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Part 7: Class Rule, Individual Rights, and the Abolition of Classes

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This series by Bob Avakian is excerpted from a previously unpublished talk titled "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World."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

This touches on the dialectical relation between class rule on the one hand and individual rights on the other hand. Once again, this goes back to the polemic vs. K. Venu, specifically on the question of individual rights. Venu's argument about individual rights is framed in terms of a criticism of "class reductionism" in the history of the ICM—in other words, reducing everything to mere class relations—and his characterization of the "historic advance" of bourgeois democracy in recognizing the rights of the individual, even though bourgeois democracy is ultimately bourgeois dictatorship, as Venu did acknowledge, at least theoretically. I also mentioned earlier how Venu misrepresented what Marx and Engels said (in The German Ideology ) on the "division within the life of each individual in so far as it is personal and in so far as it is determined by some branch of labour and the conditions pertaining to it." Our answer in the polemic went back to, and explored more fully, what Marx and Engels said in this very passage of The German Ideology from which K. Venu quoted (in a very selective way), and it also brought forward what was said by Marx in the Grundrisse concerning the fundamentally illusory character of individual independence (or freedom and autonomy) under capitalism, and how, as Marx says in the Grundrisse,"It is impossible for individuals of a class etc. to overcome [the larger social conditions of existence] en masse without destroying them" (see AWTW , 1992/17, pp. 56-59).

That's a very important point. It concentrates a profound truth about the relation between individuals and their rights on the one hand and, on the other hand, social conditions and social relations—and in class society, class relations. It is impossible for individuals of a class, etc., to overcome the larger social conditions of existence en masse without destroying those conditions—that is the correct, the Marxist understanding.

This relates back to what I was saying earlier in criticism of the book by Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics,*and in particular his point about "Polyarchy" and the competing interests in society—particularly among its elite—his arguments on how the masses can influence those competing interests, how that is what democracy amounts to, the highest expression of democracy that is possible, in a large modern (and in fact capitalist) society, and how such a democratic process is an end in itself and a social good in itself. I emphasized that this fundamentally ignores—and in fact is refuted by—the reality of class division and class dictatorship in class society.

On the other hand, because Marxism recognizes that individual conditions, and individual freedom, is fundamentally shaped and determined by the social relations—and in class society, class relations—this should not be taken to mean that Marxism attaches no significance to the rights and the freedom of the individual. For example, in a famous statement by Marx in the "Critique of the Gotha Programme," which we have cited a number of times in talking about the necessary conditions for the transition to communism, Marx speaks of putting an end to the "enslaving subordination of the individual" to the division of labor as a necessary part of this transition and the creation of the social conditions for the achievement of communism. Once again, as reflected in the quote from the Grundrisse cited above, Marx does not divorce this from, but ultimately situates it in, social relations and of course class relations in class society; but this doesn't mean that he attaches no importance to expanding the freedom of the individual.

In this connection, the discussion in Phony Communism is Dead, Long Live Real Communism!concerning relative egalitarianism and common abundance in the advance through socialism to communism is very relevant:

"at each stage [within the socialist transition], in each spiral of this process, it is important to make further progress in moving toward common abundance. 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." (p. 95).

This relates, on the one hand, to the fact that we must situate individual differences ultimately in social relations (and class relations in class society) but, on the other hand, to the fact that even within this process, this advance to communism, there is the need not only to overcome social divisions but, as Marx said in "The Critique of the Gotha Programme," to overcome the enslaving subordination of individuals to the division of labor. This is very much bound up with the fundamental point that Marx also stresses—and to which I will come back a number of times in this talk—about the relation of "right" to underlying material conditions.

