I am going to talk for a while — I don't know how long, but usually the smart money bets that it'll be a little while. [laughter] And then we can have some questions and discussion. So I'm very excited about all this.
As you know, the title of this talk is "Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism," but before getting more directly into questions relating to that, I want to talk about the importance of working with ideas, and the struggle in the realm of ideas. Many of you have probably read the article on this subject which was printed in the RW a while ago now by Ardea Skybreak, titled "Working with Ideas." And the article stresses the importance of actually getting deeply into this realm in its own right, really wrangling with ideas, and having an open mind about what you're dealing with, and then ultimately taking your ideas into the real world, into the realm of practice and testing them out there.
This is a very important approach generally for people in the sciences, or people generally who work in the realm of ideas. And it is something that people who seek to apply the outlook and methodology of communism should be the very best at. But that takes work. It isn't an automatic thing. Just because you take up the most scientific, the most comprehensive and systematic world outlook and method doesn't mean that you are therefore automatically good at working with ideas, or that you automatically arrive at the truth about something. And conversely, as we have also emphasized, there are people who not only don't apply this outlook and method, but who disagree with it — or even detest it — who nevertheless discover important truths. And understanding that is also a very important part of really grasping and applying the world outlook and methodology of communism. That's the contradictory nature of it.
So working with ideas is a struggle in its own right. It's something that has to be gone into deeply in its own right, while of course ultimately it can't be divorced from the real world, from the world of practice, from people struggling to change the world, and from the masses of people in all the different endeavors and spheres of life that they engage in. But even while we keep that in mind and remain firmly grounded in that as a basic point of understanding and orientation, it's nonetheless crucial to recognize that in any sphere, if you are really going to learn about it and make changes in that sphere, you have to immerse yourself deeply in it, you have to engage other people who are also working in that sphere, and you have to take their ideas seriously.
One time someone wrote me a letter and asked: how do you read things, do you do what's called "proof-texting"? — which is a way of reading to refute something. Do you read it in order to make your point? What he was referring to was the approach of only looking for things that confirm what you already believe; for example, you start out with a disagreement with somebody and in reading what they write you look for those things that you don't agree with, things that prove your point, and then sort of tautologically you go around in a circle. You end up with: "Aha, it's wrong." And I replied, no I don't approach things that way. Even things I vehemently disagree with, going in, I still try to look to see what there is that they are grappling with, what ideas they may hit on even inadvertently or may stumble on, or may actually wrangle with more systematically. There are things to be learned even from reactionaries. There are things to learn from reactionaries, even about politics and ideology, let alone other spheres. That doesn't mean we take up their outlook or their politics. [laughs] But there are things to be learned. And this is an important point of orientation.
Now, I'm stressing this because, on the one hand, we know that the backbone of the revolution will be the masses of exploited and oppressed proletarians; but there is a great importance to winning people, and to bringing forward people broadly, from among other strata. And in particular there is an importance to bringing forward people from among the intelligentsia — winning them to sympathy and support for our project and our vision of a radically different world, a communist world. We need to increasingly win as many of them as possible to become revolutionary communist intellectuals, actively partisan to our cause, and more than that, to become part of the vanguard. There can never be a communist revolution without this.
And there is a real question that comes up and is often raised: Can you actually work with ideas in a critical and creative way and be a member of a vanguard communist party? Or can you really do creative work in the arts or sciences and be a member of such a party? Many people answer this by adamantly saying no — that, by definition, a party that is disciplined, that applies democratic centralism, that has a strong central core of leadership, and in some cases has a very strong individual leader, by definition will stifle the initiative of other people, will prevent them from really thinking creatively and critically, and will prevent them from bringing forward anything new; that by the dint and weight of the discipline and "bureaucracy" of such an organization, it's bound to crush and suffocate any kind of creative and critical impulse.
Well [laughs] this is a real question, and it doesn't have an easy answer. I do believe that fundamentally the answer is and must be resoundingly yes, this can be done. But again, it's not easy, and it's not simple and we haven't entirely solved this problem in the history of the international communist movement. There is much more to be learned, critically summed up and brought forward, that is new in this regard. There is important experience of the international communist movement and socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat, very real positive experience in this sphere, but also considerable negative experience, which again, needs to be critically examined and deeply and all-sidedly summed up. And, frankly, we need to learn how to do a lot better.
For example, I have spoken a number of times in various writings and talks about the Lysenko experience in the Soviet Union. Lysenko was an agronomist, a botanist, who claimed to have brought forward new strains of wheat that would make production leap ahead in agriculture. And this was a real problem in the Soviet Union, that agriculture was seriously lagging industry. And, of course, if that gap continues to widen it throws the whole economy out of whack and basically unhinges your attempts to build a socialist economy. So this was a very severe problem they were facing, particularly in the early and mid 1930s. And Lysenko basically brought forward a theory which contradicted basic principles of evolution and fell into the whole idea of the inheritability of acquired characteristics and so on, which is not scientifically correct. But pragmatically it seemed like a way to solve the agricultural problems, so Stalin and others threw a lot of weight behind Lysenko. And this did a lot of damage. Not only in the short run and in a more narrow sense — it didn't lead to the results that they were hoping for — but it also did a lot of damage in the broader sense in terms of how people were being trained to think, and how they were being trained to handle the relationship between theory and practice, and reality and understanding and transforming reality. There's a way in which this has had long-term negative consequences. First of all, it did in the Soviet Union. And it did in the international communist movement, because it trained people to think in a certain erroneous way.
Now, this situation was very complicated, because many of the people who were the experts and authorities in the field of biology, botany, and so on in the Soviet Union were carried forward from the old society. And many of them were political and ideological reactionaries. So here you see the contradiction is very acutely posed. Lysenko was trying to make a breakthrough to advance the socialist cause, and being opposed by authorities, many of whom — not all, but many of whom — were political and ideological reactionaries. But it just so happened that they were more correct than him about the basic point at issue. Yet political expediency dictated what was done there, and the people who were critical were actually suppressed.
So you can see the complexity of the problem. And it's not so easy to handle. These are real life and death questions. Whether people eat is a life and death question. That's what was at issue, was whether people eat, whether they have clothes in the winter. And the Russian winter is worse than Chicago, okay?
When you have a socialist economy you are not relying on the imperialists any more. And you are not relying on exploiting the masses of people. So you are trying to bring forward new forms, new relations in which to carry out production, and "it's all on you" — it's all on us, it's on the proletariat, it's on its vanguard, it's on the masses of people. How do you solve these problems?
Well, Lysenko was trying to solve this problem, but the method he came up with wasn't correct. But what was worse, was that he was supported out of instrumentalist thinking. In other words, you make your ideas an instrument of your desires or aims. You want something to happen, so you "reconstruct reality" so it falls in line with what you want. You make reality an instrument of predetermined aims, rather than proceeding from what reality actually is, and then figuring out how to transform it on the basis of what it actually is and how it's actually moving and changing and developing, which reality always is. So this is a fundamental question of outlook and methodology.
And, beyond this particular experience of Lysenko, there is overall a real contradiction and real tension that objectively exists between the line and discipline of a party at any given time, and creative, critical thinking and work in the realm of ideas broadly speaking. There is a real, objective tension. The Party is trying to mobilize its own ranks and the masses to change reality. It has to make its best estimate of what the key aspects of reality are at any given time, and how to go about mobilizing people to change them. Which means by definition that there are many things that it can't pay attention to at any given time. And we have to resist the tendency to "know-it-all-ism." Communists are people who by definition have strong convictions [laughs]. So, there's nothing that goes on that communists don't have an opinion about. [laughter] But it is very important to know the difference between your opinion and what's well established, scientific fact, that has been determined and established from many different directions through a whole process to be the best approximation you can make of reality at a given time. You go into a movie, you have an opinion coming out. But your opinion is just that. And it's very important, especially for communists, and especially for leaders of a communist movement and a communist party, to know the difference between their impressions and opinions and what is scientifically grounded fact that is established through many different pathways, has been deeply and all-sidedly confirmed to be true.
So this is another contradiction we have to deal with. You are trying to change reality, and you are trying to grasp reality in its changingness, so to speak — because it doesn't stand still and wait for you to understand it, it's moving, changing — and you are trying to mobilize people to grasp and to change reality. And you have to all pull together to do that. In a real vanguard party you can't have people all going off in different directions, all implementing their own lines, and still mobilize masses of people to change reality. But by definition when you do that — when you all pull together to mobilize masses of people — there is a danger and a tendency to impose thinking from the top. It would be simple if it were just a bureaucratic problem, but there is a necessity to mobilize people behind what you understand to be true, and that does require leadership and, many times, mobilizing people "from the top."
How do you handle that contradiction — between mobilizing people around what you understand to be true, while at the same time having a critical attitude and being open to the understanding that you may not be right about this or that particular, or even about big questions? That's a very difficult contradiction to handle correctly. It's something we have to sum up and learn how to do better on as well. And it's not easy. But we do have to do better.
The essence of the problem is not, as people sometimes say, learning to think for yourself. In something I wrote a number of years ago, I pointed out that, on the one hand, this is kind of a truism, thinking for yourself. It's impossible to think with anybody else's brain. [laughter] So, in one way or another you are always thinking for yourself. You are always using your own mind to think. The question more essentially is, are you thinking according to one outlook and methodology or another. That's the fundamental question that's involved. It's not "free thinking" in the abstract, or as some principle raised above everything else, but thinking in accordance with and by applying the outlook and methodology of communism in order to arrive, in the most comprehensive and systematic way, at an understanding of reality. Not all of reality — that's never possible — but the essential things that you can identify at a given time that you need to deeply go into, understand and transform, while having an open mind about both those things you're not paying attention to, and even those things you are. And you have to do this even while you are moving forward to change these things.
So the essence is not free thinking, but what outlook and methodology you are thinking with. But there is an element of free thinking that has to be involved. And this should certainly be no less true for communists than for other people. It should be more true. And that's where you do run into contradiction and tension. Because free thinking in a communist party — a disciplined, democratic centralist party — doesn't come automatically and spontaneously either. Or if it does, it often goes off in directions that are harmful. How to get that right, how to handle that contradiction correctly, is something we need to do more work on.
All that I have been speaking to so far has a lot to do with a principle that Mao emphasized — that Marxism embraces but does not replace all these different spheres of society and human endeavor. Each of them has their own, as Mao put it, particularity of contradiction. Each of them has its own particular features. Each of them has things that have to be dug into deeply and wrestled with and wrangled with in an all-sided and deep-going way. That was the point of that Ardea Skybreak article. And whether it's music, or physics, or biology, or any sphere that you can think of, there are particularities to these things that people who are in these fields are grappling with all the time.
In the history of the Chinese revolution, and in particular through the Cultural Revolution, they brought forward the principle of red and expert, with red leading expert. In other words, the communists and communist line should lead experts in various fields. Which is an important principle because otherwise other ideologies are in command, and they are leading away from the ability to actually synthesize correctly all that people are engaging and learning about, even to arrive most deeply at the truth about a particular sphere.
So this is an important principle — combining red and expert, and red leading expert — but if you are going to lead in a sphere, the first thing you have to do is be good at learning. And you have to be good at drawing forward those people who are in that field who are also advanced ideologically and politically. People like that are a very important lever and link. Now, as Mao said, if you go to the opera — which is a popular form in China — if you go to the opera long enough you can become an expert, even if you can't sing or compose at all. But to be able to comprehensively understand something requires really being immersed in it.
This relates to one of the big divisions in society that we have: the "mental/manual contradiction," as we call it for short. Masses of people are locked out not only of particular fields of knowledge, but are locked out of the chance to grapple with the whole sphere of working with ideas. Now, there are exceptions. Everybody knows exceptions. People who go to prison, in the most horrific conditions, who become very developed intellectuals. Some of them become revolutionary intellectuals and even communists. But those are the exceptions, because the conditions are working overwhelmingly against that. Just think about the masses of people and the conditions that people have to work in and the conditions that kids grow up in. Where do they develop the ability to work with ideas? It's suffocated out of them, it's squeezed out of them, from a very early age.
This is one of the big contradictions that we have to overcome through the whole transition to communism. Because, as long as this contradiction exists, there is always the basis for it to turn into a relationship of oppression and exploitation. To run a society, you have to work with ideas, you have to think. There's no way around it. You can't just do it by taking revenge on the people who used to rule it. That may bring very momentary satisfaction for some. But it's not what this is about, and it doesn't lead to the kind of transformations we need. You have to think. You have to work with ideas. But on the other hand, you have to do it without reinforcing, and in fact overcoming, this great divide, between a small number of people, relatively speaking, in the world who have been able to really get into this whole sphere of "working with ideas," and on the other hand the masses of people who have been essentially locked out of this.
Remember that movie Contact, I think it was called. It was based on the Carl Sagan thing about contact with people from outer space, and Jodie Foster was in it. And there is this character played by Matthew McConaughey who at one point says to her, basically: "What makes you such a smart-ass? 95% of the people of the world believe in religion. And you don't. What makes you think you know something that they don't?" Well that's the contradiction. Because, the "5%" of the people (it's actually more than that) who don't believe in religion are right. But the masses of people don't have the ability to come to the conclusions that this minority of people has come to, because the masses are not only locked out of certain knowledge, they're locked out of learning how to work with ideas and wrangle in this whole realm.
So this is one of the big things we have to overcome, and we can't do it by crude methods. We have to do it by applying some of the principles that Mao emphasized, including the principle of "embraces but does not replace." We have to do it by learning how to work with and learn from and synthesize what people in these spheres are bringing forward, and then win them over, particularly the advanced, to that synthesis, and unite with them to win and influence the broader ranks of people, while continuing to learn from them.
This is one of those tricky things. There is a lot of resentment among masses against the intellectuals. In China, for example, the Mandarins, the people who were the educated classes, really lorded it over the masses of people. They grew long fingernails just to make the point that they didn't have to do manual labor. This was a sign of distinction. "I'm not in that class. You carry my luggage. I don't do that kind of thing." Well, in this society you don't have that. But you do have great gaps. And there is, on the one hand looking down on people, and on the other hand a lot of resentment. And we have to overcome that from both sides. People have to understand the role and the importance of theory and working with ideas. We have to bring forward those among the masses who have more ability to do that at any given time, not because they are superior to the others, but just because through a lot of accident and particular circumstances they've been able to develop some ability to do that. And we have to use them as levers and links — I don't mean use them in a narrow, utilitarian sense of using people — I mean unleash them to be levers and links to bring forward broader masses of people.
When people come forward from among the masses who develop the ability to work with ideas and to take up theory, it's important that they work in that sphere in its own right on the one hand, but also that they be a lever and link to broader masses of people, to help break some of this down for the masses of people and show them that it's not a mystery, and help them begin to take up some of these questions themselves.
And that's not easy. We've had experience which has driven home that it is not so easy. We used to think, when we first started out, well you bring forward people who come from among the masses, and naturally they will be able to go talk to other people about all these questions. But there's another leap involved there. You are not the same as you were. You are not the same anymore and you are not the same as the other masses, and they don't see things the way you do. So it's not so easy. It requires leadership and work to take another leap to where you really grasp it deeply enough that you can break it back down to people and open the door to them to begin to grapple with these ideas.
We won't be able to do this on a massive scale until we have state power. This mental/manual division cannot be broken down in this society, but we can make advances toward it. And we should never accept it in principle, or bow down to it in any kind of strategic sense. But it's another reason why we need revolution. We cannot overcome this within the confines of this society. This society will continue to reinforce these divisions, even as we are working against them. All of this has to be part of a revolutionary movement to overthrow this system and to bring into being anew society where then we can really go after these contradictions and overcome them in the correct way. Not in a narrow philistine way, where we denigrate and downgrade and look down upon work in the realm of ideas, but where we appreciate it fully and yet bring the masses into it fully in the correct way. It's a very complex and arduous, long-term struggle to achieve that. And it's one of the most important aspects of advancing ultimately to communism.
So that's by way of background to the main points I want to get into.
And I want to say that, in light of all this, it is crucial that we ourselves develop and deepen our own grasp of first of all the importance of working with ideas and the struggle in this whole realm, and of the correct orientation and method for approaching work in relation to this, which has to do with for whom and for what this is all for, and has to do with what outlook and methodology you bring in working and struggling in the realm of ideas.
Now, certainly not the only, but one of the most important focuses of this at this time is the struggle to confront and combat the constant attacks on the experience of socialist countries, and in particular of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and especially the whole concept of totalitarianism; and at the same time, while doing that, to confront and critically examine the actual experience of socialist countries and the dictatorship of the proletariat, drawing the fullest lessons from this experience — mainly and overwhelmingly the positive lessons, but also facing squarely and digging deeply into the very real shortcomings and errors.
I was reading an interesting comment from someone — it was actually someone in the international movement — and they made the point, "I uphold very firmly the experience of the socialist revolution so far, but I don't want to live in those countries" [laughter]. In other words, we have a lot of work to do, to do better the next time around. That's a very dialectical attitude. And a materialist attitude: we should uphold these things historically, there are great achievements; but we also have to build on it and go farther and do better in certain areas, or else people won't want to live in these societies — and probably we won't either.
