Revolution #230, April 24, 2011



Editors' Note: The following is the last excerpt of Part 1 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 eleven excerpts appeared in Revolution #218–#225 and #227–#229. The entire talk is available at This has been edited, and footnotes have been added, for publication.

Socialism and Capitalism, Constitutions and Laws: Similarities—and Profound Differences

What I have been discussing here, and the points that I have highlighted, must find expression not only in the Constitution, but also in the laws and government institutions and processes that are an extension of that Constitution, at every point in this socialist transition.

Laws in socialist society, and the Constitution in which they are ultimately based, must at any point in the process of this transition toward communism reflect the prevailing social (and fundamentally economic-production) relations. In this sense, laws in socialist society share a significant feature in common with laws in capitalist society in that, in both cases, the law is a reflection of the prevailing property relations—and of the production relations, of which the property relations are an outward expression. But there is a radical difference between capitalist and socialist production and property relations and the whole process and dynamics of the operation of the economic system as the foundation of the society as a whole. Yet, even with this profound difference, this is complicated by the fact that, on the one hand, socialist relations are not fundamentally relations of exploitation and oppression, but at the same time they contain remnants and elements of that—and there is the need for ongoing transformation of those relations, toward the ultimate goal of finally and fully eliminating all vestiges of exploitation, oppression and social antagonism, through the advance to communism, on a world scale. This particular character, and motion, of the fundamental contradictions in socialist society will find expression, at any given time, in the laws, as well as the Constitution, of such a society; and handling well the contradiction and motion involved in all this is crucial in terms of both enabling socialist society to have relative stability and to function at any given time, while at the same time it is carrying forward—through struggle which will often be intense and at times become acute and tumultuous—the transition toward the final goal of communism.

Now, in this context it is worth briefly saying a few words about the applicability—and non-applicability—of "separation of powers" and "checks and balances" in a socialist society, with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Clearly, from what I've said so far, it stands out that the application of this will be very different than in capitalist society, with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, just as the overall society is radically different. But there is a valid application of the principle of not allowing too much power—or, to put it in those terms, an inordinate amount of power—to accrue to any particular institution or any particular group; this, in turn, flows from deeper contradictions which mark socialist society, and which are the basis for the fact that there are in socialist society not only contradictions among the people, including those between different sections of the people, but also contradictions between the people and the government—which, again, is spoken to explicitly in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal), where basic principles and means are set forth for how that contradiction should be handled in such a society. So there is a real concern—and there is a need, along with the general concern and need to correctly handle the contradiction between the government and the people in socialist society—to pay attention to preventing power from accruing unduly in a particular institution, or a particular leading body. And this does get acutely expressed around the role of the vanguard party, which is on the one hand a necessity and is crucial in terms of the society remaining on the socialist road, but is also a locus, and a potential concentration point, of the larger and underlying contradictions of socialist society precisely as a transitional society. This too is spoken to directly in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal).

Once again, we are back to that very profound and decisive point in the Manifesto from our Party—that the material conditions provide both the basis for the advance to communism and obstacles to that advance. This is reflected in the transitional nature of socialism: even as socialist society is and must be a real entity and must in fact have relative stability and the ability to function, it is also, and most fundamentally, a transition to a communist world—part of the struggle for a communist world, and in an overall sense a subordinate part of that struggle. The challenge, once power has been seized and consolidated and the socialist system established, is to continue to handle these contradictions, with all the complexity and tumultuousness this will inevitably involve, in a way that continues to lead things forward on that broad road toward communism, together with the revolutionary struggle in the world as a whole.

In this light, let's touch briefly on the role of elections in socialist society, with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here, too, it is helpful to call attention to how this is handled, and spelled out in some detail for very real and important reasons, in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). This reflects the fact that there are significant and important aspects in which, in socialist society, elections can play a positive role, in relation to organs of government and, more fundamentally, in fostering debate and ferment around major social and international issues and events and affairs of state.

