On Leadership—Vanguards and Individual Leaders

Note: The following is an excerpt from an interview with Bob Avakian which aired on Michael Slate’s Beneath the Surface show on KPFK radio in Los Angeles, on January 25, 2005. The full interview was published in Revolution #168, June 9, 2009. In publishing this here, some editing has been done, particularly for clarity—including the addition in a few places of brief explanatory passages within brackets.

Michael Slate:  Well, let’s move into this question about the world and what it could be. And it’s interesting, on the one hand, you get the sense that people are really wanting another world. On the other hand, you also get a sense immediately when the question of communism comes up, or the question of Maoism comes up, you get people talking about immediately equating that with totalitarianism and raising, in opposition to that, this thing of: well, we want democracy. And I think one of the things, one of the big questions that it begins with, is actually a question about leadership, both about a vanguard but also about individual leaders. And it’s come out in relation to you in particular, but it’s also come out in general when people talk about: isn’t it dangerous to invest so much in one leader, isn’t that a very dangerous thing for creating a new world?

Bob Avakian:  Well, it depends on what you mean by investing so much in one leader. If you recognize that, as happens, leaders do emerge who play an outstanding role—who represent a concentration of understanding of the way the world is, and how it can and should be changed, on a higher level than others around them at a given time—then that can be a very positive thing. To have something like that and to recognize it can be a very positive thing. And it requires people to rally to that and defend it at the same time as it requires them to come forward and play their own role in this struggle. So it depends on what you mean by “relying on.” If you mean putting everything in the hands of a few people, and everybody else passively follows them or just leaves all the thinking to them—or uncritically follows them or doesn’t try to wrestle with the same kind of problems that they’re trying to wrestle with—yes, that’s not a good thing.

So there’s a unity there as well as a contradiction between, on the one hand, someone who does come forward who has an advanced understanding and does concentrate, as I said, on a higher level than others, a certain understanding of how the world is and how it could be changed; and on the other hand, the role of a lot of other people, and growing numbers of people, in taking up the same approach to changing the world—the same communist outlook and methodology—and making the biggest contribution they can to it. And the more that both those things go on, the further we’re going to be ahead. So, yes, it would be a problem if you do it in the sense that’s more like what the bourgeoisie does: find a few great people and put everything in their hands. That’s actually ironically more the bourgeois way of doing things, even though they deny that they have “cult of the personality.” We’ve been through all this Reagan [bleep].1 But also they’re defending an old way of life and they have a lot of the advantages that go with being the entrenched system, the entrenched ruling class. And they can bring forward a lot of people to administer their system, relatively competently, for their needs.

But we’re trying to go up against the whole way the world is and make innovations and breakthroughs in order to do that, that have to be on a world-historic level because that’s what we’re up against. And we do have unevenness. Because we’re not the ones who have been on the top of the struggle for a while, and chasing the imperialists to a few corners and running them out of the world altogether—we’re not at that stage yet. We represent the forces that are rising but haven’t yet gotten the upper hand—let’s put it that way. So it’s more difficult for us to have as many people who have as advanced an understanding and can lead as will be possible for us to do further along in the struggle, when we’ve overcome more of these oppressive divisions in society.

And you can’t just start the discussion about this in the middle. You have to go back to the beginning or down to the foundation of it. Why do you need leaders in the first place? Why is there unevenness within a movement or within a party—why is there uneven development? Why are some people more advanced than others? Why is there, yes, a very significant gap between an organized conscious vanguard of people and broader masses of people? Is this because the people who are in that organized vanguard went out to create this gap? Or in fact is their mere existence as a vanguard a reflection of this gap, an expression of this gap? [If you’re thinking about] 90 percent of the people or more in the world, many of them, frankly, can’t even read and write because of the workings of this system and what it denies to them. But even those who can, most of them are weighed down by the daily struggle for survival and bombarded with the ideology of the ruling class to where on their own, spontaneously, they may rebel, they may see important aspects of the truth about the world and about society and about what’s wrong with it, but they can’t come to a  systematic, comprehensive understanding that enables them to get past all the obstacles that lie in the way of really changing that.

At any given time within a society like this, given its tremendous gap between most people who are in that kind of situation and a small number who have access to and who work with ideas and wrangle in the realm of theory and all that, it’s going to be among the latter group that you’re first going to get people who come to this understanding, who break through and sort of get a penetrating insight into how this society and the world actually works and what’s the motion and development through history of that, where is it all tending and where does it need to go and how can it get there. That’s why you have this gap.

I mean, I was talking the other day with people about the movie Contact where, you know, this character played by Matthew McConaughey says to the Jodie Foster character, who’s sort of an atheist, “Well, what makes you think you know so much? Ninety-five percent of the people in the world believe in god—what makes you so smart?” Well, she happens to be right—there is no god. Because she’s been able to be in a position where she’s been able to study and learn about reality and wrestle with questions of theory and philosophy and science and come to that understanding. The 95 percent of the people who believe in religion—most of them haven’t been able to do that. Some have and go to religion for other reasons, but most of them have never even had the opportunity to do that. So is that her fault, or something wrong with her? Or is that a reflection of what’s wrong with the world?