So we do have to confront and combat these attacks, while at the same time squarely confronting and digging deeply into the very real shortcomings and errors. There is a real and very urgent and pressing need to refute the attacks on socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, in a thoroughgoing, deep and living way — not a dogmatic way or stereotypical way. This is a crucial focus of the class struggle right now in the ideological realm. And how well we carry out this struggle has profound implications for work that's guided and inspired by the strategic objectives of revolution, socialism, and ultimately a communist world.
This applies broadly, and it has important application among the proletariat and basic masses. First of all, it's a real mistake to think that these questions don't find their way among the masses. You know, the people have heard this, they've heard that. It doesn't mean they've read long dissertations or analyses, but they've heard this and they've heard that, and it has seeped down into the popular consciousness, and it's pumped at them all the time in various ways. These summations that are blared out, and sometimes elaborated on in intellectual theses, are also very simply boiled down and blasted at the masses all the time. Plus, they have some real questions that they come up against when thinking about whether the world could be different. There is not just propaganda from the bourgeoisie that raises questions in their mind, but real contradictions in life that they are wrangling with and legitimately want answers to. And we have to not only give them answers, but again, we have to draw them into the process of finding the answers. But there is work to be done by people who do have a more advanced understanding and a developed ability, or developing ability, to work with ideas, to grapple in this realm.
There is importance to combating these attacks on communism and to digging into these questions deeply among the proletariat, among the basic masses of people in society. But there also is particular and particularly important application of this in relation to the intelligentsia. And this goes back to what I was saying at the beginning.
So let's dig into some of the key questions bound up with this.
First, I want to refer to a short statement — actually it was three previously unpublished sentences on democracy that are part of some unpublished correspondence from me which was then recently published in the RW. I don't have it before me, but I think I can remember the essence of it. First, the point was made that in a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequalities, to talk about "democracy" — without talking about the class content of democracy and whom this democracy serves — is meaningless at best, meaningless, or worse. Second, in a society that is divided in this way, with profound relations of exploitation and oppression, there cannot be any such thing as "democracy for all," or "pure democracy": there will always be the rule of one class or another, and whichever class rules will not only enforce that rule, but will apply, uphold and promote whatever kind of democracy serves its rule and its interests. And given this, the third point is that the essential question is: which class rules and in what way, and whether its rule serves to maintain and foster relations, deep-going relations of exploitation and oppression, or whether it serves the struggle to uproot and eventually completely abolish these relations.
Now, the first question that arises in relation to this — and these are things that, in the popular culture and so on, are commonly misrepresented and distorted, so it's important to speak directly to them — the question is: What is democracy? Well "cracy" refers to a form of rule and "demos" is the people. So it technically means rule by the people. And if we look at history from Greek society up to the present time, democracy has basically been applied among the ranks of the people who actually ruled. There may have been, as there are in this society, formal procedures and structures which seem to apply certain aspects of this democracy to the population in general. But, in essence, the democracy that has been applied — the right to rule the society, and the right to really be involved in determining the direction of society — belongs essentially to the ranks of the ruling class and those who serve it.
That was true in ancient Greece and Rome, for example, as I pointed out in the book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That? These were societies founded on slavery. Most of the people — when they refer to democracy, most of the people were excluded from this democracy. They were slaves or they were non-citizens, and they didn't have any part to play in the determination of the direction of society. And that's still true in modern bourgeois-democratic society, where in reality the political decision-making process is removed from and stands over the masses of people, and their role is reduced to a charade of a kind, in which at most they are allowed to play a secondary role in relation to struggles within the ranks of the elite ruling classes in society.
We have seen illustrations of this in recent times, for example, with the selection of the Democratic Party nominee. This is written about in the RW , both in articles on Kerry himself, but also in the examination of what happened to Howard Dean (laughs] — which is an interesting experience to sum up. We did it in one important article in the RW , but we need to keep going into this more deeply and from different angles.
What did happen to Dean? Here's a guy who came forward and made some noises — he did two things — he made some noises about opposing the whole Bush direction, and he said I'm going to go raise some funds a different way, I'm going to go on the internet and get a bunch of people all to pledge $100 instead of a small number to pledge $100,000 or a million dollars.
Of course, he represented the same system. If you examined his positions, as we did in the RW , you'll see that he represented the same system. But these particular things he did were not even what the party bosses, if you want to put it that way, the real determining figures in the Democratic Party, wanted in terms of running against the Bush crew. So, all of a sudden — Dean is the front runner and all of a sudden we come to the Iowa caucuses, which are really just meetings of Democratic Party hacks, and they vote for Kerry, put Kerry in first place and Dean's down. And all of a sudden the entire media is proclaiming that Dean is finished, and Kerry is the virtual nominee already. Dean got up and gave a speech, and he was a little too "glowing," or whatever. They just blasted it all over. He might have been up for 24 hours or whatever.
But look, you can take a Bush speech and really go to town with it. Even David Letterman had a 40 second segment where he had Bush saying "uh" every third word. The media, if they so wished, could just take that and run with it, and by the time they were through, Bush would look like — you know — what he is . But they have no interest in doing that. It is the same class of people who run the media who generally run this society, and who generally are the ones to whom the political representatives are beholden, without getting mechanical about that and thinking they just pay them money. There are a lot of dynamics involved. These people, the politicians, do have their own interests, they do have their own programs, they even have their own philosophies and views of the world, and they fight for them. So it's not as simple as some committee of the ruling class sits down and decides this one or that will be the nominee, and gives them more money while others get less money. That's an element of what goes on. Different people giving money to both parties, or more to one or another, depending on what they like. But there is a lot of dynamics and tension and struggle. It's a very living process. When we use the term "the ruling class" it's a real term, it has real meaning, but it's full of contradiction. It refers to something real, it's a real phenomenon. But it's a phenomenon that is full of contradiction and struggle. We shouldn't oversimplify it.
But the fact is, there was a consensus among the people who own the media that they didn't want Dean, and that the Democratic Party leaders didn't want Dean as the candidate. It wasn't that he really had a program that would be fundamentally opposed to what they wanted to do, or that they couldn't bring him into the fold. But some of what was being unleashed around this was not what they wanted. And they didn't want a candidacy that ran on the idea that Bush is fucking up America. The debate had to be on different terms than that. And we can see how Kerry is conducting it: "I can do better in the war on terrorism." "We need more troops in Iraq." "Yes, I voted for that war in Iraq, but in any case, maybe I have some criticisms, we should have done it more multilaterally — but now that we are there.." And it is a good question to ask a lot of people: Why does John Kerry say: "Now that we're there, we can't pull out, we have to have more troops"? It's a good question to ponder and to ask people. Why is that? What does that reflect about what interests he's serving?
What would happen if the U.S. actually pulled out of Iraq? Well, it's true there would be a lot of chaos in that part of the world, and a lot of people who hate the U.S. coming from all kinds of directions, including the reactionary religious fundamentalists, but others as well, would take heart from that and jump out more and do more things. So, if you are someone who thinks that this system has got to be maintained and fortified at whatever cost, even if you think there are certain things about it that should be improved, then there is a certain logic that says, "Well, once we are in there, we have to stay the course." We heard this all the time about Vietnam, too: "We can't get out of Vietnam because there is a credibility question." Well, what is the credibility question? You know, it's just the godfather principle. You are ruling over people by force. Recently I was reading in the newspaper the text of one of the leaflets the U.S. military dropped over Falluja in Iraq recently. It was just a straight gangster leaflet: We're coming to pulverize you, you had better give up now. It wasn't any appeal to any lofty thing, let me tell you. Just straight-up on-the-ground gangsterism. We're coming, we are going to pulverize you, and those of you who are determined to oppose us, your last day was yesterday. All that kind of shit.
But if you accept the logic of this system, as Kerry does, as the Democratic Party does, then you have to go along with this, because the credibility of the U.S. will be hurt if it pulls out of Iraq. More people will do more things to oppose it. And so, when you come to this question of what should we do now that "we" are in Iraq — maybe "we" didn't go into Iraq the right way, or maybe "we" shouldn't have even gone in at all, but what position you take about the fact that "we" are in there now has everything to do with how you look at the whole nature of this system, and whether you think it ought to maintain its credibility and ought to be fortified, or whether you understand that it's an oppressive system that lives by eating the flesh of people all over the world, literally. Using up and destroying people. Either employing them in these most horrendous conditions that are almost unimaginable. Little children working 12 hours a day, sleeping under machines in Turkey or Iran or in Latin America, or many other places you can name. Or else they are just cast onto the garbage heap as far as the imperialists are concerned. They can't even be profitably exploited, so they are cast off and allowed and encouraged to slaughter each other, whether it's in the ghettos and barrios of the U.S. or Rwanda or other places.
If you understand that, then the idea that we ought to maintain the credibility of this system and the force that's behind that credibility, looks very different to you. But if you basically think this system should be doing what it's doing around the world, even if there should be some adjustments and minor reforms and tweaking and tinkering, then you have a very different outlook on it. And if you think you want to run this system, or be the chief executive of it, then you definitely have a certain view that's very different than that of the masses of people. You have very different interests, shall we say. Sometimes the masses' views are shaped and influenced by the ruling class. That happens to a significant degree. But the interests of the masses of people do not lie in working small children to death in factories all over the world, or uprooting peasants from the countryside in their tens of millions every year and casting them into shantytown slums ringing the cities. The interests of the masses of people don't lie in bludgeoning and pulverizing people who don't want to go along with that, or have a different idea about how the world ought to be and could be.
So, we can see that, in terms of the question of democracy and the "democratic process," in particular the electoral process, as is pointed out in the book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?" by the time it gets to you, the voter, the citizen, even if you are allowed to vote and take part in some way in this struggle within the ranks of the ruling class, the terms have already been set. The candidates have been chosen by somebody else, and what issues and debates are "legitimate" issues and debates has already been determined. And then you come in — and you get to play around in that. You get to have the illusion that, by so doing, you are determining something essential about the direction of this society, when really all of the choices have been predetermined, any choice that you get to be involved in has already been shaped and predetermined by the ruling class and by the workings of the system even more fundamentally.
It's a game they like to play. They like to get people thinking that they have a stake in this. You hear people talking, ordinary people, masses of people: "We ought to do this and that." What the fuck are you talking about? [laughter] We aren't doing shit. Somebody told me about how they were working among some Black people who were talking about,"We got to do this and that in Iraq." I told him, why don't you go say: "What do you mean we,white man?" That was an old joke back in the days of the '60s. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were surrounded by Indians, they were in a really bad way, and the Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, "Man, we're in a lot of trouble, what are we going to do, Tonto?" And Tonto says: "What do you mean `we,' white man?" [laughter] Not applying this in just nationalistic terms, but in terms of fundamental divisions in society, "we" aren't deciding these things, and these aren't "our" interests being decided here. What we ought to do in Iraq is force the U.S. to get the fuck out. That's what we ought to do. But we are not deciding what the U.S. imperialists are doing in Iraq. They are deciding that. But they not only like to make you think that you have a choice by voting, but also to get you in a mentality like you are sitting in a seat of power, like you are really deciding and determining things when you vote. You're not sitting in a seat of power — they're sitting in the seats of power — but they love it for you to think like they do. And to even play act as if you somehow are sitting there making these decisions. "We ought to do." Bullshit! "We" ought to do something radically different, is what "we" ought to do.
And this has to do with the nature of this democracy. This democracy is in effect a dictatorship, in essence a dictatorship. And that's another concept we have to clear up. Because dictatorship — you think of how Khrushchev got up in the U.N., and, in a statement that has been completely misrepresented and distorted, said: "We will bury you" — and banged his shoe on the podium at the U.N. This was back in the '50s. And that was the classic image. Or you know, like Charlie Chaplin — it was a good movie, making a good point about Hitler — but he is dancing around with the globe in that movie. "Modern Times" is that the movie? [Response: Great Dictator]. "The Great Dictator," that's right. He was dancing around with this globe. That's the image you have of a dictator — or this sort of dark, obscure figure, the tyrant who is demented, and in his dementia just arbitrarily decides to murder millions of people.
You can point to certain superficial aspects like that, but even if you are talking about a Hitler, that is not the essence of what was going on. Hitler was an extreme representative of German imperialism, in extreme conditions, and was acting fundamentally to try to strengthen the position of German imperialism in the world, ultimately unsuccessfully. That didn't mean he didn't have a particular ideology that was different than most of the rest of the German ruling class, and that he didn't take particular extreme measures that do stand out in history, like the mass genocide against the Jews. Those are real things. They are not just "normal workings of imperialism", although its normal workings are plenty horrendous, and millions of people are killed every year, tens of millions, by the normal workings of imperialism. This is imperialism carried to an extreme, and to grotesque forms. But it is still the same fundamental system. It's not just one guy acting out of his dementia. Actually Hitler was rather clever, in coming to power and in seeking to carry out his aims. Maybe there was an element in which he was demented, but that's not the essence of the matter, and dictatorship is not a matter of somebody getting up and pounding his shoe on a podium in the U.N., or just being demented.
Actually, just as an aside, the reason I said that whole thing with Khrushchev was distorted is that it was always presented in the media in America as if Khrushchev were threatening a military attack on the U.S. What this was actually part of was his revisionist program where he started promoting what were called the "three peacefuls": peaceful coexistence between capitalist and imperialist states; peaceful competition between socialism and capitalism; and the illusion (which the other two were as well) of peaceful transition to socialism.
Khrushchev was promoting the line that, "We will prove the superiority of socialism just by producing more consumer goods and having more production in general." That was the irony. When he got up and said, "We will bury you," that was what he was actually saying. But, of course, in the U.S. propaganda machinery it got converted into the notion that he was threatening a military attack on the U.S.
But whatever the particulars of that, returning to the more general point, that is not what a dictatorship is — banging your shoe, or one-man rule, or the idea of an infallible leader, or so on and so forth. Dictatorship in its essence is the rule over society by one group and in particular one class. It means that that class has a monopoly, not only over the economics of this society — not only over the economic base of society, in Marxist terms — but also over the superstructure that arises on the basis of that economic base. In other words, the politics, the ideology and the culture. It has a monopoly in particular of political power, and most especially, and in a most concentrated way, it has a monopoly of armed force — and specifically, a monopoly of "legitimate" armed force.
In other words, if you look at this society — and I'm not advocating this, I'm just giving an example — if someone were to go out and take a gun and shoot a cop on the basis that the cop is brutalizing somebody, they would be up for murder. There is no question about it. But time after time after time, when the police murder someone, even if there are many, many witnesses, and there is no doubt about what happened, first of all there is almost never an instance where the cop is arrested and charged in the first place. But if that is forced by mass outrage and mass upsurge, it is almost always the case that they end up being vindicated on the basis of "justifiable homicide." Why? Because the police, along with the armed forces, represent the monopoly of armed force of the ruling class, whose interests they serve and protect — and in particular, a monopoly of "legitimate" armed force.
Their violence and force, which is carried out every day, sometimes in the most brutal and grotesque ways, is legitimated by the whole workings of society and by the political power and by all the educational system and all the ways in which people are indoctrinated and trained to look at the world in a certain way. That's "legitimate." That's "justifiable" violence, "justifiable homicide." Whereas, any violence that is not carried out by the state, or at least not carried out in the interests of the ruling class, is by definition, and by the force of all the propaganda and the functioning of all of the machinery of society, illegitimate violence, "non-justifiable."
That is a reflection of rule over society which is in fact a dictatorship. You don't have to have a single leader who is promoted as an infallible person. It's rule by a class . It may be disguised. In the case of the kind of society we live in, it is valuable, often, to disguise this. But nonetheless, if you examine it concretely, and really dig into it, you will see that the political power is monopolized by the same class of people who dominate the economy, who monopolize the economy, who are the ones that have the great share not only of income, but of wealth in property and wealth in means of production, who own factories, who own banks, who own insurance companies. The people who dominate those things also dominate the political process and the political power — and, in a concentrated way, armed force that is exercised to maintain a certain form and function of society. It is exercised ultimately in their interests. And if it isn't, they'll move to get rid of the people who are exercising political authority, and get other people who will do that.
It is impossible to go into such a system and do anything but end up serving it. You cannot change the way in which the underlying economic system functions, and you cannot change the way in which the political institutions and structures function in accordance with that underlying functioning of the economy. If you tried to do that, you would bring total chaos to society.
Just think about it. Suppose you passed a law that people had a right to eat regardless of whether they had a job or not [laughter], and you just said to people: "You have a right to eat. If you cannot get food by earning an income, then go take it." [laughter] Well, if you stand back it makes perfect sense that people should have a right to eat. If the fucking system can't give them a job, why should they suffer for that. But you can't implement that principle. They can do certain things — welfare and unemployment insurance — but you cannot implement the principle, you cannot operate on the principle in this society that people have a right to eat regardless.
So if you try to do things in the superstructure of politics and ideology that run counter in a fundamental way to the economic base and functioning of the economy, you will create chaos. And if you try to do that, the workings of the system will bury you, if they don't win you over immediately. This has happened time and time again. It's more fundamental than that "you have to go along to get along" when you get into the political structure. That is true. You go into Congress, it's all set up with committees and everything. If you want to get anything done you have to make compromises. That's all true. But more fundamental is that there is a way this system works, and if you don't act in accordance with that, you will be chewed up and spit out by that system. Or else you will learn to go along with it very quickly.
