Revolution #162, April 19, 2009

What a revolution really is...and really is not

Excerpt from:
On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science, Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning

[Editors’ note: The following is an excerpt from a talk by Bob Avakian, earlier this year. Click here for the text of the entire talk.]

This question is not only important in a general and fundamental sense, but it takes on particular significance in relation to the current "Obama phenomenon," and some of the deeper emotions his candidacy—and still more his election (and inauguration)—have called forth, and the ways in which, sad to say, this has blinded some people to what Obama is really all about and the actual nature of the system of which he's a part, of which in fact he is now the chief executive and commander-in-chief.

In this connection, perhaps the following story will shed some light. Back in the '70s when Idi Amin was still the head of the government in Uganda, I went to a party that was held at the house of one of our comrades, and there were some masses from the local area there, including a number of Black people. I was going around and listening to different conversations and just enjoying myself, but also seeking to find out what people were talking about, and in one corner there was a very lively discussion and debate about Idi Amin: One of the Black people there was vigorously upholding and defending Idi Amin, who in reality was both a flunky of imperialism and a brutal oppressor in his own right. And, finally, after listening for a while, I kind of broke in and said: "I understand, I saw that picture of Idi Amin making those British citizens carry him around on all fours. I understand the feelings that evokes. I understand why that made you feel good. But we have to get beyond that to see what Idi Amin really is." And then we began to talk about what Amin really represented—and did not represent.

The desire for revenge (for "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first") and to see one of "your own" actually "make it to the top"—this, especially under a system like this and with the pull of its ideology and the notion that the point of change is for oppressed individuals to "have their chance" to be in a position of privilege and power, is understandably, even if very wrongly, quite strong. And, to come up to the present situation in the U.S., we hear of many people, particularly Black people, saying things like: "We've had a revolution, it's a new America." No, we haven't had a revolution, and it's not a new America. There is something different going on: You have a different kind of president who comes from a different place, and has a different color, if you will. But that is not a revolution, and it is not a new America. It's the same old America, the same old imperialist state, trying to get over better in the world, as well as among people in the U.S.—including Black people in particular—with its murderous and brutally oppressive program.

Malcolm X, even with certain definite limitations in his outlook and understanding, had many important insights, and among them was the way in which he made the point that revolutions are not just a change within the existing system, and that revolutions are not made through the ballot box. As he put it, revolutions overturn systems. This is not what's happened with the election of Obama. What system has been overturned? What fundamental relations in society and the world have been radically changed, in the interests of the masses of people? None. A change of face, a change of color, is not a revolution and it does not a "new America" make.

In a very concise and scientific way, Mao Tsetung spoke to what a revolution is, when he pointed out that a revolution means nothing less than the overthrow of one class by another. A revolution means that the hold of a reactionary ruling class over society—as concentrated in that class's monopoly of political power, embodied in a state (armed forces, courts and prisons, bureaucracies, etc.) representing and serving the interests of that ruling class—is broken and thoroughly dismantled, through a determined struggle of masses of people, organized around a program of radical change—and a new state, representing the interests of a rising revolutionary class, is established in place of the old state. It means that a whole different system is brought into being.

Which class in America has been overthrown, by which other class, with the election of Obama? What new state has been brought into being? What new system? None. It's the same class ruling and the same system, being presided over by a new face with a new color. It's not even "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last." It's just one of those who looks like the "last" joining, and heading up, the "first" to keep the "last" last.

The revolution we need—a real revolution, and in particular a revolution aiming for the final goal of communism—has to set its sights on first bringing into being a radically new state, which represents the revolutionary interests of the proletariat in finally abolishing all relations of exploitation and oppression. And then the revolution must be carried forward from there. The long-term and fundamental aim of this revolution is uprooting and eliminating class antagonisms, indeed all class divisions, and everything bound up with this; and in achieving this, throughout the world, the conditions will be created for the withering away of the state—as an instrument of organized, forcible class suppression—and its replacement by forms of association and functioning among the people that enable them to make decisions affecting their interaction with the rest of nature, and their interaction with each other, without class distinctions or any oppressive divisions. This obviously involves something radically different and better than "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last." But the election of Obama is not even that.

Revolutions are called forth fundamentally by contradictions in the economic base—by the way in which people are exploited and the way in which the functioning of the economy proceeds through certain relations among people which have become outmoded, which can no longer meet the needs of society in a fundamental sense. This—through many different channels and not directly one-to-one, but nevertheless in an overall sense—calls forth the need for radical change in society, and people more or less consciously come to an understanding of this and act to bring about changes in accordance with their understanding.

At the same time, as I have emphasized before, while they proceed from, or are called forth by, contradictions in the economic base of society—with the outmoded character of the fundamental economic relations, and the way in which they are a fetter on society, becoming particularly acute—revolutions are not made in the sphere of production. They are made in the realm of the superstructure of politics and ideology, through a struggle which ultimately takes its highest and most concentrated form in the all-out struggle to determine who—that is, which class, representing which economic and political and social system and relations—will actually rule society and transform society in accordance with how its most conscious representatives understand the problems and the solutions. That is what a revolution is. Measure that against the election of Obama and see how his election stands in relation to that.

The communist revolution is a radically different revolution from all previous ones, in that it is made in the interests of, and fundamentally by, the class—that is, the proletariat—whose interests lie not simply in changing positions within society (let alone just changing some faces) but in radically transforming society to abolish all economic, social and political relations, and all ideas and culture, which embody and enforce exploitation and oppression—not just in one place or one part of the world, but throughout the world as a whole. It involves and requires the advance to a society, a world, not divided into classes and into oppressors and oppressed, a communist society and world.

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