Revolution #192, February 14, 2010



[Editors' note: The following is the ninth in a series of excerpts from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian in Fall 2009, which is being serialized in Revolution. The first eight excerpts appeared in Revolution #184, #185, #186, #187, #188, #189, #190, and #191. The entire talk can be found online at]

Solid Core and Elasticity

In terms of the development of the organized communist movement, from now and looking to the future, there is another important question that I want to address: the relation between ideological unity and cohesion on the one hand and decentralization on the other hand—another expression of solid core and elasticity. This gets focused to a large degree around this contradiction: the need for, but at the same time problems related to, leadership. This has been a difficult contradiction for our movement, historically as well as in more recent times. Without going into great detail here, in a way that is neither necessary nor appropriate, and is not helpful to our cause, I do want to point to some recent negative experiences that our movement has undergone and to what lessons should, and should not, be drawn from this.

Vanguards and individual leaders: real contradictions, and the decisive importance of line

There is the experience of the Communist Party of Peru within the last couple of decades: even though there were all along real problems with significant aspects of its ideological and political line, this was a party that was, broadly speaking, on the revolutionary road and fighting under the banner of communism, and then it experienced, and our whole movement experienced, a severe setback when, first of all, the top leadership and in particular the main leader, Gonzalo, was captured by the other side, and then on top of it he called for an end to the revolutionary struggle, in effect, with all the confusion and disorientation which that gave rise to over a number of years. Here we see the phenomenon where the top leadership is taken and/or goes off track, and the struggle suffers a severe setback.

We have, unfortunately, also seen this more recently with the experience in Nepal and the line that has been taken by what is still the dominant leadership in the party there, which is now calling itself the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). This is not to say that the struggle is over, that it has been resolved completely and irrevocably in a negative direction, that revisionism has fully and unalterably triumphed in that party; but it's clear that the line that has come to dominate and the core of leadership which still has the predominant position in that party is an embodiment of revisionism at this point and represents a program and direction that will lead to the defeat of the revolution there.

People look at experiences like this and they say: "You have these revolutionary struggles and the leadership goes bad or the leadership gets captured or killed, and that's the end of the struggle." Some people are more vaguely, and some more clearly, aware of these experiences and are drawing conclusions along these lines. And there are those who are attempting to force this into a framework of arguing for a line that is opposed to recognizing the importance of, or promoting, individual leaders.

For example, we know that the Indian party—the Communist Party of India (Maoist)—wrote a polemic which contains some valid points but also some questionable and problematic points in terms of its critique of the course taken by the Nepal party. One problematic element in this critique is that it puts a great deal of emphasis—what is actually undue emphasis—on the fact that the Nepal party had, for a number of years, built up the prestige of its main leader, Prachanda. The Indian party's critique links this to a general assertion that when you build up an individual leader, then you make it that much harder to criticize that leader if and when they go off the track or even take up revisionism. While there may be some truth to this, focusing on this in the way that is done in this critique by the Indian party reflects an incorrect line. It is true that when particular leaders are built up and they gain a certain prestige, this does give them a certain disproportionate weight and influence. But the more fundamental fact is that leaders who play a certain role will objectively have a disproportionate influence in any case.

An analogy can be drawn, for example, to a point that has been made about the international communist movement overall. During the period of the Third International of communist parties (the Communist International, or Comintern), the Soviet Union, for several decades, was essentially the only socialist state in the world, and as a result the Soviet party and its leadership definitely had a disproportionate influence. This was a real contradiction, with an objective basis, and there were negative consequences that were associated with this. As a result of such negative experience, both in regard to their own revolutionary struggle and more generally, the Chinese communists drew the conclusion that it is bad to have Internationals—bad to have formal organization of communist parties and organizations throughout the world. But, in analyzing this whole experience, we have pointed to the fact that, regardless of whether you have institutionalized communist organization internationally, parties which lead major revolutionary struggles—and, even more, a party which leads in the seizure of power and the establishment of a socialist state, with that party exercising overall leadership within such a state—such parties will in any case acquire a great deal of prestige and influence. Such was the case with the Chinese Communist Party itself, especially after the nationwide seizure of power in China in 1949, and particularly through the upsurge of the Cultural Revolution in China from the mid-1960s to the mid-'70s. Leaders of revolutions and of revolutionary parties which succeed in coming to power, such as Mao Tsetung, will have a disproportionate influence, whether or not a "cult of the personality" is consciously and deliberately built up around them. You do not solve this problem, this contradiction, by not having institutionalized organization of communist parties on an international level. And, as we have also pointed out, in significant ways this problem is actually heightened by not having such organization—since certain parties and leaders will in any case have great prestige and disproportionate influence, but without international communist organization there is no established framework in which this contradiction can be systematically addressed.

