Revolution #167, June 7, 2009

From "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That"

The following excerpts are from a polemic written by Bob Avakian, addressing an essay entitled "On Proletarian Democracy" by K. Venu, leader of the Central Reorganisation Committee, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Both Avakian's work and Venu's essay were originally published in A World To Win magazine in 1992. The CRC went out of existence shortly after that; but Venu's arguments have continued to be recycled and refurbished, even among the ranks of those claiming to be Maoist. In many ways, though completed in December of 1991, Avakian's piece is perhaps even more relevant—­and, if anything, more important—today than ever. It was later published as part of the second edition of Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism (having originally been written as a companion piece to that work).

This essay on K. Venu is part of Bob Avakian's whole body of work on this question, which includes, among others, Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy (RCP Publications, 2008), "Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism" (, 2004), and Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That? (Banner Press, 1986).

If the Vanguard Doesn't Lead, Who Will?

With this in mind, let’s return to the formulation in the CRC document’s “new orientation”: “This socialist system, in which the socialized economic base and the proletarian democratic political system are complementary aspects, must survive on its own becoming a social system acceptable to and practised by the whole people, under the leadership of the proletariat”. Here it must be asked: what is meant by this “whole people”? Does it include or exclude the overthrown exploiters? And what about newborn exploiters, arising from within socialist society itself? And what about degenerated elements from among the working people themselves, since no reasonable person can deny that in socialist society there will be such? Once it is allowed that dictatorship must be exercised over these groups, then we are back to the fact that “a social system acceptable to and practised by the whole people” cannot come about right away or in a short time—without protracted and at times very acute class struggle and in fact the thorough transformation of the economic base and the superstructure of society and moreover the whole world.

What, in this context, can “survive on its own” mean? Does it mean that if the “whole people” decide they do not want this system, it must be abandoned until a time in the future when, perhaps, this “whole people” will decide that after all they do want this system again—at least for a while. The absurdity of such a concept—which is related to the absurdity of this Khrushchev-like notion of a classless “whole people”—should be readily apparent.

Oh, but it is said that this “whole people” must practise this “socialist” system “under the leadership of the proletariat”. But here this CRC document runs into a logical contradiction of its own making. According to its own logic, it can legitimately be asked: who gave the proletariat “the right” to assert its leadership? From the point of view of this “whole people”, why is that not just as bad as the dreaded “dictatorship of the party”? But, even if this proletarian leadership were to be accepted, how would this leadership be actually exercised—institutionally or “extra-institutionally”—what would be the means and mechanisms for this that would not actually land you back in the same old situation where the vanguard of the proletariat plays the leading role?

In fact, once again the very logic of this document will lead to the conclusion that there should not be any vanguard, at least not a proletarian vanguard. And, further, it will also lead to the conclusion that no one, no social classes or forces, should be excluded from “the whole people”; for who gave any one group “the right” to set itself up as the judge of who can be included among “the whole people”. There is, of course, an answer to this, but it cannot be provided with the bourgeois-democratic outlook that runs through this CRC document.

At this point the CRC document seems to allow that the leadership of a vanguard party will be necessary to carry out the overthrow of the old state power, the smashing of the old state machinery and then “the establishment of the new political system”. (par. 10.4) And further, “The vanguard party of the proletariat will have to play the leading role until the new political system starts functioning effectively, by completing the process of the socialisation of the means of production and then consolidating the power in the hands of the new ruling classes under the leadership of the proletariat. Once this is achieved the communist party must give up its monopoly control of the revolutionary transformation and allow the system to function on its own. Under the proletarian democratic system, the effectiveness of the new system will be accepted or rejected by the people through an open democratic process in which the whole people will be freely involved through their own political organisations or otherwise.” (ibid)

Once again, the document is embroiled in all kinds of logical contradictions of its own making.

First, on the question of violently overthrowing the old system and the role of the vanguard party in this, as was pointed out in the beginning of this critique, in drawing some general conclusions concerning the CRC document: this document’s position on the so-called dictatorship of the party is inescapably linked to a position that a violent overthrow, especially one led by a vanguard party, is also wrong—elitist and coercive not only against the bourgeoisie but also against masses of people who may not, at the start at least, agree with the vanguard party about the need to carry out this violent overthrow. Shouldn’t this question (of whether or not to overthrow the old system) be put to a vote of the “whole people”? Or perhaps it should be put to a vote of the “whole people” minus the old ruling class and those (openly) siding with it?—but then, again, you would run into the vexing problem of who would decide, who would have “the right” to decide, who exactly should be included and excluded from the ranks of the “whole people”. Before long, this kind of formal democratic preoccupation would overwhelm any orientation toward overthrowing the system!

