Revolution #248, October 23, 2011

Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy

Editors’ note: The following is an excerpt from Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, published in 2008. This excerpt is a continuation of the excerpt published in the last issue of Revolution (#248). These excerpts, and the work as a whole, address important questions that are on many people's minds in the situation today. The pamphlet is available for purchase online at or The text is available at; audio available at

“Competing Elites”—and Moving Beyond “Elites”

Can the people really be nothing more than pawns of elites?

And here we get to the fundamental point: What Dahl upholds as a “good society”—or, as people like him see it, the best possible society—is one in which the role of the masses of people, of the citizens, is reduced to acting as a “check” on the elites who actually make political decisions. This is another expression of the notion that the best possible political system is one in which there is not one supposedly uniform and monolithic elite, but competing elites, and the “freedom” of the masses of people—including the preservation of their human rights and liberties—resides ultimately in their ability to choose among, and perhaps maneuver between, competing elites. The presumption is that, particularly through the medium of elections, this will somehow cause the elites to compete for the people’s support in such a way that somehow the will of the people will be exercised in setting the direction of society, to the degree that is really possible in a modern, complex society.

Well, to more thoroughly refute this, to demonstrate what it amounts to in reality—and to make clear that it is possible to have a radically different and much better kind of society, in which the role of the people is actually to be the decision-makers, through an overall process which takes place in a qualitatively different way and in a whole greater dimension than anything practiced, or even conceived, by the rulers and political theorists of capitalism (and previous forms of society in general)—let’s begin with the following, speaking to the essential nature and role of elections as the ultimate expression of democracy in bourgeois society:

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. (Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?, p. 68)

To illustrate this further—and to further highlight what is wrong with the notion of influencing competing elites in a way that will benefit the people—let’s turn to a similar argument that was made by Malcolm X. Much as I love Malcolm, it is necessary to point to the limitations of his view of and approach to this—which ultimately flow from the fact that he had not taken up the scientific, materialist and dialectical, viewpoint of communism (although his development was in motion and was cut short by his assassination). In a speech which, back in the day, I listened to over and over again, and which I still enjoy in many ways, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm goes into a whole argument about how Black people shouldn’t be slavishly dependent upon and loyal to the Democrats. With his typical sharpness and biting wit, he speaks of how the Democrats and the Republicans are of the same type—they’re both canines, both of the same family as the dog: one is a wolf and the other is a fox—and they are both against you. But, in the end, what Malcolm proposes is a familiar device: He argues that Black people in particular shouldn’t just be a tail on the Democrats—who simply take Black people for granted and never do anything for them—but instead Black people should form a voting bloc and reward, or punish, those who do, or who don’t, act in ways that benefit Black people.

Malcolm talks about how, at the time Lyndon Johnson became president, after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson flew back into Washington, D.C., and the first thing he did, when his plane landed, was to look around for his friend Richard Russell. As Malcolm tells it, Johnson “gets off the plane and what does he do? He says, ‘Where’s Dickie?’ Now, who’s Dickie? Why, he’s that old racist, southern segregationist, white supremacist Richard Russell. No, that man is just too tricky, ‘cause his best friend is still old Dickie.” [Laughter]

We shouldn’t trust those Democrats, Malcolm insists. And he goes on to talk about how some people argue that Johnson can handle the southern segregationists because he’s from Texas and he knows them. Well, says Malcolm, if that’s the argument, what about Eastland—a senator who was one of the most overt southern segregationists—he knows the southerners even better. Why don’t we have Eastland for president!

Yes, Malcolm is very sharp in punching holes in this idea of relying on the Democrats—and it’s great to listen to this, even now. But then, ultimately, what does he say? Well, he argues, if Black people form a bloc, then the Republicans will have to come to us, and the Democrats will have to come to us, and we’ll go with whichever one will do more for us.

