Revolution #229, April 10, 2011
PART 1: REVOLUTION AND THE STATE
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 ten excerpts appeared in Revolution #218–#225 and #227–#228. The entire talk is available at revcom.us. This has been edited, and footnotes have been added, for publication.
In light of the above, it is worth further examining bourgeois political theory and the character of bourgeois democracy as a reflection of underlying material bases and interests. As touched on earlier, in one important dimension—and this stands out rather starkly once we think about it from a scientific materialist standpoint—this is a reflection, in the realm of theory, of competition and contestation for power on the foundation of commodity relations. Why do people like Madison give such emphasis to the whole question of "separation of powers," and "checks and balances"? If you read The Federalist Papers, it comes through clearly, over and over again, that even while they may speak in more "universalist" terms about society, government, sovereignty, and so on, the writers of these Papers are viewing things through the prism of the particular kind of society of which they are the representatives and for which they are fighting to bring into being a unified government—a society that is emerging as a capitalist commodity society, even as it has a peculiar admixture, so to speak, of slavery. Their view of conflicting interests, and how to keep these conflicting interests at bay and prevent any particular interest from accumulating too much power, is all conditioned by the way in which they are, in a real sense, the personification of those emerging capitalist commodity relations.
Their views and their theory are also a reflection of mechanical materialism—force and counterforce. You see this repeatedly: not only in the U.S. Constitution but also in The Federalist Papers and other defenses and advocacies of this Constitution, there is a reflection of mechanical materialism, and the ways this outlook—including notions of equilibrium through force and counterforce—influenced the political philosophers and theorists of the bourgeoisie in its rising and revolutionary epoch. (Rather than going into this at much greater length here, I will refer to Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?, where the whole outlook of mechanical materialism, as opposed to dialectical materialism, and the influence of this mechanical materialism on bourgeois political theory, is discussed.)
Now, it's not that there is nothing whatsoever to the concept of "separation of powers." There is, in fact, something to learn and apply from this—in a radically different context and with a radically transformed content—in socialist society. But what I'm speaking to here is the whole way in which this is reflected in the bourgeois-democratic theory of people like Madison or, for that matter, Jefferson as well as Hamilton, Thomas Paine and others. And the fundamental point that needs to be emphasized is how this conception of "separation of powers" is at one and the same time rooted in a certain set (or system) of economic relations of commodity production and exchange—where even human labor power itself is a commodity—and at the same time is declared to be universal, and to represent the highest and best form of society that human beings are capable of achieving.
This conception of "separation of powers," and the thinking that underlies it (or in any case is marshalled as justification for it—its ratiocination, if you will) is further a reflection of the influence of the Judeo-Christian view, and in particular the view of "fallen man" and the corresponding notions of an inherently flawed "human nature" which tends toward corruption and vice in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement. To refer again to The Federalist Papers, one sees repeatedly expressed there the authors' reasoning about why we have to have this particular check or balance, and that particular institution, in order to deal with what they regard as a basic fact—that people naturally tend toward vice, corruption and illicit acquisition of wealth and power—in order to be able to curb and control that, channeling it into a context where the common good is served. And, even while many of the philosophers of the bourgeois revolution, and specifically the "founding fathers" of the U.S., may have been agnostics (or in any case did not believe in traditional, or more literalist, Christian theology) these notions and concerns reveal the influence of the basic Judeo-Christian view of the "fallen nature" of man, as well as the concept of an inherent "human nature" which in reality is a "nature" that is conditioned by, corresponds to, and is reinforced by, not only the functioning of a society divided into exploiters and exploited in a general sense but also more particularly the dynamics of capitalist commodity production and exchange.
The bourgeoisie (capitalist class) presides over a system in which people are compelled by necessity—by the fundamental workings and dynamics of that system of capitalism—to compete with each other in a thousand ways, and this system too in a thousand ways promotes and rewards selfishness and surviving, and if possible thriving, at the expense of others. Survivor!—think what that television show is about and promotes. In the U.S., in particular, all this takes the form of extreme individualism and, along with that, a grotesque celebration of "winners" and denigration of "losers"—nobody has any use for a loser, and to the winner go the spoils. At every turn, these values and this worldview—serving this system of capitalism—are promoted through the pervasive reach and influence of the media, and culture in general, which are controlled and dominated by this same ruling bourgeoisie. And if all that is not enough, the functioning of this system is backed up, after all, by the armed power of the state, embodying the rule of this same capitalist class, enforcing and reinforcing the workings of this system and how this impels, and in many ways compels, people to think only, or overwhelmingly and before everything else, of self and the constant striving to gain advantage over others.
