Part 11: Life and Death Situations...The Exercise of Power and the Rights of the People

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This series by Bob Avakian is excerpted from a previously unpublished talk titled "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World."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

Another concentrated expression of the contradiction I've been speaking to, from various angles, is what could be characterized as "war and rights." A more particular expression of that, particularly in socialist society, could be characterized as "war communism" and rights. In other words, in those situations where the stability and the very existence of the regime is at stake, then the scope of freedom that is allowed for people in society is going to be, in some measure or other, restricted. The scope for opposition to the institutions of society and to the policies being carried out in society is going to be restricted in situations of war and other situations that are literally life and death for the existence of the regime.

This principle will also apply in socialist society -- and it has applied in the experience of socialist countries so far. This is really what's being gotten at, this is what's coming through, in the statements that I have been referring to by Lenin about dictatorship and, more specifically, about openly and unabashedly exercising terror against not only the overthrown ruling classes but also those who were, broadly speaking, among the people but were opposing, sabotaging--even if not consciously sabotaging, at least objectively sabotaging--the literal life-and-death struggle for the existence of the new socialist republic, the life-and- death struggle to maintain the rule of the proletariat and to open the way to carrying forward the socialist transition toward communism.

Another thing which is interesting to consider in relation to this is a statement by Machiavelli. (Since, among other things, Machiavelli appears to be popular among a lot of the "G's" and the "O.G.'s" these days, I decided to go back and read some Machiavelli.) One of the things that is interesting in regard to the contradictions I am speaking to here is what Machiavelli has to say about conspiracy. He says: a prince need trouble himself little about conspiracies when the people are well disposed (toward the ruler), but when they are hostile and hold him in hatred, then he must fear everything and everybody.

This is a very interesting comment and, to abstract this from the particularities of Machiavelli's viewpoint and his advice to princes, what's being reflected here is that, when the rule of a given class or a given regime is relatively consolidated, stable, and is not fundamentally or acutely challenged, then there is going to be more of a tendency on the part of those leading the government to be more lenient toward those who oppose them; whereas, when they are in a situation of being in the "sights of the enemy" very acutely--when they are being threatened on all sides, to put it simply--there is going to be much more of a tendency to not allow, and even to restrict very severely, the scope of opposition. This is likely to be both a tendency and also to a significant degree a necessity, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, as well as in other forms of the state. Here we see the question very acutely posed: how does this relate to the principle that the dictatorship of the proletariat has to be a qualitatively different kind of state than all previous states--that the dictatorship of the proletariat represents rule by the masses, and that this not only has to be a general principle which is declared, and popularized, but has to find concrete and institutionalized forms?

In other words, one thing that could be said is: "You communists are just like anybody else. When you are in power, as long as things are going fairly well for you and people are not threatening your rule, you are willing to relax things and let there be opposition and so on, but as soon as you are threatened, you are going to tighten up and bring down the hammer on everybody. That's not qualitatively different than any other form of state." So we can see that there is a very acute contradiction here.

How do you handle the fact--or the contradiction--that, on the one hand, maintaining the rule of the proletariat, and not allowing it to be overthrown by its enemies, is obviously a decisive question, a life-and- death question, which can't be fundamentally compromised on; while, on the other hand, the way in which that is done, the means and methods for doing that, have to be an expression of the fact that the proletarian state is a qualitatively different kind of state? The same means and methods can't be followed by the proletariat and its vanguard, when they are in power, as are followed by any other class, any exploiting class, when it and its political representatives are in power.

This is going to repeatedly pose itself as a very acute contradiction and simply saying, "Well, yes we'll allow opposition as much as possible, we want to allow opposition, but when we are threatened we can't allow opposition"--that does speak to an important aspect of reality, but we can't leave it at that. We are going to have to grapple further in theory and forge in practice a better synthesis in terms of how we maintain the rule of the proletariat as a bedrock principle, and how on the other hand we continue the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat and, more specifically, how we bring into reality and give expression to that principle that the more this state is strengthened, the more it should be radically different than all other forms of the state. The more it is strengthened, the more it should be advancing toward its eventual--not immediate or short-term, but eventual--withering away.

This is a contradiction to which I am not going to try to supply an answer now, but one which needs to be grappled with much more deeply (in theory--and as soon as possible in practice!) in order to achieve a better and higher synthesis on this. The experience of the ICM and of socialist countries needs to be looked at in this light.

Mao was grappling with this, especially through the Cultural Revolution. He was grappling, as he himself said, with what are the means and forms for dealing with this contradiction. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was to a large degree the answer to this question. This was a means and a form through which to deal with some of these contradictions. We should remember that the GPCR wasn't carried out in some sort of very relaxed atmosphere in which there was nothing at stake or on the line in terms of opposition within the country itself and in terms of the international arena. Precisely the opposite. It took place in the context of very acutely expressed international contradictions, and obviously sharpening class struggle within China itself. The GPCR represented a profoundly different approach than one of simply tightening the reins of dictatorship, in the sense of utilizing more aggressively the organs of political power and the institutional means of suppression of those who opposed the dictatorship of the proletariat. While there was, during the GPCR, a continuation of the use of the organs of state power to suppress class enemies, there was at the same time the development of all the mass upheaval and struggle that we know took place in and characterized the GPCR.

I believe Mao was grappling with precisely this question: How do you deal with the intensification of attempts to overthrow the rule of the proletariat, while at the same time giving expression to the fact that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be rule by the masses of people, and this must take concrete and institutionalized form--and that the more this state is strengthened, the more it has to be qualitatively different than all previous forms of state.

So it's not like we don't have great positive experience in this regard. I'm not saying we are starting from scratch or from zero on this. Far from it. But I do believe we have more work to do in terms of grappling with this contradiction and how to handle it in terms of that principle -- that the more the dictatorship of the proletariat is strengthened, the more it should become radically different from all previous forms of the state -- and the concrete application of that principle in various circumstances, including very difficult circumstances.