Speaking specifically of individual leaders, well if certain particular leaders do come forward and play an outstanding role, then that is an objective phenomenon. The masses of people should understand that phenomenon, both because it is an important part of reality that they should grasp correctly, and also because that is the only basis on which they can be mobilized to defend such leadership, which is vitally important for them and the cause of their emancipation. You don't solve the problem that individual leaders, as well as leaderships of parties collectively, and parties as a whole, can go off track—can go "bad," can take up a revisionist line and turn from being a vanguard force of revolution into a counterrevolutionary force—you don't solve that by bourgeois-democratic means, by denying the particular role of individuals and promoting ultrademocracy and a petit bourgeois-democratic view that ignores, or refuses to acknowledge, the objective roles of different people and forces, and which, more fundamentally, denies, or ignores, the underlying material basis for why vanguards are necessary and formed and why certain leaders come to the fore of certain revolutions and revolutionary parties at given times. You don't solve problems that are associated with that by trying to ignore the contradictions which give rise to the need for vanguards, or by trying to deny the reality that an outstanding leader has emerged when that is actually true—is an important part of objective reality—and in its principal and essential aspect is a very positive and favorable factor for revolution and the advance toward communism.

To return, for example, to the situation with the Nepal party, the essential problem with that party now is not that they unduly promoted an individual leader. The essence of the problem is that this leader, and the still dominant leadership of the party collectively, has adopted a revisionist line which now predominates in that party. In other words, this is another expression of Mao's basic point that the ideological and political line is decisive.

And this itself involves important contradiction. On the one hand, it is line that is decisive, and not the question of whether individual leaders are built up or not built up, or whether somehow you could try to avoid the phenomenon of certain individuals playing a disproportionate role. In fact, if a particular leader is, on the basis of a correct line, playing a disproportionate role and you try to deny that and you ignore the underlying basis for why that emerges, you are actually robbing yourself and the masses of people of one of your great strengths. In my writings on philosophy, and in discussions with other comrades about this question, emphasis has been put on the contradictory nature of reality and how this is the basis for and the process through which change takes place. The point has been stressed that unevenness is in fact the basis on which change occurs and that the basis for change which this unevenness provides can be a tremendous strength for rising and revolutionary forces.1 But, if you deny this unevenness or seek to suppress it—out of ignorance or as a result of consciously choosing to ignore the underlying contradictory reality which gives rise to it—you are only weakening the process of revolution.

All that is one side of the contradiction. The other side, however, is that there are problems associated with the historical process in which vanguards and particular leaders play a disproportionate role. This is not essentially owing to the willful action and errors of communists; the fundamental basis for this problem does not lie in the fact that communists choose to build up the authority of a leading group within the party or even a particular leader within the overall collectivity of the party. Of course, there have been situations where the authority of leadership bodies, or particular leaders, has been built up artificially and wrongly; but the more profound problem is that, even where legitimately and necessarily, and as a reflection of the underlying contradictoriness of material reality, certain people have come to play a more important and disproportionately influential role than others within the revolutionary process, there has been the phenomenon that when such leaders have either gone off track—have even reversed course and gone from being revolutionary to being counter-revolutionary—or have been taken from the people, either by "natural causes" or by the actions of the enemy, the communist movement has suffered severe setbacks.

We can look at the larger dimension, beyond the particular and more recent experience of the party in Peru or the party in Nepal. We can look in the more sweeping sense, over a century or so, at the restoration of capitalism in former socialist countries, not only in the Soviet Union shortly after the death of Stalin, but also in China very soon after the death of Mao. Now, those two experiences are very different in a number of important particulars, but at the same time they are both part of the more general phenomenon that certain powerful influential leaders arise who do actually—and not principally as a result of artificial factors—assume a disproportionate role and have disproportionate influence within the overall collectivity, and then when those leaders are lost to the revolution, in one form or another, this creates much more favorable conditions for a setback or defeat for the revolution.