At the same time, there are very real limitations, in terms of the role of elections in socialist society, in relation to the overall character of socialism—particularly its character as a transition—and the final goal to which socialist society must aim. And there is the danger—which must be recognized, and safeguarded against and combatted—of such an electoral process turning into contestation and competition which is based on and expressive of, and which fosters, the bourgeois world outlook. This is obviously what is strikingly manifested in elections in capitalist society, but the same sort of influences and the same kinds of manifestations of that outlook can easily find expression in the context of elections even in the radically different framework of socialist society. This has to be consciously recognized and combatted.

Here it is necessary to emphasize again the basic point that, while if approached in the correct perspective, in light of the basic nature and objectives of socialist society, elections can play an important positive role in such a society, they are not, and cannot be, the highest and most essential expression of the will of the people, nor of their most fundamental and largest needs and interests. They cannot be raised above, but must be understood in the context and framework of, the overall character and role of the political-ideological superstructure, and more fundamentally the economic base with which this superstructure must ultimately correspond. While this is obviously so in a society, such as capitalist society, which is ruled by an exploiting class—that is, in such a society it is profoundly true that the basic needs and interests of the masses of people cannot be expressed or achieved through elections—this is true in socialist society as well, whose final aim is the elimination of all exploitative and oppressive relations. The continuing transformation of the economic base and the superstructure in the direction of communism must remain not merely some abstract goal but a guiding principle through all the functioning of governmental institutions and the dynamics of socialist society overall, and through the leadership which needs to be applied in relation to all that.

A Legitimate Understanding of "Legitimacy"

With this understanding, it is worthwhile to briefly pose and counter the argument of a comrade in the international movement concerning the "defensiveness," as he phrased it, of the communist movement since the time that the Bolsheviks, with Lenin's leadership, dissolved the Constituent Assembly (the elected legislative body) in Russia during the Russian Revolution. This comrade made the argument that, ever since that time, communists have been on the defensive because they've been accused of being undemocratic, instituting dictatorship against the express will of the people, and so on and so forth. This is a fundamentally misguided and flawed understanding of the question of political legitimacy, and what establishes political legitimacy, but also and more fundamentally of the actual dynamics of society and how the interests of different groups, and in particular different classes, find concentrated expression and become battled out, and what role elections have to play in relation to all that. To put it straight up: If it is a question of continuing with an outmoded institution which would be dominated by influences and forces leading to the restoration of the system that has just been overthrown—for god's sake (if you'll pardon the expression) dissolve that institution and create new ones which will be instruments for the furtherance of the communist revolution; and Jesus Christ (to continue that mode of expression) don't be defensive about it!

Here, yet once more, we are back to "birds and crocodiles" and what this metaphor captures in terms of the dialectical materialist understanding of human society and its historical development—and more specifically the relation between necessity and freedom, and between the economic base and the political-ideological superstructure. This is what sets the fundamental terms for all institutions in society and their functions and roles and the processes, in particular the political processes, which characterize the society at any given point.

Now, it is important to emphasize that this basic understanding and orientation will have different application in different circumstances. More particularly, when what is immediately involved is the defeat and dismantling of the institutions of the old, reactionary state power and the establishment of the new, revolutionary state power, this orientation will apply differently than in the situation where the seizure of power—and the establishment of the new state, with its essential institutions—has been carried out and consolidated. In those latter circumstances, as has been repeatedly emphasized, the new socialist state must function on the basis of a Constitution, and laws that are in conformity with that Constitution, even while there will be times when the ongoing transformation of society will call forth the need for changes in the Constitution.

Here it is worth briefly returning to and re-emphasizing some decisive points that were touched on earlier. The essential character of socialism as a transition—and, in accordance with that, the need for the production relations, the social relations and the political and ideological superstructure to undergo continual transformation, in the direction of communism, as part of the revolutionary struggle throughout the world toward the same ultimate goal of communism—all this means that, even as the Constitution and laws of a socialist state must, at any given point in this process, reflect the current character of the production and social relations, they must also provide the means for the continuing transformation of those relations as well as of the political-ideological superstructure itself, in order to continue to advance toward communism. At any given point, laws, and the rule of law, grounded in the Constitution—even as they are a reflection of the prevailing property and underlying production relations—must apply, and be applied without discrimination or distinction to everyone in society; yet it will also be true, as a reflection of the character of socialism as a transition, that at various stages—and particularly when qualitative changes have been carried out, or when the need for carrying out such changes, in the economic (and social) relations, and in the superstructure, is acutely posed—there will be a need for the Constitution itself to be changed, in part or perhaps even in its overall construction, in order to reflect these transformations and the continuing struggle to carry them out.

