Revolution #167, June 7, 2009
Revolution Talks with Raymond Lotta
Socialist Revolution in the 20th Century
Controversies and Lessons, Part Two
Raymond Lotta is a Maoist political economist. He is author of America in Decline and editor of And Mao Makes Five and Maoist Economics and the Revolutionary Road to Communism. Since 2005, he has been speaking on college campuses and in the media as part of the Set the Record Straight Project, which is taking on the distortions and misrepresentations about the first wave of socialist revolutions in the 20th century. In December 2008, he helped organize a major symposium "Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution" held in New York City. Raymond Lotta is a contributing writer for Revolution newspaper; recent articles and interviews have also appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly (India), GlobalResearch.ca (Canada), and Agence France-Presse.
Question: Some people might agree that you need a vanguard party to seize power, or even to defend it in the initial stages of the revolution. But they argue that there are contradictions with a vanguard party in power that lead it to use that power arbitrarily over and against people, and that this whole structure of a powerful new state with institutionalized leadership leads to passivity among the masses.
Raymond Lotta: Yes, there are real contradictions bound up with the instrumentalities of proletarian rule, the vanguard party and the new state. But these are fundamentally contradictions bound up with making and sustaining revolution. You are dealing with socialist society not as you would like it ideally to be but with all its real-world contradictions. And you are making and defending revolution in a world not as you would like it ideally to be but a world in which imperialism is still dominant and the counter-revolutionaries still fight and plot to regain power.
Question: You’re not starting with a "clean slate."
Raymond Lotta: Yes. And there are the "birthmarks" of the old society. These include the force of tradition which supports the unequal and oppressive social relations that have to be overcome, and there is still the fact that society is—and will be, even as the new power works to break this down—divided between those who mainly work with ideas, and those who have not been trained to do so, and mainly work with their backs and hands.
These contradictions are reflected, and in many ways concentrated, in the party-state structures. But we have also learned more about how to confront these challenges, including how to revolutionize these structures themselves as part of carrying the revolution forward.
There is in fact a "learning curve" of proletarian revolution: from the Paris Commune, which was not able to suppress counterrevolutionary forces, in large part because it did not have organized leadership; to Lenin’s summation of the need for a vanguard party and to establish a new state to reorganize and transform society, and the theory and practice of the Russian Revolution; and from the Bolshevik Revolution through the Chinese Revolution and Mao’s theory of continuing the revolution. And now Bob Avakian is going further—building on this experience, rupturing with what was secondarily wrong, and bringing forward deeper understanding.
Revolution means continuing to change and bring forward new things, in accordance with deeper, newer, and more correct understanding. But this takes place on a foundation. To accept at face value the slanders that pass for common wisdom in bourgeois society is unconscionable for a revolutionary; and it is crucially important to struggle against those who succumb to those slanders and squander the lessons that have been won.
Was it worth going for power and using a new state power to construct a new society? Yes. These states both enabled the masses to subdue the forces trying to bring back exploitation and to construct new societies which were, for the first time in history, oriented toward, as Bob Avakian has put it, "dealing with the material reality and the conditions of the masses of people as the priority, as the focus and as the foundation."1 But as I said, there has been a learning curve in all this.
Question: Could you talk more about this "learning curve."
Raymond Lotta: Well, our Party has done a lot of analysis of the whole course of the revolution in the Soviet Union—its tremendous achievements, as well as its serious and even grievous errors—which I’m not going to repeat here.2 In short, though, by the mid-1950s it had become clear that something was seriously wrong in the Soviet Union. Mao led a deep study of this experience, focusing on questions of line, method and policy.
Mao discovered that the danger of the revolution being reversed, the danger of the communist party being turned into an instrument of a new, exploiting class, in short, the problem of capitalist restoration...he discovered that this stems from something much deeper than bureaucracy or not enough democracy.