So this is in essence a dictatorship. It's a dictatorship, and the political rule reflects and serves the underlying functioning and relations of the economy. And this is a very important point to understand. I think it was in the book Phony Communism Is Dead, Long Live Real Communism that I made the point that there is no such thing as an economy in the abstract, or just people working to make an economy go. Any economy is made up of a system of relations of production that reflect one kind of process of accumulation — one kind of production and accumulation of wealth — or another. Look at this society. People enter into very definite relations of production. They don't get to choose them, but they have to conform to them.
If you have certain knowledge, if you have been able to acquire certain knowledge and skills, you can get jobs of certain kinds. If you have not been able to acquire that knowledge or skill, or been prevented from doing so, you may be able to get a job of another kind, or you may not be able to get a job at all, and you enter into whatever you enter into in order to live. You learn to hustle, you learn to gangster, you learn to do whatever to try to live. Maybe you make a way of life out of it, and mimic the bourgeoisie while you are at it. This is a lot of what goes on among the people. But why? Because the way in which they enter into the economy is such that their relation to production is one of either being exploited to make wealth for somebody else, or else not being able to live within the confines of the normal functioning of the economy. And if their unemployment runs out, or they can't live on it, or whatever, they will find some other way of trying to live, or they will die. They will go on the street and become homeless and get sick and die, and their kids will suffer for it and maybe get sick and die as well.
Why? Because in this society there are people who own the means of production, and on that basis if you want to live, you work for them in one capacity or other, and in one part of the overall functioning of that economic process or another. As I said, if you have certain education and skills and kinds of training, you can get certain kind of positions — although those are not so secure these days either, with all the continuing globalization and "outsourcing," with all of that, your ass can be out — you can work 15 years and your ass can be out tomorrow. But still, you are entering into a certain position — within this overall functioning of the economy, you are entering into a certain relationship to production. Or you are not — you are excluded from that — because they can't find a way to profitably exploit you. And if they exploit you for 20 years — you can work in an auto factory in South Central L.A. for 25 years and be out of a job tomorrow, because they have brought in new technology, and/or they have shipped production to Mexico or Brazil or somewhere else.
So there is no such thing as an economy in the abstract. Every economy is a set of social relations, of relations of production, in which people who come to confront that economy in order to live do not get to choose those things. These are historically evolved systems of production. No one gets to choose them. Even the bourgeoisie doesn't get to choose them. If they are lucky, and they are born into wealth, or they were able to maneuver, gangster their way, or whatever, into wealth, then they can run the economy, and they can benefit from the exploitation of everybody else, but even they don't get to choose how the economy functions and what the relations are that people enter into in the overall functioning of the economy.
And, of course, this is all hidden from us. It appears — there are actually youth from the middle classes who grow up and think that clothes just appear in the mall. [laughter] Or many people who just assume that food will always be in the grocery store. And how that actually happens through not only a system of production in the U.S. itself, but a whole international system of production and exchange, which enmeshes millions and hundreds of millions of people, even billions of people ultimately, in its relations and functioning — that is hidden from people. You have to dig to find that. You have to go to Marx to learn how this actually works.
Marx made a statement in a letter, a long time ago now, I guess in the 1850s — I think it was in a letter he wrote to this guy named Joseph Weydemeyer, where he said "no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes or analyzing the anatomy of the different classes, or even the struggle between classes. What I did that was new, was to show that the existence of classes is only bound up with certain historical phases in the development of society's production, and that the class struggle that emerges from the antagonistic class relations will eventually lead to a proletarian revolution and the rule of the proletariat, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that this dictatorship of the proletariat is only a transition to an ultimately classless society."
That's a very interesting and important statement, because what he is saying is that these systems of production are historically evolved, and that at a certain point in the development of people's technology, and the way they organized themselves to make use of whatever they had at hand — at a certain point classes emerged. In other words, at a certain point, through a lot of complex processes, a group of people emerged who dominated the intellectual life of society, and who dominated the control of the essential means of producing and distributing the necessities of life. And from that point on, they were able, through various successive forms as the economy developed and changed, to force everyone else to work for them, while they maintained a monopoly of not only control over the essential means of life, but also everything that grew up on the basis of that. At a certain point, when society produces enough, some people can be freed, or can get themselves into a position where they are freed, from having to carry out the struggle for the daily necessities of life, and can pay attention to political affairs, to working with ideas, to culture, to all the things that intellectuals take up in a broad sense. And generally speaking, it will be that class that dominates the economy that will also be freed, and will have representatives serving it who are freed, to engage in these other spheres besides the daily struggle to produce and distribute the basic requirements of life.
This was what Marx was pointing to. And then he went on to point out that eventually, through all the complex and diverse developments this process involves — he was boiling it down to its essence, but it is not something you can oversimplify, it isn't like the ancient feudal minuet, where there is one step and then another, all neatly choreographed, it's a very complex, diverse process going on in different forms throughout the world — but at a certain point society and human development reached a stage where a system emerged and a class emerged which carried out production in a highly socialized way. In other words, a system of production in which it is not just a bunch of people all carrying out isolated activities. Nor a bunch of people working as slaves on a large plantation, chained to that plantation. Or, as in the South in the U.S., for nearly 100 years after the Civil War, before the changes that occurred in the 1950s and ’60s that are generally associated with the civil rights movement - - there was a whole period in which the masses of Black people but also many poor whites were virtually chained to agricultural plantations by a combination of debt that they could never escape from, and a whole superstructure of laws and terror that forced them to remain there. But, finally, through all this, a different kind of system emerged in which people were not literally chained to one place, nor working all separately on their own with their own small means of production. (That still goes on, you still find artisans and others doing this — for example, a sculptor works with a small amount of machinery and materials to produce sculpture — that still goes on, and many things, even necessities of life, are still produced by people in this way, especially in the Third World). But overwhelmingly what happens is the mass production of the necessities of life (and luxuries), with thousands of people working together producing this, all in combination, and with no one really producing the whole product.
This is a really profound change in human social development, and in particular in the nature of the economy. You have this production, and exchange, that is highly socialized. And all the more so now. Now they do it with computers, and their "just in time" production. They have all kinds of things that are produced in different parts of the world, and then they are assembled in a different place. This is all highly socialized. You don't have one person making a car and then at the end of it saying, "Okay, I can drive that away because it's mine and I made it." Instead you are working for someone else, and not just a person but also a corporation and the combined capital of billions in wealth.
So you have this highly socialized production but, as Marx pointed out, very acutely in contradiction to that, you have private appropriation of what is socially produced. In other words, let's say you are working as a farmworker. Your family is hungry, living in a shack — and this is not any exaggeration. Or maybe your family is in Mexico and you are living in a shack with fourteen other people — and, again, I am not exaggerating — working, picking vegetables or fruits in the San Joaquin Valley of California, a rich, fertile, agricultural area. But you are working for corporations, or you are working for farmers who are beholden to corporations, who are in debt to corporations for all the equipment and everything else, and ultimately you are working for that corporation in a real sense. You can be hungry or thirsty, but you can't take that fruit and eat it, or drink the juice out of it, squeeze the juice out of it and drink it. No, that doesn't belong to you. You are working with others to pick all this fruit, others have planted it, and others are using machinery to prepare the ground for it, and then perhaps others use machinery to pick it — that's also an innovation of the last few decades — and it goes to someplace else and then you have to get whatever little meager wage you get and go over to some other place owned by some other capitalist to buy the food that you might have literally picked. But it doesn't matter whether you picked it or somebody else did. It all goes into the wealth that is accumulated by a small class of capitalists.
I remember when I was a kid, my father was a lawyer. And he had this client who owned this packaging plant down in central California. So one day we went there and we were being taken on a tour of the plant. That day they were doing lima beans. So the lima beans were coming down the conveyor belt, and all these workers were furiously getting them and putting them in boxes. Then they would take these gigantic rolls of paper and put them at a certain spot in the machine, and then the paper would roll off and that would be the wrapping on the box. So I'm sitting there watching this, and first of all they put on Libby's — that was a brand of fruits and vegetables. So all these things go down the assembly line and are stuffed up in boxes and here comes the paper that they are wrapped up in — Libby's. Then after about an hour, they changed the roll of paper and it's Del Monte. [laughter] And I'm sitting there thinking, "well, wait a minute" — I've been watching television now for a while, and I see these ads saying "we have absolutely only the best lima beans, ours are much better than the competition." Well, it's all the same fucking lima beans, I discovered — owned by different large aggregates of capital. All these people are working, they can't eat the lima beans or take them home. People do sometimes, but if they get caught they get fired.
So this is what Marx discovered: You have highly socialized production, but very privatized appropriation by a small class of people called capitalists. But in that contradiction lies the basis for the overthrow of the system, as that class that carries out socialized production becomes conscious of this contradiction and of all of its consequences, and rises up and rallies its allies, as it is led by a vanguard party that brings it the consciousness to do this, and it eventually overthrows the system and resolves this contradiction through a whole long complex process whereby, step by step, it socializes the appropriation of what is socially produced and distributes it increasingly according to the needs of the people, not according to the dictates of the accumulation of private capital.
This is our ultimate aim. But you can see that when you have a society like this one, a capitalist society, how can you have a political process that actually gives power to everybody equally? Just think of all the ways in which that's impossible. How could all the people make decisions about this economy and not have that come into conflict with the basic way in which all this wealth is produced and accumulated? Even if they were "politically allowed to do so," how could people who have to spend their lives working in this way be able to make informed decisions about all this?
I was just reading this book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed . She is an intellectual who decided to go work in basic manual labor for several months. She worked as a waitress, and then she worked in one of these "maids for hire" companies where you clean people's houses, and then she worked at Walmart. And she describes how, on the wages that she made, she had to live in her car part of the time, or in motel rooms you would never want to live in. She is an intellectual and normally reads all of the time, but she found herself too exhausted to read when she came home from work. This goes back to the point I was making at the beginning.
How are people in that position going to equally take part in the process of political decision making, even if you remove all of the restrictions politically that are imposed on them. It's impossible. This is what I was getting at in the first of the three sentences I paraphrased a little while ago — that in a society marked by profound class divisions and social inequalities, to talk about democracy without examining the class content of that democracy and whom it serves, is meaningless and worse.
How can you have a democracy in which everybody takes part on an equal basis, when some people have all kinds of leisure time and sit at the top of this whole process — a process that doesn't just involve one country but is worldwide — people who, to use a certain metaphor, are sitting at the top of the food chain eating what is produced by everybody else along the way? How can the other people take part equally with them? It's impossible. So naturally, these people are going to dominate political affairs and the decision-making over the direction of society, and they are going to enforce that rule in order to perpetuate the system that has put them in that position in the first place.
So you have a dictatorship. A dictatorship is the rule of one class or another over society, backed and enforced by political structures and institutions and ultimately armed force, a monopoly of armed force and of "legitimate" armed force. That's what a dictatorship is.
Once you understand that, you can see that what we have in this society is in fact a dictatorship — a dictatorship disguised as and operating through the form of a democracy; in other words, a bourgeois dictatorship in which it appears that formally everyone is equal, but in reality that's far from the case. Everyone is supposedly equal before the law: you go into court, if you are rich or poor, you have the same rights supposedly. Well in reality you don't. Who can afford a lawyer and who can't? The real lesson of the OJ Simpson trial, leaving aside the question of guilt or innocence, was not what all those people were suggesting when they talked about his "dream team" of lawyers. He spent a couple million dollars. The state spent more then he did on this, by the way. The real lesson is not that somehow he got an unfair advantage. The real lesson is that masses of people have no chance in that situation, because they can't go up against all the money and resources of the state — and they are up against the whole authority and "aura" of the state.
That's the real lesson. So even there, you are not really equal before the law. Plus your social status counts when you go into court. How you are dressed, how you look, how you speak, whether all your teeth are aligned or not. All those kinds of things count when you go into court. You stand before the judge, who is likely a former prosecutor, and associates with a certain class of people, and he or she looks at different people differently, very differently. So even on that level you are not equal coming into the courtroom. Leaving aside the tremendous racism in this society and all of the rest that goes on within this kind of society. And of course we can't leave that aside, but even besides that there are all these other divisions in society that get reflected in every sphere of society, everything you do. Plus, as has been pointed out in literature for a long time, everybody doesn't have the same needs. Wealthy people don't have to steal food. They aren't in a situation where they're out of a job and have to go stick up somebody to be able to live. And they don't learn to make a way of life out of crime because they don't have to, because the whole system operates to bring them what they need.
So, you are not equal before the law in all those kinds of ways either. This is a dictatorship: even more fundamentally, the laws reflect, once again, the economic system and the political rule that serves it and that corresponds to it. That's why I said you couldn't pass a law that says, "Everybody has a right to eat — now go to it if you're hungry, take what you need."
I often think of this when I hear all this stuff about how these basically fascistic elements in the ruling class want to build up Ronald Reagan as their patron saint and icon. We are always told about what a kindly old guy he was. I remember back in the '70s when the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst. Now, their political and ideological line was all screwed up. There was a lot of bad shit they did. But nonetheless, here they took Patty Hearst, and one of the demands they made was that the Hearst family fund food distribution to the poor in California. And the Hearst family agreed. Right away, look what this shows you about this society. Why do you have to have a demand that a rich family fund food for the poor? Think about what that reflects about the nature and divisions in this society right there. But the interesting thing, the revealing thing about this was, when the Hearst family agreed, and they set up these distribution points where food would be distributed to poor people, Ronald Reagan came out and said that he hoped there would be an outbreak of food botulism — deadly food poisoning.
Now nobody can talk to me about Ronald Reagan the kindly gentleman. Besides all of the people he was responsible for slaughtering in the most unimaginable ways in places like Guatemala — you know, I wrote about this in the Democracy book and nothing I said there was exaggeration. In fact I don't even think I fully captured the horror of it — where, under the direction ultimately of the U.S., these regimes one after another in Guatemala, including that of the born-again evangelical butcher, Rios Montt — the army would be dispatched, they would go into a village and they would literally line up everyone in the village, execute all of the men of fighting age, rape all of the women and then kill many of them, and take the little children down by the river and bash their heads in. Time and time again. All ultimately presided over by the kindly, avuncular character Ronald Reagan.
Besides all that, what possible reason could you have for saying that you hope there is a mass outbreak of food poisoning when poor people are getting food? What possible reason could you have for thinking that is a funny joke? What kind of outlook does that reflect? What kind of position in society does that reflect? What kind of rule over society is being given expression to in something like that?
So this is a dictatorship. And the fact is that all democracies are ultimately part of and an expression of a dictatorship in the fundamental sense of what a dictatorship is, that is, the rule by one class or another. Even the democracy that develops for the masses of people under socialism — and we have to learn how to give this even better and more full expression — but even the democracy that develops for the masses of people under socialism is part of and could not exist without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the rule by the proletariat over society. Without that state power, without that political rule, the masses of people would have the same rights they have now. In other words, essentially none, when it comes down to the fundamental issues.
Many examples of this could be cited. One historical analogy that I think is helpful and that I have used a number of times — I read something where William Hinton, who wrote the book Fanshen brought out this example — is the South in the U.S. after the Civil War. The Civil War involved the deaths of something like 600,000 people on both sides, which was a significant percentage of the population of the U.S. at that time. At the end of the Civil War, they had what was called Reconstruction. You see the Spike Lee movies, where it has this logo that refers to Forty Acres and a Mule — that was supposed to be the implementation of that promise made by the Freedman's Bureau, that they would give the former slaves forty acres and a mule. In other words, they would have land and rights to go with it.
There were some attempts, backed up by the federal troops who remained in the South for ten years after the Civil War, to implement programs like this. And this also benefited a number of poor white people who got land and rights that they had never had either. But in particular this was geared to meeting the needs of the former slaves.
But in 1877 this was reversed. The key thing was that the federal troops were withdrawn from the South, and the masses of people there, in particular the masses of Black people, were left to the tender mercies of the former plantation owners, the Ku Klux Klan, and the rest of the wealthy and oppressive classes, and also the northern bankers and others who were moving in to take advantage of the triumph of the North in the Civil War and to profit from the operation of the economy in the South more fully than they had before. A lot of the cotton from the South used to go to England before the Civil War. That was one of the big disputes, one of the big conflicts that led to the Civil War. Ultimately it was a question of slavery, but one of the expressions of this was a lot of the cotton that got produced in the South, or picked in the South, was sent to England instead of New England. After the Civil War that changed. The Northern interests, the developing capitalist interests centered in the North, became much more not only politically dominant, but economically invested in and increasingly dominant in the South.
And then of course another aspect of the Civil War was the battle over the opening to the West, or the expansion to the West. The whole Texas thing was a focal point of that. They've got this movie out now, "The Alamo," which I haven't seen yet but I've seen the trailers, so I know what they are doing with it. But Texas was a big focal point — there were people like Jim Bowie and others who fought for the slave system, who were either slave owners or slave traders or overseers and things like this. And there were a lot of places where this struggle was being played out. Texas was one place.
