Revolution #220, December 19, 2010
Editors' Note: The following is an excerpt from a recent talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA; this is one of a number of excerpts from that talk that are being published in Revolution. The first two excerpts appeared in Revolution #218 and #219. The entire Part I of the talk is available at revcom.us. This has been edited, and footnotes have been added, for publication.
You Want to Radically Change the World—You Have to Make Revolution, and Establish a Revolutionary State Power
But, as I've been emphasizing, the other side of the contradiction (in which the economic base is ultimately and fundamentally decisive) is the fact that the way to bring about radical, qualitative changes—in the economic foundation (or base), and in the political-ideological superstructure—is opened and is made possible only by decisively defeating, and then dismantling, the stranglehold of political and ultimately military power that is exercised by the ruling class of the presently prevailing system, and replacing this with a new, revolutionary state power. That cannot be underlined enough times. We can come up with all the ideas we want for change in society and the world—and others can come up with creative ideas which can make a contribution, especially if they're recast in a correct framework, a correct understanding of reality—but if that doesn't get translated into a movement which actually, when the conditions emerge to make this possible, succeeds in defeating and dismantling the repressive organs and the overall institutions and instrumentalities of power of what is now the prevailing system, there is no radical change that is going to occur. It's as basic as that.
People can talk about "let's make change without seizing power." Well, you can make some little changes temporarily around the margins and in the interstices, if you will, but you ain't gonna change shit about the basic character of society and the world without seizing power—without, through a mass struggle, in the appropriate form when the conditions exist or emerge, actually defeating and dismantling the organs and institutions of power of the old ruling class, and replacing that with a new system which is in correspondence with, which reinforces—and which embodies the power to continue the transformation of—the underlying economic base of society, as well as the superstructure itself. It's just that basic.
Just think about it. You want people not to be shot down on the streets, time and again, by the police, with the killers then being exonerated in one form or another—usually outright, "justified homicide"? You want that to stop? You have to have a different state power. Why do we want state power? Why do we keep talking about it? Because we don't want these outrageous things, and everything that they are a concentration of, to keep on happening to people—when it's totally unnecessary as well as outrageous and egregious. You want to put a stop to rape, you want to put a stop to impoverishment of people, all the other horrors in society and the world today? You have to have a different set of social and economic relations, and you have to have a different set of power relations that corresponds to and backs that up and furthers it. You have to have a different culture and ideology. And you're not going to have them if you don't have a new state power—yes, a radically different state power, but state power. It's that basic.
These things that people do abhor and hate, and do repeatedly protest and rebel against—you can go down the line, the wars, the torture, the treatment of immigrants, all the rest of the outrages—are not going to be eliminated unless this existing state power is defeated and dismantled and a new state power, a radically different state power, is established and, on that basis, things go forward from there with transformation in the economic base and further transformation, in turn, in the superstructure—back and forth—all aiming for the ultimate goal of a communist world.
We really must not underestimate both the need and the importance of deeply grasping this in its full dimension and significance, and being, yes, really "pit bull" in proceeding on the basis of this understanding—including in how we present and discuss with people the question of revolution: both the necessity of revolution and what becomes possible through actually breaking the hold of the old, reactionary state power, which enforces these relations of exploitation and oppression, and all the outrages they give rise to, and establishing and consolidating in place of that a new, revolutionary state power, representing a real and truly great leap on the road to abolishing all such outmoded relations and the outrages to which they continually give rise and the antagonistic conflicts among human beings to which they continually give rise.
In short, a truly radical change in society as a whole, in its basic nature, is really possible only through a revolution whose first great leap takes place in the superstructure—particularly in the realm of politics (although the realm of ideology is extremely important, as is culture in particular, which I'll speak about later) but particularly in the realm of politics—and more specifically political power to rule and set the terms in society as a whole. At a certain point, this struggle assumes a concentrated form in the battle to seize the power to decisively determine the character and direction of society. This revolution, upon succeeding in that first great leap, then must proceed to carry out the transformation of the economic base, and the social relations, as well as the superstructure itself as a whole, in the cultural and ideological (including moral) as well as the political spheres.
