Revolution #169, June 28, 2009
Revolution talks with Raymond Lotta
Socialist Revolution in the 20th Century
Controversies and Lessons, Part Three
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.
This is the third, and final, part of this interview. Part One appeared in Revolution #166 (May 31, 2009); Part Two appeared in Revolution #167 (June 7, 2009).
Question: Raymond, you talked quite a bit about the achievements of the Cultural Revolution. But socialism was overthrown in China in 1976. There are people, including some who would describe themselves as Maoists, who look at this and conclude that there was something fundamentally wrong with the concepts guiding these revolutions, especially the leading role of a communist vanguard party. How do you respond to this?
Raymond Lotta: There is a question here of what lessons should and should not be drawn from the first stage of the communist revolution. The Soviet and Chinese revolutions achieved these amazing, these truly liberating, things. But they did this in a world still dominated by imperialism and in which the proletariat is still learning how to remake society. These societies were a glimpse of the future...and they showed that a new state power and institutionalized vanguard leadership are indispensable, if you are serious about mobilizing the masses to revolutionize society and the world.
Question: But you’re not saying that there weren’t problems?
Raymond Lotta: There were shortcomings and errors, some of them quite serious, especially in the case of Stalin and the Soviet Union, though we can’t overlook that this was the first attempt to build a socialist society, and in extremely hostile external circumstances. Even in China, where Mao led in developing a groundbreaking understanding and emancipatory practice for continuing the revolution, there were some problems in conception and in methods.
These problems were not the main cause of the defeat of socialism in 1976. But they had an effect. These problems in conception and method influenced the alignments of social forces within revolutionary China at the time of the reactionary coup...the understanding of the masses about where society needs to go and how...and influenced the theory and practice of how the revolutionary state was interacting with the world arena. Again, these were secondary shortcomings in an overwhelmingly positive experience, but they exerted real influence.
The new Manifesto of the RCP, USA, Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, speaks to this. It points out that, among some forces, one response to this current moment and the whole experience of the first stage is to refuse to engage with Mao’s analysis of the real contradictions of the socialist transition, or to reject it and distance themselves from this whole experience. Many of these forces say we have to “go back to the drawing board” or come up with something new for the 21st century. And under this umbrella many of these forces are going back to the past...to the 18th century and to the outlook and principles of bourgeois democracy, and its formal processes of competitive elections, its declarations of classless democracy and equality—all of which cover over and legitimize bourgeois class dictatorship.
And then there is what Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, has been doing. As the Manifesto puts it, Avakian is “building on all that has gone before, theoretically and practically, drawing the positive and negative lessons from this, and raising this to a new, higher level of synthesis.”
The New Synthesis
Question: There’s a lot of controversy about this as well.
Raymond Lotta: This new synthesis is based on a deeper understanding of the dynamics of socialist society as a transition to communism. It speaks to the challenges of exercising leadership in socialist society in a way that is more consistent with the aims of communist revolution...and to the kind of society socialism must be if it is going to open the way to communism.
Really, what is the essence of the dictatorship of the proletariat—what is the proletarian revolution really aiming for? Marx wrote this wonderful passage which summarizes this concisely. He talked about communism as the abolition of all class distinctions, of all the production relations on which those class distinctions rest, of all the social relations that correspond to those production relations, and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that correspond to those social relations. This has come to be called the “4 Alls.” That’s what the communist project is about: achieving the 4 Alls. Avakian’s new synthesis is more scientifically grounded in this...at going at the achievement of these 4 Alls more deeply and more all-sidedly to emancipate all of humanity.
Question: Maybe you could say some more about the content of this.
Raymond Lotta: Avakian is bringing forward a new model of socialist society. You need firm and visionary leadership to guide the complex and challenging struggles to achieve the goal of a world community of freely associating human beings. You need to hold on to power; you don’t want to allow the capitalists back in to power. But this new power has to be worth holding on to. Socialism has to be a vibrant and exciting place that people would want to live in and that would open the pathways to communism.
A highly important aspect of this new model of socialist society is a greater role for dissent, the greater fostering of intellectual ferment, more scope for creativity in the arts, and more of an atmosphere of experimentation and initiative than existed in the Soviet Union when it was socialist and in revolutionary China.
Question: In what sense is this different from the Cultural Revolution?
Raymond Lotta: It’s building on but actually going beyond the Cultural Revolution. There’s a lot we could get into, but let me give an example. One of the great things about the Cultural Revolution was that it brought the masses into “forbidden” arenas, like the sciences, the arts, management and administration. There were these extraordinary transformations aimed at reducing what Mao called the “three great differences”: between mental and manual labor, town and country, worker and peasant.
You had peasants and workers being admitted into the universities on a vast scale. You had intellectuals and artists going to the countryside...no, not as punishment as the bourgeois accounts distort it but as part of overcoming the lopsided concentration of intellectual, cultural, and scientific resources in the cities and bringing the intellectuals into closer contact with the masses—to share knowledge and to learn from peasant masses. You had things like “open-door” research, where scientific experiments were conducted among the peasants.