And then, with all this in effect, the bourgeoisie and the political theorists and philosophers (such as they are), as well as the various commentators, pundits, and other "opinion makers" who express the outlook of the bourgeoisie, relentlessly broadcast the "brilliant revelation" that, in this society, most people are selfish! And that is not all: They incessantly proclaim that this is some universal and unchangeable human character, or "human nature"—which makes it so that, lo and behold, the only possible system is the very one which generates and perpetuates this "human nature"!
Once again, whether thinking and arguments of this kind are put forward as a more straightforward and honest—ingenuous and "spontaneous"—viewpoint by "everyday people," or as a more worked out philosophical viewpoint, or in the more instrumentalist and often crude ways in which this is drilled into people by what amount to "hired ideological guns" of this system, the unifying point in all this is that this view of "human nature" is a reflection of the very system that it is defending. So things remain stuck on a treadmill, going around in a circle, within the self-contained confines of bourgeois logic and the narrow horizon of bourgeois right. Once one begins to really grasp the possibility of something radically different—once one ruptures with this framework and makes, in one's thinking, the leap beyond this horizon of bourgeois right—then the circular logic of all this, and its "inevitable conclusion" that things cannot be any different, fall to the ground. This is another expression of that crucial, incisive observation by Marx: "Once the inner connection is grasped, all theoretical belief in the permanent necessity of existing conditions breaks down before their collapse in practice."
With all this, there is, in bourgeois-democratic political philosophy, the negation, or ignore-ance, of the fundamental reality that bourgeois democracy is after all bourgeois dictatorship and that this dictatorship serves to enforce relations of exploitation and oppression and the profound social antagonisms bound up with this. Yet again, we are back to "birds and crocodiles," and specifically what has been said earlier about the relation between the economic base and the political-ideological superstructure.
All this also sheds a clear light on the actual role of elections in capitalist society, under the rule (yes, the dictatorship) of the bourgeoisie (capitalist class). In situations where society is divided into classes and marked by antagonistic social conflicts, elections are not, and cannot be, the highest or most essential expression of "the will of the people," or of their most fundamental needs and interests—nor, in such circumstances, do elections provide any fundamental means for changing the basic nature and direction of society. This is especially so with elections that are held under the conditions of rule by the capitalist class and are conducted and shaped in accordance with the requirements and dictates of the capitalist system. Why this is the case, and is bound to be the case, is again an expression of what has been examined so far concerning the relations between the economic base and the political-ideological superstructure in any society, and specifically the way in which the economic base (the prevailing relations of production) fundamentally and ultimately set the terms, the conditions, and the confines, for what will, and must, predominate in the realm of politics, including elections, as well as in the realm of culture and ideology.
And, yes, this basic principle—that elections in a class-divided society cannot be the highest expression of the interests of the people and of their fundamental needs—applies in its own way as well to socialist society, even while there is an important role for elections in such a society.
So, with the above in mind, let's turn specifically to the role of a Constitution, and laws, in a socialist state—and the similarities and profound differences with the Constitution of a state ruled by an exploiting class (or classes).
A socialist Constitution must be based on, and must flow from, a scientific, dialectical materialist understanding of the dynamics of the historical development of human society, the basis and role of governments, and specifically the emergence and role of the state, as discussed earlier. It should correspond to the nature of socialism as an economic system as well as a particular system of political rule, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and as a transition to communism; and such a Constitution, at any given phase of this process—any given stage in this overall transition—should both in a general sense embody the relations, principles and objectives which are appropriate to that stage and give space to and foster the struggle to carry forward that transition toward more advanced stages of socialism, and fundamentally toward communism, together with the struggle for that goal throughout the world.
At certain crucial junctures—certain decisive "nodal points"—in this process, the struggle to carry forward the transition toward communism, and to defeat attempts to reverse this process and in fact to restore a system based on exploitation, may result in the necessity to revise certain aspects, including even certain decisive aspects, of the existing Constitution—or even perhaps to adopt an entirely new Constitution. But the orientation and actions of the authorities and instrumentalities of the state must, at any given point and overall, be in accordance with the Constitution as it exists; while, as far as possible, this Constitution should include and indicate the means by which it can be revised (or amended). This is also a point to which I will return later in this talk.