This is really what's being gotten at in the article "There Is No 'Permanent Necessity' For Things to Be This Way, A Radically Different and Better World Can Be Brought Into Being Through Revolution."1 This is something we should be repeatedly coming back to: there is no permanent necessity for the existing system. Within the actual reality that we are confronted with, and the contradictory dynamics of that reality, is the possibility—not a guarantee, not a certainty, not an inevitability, but a real possibility—of a radically different world; but it can only be brought about on the basis and in the ways that I have been speaking about.
It is worth repeating once again—and we need to be continually illustrating this in a living way, and going into it deeply in a living way with people—that the kind of radical change that is necessary and possible does not and cannot involve the imposition of some utopian scheme or philosophically idealist notion of how society ought to be, abstracted from the actual conditions that exist and the actual contradictions that are driving things. Rather, this involves the transformation of the—contradictory—reality with which we are confronted, with both the pathways for change, and at the same time the constraints, that this presents. Here is another analogy with evolution in the natural world. You can't have evolution just of any kind you might want. In fact, it's one of the proofs of evolution—as opposed to the idea of "intelligent design" or god bringing about changes—that changes in the natural world do occur on the basis of what already exists at a given time and both the possibilities and the constraints that this poses in regard to such change. You can't just come up with an entirely new species, for example, that bears no relationship to anything that ever existed before. The same is true in human historical evolution, and revolution. And that is why you can't just impose on reality any utopian scheme or philosophically idealist notion that you might come up with.
So it is important to grasp both the material basis for what we're about, for radical change in society, and the contradictory nature of this material reality, which has its positive side but also its negative side, in relation to our objectives. It opens up the possibility, while it also places obstacles in the way of realizing that possibility—which, if you think about it for a second, is obvious because we run into these obstacles all the time. But this is rooted in material reality. It's not just some stubborn quality of masses of people, for example, that makes it difficult at times to mobilize them around the goals of revolution. That is often a factor—the reluctance of people at times to take risks in order to bring about needed change—but that in turn is rooted in material reality, in underlying conditions that are independent of people's will and larger than the individuals whom we might be interacting with or who might be on the political stage more broadly at any given time.
This is a point that's emphasized in the Manifesto from our Party—and it's important to grasp this very deeply and firmly—that both the basis for change but also constraints and obstacles and difficulties are posed in this contradictory nature of reality that we are confronted with at any given time, a constantly changing reality.
All this sheds further light on the point that was stressed earlier: In today's world, given the actual material conditions that have resulted—not conditions that were "bound to" result but conditions that have in fact resulted—from the historical development of human society, there are now fundamentally only two alternatives, in terms of what the character and direction of society will be and, correspondingly, how society will be ruled: Either the capitalist-imperialist system—in which an exploiting class, and in particular the capitalist class (or bourgeoisie), through its political and administrative, bureaucratic and military functionaries, holds and exercises political power, expressed in a concentrated way as a monopoly of "legitimate" armed force, and along with that and underlying it the dynamics of capitalist accumulation, setting the fundamental terms for how society functions—either that, once again—or the socialist system, in which society is ruled in the most fundamental and largest interests of the formerly exploited class, the proletariat, and this political power is increasingly exercised by masses of people who are led, yes, by a communist vanguard, and conscious social planning of production increasingly replaces the driving force of anarchy of capitalist production (even while of course, there will always be ignorance as well as knowledge and necessity will always confront human beings, with the challenge of transforming it into freedom through struggle).
To speak in terms of how this finds expression in the superstructure, and to boil this down to its basic political terms, the only real alternatives at this point are the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, in one form or another, or the dictatorship of the proletariat—with all the radical differences there are between those two dictatorships.
We can see the reality of this and the radical differences reflected very strongly and powerfully in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal), recently published by our Party.2 Embodied there you can see both the need for a state, in order to have a new system, and the radically different nature of that state, as well as the radically different nature of the society as a whole and its dynamics, in contrast with capitalism.
Here it's worth just taking a moment to tell a story which I think sheds a lot of light on what I've been talking about—the basic materialism that is so crucial to everything we are about. This has to do with the time, back in the days of the Revolutionary Union (the forerunner of our Party), when we were working on Red Papers 7 about the Soviet Union—analyzing it as a social-imperialist state (socialist in name but imperialist in fact and in deed), an analysis which was highly controversial and contentious within the movement, broadly speaking, and among those who were claiming the mantle of communism, at that time. I remember there was, for example, this group, the Communist Labor Party, and they published an article which denied the theoretical possibility of capitalist restoration in a formerly socialist country. That article made the analogy that it's like a baby—you can't stuff a baby that's been born back into the womb—which, among other things, revealed a rather mechanical materialist understanding of society! But those of us working on Red Papers 7 went through a whole process of agonizing over the question of how to understand the reality and dynamics of capitalist restoration in a former socialist country.
