The Meaning of "Revolutionary Defeatism"

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1148, April 28, 2002, posted at

"The Meaning of Revolutionary Defeatism" is an excerpt from a tape-recorded talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP,USA, in the aftermath of September 11 and in the context of the war launched by the U.S. government, focused initially against Afghanistan. Major excerpts of this talk are available in a special magazine--"The New Situation and the Great Challenges"--and this week's article is part of a series of additional material from this talk.

The magazine, featured in RW 1143, is available online at and at Revolution Books stores and outlets.

In an imperialist country a decisive aspect of proletarian internationalism is revolutionary defeatism. And this is especially the case with regard to the U.S., given its role in the world-- both its overall position as "the world's sole superpower" and in particular its declared intent to wage open-ended war to further re-order the world under its domination. So the basic stand of revolutionary defeatism is not just something that we communists should uphold; we should struggle to win the movement of opposition and the masses broadly to this basic stand.

In this light it is important to clarify some things concerning revolutionary defeatism--what it is and how it should be applied. Revolutionary defeatism means that, for people in an imperialist country--or in any country where the government is carrying out an unjust war, a war of domination and plunder, a reactionary war that serves only to fortify oppression, or to replace one oppressive power with another--you must put special emphasis on opposing your own government in that war, even if the enemy of your government in that war is equally reactionary. It means that you must refuse to support your government in such a war and, beyond that, you must have a basic orientation of welcoming the setbacks and defeats of your government and making use of them to build opposition to your government and its reactionary war, in accordance with and guided by the objective of making revolution right within your own country and contributing all you can to the international revolutionary struggle. But revolutionary defeatism does not mean that you should actually support the enemy of your government if that enemy and the war it is waging is equally reactionary. Obviously, this can be complicated, and in order to correctly apply this orientation it is necessary to make a concrete analysis of the concrete situation while remaining firmly grounded in basic principle.

In this regard, I noticed from a number of reports concerning our work in opposition to this imperialist juggernaut that, while overwhelmingly our September 14 statement was enthusiastically welcomed by people in and close to our Party, and many, many others, at the same time some people, including some people close to our Party, were critical of this statement because they felt it wasn't revolutionary defeatist enough and was too "soft" on the imperialists. On one level, it is hard to see how people could have this impression, when this statement sharply exposes many instances of the monstrous crimes of the U.S. imperialists and makes the bald statement that these global exploiters and mass murderers have no right to retribution and makes clear they have no right on their side and that they are the biggest oppressors of people in the world. But, apparently, some people felt that the mere fact that this statement recognized the horror of what happened to innocent civilians on September 11 meant that we were not being "hard enough" on the imperialists. (It is also the case, however, that not only did people in and around our Party, and many others, really welcome and enthusiastically took up this statement but that the more they have taken out this statement and seen the response of people broadly to it--and by now several hundred thousand copies of this statement have been distributed--the more these comrades have grasped the profound correctness and importance of this statement and the whole orientation of speaking to millions in the way it actually does: not starting off with a posture that immediately shuts you off from broad numbers of people but instead uniting with what can be united with in people's response to these events and then taking them through a process, "taking them through the contradictions" to raise them to a whole other level of understanding.)

Our Fullest Revolutionary Contribution

What is at the heart of the issue here is whether the aim is really to move masses of people in opposition to the imperialists' war and repression, and to do so in a way that helps prepare the ground for the masses ultimately making revolution to get rid of this system, or simply to satisfy ourselves by calling the imperialists "imperialist" and taking a posture of blindly supporting whoever is fighting them.

As I have pointed out before (for example, in "Strategic Questions"*), there is a question of basic orientation that Mao posed in "Ten Major Relationships" that has broad application. Talking about the development of China's socialist economic construction, only a relatively short time after the victory of the revolution in 1949, Mao says that, if you actually want to develop heavy industry, you have to give priority to agriculture and support light industry throughout the countryside, and he poses it this way: Is your desire for this industrialization sincere or false? Is it deep or shallow?

And similarly the question can be posed: Is our desire for proletarian revolution real or is it just a posture? Is it profound or is it just shallow? Do we really want to achieve these world historical transformations or do we just want to talk about them? Do we just want to "fight the good fight"? Do we just want to take the good stands? Do we just want to stand amidst all the putrescence, all the garbage, of this system and all the horrors and suffering it brings about, and raise the pure banner and be the lone sentry standing out amidst all the enemy forces? Or, do we really want to move millions? Do we think we can move millions? Do we really want to move people toward the position where they see the thorough rottenness of this system, where they come to the point of seeing that the monopoly on power and the monopoly of armed force and the use of armed force by this system and its ruling class is completely against their interests and against the interests of the people of the world--that it is an illegitimate, a vile, a monstrous system that uses its power for monstrous ends, and slaughters people in huge numbers in pursuit of those same monstrous ends, and therefore masses of people have to rise up and abolish this system and replace it with a much better one? What is it that we're really all about?

