From Dictatorship And Democracy, And The Socialist Transition To Communism

Part 3: The Hidden Realities of the Economy

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1252, September 19, 2004, posted at

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the edited text of a recent talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party. This talk was given to a group of supporters of the RCP who are studying the historical experience of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and preparing to take up the challenge of popularizing this experience and engaging in discussion and debate with others about it, particularly on campuses but also more broadly.

The entire talk is online at Footnotes and subheads in this excerpt have been added for publication.

Just think about it. Suppose you passed a law that people had a right to eat regardless of whether they had a job or not [laughter], and you just said to people: "You have a right to eat. If you cannot get food by earning an income, then go take it." [laughter] Well, if you stand back it makes perfect sense that people should have a right to eat. If the fucking system can't give them a job, why should they suffer for that. But you can't implement that principle. They can do certain things--welfare and unemployment insurance--but you cannot implement the principle, you cannot operate on the principle in this society that people have a right to eat regardless.

So if you try to do things in the superstructure of politics and ideology that run counter in a fundamental way to the economic base and functioning of the economy, you will create chaos. And if you try to do that, the workings of the system will bury you, if they don't win you over immediately. This has happened time and time again. It's more fundamental than that "you have to go along to get along" when you get into the political structure. That is true. You go into Congress, it's all set up with committees and everything. If you want to get anything done you have to make compromises. That's all true. But more fundamental is that there is a way this system works, and if you don't act in accordance with that, you will be chewed up and spit out by that system. Or else you will learn to go along with it very quickly.

So this is in essence a dictatorship. It's a dictatorship, and the political rule reflects and serves the underlying functioning and relations of the economy. And this is a very important point to understand.

I think it was in the book Phony Communism Is Dead, Long Live Real Communism1 where I made the point that there is no such thing as an economy in the abstract, or just people working to make an economy go. Any economy is made up of a system of relations of production that reflect one kind of process of accumulation--one kind of production and accumulation of wealth--or another. Look at this society. People enter into very definite relations of production. They don't get to choose them, but they have to conform to them.

If you have certain knowledge, if you have been able to acquire certain knowledge and skills, you can get jobs of certain kinds. If you have not been able to acquire that knowledge or skill, or have been prevented from doing so, you may be able to get a job of another kind, or you may not be able to get a job at all, and you enter into whatever you enter into in order to live. You learn to hustle, you learn to gangster, you learn to do whatever to try to live. Maybe you make a way of life out of it, and mimic the bourgeoisie while you are at it. This is a lot of what goes on among the people. But why? Because the way in which they enter into the economy is such that their relation to production is one of either being exploited to make wealth for somebody else, or else not being able to live within the confines of the normal functioning of the economy. And if their unemployment runs out, or they can't live on it, or whatever, they will find some other way of trying to live, or they will die. They will go on the street and become homeless and get sick and die, and their kids will suffer for it and maybe get sick and die as well.

Why? Because in this society there are people who own the means of production, and on that basis if you want to live, you work for them in one capacity or other, and in one part of the overall functioning of that economic process or another. As I said, if you have certain education and skills and kinds of training, you can get certain kind of positions-- although those are not so secure these days either, with all the continuing globalization and "outsourcing," with all of that, your ass can be out--you can work 15 years and your ass can be out tomorrow. But still, you are entering into a certain position--within this overall functioning of the economy, you are entering into a certain relationship to production. Or you are not--you are excluded from that--because they can't find a way to profitably exploit you. And if they exploit you for 20 years--you can work in an auto factory in South Central Los Angeles for 25 years and be out of a job tomorrow, because they have brought in new technology, and/or they have shipped production to Mexico or Brazil or somewhere else.

So there is no such thing as an economy in the abstract. Every economy is a set of social relations, of relations of production, in which the people who come to confront that economy in order to live do not get to choose those things. These are historically evolved systems of production. No one gets to choose them. Even the bourgeoisie doesn't get to choose them. If they are lucky, and they are born into wealth, or they were able to maneuver, gangster their way, or whatever, into wealth, then they can run the economy, and they can benefit from the exploitation of everybody else, but even they don't get to choose how the economy functions and what the relations are that people enter into in the overall functioning of the economy.

Hidden Realities

And, of course, this is all hidden from us. It appears--there are actually youth from the middle classes who grow up and think that clothes just appear in the mall. [laughter] Or many people who just assume that food will always be in the grocery store. And how that actually happens through not only a system of production in the U.S. itself, but a whole international system of production and exchange, which enmeshes millions and hundreds of millions of people, even billions of people ultimately, in its relations and functioning--that is hidden from people. You have to dig to find that. You have to go to Marx to learn how this actually works.