There was a revolution in culture, breakthroughs like the model operas that combined high artistic quality with revolutionary themes. Peasants and workers were on the stage instead of feudal emperors. These works projected powerful images of strong, independent, revolutionary women. They involved innovative collective forms of producing art. There was an explosion of amateur artistic expression among the masses. The Cultural Revolution profoundly revolutionized what Marxists call the “superstructure”—the political structures, social relations and social institutions, values and ideas of society.
This was pathbreaking—and we as communists have to go up against the bourgeois lies and distortions. But we also have to dig into this experience deeply.
In working on the mental/manual contradiction, there was tendency to go at this one-sidedly—from the side of bringing the basic masses into the intellectual spheres...and from the side of integrating intellectuals with the masses. This was correct and important. But as Avakian has summed up, there was not sufficient recognition and appreciation of the very important contribution that intellectuals and intellectual ferment plays in socialist society. In other words, working on the contradiction from this side—this was not sufficiently recognized and appreciated.
Role of Intellectuals
Question: But aren’t intellectuals privileged?
Raymond Lotta: You don’t want to replicate the ivory-tower relations of capitalist class society, where the masses are locked out of the realm of working with ideas, and where you have small islands where a stratum of people can work with ideas while the great majority of humanity is not only prevented from doing so but subjected to exploitation.
But you lose something very important if you simply see the matter in terms of reducing privilege. This might seem counterintuitive, but the fact is, you can’t overcome the gap between mental and manual labor...you can’t do that without a rich intellectual life, without giving scope and space to intellectuals, artists, and scientists.
One of the very positive aspects of intellectual life is the tendency to look at things in new ways and from new angles...and to challenge the status quo and hidebound thinking. All this puts questions of all kinds before society, raises the sights of the masses, and generally promotes a critical and exploratory spirit. All this is essential to the search for the truth—to humanity knowing the world more deeply, so it can be transformed more thoroughly. Avakian has been emphasizing that you can’t get to communism without this.
Question: You talked about this as a problem in previous socialist societies. Where did this come from?
Raymond Lotta: Well, this is a big question, in part involving some of the particular historical and social conditions out of which these revolutions emerged. But there were also questions of orientation and methodology that Avakian has examined, and he provides some conceptual tools to evaluate and explore this.
In the realm of epistemology—the branch of philosophy dealing with issues of knowledge—Avakian has identified the phenomenon of “class truth.” This is the idea, and it has had considerable currency in the international communist movement, that “truth has a class character”...that the bourgeoisie has its truth and the proletariat has its truth about the same phenomena. But this is wrong! There is one reality. What’s true is true: it either corresponds to or does not correspond to reality in its motion and development.
And this notion of “class truth” overlaps with the erroneous idea that people of proletarian or peasant background have special access to the truth...by virtue of their social position. But, again, truth is truth no matter who articulates it, and what’s wrong is wrong no matter who articulates it. And getting at the truth, for proletarians as well as people of other social and class strata, requires the grasp and application of a scientific approach to society and the world.
Now Marxism provides the most thoroughgoing and systematic approach to understanding society and nature in their complexity and changing-ness. But people who do not use this method—and even people who disdain and oppose Marxism—can discover important truths.
Avakian has pointed out that you want to promote Marxism in socialist society, the socialist state has to be doing this...but you can’t make Marxism some “official ideology.” You can’t impose it on people. It has to be taken up consciously and willingly. It has to be ideologically fought for; it has to be interacting with other outlooks and methods; and you need to be learning from all kinds of intellectual trends and currents.
There is class struggle in the realm of ideas over truth. But you can’t dismiss people or their ideas because they don’t come from “good class backgrounds.” You can’t dismiss what they’re saying or bringing forward because they may hold political positions opposed to the revolution and to communism. You have to critically sift through all of this...including uncomfortable and inconvenient truths that different people bring forward, that point to negative things in socialist society and in the leadership of society.
In socialism, you want the clash of ideas and debate on a vast, society-wide scale. But the concept of “class truth” has impeded that kind of rich process of contention and ferment in previous socialist societies.
The Role of Elections
Question: What you are emphasizing about the “clash of ideas” raises the question of elections under socialism. Wouldn’t it be better to put the party to the test of competitive elections?
Raymond Lotta: Within the framework of not letting go of power, competitive elections under socialism are very important. They are part of a larger process of uncovering problems in society and deepening understanding...part of the search for the truth... part of a larger process of bringing the masses into political and intellectual life. It’s crucial that contending lines be debated out broadly.
But the question of whether society should be socialist...this is not going to be put up for vote. This would be a betrayal of the struggle and sacrifice that brought the revolution to power...a betrayal of the interests of the world revolution: “oh, thanks a lot—you allowed yourself to be ‘voted’ out of office, to be ‘out-organized’ by old and new bourgeois and exploiting forces that threaten and cajole for the sole purpose of bringing back the old system.”
This is different from some in the international communist movement who see multiparty elections as a means of preventing capitalist restoration under socialism. There’s a tendency to want to find a short-cut to a very difficult and vexing problem: how to keep on the socialist road to communism, and how to maintain the communist party as a vanguard party in power at the same time that you are creating the conditions, as part of the worldwide advance to communism and overcoming the division of society into classes, to go beyond the need for institutionalized leadership.
