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Part 3: The Bourgeois View of Freedom and the Individual

From "On Proletarian Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship: A Radically Different View of Leading Society"

This series by Bob Avakian is excerpted from a previously unpublished talk titled "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World."  The series was published 2003-04.

In a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequalities, to talk about "democracy"--without talking about the class nature of that democracy and which class it serves--is meaningless, and worse. So long as society is divided into classes, there can be no "democracy for all": one class or another will rule, and it will uphold and promote that kind of democracy which serves its interests and goals. The question is: which class will rule and whether its rule, and its system of democracy, will serve the continuation, or the eventual abolition, of class divisions and the corresponding relations of exploitation, oppression and inequality.

Bob Avakian, previously unpublished

It is revealing to analyze how the bourgeoisie and its political scientists and theoreticians link the institutions of bourgeois-democratic society, and more particularly the electoral process, to individual rights. One of the things that emerges here, which was pointed out in the "Democracy" book, and also in PCID (Phony Communism is Dead--Long Live Real Communism) is the individualistic and "negative" view of "freedom" that corresponds to this bourgeois political system and to its concept of "rights." It is a negative view which reduces people to individuals in competition with other individuals, and which sees the question of rights as in essence limiting the impingement of other individuals and of the state (or perhaps of society as a whole) upon the rights of individuals. This is the "highest" vision of freedom that the bourgeois outlook is capable of.

With regard to the people, the masses of people in bourgeois society, the role of elections is primarily to ensnare them in the machinery of bourgeois rule and its political apparatus. Here we can refer to the following from the "Democracy" book:

"To state it in a single sentence, elections: are controlled by the bourgeoisie; are not the means through which basic decisions are made in any case; and are really for the primary purpose of legitimizing the system and the policies and actions of the ruling class, giving them the mantle of a `popular mandate,' and of channeling, confining, and controlling the political activity of the masses of people....This very electoral process itself tends to cover over the basic class relations--and class antagonisms--in society, and serves to give formal, institutionalized expression to the political participation of atomized individuals in the perpetuation of the status quo. This process not only reduces people to isolated individuals but at the same time reduces them to a passive position politically and defines the essence of politics as such atomized passivity--as each person, individually, in isolation from everyone else, giving his/her approval to this or that option, all of which options have been formulated and presented by an active power standing above these atomized masses of `citizens.'" (pp. 68, 70)

Elections in bourgeois society provide a way in which the system can have a "legitimizing" impact throughout society while maintaining the bourgeoisie's monopoly of actual political power--and, as a concentrated expression of that, a monopoly on "legitimate" armed force. They provide a means and a mechanism through which the illusion can be played out that the masses of people have a decisive role in influencing affairs of state. This goes back to the argument of bourgeois-democratic apologists like Dahl* that, even if we recognize that the state is dominated by elite strata, as long as there are contending and competing forces among these elite strata, the masses can play a decisive role by siding with one or another of these elite groups. And even people with revolutionary aspirations, such as Malcolm X, for example, have gotten caught up in this kind of logic-- falling into the argument that the oppressed (or an oppressed people, such as Black people) can act decisively in their own interests through the electoral process by remaining "independent" and, as a bloc, rewarding or punishing those among the contending elites who do something beneficial for or something harmful to the oppressed. Once again, this ignores the fundamental reality of what state power represents--the institutionalized power, the dictatorship, of one class or another--and how elections relate to that fundamental reality.

What really and essentially happens, with regard to competition and contradictions within the ruling class, is that they are resolved through the workings of intra-bourgeois politics, which utilizes various mechanisms of the state. They are not resolved through elections. But, at the same time, the appearance is created and maintained that contradictions among the elite in society are being "opened" to the people, and are being struggled out in the forum and arena of elections, and therefore the people can exert significant influence by siding with now one, and now another, faction or organized force within the bourgeois political structure. This serves the bourgeoisie in that kind of all-around way and--particularly with regard to middle strata which the bourgeoisie relies on for a kind of social stability and anchor--it serves to institutionalize and maintain a political process whereby these strata feel that they have some sort of influence on affairs of state and the governance of society and a stake in the perpetuation of this system.