Another place this got battled out was Kansas. That's where people like John Brown went, for example. Because Kansas was a state that was part of the Missouri compromise. Missouri would be a slave state, Kansas would be decided by who got there. So a lot of people were racing to move in. Slave owners and people who wanted to have a "free" economy. And John Brown moved into that and was part of that whole struggle. I don't have time to go into all that, but it is a very interesting story about how they freed slaves and went and actually assassinated some of the leading slave owners who were coming into the state. It's a whole interesting story, but it's beyond what I can get into today. But it is worth reading about. Dubois, for example, wrote a biography of John Brown which gets into some of these things.
In any case — I'm getting a little bit far afield here — but the point is that Reconstruction, to get back to that, Reconstruction was abandoned in 1877. And it is very interesting that the federal troops that were withdrawn were used in two ways immediately. One, they were used to crush some strikes that were carried on by a largely or essentially white labor movement on the railroads and in other industries, and they were used to carry out the final defeat and slaughter of the Native Americans. In other words, this was around the time of the whole Custer thing, and although that was a victory for the Sioux and a debacle for the cavalry and all the interests it represented, this whole juggernaut was coming behind it. And it was reinforced by these federal troops that were pulled out of the South.
So the reversal of Reconstruction put an end to any kind of democratic upsurge in the South — in other words, something that would have still been within the framework of bourgeois society but would have led to something different than the sharecropping system, virtually a feudal kind of exploitation that the former slaves in their masses were subjected to, where they were always in debt, all but literally chained to the land in various ways, and subject to the tender mercies of the KKK and all that. Instead of that, you could have had a system where at least large numbers owned small parcels of land. But that was not really in the interests of the bourgeoisie. They were interested in monopolizing that land and buying their way into this new plantation system, and profiting from it. And politically they were not interested in it either.
When you talk about a dictatorship, one way to get at this is to pose the question: what would it have taken to enforce that policy of forty acres and a mule? To be blunt, a lot of people would have had to die. I'm sorry. There were a lot of former slave owners and Ku Klux Klansmen and so on — I'm not saying that you would have just gone out and assassinated, or executed, a bunch of people — I'm saying there would have been armed resistance by the KKK and the rest of them to this system. They were already carrying out the armed terrorizing of the masses of Black people. Well, imagine if this program had actually been implemented in a thoroughgoing way. The former slave owners, who wanted to re-establish themselves as plantation owners in this now sort of feudal form of exploitation through sharecropping, would have fought this, and they would have organized forces to fight it. And they would have funded and mobilized the Ku Klux Klan. They would have gotten all their own confederate associations back together. It would have been bloody. And a lot of people would have died. It would have been necessary for a lot of people to die in order to not have the former slaves re-enslaved in all but literal terms.
It would have taken a dictatorship and that dictatorship would have had to exert violence. And the question is: which would have been better? It depends on where you sit. If you were one of those former slaves, or even among the class of poor whites in the area, it would have been objectively much better, even with the violence, to have that system. But if you are sitting where the bourgeoisie is sitting, that is something to be avoided — that turmoil, that violence — because it doesn't run in accord with your interests of re-establishing in slightly different form a system of exploitation. And it doesn't conform with your needs for a stable form of rule, then, which is not involved in a virtual continuation of the civil war, even if under new conditions where now you are dominating the South.
If you were a former slave, or someone who sympathizes with the former slaves, and thinks these kinds of horrendous oppression and terror and exploitation should be abolished, you look at this very differently. To you, to say "well, it's unfortunate that we had to go through this hundred years, essentially, of this literal terror, after the Civil War, but that was necessary in order to unify and stabilize the country" — to you that is an outrage, an abomination. Most of you have probably seen on video, or heard about this speech I gave last year. I quoted a psychologist who studied Black people in the South during this historical period we are talking about, from basically the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s until the 1960s. In that period, during the early 1900s actually, he studied Black people, and made the statement that every Black person in the South lived under a death sentence. It might never be carried out, but it always could be. And it could be carried out not only through the more formal structures of the society, but in a totally arbitrary way in the middle of the night. And you never knew what you might do that would bring this horrendous kind of death down upon you. You could be — this is captured by Richard Wright in his novels and writings — you could be a young Black boy who stumbled upon a white woman alone by herself, and be lynched for nothing more than that. And you can just go on and on.
I think we have not really come to terms with what this means. It will only be when we have a new society that we are really going to fully come to terms with what it means that a whole people have lived through this experience. And now, instead of the KKK you have the police. You have changed conditions. People don't live in rural areas, isolated. They live crowded in urban slums. And you don't have the night-riding KKK by and large, you have the police — you had them then, too, but the police now represent the concentrated form for exercising this terror.
I told a story in a speech last year about when we were doing work in the projects and meeting many young Black mothers, who would become very upset once they saw that their children, especially the boys, would grow to be physically large, because they knew that was going to be a "provocation" to the police. For no other reason than being a large Black male.
And we have not really come to terms yet, and we never will until we get to a whole new society, with what this has meant, and all the different effects this has had. The terror people have lived with — you talk about terror. I can remember stories, and reading books about lynchings and so on — like the Emmett Till case for example, a famous case of lynching in the '50s. When the night-riders came to take him away, his uncle begged them to allow him to beat Emmett Till so that they wouldn't take him off and do what they did to him. Now, imagine being in that position. Multiple that by millions of people living this, generation after generation.
Would it have been worth it to enforce a different kind of rule, even with the violence that would have been necessary to put down the armed resistance to this, in order to abolish that whole experience? Well, where you sit is going to determine how you answer that. To the bourgeoisie, the answer was no. But to those people who want a whole different kind of society, without these horrendous forms of exploitation and oppression, and all the terror and torment, psychological as well as physical that goes with it, we have a profoundly different answer. It's not that we relish violence, or want to maintain a society where one part has to dictate over another even if that "another" is a minority of former exploiters. We want to get beyond all that. But you can't get beyond all that without going through it. And whether you think that is worth it or not, or justified or not, depends on where you sit and what you think is important.
Is this sort of incidental to you, an unfortunate by-product of history that people had to go through all this, leaving aside everything else the rulers of the U.S. were doing in the world. We could talk about that all day and next week. But is it an unfortunate by-product of history, or is it something that is completely unacceptable and intolerable? Well, that depends on where you sit in the overall structure of this society, in the overall relations of production, in the overall process of the functioning of society. Not that people automatically come to an understanding of the essence of this, but once you see the essence of it then you are going to look at that differently depending on what you think is important, with what class of people you identify or sympathize with and support. You don't have to literally be among that class to side with them. Here again comes in the role of intellectuals, most of whom don't come from among the most exploited and oppressed, but nevertheless can come to understand the role of the exploited and oppressed in changing society, and can come to identify with them and even play a role in bringing them forward to achieve these things.
So, there isn't a form of democracy which isn't part of a dictatorship. The question is what kind of dictatorship, what kind of rule, by which class, for what objectives, to accomplish what ends, to bring about what kind of society and what kind of world? And no, we don't believe — despite the constant charges and distortions, we don't believe — that "the ends justify the means." We don't believe that you can — this is part of the negative aspect of the experience of our class in ruling society that we have to sum up more deeply — you can't fall into the pragmatic argument, or the instrumentalist argument, that whatever works toward the attainment of your goals is justified. Because if you use means and methods that are fundamentally in conflict with your objectives, then they are going to undermine what you are actually working toward, and you will end up working for something else, which is going to be the same old thing, even if it calls itself something else.
So, our means have to be consistent with our ends, and the methods we use have to be consistent with and flow from and serve our objectives in a fundamental sense. Now sometimes there are contradictions in this. Like Mao said, we are advocates of the abolition of war, but it is necessary to wage revolutionary war in order to finally put an end to war. Well, some people can't understand that. But it is understandable. Because, in order to eliminate something you have to eliminate the underlying causes of it. So, it is necessary to make revolution to abolish a system which lives by exploiting and oppressing people, and which enforces that rule through all kinds of reactionary destruction and violence, namely war.
There are lots of contradictions like this. We are for abolishing a situation in which there are dictatorships, in which one class rules over another. We want to get beyond that. But, in order to get beyond that, we have to go through it.
So, in short, if you don't want the masses of people to be forever subjected to these unspeakable forms of oppression and exploitation, you have to overthrow the state as it exists, the dictatorship that exists which reinforces the relations of exploitation and oppression, and establish a new form of rule which corresponds to the process and serves the process of abolishing those relations.
Now, returning to the principle that you can't use just any old means — that any old means aren't justified by the ends — the kind of dictatorship that would actually serve the process of uprooting these relations of exploitation and oppression has to be very different than any previous form of class rule, any previous kind of dictatorship. So, while it has in common with all these previous forms of class rule, or dictatorship, the fact that it does represent the rule of one class, and is enforced by the armed power representing that class, it has to at the same time be vastly different in what that means and what it does.
First of all, on a very basic level, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the rule that represents the interests of the proletariat, has to involve the broad masses of people in all the different aspects of ruling and transforming society, which is not a short-term thing but a long and very wrenching process of overcoming inequalities — which even as they exist are working to undermine your advance toward a new form of society. They are constantly pulling things back and reasserting the old relations of inequality, oppression and exploitation. So this is a very acute contradiction that you have to deal with under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Not only is there a question of extending formal rights and equality to the masses of people in a way that never can happen under any form of exploitative rule, but there is the question of the masses of people actually having the right to concern themselves with and to influence and to play a decisive role in affairs of state and the direction of society, as well as to organize themselves to carry out all kinds of political activity — even political activity independent of, and in some ways even opposed to, the state (this is something I will come back to).
Even more fundamentally than that, the dictatorship of the proletariat, even as it is strengthening itself and carrying forward the struggle to achieve its objectives, has to be guided by the aim of eventually abolishing itself. And this is another acute contradiction, because when it is said you have to do this and you have to do that under the dictatorship of the proletariat, who is "you"? That's a very acute contradiction. Again, is "you" simply the political leadership of the proletariat as organized in the most concentrated way in its vanguard? Or does "you" have to change as you go through this process? Does "you" have to involve more and more of the masses? And does the role and relation between the party and the masses itself have to undergo changes, as you advance together with the whole revolutionary struggle throughout the world toward the abolition of classes and oppressive social divisions and inequalities?
These are very big questions and pose very acute contradictions at various stages, and, in an overall sense, these are profound contradictions all along the way. All the way through, you are trying to change the "you" who is ruling and transforming society and making the decisions about society. But you are living in a world, which constantly tends to reinforce the division between "you" who is actually making decisions and the broader masses who ultimately and fundamentally needed to be included in this "you."
So democracy is different under the dictatorship of the proletariat, it serves different interests and aims, just as that dictatorship itself is radically different and serves different interests and aims than bourgeois dictatorship. But so long as there is democracy among one part of society, that will inevitably be part of a dictatorship exercised by that part of society, even if "that part of society" represents and increasingly draws in the great majority of people. It still represents a division where some people are excluded from rule and excluded from democracy, or do not have the same rights as others. That will apply to the overthrown exploiters and active counter-revolutionaries who will be attempting to organize, to seek each other out, to form associations, etc. — not just to criticize or to raise disagreements about the direction of society, but to activity seek to overthrow the rule of the proletariat.
So, to put it in very short, concentrated form, wherever there is democracy, there is also dictatorship. The question is what kind of democracy, what kind of dictatorship. If we wanted to be provocative and develop a provocative slogan with all the intoxication and infatuation with democracy in the world these days, we could say: "democracy — it's just a form of dictatorship." But obviously the question is more complicated than that. I'm all in favor of saying that just to be provocative [laughter]. I generally like to be provocative anyway. But then you have to have some substance, to go into it deeply.
Of course, all this goes against everything we are taught in a society like this and through the whole machinery and process of indoctrination with bourgeois ideology. And there is in a society like this a powerful pull of spontaneity in favor of bourgeois democracy, particularly in a country like the U.S., which not only dominates and parasitically lives off much of the world, but also as a consequence, or in relation to that, has a very broad middle strata, who occupy a relatively privileged position in relation to the masses of exploited people in this country, and especially in relation to the masses of people in the world.
But this also exerts a powerful influence even among the proletariat itself. Notions of democracy in one form or another constantly reassert themselves. The idea that, for example, the highest objective and what we are really aiming for is simply equality. There is that Peter Tosh song, "Equal Rights" — we've got to have equal rights. Well, there is something to that. But, as we have seen, formal equality masks and embodies inequality as well. It's not that we don't need to abolish institutional inequality — we do. The ways in which people are overtly and directly in form treated as unequal — we need to abolish those, that's part of our struggle. But that's not the be-all and end-all, or the final objective or the fundamental character of our struggle.
For example, take two people who work at the same job. As long as people are paid in the form of wages, on the one hand there is equality: You do the same job, you get the same wage and salary. But, on the other hand, there is inequality built into that. Not everybody does literally the same quality of work. So already there is inequality, because formally we are both equal and we are getting the same wage, but I am doing less quality work than you are. You are actually doing more than me, even though we are both in form doing the same job, because your work is better than mine. Furthermore, you have a family with three kids, and I have a family with no kids. Well, your wage doesn't go as far as mine does. I can buy things that you can't buy, as long as things are produced and distributed in the form of commodities to be bought and sold with money, I have an unequal position in relation to you, because I can buy things you can't buy, since you have to "feed more mouths" than I do with the same wage.
So, while ending social inequality is an objective of ours, it isn't the fundamental objective. We have to go deeper and further than that. We have to get beyond the system where things are produced and distributed as commodities. We have to get to where we can implement the slogan of communism: "from each according to their ability to each according to their needs," so that we move beyond the calibration, or calculation, of formal equality, even while we have abolished formal inequality.
Marx talked about how one of the objectives, ideologically and practically, of the communist revolution is to cross beyond "the narrow horizon of bourgeois right." Now, what did he mean by that? "Bourgeois right" refers to things like the right to an equal amount of pay for an equal amount of work. You put in a certain amount of work, then you have the right to get paid back in a certain amount, and anyone who does the same job should get the same amount. Bourgeois right also includes things like formal equality before the law.
In order to uproot all relations of exploitation, we have to get beyond the point where those kind of rights have to be calculated and entered into the equation. We have to get beyond the horizon where we are merely concerned about or implementing formal equality. In the material basis of all this, in the underlying economic foundation of all this, we have to get beyond a society where things are produced and distributed as commodities to be bought and sold, or exchanged for other commodities. In order to get beyond these calculations of "I did this much work so I should get that much income," and everything that is bound up with that, we have to remove the fetters that are placed on an economy and on a society by having it organized around the production and distribution of things as commodities. As long as things are produced and distributed as commodities, then we can't get beyond the inequalities that are masked — and are even embodied — in formal equality. You can't give people according to their needs in capitalist society. You can only give people according to how much they earn, to put it simply.
And, in a larger sense, in how you approach the development of the economy you can't proceed from the larger needs of society and of the people who make it up, so long as the principle of producing and distributing things as commodities is in command. Now, this is another thing that takes a while to move beyond. Even in the early stages and for quite a while in socialist society (and in socialism as it has actually existed) things still get produced in the form of commodities to a very large degree. But there is a constant struggle to remove things from the realm of commodities.
For example, health care that is provided free removes that from the sphere of production and exchange of commodities. To the degree that it can actually be provided free, it no longer is something that you take the income you earn from your job and pay for. Or, if you remove things like food from the realm of commodities, by having public distribution of food, or public cafeterias, or whatever, where you are no longer selling things, but giving food to people according to their needs. To the degree you can do that, you are moving those things beyond the realm where they are produced and distributed as commodities. And eventually, not only do items of consumption have to be moved beyond that, but so do the means of production — in other words, the things used to produce other things. The machinery, the land, the factory buildings, the computers — all that eventually has to be produced and exchanged not through the use of money, but according to calculations based on what the society and the total labor of society is capable of producing and decisions, which have to be made by the people through various forms, about which things to produce in what quantity in order to accomplish which ends.
Right now that is decided by a small group of people, who are themselves the expression of the accumulation process of capital. They have minds and consciousness, but they cannot entirely or fundamentally step outside of the dynamics of capitalist accumulation itself. They cannot make decisions that, in a fundamental and essential way, run counter to those dynamics, or they will go out of business.
This is an extremely important point to understand, and also a focus of some struggle, even among communists — to correctly and fully grasp that in the operation of the capitalist economy, while it rests in one sense on the exploitation of the proletariat, the propertyless wage workers, by the bourgeoisie, it is also driven, and in a most fundamental sense is driven, by the anarchy of production that inevitably results from production being carried out in the commodity form. Because, calculate as you will, you still can never know, when you throw things into the market, how much of them you are going to sell. You can calculate and you can attempt to make your best estimate, but once you throw your capital into the production of things and put them into the market — in other words, once you enter into the overall process of production and exchange under capitalism — what comes back to you goes through a whole process of competition between different capitalists, in which they are each intensifying their exploitation of the proletarians who are enslaved by them, in effect, in order to be able to more profitably sell and realize a profit on the things they produced.
Now, the wealth is not produced in the sale, but it is realized in the sale. The wealth is produced through the exploitation of people. The more intensely you can exploit them, the more work you can get out of them for the wage you pay them, the more potential wealth you can accumulate. But that's only potential wealth. And I don't care what scale you are on — you could be Ted Turner or whatever — you can get eaten up by a bigger shark. Because at any given time, even on the level that he was operating on, in order to further expand, you have to go out and either borrow (get credit), or you have to merge with some other capital. And for any capitalist, no matter what scale, the smallest scale or the largest scale, once they put things into production, whatever capital they had has been converted into a form that is no longer directly under their control. A lot of this is highly rarified and parasitic, so it is not literally money changing hands. It's just crediting and accounts and things like that. But nonetheless, there are days of reckoning [laughter]. And if your ship doesn't come out the way it is supposed to, you will go under. I don't care how big you are. Or you will get eaten up by someone else.