Communism—A Radical, Epochal Transformation

Now, with the achievement of the final goal of communism, there will no longer be a need or place for Constitutions and laws, as such or at least as we are familiar with them. This does not mean, as is also spoken to in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) that there will no longer be a need for government. Here I won't repeat, but will refer you to, what is said there about why there would still be a need for government in communist society and what its basic purpose and role would be.

But let's return again to the achievement of the "4 Alls" as the embodiment or encapsulation of the advance to communism: the abolition of all class distinctions, of all the production relations on which those class distinctions rest, of all the social relations that correspond to those production relations, and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that correspond to those social relations. With the achievement of that, there would no longer be the need for institutionalized Constitutions and laws which would reflect remaining elements of antagonistic relations among people. That doesn't mean there would no longer be a need for principles—or, if you will, "rules"—for how the government would function, but they would not need to be embodied in a Constitution and in laws as those have existed in previous societies, including socialist society. Exactly what form that would take with the achievement of communism is something we should wrestle with in an ongoing way—and hopefully we will, in this new stage of the communist revolution, acquire increasing experience on an international scale, in one country after another, in wrestling with how things would actually take shape as the transition is carried forward toward communism. But we can say with certainty that there is a radical, epochal difference between the role now of a Constitution and laws as a reflection of existing—in fact prevailing—antagonistic relations in capitalist society, and what the role of government and the character of "rules for government" would be in a communist world.

The transition from the bourgeois to the communist epoch

To achieve communism, with the realization of the "4 Alls," requires not just transformation in the superstructure, and not just transformation of the production relations and the social relations as a whole but, in dialectical relation with that, the achievement of a material abundance sufficient so that the necessities (not only material but also intellectual and cultural requirements) of a decent life for everyone on this planet are—and can be assumed to be—assured, and there is also a sufficiency so that not only can resources be available for continuous expansion of the economy and provision for the future, but also—and this is very important—that specialization in various spheres (which, realistically, will continue as a significant phenomenon in a communist world) would not, and could not, lead to relations of inequality in social status, or even to social antagonisms.

At the risk of committing, yet again, the "unforgivable sin" of being "self-referential," let me cite here a passage from an earlier work of mine, as it is very relevant to this question of the transition from the epoch of bourgeois society (and all preceding class society) to the epoch of communism. In this work, as part of a discussion of "Egalitarianism and Common Abundance Under Socialism," and specifically the orientation of increasingly achieving common abundance and general egalitarianism (in contrast with absolute egalitarianism), the following is emphasized:

Not only is common abundance important as an overall goal and guideline in terms of advancing through the socialist transition to communism, but at each stage, in each spiral of this process it is important to make further progress in moving toward such common abundance. Understood in this dynamic sense—in terms of movement and not in absolute terms—common abundance and general egalitarianism should characterize socialist society through each of these stages, or spirals. The advance to communism should involve raising the material conditions of the people from one more or less equal plane to another...and then another...while continuing at each stage to narrow the remaining differences among the people to the greatest degree possible.1

The advance, through the socialist transition—beginning in one or a few countries and fundamentally on a world scale—to this new plane of human existence, embodied in communism, must and can only take place through the correct handling of the contradictions and struggles involved in interacting with and transforming nature, to continually develop the productive forces in an expanding and sustainable way, in dialectical relation with transforming the production relations and social relations, and the superstructure of politics, ideology and culture, within a socialist country—all that, in turn, in interrelation with the contradictions and struggles marking the world as a whole.