The emphasis on overcoming the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor goes along with the basic vision of life in communist society that is found in early writings of Marx. Personally, I used to attach less importance to this vision and think that maybe this was simply "the early Marx," that it represented a view that he moved beyond later—or should have moved beyond! But, it is important to go back to this image of communist society, in the early writings of Marx, where people would work in the day, go fishing in the afternoon, and read a book at night. Well, I don't know about the fishing part, but some people may want to do that. And that's exactly the point. While I might not want to go fishing, some other people might want to. The reason I said, somewhat jokingly, that this is a vision that maybe Marx did or should have moved beyond, is because it doesn't quite include enough of the element of the collective life of society. You know, this vision (work in the morning, go fishing in the afternoon, read a book at night) is a kind of short-hand formulation, which by definition can't capture all the complexities involved, and so we have to understand it in that way, but I still feel that it doesn't quite indicate enough of the collective element of communist society and the continuing need for people then to come together to make decisions about the overall direction of society, in which the role and the rights and freedom of the individual will inevitably be situated.

But, on the other hand, there is a point here—in Marx's "short-hand" formulation—which goes along with the importance of overcoming the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor. The point is that we are aiming to create the conditions, to create a world, in which people will put in a certain amount of work and political activity for the common good but there will also be, along with centralization and collectivization, decentralization and individual initiative where individuals or groups of people will go and do various things that suit them. We should not give this up as part of our vision of communist society. We should not give in to the stereotype of communist society that the bourgeoisie has created and popularized, seizing on certain secondary but not insignificant shortcomings in the experience of socialist countries so far and of how communism has been portrayed and put forward in the history of the ICM itself, with a certain one-sided emphasis on collectivity.

At the same time, there is a fundamental difference—and this is very important to stress—between the communist position and the anarchist position even with regard to the situation where, in reality, it will be possible and necessary to have no state, that is, communist society. In other words, not only do we differ with anarchism on when, how and under what conditions it will be possible and desirable and necessary to do away with the state, but we also have a difference even with regard to the situation where in reality the abolition of the state will have been achieved. Communist society will not be one of absolute individual freedom—in fact, no society is, or could be, that. This is bound up with that other very important statement by Marx (to which I referred above) where he says that "Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby."

This is dialectically related to Marx's statement about overcoming the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor. On the one hand, the achievement of communism will require and make possible, on a qualitatively new level, the freeing of the individual from subordination to the division of labor. But, on the other hand it will always remain true, at whatever stage and level of society, including within communist society, that the freedom of the individual will be grounded in the overall conditions of society and cannot be based on something other than that—it cannot be abstracted from that, or raised above that. This is what Marx is getting at when he says that "Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby." In other words, there will never be a situation of absolute individual autonomy or individual freedom. More particularly, there will never be a situation in which the interests of particular individuals should take precedence over the interests of society as a whole. This is a very important contradiction. Even with the achievement of communism, with the abolition of classes and class rule (of the state and of hierarchies) the interests of society, at whatever stage of communism we are talking about, will still have to be higher than the interests of particular individuals although, as pointed out in Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?,how this finds expression will be radically different in communist society as compared with capitalism and all previous societies—even socialism.

Precisely in accordance with this dialectical materialist principle—concerning the relation between the individual and the collective and the relation of freedom to underlying material conditions—the freedom of the individual will in fact be far greater in communist society than even in the most democratic bourgeois state. And in fact, far greater than in all states, all class societies, including socialism.

Now, this goes back to the point cited from the Grundrisse (in the polemic vs. K. Venu) on how, in capitalist society, the freedom of the individual is in essence illusory. The individual cannot escape the conditions, and in particular the class relations, that are socially established. By contrast, the scope of individual freedom will in fact be continually expanded under communism, with the abolition of class distinctions, although even under communism there will never be "absolute" freedom of individuals, or, for that matter, absolute freedom of any kind. There will always be necessity—"social" as well as "natural" necessity (social as well as natural conditions that have to be confronted)—and freedom will always lie in the recognition and transformation of necessity, in a never-ending process.

