Skip to main content

Valuing Dissent....Why?

An excerpt from "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production —
Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation"

The is the sixth in a series of excerpts published in the RW from an important tape- recorded talk by Bob Avakian in the first part of 2002: "GRASP REVOLUTION, PROMOTE PRODUCTION, Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation." These excerpts have been edited for publication in the RW. Footnotes have also been added.

There is a contradiction between leadership and direction, as concentrated in the vanguard, on the one hand; and on the other hand, diversity and dissent and creative and critical thinking—and all the things I was stressing earlier in this talk, about how the Party doesn't have a complete monopoly on all truth, and doesn't know more about everything than everybody else.* These principles are going to be very important to apply all the way through—both now, in the period where we're working to establish the basis for the seizure of power when the objective conditions emerge, and in an even more magnified way wherever power is seized by the proletariat.

An interesting question to pose in this connection is this: Why is it said, in "The End of a Stage—the Beginning of a New Stage,"** that in socialist society "Even some open reactionaries should be allowed to publish a few books and have some limited access to the media"? This is, as one can imagine, a highly controversial and deliberately provocative statement. What is the thinking behind this? Why is that important? Of course, this doesn't mean that we're going to let those reactionaries do whatever they want, just so nobody's confused about that. That point was also made in "End/Beginning." But in the conditions of socialist society, where the proletariat is exercising dictatorship over the bourgeoisie—and the state does reflect that in terms of its structures, in terms of its institutions, and in terms of its laws and the enforcement of those laws—why should it be that we allow some reactionaries to write and publish some books? What does that have to do with our overall objectives? Rather than speaking to that more specifically here, I'm just going to throw that out as a question that's worth pondering and wrestling with, because a lot of the points that I've been speaking to are bound up with that question.

But what might go along with that is another question: leaving aside open reactionaries, why should we have a principle, as we do in our Draft Programme, that the proletariat in power should value dissent? Why should we value dissent? If you think about the dictatorship of the proletariat, to state the obvious, it's very different than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie; and one of the ways in which it's very different is that everything in a certain sense is "on us." In other words, you can play the role of just being the critic of the bourgeoisie—there are a lot of people who actually like just playing that role. And, in fact, this kind of role is very necessary and important—as Mao said, "without destruction, there cannot be construction," and that includes in the theoretical sphere as well as practically. But there is another aspect in which, as long as that's all you do, you can be in the "enviable" position of criticizing every shortcoming of bourgeois society without having to do something yourself about the problems the masses of people face.

When the proletariat is in power, however, in a certain sense "everything's on us." There's a problem in health care? We have to solve it. We can't say, "Those capitalists, what a bunch of assholes—look what they do with health care!" We have to solve the problem. If there's a problem in the educational sphere, we have to solve it.(Or we have to set things on the road to solving these things, because everything isn't immediately solvable—that's also one of the complexities of what we have to deal with.) But in a certain basic sense, it's on us. We don't get to pass the buck to anybody else or curse anybody else for not solving the problem. We have to solve it. And that's a tremendous thing. We want to have those problems. We're longing and striving to have precisely those problems, because we do have a solution—in socialist society and through the socialist transition to communism, those problems can and will be solved. But then that's the way it is, and it's on you.

So if you're trying to solve all these problems, it comes down very concretely. There is, at any given time, only a finite amount of resources that are produced by the proletariat and the masses of people. You're not relying on the imperialists. You're not inviting them in (or inviting them back) to plunder you and exploit you and give you a meager living in exchange. And, if you're really building socialism and advancing toward communism, you're not acting like the imperialists, you're not exploiting people all over the world. You're doing everything yourself. Everything that there is, is produced by the working people, by the masses of people. So you have to, as they say, shepherd your resources very carefully.

That goes back to an example I have talked about on a number of occasions, about being in China one time in the late fall, and they didn't have much heat on during much of the day because they were preserving their resources—they had to make very careful calculation and allocation, within a certain framework, of all the resources they spent and for what. So, given that kind of situation, which any newborn socialist society is bound to face in one way or another, given the fact that you've come through all the upheaval and destruction of a revolutionary struggle for power and civil war where you're attacked by the reactionaries and imperialists—and even after you've consolidated power, there's unrelenting sabotage and the destruction that they try to carry out to undermine and wreck what you're doing—in that kind of context, how are things going to be funded?

If you say there should be dissent in socialist society, how are things going to get funded so somebody has the equivalent of a cable access TV program or some newspapers are put out, or there is some other form in which people are raising criticism? Well, they're going to come and say: "We want funding for this—we want funding so we can enumerate twelve things that you're doing wrong. We want funding to talk about how you're not handling all these things right. We want funding to talk about how you're monopolizing power." Well, how are you going to evaluate that? Why would you possibly fund those things (or some of them at least) when it might mean that some money that could go to health care might not be quite as fully allocated to that, right then, if you do something like this?