This was very dramatically demonstrated in the experience of China after the death of Mao. It was literally a month after Mao's death that the revisionist coup, which began the restoration of capitalism, took place in China. Much as this is hidden from people, this was a process not of the revolution going bad in some abstract sense (or the revolution "eating its own children," in some distorted sense) but of an actual military force being wielded by high-ranking leaders within the Chinese Communist Party who had taken up the revisionist outlook and were fighting for a revisionist program of capitalist restoration, who wielded the armed forces to kill or arrest thousands and tens of thousands of genuine revolutionaries who were fighting to persevere on the revolutionary road toward the goal of communism.

So, once again, looking at this not only in terms of the more immediate experience of the last decade or two, but in this broader historical dimension, the problem is, in essence, not one of too much authority invested in a single powerful leader. During the period of the greatest achievements of this whole first stage of socialist revolution, representing the greatest advances toward communism in the world, during the high point of the whole communist revolution up to this point in history, namely through the Cultural Revolution in China, a great deal of authority was invested, legitimately and as an actual reflection of objective reality, in a particular leader, Mao, who did exert a tremendously—and tremendously positive—disproportionate influence. This is something which must not be lost sight of: Mao did exert a very significantly disproportionate influence, and this significantly disproportionate influence was a very positive one.

Yet, here we also see the other side of the contradiction—that when Mao was no longer able to exert that positive influence (when he was no longer alive), then the strength of the revisionists was great enough to overpower and overcome the remaining revolutionary forces who were fighting for the same basic line as Mao. So, is this in one sense a weakness within the overall process of the communist revolution? Is this a problem of ours? Yes, it is—but not in the way that people mean when they locate the essence of the problem in the disproportionate role and the building up of an individual leader—any more than the fact that a party as a whole can become revisionist, while a very real contradiction and problem of our revolution, means that the essence of the problem lies, as many now wrongly assert, in the very existence of the vanguard, and you would be better off without such a vanguard.

Owing to contradictions in the actual material world—in human society as it has developed up to this point, in interaction with the larger natural world, and not by some metaphysical process guided by some supernatural force—there is a profound objective need for a vanguard force to lead in the process of communist revolution. And at times—not in every situation, but at times—these very same contradictions, and the unevenness within them, give rise to individual leaders who play a particularly important role and exert a particularly disproportionate influence; and, if they do so on the basis of the correct line rather than an incorrect line, that will be a very positive disproportionate role.

But, again, the other side of the contradiction is this: If, for whatever reason, they are no longer able to play that role—if they either "go revisionist" (adopt a revisionist line), or if they are taken from the people and are lost to the revolution in one form or another—then this is not only a great loss in some abstract sense, but it can greatly affect the (if you will) balance of forces between revolution and counter-revolution and can provide, yes, real openings for counter-revolutionary forces, including in a concentrated way within the vanguard party itself. But neither the role of the vanguard party itself nor the role of these individuals, when they do emerge and play this disproportionately positive role, is owing to the subjectivity of the revolutionaries, to their erroneous idea of how to exert leadership, to arbitrary attempts to build up authority, but is owing to profound underlying contradictions marking human social relations, not only in particular countries but on a world scale, at this point.

So this is a real objective problem, or contradiction, for our revolution, and it will remain such and will repeatedly assert itself, including in acute ways at various times. So we do have to find the means to deal in a better way with this contradiction in the future—but we have to deal with it on a materialist basis, proceeding from actual material reality and the actual contradictions that we're confronted with which give rise to the need for a vanguard and, yes, the need for individual leaders—and which hopefully will more and more give rise to a number of outstanding leaders who are able to exert a disproportionately positive influence, but whose loss will, on the other side of things, create better conditions for the revisionist forces to launch attacks and even perhaps to succeed, in certain conditions, in turning the revolution around, into its opposite.

In sum on this point: There is a need for vanguards (for Leninist parties, to use that terminology) and for leadership cores of such parties; and in every party, within its overall collectivity, there will be individual leaders. But not every such individual leader will objectively play the role of an outstanding leader in terms of their contributions to the communist movement overall and its fundamental objectives. Here again, there is the need for and the importance of a scientific assessment of individual leaders—of what role they actually play in relation to the fundamental objectives of the communist revolution—and the need to portray the role of such leaders in a way that actually corresponds to reality, neither overestimating and overstating nor underestimating and understating this with regard to any particular leader but, as with all phenomena, scientifically assessing this and portraying it in accordance with this scientific assessment.