In this form of production and exchange of commodities, you invest your money, and in that sense you alienate it from yourself. You give it up and it then has to go through this whole process of exploitation through which wealth is produced, and then it has to be realized in the form ultimately of selling whatever it is you are producing. And if anywhere along the way something goes wrong, or someone else develops a more "efficient" way of doing that, you may not recoup what you have put into it.
And this is where the anarchy comes in. You have no choice, not only to compete with other capitalists, but to find ways to intensify the exploitation of the people that you are employing at the time.
The capitalists will actually tell you this, if people have ears to listen. Take, for example, the argument about raising the minimum wage. Many political representatives of the system — especially the Republicans, but not only them — will say, "If you raise the minimum wage you are just eliminating jobs." And there is a certain truth to that under the capitalist system, and it's not just that they are mean spirited. It's that the capitalists will export production to some other country, like Vietnam (what an irony that is), or Indonesia, paying people a much lower wage to produce the things. And if, as a capitalist, you are paying a higher wage here you are going to lose out. They may be as mean-spirited as they are, but that is not what is driving this. What is driving this is the fact that their money has entered into this commodity form. It represents a form of commodity itself, but it's invested in means of production. Things like the raw materials you use in production have to be paid for. The factory building is usually bought over time and has to be paid for. The means of transportation and communication have to be paid for. The internet is not free either. All of these things have to be paid for. You have to invest in these things, and if you can't, as they say, "recoup your investment," you go under.
So even the capitalists are not free to act outside of the dynamics of this, in a fundamental sense. That's why they need political representatives, or one of the reasons. They have representatives who stand above the interests of particular capitalists, and try to exercise some wisdom on behalf of the capitalist class as a whole. For example, Roosevelt in the 1930s came in at a time when the economy was completely in the dumpster. The unemployment rate was 25% or higher for the society as whole. The whole thing was grinding to a halt and going in reverse gear. And the laws of the free market were not getting them out of this. So what did they do? They intervened with the state. They had all these programs to intervene with the state, to spend money and reallocate certain capital through taxation and other means, in order to employ people. Or they put in certain regulations limiting what particular capitalists could do, in the interests of the capitalist class in the larger sense, the capitalist class as a whole, to keep this system going.
Ultimately none of these things really succeeded. It was the war, World War 2, that pulled them out of it. But, to use an analogy to Rome, Roosevelt acted like a patrician senator, who looked beyond the narrow interests of the competing capitalists, and brought forward programs to save the system as a whole. Of course, he had a lot of help from the Communist Party, which wasn't acting as a real communist party and didn't implement a revolutionary program, didn't seize on this crisis to try to make a revolution or move toward one.
In any case, what Roosevelt did was very important from the point of view of the ruling class. He intervened to make certain changes that the capitalists on their own would not have made, and weren't able even to see in a full sense, even while Roosevelt did get backing from certain sections of capitalists who recognized the need to do this. But with all that, it's still not possible for either politicians or the capitalists themselves to stand completely outside of — or to be entirely or essentially independent of — this accumulation process of capitalism itself.
So as long as this kind of a process is going on, or as long as there are significant remnants of it even under socialism, you can't get completely beyond the horizon of bourgeois right. You can't move completely beyond the relations and the corresponding ideas that are characteristic of this system.
And so we see constantly, over and over again, especially while we are living under this system, the pull of the illusions of democracy — that somehow if everybody could have democracy we would get rid of the ills of society. That pull will constantly assert itself, because it is reinforced by the whole functioning of the system, not only what you are propagandized with, but the way in which people have to live.
People have to compete with each other for jobs, for housing, for all kinds of things. And they have to somehow find a way to fit into the overall functioning of the system in order to be able to survive, let alone to try to "improve their position." So because of these material necessities, as well as the whole ideological offensive and the educational system and everything else, people are constantly pulled back within the narrow horizon of bourgeois right. They are constantly conditioned to think of things only in terms that ultimately amount to, or correspond to, the exchange of commodities. This is true even if the exchange of those commodities takes the form of the circulation of ideas. This is a very strong current among the intellectuals — "the free marketplace of ideas" is a phrase you hear very commonly. Well, that, right in itself, reflects the whole capitalist system of production and exchange, in which things are produced and circulate in the form of commodities.
It's not that we don't want a lot of free exchange of ideas, but the idea of the free marketplace of ideas is as much an illusion as the free market is itself an illusion. The free market, in the literal sense of the functioning of the economy, is not really free. It is actually a system based on the exploitation of wage labor. So there is not freedom in that sense. There is not equality between those who are in a position of exploiting others, and those who are exploited. Those who own or control the major means of production, and those who own or control little or none, are not in an equal position. And the free market does not work out so that the interests of all are best served. It works out in the realm of ideas the same way it works out in the practical realm of the economy. It works out with some dominating others. Because we are not starting in this society from an equal place. So all ideas don't get equal promotion.
In fact, to be honest, it is never possible in any society, even in a communist society, for all ideas to get equal promotion. To think that is possible is an illusion. If you think about it there are only so many trees. And even if they develop other ways of making books and disseminating information than we now have, it still takes material things to do that. Computers are made out of real things, not out of air. So, the dissemination of information always will have limits on it, no matter what stage of the society you are in, or what kind of world you live in. You cannot literally disseminate, on an equal basis, every idea that anyone comes up with. So there will always have to be decisions made about which ideas will be given more priority to be disseminated at a given time in any society, even in a communist society. Then, the people, through various mechanisms they will work out, will make these decisions. And even then, there will be a lot of struggle. These things will get resolved through struggle, not through some magical process of some mythical society where there is no contradiction and struggle.
Even under communism there will be tremendous contradiction and struggle about all kinds of things. And probably groups and even "factions" will form. The "park faction" will form — groups of people who want more parks will form and fight it out with the people who want to have more hospitals, let's say. How do you resolve that contradiction? People will struggle over that. It's just taking place in a completely different context where one part of society is not dominating and essentially shutting out the rest of society from taking part in the struggle and decision-making over that.
But there will always be this struggle over those kinds of things. How can you not have struggle? You are always dealing with necessity. You are always dealing with material conditions that are confronting you. You are always dealing with nature and how you interact with nature. And there will always be different ideas about how to do that. But as long as you have a society divided into classes, then one class or another will dominate in that process and in the decisions that are made. This is true even in a society where the proletariat dominates, and it does things in a radically and vastly different ways than exploiting classes that have dominated society.
It is never possible for "the free marketplace of ideas" to really be free and equal. Because, even if all ideas got equal funding, let us imagine, some ideas are more in line with the prejudices that exist already, and some have to go up against all that. Lenin once said it takes ten pages of truth to answer one sentence of falsehood. That's because you are not starting out with everything equal. Right now, for example, when somebody says something about communism which fits in with all the popular misconceptions, you have to start way back at the beginning and go through all this shit before you get back to their question.
So even if somehow all different ideas were equally circulating and funded, they are not equal. They are not existing in a vacuum. So even in that sense "the free marketplace of ideas" is an illusion.
And of course, all ideas don't get equal funding and backing. Some get much more. You want to write a book denouncing communism, you can find a publisher. You want to write a book upholding it, good luck! These are the realities.
So, "the free marketplace of ideas" is an illusion, just as the free marketplace itself is an illusion in the way it is presented. The free marketplace in the economy does not lead to everyone being equal, or to the greatest interests of the greatest number being served. It leads to polarization in society, where some control and monopolize wealth and power, and exploit and dominate the great majority who do not. That's what the free market leads to. Just look at the world. That's what is operating in terms of what is dominating economically and politically in the world. It's the "free market" of the capitalist system that is operating.
What does it lead to? It leads to exactly what Marx said. And if you look on a world scale you can see that very clearly: the accumulation of wealth among a small number at one pole, and the accumulation of agony of toil and exploitation and suffering among the great majority at the other pole. That's what the world looks like. Investigate it if you don't think so. That's what you will find. Half of the population of the world is living on $2 a day. You don't really need to know much more than that. There's a lot more to be learned and struggled over, but that captures something very fundamental about the nature of the world. This is what the "free market system" leads to and will always lead to.
Nevertheless, these illusions, which correspond in one way or another to the limitations of the horizon of the bourgeois system and bourgeois right, will continually reassert themselves, so long as there is a base in the underlying economy and in the corresponding social relations, and in the corresponding form of political rule, and consequently in the ideology and culture that dominates in the society.
People are constantly pulled back to these ideas: "If we could just limit the corporations, then we wouldn't have the problems we have." "The problem is that corporations have too much power." You can listen to Ralph Nader, for example. The problem is not, according to him, the very nature of the capitalist system, it's just that corporations have too much power. Washington is "corporate-occupied territory," he says. Well, there is a certain element of truth to that. But why is that? What is the fundamental reason for that? And what is it all part of?
One challenge I would say to people like that is: name a time in the history of this country when it wasn't dominated politically and every other way by a small minority of wealthy landowners and other wealthy owners of means of production. Name a single time. When is that time? The founding of the country? I don't think so! The time when all the big trusts were forming at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century? I don't think so! There's not a single time — that's always been the way it is.
So this is not a new phenomena that the corporations have too much power or influence. This is the nature of the system, and in fact it has grown to where there is more and more wealth controlled by a smaller number of capitalists. We don't have literal slaveowners any more. Most of the land is now owned in the form of capital, not in the form of slave plantations or even in some feudal form, like sharecropping. But it is still monopolized by a small number, and in fact that monopoly is more accentuated, more pronounced than ever.
But you can see how all these illusions continually reassert themselves. If we could just somehow limit the power of the corporations, or if we could somehow just have real democracy, where for example, we didn't have private corporate wealth funding the campaigns. If all the campaigns were financed, for example, out of public funds. Well, first of all, who controls the public funds? [laughter] Then you get back to the same thing. Second of all, even if you could have all campaigns financed by public funding, you would still have all the reality that I have been talking about operating. You would still get the same polarization in society — or the society would grind to a halt — or would have to be overthrown. And therefore you would confront the question of whether you wanted this society or a completely different one. So these same things are going to reassert themselves, no matter what changes of that kind you would make.
And there is something very relevant to all this that I quoted in a polemic I wrote against K. Venu, who was an Indian Maoist who deserted Maoism and retreated into bourgeois democracy. He literally ended up running for office as part of some bourgeois party. But before that he presented his retreat into bourgeois democracy in a communist guise. What he was arguing for was basically adopting bourgeois-democratic forms under the dictatorship of the proletariat because, according to him, the experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat has been one disaster after another, where the people have been actually oppressed by the party. It's not really a new argument. It's an old argument, but he presented it in a slightly new form.
And one of the things I quoted in that polemic was a statement from Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which was examining what was happening in France in the second half of the 19th century. He made a very insightful comment where he said that one must not think that the democratic intellectuals, whom we have an abundance of in this society — you can listen to Amy Goodman, or, some very progressive people even, but they are still within the narrow confines of bourgeois right — one must not assume, Marx cautioned, that people like this, the democratic intelligentsia, are, in their everyday life, similar to the shopkeepers. However, the essential point is that the democratic intellectuals do not get beyond the bounds in their thinking that the shopkeepers do not get beyond in everyday life.
That is actually a very complex but very profound point. What he is saying is that you take a stratum like the shopkeepers, who are completely caught up in the daily operation of commodity production and exchange, and in the position where they are not the great accumulators of capital, but neither are they the people who are exploited to produce that capital, that wealth. They are in between, squeezed, but constantly trying to improve their position within the confines of the operation of this commodity system, and being thwarted in doing so at just about every turn. So in practical life they are completely caught up in this commodity competition, and all the vicissitudes, the ups and downs, of this; they are always scrambling to improve their position, and their horizons are very narrowed and constricted by this operation of the actual commodity production and exchange. And Marx's point is that the democratic intellectuals, those people who try to perfect democracy, ultimately end up in the same place as the shopkeepers — even though they live in a very different world, and if you went to someone like Amy Goodman and said "you know you are just like a shopkeeper," she would justifiably be very outraged, and would say "I'm nothing like a petty shopkeeper."
That would be true on one level. But Marx's point is that ultimately, until you break out of the confines of seeing the question as being essentially one of democracy, in a "classless" sense — until you break out of the confines of not recognizing that within the very workings of the system that takes this democratic form, there are inevitably not only profound inequalities, but fundamental relations of exploitation — until you break out of those confines, you will end up getting drawn back into the same world, in how you are conceiving of how society ought to be, that the shopkeeper gets drawn into in everyday life. You are still thinking in terms that are objectively limited by the material reality of the production and exchange of the necessities of life and of all of the things of life in the form of commodities. You are still thinking in terms of equality, in terms of eliminating only the formal political distinction between the rich and poor, and this will leave intact the relations and the functioning of the economy, which inevitably produce tremendous polarization between rich and poor, and powerful and powerless.
Until you get beyond seeing things in terms of improving or perfecting democracy within the confines of this system, you will inevitably be driven back in your thinking to the confines of commodity production and exchange. You will not be able to escape them. Your thinking will not be able to rupture beyond them.
This is a profound point that Marx was making. I know from my own experience, you can keep going back to it and getting more and more out of it, the more that you actually look at experience and think about this statement in relation to experience.
But these illusions and these limitations are like a magnet that constantly pulls people back. And this is not only true in a society like this. In the struggle internationally, and among people in many different countries who are trying to get out from under oppressive rule, the lure of bourgeois democracy, of the ideal but unrealistic and unrealizable goal of a society where inequalities are eliminated but it is still operating on the basis of capitalism, ultimately — this pull continually reasserts itself.
For example, look at Iran. I was just reading this book Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is written by this woman who was a professor. Now, in my opinion, the novel Lolita (by Nabokov) is not a good book. I don't know how many of you have read it, but I don't think it's a good book. She tries to make something better out of it than it is. But the significant fact is that it is a subversive act in Iran, under the rule of what our comrades in the Communist Party of Iran (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) call the "filthy Mullahs." Under the rule of the filthy Mullahs in Iran, the religious fundamentalists, to read a book like Lolita is a subversive act. As is reflected in Reading Lolita in Tehran there is a very strong pull to this "anti- totalitarianism" among people who have lived under the theocratic, religious rule of these religious fundamentalist authorities, and have been terrorized, in really horrendous ways, for stepping out of any of the confines of that. You can just see the outlook coming through that "we don't want anyone telling us what to think." Or, more than that, they don't want anyone ruling in the name of an official ideology — whether it's religious fundamentalism, or Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. They don't want communism, or theocracy. They don't want anyone telling them that they know the truth. And among people with this outlook there is a tendency not to draw any distinctions between people who uphold different ideologies. There is a world of difference between life under the "filthy Mullahs." and life in a revolutionary, vibrant, socialist society. But two things have to be said about that. Spontaneously, people don't see that. And second of all, we have to do better at making that a reality even more fully than has been the case in the past. And I will come back to that later.
So it is very important to bring forward a scientific understanding of these questions, grounded in materialism and dialectics, understanding the decisive role of the actual economic base — the functioning of the process through which things are produced and distributed, and wealth is accumulated and distributed, and the relations that people enter into in that process — and understanding the social relations that develop and the political relations and political power that develops on that basis, and the ideology and culture that arises on that basis, understanding that in a dialectical and not a mechanical way.
Is it true that every movie that is made in this society is sort of a crude commercial for capitalism? No. There are oppositional things that come through in the culture. There are things that promote resistance and criticism of the established order. But that doesn't change the fact that, overwhelmingly, what gets generated and what gets selected out to be promoted is that which reinforces and serves the system.
If you want to look at something right around us, look at rap. When it first came forward it had a lot of nonsense in it, with groups like the Sugar Hill Gang, although even before that it had some better stuff. But mixed in from the beginning was contention. You had people talking about the conditions of the masses and promoting resistance to that right alongside of a lot of macho bullshit and just a lot of nonsense. And then you had people like Melle Mel come forward at a certain time. I don't know if any of you ever heard his song "World War 3," but it's a really interesting song. It was done in the mid or late '80s, I think. And it's really got a good line, that's very relevant today, talking about these people who go fight wars for the system. Then, he says, when you come back, what are you fighting for? — a silly ass medal, a stupid parade. It's very timely. And then you had Public Enemy and things like that, which had their limitations but also had a lot of rebellion involved. What got promoted? Is it all equal? Were all the things circulated equally? No! You had NWA and they did "Fuck tha Police," but that's not what gets selected out to be promoted. You listen to the rest of that album and it's got a lot of bad shit on it. [laughs]
And through all this process, what got considered to be commercially viable? All this "bitches and ho's" and big cars and money and all the rest of it. All that shit is what got promoted. And overwhelmingly that's what it's about now, in terms of what's "commercially viable" rap. Not because, abstracted from the system that exists, things putting forward a very different message wouldn't have found an "audience." They did! But that's not what the people who run things, including those who run the big companies that produce and promote this shit, got behind. For ideological reasons, even beyond mere economic concerns, they got behind other shit and made it "commercially viable."