Those are going to be hard decisions, and of course you can err in two directions. You can not meet the basic needs of the masses (or not set things on the road to increasingly meeting them) or, on the other hand, you can pay attention to that while saying at every point, "Well, we would like to do that—we'd like to fund that (something that involves dissent) — but we really can't because, see, we have these ten other things." And it's true—you will have ten other things.

So we're going to have to make hard choices—the proletariat and its political representatives are going to have to make hard choices—and if you don't establish as a principle that it's important for the proletariat, and its vanguard in particular, to (as I put it earlier) "be interrogated," especially when you're in power, you'll never fund these things or never do so in any kind of systematic way, because there will always be things that are "more deserving and more important"—and there will be many deserving and important things. So, if we don't have this principle, if we don't grasp it—if we don't educate the masses as well as the Party members in this principle, even now—we'll never carry out this principle. In reality, we'll talk about how we not only will tolerate but value dissent, but it won't happen—or there will be dissent but overall it won't happen in ways that will be positive and our cause won't really benefit in the way that it should from these things. So that's another question to really think about and ponder deeply in its many implications.


Now, going back to the question about leadership and the relationship between leadership and centralism, on the one hand, and the initiative of the masses and diversity and dissent and critical thinking and creativity, on the other hand, I wanted to refer to something that a leading comrade of our Party raised. After seeing the movie "Remember the Titans," they wrote that it suggested something to them about the value of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which might not be immediately apparent. They went on to explain that, here you had this situation where this segregated school system in Virginia was being integrated and this meant that this particular high school, and thereby the football team of the high school, was going to be suddenly integrated. And the comrade pointed out: there is a role, after all, for a certain amount of coercion. In other words, they didn't just go to these students, or to their parents, and take a survey and say: "Would you like to integrate this school and the football team?" All the white people—or most of the white people—would have said "No." They would want to preserve a certain privilege. But once the decision was made, and people were confronted with this reality, then that established a material basis to wage a struggle to win people over, or win them over more fully, to what had to happen. Now, those aren't our methods, and our comrade wasn't saying that this is the same— this is still the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and it's still reflective of their methods—but it is a provocative point and one that's of real importance to think about.

As has been pointed out in "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy ("GO&GS")," and also in "Two Humps," ("Getting Over the Two Great Humps")***, there is a certain positive role for coercion. Everything can't be persuasion. Persuasion and coercion are another unity of opposites. You can't just go to people and say, at any given time, "Well, what do you want to do?" This is true when you have state power. Think of all these policies they had in China to break down these great divisions. Sending educated youth to the countryside, for example. Well, just to disabuse anybody of any illusions they might have (if they have them), a lot of the educated youth didn't want to go to the countryside. That wasn't the spontaneous inclination of a lot of them. I remember when we were in China one time, I was with a delegation and some members of the delegation ran into this group of Chinese youth who were going off to the countryside. They got into a discussion with them and these youth started talking at first in a way that was seemingly sincere about how enthusiastic they were about going off to the countryside to integrate with the masses of peasants; but very quickly it became clear that they were being very sarcastic. [BA laughs] It was the last thing they wanted to do. It was rather shocking to see this come out. These members of our delegation told the rest of us about this experience: "This is really heavy. These youth were just really ranking all over the idea of sending them out to the countryside."

So, if there hadn't been coercion there, you couldn't have carried out that policy. Sometimes you do say something's voluntary, you rely on getting volunteers. Ultimately, as Mao said about communism, we want people to voluntarily and consciously transform the objective world as well as themselves. But, even under communism, there will still be coercion in some form, just not in the form of class rule and political suppression. To borrow Lenin's analogy, when you get to communism, it should be more or less like an orchestra following a conductor. In other words, everybody is voluntarily trying to do the same thing—or to pull in the same basic direction—although they're contributing different things at different times and in different ways. The coercion is in a non-antagonistic form. But nonetheless, even under communism, there won't be a total absence of coercion of any kind. And certainly under the dictatorship of the proletariat there will be coercion—and, for that matter, even in our work now, when we don't have state power and you can't rely on coercion, we still use coercion in some forms...if you don't think so, you can ask some of the masses we work with [BA laughs], and they'll remind us that we do, including in the form of arguing with them and knocking on their door and calling them up, and so on.

I've told this story before: I remember when I was in the Free Speech Movement but I was still just sort of peripherally involved, and I signed up for something (they had all kinds of committees, and I signed up to work with one of them) and this woman called me up and wanted to get me to come at something like 7 o'clock in the morning to pass out leaflets on the campus. And I didn't want to do it. I told her that we were getting near midterms, or something, and anyway I didn't want to get up that early [BA laughs]. She kept hammering at me, and hammering at me, and hammering at me—"You've got to do this, if we're going to do this thing, it depends on people like you participating, blah, blah." Finally I said OK and slammed down the phone angrily. Partly it was her methods, but mainly I just didn't want to do it. But she prevailed upon me, not because she wore me down literally, but because I couldn't really argue with her essential point that this movement depended on people, and if we were going to do this, then not just a few people, but all the people who supported it, had to take part and express their support. So I got up and dragged my ass out and went. Clearly, that was a form of coercion. Now, it wasn't antagonistic coercion where someone put a gun to my head or came over and physically forced me to do it—but it was a form of coercion.