All this will obviously involve an extremely complex process, which will assume acute form at certain junctures, or nodal points; and to handle all this correctly will just as clearly require a continually deepening grasp, a living application, and an ongoing development of the science of communism, with its foundation in dialectical and historical materialism, by ever widening numbers of people—even while among the ranks of those people there will be, at any given time, unevenness in terms of their experience and understanding, with regard to particular aspects of reality and their grasp of and ability to apply this science, or particular aspects of it. Here again is the challenge of giving life to and "embracing" this whole complex process in such a way as to, in an overall and ultimate sense, keep it going forward, through all its complex and contradictory motion, toward the goal of communism.

As touched on before, the achievement of communism, on a worldwide level, will bring an end to the state, but not to government. It will bring an end to the need for Constitutions and laws, for rules of government, at least in the form in which this has taken shape in a class-divided society, including socialism. But, once again, this will not mean, and could not mean, the elimination of constraint and coercion in any form. Nor, of course, will it mean on the other hand the end of freedom, for the members of society (or the community of human beings); in fact, the freedom of people will be much more fully and consciously exercised. But it will mean the end of the need for the institutionalized expression of the rights—and the responsibilities as well as the constraints on the rights—of the people in society, as embodied in Constitutions and laws, particularly those characteristic of a class-divided society. As I have touched on earlier in this talk, and as we have, for very good reason, repeatedly stressed: Freedom does not lie in the absence of all constraint; it lies instead in the recognition, and transformation, of necessity.

Here we can think about the questions that are posed, toward the end of Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?, concerning what kinds of contradictions people will be confronting in communist society, how they will wrestle with those contradictions, and what means they will be able to forge for dealing with those contradictions? The point is made in relation to all this, and it is a very important point, that just to pose such contradictions—to conceive of and begin to wrestle, even in the very elementary way we can now, with these contradictions—brings into sharp relief the fundamental, radical difference between that world of communism and the present world, dominated as it is by the capitalist-imperialist system, with its historically confined and outmoded conception of freedom, its oppressive and exploitative nature, and the terrible and unnecessary suffering this brings to the masses of people, to humanity as a whole.

Communism and Capitalism: Fundamentally Contrasting Views of Human Nature and Human Freedom

So here, once more, I want to return to the question of "human nature"—specifically in relation to the advance to communism, which represents a transition not just beyond capitalism, and its remnants in socialist society, but in a larger sense a transition from a whole prior epoch of human history—including early communal society as well as different forms of class society—to an entirely new era in human existence. This new era, of communism, represents not some kind of "perfect state"—one in which, somehow, there are no contradictions, in human beings or in human society—but a whole new "plateau" upon which human beings will continue to interact, with each other and with the rest of nature, on a qualitatively, radically different basis from how such relations have found expression in the past.

You often hear in various bourgeois political theorizing, and in some popular versions of this, the phrase: "If men were angels." This is invoked to say: "Well, of course, if people were perfect, then we could have a wholly different society, we wouldn't need all these constraints on people and on power, checks and balances, and so on; but men are not angels and therefore"—here, among other things, we're back to the Judeo-Christian view of "fallen man"—"therefore we need this kind of society and government which curbs, or provides the necessary framework to contain, in a way that serves the greater good, the inherent tendencies in human beings and in human nature toward selfishness, toward vice and corruption, and so on." Well the point of communism is not, let us underline, that men, or women, will become angels. The point, once again, is not that there will be no contradictions within human beings, or in human society, or in their interaction with the rest of nature. Rather, the point—and it is a profound point—is that this will be on a qualitatively and radically different basis, in terms of the economic base and the political-ideological superstructure of society: the production and social relations, the political relations and institutions, and the thinking of the people.

Contradictions and struggles will still mark—and will still be the driving force in—all of reality, including the human beings who make up society. Communist society, and the human beings who make it up, will continue to undergo change, even qualitative transformation of one kind or another; they will continue to confront necessity and struggle to transform necessity into freedom, which will give rise to new necessity—and on, and on, endlessly, so long as human beings exist. "Human nature," too, as part of this overall process, will continue to undergo change. But, again, the point is that all of this will be on a qualitatively, radically new basis and new plane.