This might seem like a caricature of the CRC document’s position, but it is not. It is not accidental that Khrushchev’s line on “the state of the whole people” was part of a package that also included “the peaceful transition to socialism”. And the parallel also exists with regard to the line and logic put forward in this CRC document. If this line and logic is persisted in, it won’t be long before some version of “peaceful transition” is also more or less openly adopted.

Returning to the question of when and according to what criteria it should be determined that the party should no longer play an institutionalized leading role in the new society, we run into another of the by-now-familiar logical contradictions in the CRC document. Who is to determine when “the new political system starts functioning effectively” and specifically when the consolidation of “power in the hands of the new ruling classes under the leadership of the proletariat” has been sufficiently achieved that the party must give up this role? Is it the party that decides this? But that is a contradiction in itself—how can the party decide for the masses that they no longer need the party’s institutionalized leading role? Or, if this is not decided by the party, then by whom and by what means is this decided—do the people vote on it? But then who decides when it is time to have such a vote, who organizes such a vote, sets the rules for it, etc., etc.? The silliness of these questions is a reflection of the underlying idealism of the whole line set forth in this CRC document.

Turning to the economic aspect, in no socialist country to date has there existed anything close to complete socialization of ownership, certainly not in the sense spoken of by Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Programme (where he conceived of all ownership being ownership by society as a whole). And experience suggests that it is likely to involve a long period before such complete socialization can be achieved. In both the Soviet Union and in China when they were socialist, the fact that things had not yet advanced to the stage where all means of production were owned by the whole people was identified as a major reason why commodities and with them the law of value continued to play a significant, if not overall regulating, role in the economy. In China, collective ownership by groups of peasants was still the most widespread form of ownership, with the relatively small production teams still the main economic accounting unit. Mao, and Chang Chun-chiao following him, identified this as a significant and long-term contradiction, very much bound up with the existence of classes and class struggle and the continual engendering of the bourgeoisie under socialism. So, to say that the party should step down from its institutionalized vanguard role when the process of socialization is completed, without addressing crucial questions like this, is another, more serious, reflection of the idealism of this CRC document.

The fact is that, exactly because of profound contradictions such as this and their reflection in the superstructure, the party will have to continue to play the leading role for a long period—in fact throughout the entire historical period of socialist transition, which is marked by such contradictions. And to actually play this role in the correct way—in the correct relationship to the masses—this leading role must be institutionalized. As pointed out before, if this is not the case, then, owing to the actual contradictions still in force, some other group must and will dominate decision-making, but it will be bourgeois cliques of one kind or another.

The Bourgeois Electoral Model vs. Leading the Masses to Remake the World

Yes, it is true, the party must not rely on its position of authority, it must rely on the masses; but that does not mean it should degenerate into acting like any old social-democratic party, tailing the masses and reducing its role to the framework and confines of bourgeois-democratic politicking for votes, abdicating its responsibility to act as a vanguard and actually lead the masses in revolution.

That the CRC document’s vision of the functioning of the “proletarian democratic system” is in reality not qualitatively different from a classical bourgeois-democratic system should be clear by now. Its “model”, where the communist party’s “right to govern” is “strictly based on the electoral support gained by its platform just like any other platform”, would, at best, translate into a situation where rival power centers, coalesced around different platforms, would compete for the votes of the masses. The result of this (again, at best) would be some sort of “coalition” government, in which “socialists” and “communists” of various kinds would be involved together with representatives of various other, more openly bourgeois and petit-bourgeois, “democratic” trends, and in which the fundamental interests of the masses would be “compromised away” and no radical transformation of society would be carried out (and any attempt at this would be quickly and ruthlessly suppressed by this “coalition” government). Hasn’t there been enough—indeed far too much!—experience, all over the world, to graphically illustrate this?1

The notion that somehow this kind of electoral process will result in the expression of the “political will” of the masses can only elicit a cynical snort of laughter from anyone who is at all familiar with this kind of electoral process and who is not suffering from “political amnesia”; it is a notion that could be believed only by people who take bourgeois democracy more seriously than the bourgeoisie itself does—who have not learned, or have “unlearned”, that such democracy, with its electoral process, is an instrument that serves the exercise of dictatorship by the bourgeoisie over the masses. This does not mean that there is no legitimate role for elections in socialist society, but such a role must be based on the recognition that the formal process of elections cannot represent the highest or most essential expression of the “political will” of the masses; that elections can only be a subordinate part of the overall process through which that “political will” is expressed; that elections, like everything else in class society, will be conditioned and shaped by the fundamental class relations; and that in socialist society elections must reflect and serve the exercise of political power by the proletariat, with the leading role of its party.