This has to do with the very nature of socialism. On the one hand, socialism is a great leap—beyond exploitation and the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, it is a society in transition from capitalism to communism. It contains those "birthmarks" like the division between mental and manual labor. There is still a lingering hierarchy of specialization. While exploitation has been overcome, there are still inequalities in pay and income. While production is oriented towards meeting social need, it is still necessary to use money and prices to carry on exchange and measure and compare efficiency. There remain, as I mentioned earlier, tremendous gaps between town and country and agriculture and industry.
And these inequalities, what Mao came to call "bourgeois right" in a broad sense, are also reflected in policy and law. For example, the socialist state has to establish a wage system that takes account of the different skills levels of people and different pay levels.
Getting to communism requires overcoming these economic, social, ideological relations. But this can’t be done overnight. It’s a historical process of restricting and transforming these relations to the greatest degree possible. And there is struggle over how—and even whether—to do that at any given time. Mao summed up that this was actually a struggle between the socialist road and the capitalist road. That is, between the line and policies at any given time which would continue the advance of society to communism, and those which would not only retard that advance but also pave the way for a return to capitalism. The truth of this insight has been borne out today, when China is of course a major capitalist power...even if it has maintained the name and some of the trappings of socialism.
Mao also analyzed that these birthmarks—or bourgeois right—formed the soil out of which new bourgeois elements would emerge. He analyzed that the key core of the bourgeoisie would be concentrated in the leadership of the communist party—those who could take society down the capitalist road. And he developed a pathbreaking new form of revolutionary struggle to struggle against that: the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
Question: But a lot of people say the problem is that power corrupts, and a leading party like the Communist Party just invites corruption and bureaucratization. So the logic leads to the need to end the institutionalized leadership of the communist party.
Raymond Lotta: These are not simply bureaucrats or corrupt officials; these are not wayward communists just looking to feather their own nests. They are capitalist roaders. They are fighting in the realm of ideas and policies and orientation—over issues of line generally focused up on the direction that society will take. And they are organizing and mobilizing social forces. The capitalist roaders…they too are responding to those features, aspects, and relations of socialist society that have not been fully transformed...the kinds of things I have been talking about. They aim to transform things back towards capitalism. And you need state power to fight them, even as the capitalist roaders are organizing within the structures of proletarian rule.
Question: Maybe you could give an example.
Raymond Lotta: Take agriculture. The struggle between the two lines and the two roads in agriculture was very sharp in the Chinese Communist Party. Basically, after the revolution triumphed in 1949, one wing of the Party wanted to indefinitely extend and consolidate the policies of new democracy.3 These forces wanted to maintain private ownership as the main production relation in agriculture. Mao and the revolutionary headquarters saw the need and the basis to build socialism in the countryside as soon as land reform had been completed in the early 1950s.
A lot of people don’t realize that these two wings of the party, these two contending lines—one representing the socialist road and the other the capitalist road—had their supporters and defenders, and that actually there was a complex pattern of one side taking initiatives and the other reacting and moving to counter initiatives and policies. This was a concentrated expression of the class struggle in society—though in an overall sense the proletarian line was in command in Chinese society.
Question: You were focusing on agricultural policy...
Raymond Lotta: Yes, there was struggle over whether it was possible and desirable to do things collectively, to organize economically and socially, for the common good—which was what Mao argued for—or whether, as the capitalist roaders argued, you had to rely on family household farming and the pursuit of self-interest.
The capitalist roaders maintained that if social conditions got more polarized between the more efficient and less efficient, those earning more income and those earning less… well that’s the "price of progress." Mao felt agricultural policy had to guard against new social gaps emerging in the countryside, and that it was extremely important to bring farming into the orbit of the socialist plan, with industry at all levels supporting agriculture.
In a poor country like China, there was a great need to mechanize farming. There was also a need to continue the revolution and develop collectivized agriculture. The capitalist roaders in the early 1950s fought for the view that there could be no collectivization in China’s countryside before farming became much more mechanized. They downplayed the role of political and ideological consciousness and saw the task as simply being one of expanding production and building up the productive forces. For them, the way to mechanize agriculture was to focus on already advanced areas and to concentrate resources there—which would widen differences in the countryside.