This is the way things actually work in this society. Now it is a dynamic process, it's not a narrow, mechanical process, whereby what gets promoted in the culture gets selected out. But through all this process there are definite interests that come to dominate and get served. And the prevailing relations of exploitation, the prevailing social relations of inequality of all kinds — between men and women, between nationalities and so on — get reinforced through the culture, as well as through the political rule. We have to understand this, and we have to bring this understanding to other people.
One of the things that I also quoted in this polemic against K. Venu was a statement by Mao in the course of the Cultural Revolution. In the city of Shanghai, which was a stronghold of the Cultural Revolution, there was a mass uprising of more than a million people. Different factions or groups among the Red Guards united to overthrow the existing municipal committee that ran the city — which was following the revisionist line in all the different fields and was a powerful force within the overall government and Communist Party. Education was to train a new elite, health care was for a small elite, not for the masses, right down to the policies that prevailed in the factories which basically chained the workers to their machines and made them once again just cogs in the machinery of producing wealth. All this was ultimately going to be producing a new capitalist system with party members presiding over it.
So they had this mass upheaval in Shanghai, and in the initial stages, after they overthrew the old ruling committee in the city, they established for a brief time what was called the Shanghai Commune. This was modeled after the Paris Commune, which in 1871 arose and briefly held power for about 2 months in the city of Paris, the capital of France, and then was drowned in blood by the counter-revolution. Marx had written about this, summing up some of the important lessons of the Paris Commune, emphasizing that this is what the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like in reality. And one of the things they did in the Paris Commune was that all officials were elected by direct popular vote, and could be recalled by direct expression of the masses in a popular referendum. And so they implemented policies of this kind in the Shanghai Commune, modeling themselves after the Paris Commune.
But, after observing and studying this for a short period of time, Mao came forward with a statement that, under the circumstances, the Shanghai Commune was not the appropriate form in which to exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat. And he made criticisms of this form in his typically "Maoesque" way. He said: "I'm afraid that this commune form is not strong enough to suppress counter-revolutionaries." I'll come back to that in a minute. And he also said, "What are we going to do about international relations — what about all the ministers we have that are like the foreign minister, who is going to appoint the foreign minister? I'm afraid all these other countries wouldn't recognize the ministers that would be appointed in this way."
Really, in a kind of provocative humorous way, he was saying: Look, we live in a world that has all these imperialist countries out there. He wasn't really talking about Chinese officials, like the foreign minister, and who was going to recognize them, he was saying all these imperialist vultures out there are going to take advantage of us if we don't have a strong enough centralized force to be able to resist them and withstand attacks by them.
And when Mao said that this commune form is not strong enough to suppress counter-revolutionaries, what he was saying was: We are in the early stages of socialism, and not only do we have all the imperialists and reactionary states surrounding us, but within our society, we still have all these inequalities that are left over from the old society. We're far from having overcome all these inequalities. If you have everybody taking part in these elections, directly choosing all the political representatives in that way, then bourgeois forces are going to come to dominate these elections, and we're going to get representatives of the bourgeoisie elected.
Why? Because the people are stupid and not capable of managing their own affairs? No. Because people who ruled in the old society and people they link up who want to go back to the old society have tremendous advantages over the masses of people because of the inequalities that existed for centuries that the revolution was only beginning to address and overcome.
For example, the mental/manual contradiction that I talked about earlier — the contradiction between the small number of people who do intellectual work, shall we say, and the great mass of people who do manual labor. This cannot be overcome all at once. Not only is it a question of what's left over from the old society, but there is also a question of where are you at in the process of building the new society and transforming it. Because, in order for everybody to be able to engage in all these different spheres of society, you have to be able to produce the material requirements of life with a small amount of the total labor that would go into all the activity in society. If it still takes you a large part of the working day of most of the people in the society to produce the things that can meet the material requirements of society and provide enough to defend that society in a world dominated by imperialism, and to have something laid away for insurance against natural disasters and things like that — if it still takes you a large part of the laboring hours of people in the society as whole to produce those things, then you will inevitably have inequalities between different parts of your society, because you are not going to be able to free up everybody to spend the time that is necessary to go into these different realms and really learn to immerse themselves in these spheres and begin to master them.
In socialist China they were only beginning to break down these inequalities. When I went to China I talked to peasants who were reading Engels' Anti-Duhring , which is a very complex philosophical work — well it actually talks about politics and economics too, but it's very complex. They were reading Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticism , which is a long and complex philosophical essay and polemic. But they were not reading it with the same facility as the intellectuals were able to read it. That's just a fact. Because the peasants, in their masses, had not developed the facility to engage in this realm and wrangle with it in the same way as the intellectuals were able to do this. So they were beginning to overcome this, but they were a long way from fully overcoming it.
What Mao was saying is this: If you just have direct elections and direct recall of all officials, what you're going to have is a situation where people who have more facility with ideas and can articulate things better will come to dominate this process, or else you'll have people who don't know enough to actually deal in the realms that have to be dealt with to keep society going and keep the revolution going forward, and we'll lose it that way. So this is not a form we can adopt now.
Instead, Mao proposed and popularized a form that had been developed in another part of China, a place called Heilongjiang province, in the northeast of China, where, through the Cultural Revolution, they brought forward what were called revolutionary committees, which combined representatives of the masses with representatives of experts and party members in various forms to actually be the administrative body in all the different institutions: the educational system, the factories, the health care system, and so on.
This, Mao said, more corresponds to where we are in the process of transforming society. This is something that we can actually implement which will keep power in the hands of the masses of people and will actually help to develop the struggle to transform these unequal relations but doesn't overstep where we're at in that process and thereby open the door to a small handful once again dominating the whole process.
Of course, there are many people (even some so-called "communists," such as the Progressive Labor Party) who just jumped up and down denouncing Mao for this and declaring that he wanted to institute once again the rule of oppressors instead of letting the people themselves run the society. But Mao was absolutely correct. He was saying: We have to have things like foreign ministries in a socialist country at this point because we have to deal with the outside world. If we don't, if we're infantile and we don't try to deal with the outside world and maneuver in the face of all these contradictions, we're just going to allow the enemies to unite against us more powerfully.
They had trade delegations come from capitalist countries, which they needed to do. And they had to provide limousines. Now they didn't provide whores, but they provided limousines [laughter] for the capitalists. So that shows you where they'd gone and where they were yet to go. There were certain things that they would not do, but there were certain things they couldn't help doing. And that was a reflection of where they were at, and where the world struggle was at.
So, as much as it sounds "undemocratic" Mao was profoundly correct — what he was arguing for was based on a recognition that the forms that we develop to give expression to the rule of the masses of people and to the revolutionary transformation of society by the masses of people have to correspond in a fundamental sense to where we are in the process of transforming the economic base and all the social, political, and ideological institutions and structures of society, and where we are in the process of the world revolution overall. If we overstep that, then we're going to get thrown back — back into the horror of the old society. You can end up in that place by directly going off the road of socialism, but you can also end up in that place by trying to overstep what the actual conditions allow you to do. Rather than making a leap that corresponded to the advances they'd made in transforming the relations among people and the thinking of people — which is what these revolutionary committees represented — if, instead, you try to make a leap beyond that to something that doesn't correspond to where you are within that society and where you are in relation to the rest of the world, then you're laying the basis for the whole thing to be undone and destroyed.
There are some very profound lessons that have to be drawn out of this and have to be popularized. Not just the particular policy — what's more important is the outlook and method with which Mao approached this, and with which he sifted through, studied, and drew the appropriate lessons out of this tremendous experience of masses rising up, literally in their tens of millions, and hundreds of millions, all over the country.
As the world exists today and as people seek to change it, and particularly in terms of the socialist transformation of society, as I see it there are basically three alternatives that are possible. One is the world as it is. Enough said about that. [Laughter].
The second one is in a certain sense, almost literally and mechanically, turning the world upside down. In other words, people who are now exploited will no longer be exploited in the same way, people who now rule this society will be prevented from ruling or influencing society in a significant way. The basic economic structure of society will change, some of the social relations will change, and some of the forms of political rule will change, and some of the forms of culture and ideology will change, but fundamentally the masses of people will not be increasingly and in one leap after another, drawn into the process of really transforming society. This is really a vision of a revisionist society. If you think back to the days of the Soviet Union, when it had become a revisionist society, capitalist and imperialist in essence, but still socialist in name, when they would be chided for their alleged or real violations of people's rights, they would often answer "Who are you in the west to be talking about the violation of human rights — look at all the people in your society who are unemployed, what more basic human right is there than to have a job?"
Well, did they have a point? Yes, up to a point. But fundamentally what they were putting forward, the vision of society that they were projecting, was a social welfare kind of society in which fundamentally the role of the masses of people is no different than it is under the classical form of capitalism. The answer about the rights of the people cannot be reduced to the right to have a job and earn an income, as basic as that is. There is the question of are we really going to transform society so that in every respect, not only economically but socially, politically, ideologically and culturally, it really is superior to capitalist society. A society that not only meets the needs of the masses of people, but really is characterized increasingly by the conscious expression and initiative of the masses of people.
This is a more fundamental transformation than simply a kind of social welfare, socialist in name but really capitalist in essence society, where the role of the masses of people is still largely reduced to being producers of wealth, but not people who thrash out all the larger questions of affairs of state, the direction of society, culture, philosophy, science, the arts, and so on. The revisionist model is a narrow, economist view of socialism. It reduces the people, in their activity, to simply the economic sphere of society, and in a limited way at that — simply their social welfare with regard to the economy. It doesn't even think about transforming the world outlook of the people as they in turn change the world around them.
And you cannot have a new society and a new world with the same outlook that people are indoctrinated and inculcated with in this society. You cannot have a real revolutionary transformation of society and abolition of unequal social as well as economic relations and political relations if people still approach the world in the way in which they're conditioned and limited and constrained to approach it now. How can the masses of people really take up the task of consciously changing the world if their outlook and their approach to the world remains what it is under this system? It's impossible, and this situation will simply reproduce the great inequalities in every sphere of society that I've been talking about.
The third alternative is a real radical rupture. Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto that the communist revolution represents a radical rupture with traditional property relations and with traditional ideas. And the one is not possible without the other. They are mutually reinforcing, one way or the other.
If you have a society in which the fundamental role of women is to be breeders of children, how can you have a society in which there is equality between men and women? You cannot. And if you don't attack and uproot the traditions, the morals, and so on, that reinforce that role, how can you transform the relations between men and women and abolish the deep-seated inequalities that are bound up with the whole division of society into oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited? You cannot.
So the third alternative is a real radical rupture in every sphere, a radically different synthesis, to put it that way. Or to put it another way, it's a society and a world that the great majority of people would actually want to live in. One in which not only do they not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or if they get sick whether they're going to be told that they can't have health care because they can't pay for it, as important as that is; but one in which they are actually taking up, wrangling with, and increasingly making their own province all the different spheres of society.
Achieving that kind of a society, and that kind of a world, is a very profound challenge. It's much more profound than simply changing a few forms of ownership of the economy and making sure that, on that basis, people's social welfare is taken care of, but you still have people who are taking care of that for the masses of people; and all the spheres of science, the arts, philosophy and all the rest are basically the province of a few. And the political decision-making process remains the province of a few.
To really leap beyond that is a tremendous and world-historic struggle that we've been embarked on since the Russian revolution (not counting the very short-lived and limited experience of the Paris Commune) — and in which we reached the high point with the Chinese revolution and in particular the Cultural Revolution — but from which we've been thrown back temporarily.
So we need to make a further leap on the basis of summing up very deeply all that experience. There are some very real and vexing problems that we have to confront and advance through in order to draw from the best of the past, but go further and do even better in the future.
Now I want to say a few things in this context about totalitarianism. Just as an aside here, I find it very interesting that you can read innumerable books delving deeply into the psyche of Stalin or Lenin or Mao — "What went on in the deranged minds of these people [laughter] that led them to think they could remake the world in their maddened image?" [laughter] and led them, in the name of some greater moral good, to bring great catastrophe on the humanity that they were affecting?" I don't know how many books I've seen like that. I have never yet seen — maybe there are some, but I have never seen — a study of the deranged psyche of Thomas Jefferson [laughter] or George Washington: "How is it that a person could come to believe in their own mind [laughter] that they were benefiting not only humanity in general, but other human beings whom they owned? [laughter] What depth of psychological derangement must be involved in that? [laughter]. What is more totalitarian than actually owning other human beings?"
Or what about the study of the depths of the depraved minds of Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan, [laughter] who murdered millions of people, including vast numbers of children? "What must have gone wrong, somewhere in their childhood or somewhere else in their lives? [laughter] What demented ideas must they somehow have internalized that led them to believe that in the name of the shining city on the hill, or whatever [laughter], they had the right and the obligation to slaughter thousands and millions of innocent people?"
I have never seen those studies. Certainly I haven't read about them in the New York Times Book Review section. [laughter]
Still, there are some real questions that are raised about totalitarianism by the ideologues and the "intellectual camp followers" of the imperialists that do need to be taken on. In particular, they make the charge that in a society which they call totalitarian, but which is in reality the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is first of all an official ideology that everyone has to profess belief in, in order to get along in that society. And there is an official politics that everyone has to be involved in, in order to get along in that society and not get in trouble. Well, what about this?
Fundamentally, this is a distortion of what has gone on in socialist societies: why these revolutions were necessary in the first place, and what they were seeking to accomplish and to overcome, and how they were going about doing that. The reality is that, for the great masses of people in capitalist (and certainly in feudal) society, they are barred from really being involved in any significant way in official politics and the politics that actually affect the affairs of state and the direction of society. And they are indoctrinated with an outlook and methodology and ideology that prevents them — discourages them and actively obstructs them — from really understanding the world as it is and changing it consciously. And that is what socialist revolutions seek to change, as well as bringing about fundamental changes in the economy and the social relations.
But what about this question of official ideology that everyone has to profess? Well, I think we have more to sum up about that from the history of socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat so far.
With regard to the question of the party, I think two things are definitely true. One, you need a vanguard party to lead this revolution and to lead the new state. Two, that party has to have an ideology that unifies it, an ideology that correctly reflects and enables people to consciously change reality, which is communist ideology.
But, more broadly, should everyone in society have to profess this ideology in order to get along? No. Those who are won over to this ideology should proclaim it and struggle for it. Those who are not convinced of it should say so. Those who disagree with it should say that. And there should be struggle. Something has to lead — the correct ideology that really enables people to get at the truth, and to do something with it in their interests, has to lead; but that doesn't mean everyone should have to profess it, in my opinion. And this is just my opinion. But it's worth digging into this a bit, it's worth exploring and wrangling with the question.
In China they used to have mass demonstrations in the main square, Tiananmen Square, in support of the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam war. A million and a half people would rally in Tiananmen Square. It was very powerful. Well, do you think that everybody who was there was really deeply committed to sacrificing to support the struggle of the Vietnamese people? And this did require real sacrifice on the part of the people of China. People went without things so that they could send aid to the Vietnamese people. They sent rice to Vietnam. People didn't eat that rice in China. Do you think that everyone was uniformly and deeply committed to that? I don't think so. There was undoubtedly an advanced force, and during the Cultural Revolution this became a huge force; but, as there always is, there were more advanced, more intermediate, and more backward people on that and every other question.
Well, here's a question to ponder and wrangle with. It's not an easy one to answer. Which is better: a demonstration of 200,000 people in Tiananmen Square who are deeply committed to this — or a demonstration of 2 million, some of whom are committed, but many of whom are, to varying degrees, less committed to it? That's a tough question. Because you're not operating in a vacuum. First of all, you've got the imperialists there. And they have their media. If you call a rally and say "those who really want to come out, come out" and 200,000 come out, the imperialists will say, "200,000, that's a pittance in China! Even in the capital city of Beijing, that's a pittance! That's pitiful! See — we told you — nobody really supports the Vietnamese, even in China they don't support them."
Well, that has a concrete effect. You're not operating in a vacuum. On the other hand, if you just sort of say "okay, everybody gets off work, everybody in every unit, you all organize to go, and if you don't go you're going to be in for a lot of criticism" — well, that has problems too. This is not something that has an easy answer, but it's the kind of thing that needs to be wrangled with. We need to sum up this experience and learn more deeply. Sometimes it might be better to do one thing and sometimes another.
Fundamentally, you have to rely on people really being won to these things. But there is an element, you know, of coercion that plays a role in some of this. Someone, for example, commented on the movie "Remember the Titans." I don't know if you all saw that movie (it's about the integration of a high school and the high school football team in Virginia in the early 1970s). This comrade pointed out that there was a certain positive role for coercion there. The schools were integrated and that was it — you had to deal with the reality of it. The football team was going to be integrated, that's it. If they had just gone to all the white people and said, "how would you like to integrate the school and the football team," what do you think would have happened?
So it's not like there's no role for coercion, but even in that movie they worked through a lot of contradictions within the confines of what they were doing. If they hadn't worked through those contradictions, it would have turned from a good thing into a bad thing. And more fundamentally, in transforming society through revolutionary struggle, if you don't work through these contradictions and increasingly bring forward people who are consciously and voluntarily fighting for these things, then you're going to go backward after a certain period of time, especially under the pressure of everything you're up against, including the imperialists in the world.