In contrast to this, the following characterization of the role of elections in bourgeois society applies as well to the (bourgeois) democratic electoral process the CRC document envisions for its version of “socialist” society and its “proletarian democratic system”:

“This very electoral process itself tends to cover over the basic class relations—and class antagonisms—in society, and serves to give formal, institutionalized expression to the political participation of atomized individuals in the perpetuation of the status quo. This process not only reduces people to isolated individuals but at the same time reduces them to a passive position politically and defines the essence of politics as such atomized passivity—as each person, individually, in isolation from everyone else, giving his/her approval to this or that option, all of which options have been formulated and presented by an active power standing above these atomized masses of ‘citizens’.” (Avakian, Democracy, p. 70, emphasis in original)

Throughout the CRC document we find many references to the “political will” of the people or of the proletariat. But nowhere in this document is there the understanding—in fact this understanding has been repudiated—that there is no way of realizing, and more than that no way of even determining, the “political will” of the proletariat and the masses except through the leading role of the party—through its practice of the mass line and its application of a communist ideological and political line overall.

In fact, as we have seen, the CRC document consistently poses the vanguard role of the party against the conscious activism of the masses. This is unmistakably clear in its claim that, once the standing army has been abolished and replaced by the arming of the whole people, and once the party and its “vanguard role” have been reduced to a matter of the party competing for electoral votes on the basis of its platform (“just like any other platform”), then “unlike in the hitherto practised forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the new political structure, the people wielding the real power in their own hands, also with the arms in their hands, will be playing a very active role in the whole political life of the society, thereby being the best guarantee against restoration and also ensuring the best conditions for seizing back power if restoration takes place”. (par. 10.9, emphasis added)

This is a most amazing statement! How, for example, could people familiar with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution argue that the masses in China were not “playing a very active role in the whole political life of the society”—both in general and specifically in combating revisionism and capitalist restoration? If we contrast the Cultural Revolution with the recent (bourgeois) “democratic upsurges” in China, we can say, without the slightest hesitation, that the conscious activism, the class-conscious revolutionary initiative, of the masses of Chinese people was expressed “a million times more” in the Cultural Revolution. And this has everything to do with the fact that in the Cultural Revolution the masses had the leadership of a communist vanguard, while the recent struggle has not had that leadership.2 In this recent struggle there were positive factors and progressive, even revolutionary, forces taking part—there were open expressions of respect for Mao and support for Mao’s line, there were contrasts explicitly drawn between Mao and his revolutionary followers on the one hand and the corrupt revisionist rulers of today on the other hand. But, with all that, in an overall sense, the forces and lines that occupied the leading position within the mass upsurge represented the interests of the bourgeoisie.

Here it is worth repeating the following on the role of the Leninist party and its relation to the masses, which applies after the seizure of power and throughout the socialist transition period as much as it does to the struggle for the seizure of power:

“Lenin forged and applied these principles by leaping beyond what had previously been worked out by Marx or Engels and further by rupturing with conventional wisdom and practice in the Marxist movement, but he did so from the foundation of basic Marxist principle, by adhering to its basic methodology and entirely consistent with its revolutionary, critical spirit. To raise in opposition to these principles the experience of the Paris Commune, which was defeated—in part, if only secondarily, because of the lack of a Leninist-type party—or the Second International, which degenerated into an outright instrument of imperialism, is thinking turned inside-out and facing backwards, to put it mildly. To argue that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution can be traced to the very nature and role of the Leninist party itself is first of all contrary to the facts and an evasion of the fundamental problems besides. Lenin’s argument in What Is To Be Done?—that the more highly organized and centralized the party was, the more it was a real vanguard organization of revolutionaries, the greater would be the role and initiative of the masses in revolutionary struggle—was powerfully demonstrated in the Russian Revolution itself and has been in all proletarian revolutions. Nowhere has such a revolution been made without such a party and nowhere has the lack of such a party contributed to unleashing the initiative of masses of the oppressed in conscious revolutionary struggle. And, argue that a vanguard, Leninist party may degenerate, may turn into an oppressive apparatus over the masses, and therefore it is better not to have such a party, only amounts to arguing that there should be no revolution in the first place; this will not eliminate the contradictions that make such a party necessary, the material and ideological conditions that must be transformed, with the leadership of such a party, in order to abolish class distinctions and therewith, finally, the need for a vanguard party.” (Avakian, For a Harvest of Dragons, Chicago: RCP Publications, 1983, p. 84, emphasis in original)

Conclusion: Rising to the Challenge or Repudiating Revolution

At this point, the main theses and arguments of this CRC document have been dealt with, and the question that once again poses itself is: where will this line lead those who persist in following it? By the end of this CRC document, where it broaches “Some Further Questions”, the larger implications of its line and methodology are becoming evident. In particular there is an orientation of applying the whole notion of combating “class reductionism” and focusing on the “non-class aspects” of a whole number of significant social questions. Thus it is clear that a retreat from the basic principles and methods of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is underway all along the line.

