Revolution #228, April 3, 2011



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 nine excerpts appeared in Revolution #218–#225 and #227. The entire talk is available at This has been edited, and footnotes have been added, for publication.

Bourgeois Political Philosophy, Its Limitations and Distortions

Next, let's return to the basic political philosophy which was elaborated by, or which in any case influenced, leaders of the bourgeois revolution and in particular the historical "founding fathers" (and they were founding fathers) of the USA. Let's focus on their concepts of tyranny and despotism, and how to prevent such tyranny and despotism. In this connection, one of the main things we've always heard about, growing up in this country, is the whole notion of the government functioning so as to effect the "separation of powers" and "checks and balances" against power being accrued to and accumulating on behalf of one particular individual or small group of people. I referred earlier to The Federalist Papers. Well, one of the main authors of The Federalist Papers, James Madison, writes the following in The Federalist No. 47: "The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

This concentrates pretty well a lot of the bourgeois view of government and of the relation between government and the people. In opposing hereditary social status—but also, in line with what was expressed by Madison, in also opposing undue concentration of power as a result of election or appointment—the theoreticians of the bourgeois revolution and bourgeois democracy believed that they had eliminated social divisions, as far as such divisions should be eliminated. They believed that they had established equality, as far as it should be established, and "equality before the law" stood as a decisive expression of this. They would not, or could not, recognize that social divisions, and antagonisms, were reproduced, and perpetuated, even if to a significant degree in some new forms, through the dynamics of the very system of which they were advocates: what is in reality bourgeois democracy—not classless or "pure" democracy—and the economic system in which this form of political governance is ultimately grounded and which it serves—capitalism. They would not, or could not, understand that this system is, in its own way, as much an embodiment of oppression—and yes, of despotism and tyranny, that is, of dictatorship—as the systems of hereditary hierarchy which they opposed, and worked to overthrow.

You see this very starkly expressed in the writings of Thomas Paine, particularly Rights of Man, where Paine repeatedly refers to and puts forward the NATION as a fundamental and decisive concept, as a kind of unified whole, with a common will, even as this nation is considered as a collection—but, note well, not a collective—of individuals, and more specifically individual property and commodity owners.

People like Paine, Madison and Hamilton talk about different interests in the society they advocated for, but this is essentially framed in terms of different property and commodity ownership relationships. Overarching in all this is the concept of the nation somehow having a common will which is worked out through the process of what is in reality bourgeois democracy—and bourgeois dictatorship. This, in their view, is grounded in the pursuit of their particular interests by different property and commodity owners, a process which somehow results in the greatest possible good.

Here it is not difficult to recognize the extension, in the political realm, of the theories of classical bourgeois political economy, as in the writings of Adam Smith, for example. And, here again, we can see the historical limitations in all this. As Engels summed up so incisively, drawing from the historical experience of the French revolution, the most thorough and radical of all bourgeois revolutions:

The great men, who in France prepared men's minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionists. They recognized no external authority of any kind whatever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions—everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism: everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence.... Every form of society and government then existing, every old traditional notion was flung into the lumber-room as irrational; the world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.

We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic. The great thinkers of the eighteenth century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by their epoch. (Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, as cited in Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?, p. 46)

Engels says "we know today" all this. Well, at least some of us—and in fact far too few of us right now—know this. Far too many have forgotten it, if they did know it. And there are far too many, including some communists, or former communists, who are latter-day personifications of precisely what Engels lays bare—who are turning backwards, harking back to the 18th century, and turning away from all that has been learned since that time, in particular the watershed breakthroughs that were made by Engels, and above all by Marx—while those on this retrograde path are proclaiming and insisting that they have discovered some new and transcendental truth, some universal and timeless principles that are the foundation for any just society!

In the eyes of the bourgeois democrat, not only is it an outrage to have societies which are openly based on hereditary divisions in social status, such as feudal society—or, in any case, divisions which are embedded in the formal structures and institutions of society, as with slavery as well as feudalism—but there is an identity between that and socialism, with the dictatorship of the proletariat, which also, in its own way, recognizes—and incorporates into its Constitutional principles, in ways which bourgeois (democratic) theory does not, the recognition of—different social divisions, even as its fundamental aim is to transform and transcend all such divisions.

Well, in response to this bourgeois-logical claim of identity between these radically different things, leaving aside the peculiar (and, yes, that's a very appropriate word) character of North Korea—which does have more resemblance to a feudal society ruled by an hereditary Kim dynasty than to a genuine socialist society!—leaving that aside, the identification of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat with an arbitrary despotic aristocracy of entrenched and institutionalized privilege is a reflection of the superficiality and unscientific nature of bourgeois-democratic political theory. Let's examine this a little further.

Flowing from the nature of socialist society, including its role as a transition to a world free of exploitative and oppressive relations and social divisions, is the open identification, and constitution, of the socialist state as an expression of the interests, in the largest sense, of a particular class, the proletariat—leading ultimately to the emancipation of humanity as a whole from class divisions and all relations of exploitation and oppression and the destructive antagonistic conflicts to which these relations give rise—and the open role of this socialist state as an instrument of suppression of interests and forces that are, and that act, in antagonistic opposition to this. Yet, while the Constitution of a socialist state—and the governmental institutions, structures, and processes which it provides for—must take into account the social divisions which have been "inherited" from previous societies based on exploitative relations (and which will persist, in varying degrees and in various forms, for a long time in socialist society), at the same time the "rule of law" which must be embedded in the Constitution of a socialist state, as well as the specific laws that are promulgated on the basis of that Constitution (and which must be judged, as to their validity, in accordance with that Constitution) must be applied equally to every person in society. This is another contradiction that is difficult to handle but must be handled correctly.

Once again, you can see this embodied in a very living way—with all the contradictoriness and tension that's involved—in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). The class nature and role of the state for which this is a proposed Constitution is both openly and explicitly set forth in this Constitution, right from the start in the Preamble of the Constitution, and is embodied in the principles and provisions of this Constitution throughout, even as once again this Constitution would apply to everyone in that new socialist society.

But the most essential aspect of socialist society is its role as a transition, aiming—together with the revolutionary struggle throughout the world—toward the final goal of communism, which will uproot and eliminate class divisions and other social inequalities and oppressive relations, and together with that will bring about the abolition of all forms of the state, as an apparatus of repression, and all distinctions in which some individuals and groups have a disproportionate role, generally institutionalized, in one form or another, in determining the affairs and the governance of society. This, to once again invoke that trenchant phrase of Marx, embodies the leap beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right—a profound leap in the historical development of human social relations.

When held up alongside the radically emancipating communist vision and program, and the rupture and leap it embodies from all previous forms of human society to a whole new epoch in human history, the bourgeois-democratic view of the just and best possible society stands out sharply in its historically limited character and frankly puny dimensions, and the contrast is acutely illustrated between this and what is now possible—and now cries out urgently to be achieved.

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