Mao looked at this challenge differently, from the standpoint of advancing along the socialist road for agriculture. Mao argued that collectivization could precede mechanization and actually lay the basis for mechanization. In other words, by forging new social relations between peasants that enabled them to solve production and technical problems cooperatively… by establishing collective forms that forged broader social connections… and by promoting a revolutionary politics that unleashed the conscious activism of the masses and put before the masses the big political and ideological questions confronting society—such changes in organization and consciousness would be a spur to mechanization and create a favorable social framework for it.
In 1958, there was a breakthrough in the socialist road in agriculture. The people’s communes, involving mass activism and experimentation at the grass roots, were formed. The communes were economic-social units that coordinated production activities, provided health and education, organized major projects of land reclamation and irrigation, and that allowed the masses to develop collective solutions to tasks like childcare. The communes also functioned as political organs of power in the countryside. The masses were assuming responsibilities of governance, administration, and military training. Mao’s approach to agriculture also included great efforts to spread industrial, technical, and cultural resources to rural areas. The capitalist roaders attacked all this as "inefficient," "utopian," and "dangerous" to the stability of the country.
Question: The capitalist roaders were not just articulating a program for agriculture.
Raymond Lotta: The new bourgeois forces who emerged after the seizure of power in 1949 had their headquarters in the Chinese Communist Party and had their program for development. From their standpoint, the revolution basically ended in 1949. The task as they conceived it was not to forge a socialist society as a transition to communism and as part of the advance of the world revolution. Rather, their goal was to build China into a modern, prosperous, and industrialized power that would find its place and seek advantage on the world stage. They saw the planned economy and the political institutions of society simply as instrumentalities to put China on a "fast track" towards fulfilling that vision. In the early 1960s, they were fighting to make profitability a key criterion for allocating funds to different regions. They pushed policies to build up an educational system that would turn out new elites. And by the mid-1960s, they were positioning to seize power.
Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to prevent a capitalist takeover by these forces. Mao had summed up the experience of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union. He had assessed that earlier efforts in China to beat back these capitalist roaders were inadequate. He described the Cultural Revolution as a means to arouse the masses to "expose our dark aspects openly, in an all-round way and from below." The Cultural Revolution was a momentous upheaval, truly a revolution, to overthrow the capitalist roaders and seize back those portions of power that they had taken hold of—in government, education, culture, public health, industrial management, and so on.
Never in history has there been political mobilization and ferment on this societal scale. The radical youth played a catalytic role, criticizing bourgeois and conservative authority at all levels. The colleges shut down and students fanned out to the countryside and to factories. There were street rallies, demonstrations, and mass criticism sessions. In Shanghai in 1967, workers mounted an intense struggle to overthrow the capitalist roaders in power and to develop new institutions of governance.
But Mao said that while the target of the Cultural Revolution was the capitalist roaders, the goal was to change world outlook—how the masses understand society and the world, their transformative role, and issues of ideology and morality.
The masses were learning how to distinguish between the proletarian and bourgeois lines. Tens and hundreds of millions were debating and struggling over decisive questions concerning the direction of society and the world revolution. This complex struggle required visionary and scientific leadership—and through this process, the vanguard party itself was revolutionized.
In that incredible decade of 1966-76, an unprecedented mass upsurge succeeded in putting a halter on the attempts by the capitalist roaders to take power. But after Mao died, the forces of capitalist restoration were able to stage a reactionary coup. This was a terrible setback for the world revolution and world humanity, but it also underscored the truth of Mao’s analysis of the danger of capitalist restoration.
Question: But the argument is made that too much authority was concentrated in the party, and the party made itself more vulnerable to takeover. It’s claimed that the masses were too much "on the outside" of these line struggles, and that if the party had been put to the test of competitive elections, that would have created more favorable ground for dealing with these issues.
