From Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism

Intellectual Ferment in the Party

A Conversation with Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1272, March 27, 2005, posted at

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the question and answer session following 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.

This excerpt has been slightly edited for publication in the RW. The complete text of Bob Avakian's talk " DICTATORSHIP AND DEMOCRACY, AND THE SOCIALIST TRANSITION TO COMMUNISM" and the complete Question and Answer session is online at

QUESTION : I was just wondering if you could speak a little bit to how—while not throwing out democratic centralism or something like that—how do you have the party in the mix of all of these ideas? You went to China and you talked to these people around how China was opening up to the West and saying Marcos was a great leader and this, that and the other, and you were asking these people in the Chinese party and they didn't have the answers. And part of it is: did those people not have the answers, or did they have some questions on it, but they were more debating it internally and they couldn't talk to you about it? How can you have the mix of people being able to be in the midst of all the questions that are going on, intellectually—political questions, but also in the ideological realm—without breaking democratic centralism? How do you have people in the mix of that, being able to engage it and even in some ways go off in the wrong direction in order to eventually get to the right direction, but then not have that cause a splintering effect. You know?

BA: Yes, I do. As far as the specifics about China, I think it was some of both. I think that the people we were talking to were not in a position to just respond, because they would have been violating the principles of the party, the principles of democratic centralism; but they could have taken it up higher and come back and at least given us an answer, even if it were a restatement of official policy. They did give us a sort of general rap, but it was very general and frankly meaningless in that context. There was a question of democratic centralism inside the party, which we did recognize. But somewhere, on some level, somebody should have been able to engage the things we were raising and to give a reply to them. And that didn't happen.

But the more general point is—look, this is one of the big problems of socialism. You're living in this fucking world of imperialists, and everything you do is used by the enemy. They pour over everything you say to look for vulnerabilities. And this makes it difficult to openly discuss a lot of things, in socialist society. To be honest, the decision to do the "opening to the West" was probably made by a tiny handful of people. It was not made through the process of having discussion among the masses broadly. And the reason for that is not because Mao, for example, didn't believe in that process. But this involves a lot of "state secrets." If you are worried about the Soviets attacking—let's get down on the ground here—if you're worried about the Soviets attacking you at any moment, and you let it be known that you're starting to negotiate with the U.S. to try to counterbalance that, maybe you would precipitate a Soviet attack quicker, before you can get anywhere with that, with those discussions and negotiations.

You're operating under a lot of constraints there. This was a very real threat, and to precipitate an attack before they felt they were as prepared as they could be, would be a bad idea. On the other hand, the result of that is that this is a very restricted group of people that's discussing and debating and struggling over this—and falling out over it, frankly. The split in the Chinese leadership with Lin Biao had a lot to do with this. And his line wasn't any good either—it was sort of a pro-Soviet line in that context. Not that he thought the Soviet Union was so great, but that the way to deal with the Soviet Union was more to move in its direction rather than to "provoke" it. So this is the problem: Here you have a society that you want to be run by the masses of people, and yet one of the biggest decisions that's made is not made by the masses of people, it's made by a tiny handful—because of the reasons that I've talked about, and not because you had leaders who didn't want the masses involved in this discussion. If they had had the freedom to do so, I can guarantee you that, given his overall approach to things, Mao would have had massive discussions for a few years before they resolved the question. But, in the real world, they might have been attacked in the meantime.

So that's the problem you're dealing with, that's one level of what you're raising, one level of contradiction. It's a really knotty problem. It's a really vexing problem, and you could stay up late at night—I myself have agonized over this for 30 years, without exaggeration. [laughter] And I still am not at ease with it. It's easy to see some mistakes were made, that's not what I mean. But I'm not at ease about how you correctly handle this, because there's not an easy answer to it. I literally have been thinking about this and agonizing over it for 30 years, and I still don't feel that I'm that much closer to knowing the answer to it. To the degree they could, over every question and issue they could, under Mao's leadership they would involve the masses very broadly in these things. But there were some spheres where they did not, where they had not yet wrenched the freedom to do this. When we get down to the point where it's a question of how to finish off the few remaining enclaves of the imperialists in the world, we can probably afford a lot of debate about it. But we're a long way from that point, and it's very difficult at this stage, when you're fighting uphill all the time. And it's remarkable the things that were achieved under those circumstances, but we still have to do better. And you can't just say: "Well, what do you expect? That was the necessity, so that's all that could happen."

But it's not an easy answer. Not only have I agonized over this for 30 years, but other people have agonized over it, and we don't have an answer, a satisfactory answer yet. So we have to keep working on this problem. But it's a reflection of the fact that you are still where you are in the process. And, as I said, the masses being the masters of socialist society is relative and not absolute. This is one of the sharpest expressions of it. This is a case where representatives who hopefully act in the interests of the masses are, in their very small circles, debating and deciding this—and then taking it down through the ranks of the party and the army, and in some form among the broader masses. So that's one point.