So there are not easy answers to these questions. We have some things to wrestle with more deeply and learn more fully about this question of official ideology that everybody has to profess and official politics that everybody has to take part in. And we should even allow — this is one of the things that our party has been stressing and I've been emphasizing in things I've written and talks I've given — we should not only allow but even encourage oppositional politics under the dictatorship of the proletariat, because we have to conceive of this process not as a neat and orderly one but as a very tumultuous one — and a volatile and chaotic one at times — through which a lot of things get brought forward and thrashed out by the masses. Now, this doesn't mean that we can just turn power back over to the bourgeoisie indirectly or inadvertently by "loosening the reins" so much that there's no core that's driving the society forward to where it needs to go and is leading the masses of people to ever more consciously and voluntarily strive for those things. But that shouldn't be seen as like just an engine on a track that's going straight ahead. It's a much more tumultuous and tortuous process where a lot of different things are going to get into the mix and a lot of different contradictions are going to be wrestled over, and a lot of different ideas are going to be brought forward about how to do that, and where increasingly the masses are being relied on and involved consciously in the process of thrashing these things out themselves.
Now that sounds good, but it's not easy. It's not easy to do that without giving up power. And if you give up power, what's the point? So these are things we have to do more work on, to understand more deeply — and, as soon as we can, to learn through the practice of actually having some new socialist states, some new dictatorships of the proletariat, where people seek to apply these lessons in a practical way, as well as continuing to wrangle with them in the realm of theory.
As I have pointed out, socialist society should be a very lively and vibrant society, full of wrangling and struggle over all kinds of questions, in which we're moving step by step to narrow and finally to eliminate the differences and inequalities that mean that some people are locked out of whole spheres of society. But that's a process that's going to go through stages, and through twists and turns, and not in a straight upward line. And at each stage there will be a very acute contradiction between holding onto power and continuing on the socialist road while at the same time drawing ever greater numbers of masses of people into this process, overcoming these inequalities to the greatest degree possible at every stage, and laying the basis to make further leaps in the future with regard to things that you cannot overcome at the present time.
The challenge is one of developing and applying the correct principles and methods so that all of this develops in such a way that it serves the advance toward communism, toward a communist world, so that socialist society is a vital and vibrant society in which masses of people are, in a great diversity of ways, increasingly wrangling with and engaging all kinds of questions having to do with the nature and direction of society; and, through all this, not only is political power maintained in a way that serves the fundamental interests and needs of the masses of the people and the world revolution, but the advance is carried forward toward the eventual abolition of state power altogether and the emergence of a community of freely associating human beings all over the world, a communist world where, to quote Mao, human beings consciously and voluntarily transform themselves and the objective world. And all this will be achieved through a wrenching process of struggle and wrangling, and not in some orderly, neat straightline way, and not with uniformity of opinion about everything all the time, by any means.
So democracy under the dictatorship of the proletariat, democracy for the vast masses of people, has to take in all these dimensions. It doesn't just mean that they have the right to speak out freely without being suppressed — which it does mean and must mean — but it means much more than that. It means not only their ability to associate politically and to demonstrate and to criticize, to raise disagreements with the official policy at any given time, or even with the leading ideology at any given time. But it also means that this has to be done in such a way that it's moving toward the withering away, first of all of dictatorship — that is, rule in society by one class over another and its use of an apparatus of repression, that is, armed forces, police, courts, and so on, to enforce its rule and to suppress those who would seek to overthrow it. Not only do we have to be moving toward the eventual withering away of all this and developing and applying concrete steps which actually lead to that — not just mouthing the words that we're working toward this withering away, but actually developing concrete forms and institutions that lead in that direction. But, together with that, we also have to be moving toward the withering away of democracy.
That, of course, is a very controversial statement. What do I mean by that? What I mean is not that through the advance of the dictatorship of the proletariat there is less and less democracy for the masses of people, until eventually it's eliminated altogether! That's not what we mean by the withering away of democracy together with the withering away of dictatorship. What we mean is, in essence, the opposite of that. We mean that the forms and means are developed through which the masses of people, in a certain sense, "naturally" take up, wrangle with, and ultimately make decisions about all different spheres of society.
As I spoke to in a series that was printed in the RW — excerpts from a talk I gave, "Getting Over the Two Great Humps" — it means that the institutions and structures that are necessary to ensure that the rights of the people are upheld, and that one part of society, even among the people, is not being suppressed by another part — those structures and institutions no longer are necessary, and new structures and institutions are brought into being which correspond to and give expression to the fact that among the people there are no exploiters and exploited, there are no profound social divisions that lead to exploiters and exploited. At that point it will no longer be a question in society about whether one group among the people is going to oppress and dominate another. We will have moved, both in material reality and in the thinking of the people, beyond the point where that is even a possibility, because the economic and social conditions have been brought into being and, together with them, the political structures and institutions and political processes, and the ways of thinking and the culture have developed in such a way that, the idea of one person, or one group in society, exploiting and oppressing another will be understood to be outrageous, absurd — and impossible.
Marx said about the future world, the world of communism, that it will seem as ridiculous and outrageous for one part of society to privately own the land, and everything that goes along with that, as it now seems for one human being to own another. Communism will mean that we have reached the point where the very idea that the way society should advance is for a few to benefit and then to proclaim that to be in the general interest of the society, where that idea will seem so ridiculous and outrageous that in a certain sense, to put it simply, it couldn't get a hearing. Where people would investigate what is the problem mentally [laughter] — what chemical imbalance has caused someone to talk in this way. [laughter]
Now we have to be careful, because dissent and people disagreeing with the established norm is always going to have to fight an uphill fight. This will undoubtedly be true in communist society as well. As Mao put it, newly emerging truths are always in the hands of a minority. So even under communism that will be true. The point is that there won't be organs of political suppression, so that if you bring forward unpopular ideas or new and different proposals for how things ought to be, people might think you are odd, but you are not going to become the object of political suppression or of social suppression, even without a state.
You can see why this requires not only transformation of material, economic and social conditions, but also the thinking of the people. Even the slogan "from each according to their ability to each according to their needs" would never work under the present ideological conditions we have. What are my needs — well, you know, I need some new rims for my car. You could just go on, and the whole thing will come flying apart. This requires an ideological transformation where people see needs very differently. Needs are socially conditioned in any case. The idea that you need rims for your wheels is socially conditioned. That's not something that you thought of all on your own, in a vacuum. So, as you transform the material conditions, you transform the thinking of the people — so that individuals are thinking about their needs in relation to the larger interests of society, and are "naturally" subordinating their own individual interests to the larger interests of society, while still not obliterating the role and the needs of individuals and individuality. That requires a major ideological transformation. That's part of what has to go on too, in order to advance to communism.
Now, another aspect of this that I want to speak to briefly is what I call "the synthesis of the points that were emphasized in the polemic against K. Venu and some arguments made by John Stuart Mill." Now, in this polemic against K. Venu I basically made the point that we can't have bourgeois democracy, we have to have the dictatorship of the proletariat. If we try to implement all these instrumentalities of mass democracy, without any distinction among the people, we are going to hand power back over to the bourgeoisie, after everything people have gone through to seize power in the first place, and all the sacrifice that that has required. In socialist society, we still have to have a vanguard party that leads, and we have to have an ideology that leads. Even if we don't want to insist that everybody has to profess that ideology whether they agree with it or not, we still have to have a vanguard party that leads, and an ideology that leads. This is one of the points that I was stressing in that polemic. But what I am referring to by synthesizing that, combining it in the correct way, with arguments of John Stuart Mill is that Mill makes the argument that no opinion should be discounted, let alone suppressed in society, until all those people who wish to argue for it have had an opportunity to do so. And he goes on further to make the point that it is not enough to hear ideas characterized by those who oppose them, it is necessary to hear them put forward by people who are ardent advocates of those ideas — in the book Democracy Can't We Do Better Than That I addressed this.
Well, of course, as I spoke to earlier, what he argues for can never literally be implemented. There is always somebody who wants to make one more argument for an idea .[laughs] There does come a time when you have to close the debate, at least for the time being. There are material reasons underlying that, and there are also reasons of politics. Decisions have to get made at certain points. You can't just go on arguing endlessly and conducting searches to see if there is anybody else who wants to argue for a point of view that nobody else agrees with.
Still, there is a point that Mill is getting at with this argument that it's not enough to hear positions characterized by those who oppose them, it is necessary to hear ardent advocates arguing for these positions. This relates to something that I think we have to incorporate more into the dictatorship of the proletariat and the rule and transformation of society by the masses of people. And this goes along with not just tolerating but encouraging dissent: we have to allow for people to explore many different ideas, and to hear advocates of many different ideas — without giving up the whole game, without losing power, without undermining and destroying the dictatorship of the proletariat. And that, once again, is a very complex and acute contradiction.
In order to handle this correctly, there are a couple of principles that I think are very important. One was actually articulated for me in a conversation that I had not long ago with a spoken word artist and poet. I was laying out to him how I saw socialist society and some of the same points that I'm making here about how we have to hang onto power and keep things going in a forward direction toward communism, while on the other hand there is a need for a lot of experimentation in the arts, a lot of critical thinking that needs to go on in the sciences and all these different spheres, and you have to let people take the ball and run with it, and not supervise them at every point on everything they do. And I asked him, for example: could you write your poetry if every step of the way there was a party cadre there looking over your shoulder, examining what you are writing. He said "no way."
Then, as we discussed this for a while, he came up with what I thought was a very good formulation. He said, "It sounds to me like what you are talking about is `a solid core with a lot of elasticity.'" And I said "yeah, you've really hit on something there," because that was exactly what I was trying to give voice to — that you have to have a solid core that firmly grasps and is committed to the strategic objectives and aims and process of the struggle for communism. If you let go of that you are just giving everything back to the capitalists in one form or another, with all the horrors that means. At the same time, if you don't allow for a lot of diversity and people running in all kinds of directions with things, then not only are people going to be building up tremendous resentment against you, but you are also not going to have the rich kind of process out of which the greatest truth and ability to transform reality will emerge.
So this is another expression of a very difficult contradiction that we have to learn how to handle a lot better. Mao had some good ideas about this, and struggled a lot to get the party to implement them. Mao was wrangling with this, but he was only able to get so far with it. As he pointed out, human life is finite. He was only able to get so far with it, and then he died and what happened in China happened. And people — in particular the people now ruling that society — no longer were concerned with wrangling with that contradiction.
So we have to take this up and go further and learn to do even better with it the next time around. And in order for that to happen, those who are won to or seriously grappling with the question of this whole revolutionary process have to start engaging these questions now, and prepare ourselves as well as bring forward broader and broader ranks of the masses to be wrangling with these things, so that when we do seize power here and there, we are further along in our ability to be dealing with these things in a much more practical sense, even while, as I said, continuing to wrangle with them in the realm of theory.
Now what goes along with the principle of "solid core with a lot of elasticity" is another very important principle and method, which I characterize this way: being able to distinguish the difference between those times and circumstances where it is really necessary to hold the reins tightly, and pay very detailed attention to things, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, those times and circumstances where it is not necessary to do this, and in fact it is much better not to do so. And if you think about it, this contradiction applies to all kinds of things on all kinds of levels. In anything that you take up at any given time, there are always aspects that, if you don't pay great detailed attention to them, and even in certain ways insist that "this is the way this has to be done," the whole thing flies apart and comes undone. And there are other aspects where, first of all, if you try to pay that much attention and insist on "just this way" about them, you can't even do it. And to the degree you can, you make a mess of things.
Think about any process that you want to undertake, even writing something. There are certain core, central ideas that you really have to get right. You might spend a long time really coming to grips with those things and understanding them. And then there are other things — it's not that you don't care what you say — but you can't, and shouldn't, pay the same amount of finely calibrated attention to those things.
It's the same thing in a meeting, for example. You go to a meeting, and despite what some of the anarchists think, you have to have an agenda [laughter], and you have to have some organization to the meeting, or it won't go anywhere. And if people get totally off the subject, you have to insist, "Hey, we are not talking about that, we are talking about this. We can talk about that next, but if we talk about everything at the same time, we're not going to be able to resolve anything." But, on the other hand, while people are talking — and they want to talk from different angles on the subject — you are not going to step in at every point and say, "No, that's not the way to do it, you have to talk about it this way." Because, first of all, that's going to be the end of the discussion pretty quickly, and you are not going to have a meeting. Everybody's going to get up and leave. Or never come back after that one meeting. And second of all, you won't have any richness if you try to sit on top of everything everybody says. You will certainly not learn anything that you don't already know. And you will actually undermine some things that you do know.
And you can break all these things down into different levels. Even with the things where you say "this is the point on the agenda," you have to allow a certain flexibility about that, or else people can't express themselves. So, even while on one level you are insisting this is the point on the agenda, on another level you are letting a lot of points come out within that, and allowing a lot of diversity. And sometimes, yes, that crosses over to where people are actually talking about a different point; but if you are too quick to stomp on that, you won't really get good discussion about the point that is on the agenda.
So, on one level, you are insisting this is the way it's got to be — for example, this point, and not another point, is what is on the agenda now — but, on another level, you are letting a lot of different things come out in relation to that. And if you don't, you are not only stifling particular people, but you are stifling the process through which a lot of richness is going to come out that you can then synthesize and get the most truth out of.
And you can go on and on with things in life. If you think about anything, you'll realize that there are those things where you really should insist that "this is the way it has to be done, and we have to very finely calibrate this," and many, many things in the same process where you not only don't have to do that, but where you should not do that.
And this applies especially to the whole realm of working with ideas. If you are going to have a lot of wrangling in society, then you have to have wrangling within the vanguard. While there is a difference between the vanguard and the masses and that shouldn't be obliterated — the people who are part of the conscious vanguard take things up in a different way, and have different structures for how they wrangle with questions — if you make an absolute out of that, and erect just a complete wall between the party and the masses in that regard, you won't get the kind of liveliness that you are seeking.
So you have to determine, even within a party, what are the things over which we absolutely have to have firm unity. Where do we need this "solid core," in other words, and what are the things over which we can have a lot of differences and diversity, and we don't have to put our foot down and resolve it and say it is this way or that way. Every movie you go to, you don't have to have a unified line about that movie. [laughter] Things will be awfully boring if you insist on that — and, of course, much more severe problems will arise.
When you are going into a realm of science, there are a lot of questions that are unresolved at any given time among the people who are deeply immersed in that field. Why should you have to step in and — to borrow a metaphor from Mao — the moment you alight from the horse, you start issuing proclamations about what's true and untrue. That's very harmful.
Within a party, you need to have the kind of living process I have been talking about — even while you also definitely need your "solid core." You need "elasticity" on the basis of a solid core. The solid core is principal and essential, but if you don't have the elasticity and a lot of wrangling and diversity on the basis of that, you are going to dry up and you are going to lose everything.
So we can't let go of this solid core. There are things we really do have to insist upon. Think about it. I was having another discussion with another poet, and he was arguing that you really shouldn't suppress ideas, you really have to let all these ideas come out, and then criticize the things that you think are wrong and let people learn. And I said: "Well, that's good as a principle, and it should be applied to a significant degree, but you can't make an absolute out of that." And I gave this example: imagine if you were trying to build a new society, and you go down the street and at every street corner are paintings of women being raped and Black people being lynched. Do you think you could build a new society with those images assaulting people at every turn? Some things you have to put your foot down and say "This will not be allowed, because if it is, the masses of people are going to be demoralized and disoriented, and the reactionaries are going to be emboldened." So there are some things — as I said it's not so simple — there are some things you just cannot allow.
But there are many, many things you can, and should, allow. For example, how do we uproot male supremacy and white supremacy? You can allow a lot of debate about that, and should allow a lot of debate about it — and a lot of criticism and struggle over many different things. So there again, you have your solid core, and a lot of elasticity. You have those things where you have to put your foot down and say yes, or no — this is the way it is, and this is the way it is not.
But, again, this "you" needs to be constantly expanding. Still, at any given time, that leading core does have to lead in that way. It does have to correctly combine a solid core with as much elasticity as possible on the basis of that solid core. Even while it is an expanding core, at any given time it has to determine when to hold the reins tightly and pay very detailed attention to things, and what are those conditions and times and circumstances where it is not necessary to do this, and in fact it is better not to do so.
Now, in this regard it is interesting to think about us in relation to the ruling class. To a significant degree, what is happening in the ruling class in the U.S. at this time is that you have a group of people, open and unabashed reactionaries, that has a very solid core. They are constantly launching attacks on relativism. It's interesting though — a lot of them, the people grouped around Bush, and a lot of the people who want to promote religious fundamentalism — they actually in some ways like to promote post-modernism. Because they like relativism in a certain way and up to a certain point. They like it when it is directed against science. [laughter] They like it when it argues that science is "just another narrative" that is neither inherently true or not true, but just expresses its own "paradigm." Because then they can promote all kinds of shit like creationism on the basis of having knocked down the idea that science can lead to any truth.
But in general these people hate relativism. And they want to promote absolutes. So they have a certain absolutist solid core, these people that are more — just a short-hand description — grouped around Bush, and in particular those who are part of what we call the Christian Fascist grouping, which has a powerful representation and support from powerful sections of the ruling class.