Marx made a statement in a letter, a long time ago now, I guess in the 1850s--I think it was in a letter he wrote to this guy named Joseph Weydemeyer, where he said, "No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes or analyzing the anatomy of the different classes, or even the struggle between classes. What I did that was new, was to show that the existence of classes is only bound up with certain historical phases in the development of society's production, and that the class struggle that emerges from the antagonistic class relations will eventually lead to a proletarian revolution and the rule of the proletariat, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that this dictatorship of the proletariat is only a transition to an ultimately classless society."2

That's a very interesting and important statement, because what he is saying is that these systems of production are historically evolved, and that at a certain point in the development of people's technology, and the way they organized themselves to make use of whatever they had at hand--at a certain point classes emerged. In other words, at a certain point, through a lot of complex processes, a group of people emerged who dominated the intellectual life of society, and who dominated the control of the essential means of producing and distributing the necessities of life. And from that point on, they were able, through various successive forms as the economy developed and changed, to force everyone else to work for them, while they maintained a monopoly of not only control over the essential means of life, but also everything that grew up on the basis of that. At a certain point, when society produces enough, some people can be freed, or can get themselves into a position where they are freed, from having to carry out the struggle for the daily necessities of life, and can pay attention to political affairs, to working with ideas, to culture, to all the things that intellectuals take up in a broad sense. And generally speaking, it will be that class that dominates the economy that will also be freed, and will have representatives serving it who are freed, to engage in these other spheres besides the daily struggle to produce and distribute the basic requirements of life.

This was what Marx was pointing to. And then he went on to point out that eventually, through all the complex and diverse developments this process involves--he was boiling it down to its essence, but it is not something you can oversimplify, it isn't like the ancient feudal minuet, where there is one step and then another, all neatly choreographed, it's a very complex, diverse process going on in different forms throughout the world--but at a certain point society and human development reached a stage where a system emerged and a class emerged which carried out production in a highly socialized way. In other words, a system of production in which it is not just a bunch of people all carrying out isolated activities. Nor a bunch of people working as slaves on a large plantation, chained to that plantation. Or, as in the South in the U.S., for nearly 100 years after the Civil War, before the changes that occurred in the 1950s and '60s that are generally associated with the civil rights movement--there was a whole period in which the masses of Black people but also many poor whites were virtually chained to agricultural plantations by a combination of debt that they could never escape from, and a whole superstructure of laws and terror that forced them to remain there.

But, finally, through all this, a different kind of system emerged in which people were not literally chained to one place, nor working all separately on their own with their own small means of production. (That still goes on, you still find artisans and others doing this--for example, a sculptor works with a small amount of machinery and materials to produce sculpture--that still goes on, and many things, even necessities of life, are still produced by people in this way, especially in the Third World). But overwhelmingly what happens is the mass production of the necessities of life (and luxuries), with thousands of people working together producing this, all in combination, and with no one really producing the whole product.

This is a really profound change in human social development, and in particular in the nature of the economy. You have this production, and exchange, that is highly socialized. And all the more so now. Now they do it with computers, and their "just in time" production. They have all kinds of things that are produced in different parts of the world, and then they are assembled in a different place. This is all highly socialized. You don't have one person making a car and then at the end of it saying, "Okay, I can drive that away because it's mine and I made it." Instead you are working for someone else, and not just a person but also a corporation and the combined capital of billions in wealth.

Socialized Production, Private Appropriation

So you have this highly socialized production but, as Marx pointed out, very acutely in contradiction to that, you have private appropriation of what is socially produced. In other words, let's say you are working as a farmworker. Your family is hungry, living in a shack--and this is not any exaggeration. Or maybe your family is in Mexico and you are living in a shack with 14 other people--and, again, I am not exaggerating--working, picking vegetables or fruits in the San Joaquin Valley of California, a rich, fertile, agricultural area. But you are working for corporations, or you are working for farmers who are beholden to corporations, who are in debt to corporations for all the equipment and everything else, and ultimately you are working for that corporation in a real sense. You can be hungry or thirsty, but you can't take that fruit and eat it, or drink the juice out of it, squeeze the juice out of it and drink it. No, that doesn't belong to you. You are working with others to pick all this fruit, others have planted it, and others are using machinery to prepare the ground for it, and then perhaps others use machinery to pick it--that's also an innovation of the last few decades--and it goes to someplace else and then you have to get whatever little meager wage you get and go over to some other place owned by some other capitalist to buy the food that you might have literally picked. But it doesn't matter whether you picked it or somebody else did. It all goes into the wealth that is accumulated by a small class of capitalists.

I remember when I was a kid, my father was a lawyer. And he had this client who owned this packaging plant down in central California. So one day we went there and we were being taken on a tour of the plant. That day they were doing lima beans. So the lima beans were coming down the conveyor belt, and all these workers were furiously getting them and putting them in boxes. Then they would take these gigantic rolls of paper and put them at a certain spot in the machine, and then the paper would roll off and that would be the wrapping on the box. So I'm sitting there watching this, and first of all they put on Libby's--that was a brand of fruits and vegetables. So all these things go down the assembly line and are stuffed up in boxes and here comes the paper that they are wrapped up in--Libby's. Then after about an hour, they changed the roll of paper and it's Del Monte. [laughter] And I'm sitting there thinking, "Well, wait a minute"-- I've been watching television now for a while, and I see these ads saying `we have absolutely only the best lima beans, ours are much better than the competition.'" Well, it's all the same fucking lima beans, I discovered--owned by different large aggregates of capital. All these people are working, they can't eat the lima beans or take them home. People do sometimes, but if they get caught they get fired.