But here it is important to explore more fully the fundamental differences between Constitutions and laws—and the political process overall—in socialist society, as compared to capitalist society, owing to the profound difference between the nature, and dynamics, of the underlying economic system and relations, as well as the social relations, and the nature and objectives of the political process.
To refer to what is said in a very important part of the Preamble of the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal): the governing bodies and processes of the socialist state, at all levels, must be vehicles for the furtherance of the communist revolution. That is their most fundamental nature and purpose. Constitutions in a society ruled by a bourgeois dictatorship, as for example the Constitution of the United States of America, are in fact vehicles for the maintenance and furtherance of the capitalist system of exploitation—and this is all the more insidiously so, because they do not directly and explicitly state this, but appear and claim to be setting forth principles which apply equally to everyone in society without mention of the particular nature of the system and the class that dominates in that system.
Here, by contrast, is an extremely important point: The fundamental nature and role of a Constitution, and laws, in a socialist state—and the radical difference between this and Constitutions and laws in a capitalist state—must be understood not only in light of the essential nature of socialism as a transition, and the need for continuing struggle against the remaining vestiges of the former society, in the superstructure of politics and ideology, as well as in the economic base and the social relations, but also in the way in which this must involve a continuing struggle against spontaneity; whereas capitalism, and the corresponding system of bourgeois political rule, or dictatorship, can to a significant degree rely on spontaneity, even as there is a continuing need for conscious policy and "political intervention," on the part of the bourgeois state and bourgeois political representatives and operatives, in the functioning of society, including the economy.
Without going into great detail here, you can see this need for "political intervention" on the part of the bourgeois state, and bourgeois representatives and functionaries, sharply illustrated in the 1930s Great Depression—where Roosevelt had a lot of necessity and, in the face of rather intense struggle among the representatives of the bourgeoisie, he took initiative to institute policies to basically save the capitalist system from itself through the role of the state. And we see this in the current period, with the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression—a continuing crisis—with the recent massive "bailouts" of financial institutions, as well as other measures, all of which once again has involved intense struggle, for example over whether to extend or not extend unemployment benefits.
We see the role of "political intervention," obviously, in the wars that are waged by the bourgeois state, which are very extensively going on today. We see this in what I referred to earlier, in speaking of not only the passing of laws, but the interpretation of laws according to varying understandings of the interests of the ruling class on the part of various representatives of that ruling class. Sometimes the need for "political intervention" on the part of the ruling class and its representatives involves reinterpretation—or even, at least objectively, going directly in violation—of the Constitution of the bourgeois state. This, too, is starkly in evidence in the U.S. in these times.
But this is still radically different from socialist society, particularly in that to a large degree the bourgeoisie can rely on spontaneity while the socialist state and the vanguard party leading the revolutionary process in socialist society not only cannot rely on that, but in fact have to go up against, and repeatedly struggle and lead people in struggling against, spontaneity.
The Constitution in socialist society, and laws flowing from and in accordance with that Constitution, will, at any given point, establish the framework and set the general terms in which the functioning of society, including contestation of opposing views and programs, will take place. The nature of socialist society, as spoken to here, will require the application of the basic principle of "solid core, with a lot of elasticity," and this is why you see this written directly into and explicitly referred to in several places in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). With regard to the Constitution and the functioning of government, and the political process overall, this will, at least for a long ways into the socialist transition, involve, as a pivotal expression of "solid core," the institutionalized leading role of the communist vanguard, embedded in the Constitution and spelled out there in terms of this vanguard's essential role and relations with key institutions of the state and government. At the same time, this Constitution must embody the basic principles and "rules" which will apply to all members of society and every institution in society, including the communist vanguard and its role in relation to the state and government.
All this underscores the need—especially for the solid core which is, on a scientific foundation, firmly convinced of the need for and deeply committed to the struggle to achieve communism—to recognize, to firmly grasp, that indeed communism does represent a radical rupture, a truly historic break and leap, in both theory (or ideas) and in practice (that is, the social interaction of human beings—in the realm of politics and other spheres of the superstructure as well as in the economic and social relations—and the interaction of these human beings with the rest of nature). Communism involves a leap to what is truly, and profoundly, a whole new height and vista—from which all of human practice and theory can, and must, be viewed in a radically new, and more fully scientific perspective (even as that science must continue to be applied and further developed).
