Revolution #166, May 31, 2009


On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science, Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning
Part 4

Each Class Seeks to Remake the World in Its Image—But Only One Class Cannot Do This by Relying on Spontaneity

This brings me to the next point, which is how—without, in fact, falling into reductionism and reification—it is a very important phenomenon in all of social life, and particularly in social struggle, that each class will try to remake the world in its image. Especially in every revolution, but in every major social transformation or social movement, different class forces seek to seize the reins and impose their solutions, in accordance with how they see the problems. More specifically, it is important to understand how bourgeois and other reactionary class forces seek to do this, especially in the context of any major social upheaval and social struggle, and most especially in the context of an approaching revolution. Let's examine briefly some examples of this.

** Iran in the 1978-79 revolution, where there was a mass upheaval in which different class forces were contending, and in which, unfortunately, the representatives of the exploited and oppressed masses and, in particular, the proletariat—that is, the communists—were weak, relative to other class forces, especially because of the vicious repression that had been carried out against the communist movement under the reign of the Shah, backed by U.S. imperialism, for several decades. In the swirl and roiling of that revolution, the class forces representing the interests of the bourgeoisie—and in some aspects feudal relations—maneuvered, and didn't just maneuver but were given powerful backing, to seize the reins of that revolution and to turn it into the horror that it has since become, with the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its existence for nearly three decades now.

More still needs to be learned about this, but enough is known to be clear that the U.S. imperialists, who initially backed the Shah, even in the face of this massive upheaval, then maneuvered, through their contacts within the existing Iranian army and in other parts of the ruling structures in that society, to prevent the revolution from ripening more fully. They moved to cut short a process through which the masses would be able to more fully test out in practice, as well as wrangling on the level of line and theory with, different programs and different forces representing different solutions. Instead, the U.S. imperialists, and elements they could work through, maneuvered things so that the forces grouped around Khomeini would, in fact, get the necessary backing to be able to seize and consolidate power. It was the calculation of the imperialists that they could better deal with that than a continuously developing revolutionary situation—a situation in which the communists, assuming that they had been able to find their bearings and more thoroughly grasp and apply a genuinely communist and revolutionary line, would have been able to win increasing numbers of the masses through that social upheaval, through the masses testing out different programs and seeing which ones really were leading in a direction that was in their fundamental interests, and which were stopping halfway, seeking to hold things back and keep things confined within an oppressive framework.

Once again, this is something that needs to be more fully explored—although in significant measure it has been explored, particularly by our Iranian communist comrades. I'm merely seeking to sketch out a basic picture here, to illustrate this extremely important point about how different class forces enter into the fray and, especially in the context of major social upheavals and more particularly with impending revolutions, seek to seize the reins and impose their solutions—and what the consequences are when different class forces are able to do this. (For further, and more specific, analysis in relation to this, see the article "30 Years after the Iranian Revolution" from A World to Win News Service, February 23, 2009.)

** The situation in South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s. There was a tremendous revolutionary upsurge in that country in that period, particularly in the urban shantytowns but spreading also to the bantustans and among the masses of black people throughout South Africa. And at a certain point, especially with larger changes in the world, including profound changes in the Soviet Union and its erstwhile bloc—first the ascension by Gorbachev to the head of the Soviet party and state, and then the demise and dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fracturing apart of its former empire, as such—the U.S. imperialists, in league with the white supremacist ruling class in South Africa, recognized that they had not only necessity but also freedom to change the form of rule in South Africa: to abolish the apartheid system, and even to allow the majority African population to vote in elections and to choose black South Africans as the leaders of the country, beginning with Mandela.

But, once again, the result of this was that the revolutionary process was aborted. There are times, and situations, where abortions are good, and times and circumstances where they are bad. This was one that was very bad—an aborted revolutionary process. Despite what is constantly preached at us these days—including by the "liberals" and "progressives" in the ruling class, and those who follow in their wake—it is not by any means always bad (or, "at best," a "necessary evil") to abort a fetus. But it is very bad to abort a revolutionary process—and this is what happened in South Africa. And part of the whole arrangement there, worked out under the commanding influence of the U.S. ruling class, was that South Africa would remain within the framework of imperialist domination, and even of IMF (International Monetary Fund) structures and dictates, and so on. This was clear and explicit.

