

And, when people raise criticism of us, we have to toughen our skin, because after all this is not about us personally. When people criticize us, or even when they wildly attack us--attack our Party or leaders of our Party--this is not a personal matter. Such attacks are not fundamentally directed at us for particular personal qualities we have (or don't have); they are motivated by political and ideological concerns and are an expression of a political and ideological line that is different from and in some cases fundamentally opposed to the communist world outlook and the communist revolution. And, in dealing with all this, we have to strive to continually maintain a largeness of mind, to be guided by a profound sense of the needs and interests of the masses of people, throughout the world, and the revolutionary cause that corresponds to those needs and interests.

We have to train the masses to set their sights high too. All this tabloid shit that is promoted everywhere--the "tabloidization" of "popular culture" and the mass media--that's designed to drag the masses down in the mud. And, very significantly, there is a definite correlation: generally speaking, the tabloid media that are the most scandal-mongering are also the most overtly reactionary. What they're going after and how they go after it--it's often very overtly reactionary. And that's useful, because it shows the connection.

All this drags the masses down and makes them believe that they're all degraded and debased -- or maybe you're a little bit better than the other one, so you can point your finger and shout at them and get into acting like a virtual lynch mob. This is meant to degrade people in many ways. We have to help the masses raise themselves above this shit, just as we ourselves must continue to approach things from a high plane, even while we're toughening our skin and listening to not only friendly criticism but whatever shit is thrown at us--to sift through it and find out if there are any nuggets amidst all the shit, as unpleasant as that may be. We have to do that in order to actually carry out our responsibilities as the vanguard. At the same time, strategically we have to remain above the mud and the shit, and we have to help the masses rise up above all that the ruling class tries to drag them down into. That is part of the proletariat fitting itself to rule, part of the vanguard fitting itself to carry out its responsibilities as the vanguard--to keep our eyes on the prize, keep our sights raised up, and to raise others' sights to a vision of a radically different and better world and to the revolutionary struggle to make that a reality.

To conclude on the basic point here-- and to underline what is actually at stake in whether or not the masses have a vanguard party, and in how that party carries out its revolutionary responsibilities--I want to refer to the following principle I stressed in the interview with Carl Dix:

"There are these divisions that the historical development of society has brought into being and which capitalism reinforces, not only spontaneously but also by the operation of the ruling class and the institutions of power. These divisions can only be overcome through the advanced forces who have a fundamental understanding of the nature of the problem, and the solution, uniting together as a vanguard force to go out among the masses and bring them forward around this line and programme. Without that, there may be other people who are capable of developing other theories but there will be no revolution, and whatever changes in society are in fact brought about, the masses of people will be left out of it. And you can speak in the name of the masses of people all day long and rail against leadership all day long in the name of the masses, or in the name of some other principle, but if you don't actually recognize the need for leadership, and the fact that it flows out of the very contradictions of the society you're seeking to overturn and transform, then you're going to leave the masses entirely out of the equation and there's not going to be a revolution and certainly not one that leads to the emancipation of the broad masses of people."