People as a Means to an End, or as an End in Themselves

In this connection, I wanted to return to a point that's made in the "Democracy" book in speaking to Immanuel Kant's moral "categorical imperative," in particular Kant's maxim of treating all people as always an end and never as a means only (see "Democracy," pp. 55-56 and footnote p. 99). In the "Democracy" book what is said is that in class society this maxim is impossible, and that in general, even in communist society, it is not possible but also not desirable to actually realize this maxim. Now this is a fairly provocative statement. This maxim of Kant's is embraced very broadly by democrats of various kinds, it's upheld as some sort of universal moral standard for the kind of society that, if it doesn't exist, should exist. This is put forward by many people who are very progressive and even radical in many ways. Even people who recognize that it is impossible to make this an "operative" principle in bourgeois society, say that this ought to be the guiding principle in society, that we should want to create and strive to create a situation where people treat each other always as an end and never as a means only. In other words, individuals should not be made an instrument of someone else's desire or will or objectives, but should be treated as a thing unto themselves, with their own integrity and autonomy, they should never be reduced to a means to some other end.

In the "Democracy" book, when it insists that this maxim is not only unrealizable in a society divided into classes but furthermore that, even in communist society, this is neither realizable nor desirable, it goes on to explain that, when humanity has reached communism, and no matter how far humanity advances, it will still be the case that the interests of society as a whole will always have to take precedence over the interests of particular individuals. And it discusses how the advancement of society overall to increase the sphere of freedom of the people, and therefore of all the individuals in society, has to take precedence over the interests of any individuals at any given time. Now, this is correct, and important. But, on the other hand, it is also possible to see how this could be misconstrued as, or distorted into, an argument that the rights of individuals—and how individuals are treated by other individuals, or by the state, or by society as a whole—is unimportant. That is not what's meant in the "Democracy" book, and it is very important to distinguish what is meant from how that could be misconstrued in this way.

Saying that we can't realize the principle of always treating people as an end and never as a means only, because the development of society and the interests of society as a whole must take precedence over the interests of individuals, does not mean (and the "Democracy" book stresses that it does not mean) that one individual should dominate or exploit another individual. Or that people should exercise their rights as individuals in a way that enslaves or exploits other individuals. Or that, in making decisions and establishing priorities overall, the people in society as a whole, in their collective aspect, should ignore the needs and concerns of individuals, even while in an overall sense the needs and concerns of particular individuals will, of necessity, be subordinate to the interests and concerns of the people as a whole.

It is an objective of communist society to move beyond, number one, class distinctions and class division, exploitation and oppression, and also, to move beyond relations between individuals which are exploitative and oppressive, as a part of that overall process. In other words, the relations between individuals will also be transformed as part of the process of transforming the relations between larger social forces or classes in society. So, while, as discussed here, we can never realize the principle that Kant is arguing for, it is also true, as I have been stressing, that the sphere of freedom of individuals, and the autonomy of individuals in that sense, will be expanded in communist society (and this recalls that earlier statement from Marx about working in the morning, going fishing in the afternoon, and reading a book at night). There is a dialectical relation here—a contradictory relation, a unity of opposites— between the recognition that, on the one hand, the interests of society as a whole will always have to take precedence over the interests of individuals and, on the other hand, that the sphere of autonomy and freedom of individuals will be expanded continuously, or wave after wave, within socialist—and still more and in a qualitatively greater way, within communist—society.

So when we speak to the limitations and the fundamental inapplicability of this principle (or maxim) expounded by Kant, we don't do so in the spirit of saying that we attach no importance either to the rights of individuals or to the question of expanding the sphere of freedom of individuals, in socialist and then in communist society. There is a different synthesis we are speaking to.

In conclusion on this point, the essential thing that is being said, in refutation of this principle articulated by Kant, is not that the relation between individuals and how they treat each other is unimportant to communists, or in socialist and communist society, but that relations between individuals can never be higher than, or as important as, the social relations in the society (and the world) as a whole. And this will be true even when class distinctions have been overcome.


*See part 3 of this series, "The Bourgeois View of Freedom and the Individual," RW #1216 (October 19, 2003). [Return to article]