A number of people have analyzed this, at least partially, but the essential point is this: The whole way in which Mandela was brought to the fore by the imperialists, and by their allies within the ruling structures of South Africa, not only did not fundamentally improve the conditions of the masses of oppressed and exploited African people in that country, but in many ways this new arrangement has led to their conditions worsening, especially economically, but even socially and morally, if you will, so that now, and for the time being, a mass revolutionary upsurge and the whole sense of purpose and the whole sense of a fight for a better future, and all the uplifting elements that go along with that, have been replaced to a large and growing degree by crime, particularly among the same kinds of youth who, a couple of decades ago, would have been the backbone of a revolutionary struggle. And this has led to demoralization, to confusion, to illusions that have not only been fed and taken hold among the masses in South Africa but whose influence has been spread to oppressed people in other parts of the world.

And this was, again, a very conscious policy—a very consciously adopted series of steps on the part of the imperialists and the white elite strata in South Africa, but also on the part of certain bourgeois strata among the oppressed black people in South Africa whose aspirations did not go any further than an arrangement of this kind, because their interests, as a social group (class), were in fact largely in line with merely abolishing certain forms of formal segregation (apartheid) and the oppression that went along with that, while leaving intact the fundamental relations of oppression and exploitation—which has in fact led to even worse consequences in many ways over the nearly two decades since apartheid was abolished.

This is a profound lesson that must be deeply grasped and driven home, if masses of people, not only in South Africa but throughout the world, are really going to be able to consciously fight for their emancipation and the emancipation of humanity as a whole.

** Another illustration of this is the contrast between India and China in relation to the end of old-line colonialism and the emergence of a new (or not-so-new) society in the one country and the other. Here we are speaking of two fundamentally opposed paths: one born out of revolutionary struggle and, yes, revolutionary war, with the overall leadership of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, resulting in the overthrow of the existing system, a rupture from imperialist domination, and embarking on a path of radically transforming society toward the objective of finally eliminating all relations of exploitation and oppression and the institutions and ideas that go along with and reinforce them; and, on the other hand, the path in India, represented by Gandhi and some others, of seeking conciliation with imperialism—seeking the end to formal colonialism but maintaining things within an oppressive framework, both in terms of the international relations in which India is enmeshed and oppressed, and in terms of the economic and social relations inside India itself, not the least being the horrendous oppression of women as well as the caste system, the outrages continually committed against the so-called "Untouchables," and so on. In the one case and the other, it is a matter of particular class forces—very different and fundamentally opposed class forces—moving to achieve certain solutions, in line with their interests and their outlook and, accordingly, how they see the problems.

** Or we could take the struggle within the Chinese Communist Party itself, especially once it came to be the leading force within the socialist state, after the seizure of power and the overthrow of imperialist domination and reactionary rule in China in 1949. Especially as this struggle, within the Chinese Communist Party, came to a head through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), in the decade from the mid-1960s until the death of Mao in 1976, it became clear that there were two sharply opposed viewpoints and programs representing not just individuals but social forces—that is, different class forces—which both existed within, and had positions of authority and leadership within, the Chinese Communist Party itself. This is why Mao made the pathbreaking analysis that is encapsulated in his statement, popularized during the GPCR: You are making revolution but don't know where the bourgeoisie is. It is right within the Communist Party. The capitalist roaders (within the Party) are still on the capitalist road.

Some points concerning the role of intellectuals and the revolutionary process

This was not just a matter of bureaucrats in the Chinese party and state having grown fat or power hungry as a result of holding positions of authority—it was not essentially a matter of bureaucracy. This was a matter of different people who, yes, were intellectuals, but (going back to the insights of Marx) intellectuals who in their contrasting modes of thinking, and in the policies and programs that they developed—in their lines, in other words—represented two fundamentally opposed classes (think again of Marx's very important observations about the relations between classes and the political and literary representatives of those classes). Or, to put this another way, the question, over which there was antagonistic struggle, was: In the image of which social class should that society (and ultimately the world) be remade? In the image of the proletariat—not in a reductionist or reified sense but in the sense of its interests as a social class, which lie in ultimately resolving the contradictions of capitalism, in particular its fundamental contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation, and moving on to abolish all class distinctions and the production relations, social relations, ideas and institutions that go along with that (in short, achieving the "4 Alls")? Or should society (and ultimately the world) be remade in accordance with the viewpoint of that stratum which had taken a concentrated form within the Chinese Communist Party, which sought merely to make China a powerful country, and which was determined that the best way to do that was to institute what are objectively capitalist economic relations and to implement policies that would give further life to and reinforce all the relations that go along with capitalist economic relations, and would place China squarely within the overall framework of imperialist domination and exploitation on a world scale?

