RW #596, March 10, 1991

Incentive and Initiative

by Bob Avakian

The following is a section that appears in a talk by Bob Avakian, printed up in the current issue of REVOLUTION magazine (Fall 1990). The title of this talk is "The End of a Stage--The Beginning of a New Stage."

There's the question of incentive and initiative--the two fundamentally opposed world views on this, the bourgeois and the proletarian.

Marx and Engels spoke to this already in the Communist Manifesto, answering the charge that communist society would take away all incentive from people because they wouldn't be able to get ahead further by working harder and so on. They pointed out that if this were true, if the bourgeois view were correct, then bourgeois society itself would have gone to the dogs long ago because in bourgeois society those who work the hardest and the most get the least, and those who work the least get the most.

Once again, the bourgeois view on this is a self-exposure. You can get a fundamental idea about a system and the class that rules in it by what they put forward as standards to be upheld and followed, by what they glorify or insist must be the rule. The bourgeois system insists on selfishness--that selfishness is the "bottom line" of all human motivation, and that any society not rooted in this is "unrealistic" and bound to fail. And apologizers for this system play on the fact that most people in the world have never known any other kind of system and, living under a system like this all their lives, find it difficult to even conceive of a different kind of system.

In a report from an area Party organization on work in a housing project, a woman in the project is quoted as saying this: "You keep talking about `the system,' but it is the people that make the system; it is not the system that makes the people." This woman was speaking out of disgust and dismay at some of the vicious and rotten things people around her, particularly a number of the youth, were drawn into. But she was also speaking under the influence of the bourgeois viewpoint and its never-ending propagation through the media, culture, the educational system, the churches, and many other vehicles.

This viewpoint puts things exactly upside-down. It is, in fact, the system that makes people--that determines people's relations with other people and that shapes and molds their values and ideas. People are not free to just choose any system they want. People come into the world with social systems already in effect, and they are made to "fit in" and "find their place" within the system.

As for people's ideas, Marx and Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto that the ruling ideas of every age are always the ideas of the ruling class. Where, after all, do people get their ideas from? Who controls what ideas they have access to and how different ideas and theories are presented--or not presented?

The system forces people to relate to each other in certain ways. It forces them through its "normal workings"--the economic system and how people must earn a livelihood and what people are pushed into and driven to by the workings of this system and the "lot" it hands them. The system coerces and represses people through the use of its state power and armed force when people try to go up against the system and do things a different way. For example, if homeless people try to take over housing--and this has happened in reality many times already in recent years in the U.S.--we see that the state power comes down on them and drives them out of the housing and subjects them to the punishments of the law, as well as outright brutality.

Or take something like People's Park in Berkeley, which is actually a struggle that flared up again and has been going on in one form or another for twenty years. Here were people trying to develop an alternative lifestyle, trying to develop a different way of relating, trying to put people above property and do something creative with an area that was just being kept for speculation by the university and other capitalist interests. And what happened there? People were killed as well as other people brutalized by the police, the National Guard came out, there was martial law imposed, and so on. And all of this is to say nothing of the continuing murders of Black people and other oppressed people in the U.S. and the general brutal murderous oppression brought down on anybody who seriously steps out of line or goes up against the whole system.

But, like everything else in life, the capitalist system is full of contradiction, and this contradiction erupts in all kinds of ways and calls forth all kinds of struggle. And in this struggle people, particularly the people on the bottom with the least stake in the present order, seek out ways to go up against the system and defeat it, and they seek out ideas to guide them in doing this. They are bound to be drawn toward those things that are in most fundamental contradiction to the whole system--toward the revolutionary proletariat and its ideology, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. In taking up the revolutionary struggle against the system and taking up the most revolutionary ideology to guide that struggle, people can and do change themselves. In rising up and overthrowing the system, they begin to make themselves into new people.

Look at the powerful example of how revolutionary China, with Mao's leadership, dealt with the drug question--as described in the pamphlet by Clark Kissinger--how they eliminated this as a social problem when it had been an extremely serious problem in the old society. How could this have been done if it was "the people who make the system" and not what it is in reality--"the system that makes the people."

And here I remember a story from visiting in China where it was recounted how a miner who was then in his fifties had in fact been an opium addict from the time he was six or eight, because that was the time he began working in the mines. And he was asked why he began smoking opium and how he eventually overcame this. He told the story of how his family was so poor that he had to begin working in the mines at that early age, and he worked continually, seven days a week for twelve or fourteen hours or more, and he said that literally for years on end he never saw the sun. And eventually, as others before him had, he came upon opium as a way of trying to deal with the situation, being able to bear up underneath it without totally cracking. And then he said after liberation, after China was completely liberated in 1949 and the new system came into being, he saw the sun, both literally as well as symbolically. And then he said he had no more need for opium, so he cast it aside as part of joining in the struggle to revolutionize society as a whole.

This is a true story, it has real meaning, and there are millions of such stories in China which illustrate the basic point that I am making here. No, the masses of people do not make this system--but they can and will overthrow it and create something far better in its place.

Mao Tsetung led the Chinese masses not only in overthrowing the old system but in making historic changes in how people relate and what motivates them. Mao upheld and applied the communist viewpoint on this question of initiative and incentive, taking this farther in theory and in practice than had previously been done in the experience of socialist countries.

"Serve the people"--that was the ideal and the practical slogan that Mao popularized, as opposed to Deng's motto: "to get rich is glorious," or "serve yourself"! Work not for personal gain but to advance the cause of the masses of people and the struggle for communism, all over the world. This was the orientation that Mao led the Chinese people in taking up and applying in practice.

These were not just lofty principles in some abstract sense--high-sounding but unrealistic--they were the guiding principles that tens and hundreds of millions of people in China strove to live by in their daily lives and that hundreds of millions of people in other countries were inspired by. And now that the revisionist-capitalist system in China that was installed with the overthrow of socialism is more and more revealing its all-around bankruptcy, material and "spiritual," even the imperialist media must report that increasingly masses of Chinese people are openly expressing their fondness for the morals and principles of serving the people and serving the collective good that were the guiding principles in socialist China led by Mao.

The position of Maoists is very clear: Yes, we most definitely want initiative--the initiative of individuals and above all initiative expressed through movements of masses of people. Our ideology and political line can and will unleash this in a far greater way than the bourgeoisie or other exploiting classes would ever think of doing, but this will not happen in the service of a commodity system where initiative is in fact stifled or perverted to serve the end of profiting at the expense of others. Our vision and our practical program point to the overthrow and elimination of all such systems and to the triumph of new, liberating and far more uplifting relations among people.

In these days when the imperialists are trying to make something fashionable and "trend-setting" out of "commodity-fetishism" (the outlook that treats everything and everybody as something to be bought and sold and used to make a profit); when they are on an offensive to declare their outmoded system and its corrupting, degrading values the "wave of the future"(!); it is all the more important that we wage a bold ideological counteroffensive--indicting their system and its values and putting forth our communist principles in opposition--as part of taking them on in a determined and militant way overall. We should instill in the victims of this system an attitude of despising this system and all it stands for--of recognizing that this system represents not the "wave of the future" but the dregs of the past--that it is the thing standing in the way of a much brighter future. As Mao said, "Unless we despise the old system and the old reactionary productive relationships, what do we think we are doing? If we do not have faith in socialism and communism, what do we think we are doing?"