The Bourgeois Electoral Process: Quicksand for the Revolutionary Vanguard

Beyond that, with regard to the revolutionary vanguard in particular, elections under the present system represent a kind of quicksand--or, to use another metaphor, a kind of siren song continually beckoning the vanguard to shipwreck. We can see this, for example, in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua. There wasn't a genuine MLM vanguard in the struggles there in recent years, but there were forces that claimed to be revolutionary, and even Marxist, who were playing a leading role in the struggle. Within the past few years--and, significantly, with the collapse of the Soviet Union--we have seen these forces giving up whatever form of armed struggle they might have been engaged in and entering into the bourgeois electoral process; we have seen how in fact this has led them to shipwreck.

In People's War to People's Rule Lomperis speaks openly of elections as a kind of Achilles heel for communists in particular. And, at the same time, very interestingly, he continually criticizes communists for bad tactics in refusing to engage in the electoral process at various points; he continually argues that the communists hurt themselves, in various situations, by the refusal to take part in these elections. This is sort of a dual tactic of, on the one hand, saying elections are your Achilles heel and you don't dare enter them; and, on the other hand, saying you communists had better come enter them, if you know what's good for you, or you are going to isolate yourself from the masses and thereby wreck your chances of being able to seize power. And, in actuality, this is another expression of the fact that the bourgeois electoral process is a real siren song (or real quicksand) for the masses and their communist vanguard.

This goes back to the statement that I quoted just a little while ago from Democracy, Can't We Do Better Than That?about how the very electoral process itself tends to cover over the basic class relations and class antagonisms in society and serves to give formal, institutionalized expression to the political participation of atomized individuals in the perpetuation of the status quo. This is exactly what has happened with people who, from various viewpoints and with various programs, such as in El Salvador, have been engaging in certain forms of armed struggle against the established order and then get drawn into the electoral arena. This is a quicksand awaiting even genuine communist forces that get drawn into the notion that participating in this whole bourgeois electoral process is a way that they can in fact influence the overall political process and more generally can influence affairs of state--and perhaps can even ripen and sharpen the conditions for being able to go for the armed seizure of power. These illusions, together with the very real logic and momentum of the bourgeois political process, will swallow you up.

This is not to say that we can automatically rule out genuine communists engaging in any electoral activity as a tactic. That's a question that would have to be analyzed concretely, depending on the circumstances. The point is that there is a very real pull here, there is very real quicksand. The idea that you can somehow make some sort of regular, institutionalized participation in the bourgeois electoral process part of an overall strategy for seizing power from the bourgeoisie is a deadly error, and one that has exerted its deadly influence repeatedly on forces which at least started out as genuine communist forces in the history of the international communist movement. (I'm very aware that what I am saying here is in opposition to what, for example, Lenin argues in "Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder." I still think the essential point I'm emphasizing here is correct. I will not repeat here but will refer people to the arguments and analysis that are made on this question in "Conquer the World."**)

The bourgeoisie holds out that, in the society that they insist is the highest form of society, namely bourgeois democracy, the quintessential means for mass participation, or the quintessential way to take part in politics, is through involvement in the electoral process. But for the proletariat, and in terms of the proletarian revolution and socialist society, we recognize and insist upon a radically different alternative, a mass participation in a radically different way and on a qualitatively higher level. We don't accept that the role of the masses should be reduced to their involvement in elections of one kind or another--not only elections of the kind that are held in bourgeois society, but any kind of election, even those which may be held in socialist society.

The key to mass participation in the proletarian revolution and socialist society is the mobilization of masses of people in the class struggle--the carrying forward of the revolutionary struggle toward the seizure of power, and then the continuation of the revolution in the new socialist society, toward the final aim of communism, worldwide. Various forms have to be developed that give expression to mass participation of this kind. Now, once again, this doesn't mean that in socialist society there can be no role for elections, but the role for elections must be relative to and subordinate to the participation of the people in the continuing revolution, through various forms of mass movement and class struggle, and to increasing their mastery over all spheres of society, strengthening their ability to rule and transform society.