This is not a question of "power struggles" among individuals or cliques. This is a matter of different classes—or of people and groups objectively representing different classes—perceiving more or less correctly their interests as a social force, as a class, and then striving to influence and to utilize the struggle and the aspirations of the masses to change society, to shape society in accordance with those class interests. It was in the interests of this stratum which was constituted, in a real sense, of intellectuals, but intellectuals who had taken up the outlook of the bourgeoisie—once again, political and literary representatives of the bourgeoisie, as Marx spoke to this—it was in the interests of that class, it was in accordance with their aspirations as a class, to institute these capitalist relations, to bring China back within the framework of overall imperialist domination, exploitation and oppression in the world. And this was in direct opposition to those leading people within the Party—again, a group of intellectuals, broadly speaking, but intellectuals who had taken up the viewpoint and were fighting for the revolutionary interests of the proletariat, as a class—who were on the socialist road, as a transition toward the final aim of communism, worldwide. This battle—between the socialist road, and those leading forces representing that road, and on the other hand the capitalist road and those representing it—went on very intensely, even with some partial ebbs and flows, over the whole decade of the GPCR, and it resulted, unfortunately, shortly after the death of Mao in 1976, in the victory of those class forces representing the program of capitalism and imperialism, and the defeat of those representing the program of communism and the ultimate abolition of relations of exploitation and oppression.

In speaking of this battle as taking a concentrated form as the struggle between intellectuals (party leaders) representing, respectively, the socialist road and the capitalist road, I do not mean to, in any way, ignore or downgrade the importance of the role of the masses in all this—to present things as if they were mere spectators, or pawns of contending leading groups, in all this. No, one of the hallmarks of the GPCR was the degree—truly unprecedented in history—to which masses of people, literally in the hundreds of millions, were involved in this massive social upheaval, with at least tens of millions doing so with an unprecedentedly high consciousness of the terms and stakes of this struggle. But the point is, as Lenin summarized (in Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder):

Everyone knows that the masses are divided into classes;...that usually...classes are led by political parties; that political parties, as a general rule, are directed by more or less stable groups composed of the most authoritative, influential and experienced members, who are elected to the most responsible positions and are called leaders. All this is elementary. (As cited in the polemic against K. Venu. See the Appendix to the second [2004] edition of Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism!, p. 204.)

Even if one is only speaking of self-proclaimed Marxists, it may be the case that Lenin was overly optimistic in asserting that "Everyone knows" this; yet the fact remains that indeed "All this is elementary." But what is more complicated—and this will remain a significant phenomenon so long as the masses are divided into classes, and until the unequal and oppressive social relations bound up with class divisions, including in particular the division between mental and manual labor, are overcome—is that leaders are generally people who, as one of their essential qualities, have a more developed ability to work with ideas (who, generally speaking, are intellectuals). This objective fact, and the gap between such intellectuals and the masses of people, particularly those who are not intellectuals, will be real and have real implications and ramifications, regardless of whether those intellectuals (leaders) themselves come from backgrounds and circumstances that are, generally speaking, those of the petite bourgeoisie, or whether they are drawn from the proletariat and other basic masses.

One of the distinguishing features of intellectuals is that—because of their particular circumstances and the nature of their role in working with ideas—as individuals (and even in a certain sense as a broader social phenomenon) they have relatively more freedom and capacity to "attach themselves" to one class or another, and even to "detach themselves" from one class and "attach themselves" to another. In other words, they can take up the world outlook and come to represent the interests of one class or another. Now, it is generally the case—and this is what Marx is speaking to in discussing the democratic intellectuals and their relation to the shopkeepers—that intellectuals spontaneously, and rather strongly, gravitate to the outlook and interests of the petite bourgeoisie, because that most corresponds to the social position and circumstances of the intelligentsia, as a general rule. But, as we know, certain intellectuals (or even groups of intellectuals) can become high functionaries, and even political leaders, of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, some intellectuals—including intellectuals who come forward in the revolutionary ranks out of the basic masses and develop the ability to work with ideas, to formulate line and policy, on a high level—can and do take up the outlook of and become fighters for the interests of the proletariat. This generally becomes more of a social phenomenon in times of social upheaval, particularly when revolutionary currents are more powerful among the masses of people and in their influence in society overall.