Avakian makes the point in his recent “Ruminations” talk1 that this whole approach of putting communist leadership up for vote assumes that the masses will spontaneously gravitate to correct understanding. But this is not the case. There are the advanced, intermediate, and backward among the masses. And the communist revolution is challenging all traditional relations and ideas.
There’s complexity to the class struggle under socialism. Again, it’s important for these contending lines to be debated out broadly. But these things are not going to just sort themselves out. The capitalist roaders and new bourgeois forces have a lot going for them. They have spontaneity on their side. They appeal to the customary way of doing things, the “tried and true.” They rely on the force of habit deeply ingrained in class society—“leave it to the skilled and experienced who seem to know what’s best.”
The capitalist roaders also have international capitalism on their side—in some cases, gaining actual support and backing—and the whole weight of world capitalism...I’m talking about its pressures and threats, and its inducements, all this is working to their advantage.
So the proletariat, through its vanguard party, can’t let go of state power, by allowing its rule to be put up for vote. There needs to be leadership—genuine revolutionary communist leadership—or the revolution will be lost—which is unconscionable.
Avakian is saying that there should be contested elections over key issues facing society and the state. These things need to be vigorously debated out. There will be a civil society under socialism...associations and organizations that are not part of the government...in this case the socialist government. There will be elections in which organized forces will be advancing platforms and putting forward candidates for positions of governance at various levels. This will have real stakes...I’m talking about real policy outcomes.
Question: But you are setting certain terms.
Raymond Lotta: The new synthesis envisions and requires the revolution to firmly hold on to power to defend and advance the revolution. You have to suppress counterrevolution. To be clear, this is not the same as opposition to the government and to socialism...we’re talking about active efforts to undermine and overthrow the socialist state. And this distinction has to be clearly spelled out in a constitution.
The new synthesis sees the need to unleash a whole process marked by greater elasticity than has been the case in the first wave of socialist revolution. It sees a greater role for the contestation of different ideas and dissent throughout society, including ideas opposed to socialism and communism...and as articulated by the most ardent advocates of those ideas. The new synthesis envisions more space for initiatives running in all kinds of diverse and creative directions.
Getting to communism is not a single line of march forward. Socialism has to be a society of great diversity, initiative, and experimentation. There has to be all kinds of vibrant interplay between intellectuals and the masses. And the new synthesis envisions even greater involvement of the masses themselves in working with ideas and in the actual direction of society in every sphere, taking up and wrestling with the biggest problems of the revolution.
At the same time, this has to be led, in an overall sense, so it is contributing to the achievement of communism.
Question: This brings us back to the question of institutionalized leadership.
Raymond Lotta: Avakian has put forward the formulation “solid core with a lot of elasticity” to describe this orientation of the future socialist society.
First, there must be a solid core of leadership. This solid core must firmly grasp the fundamental and final goal of the revolution, the achievement of communism, throughout the world, and must hold firmly onto the reins of power against imperialist pressure and capitalist elements arising within socialist society—and it must maintain the new state power as a socialist state power in transition to communist society. Second, this leadership must expand the solid core to the greatest degree possible at any given time. Third, it must be consistently working toward the realization of the conditions where such a solid core will no longer be necessary. And, fourth, it must give expression to the greatest degree of elasticity at any time.
This elasticity is crucial. Dissent and contestation need to be raging over the big issues of society and the world. There has to be continual deepening of understanding, the continual interrogation of society and its leadership in all spheres and all institutions and structures.
It’s not going to be some neat and orderly process. As I said, in an overall sense it has to be led, summed up and sorted out, so that you are going towards communism. But not led in the sense of being managed. And the more far-reaching, probing, and contestational the texture of socialist society is—and I’m talking about protests and upheavals—well, the greater the risks of losing power. But that’s where you have to be prepared to go!
It’s mind-expanding. Avakian has said that a hallmark of vanguard leadership in socialist society has to be actively seeking to go to that “brink of being drawn and quartered.” What he means is that you will not be changing society in the ways it must be changed...the masses of people will not be gaining the knowledge and understanding they must...and they will not be able to increasingly develop the ability to master and transform society, in the direction of communism...if you are not doing this.
This is all necessary to get to communism. It’s all necessary to finally overcoming the contradictions and conditions that require institutionalized vanguard leadership.
I’m only touching on some aspects of the new synthesis, but taken as a whole it is a framework for the renewed advance of the communist project...for how we can go further and do better in the next stage of communist revolution. The new synthesis has ideologized revolution and communism back on the scene.
1 “Ruminations and Wranglings: On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science, Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning,” by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, is being serialized in Revolution (#162 - #167 and #169) and can be found in its entirety at revcom.us/avakian/ruminations/BA-ruminations-en.html. [back]
“Ruminations and Wranglings: On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science, Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning,” by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, is being serialized in Revolution (#162 - #167 and #169) and can be found in its entirety at revcom.us/avakian/ruminations/BA-ruminations-en.html
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