Ideology and Organization, Centralization and Decentralization

With this historical experience and its material basis in mind, and confronting the challenges of the beginning of a new stage of communist revolution, here are a few thoughts on handling this contradiction—a few thoughts, in other words, on solid core and elasticity in terms, first of all, of ideology, where there is a great need to further forge unity on a higher level, and how this relates to organization, the organization of communists in particular.

As we fight to bring into being a new stage of the communist revolution in the world and fight to repolarize and bring forward new forces around the New Synthesis as the most advanced expression of the communist ideological and political line that we have today, we need to keep this particular contradiction in mind: how to effect the best relation between solid core and elasticity; how, learning from past experience, positive and negative, to even better achieve the necessary centralization, especially ideologically—a firm and deeply grounded unity and cohesion, a solid core in that sense ideologically, as the key and pivot—in dialectical unity with decentralization, including organizational decentralization in particular.

Returning, in this context, to the question of individual leaders, one of the main roles of such leaders precisely lies in bringing forward other leaders and a broader collectivity of leadership, including cores of new leaders from the younger generations of communists who come forward. This is a challenge which must be very consciously understood and taken up by the communist leadership; and where there are people who do have a disproportionate influence—in other words, outstanding leaders who do play a disproportionately positive role—this is one of the most important things that they, working together with and overall through the collectivity of leadership, have to consciously pay attention to.

At the same time, in the practical struggle in various forms, this aspect of ideological solid core—firm and deeply grounded unity and cohesion ideologically, not as some sort of absolute and unchanging category, but a unity that's continuously being developed and deepened, through struggle—has to be handled in correct relationship with a decentralized dimension of organization, both with regard to the revolutionary struggle overall and with regard to its leadership, on various levels. This is an historical problem which we have to address—dig into and struggle to develop the means to handle better than we have in the past, even while there is much positive experience to learn from.

A key to correctly handling this is the recognition of the fact that the deeper and the firmer the ideological unity and cohesion is—not just unity on whatever basis, but unity on the basis of a correct revolutionary and communist line—the more that this exists, and the more that it is continually strengthened and further developed and deepened, the more possible it should be to develop elasticity, including in the sphere of organization. But, as with every other aspect of the revolutionary struggle, this will not happen spontaneously. It will only happen if it is consciously understood and consciously addressed and worked on by the leadership that does exist, leadership that is united firmly around the correct line and does embody the necessary, and constantly developing, ideological unity and cohesion. It has to be a conscious task that we set ourselves, in other words, at every stage of the struggle and looking to the further development of the struggle.

Mao paid attention to this problem of (as he characterized it) bringing forward successors to the revolution. It is interesting that Mao made the comment, during the course of the Cultural Revolution, that at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution he was thinking in terms of bringing forward a core of intellectuals as successors in terms of the top leadership of the revolution, but he became disillusioned with the intellectuals because they proved unreliable. So, then he began to think more in terms of the whole Red Guard phenomenon—unleashing the youth as a revolutionary force.

But, while a very positive factor, that did not and could not solve the problem—and Mao recognized it didn't solve the problem—of a core of leadership. And, as is emphasized for example in "Ruminations and Wranglings," as regards the core of leadership—the political and literary representatives of a class and of the revolutionary struggle which embodies the fundamental and highest interests of a class, and in particular the proletariat at this stage of history and in this revolution we're talking about—that leading group is going to be made up of people who are in essence intellectuals, people who are capable of working with and developing ideas and grappling in the realm of theory. This will be true regardless of where those people come from originally—whether they come out of the basic masses or the middle strata or more specifically from a family of intellectuals, or whatever. We're not going to be able to eliminate that contradiction—involving the disproportionate role of intellectuals—until we are very far down the road toward the transformation of the contradiction between mental and manual labor, as part of the overall transformation of the basic contradictions characterizing society as a whole in the transition from the bourgeois epoch to the epoch of communism worldwide.