This underscores the need for the solid core to itself fully rupture with the bourgeois-democratic outlook and approach, and on that basis and from that perspective to incorporate from the bourgeois-democratic viewpoint and principles what can be incorporated—while this is, in some important aspects, transformed—to serve the socialist system and the transition to communism. It is not simply a matter—nor is the essence of the matter—that, as Lenin put it, socialism, with the dictatorship of the proletariat, is a million times more democratic, for the masses of people, than capitalism, with its dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Beyond that, the socialist system embodies and involves—and must embody and involve, if it is in fact to carry forward the transition to communism—a radically different process, which is emancipating in a qualitatively different and greater way.
In this connection, it is necessary to squarely recognize and honestly confront what is in fact a very real contradiction—which at times can become an acute contradiction—in socialist society, particularly while the vestiges of the former society and a still powerful position of imperialist and reactionary states remain in the world. This can be formulated as the contradiction between the fundamental and largest interests of the masses of people, which do lie in the advance to communism, and on the other hand the influences and "pulls" on various sections of the people away from the path of that advance, owing to the remaining material and ideological strength of outmoded relations and reactionary classes and forces. Or, to put this in terms which are perhaps "less elegant" but speak to the way this contradiction will at times pose itself (at least outwardly): the conflict between what the basic needs of the people are and what at least sections of the people may "spontaneously want" at any given time. This contradiction provides, or is at least a significant part of, the objective basis for all the accusations that communism represents the attempts of utopians to impose an impossible vision on society which leads them to have to resort to the most ruthless tyranny.
In preparing for this talk (and in relation to other work), I went back and re-read Plato's The Republic. It is striking, and even in a sense astounding, how on the one hand someone like Plato is held up as such a pillar of Western thought, down to the present age, someone who is still highly relevant, and yet how such stark elitism is openly expressed and avidly defended in The Republic—through the open advocacy of the need for philosopher kings (or "guardians") to rule over the people in order for society to function in an orderly way and in the best interests of the people. It is explicitly argued in The Republic that all kinds of provisions and steps have to be taken to keep these "guardians" (or the philosopher kings and their enforcers, in effect) from acting out of narrow self-interest. It is not narrow self-interest on the part of these rulers that is being advocated, it's quite the opposite: what is argued is that only with such people ruling society can the actual interests of the people be upheld against their own more narrow and philistine inclinations. That's the heart of what's argued over and over again, from many different angles; this is very striking in The Republic.
And you can see from this why people like Popper,1 for example, locate the origin of totalitarianism in this work by Plato—and in Plato's philosophy generally—and its core arguments and assumptions. And then, of course, Popper extends this to Marxism and communists. Well, besides all the other ways in which communism is radically different from Platonic thought, there is the fact that, once again, the material conditions in the world today are radically different than in the society and world envisioned in The Republic, just as the objectives and methods are radically different.
But there is still this contradiction—which once again can be expressed, or finds expression at least outwardly, as the conflict between what the basic needs of the people are, in the most fundamental and largest sense, and what at least some among the people may "spontaneously want" at any given time. And here does enter in the necessary role of the vanguard, and at the same time all of the accusations associated with that—accusations of not only elitism but of tyranny, the exercise of dictatorship in the bad sense, and so on and so forth.
Now, notwithstanding the distortions in such accusations, there is a real contradiction involved, and correctly handling this contradiction, in a way which adheres to and continues the advance on the road to communism—and at the same time also adheres to the principle that this advance must fundamentally rely on the conscious initiative of the masses of people and their increasing involvement in actually determining the direction of society and in the functioning of the socialist state, in the context of the overall world struggle for the goal of communism—handling all this correctly will constitute a great challenge throughout the socialist transition. And this will be especially so, as long as the forces and influences of the old order and of reactionary powers remain a significant phenomenon, within any particular socialist country and on a world scale. Here, again, a living application of the basic principle and method of "solid core, with a lot of elasticity" will have crucial application and importance.
Once more, the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal), produced by our Party, addresses this contradiction in some important dimensions. But this, in a larger sense, is a major problem to which deepening attention will need to be paid—now, and in an ongoing way, both before and after the seizure of power and establishment of a new socialist state.
1. Karl Popper was a 20th century philosopher and "anti-totalitarian" political theorist who directed much of his fire against communism. A refutation of key aspects of Popper's theories, and in particular his attack on communism, is contained in "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity," Part 1, in the section "Marxism as a Science—Refuting Karl Popper." [back]