And this retreat is expressed not only in important political positions but also in terms of major questions of ideological line. Near the end of the CRC document, in the course of a discussion on the proper attitude toward the mistakes as well as the contributions of leaders of the international proletariat, we find the following statement: “Even during the rich experiences of Chinese revolution only Mao’s contributions were counted for the enrichment of Marxism.” (par. 12.2)

In response to this, it must be emphasized that it is not a question of Mao as an individual, or of his authority as a leader in some abstract—or formal—sense; and it is not that Mao never made mistakes or that his mistakes should not be summed up. The point is that Mao’s ideological and political line represents a scientific concentration of rich experience, both in China and internationally—it represents the application of communist theory to this experience and the development of communist ideology to a new stage. Not to grasp this—or, more to the point, to retreat from a recognition of this—in the name of not one-sidedly focusing on the contributions of leading authorities, is once more eclectics. In opposition to materialist dialectics, it is idealism and metaphysics which breaks the link between practice and theory as a concentration of practice. It is relativist, and opens the flood-gates to the general relativist argument that one idea is as good as another. This is another significant expression of the overall petit-bourgeois outlook that has been adopted in this CRC document.

What has happened here is something very similar to what Lenin describes in “The Collapse of the Second International”: a major turn in world events has led to disorientation and near-panic, to the scrambling to discard principles which suddenly seem to be a burden rather than a boon in carrying out an orientation of bowing to the spontaneity of the masses and in particular bowing to petit-bourgeois prejudices and democratic illusions, trailing in the wake of the bourgeoisie. Before, “the man in the street” could perhaps be persuaded, particularly about the Soviet Union: “but that is not real communism”. Now that same “man in the street” looks at statues of Lenin coming down in the Soviet Union and is reinforced in the “spontaneous” (bourgeois-propagated) view that “communism was never any good, even in the land of the first communist revolution”.

This kind of tailing after backward forces and sentiments is strongly exhibited again at the end of the CRC document. In the concluding paragraph we are told:

“When the people of the former socialist countries put the communist strategy of monopoly power for the party during the whole transitional phase of socialism on the dock of history, communists cannot remain satisfied with the consolation that this is the result of backward thinking among the people. On the contrary, these experiences again and again indicate the Marxist teaching that the people alone are the creators of history.” (par. 14.2)

First of all, it is a grand(iose) exaggeration to say that “the people” in these countries have put the principle of the institutionalized leading role of the Communist Party “on the dock of history”. With regard to China, for example—and this is hardly an insignificant example—it is far from the case that the masses uniformly hold the position that the CRC document ascribes to them: it is clear that there are many who have a very real sense of the qualitative difference between the Communist Party of Mao and the corrupted “Communist Party” under Deng and who have a deep respect for the former and nothing but contempt for the latter—and this is especially so if we are talking about the masses of workers and peasants.

As for the Soviet Union, while there are a number of people (older workers in particular) who have a general sense that there are significant differences between the country under Stalin’s leadership and the situation since (and who strongly prefer the former to the latter, for a number of reasons), it is safe to say that in the Soviet Union (and in other “former socialist countries” that have been part of the Soviet bloc) very few people have ever even heard a systematic presentation of the Maoist analysis of the process of capitalist restoration and of the nature of the ruling classes in the revisionist countries and of the conflicts among various factions within those ruling classes. It is precisely this scientific analysis that is required, but rather than make a materialist analysis of what has gone on in these countries—including a class analysis of the various forces and lines involved—the CRC document makes a philosophical principle out of worshipping the confusion and backwardness of sections of the people in relation to events there: “these experiences again and again indicate the Marxist teaching that the people alone are the creators of history”.

This is the same thing as if, at the outbreak of World War 1, when a wave of national chauvinism swept through Russia, Lenin had heralded the chauvinist sentiments and demonstrations of masses of Russian people as a living testament to “the Marxist teaching that the people alone are the creators of history”! In fact, the logic of the CRC document here amounts to saying that whatever the masses—and in particular the intermediate or even backward masses, those most strongly influenced by the outlook and propaganda of the bourgeoisie—think at any given time is an expression of the real and highest interests of the masses. This is closely akin to the revisionist formula Lenin strongly criticized: what is desirable is whatever is possible, and what is possible is whatever is happening at the given time. This is not an orientation toward or a method for leading the masses to break with the shackles—including very importantly the mental shackles—of the old order and to create a new world through revolutionary struggle. It is a recipe for miserably tailing the masses and leading them around in a circle, following their own back-sides, without ever breaking free of those shackles.