But what are the actual dynamics when this has been attempted? The Democrats come to you, and you put a bunch of demands on them and you insist: “Now, if you don’t do this, and you don’t do that, and you don’t do the other thing in our interests, why we’ll...we’ll...” [Laughter] You’ll what? You’ll vote for the Republicans?! You see, it’s very true, you’ve got the wolf and the fox, and one of them pretends to be for you and the other one doesn’t even pretend to be for you, as Malcolm explained. But those are your choices, as long as you play by the rules of the game that they have set up. So, what leverage do you really have in this game? If the Democratic Party’s role is to talk, at least sometimes, in terms that make you think that maybe with enough pressure applied to them you can make them adopt some of the things that you believe are really important—and if you try to put pressure on them to actually do that by threatening to vote for the Republicans—well, then, either openly or behind closed doors they will laugh uproariously, because they know you can’t go and vote for the Republicans, who don’t even pretend to be for those things that are important to you.

So, even on those terms and on that level, you have no leverage against them. They have you—you don’t have them—as long as you are looking at things as being concentrated within and finding their only (or their best possible) expression within these, yes, very killing confines of bourgeois elections (and bourgeois politics overall). It is only by breaking out of those confines that you can actually begin to influence things in a significant way—by going up against the whole operation of this machinery, breaking free of it and challenging it in a meaningful way.

The following from Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? helps to provide a concentrated summation of crucial points that are at issue here:

Many will say: how can the political system in a democratic country like the U.S. “serve to maintain the rule of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat” when everyone has the right to choose the political leaders by participating in elections? The answer to this is that elections in such a society, and the “democratic process” as a whole, are a sham—and more than a sham—a cover for and indeed a vehicle through which domination over the exploited and oppressed is carried out by the exploiting, oppressing, ruling class.” (Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?, p. 68)

In order to have a deeper and more solid foundation for a correct understanding of this question, and to recognize more fully how apologies for bourgeois democracy, like that of Robert A. Dahl, represent fundamental distortions of reality, it is crucial to turn once again to the question of outlook and method—to the decisive importance of dialectical materialism, and, on the other hand, the striking lack of materialism (and lack of dialectics grounded in materialism) in bourgeois-democratic views and analyses.

One of the most basic truths that dialectical materialism brings to light is that the political and ideological/cultural superstructure in any society—and this definitely includes the U.S.—corresponds, and fundamentally can only correspond, to the character of the economic base of that society—in other words, to the underlying social and, above all, production relations and to the class relations and the forms of exploitation and domination that are rooted in those production relations. In a capitalist society, such as the U.S., the capitalist class predominates in the ownership of the crucial means of production; at the same time, there is a large group of people—the working class, or proletariat—numbering in the millions and millions in the U.S. today, who own no means of production and therefore can live only by working for, and being exploited by, the capitalist class which monopolizes ownership of the means of production; while some others own a small amount of the means of production, and perhaps employ a few people, and so constitute a part of the middle class (or petite bourgeoisie).1 If the superstructure—and in particular the political processes, institutions, policies, and so on—come into any kind of serious conflict with the dynamics of the underlying capitalist economic base and its process of accumulation, then the whole functioning of society will be seriously disrupted and, unless you’re prepared to follow that through to its full conclusion—in other words, to the overthrow of the system—you’ll be forced to recoil from that and to adjust things (to adopt or accept policies) so that the superstructure is once again brought back into conformity with the fundamental nature and functioning of the underlying economic base and the whole process of capitalist accumulation (as it takes place and takes shape not only in the particular country, but today more than ever on an international scale).

Grasping this is crucial in order to understand how and why things happen in society (and the world) the way they do, including how and why politicians act the way they do.