Democracy: An End In Itself, or a Means to an End?

Democracy, Can't We Do Better Than That? quotes Mao's statement that some people think that democracy is an end in itself, but in fact it is not, it is a means to an end. And, more specifically, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, democracy is a means for carrying forward the transition toward communism; while under the rule of the bourgeoisie, democracy is a means that serves the enforcement of bourgeois rule and the functioning of bourgeois society.

But people like Dahl argue--and this too is a standard argument of bourgeois political scientists and theorists--that the democratic process itself is the best means for achieving good in society, and that this process itself is an end in itself. In other words, they insist there is not some abstract good that can be posited and striven for in society which is separate from and over and above the democratic process; rather the highest good itself is the democratic process, is the people taking part in politics in this way and achieving the best possible outcome for the most people, including individuals achieving the best possible outcome for themselves.

What this ignores is the very essential reality that, in every society divided into classes, individuals fundamentally belong to social classes. This material reality asserts itself in the political process as well as in every other sphere of society. While we communists do not seek to obliterate individual existence and the individual differences between people--nor could we do this even if, for some crazy reason, we tried to- -fundamentally people's individual interests, and even how people perceive and pursue their individual interests, are shaped by their social position, and in class society by their class position. This does not and cannot take place outside the framework of the relation and the struggle of different classes.

This point was also brought out in the polemic vs. K. Venu,*** who attempted to invoke all these quotes from Marx and Engels in The German Ideology and other places to promote bourgeois individualism and bourgeois-democratic illusions. These quotes were distorted, as if Marx and Engels were saying that a fundamental division is that between individuals, as individuals, on the one hand and, on the other hand, their role in the social production process and their corresponding social position. This was in the service of Venu's argument that bourgeois democracy is an historic advance because it speaks to the role of individuals and to the rights of individuals and recognizes these rights, even though it perverts this because of the dominance of private property in bourgeois society. In answering this, it was brought out what Marx and Engels were really getting at in The German Ideology (as well as in other writings of theirs that spoke to these questions, such as Marx's Grundrisse) is that there is an appearance that individuals are free and detached from larger social relations in bourgeois society, but in fact their individual position--and even their individual wants and needs--are shaped by their social position and their role in the structure of society and in the relation and struggle of classes.

So you cannot posit democracy--the process of individuals engaging in the democratic process--as an end in itself. You cannot say--or cannot be correct in saying--that this democratic process is the highest good itself, higher than some abstract social good which is divorced from this democratic process. The fact is that this democratic process itself is situated within certain social relations, certain class antagonisms, and class struggle. There is no democratic process that goes on in which mere individuals, divorced from social relations--and, in class society, class relations and class struggle--seek to pursue their own individual interests and somehow through that manage to bring about a result which is in the interests of the majority of people and works for the greater good. Because, in order for that to be the case, you would have to have no class divisions and antagonisms in society--and, correspondingly, no dictatorship: no rule exercised by one class, no monopolization by that class of not only the economic life of society but the political life, as well as the intellectual, ideological and cultural spheres; no monopolization of armed power by that class; no exercise of that power for the enforcement and perpetuation of the system in which that class is dominant.

There can't be any democratic process as an end in itself which is divorced from or doesn't have to be evaluated in relation to the social relations in society--and, in a society divided into classes, the class relations and class struggle. So democracy as an end in itself is (at best) meaningless in this context. What's actually being played out is not the democratic process as these bourgeois-democratic theorists misconceive or misconstrue it. What's being played out is a process which is a subordinate part of the class struggle, or a form through which class struggle is being carried out and, in fact, class dictatorship is being exercised.


* Democracy and Its Critics, by Robert A. Dahl. See also Part 2 of this series: "Proletarian Dictatorship, Bourgeois Dictatorship--What is Similar...And What is Profoundly Different."

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**Bob Avakian, "Conquer the World? The International Proletariat Must and Will," Revolution No. 50, December 1981.

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***"Democracy: Now More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That," A World To Win,No. 17, March 1992.

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