But for those intellectuals who are drawn to the revolutionary cause of the proletariat, in the most fundamental sense, there is the very real challenge of consistently applying the outlook and method of dialectical materialism and not only embarking, but persevering, through all the difficulties, on the road of revolution and, in a real sense, giving over their intellectual capacities, as well as their hearts, to the cause of this revolution and its emancipatory goals. Beyond that, and more especially for those who come to occupy positions of leadership in the vanguard of the proletarian revolution, they face the challenge of not simply providing leadership to that revolution but more specifically doing so in a way that, increasingly, masses of people, particularly from the most exploited and oppressed sectors of society, are enabled to more and more consciously take part in this revolutionary struggle. To put this another way—to speak to another key dimension and profound contradiction characterizing the proletarian-communist revolution and the ways in which it must be fundamentally different from all previous revolutions in human society (and this was spoken to, more than a decade ago now, in "Strategic Questions"1): All revolutions are led by a small part of society—and in a concentrated way by a leading group which is quite small, relative to the masses of people it is ultimately leading—a leading group which will, in fact, be mainly constituted of people who are intellectuals, generally speaking, regardless of where those intellectuals come from, in terms of their "social origins." In a very important aspect, this is true of the proletarian revolution, and not simply revolutions led by people embodying the outlook and representing the interests of exploiting classes. The profound, truly world-historic challenge for the proletarian-communist revolution, and for those who lead it, is to bring about the radical leap and rupture beyond the situation—characteristic of all previous revolutions, waged ultimately in the interests of exploiting classes and led by people representing those classes—where the masses are the main fighting force in the revolution (or, to put it more bluntly, do the bulk of the sacrificing and dying in this struggle) but the fruits of this struggle and sacrifice are reaped by forces which are in reality exploiters and oppressors of the masses, where society is once again "remade in the image" of an exploiting class, even if there are certain changes with regard to the particular mode in which this takes place.

To accomplish the radical leap and rupture beyond this involves, and requires, overcoming the mental/manual contradiction as a crucial aspect of achieving the "4 Alls." But this will require a whole historical epoch and can only be achieved on a world scale; and throughout this whole transition, wherever power is seized, the dictatorship of the proletariat established and the revolution continued under this dictatorship, there will be the complex, and at times very intense, contradictions bound up with the fact that overcoming the mental/manual division, and achieving the "4 Alls," must be not only a long-term goal but something that is being concretely "worked at," at every stage of the process, even while, at least for a very long time into this transition, the mental/manual contradiction will remain a very pronounced phenomenon. Handling all this correctly, in the living process of advancing the revolution, with all its complexity, is one of the great challenges of our revolution and its ultimate aim of communism, throughout the world.

Different interests of different class forces in the struggle against the oppression of Black people in the U.S.

As another illustration of the basic point here—regarding the phenomenon of different classes seeking to "remake the world in their image"—we can look at the role of the Black bourgeoisie (and even sections of the Black petite bourgeoisie, but in particular the Black bourgeoisie) in the U.S., in relation to the long struggle of Black people, particularly in the period from shortly after World War 2 up until the present. There are those individuals and groups among Black people who have sought to identify that struggle as nothing more than—and to confine and shape that struggle into—a reformist struggle for, as they put it, "civil rights." In some important ways, there is a parallel here with what happened in South Africa with Mandela. These forces have sought to (mis)direct the struggle into one limited to eliminating certain formal and legal barriers of discrimination and segregation—although such barriers have been far from removed in reality, and in some ways are reinforced more than ever in the schools, in housing and employment, in health care, and in many other spheres. Now, of course, striking down formal laws and codes embodying discrimination and segregation is in the interests of the broad masses of Black people (and the broad masses of people of all nationalities). But the point is that it is in the interests of a section of the bourgeoisie among Black people—and not in the interests of the masses of people—to keep the struggle from breaking out of the bounds of reforms within the existing system. These bourgeois forces have seen that these reforms could offer them the possibility—given the ways in which they are now situated in this society and, relative to the masses of Black people, their more privileged position—to have a more favorable opportunity to improve their situation within the existing framework, to "move on up" within this framework, even in some cases to achieve high positions within this system. Now, in reality and whether or not they recognize it (some may and some may not, but the reality is) this is condemning—and so long as this is what holds sway, it will condemn—the masses of Black people, and indeed Black people as a people, as an oppressed nation within the U.S., to continue to suffer horrendous oppression.