Why, repeatedly, are even people who know better on some level seemingly unable to help themselves and, time after time, vote for politicians who promise one thing and do another, and never really act in the basic interests of the people? This calls to mind the “Charlie Brown with Lucy” experience in the “Peanuts” cartoon: the scene where Lucy is going to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick it, and then at the last minute she pulls the ball away and he kicks wildly without making contact. He keeps falling for it—and she keeps doing it. Many, many people who have gotten involved in mainstream politics in one way or another have had this kind of experience—repeatedly. Remember, during the “traveling road show” of Democratic candidates before the last presidential election, in 2004, Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton articulated some of what people wanted to hear, but Time magazine declared early on in the process that, although Sharpton often got the best popular response, he was not a serious candidate. Why was he not a serious candidate, especially if he was getting the best popular response? Well, Sharpton’s hardly a revolutionary, but even the things Sharpton said during that road show (however sincere he may or may not have been) were outside the pale of what the Democratic Party could actually seriously pursue, even in an election, let alone what it could actually do in running the government.

From the beginning, the conscious representatives of the ruling class were very well aware of all this. Sharpton, whatever his individual intentions, performed a function, objectively, of drawing people yet again into the bourgeois electoral framework, in particular people with a lot of progressive inclinations who were (and today still are) very dissatisfied—or even deeply distressed—with the whole direction of things. And Sharpton actually articulated and advocated the “competing elites” orientation. For example, while being interviewed on one of the main news channels, Sharpton explicitly argued that the role of the masses is to influence what the elites do. Nonetheless, he was “not a serious candidate,” nor was Kucinich, because what they were putting forward, as limited as it was in terms of any real change, had nothing to do with what the actual dynamics of the system were bringing forth and required.

So then you ended up with Kerry as the Democratic candidate, and we all know what that was about. It’s the same “Lucy and Charlie Brown” routine, over and over again. Maybe this time they’ll actually hold the football...No, this time they will do what they always do, leaving you feeling the blues again when, yet another time, they do what they do—and not what you are encouraged to imagine they will do. That’s what their role is—that is, it is in line with the actual functioning of the economic base to which these politicians, in an overall and ultimate sense, have to conform and which they have to serve. Through a lot of complexity and struggle, the politics and policies of the campaigns, and of running the government, get worked out among those who represent the capitalist ruling class and the capitalist system, the fundamental dynamics of which shape all this and set its basic terms and limits.2

In relation to all this, it is crucial to grasp that what characterizes the political system in this country—and in bourgeois democracies in general—is a monopoly of political power not by elites detached in some way from the underlying economic base, but a monopoly of political power by a group of people who, yes, occupy an elite position, but most essentially are an expression of definite relations of class domination and, fundamentally, definite exploitative production relations. The political representatives of the mainstream political parties (the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S.) are in an ultimate and all-around sense the expression, in the political-ideological superstructure, of the underlying production relations of capitalism and the dynamics of capitalist accumulation, particularly as this takes shape and operates in this era of highly globalized capitalist imperialism. They are the expression, in the political sphere, of the monopoly of ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class—which, through that control over the economy, also exercises a monopoly of political power, expressed in an ultimate and concentrated way as the monopoly of “legitimate” armed force, the control of the established armed forces and police of the country, along with control of the courts, the bureaucracies and the institutions and processes of government as a whole.

This fundamental reality—that all this is rooted in the underlying production relations and the accumulation process of the capitalist-imperialist system—is the fundamental reason why the “political elites” are not free to act any way they will—any way they themselves might like to—and, in a basic and overall sense, cannot makes decisions based on “mass pressure” that is exerted on them. While, in the face of massive political opposition and resistance—especially as this is manifested outside, and in opposition to, the established political framework and processes—they may be forced, in the short run, to make certain concessions, they will then work to reverse this, in the short run or over time, and in any case they are not free to act in a way that runs contrary to the fundamental class interests they represent, and to the production relations in which those class interests are grounded.

