Revolution #250, November 13, 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. Earlier excerpts were published in Revolution #248 and #249. All of 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 revcom.us/avakian or amazon.com. The text is available at revcom.us/Comm_JeffDem/Jeffersonian_Democracy.html; audio available at bobavakian.net/talk2.html.
Capitalist Society, Bourgeois Democracy and Dictatorship
All this points to the essential fact that what we're dealing with here is a dictatorship. There is a lot of popular misconception—and a lot of deliberately-propagated misconception—of what dictatorship is, and what it is not. Commonly and popularly—and through the influence of bourgeois political representatives and theoreticians, media mouthpieces, commentators and "pundits," and the rest—dictatorship is understood to mean the rule of an all-powerful and essentially maniacal Leader (with a capital L), like a Hitler (or, as it's generally put out these days, a Stalin or a Mao); or it is presented that a dictatorship is where a small group of people exercise power without allowing any rights to the masses of people, any free expression of ideas, any right to political dissent, and so on. And, conversely, it is said that what a dictatorship is not is any society where you have elections with competing candidates and parties and where people are allowed certain civil liberties and human rights (recall the arguments of Robert A. Dahl cited earlier). But in reality, and as a matter of scientific analysis: A dictatorship is a system of class rule, a monopoly of political power, expressed in a concentrated way through a monopoly of armed force to maintain and enforce that monopoly of political power—which is exercised to preserve and to serve the underlying economic system and its production relations, and the corresponding class and social relations.
That is the essence of what a dictatorship is. A dictatorship may—in the case of bourgeois democracy, for example—allow people to vote on which group within the ruling class will exercise the functions of this dictatorship over them. What a brilliant scheme!—you not only exercise dictatorship, but you involve those being dictated over in fostering and reinforcing the illusion that they are not being dictated over.
At times you will hear some people, including some progressive people, say: "I refuse to acknowledge that I'm being ruled over." Well, refuse to acknowledge it or not, you are. And your refusing to acknowledge it is only doing harm to yourself and others in the same situation, because you can't change reality if you have refused to accept what that reality is. As much as Huey Newton, especially in his early years in leading the Black Panther Party, contributed to the development of a revolutionary movement in the U.S. (and helped inspire people who were building that kind of movement in other countries as well), he was fundamentally wrong—and he gave expression to a misconception that, in one form or another, has a great deal of currency these days—when he said: "Power resides in the ability to define phenomena and cause them to act in a desired manner." You don't exercise power by having some abstract ability to define phenomena any way you would like and thereby cause those phenomena to act in a desired manner. You exert political influence and ultimately exercise political power by recognizing the essential reality that you are dealing with—what the existing political power is rooted in, reinforces and serves; what the contradictions are within that, and the possible pathways of transformation; and where your interests lie in relation to that—and by acting accordingly.
The fact is that, bourgeois democracy is a very effective form of dictatorship. You have to give the bourgeoisie credit: they've really hit upon and "perfected" something very clever in terms of perpetuating their rule and their interests. And it makes sense for the bourgeoisie to determinedly and stubbornly cling to this, as long as possible, because it involves exercising dictatorship while allowing, and encouraging, people to feel that they are exercising the power which in fact is being exercised over them.
But this is, nonetheless, a dictatorship, and whenever any group (or at times even an individual) acts in any significant way in opposition to the actual interests that are being dictated, then out comes the sharp edge of this dictatorship. The whole history of the U.S. is in reality a testament to this. In periods of acute social crisis and mass outpouring of opposition, this becomes more clear—it bursts through more of the outward appearance and camouflage. For example, in the great upsurges of the 1960s and into the early ‘70s in the U.S., many people came up against this dictatorship, and began to get at least a sense of it. I remember myself being in situations of virtual martial law, where you couldn't congregate in groups of more than a few—the police would forcibly break up any attempt to do so—particularly if it seemed to have any oppositional political purpose; and you couldn't do things like openly pass out oppositional political literature. Well, in those conditions it was much harder for people to argue that there is no dictatorship in this country.