Now obviously, we have to call out the system for what it is; we have to expose its putrid and monstrous nature; but it isn't good enough if we and a few of the other members of "the choir" understand this. If we don't win masses of people in their millions (and ultimately tens of millions) to see this and to see what's actually in their interests and bring them to the revolutionary position, what's the point?

The point is not to ridicule or to make some kind of fundamental criticism of people, in particular people who may be less experienced politically, who have had what is objectively a little bit of an infantile response to our statement--or in an overall sense have not yet grasped what is involved, as fully and deeply as necessary--the point is to recognize the stakes and the challenges that are posed and what it is we must actually be striving to do. What are the responsibilities of a vanguard here? Are they simply to take the good stance and raise a banner, and that's it? Or do we actually want to rally tens, even hundreds, of thousands--and ultimately millions--in resistance to this imperialist juggernaut and do so in a way that moves masses of people toward the revolutionary banner and moves things closer to the point where it will be possible to carry the revolution through? Are we really determined to make our fullest contribution to the whole world proletarian revolution, including by finally bringing down this powerful imperialist beast? That's the question.

Revolutionary Defeatism, Applied Concretely

Returning specifically to the principle of revolutionary defeatism and the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the situation is complicated because, on the one hand, Afghanistan is not an imperialist country, it is a Third World country, a country oppressed by imperialism and devastated by imperialist war and civil war that has largely been provoked and shaped by imperialist aggression and intrigue. At the same time, the Taliban and other forces that have been the immediate target of U.S. military attack are not progressive forces--are themselves reactionary oppressors of the people. So how does revolutionary defeatism apply to a situation like this? Our objective here is not to root for the victory of the Taliban, for example, but to put emphasis on opposing our own ruling class and to welcome the setbacks and defeats they suffer, not so that another reactionary force can win out, but so that we--the vanguard and the masses in the U.S. as well as those in Afghanistan, and the world revolutionary struggle as a whole--can "break through the middle" of this and the people can rise up and make revolution, proletarian revolution, in their own interests. That's what revolutionary defeatism means. It means we must have an orientation and train the masses with an orientation of welcoming the setbacks of your own ruling class in order to bring closer the time when you can make revolution and sweep away this monstrous system and bring a whole better system and world into being.

Now, in Vietnam, despite certain revisionist influences within the leadership (the Vietnamese Workers Party) the side fighting the U.S. was a revolutionary force in broad terms, and in those circumstances we did support "the other side," the enemy of our own ruling class. We actually wanted them to win because (despite the weaknesses and revisionist influences that existed within their leadership) they were fighting a liberation war. But you have to analyze each situation concretely. The Taliban is a long ways from even the Vietnamese Workers Party, let alone a real Marxist-Leninist-Maoist force. In Afghan- istan the forces we should be supporting are represented by the Maoists there (the Communist Party of Afghanistan) and not the Taliban obviously. But the overall point is that the principle of revolutionary defeatism has to be applied concretely to different sets of conditions and circumstances, and its application is not the same if you have a revolutionary war being waged against "your own" imperialists as when you have a war being waged against your ruling class but the forces waging that war are themselves reactionary.

Again, this situation is more complicated because there is the imperialism/ oppressed nation contradiction involved, and all that has to be taken into account and the right synthesis achieved. But if some people had the initial reaction that our September 14 statement was not taking on the imperialists or hitting them politically hard enough, or that it wasn't revolutionary defeatist enough, then we have to do more work to clarify for people what revolutionary defeatism is and what it means overall to uphold and apply proletarian internationalism and to mobilize masses of people in accordance with this.

Now, we can't do this "off to the side" of the developing movement of resistance, and we can't wait until everybody is much more clear ideologically before we become deeply and actively involved in building this resistance. We have to be in the fray and we have to raise people's political and ideological level through the course of that, in a systematic and concerted way. Here another principle Mao stressed is very relevant: a line and a viewpoint has to be explained repeatedly, not just once or a few times. And in this radically new situation, the line and viewpoint that actually corresponds to the interests and needs of the masses of people has to be forged further and has to be more and more deeply and thoroughly explained and gone into repeatedly through the course of our getting more deeply into the political fray and actually mobilizing masses of people.

* "Strategic Questions" was a talk given by Bob Avakian in the mid-'90s. Extensive excerpts from the talk appeared in the RW in a series on the question of the United Front Under the Leadership of the Proletariat (published from Nov. 1996 to Feb. 1997) and in the series "Getting Over the Hump" (from Oct. 1997 to Jan. 1998). Both series are available online at

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