All this, again, is why, to put it simply, they act the way they do—repeatedly. This is why they say one thing and do another. This is why they get you to vote for them and then “sell you out” every time. This is why, for many years, the Democrats have had “no spine,” in opposing what the Bush regime has been insisting on doing. What exists, and is expressed, in the political system is, above all and in essence, a monopoly of political power, not for “un-rooted elites” floating free in the air, but for a class. And when, or to the degree that, the “political elites” actually do “compete,” they do so most fundamentally on the terms of that class and of the system in which that class dominates, and in an effort to win the approval and support of that ruling class (or particular sections of it). It is that ruling class which fundamentally and ultimately—including through struggle within its own ranks—determines what the parameters and limits of “acceptable” politics will be, who the competing candidates will be and what policies they will actually carry out.

It is important to emphasize the aspect of struggle within the ranks of this ruling class because it is necessary to have a living, scientific—dialectical as well as materialist—and not a crude, dogmatic and mechanical understanding of this. As I pointed out in an article that appeared in the newspaper of our Party, Revolution, in 20053 there is not a single “committee of the ruling class” sitting in permanent session and deciding all these things. Particularly in a large and complex imperialist country like the U.S., operating on the principles of bourgeois-democratic rule, things are much more complex than that, and decisions are arrived at through much more complex processes. But, in fundamental terms, it is the interests of the ruling capitalist-imperialist class that determine the character, and the confines, of political decision-making, including the electoral process and the actual functions this serves. Once again, deeply grasping this is crucial in understanding why politicians act the way they do and, in opposition to that, what are the actual means to effect social and political change, even short of revolution—and, ultimately, to make revolution in order to qualitatively and radically change the whole character of society and have that kind of qualitative and radical impact on the world as a whole.



1. Here it might be helpful to refer to the following, which speaks to the essential features of the economic base (the production relations), in general and specifically in capitalist society:

The production relations, in any economic system, consist, first of all, of the system of ownership of the means of production (land and raw materials, machinery and technology in general, and so on). Along with, and essentially corresponding to, this system of ownership, are the relations among people in the process of production (the “division of labor” in society overall) and the system of distribution of the wealth that is produced. To take the example of capitalist society: Ownership of the means of production is dominated by a small group, the capitalist class, while the majority of people own little or no means of production; the “division of labor” in society, the different roles that different groups of people play in the overall process of production, including the profound division between those who carry out intellectual work and those who carry out physical work (the mental/manual contradiction, for short), corresponds to these relations of ownership (and non-ownership) of the means of production; and the distribution of the wealth produced is also in correspondence with this, so that the wealth that is accumulated by capitalists is, in a basic sense, in accordance with the capital they have (the means of production they own or control) and their role as exploiters of the labor power (the ability to work) of others, who own no means of production; while those who are not big capitalists but may own a limited amount of means of production, and/or have accumulated more knowledge and skills, receive a share of the wealth in accordance with that; and those on the bottom of society find their small share in the distribution of social wealth to be determined by the fact that they own no means of production, and have not been able to acquire much beyond basic knowledge and skills. It should not be surprising that these—highly unequal—relations and divisions in society continue to be reproduced, and even tend to be accentuated, through the ongoing functioning of the capitalist system, the ongoing process of capitalist accumulation and the social relations, the politics, and the ideology and culture which are in essential correspondence with and which enforce, and reinforce, the basic nature and functioning of this system. And especially in today’s world, this functioning of the capitalist system takes place not only within particular capitalist countries but above all on a world scale. (Bob Avakian, AWAY WITH ALL GODS! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, Insight Press, Chicago, 2008, footnote, p. 163.) [back]

2. Although the talk from which this text is drawn, was given in 2006, and therefore it does not speak to the current (2008) presidential campaign/election, the basic principles and analyses discussed here apply to bourgeois elections and politics in general, and the “Obama phenomenon” in this (2008) election is a graphic, and highly concentrated, illustration and confirmation of these principles and analyses. [back]

3. See “There is No ‘They’—But There is a Definite Direction to Things—The Dynamics Within the Ruling Class, and the Challenges for Revolutionaries,” in Revolution, #007, June 26, 2005; see also Bob Avakian, The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution in the Present Era, RCP Publications, Chicago, 2005, also available at [back]


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