And we saw what happened, for example, in the L.A. rebellion in 1992. When the masses of people rebelled, the government didn't say: "Let's have a vote to decide whether we think their rebellion is justified or not." They sent out the National Guard and then they sent out the Army. Why? "To restore order." From the standpoint of the functioning of this system, that was a logical thing to do—to mobilize brute military force, with the threat of massively using it, in order to suppress an uprising that threatened the interests of the ruling class and the "order" that this ruling class, and this system, requires. It did not matter to the ruling class—or it was not accepted by the ruling class—that this rebellion was righteous, that it was an expression of completely justified mass outrage at years and years of brutal oppression. And even many people who might have identified with, or at least been sympathetic toward, the feeling of outrage that led to the rebellion—which was set off by the Rodney King beating and more specifically the acquittal of the cops who were caught on videotape beating him—were confused and conflicted by the rebellion, because the question was posing itself quite acutely: where is this rebellion going to go? Many people, particularly white middle class people, felt like this: "There is chaos in the streets...Are they going to come over to my house and burn my house down or take my things?" Even some people who think of themselves as progressive got caught up in that—but what they got caught up in, fundamentally, was a logic that corresponded to the needs of the system. The bourgeois system—whose oppressive functioning was the fundamental cause of the rebellion in the first place—required the reimposition, by open and brutal force, of order. In other words, it required the aggressive assertion of dictatorship acting on behalf of, and reinforcing the class interests of, the bourgeois (capitalist) ruling class and the production and social relations of which that bourgeoisie, in turn, is ultimately and fundamentally itself an expression.
If you didn't want to see order reimposed in that kind of way, then you would have to affirm that it is better to have chaos and disorder, at least for a time, than to have the forcible reimposition and reinforcement of injustice. It takes a radical standpoint, verging on a revolutionary one, to take that stand—and to take it thoroughly, and in a deep way. It takes a scientific understanding of the actual relations and dynamics that are involved, and how what exists, and what was then being aggressively asserted, is the actual exercise of dictatorship—even with certain democratic forms—in the interests of a definite class, which is itself the embodiment of definite social and, above all, production relations and the underlying dynamics of capitalist accumulation through those production relations.
At the same time as this dictatorship has a monopoly of political power—expressed in a concentrated way as a monopoly of armed power—it also has a monopoly in molding public opinion, so that the way people are inclined to act politically is in line with the interests of the class which exercises political power—dictatorship—over them.
Some of this came through in the movie "Bulworth." In that movie the Warren Beatty character, Senator Bulworth, has kind of lost it, but in losing it he's come closer to the truth—he's lost his inhibitions. Well, he goes to a candidates' debate, and you have the Jim Lehrer types there from the media who are going to ask the questions of the candidates. They start asking him questions, but Bulworth replies: Oh, man, this is really ridiculous—the same people who pay us are paying you to ask us the questions! [Laughter]
Well, this is, in somewhat populist terms, a basic reflection, if not a thoroughly scientific analysis, of what actually goes on. It is the "same people"—in the sense of the same class that's exercising political power—who also monopolize and control the media and the means of molding public opinion in various ways—not just through the news media, but in an overall sense in the culture as well, including "popular entertainment" (although in the realm of culture some opposition does get expressed, this is hugely outweighed by the predominant "message" that comes through, in various forms, in the service of the ruling class).
In Morris Berman's book Dark Ages America, there is an important section that speaks about the lies that were told by the Bush regime going into the Iraq war. In reading this, for my own reference I marked the word "lies" next to every place where Berman pinpoints these lies: it goes on for page after page. Berman also exposes the role of the mainstream media in propagating these lies and viciously attacking people who attempted to counter them. He asks, rhetorically:
What to think of NBC, which fired Phil Donahue (in addition to veteran war reporter Peter Arnett), the only TV network host opposed to the war? Or CNN, which attacked Scott Ritter, who had headed the U.N. weapons inspections from 1991 to 1998, as "an apologist for and defender of Saddam Hussein," because he claimed that the case for Hussein being "a threat to the U.S. worthy of war" had yet to be made? (Kyra Phillips practically called him a traitor during their interview, and Paula Zahn told CNN viewers that he had "drunk Saddam Hussein's Kool-Aid.") (Morris Berman, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, p. 221.)
Well, this is perfectly consistent with the essential role of these media. That role is to mold and shape public opinion in such a way that when people think and act politically, they are conditioned to think and act within the confines and in the interests of the capitalist-imperialist system.
To cite once again Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?:
the much-vaunted freedom of expression in the "democratic countries" is not in opposition to but is encompassed by and confined within the actual exercise of dictatorship by the bourgeoisie. This is for two basic reasons—because the ruling class has a monopoly on the means of molding public opinion and because its monopoly of armed force puts it in a position to suppress, as violently as necessary, any expression of ideas, as well as any action, that poses a serious challenge to the established order. What Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto is more true than ever in today's conditions: "The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class." (Bob Avakian, Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?, Banner Press, 1986, p. 71)
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