This, by the way, certainly does not mean that, once the epoch of world communism has been reached, there will then be nothing to learn from previous historical experience, or from philosophy and the many different spheres of "working with ideas" in previous eras which have striven to synthesize that experience into understanding about nature, society and the human beings who make up society. All this will remain a tremendous treasure-house for humanity, one which will be continually added to. But the point is that this will be able to be approached on a whole new level by society in general, as well as by particular individuals—from a radically new standpoint—in relation to previous eras in human history. The principle of "embraces but does not replace" will have application, and will be applied, to this acquired experience and knowledge. (In this connection, what is discussed in "A Scientific Approach to Maoism, A Scientific Approach to Science"—in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy2—is very relevant.)

By way of review and summation, then: There is a profound, and yes epochal, contrast between communist society and not only capitalist society, but all previous societies. This includes an epochal contrast in the conception of freedom and rights. Here it is worth referring briefly to what is discussed in Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy3 concerning positive and negative freedom.

To bourgeois theorists—and again you can see this reflected in writers like Paine, Madison and Jefferson, as well as the leaders and (so to speak) the inspirers of the French revolution—freedom is conceived overwhelmingly in essentially negative terms. It is cast in terms of protection from the encroachment of government, and protection from other people in society lest they resort (or regress) to a "state of nature." But communism embodies a vision of freedom based on the understanding that freedom lies in the recognition and transformation of necessity—and this actually involves a conception of freedom in a much greater dimension and, yes, a positive character, as well as encompassing aspects of negative freedom, that is, protection from government abuse and abuse by other individuals. This freedom lies fundamentally and essentially in the ability of people to act together, and to struggle over how to act together, to radically transform society, in interrelation with transforming nature: to first of all uproot exploitation and oppression and social antagonism and move to a whole new era beyond all that, and then to interact with each other, and with nature, through non-antagonistic relations, to continue transforming the world and, yes, people, on an increasingly conscious and voluntary basis—not an absolutely conscious and absolutely voluntary basis, which would fly in the face of reality, but an increasingly conscious and voluntary basis. This is a very powerful expression of positive freedom.

Capitalism is mired in, and gives constant expression to, not only relations of exploitation but, bound up with that, "commodity fetishism"—the way in which people are impelled, and in a real sense compelled, to relate to each other not essentially as human beings but as owners (virtually as embodiments) of commodities to be exchanged. With this comes the atomization of individuals. All this rests on and is driven forward by concealed social relations of exploitation—as well as more overt relations of exploitation and oppression—and it is marked by the corresponding conceptions of freedom, and of the role of government and its relation to individuals in society. This is very starkly illustrated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. What is expressed there is a viewpoint of individuals as property owners and owners of commodities who are, in significant ways, in conflict with each other, even as they attempt to function together in one society to overcome "the state of nature," and to somehow utilize force and counterforce to keep things from becoming antagonistic within that society.

Socialism represents the open recognition of existing antagonistic social relations, and a conception of freedom and of association among people based on the fundamental goal of overcoming such relations and divisions, achieving the "4 Alls" and transcending the "narrow horizon of bourgeois right." It involves conscious initiative and momentum to move beyond commodity relations and the corresponding division, and alienation, among atomized individuals, replacing all this with forms that give expression to and foster social intercourse on a cooperative basis among the members of society while actually, in this framework, giving greater scope to individuality.

This orientation, and the recognition of continuing struggle to create the basis for the fuller expression of this with the achievement of communism throughout the world: that is what needs to be embodied in the principles and provisions of the Constitution for a socialist state and laws based on that Constitution.

1. Bob Avakian, Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism! 2nd edition (RCP Publications, 2004), pp. 97-98. [back]

2. Bob Avakian, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy (Insight Press, 2005), pp. 78-79. [back]

3. Bob Avakian, Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy (RCP Publications, 2008). [back]

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