We had done enough work to be convinced that the thesis that the Soviet Union was a capitalist (social-imperialist) state was true, that it reflected reality accurately in basic terms. But we were trying to understand, and therefore be able to explain in more living terms: why is it that if you have a revisionist political line, you will inevitably restore capitalism? So we went through the actual process: OK, what would happen if you had a revisionist line in leadership of what had been a socialist country? How would you actually carry out and guide the functioning of society, and the economy in particular? What principles would adhere and would be the governing principles, so to speak, in the underlying economic base and in the actual dynamics of the economy? And we "walked through" the process where, with a revisionist line, you could not implement genuinely socialist planning and carry out the socialist transformation of the economic relations—the ownership system, the division of labor, and the distribution of wealth resulting from that. How, with a revisionist line, you could not lead, and fundamentally rely on, the masses to carry out, in an increasingly conscious way, the development of the economy and transformation of the economic relations, but would end up having to fall back on bureaucratic methods to regulate the economy; you would have to have some way that everything wouldn't fall apart; you would have to go back to the mechanisms and dynamics of the capitalist system, of commodity production and exchange, with the law of value in command.
We actually walked through this (I'm simplifying this somewhat in summarizing it briefly here—we spent days and weeks struggling with how to understand all this) because we didn't just want to assert this: "Ah, you've got a revisionist line, you're going to get capitalism—what's the big deal?—now let's move on, next discussion." No, we actually wanted to understand these dynamics, and so we spent weeks, actually—a group of us were working on this and we would meet periodically, but as we were getting close to actually publishing Red Papers 7 we met quite frequently—and we went back and forth, sitting in a room and out over coffee and all the other ways that you're familiar with, wrangling with: OK, what are the actual dynamics here? Why couldn't you maintain a socialist economic base with a revisionist line? If you think about what's involved in having an economy functioning in a way that doesn't rely on the market mechanisms of capitalism and the accumulation of capital privately, etc.—and how you would meet the needs of the masses of people and the larger needs of the revolution, not only in that country but in the world, and actually do it in a way that didn't fall back on the masses being essentially mindless machines of production, alienated from the very process that they were carrying out—it became clear in really going through this that you couldn't do it without a revolutionary line in command. It would break down.
This, I believe, sheds a lot of light on the basic points I'm making here—about how it's one system or the other, and the dialectical relations in all that, between the economic base and the superstructure of politics and ideology.
But through all this, of course, it is necessary to continually come back to and emphasize the fact that the socialist system is radically different than the capitalist-imperialist system (and other systems ruled by exploiting classes). And the interests of the proletariat, in the largest sense—not in a narrow and economist sense but in the largest sense—are radically different from those of all previous ruling classes: the fundamental interests of the proletariat, as a class, really do lie, and can only lie, in the emancipation of humanity as a whole from systems which are founded on exploitation, and in which the fundamental and essential social relations are in antagonistic contradiction with a socially conscious approach to interacting with the rest of nature. That is basically what I was getting at in relating the story about the grappling we were doing in the writing of Red Papers 7, in coming to understand more deeply the nature and dynamics of the Soviet Union as a capitalist (social-imperialist) state.
Socialism, while itself an economic system and a form of class rule (the dictatorship of the proletariat), is also a transition to a still more radically different society and world; and the goal of this transition is the transformation of both the economic base and the political/ideological superstructure to achieve the abolition of all class divisions, all exploitative and oppressive relations among human beings in general, everywhere in the world, and with that the elimination of any need for, or possibility of, dictatorship of any kind by any group or class—the elimination, in other words, of the state as an instrument of rule by one or another class, and for the suppression of the classes and forces in society which are in opposition to, or pose a threat to, the interests of the ruling class—and, along with this, it is a transition to a world in which we have moved beyond a situation in which any group in human society will, in comparison with and even in opposition to certain other groups and individuals, have institutionalized power, or disproportionate influence, with regard to the fundamental character and direction of the interactions among human beings, and between human beings and the rest of nature.
2. Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal), from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP Publications, 2010). [back]