So there always is a certain role for coercion, and this is true even now but especially under the dictatorship of the proletariat. There are things that people have to do. When Lenin talked about how the dictatorship of the proletariat is kind of like the bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie, he was speaking to these kinds of contradictions. Even in law, certain things are set down that are not just a matter of people volunteering. Certain things you can and cannot do. Certain things you must and must not do, even by law, which is necessary not only if you're going to hold on to power but if you're actually going to transform society. How are you going to overcome these divisions, like the mental/manual and city/countryside contradictions? — and in a country like China, these were vast, vast divisions. How are you going to overcome that if you don't have a certain amount of coercion? On the other hand, as is also pointed out in "GO&GS" and in "Two Humps," we should use coercion very judiciously—and we should use it in dialectical relation with persuasion, with winning people to consciously and voluntarily take up things. And ultimately the principal aspect is their consciously and voluntarily taking this up... ultimately . As spoken to earlier in this talk, ultimately (or in the final analysis) doesn't mean it's true in every instance [BA laughs] and every immediate situation; but fundamentally and ultimately we have to rely on persuasion. When we have state power, we can use the organs of the state to force people to do things in the short run—pragmatically the Party can do that—but if we rely on that, and if that's what we make the principal aspect, then we're going to turn things into their opposites.

This also involves the question of levels and understanding the particularity of contradiction. For example, I've seen some discussions written up around the Draft Programme, particularly in relation to the woman question and specifically in terms of what kinds of things should be outlawed under the dictatorship of the proletariat, and what kinds of things should not be outlawed but should be the object of mass campaigns, etc. Well, the fact is that every class makes these kind of distinctions from their own class standpoint and according to their own class interests. Their political representatives make these distinctions. Everything isn't outlawed in bourgeois society. Some things are outlawed; other things are laissez-faire, you can do it if you want to; and some things are not literally outlawed but they're made to be a cause for social opprobrium—in other words, you're isolated, you come under criticism and attack if you do them, you're an outcast, and so on and so forth. Well, that's from the bourgeoisie's standpoint; but we, from our standpoint, will also have to do the same kind of thing, we will have to make distinctions, too, when the proletariat's in power.

For example, something like rape has to be outlawed, and you can include pornography in that category as well (as we do in the Draft Programme). But, with other things which may be backward tendencies or practices, it may be more correct to handle them by developing mass campaigns of struggle and developing mass forms for confronting and dealing with people who engage in and/or promote these backward tendencies. And with still other things, it would be incorrect to do that. Other things we might deal with more indirectly, by carrying out education, by carrying forward the overall transformation of social relations—including, as one very important aspect, those relating to the position and role of women in society—and then relying on, and supporting, people who have become fed up with these things on the basis of seeing that they don't have to put up with such things any longer—relying on them to come forward and then giving them support in various ways, rather than making this either a matter of law or even a matter of mass campaigns at a given point.

So there are different levels of how things have to be handled. If we mishandle these things, if we deal with things that really should be a matter of education as if they're a matter of law, or even if we deal with them not as a matter of law but as a matter of directing mass campaigns against certain people, we may mix up the different kinds of contradictions—those between the people and the enemy, on the one hand, and those among the people, on the other hand—or we may mishandle the particularity of contradiction. Even if we're still broadly handling it as a contradiction among the people, we may mix up the correct methods for dealing with contradictions and use methods that are not appropriate to the particular contradiction.

Another important question, which I'm not going to speak to here but am going to "throw out there" as something to ponder and wrestle with, is this: How does everything I've been stressing— including this principle about the dialectical relation between coercion and persuasion—how does all this relate to the emphasis in "GO&GS" and in "Two Humps," and in Draft Programme, on the qualitatively different nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat as compared to all previous forms of the state, and how does all this relate in a dialectical sense to the withering away of the state—and, along with that, the withering away of the need and basis for a vanguard party?



* See "We Can't Know Everything—So We Should Be Good at Learning," RW #1181, December 29, 2002.

[Return to article]

** "The End of a Stage—The Beginning of a New Stage" a talk by Bob Avakian, published in Revolution magazine, Fall 1990.

[Return to article]

 *** "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy" is an unpublished work by Bob Avakian. Excerpts from it have been published in RW #1127-1142 (November 18, 2001-March 10, 2002). Excerpts from "Getting Over the Hump" appeared in RW #927 (October 12, 1997), #930 (November 2, 1997), #932 (November 16, 1997), and #936-940 (December 14, 1997 through January 18, 1998). Excerpts from both works are available on the web at

[Return to article]