It is not so simple as saying that these Black bourgeois forces don't care about that. The fundamental and essential point is that—to go back to Marx's formulation—this is how they see the problem and the solution. Their perspective is that eliminating these formal barriers and allowing people in their position to advance, even perhaps to achieve the pinnacle as has now happened with Obama—to become the leading functionary of the imperialist state with all of its horrors—is the best way that Black people—or at least Black people "in their image"—will be able to advance and "realize the dream." They see their own aspirations and interests as the highest expression of the general good. In a certain sense, this is true of all classes and their representatives: they see the class interests they uphold as representing the general interests, and the general good, of all. The fundamental question is whether this is true or not—and the fundamental difference is that this is true of the proletariat, as a class, in a way that it is not true, and never has been true, of any other class: conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat, from its exploited and oppressed situation, are in fact the necessary and essential conditions for the general emancipation of humanity, the abolition of all relations of exploitation and oppression, throughout the world. But—there is a certain irony in this—precisely with the elimination of certain formal barriers of discrimination and segregation, it is the case that the interests of the Black bourgeoisie, as a class, are objectively (and however they perceive it) in sharp conflict with the interests of the masses of Black people, particularly the masses crowded into and confined and brutalized in the inner cities, as well as the interests of the oppressed and exploited masses in the U.S. and throughout the world in general.

To be clear, this does not mean that the Black bourgeoisie—or at least many among that class—cannot be won to the side of revolution, as things unfold, and through a great deal of struggle; it is both possible and necessary, as a matter of strategic orientation, to win as many as possible among that class to the side of the revolution. And certainly that is true of the Black petite bourgeoisie. But what is crucial and essential to grasp—for the vanguard and for the masses who will be the backbone of the revolutionary struggle—is that forces representing the Black bourgeoisie, or even the Black petite bourgeoisie—the outlook and the interests that correspond to the social positions of those class forces—cannot be in the leading position, or the struggle will not go where it needs to go, in order to achieve the general emancipation of the oppressed and exploited masses, of all nationalities, and the ultimate emancipation of humanity as a whole, throughout the world. Only a vanguard representing and fighting for the interests of the proletariat, as a class, can lead the struggle to achieve such a general emancipation.

All these examples discussed here—which I've only been able to sketch out briefly and in broad strokes—demonstrate the fundamental truth that different class forces contend according to their understanding of the problem and the solution. And, in turn, their different understandings of the problem and solution are essentially shaped by the decisive relations in society—most fundamentally the production relations, but also the social relations and the political relations—and by the differing places and roles of different social groups, or classes, within those overall relations.

But an additional complicating factor, and problem, is that under the rule of exploiters and oppressors—and specifically today under the rule of the imperialists and bourgeois forces—the heavy weight of habit, tradition, and the spontaneity this gives rise to, all go in the direction of exerting a powerful influence in line with the interests and aspirations of the exploiting classes. This is why it requires a conscious rupture on the part of the exploited and oppressed—and on the part of those intellectuals and others who seek to represent them—in order to be able to first of all even recognize, and then to act on the recognition of, the fundamental interests that the exploited and oppressed masses have, in contrast and in conflict with those of the bourgeoisie, and even more privileged, if not strictly speaking bourgeois, strata, in terms of how the representatives of those strata are pulled to see the problems and the solutions.

1. Strategic Questions was a talk by Bob Avakian in the mid-1990s, and selections from it were published in the Revolutionary Worker (now Revolution) in issues #881 and #884-893 (November 1996 through February 1997) and in issues #1176-1178 (November 24 through December 8, 2002). These selections can also be found online at [back]

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