So, I understand the spirit of what Mao was getting at when he said that at first he had hoped to rely on a core of intellectuals, but then they proved unreliable. Yet, we still have to work through that problem. This has to do with the "transfer of allegiance" of a section of the intelligentsia. We have to both bring forward and develop and (in the correct sense of this word, and not in a narrow sense) "train" intellectuals from among the basic masses; but as we do so, we have to recognize that they will, in significant aspects, become different than they were before, and different than other masses from whom they've come, as they develop into intellectuals. That represents an objective change in their position and in what they embody. It is overwhelmingly positive—its positive aspect can be and must be developed as principal—but you are not going to resolve the contradictions between intellectuals and broader masses (or between a class of people, broadly speaking, and the political and literary representatives of that class) in the way Stalin thought you could—by bringing forward people to be intellectuals (or in that case more like engineers and technicians, although it does seem to have been a little more broadly conceived) from among the workers and peasants.

We are going to need to develop a core of intellectuals, in the sense in which I'm speaking of that—political and literary representatives of a class, to again use Marx's important formulation—who are reliable. Not in the sense that anybody's guaranteed against going revisionist, but reliable in the sense that they are deeply grounded in and firmly united around taking up and applying—and are continually learning, in the context of the collectivity of the party and in the course of the revolutionary process overall, how to more firmly grasp and better apply—the scientific communist outlook and methodology.

We have to meet this need and challenge both by bringing forward people from among the basic masses who show that potential, and then developing them, but also by winning over (achieving that "transfer of allegiance" of) a section of people who are already among the intelligentsia. We should not underestimate or downgrade or hold our nose at the prospect of that latter aspect. Intellectuals who are won to communism and really take it up and take it to heart are a tremendously valuable resource for the proletarian revolution and can fulfill an indispensable need in terms of actually carrying forward the revolutionary process. We should thoroughly rupture with any economist and reified and revengist notions which would underestimate and downgrade the importance of such intellectuals and of the need—not only within particular countries but now speaking more of the international dimension—to achieve that "transfer of allegiance," of even a small core now within the intelligentsia, bringing forward even a small number of people who do become deeply grounded in and ardent and active advocates and fighters for communism and revolution.

We will not be able to wish away or will away the contradictions that are bound up with these phenomena I've been speaking to—the role and importance of particular outstanding leaders, or a small leading core of a party, or a vanguard party as a leading force more broadly in relation to the masses of people and the revolutionary struggle that is necessary for, and represents the road to, their emancipation. Again, "it is what it is." This is where we are in the process of making revolution, these are the material conditions that we have to confront and transform—once again, transforming necessity into freedom through struggle, and not by seeking to evade necessity or avoid contradiction.

But we can and must be consciously aware of, keep constantly in mind and struggle in a strategically conceived way to work on, these contradictions—to continually bring forward new leaders and to continually strengthen and further develop the collectivity of leading cores for the communist struggle. This is a very important challenge and task both for particular parties but, especially in the current context and given the crossroads the communist movement as a whole is facing, it is also a very important challenge and task on the international level.

We won't be able to do without—and in fact we should recognize the overwhelmingly principal positive character and role of—leading cores and of outstanding individual leaders where they do objectively emerge and play that role. But, at the same time, we should consciously "work on" the contradictions that are bound up with that, on the correct basis.

If we try to handle the contradictions involved with the disproportionate role of vanguards, of leading cores, and of individual outstanding leaders where they emerge, by artificially undermining and diminishing the role of those vanguards, leading cores, and outstanding individual leaders, the results will be very bad and it will be very harmful to the cause of the people in whose name these ultra-democratic and petit bourgeois-democratic cries against leadership and individual leaders are often raised. What is required, in opposition to that, is an orientation of recognizing, confronting and struggling to transform the objective material conditions that give rise to the need for such vanguards, leadership cores, and individual leaders and, on that basis, seeking to move that contradiction forward in a positive way, not by undermining and diminishing the role of vanguards, cores of leadership and outstanding individual leaders where they emerge and play that role, but by bringing forward new waves of leadership. This requires working consciously to raise the level of those who are committed to the communist cause but are not yet capable of playing an overall leadership role—enabling them to increasingly develop their ability to grasp and apply the scientific outlook and method of communism and in this way take initiative in leading. Proceeding in this way can lead to very positive results and can make a very important contribution to the revolutionary struggle and the cause of the emancipation of the masses of people, for whom leadership genuinely does need to exist—a leadership whose role is precisely to enable the masses to emancipate themselves through continually raising their ability to consciously struggle for that goal.

1. In this connection, see for example "'Crises in Physics,' Crises in Philosophy and Politics," in Revolution #161, April 12, 2009. [back]

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