And this really is the same with the leadership, with the vanguard party or with individual leaders. They are people who—we were talking earlier about some of my experiences—well, part of it was being in a situation where there was lots of intellectual ferment and being in a position—and frankly having the opportunity and even the luxury, coming from a middle class family—to be able to have the time to get into all these kinds of things and debate them and not be dragged down by all the weight of society on you. This is partly what youth are able to do, anyway. But then there’s a class differentiation. And if you’re from the bottom of society and everything is weighing on you the way it does, it’s difficult to break through that. Some people do. Like I was talking with someone the other day who’s an intellectual who comes out of very desperate circumstances and I asked him, “How did you get to be that?” He said, “Well, just one year, I couldn’t get any work, I couldn’t do anything. I read every book I could get my hands on.” So that happens, but it’s pretty rare. You’ll find it in prison. A few people in prison, for their sanity or whatever, start reading, they start writing, and they start investigating and studying lots of things. And they become “self-made intellectuals.” But let’s face it, most people in prison are going to be ground down by what goes on there and are not going to be able to do that.

Well, whether you come from prison or whether you come from the circumstances of this person who was literally living on the street a lot of the time, or from my circumstances, wherever you come from, if you come to a certain understanding and you see not only that the world needs to be changed but there are forces in society who could bring about that change and need that change, then you go to them with the understanding that you’ve developed and you bring them forward. But there is going to be unevenness, and where you have people who do have this understanding, they shouldn’t be shame-faced about it or defensive about it or not wanting to exert influence on other people. They should not have an arrogant attitude. They should recognize they have a tremendous amount to learn from people who are going through the hell of this society every day, but also they have important things to bring to people. And there should be that dialectical process, that back-and-forth process, so that you’re bringing forward masses of people who are the ones who are eventually going to bring this change, but you’re also, at any given time, cherishing and defending the leadership you have that has emerged that does have this advanced understanding and can link it with the practical conditions of the masses of people and with their own desire to find a way out of the world that they’re chained in, and can bring them forward on that basis.

I see this more in that kind of way, and wherever in the world and whenever we get leaders who do have a developed capacity—going back to what you were saying at the very beginning of our conversation about someone commenting about how I combine theory and an understanding of how to bring this to masses of people. Well, I want to be able to do that even better, but I think objectively there is some important truth to that. And where that emerges, then that’s a very valuable and precious thing for the struggle, and that should be recognized and it should be defended—because it’s not easy for something like that to be brought forward by the whole mass upsurge of the people, which is really where I came from, as do other people who do come to this kind of position. And you combine that with studying theory—but without that impulse from the masses of people that we’ve been talking about, I wouldn’t have even wanted to take up that theory or seen the need to or been inclined to.

So it’s that whole back and forth that’s important. And where you do have these leaders, you should recognize it, you should recognize how important it is, how much the enemy wants to destroy that. They have people who study this and they don’t wait until you have a massive influence. They don’t want to sit around and find out how well you’re going to do. As soon as they see anything emerging like that, they’re going to start developing their tactics for how to crush that and eliminate it.

On the other hand, precisely the role of people like that is to bring forward growing numbers of people, including among those who can be and have to be the driving force for this whole revolution. That’s the whole orientation and objective that I’m pursuing—is together with and through our party as a whole and leading the party to do this, to bring forward that base of people and to bring forward people broadly and to build a broad united front with that basic proletarian force as the driving thrust within all that, to make this revolution. And then to begin transforming society to where individuals increasingly don’t have such a—what you might call disproportionate influence—that their importance isn’t out of proportion to that of others in the society. But in order to get to that, we have to first of all get rid of this system and its oppressive divisions, including this whole mental/manual contradiction that is what I’ve really been talking about: those few who work with ideas and work with their minds, and the many who work with their backs and their hands if they can work at all. You can’t get rid of that contradiction by wishing it away or pretending it doesn’t exist.

It’s that contradiction, in large part, that gives rise to the need for leaders and for a vanguard, and then the contradiction goes forward and becomes: how does that vanguard lead the masses of people to move society forward to eventually eliminate that contradiction and the need for that vanguard? And all along the way, yes, that vanguard can turn into its opposite and leaders can turn into their opposite. That’s the contradictory nature of what we’re doing. You can’t do this without a vanguard, and yet it can be turned into its opposite; and we have to struggle to resolve that in a forward moving way to get to where leaders and vanguards, in the sense we’re talking about them, are no longer necessary and will go out of existence and be replaced by the more collective process of the masses of people without those kinds of distinctions of mental labor and manual labor and the role of particular individuals being such a heavy one, so to speak.

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FOOTNOTES:

1. Ronald Reagan, the U.S. president from 1981 to 1989, was infamous for openly threatening nuclear war, backing death squad regimes in Central America, promoting outright racism, and other outrages. Reagan’s death in June 2004 (half a year before the interview with Bob Avakian on Michael Slate’s radio show was aired) was the occasion for a flood of official ceremonies and commemorations, remembrances by top political figures (Democrats and Republicans alike), and major tributes in the mainstream media, all extolling this blood-soaked representative of the U.S. empire as a “beloved” leader who “restored greatness” to America. [back]