So this is what Marx discovered: You have highly socialized production, but very privatized appropriation by a small class of people called capitalists. But in that contradiction lies the basis for the overthrow of the system, as that class that carries out socialized production becomes conscious of this contradiction and of all of its consequences, and rises up and rallies its allies, as it is led by a vanguard party that brings it the consciousness to do this, and it eventually overthrows the system and resolves this contradiction through a whole long complex process whereby, step by step, it socializes the appropriation of what is socially produced and distributes it increasingly according to the needs of the people, not according to the dictates of the accumulation of private capital.

Dictatorship Disguised

This is our ultimate aim. But you can see that when you have a society like this one, a capitalist society, how can you have a political process that actually gives power to everybody equally? Just think of all the ways in which that's impossible. How could all the people make decisions about this economy and not have that come into conflict with the basic way in which all this wealth is produced and accumulated? Even if they were "politically allowed to do so," how could people who have to spend their lives working in this way be able to make informed decisions about all this?

I was just reading this book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed . She is an intellectual who decided to go work in basic manual labor for several months. She worked as a waitress, and then she worked in one of these "maids for hire" companies where you clean people's houses, and then she worked at Walmart. And she describes how, on the wages that she made, she had to live in her car part of the time, or in motel rooms you would never want to live in. She is an intellectual and normally reads all of the time, but she found herself too exhausted to read when she came home from work. This goes back to the point I was making at the beginning.

How are people in that position going to equally take part in the process of political decision making, even if you remove all of the restrictions politically that are imposed on them. It's impossible. This is what I was getting at in the first of the three sentences3 I paraphrased a little while ago--that in a society marked by profound class divisions and social inequalities, to talk about democracy without examining the class content of that democracy and whom it serves, is meaningless and worse.

How can you have a democracy in which everybody takes part on an equal basis, when some people have all kinds of leisure time and sit at the top of this whole process --a process that doesn't just involve one country but is worldwide--people who, to use a certain metaphor, are sitting at the top of the food chain eating what is produced by everybody else along the way? How can the other people take part equally with them? It's impossible. So naturally, these people are going to dominate political affairs and the decision-making over the direction of society, and they are going to enforce that rule in order to perpetuate the system that has put them in that position in the first place.

So you have a dictatorship. A dictatorship is the rule of one class or another over society, backed and enforced by political structures and institutions and ultimately armed force, a monopoly of armed force and of "legitimate" armed force. That's what a dictatorship is.

Once you understand that, you can see that what we have in this society is in fact a dictatorship--a dictatorship disguised as and operating through the form of a democracy; in other words, a bourgeois dictatorship in which it appears that formally everyone is equal, but in reality that's far from the case.

Everyone is supposedly equal before the law: you go into court, if you are rich or poor, you have the same rights supposedly. Well in reality you don't. Who can afford a lawyer and who can't? The real lesson of the OJ Simpson trial, leaving aside the question of guilt or innocence, was not what all those people were suggesting when they talked about his "dream team" of lawyers. He spent a couple million dollars. The state spent more then he did on this, by the way. The real lesson is not that somehow he got an unfair advantage. The real lesson is that masses of people have no chance in that situation, because they can't go up against all the money and resources of the state--and they are up against the whole authority and "aura" of the state.

That's the real lesson. So even there, you are not really equal before the law. Plus your social status counts when you go into court. How you are dressed, how you look, how you speak, whether all your teeth are aligned or not. All those kinds of things count when you go into court. You stand before the judge, who is likely a former prosecutor, and associates with a certain class of people, and he or she looks at different people differently, very differently. So even on that level you are not equal coming into the courtroom. Leaving aside the tremendous racism in this society and all of the rest that goes on within this kind of society. And of course we can't leave that aside, but even besides that there are all these other divisions in society that get reflected in every sphere of society, everything you do. Plus, as has been pointed out in communist literature for a long time, everybody doesn't have the same needs. Wealthy people don't have to steal food. They aren't in a situation where they're out of a job and have to go stick up somebody to be able to live. And they don't learn to make a way of life out of crime because they don't have to, because the whole system operates to bring them what they need.

So, you are not equal before the law in all those kinds of ways either. This is a dictatorship: even more fundamentally, the laws reflect, once again, the economic system and the political rule that serves it and that corresponds to it. That's why I said you couldn't pass a law that says, "Everybody has a right to eat--now go to it if you're hungry, take what you need."



1Bob Avakian, Phony Communism Is Dead, Long Live Real Communism (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1992).

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2Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852, in Marx and Engels, Selected Letters (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, p. 18).

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3 See Part 2 of this series, "The Godfather Principle and other Realities of U.S. Democracy," RW/OR #1251 (August 29, 2004).

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