Real and profound questions have been given concentrated expression in relation to the recent events in the (former) revisionist countries. The answer lies in going deeper, making even firmer one’s grounding in Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and on that basis fearlessly, and with a ruthlessly scientific approach, examining the historical experience of the international communist movement. But, once again, in this CRC document we see a different response—outright repudiation of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, of “basic concepts we had held aloft so far”....

With this document, “On Proletarian Democracy”, its authors have retreated into the position that in fact it is not possible or desirable to cross the narrow horizon of bourgeois right—even of formal, bourgeois, democracy. Their answer to the question—can’t we do better than that?—is No. Despite any declarations, or intentions, on their part about upholding the final goal of communism, they have retreated to the “classical theme” of not only the undisguised bourgeoisie but bourgeois socialists singing the same old tired song—they have joined the chorus of those who proclaim, ever more loudly these days, that we cannot and must not move beyond the stage in human history where society remains divided into classes and is marked by social antagonisms.

Whether they intend it or not, their position would condemn the masses to a situation where they could not rise up and overthrow the old order, could not exercise dictatorship over the exploiting classes and could not carry forward the revolution under this dictatorship toward the final goal of communism. It would leave the masses under the domination of an economic system of capitalist exploitation and a corresponding bourgeois political system where, as Marx put it, they have the opportunity to choose, every so many years, which set of exploiters will rule over and oppress them. That is the logic of repudiating the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in socialist society and the actual lessons communists must draw from it, and replacing this with demands for an illusory democracy that is impossible and undesirable under the conditions of socialism, and is unnecessary—and in a profound sense impossible as well—with the achievement of communist society, worldwide.

It is not my intent or purpose here to attempt to examine all the links between the complete full-blown opportunist line represented by this CRC document on the dictatorship of the proletariat and other erroneous tendencies that have characterized the CRC. My focus has been on exposing this full-blown opportunist line itself, which represents a concentration of an incorrect outlook, method, and political line. As expressed in the beginning of this critique of the CRC document, it is my hope that this critique will contribute to the comrades of the CRC themselves undertaking a thorough criticism and repudiation of this document, and in the process re-examining other positions taken by the CRC to see where and in what ways these positions have shared at least aspects of this incorrect outlook, method, and political line.

1. Among the debacles suffered by socialist and communist parties that have fallen into bourgeois parliamentarism and/or focused their efforts on involvement in governments of “coalition” with various bourgeois forces, perhaps the most dramatic and tragic is the experience of the Indonesian Communist Party in the mid-1960s. This involved the massacre of hundreds of thousands of communists (and other Indonesian people), the decimation of a powerful communist party, at the hands of the reactionaries. Leading up to this, the Indonesian Party had increasingly made the focus of its work parliamentary and other forms of legal struggle; it had increasingly relied on its parliamentary successes and its positions in a coalition government (headed by the bourgeois nationalist Sukarno); and it was consequently unprepared for the counterrevolutionary coup d’etat carried out by the Indonesian military (led by Suharto) with not only the backing and back-stage direction but also the active participation of the U.S. CIA. (see “Historical Document: Self-Criticism by the Indonesian Communist Party, 1966”, in Revolution, No. 55, Winter/Spring 1987)

Although the Sukarno government did not, of course, represent the dictatorship of the proletariat, still there is an analogy between the situation of the Indonesian Communist Party in that “nationalist” government and the position that a communist party would be in if it tried to implement the line advocated by the CRC document on how a party should operate under the dictatorship of the proletariat. As noted, such a party would in effect find itself in a “coalition” government in which the party would not be able to exercise sole leadership—in fact, it would not really be able to exercise leadership at all. The party, and the revolutionary masses generally, would be extremely vulnerable to a reactionary coup d’etat (and massacres that would accompany it). Here, once more, it is crucial to recognize that, even leaving out the overthrown ruling class, the “whole people”, under the conditions of socialist society, means many different classes—including newborn bourgeois forces—and “the arming of the whole people” would in reality mean the development of many different armed camps among the people, including armed forces effectively under the command of bourgeois counterrevolutionary leadership. [back]

2. Further, it should be noted that the great unleashing of the masses in the GPCR was possible, too, because it took place under the dictatorship of the proletariat, while the 1989 events were suppressed by a bourgeois state, a bourgeois dictatorship. [back]

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