The other point has to do with this orientation about "a solid core with a lot of elasticity" and about being able to determine and distinguish those things around which you do really have to be very firm and pay very close attention, and those things around which you don't have to and shouldn't do that. Even within the life of the party, this is something that needs to be applied—even in the political and ideological life of the party (I mean, there's life of the party in another sense, but we're not talking about that right now). [ laughter ] But in the ideological and political life of the party, you have to be able to make those distinctions. If you want ferment among those you are leading and influencing, or in the society as a whole if you're leading it, you can't have no ferment inside your leading core, your vanguard. So what can you have it over, and what can't you? In the midst of trying to deal with all the contradictions of socialist society, are we going to have the party undecided about whether we should have socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat? I don't think so! If that were the case, we wouldn't be able to do anything.

On the other hand, what does it mean to apply these principles in the sphere of art, or of health service, or the scientific sphere? We might be able to have a lot of ferment and debate—including in the party—over things like that.

But this will put tremendous strains on things, and particularly on the leading core, at times. In feudal society one of the ways they executed people was by drawing and quartering them, with horses pulling people in different directions and their bodies just flying apart. Well, you know, if you're in a position of trying to lead a process of the kind I'm talking about, you can feel sometimes like you might be drawn and quartered. Maintaining that solid core, while allowing and encouraging and fostering a lot of ferment, and wrangling and struggle—a lot of the elasticity— means that it's extremely difficult to keep that core together while you're doing that. But if you don't do that, if you're not willing to risk that, then you won't really involve the masses the way you need to—the "you" who is engaging and deciding these things doesn't expand, even inside the party, let alone more broadly, and you don't get the richness and diversity out of which much more can be learned.

But this takes work. That's why Mao said that dogmatists are lazybones, because all you have to do is just repeat a few rote formulas and chant a few slogans, and treat the science like—pervert it into a religion, essentially—and for awhile you can go along like that, until reality overwhelms you. But to do it the way I'm talking about, and emphasizing, requires a lot of work and it requires continually grappling with "what is this outlook and methodology and how do you apply it correctly under now this circumstance and now that circumstance—with three or four things going on at once." I remember there was this ad with Martina Navratilova a number of years ago—I don't remember what the product was but I remember the ad—she was sitting there with all these tennis balls flying by her (or at least they were simulating that), and then at one point she reached up and grabbed one. The point was that you have to maintain your concentration in that kind of a circumstance—keep your eye on the prize, so to speak—while you let some things go. And that's what we have to do. A lot of things are flying by you, and you've got a lot of things going on that are intensely percolating in society—and how do you keep ahold of the core but let a lot of this stuff fly all around you? That takes a lot of work and struggle and going back and forth between practice and theory and really knowing the masses of people more and more deeply and bringing them forward more so that you have the basis, when you go to apply this outlook and methodology, to really do it well. And then you have to learn quickly and well from your mistakes. And maybe once in a while a ball flies and hits you in the face, and then you have to deal with that.

But if you don't conceive of socialism, and even the life of a vanguard party, in that kind of way, then I don't think you're really going to be capable of rising to the challenges we're going to confront, and you won't be really involving the masses, both in the party and more broadly, in coming up with the answers to these questions.

There are elements of what I'm saying here that are drawing from historical experience; and there are elements that are new, in the sense of trying to take that experience and look at it in a new light and try to figure out what aspects, or different angles of coming at this, would be correct or should be attempted. And, although we don't have socialist societies and the dictatorship of the proletariat right now, we do have a party and there are parties in other countries— we do have a movement, an international movement—and a lot of the same questions, methodologically, pose themselves now. And the experience we accumulate in handling these things well and the way in which the masses learn to do this in growing numbers—as Lenin said masses means different things under different circumstances. When you don't have a revolutionary situation, masses might refer to a few hundred people or a few thousand people in a given area. When you get a real mass upsurge in society, masses becomes tens, hundreds of thousands, even millions. When you get a revolutionary situation, it becomes a great part of society that is called into political life. So, when we talk about "masses" now, we're not talking about millions and millions of people at this point; we're talking about relatively small numbers, we're talking about thousands of people who can be drawn into these processes. But that's very important preparation for when millions are called into motion.

So we have some things to learn about this, but I think the principle that it's never good when there's not ferment also applies to parties. Intellectual ferment, ideological ferment, is part of what we need to keep a party vigorous and keep it able to really deepen its ties with and bring forward masses without losing its bearings, and without losing its essential core.

RL: We wish to end on this note.