Raymond Lotta: There is a lot of mistaken thinking wrapped up in this idea of too much authority vested in the vanguard party.
First of all, socialist society is still a society divided into classes. We have talked about those birthmarks of capitalist society, including the gap between mental and manual labor. And so leaders concentrate the outlook and interests of the main contending classes, and will have disproportionate influence. Again, you have to understand where the danger of capitalist restoration comes from and the mass forms of struggle and the scale of transformation needed to continue the revolution. If the vanguard of the proletariat gives up its leading position in society, this only opens the field wider to bourgeois forces—who will be exerting their disproportionate influence and organizing to take society down the capitalist road.
The proletarian revolution is about radically changing the world in order to uproot and abolish all exploitation and oppression. It is going up against the force and influence of the past, and the strength and influence of the world imperialist system. Without vanguard leadership, you have no chance of marshaling all positive factors in society...no chance of mobilizing and relying on the masses with the strength of a state behind them to continue to transform society, and to keep on the socialist road...no chance of raising the political and ideological consciousness of the masses, as happened during the Cultural Revolution.
These are some of the key reasons that you need institutionalized vanguard leadership—and why Mao was correct in fighting for that principle, even as the party needed serious "shaking up" through the Cultural Revolution.
Question: What about democracy, though?
Raymond Lotta: I want to emphasize two aspects of this. First, the socialist state guaranteed the rights of the masses. In China, during the Cultural Revolution, there was democracy for the masses on an unprecedented scale. Nowhere before or since did the masses not only have formal rights of free speech and press, etc., but actually use them on such a scale to examine and debate all aspects of political life. One well-known example is the widespread use of what were called "big-character posters" in the schools, factories, and other institutions where constant debate and struggle took place by posting large wall posters on every available surface. It was forbidden to tear down a big-character poster, and every institution was required to make materials—paper, paint, and brushes—freely available.
The ability of the masses to hold meetings to criticize top party leaders, the freewheeling debates large and small...all of this was democracy on a scale not even imaginable in even the "most democratic" of capitalist states. The Cultural Revolution institutionalized what were called the "four bigs"—big character posters, big debates, big contending, and big blooming (of ideas). And if you think this was just cosmetic formality, the new capitalist rulers of China who came to power in 1976 understood that this was in the service of arousing and motivating the masses; they vilified and banned these practices.
But there is another aspect of democracy under the dictatorship of the proletariat that’s important. Forms were being developed, especially through the Cultural Revolution, through which the masses were increasingly able to take greater responsibility for the direction of society—like the revolutionary committees, which were new institutions of power. These involved combinations of representatives of the masses; from different professional, technical, intellectual-cultural strata (depending on the particular base-level institutions in question, like hospitals or schools); and party cadre. Through these organs of power, meaningful decision-making responsibility was being put in the hands of the masses.
Compare this to the electoral ritual of bourgeois democracy, where the masses are asked to choose between this and that representative of the ruling class, and through which the agendas of different fractions of the ruling class are legitimized.
1. Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation, a Revolution pamphlet, May 1, 2008, p. 31. [back]
2. See, for example, Conquer the World? The International Proletariat Must and Will, a talk by Bob Avakian in early fall, 1981, published in Revolution magazine No. 50, available online at revcom.us/bob_avakian/conquerworld; "The End of a Stage, The Beginning of a New Stage," a talk by Bob Avakian, published in Revolution magazine, Fall 1990; and "Socialism is Much Better Than Capitalism and Communism Will Be A Far Better World" a speech by Raymond Lotta, available online at revcom.us/strs. [back]
3. New democracy is the revolution in the oppressed nations led by the proletariat that aims to drive out imperialism and overthrow the big bourgeoisie and landlord classes; upon victory, a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, involving particular class alliances, is constituted and the advance to the socialist stage begins. William Hinton’s The Great Reversal and Through a Glass Darkly contain useful accounts of the two lines in agriculture and describe the "initiative-counterinitiative" dynamic of the two wings within the Chinese Communist Party. [back]
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