So they don't really go in for much elasticity. And it's interesting that the sections of the bourgeoisie that do tend to go in for more elasticity, the "liberal" sections of the bourgeoisie — and their reflections among more popular sections of the society — are actually very incapable of answering this absolutism. Their relativism doesn't stand up very well to this absolutism, because it's a relativism without a center, without a solid core. That is, without a center or a solid core that can answer the core assumptions of this other force, this more fascistic force. So the "liberals" are constantly ceding ground to this more fascistic force, because liberalism actually shares many of the same assumptions, and it can't find a solid grounding for its differences. It wants to be the nice guys in the face of very mean-spirited people, and sometimes the latter allow that, with the orientation of "all the better to eat you with." In other words, these more fascistic types are perfectly willing to allow the liberals to be tolerant of them. The problem is, you can't fight a force like this with that kind of tolerance. It's interesting when you hear about things like this new liberal radio station ("Air America") and so on — it's kind of a dud. Because they don't really have an answer.
We do have an answer. But our answer cannot be an absolutist solid core that's just the opposite of theirs in outward form (the "mirror opposite" of it). It has to be one that really is a solid core with a lot of elasticity, and in that way really brings to the fore the actual interests and increasingly the conscious initiative of growing numbers from among the masses of people.
Well, to move closer to a conclusion here, I wanted to talk just a little bit about some aspects of the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist society so far, and try to draw some lessons from both the very real achievements, the world historic achievements that really are the main and essential thing, but also the very real shortcomings and mistakes, in the attempt to learn from both aspects of this.
Now, Marx made this famous statement about the goals of the socialist revolution, which sometimes the Maoists in China and we in our Party have represented in the short-hand form of the "four alls." And what Marx said was that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the necessary transit — now let's see if I can get this right — to the abolition of class distinctions generally, or all class distinctions, to the abolition of all the relations of productions on which those class distinctions rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to those production relations, and to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that correspond to those social relations. Well, that's a very pithy and at the same time very complex statement. There's a lot of materialism and a lot of dialectics concentrated in that statement. Obviously, we could spend a long time talking about it, and we don't have time to do that here. But I did want to say a few things about it.
First of all, you can see the materialism in this, in that he doesn't just talk about eliminating class differences, or class distinctions, but he immediately moves to talking about what underlies these class distinctions. He immediately roots it in the most fundamental thing of society, namely the system of production and the production relations through which the economy functions. Unless you uproot and transform that underlying system of production and its production relations, you can't abolish the oppressive differences in society, the inequalities in society, the class distinctions, and the other social inequalities.
But Marx talks about not only the production relations, but the social relations that correspond to them, such as the inequality and oppressive relation between men and women, which is very much bound up with these production relations of exploitation and oppression. You can think of other oppressive social relations as well, including in the sphere of politics and relations of political power in society.
And then Marx goes on to talk about how it is necessary to revolutionize all the ideas that correspond to these social relations (this more or less corresponds to the second radical rupture spoken of in the Communist Manifesto — the radical rupture with all traditional ideas). And again, it's like the relation between the democratic intelligentsia and the shopkeepers. Ideas don't correspond to social relations only in a narrow, mechanical sense. They correspond in an ultimate and fundamental sense. In other words, when someone says, "I don't really think anybody can know what's true," that kind of agnosticism doesn't directly, in a narrow, mechanical sense, correspond to the production relations and social relations of capitalism. You can't transfer it in a narrow, mechanical, economist sense to say, well, that's a direct expression of the fact that the capitalist system of production is based on producing and distributing things as commodities and it has the particular feature that labor power itself, the ability to work, has become a commodity, and that people have to sell that in order to live, and that's the whole foundation of the exploitation of the proletariat.
All of that is not expressed directly and mechanically in the idea that you cannot really determine what's true. But, in an ultimate sense, the idea that you can't determine what's true is influenced by the way in which the operation of the system, and fundamentally the economic system, is filtered through social relations, political relations, and ideological and cultural relations and expressions. So that ultimately you get to a position that says: if you can't really know what's true, then you can't really transform society, you can't really get beyond the kind of society we have now. This is an idea which, even though it is not a direct and conscious expression of celebrating the production relations of capitalism, nevertheless serves to reinforce them. Because it promotes the idea that one idea is just as good as another, you can't really know the truth, you can't really know the world, you can't really understand the essence of important aspects of reality and change them, so therefore you are left with accommodating to "what is."
So that's not necessarily a direct expression of someone who studied the production relations of capitalism and then made this statement to reinforce them. But it is an idea which, filtered through all the different institutions and relations and expressions in society, of the dominant forces in society, gets reflected in the mind. This is a whole bunch of material reality, including the social and production relations and class relations of capitalism, getting reflected in the mind in the form of an agnosticism that denies that you can really understand all this and can change it. And therefore it is an idea that will be promoted in many ways by the ruling class.
So you can see the interconnection of these four alls, but you can't see it in a crude, determinist, mechanical way. It's much more complex than that. This is an additional reason why you can't deal crudely in the realm of ideas. Mao made that point. He said ideas are not like other things, you can't deal with them crudely — not that you should deal with other things crudely, but it's especially important not to deal with ideas and the struggle in the realm of ideas crudely. Things have to be sorted out, they have to be struggled through, they have to be sifted through to determine what's actually true. That goes back to what I was saying at the beginning.
So you can see here the materialism of Marx's statement about the "four alls," as they are called. All the class distinctions, all the production relations, all the social relations, all the ideas. Those are the four alls. And you can also see the dialectical interplay that he is talking about between these different things. This is another way of expressing the complexity of the process of advancing beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right, of getting beyond the whole epoch in which things ultimately get reduced back to the production relations of capitalism.
One of the problems that we have had is that Marx made this statement, if I'm not wrong, in the 1850s, and we are now in the 21st century, and the transition that he is talking about has turned out to be a very long — a much more long and complex transition than Marx anticipated. When he said the dictatorship of the proletariat is a transition to these four alls, I think it is pretty clear he had something much more short-term in mind. And yet we have seen that, in the experience of the Soviet Union and in the experience of China, there were decades of only beginning to carry out this transition.
And this is an expression of what can be referred to as two great contradictions that face socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat. One is the fact that socialism is a transition to communism, and not yet communism itself. It carries within it, as Marx put it, the birthmarks, the leftovers, from capitalism. And for a long time these persist in fairly powerful ways — all the things that I've been touching on, including the mental/manual contradiction, the difference between the countryside and the city, unequal and oppressive relations between men and women — all these things are carried over from the old society and cannot be uprooted all at once. And at the same time, and interacting with this, dialectically related to it, is the fact and the problem that in historical experience so far — and what is likely to be our experience for some time to come — socialist countries emerge into a world still dominated by imperialism, and are in a real sense surrounded and encircled by imperialism. And these two things, or great contradictions, interact with each other.
So the problems that we have had in socialist society are not, as some think, essentially one of bureaucracy, or just a matter of individuals, or of individual leaders in particular, who "go bad." It's much more complex and deep-seated than that.
One of the things that was pointed out in the last great battle in China, when the forces who were following Mao were criticizing the revisionists in the Chinese Communist Party who were poised to take over and take China back down the road to capitalism — one of the points that the Maoists made was that the power over the relations and means of production in socialist society is in significant ways concentrated as the power of political leadership.
Now this is a very important point, and a very acute contradiction as well. What were they talking about? Well, this can be concentrated in the statement that I've made in a number of writings and talks, that when we say that the masses of people are the masters of socialist society, we're not just talking bullshit — that's actually true and it has many different expressions and manifestations — but the point I have emphasized is that this is true not in some absolute sense, but only in a relative sense, and it's something that's not static, but is in motion.
Now, what do I mean by that — a relative sense and not an absolute sense, and not static but in motion? This means that so long as society is on the socialist road, is carrying out the transition toward communism that Marx talked about, toward the abolition or transformation of the four alls — as long as that is the case, this will find expression in the masses of people being more and more drawn into all these different spheres of society, and having more and more of a role in these things. It's impossible to continue advancing on that road without that. If you don't do that, and you try to rely on a handful, you will inevitably be forced back into the bourgeois way of doing things. Even on the level of the economy, you will be forced to calculate according to the principle of profit in command in the economy, with commodity relations dominating the economy. Because if you don't build, and transform, the economy by unleashing the conscious initiative and activism of the masses to actually determine what should be produced and in what proportions and all these other things, then you have to fall back on some other mechanism for doing that, or the whole thing will come unraveled. And the only mechanism you could fall back on is the capitalist mechanism of calculating according to production for profit, and letting commodity production determine the direction of things.
So, in order to even advance on the socialist road, you have to consciously strive to do things in a different way, by bringing into play the conscious initiative of the masses of people. Even on the level of the economy, how could you possibly calculate what should be produced in what proportion and how it should be exchanged if you don't involve the masses of people in that? Unless you are going to fall back on capitalist principles, how could you possibly do that, other than by relying on and increasingly involving the masses and their conscious initiative?
How could you evaluate what's produced, and whether it's really useful to the masses of people, if you don't rely on them? The capitalists say you can't do this — you have to rely on the market mechanism, that's the only way. Well, it is the only way to have an exploiting system at this stage of history. But if you want to have something different, which abolishes exploitation, then you have to rely on the masses.
But this isn't some absolute thing. You just don't have mass meetings to decide everything; and, as I have talked about from a lot of different angles, you don't have masses who are absolutely equal in every way. In many ways, especially in the early stages of socialism, there are profound inequalities among these masses. And this ends up getting expressed in the fact that some people have more of a role in political affairs, and in the affairs of society in general, than others. These people, if they are adhering to the socialist road, if they are really applying the communist outlook and methodology, will act in the interests of the masses, but in significant ways they are acting in place of the masses even while acting in their interests. To move beyond that situation requires a whole process, a whole epoch of struggle, to achieve the transition from socialism to communism, and not just in one country by itself — which is impossible — but on a worldwide basis.
So this is what I'm talking about when I am speaking to the fact that the masses are the masters of socialist society but in a relative sense, not in some absolute sense. There are all these contradictions running all through that. And there are no easy answers. There is one road or another to deal with these problems, these contradictions — either the socialist road, or the road back to capitalism. Forging ahead on the correct road, the socialist road, is a very complex and wrenching process, and you can get pulled off it in a thousand ways. And only by consciously continuing to go back to the communist outlook and methodology and applying this in a consistent way — that's the only way you can stay on the socialist road.
And then you have a tremendous fight, because you are not doing this in a vacuum. You've got counter-revolutionaries, who don't want those inequalities overturned and uprooted, and you've got people who want to go so far and no further. "I liked it when we were eliminating some of these evils of society, but now you are starting to get close to where I live. So that's enough now, okay? Things have improved enough." That happens, and people turn from one thing into another. Not just leaders, but people in society generally. But this happens in a concentrated way with some leaders. As Engels said, the revolution advances through stages, and even well-intentioned people get stuck at certain stages. They can't figure out how to go forward. What do you do about the fact that the imperialists are breathing down your neck? Well, that's not an easy problem to solve.
And one of the main ways in which all of these contradictions, and in particular these two great contradictions — that socialism is a transition to communism, and not yet communism, that it has all these inequalities that still have to be overcome; and, at the same time, that you are surrounded by imperialists — a major way in which these two contradictions get bound up together, and concentrated, is in the need for an army in socialist society.
Now, a lot of anarchists, and some others, talk about how you shouldn't have a state. Well, they are not serious. Or they are serious, but they are serious about something else than actually revolutionizing society. They also don't get beyond "the narrow horizon of bourgeois right." The kind of society they are envisioning is not one in which these profound inequalities could actually be transformed and eliminated. Because without a state, how are you going to actually implement policies that move in the direction of overcoming these inequalities? What if the people who don't like uprooting these inequalities, who benefit from them, resist these changes? Then what do you do? Without a state, what do you do? "Well, okay, if you don't want to do it, I guess we won't do it." [laughter] That's all you could be left with. So they are not really going for the all- around transformation of society.
Plus, in the real world, as they say, you would be crushed in a minute. You don't have a state? You don't have means to suppress those who want to overthrow your revolution? You don't have an army to protect your revolution? Forget it. There's been plenty of experience where people have been drowned in blood, and where the attempts of people rising up have been met with just horrendous suppression, because they didn't have the material force to meet the material force of the oppressors. And the idea that you would go through everything that is necessary in order to make a revolution, and then turn around and hand it back to the oppressors, the exploiters — to me that's just unfathomable, and unforgivable. You don't resolve the problems that you are trying to resolve by not defending your revolution, or by not having an army that can defend it.
But there are problems in having an army. We have to face them squarely. Why do you need an army? Okay, you've got the imperialists out there, and you've got other counter-revolutionaries, right within socialist society — that's easy to see. But why couldn't you just arm the population in general and deal with that? Well, there is a very real problem, there are very real reasons why you can't do that. The imperialists devote a tremendous amount of resources and people to developing their military strategy, their military doctrines, and their concrete technology and people to wield these things. And they spend a tremendous amount of time training their military. Right now they have been training for a couple of decades to do urban combat. We'll see what happens if they actually have to engage in that kind of combat in a really serious way, especially against a massive force of aroused and conscious revolutionary people, determined to fight in a revolutionary way for their emancipation and the emancipation of society, and the whole world ultimately. But they will probably prevail, in the short term sense militarily, against various insurgent forces which do not really rely on and fully mobilize the masses of people, women as well as men, to fight for real emancipation. That's the most likely outcome. Why? Because these imperialists have tremendous technology, because they have developed these different means of utilizing that technology, communication and all kinds of things. And because they have trained their forces over and over again. Those people in their army are professionals. That's what they do.
Well, if you want to overthrow the rule of the imperialists, and then defend the socialist society you are bringing into being and continue on the socialist road, you also have to have people who specialize in that particular sphere; when it comes to that, you have to have a full-time professional armed force — people who spend their time studying it, learning about what the imperialists are doing in this sphere, learning about military history in general, and military doctrine, training your military forces. You have to devote a part of your economy to producing — not the same weapons the imperialists do on the same level, because you can't — but weapons that correspond to your way of fighting against them. You can't just go out there with pop guns. If you are serious about defending the gains of the revolution, you are going to have to develop real weaponry to defend your revolution and the new society it has brought into being. And you are going to have to devote people to it.
Now why can't you just have everybody do this equally? It goes back to what I was saying earlier: As long as you are in a situation — and remember you are not exploiting anybody else now, you are not ripping off the world, you are not living "at the top of the food chain" in that way any more — if you are going to produce and distribute all of the things that keep the society running and continue to improve the conditions of the people — there are horrendous conditions that have to be addressed immediately, and then other needs of people that are ongoing — so a large part of your population has to devote a large part of its time to that sphere of production in order for that to happen, they cannot also be training in military affairs on the level that is necessary in order to deal with these imperialists. They can be mobilized, part-time, to be in militias; and these militias can supplement the full-time military, but they cannot substitute for it, or play a role equal to it, at this stage of things and in the early stages of socialism.
So you have to have a division of labor in your society. Some people specialize in the military. You can rotate people through, but you are not going to obliterate all the distinctions there. At any given time, those who are in the military are a special body of armed people who are trained, highly trained, highly disciplined, highly equipped, and they are surrounded by or living in the midst of a population that is not so trained, equipped and trained in that way. Even if they are involved in militias and spending one day out of the week training in that way, for example, they are not going to be any match for the professional army in an actual military showdown. We saw that in the coup in China. I've talked about this before. I was listening to the radio right after the coup and they were talking about how the militias in Shanghai were fighting the PLA, which was no longer really a PLA — not longer a people's liberation army — but had become a bourgeois army. And I kept saying "come on, militias." But they had no chance, and they were crushed. Now, maybe if they had got more momentum going earlier, they could have peeled away sections of the army and things could have gone a different way. That would have been a whole different kind of dynamic. But, just in a military contest, they had no chance. And this is a reflection of these profound underlying contradictions that we have to work our way through at the same time as we have to defend ourselves, defend the new socialist societies as we bring them into being.
So this is another problem that we really have to grapple with deeply. These contradictions facing socialist society, which I've been speaking to, get concentrated in this special body of armed people.
Mao led the Chinese revolution in dealing with these contradictions in some profoundly new ways, especially as that got expressed for a decade in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — where, in contrast to all the slanders about this, they were trying and struggling to bring forward all kinds of new things in the relations among people. They were struggling to transform the culture and the ways of thinking of people in ways that corresponded to carrying out this necessary transition toward the achievement of the "four alls." In every sphere there were new things brought forward that represented further transformations along that road.
You could look at the sphere of health care, for example. Before the Cultural Revolution, the situation in China remained largely as it had before the revolution altogether, before 1949, where the great majority of the people lived in the rural areas working in agriculture, and had little if any access to health care, even basic health care. What they had developed was health care in the cities. And people who were following the revisionist line argued that they should build up the cities more, that the only way to eventually bring along the countryside was to develop the cities, even in a disproportionate way in relation to the countryside. Concentrate on developing heavy industry in the cities, improve the livelihood of the people and the health of the people there, so they could produce more, and eventually that would benefit the countryside, eventually you would be able to mechanize agriculture and other things because you had built up industry.
But Mao insisted, very correctly, that if you do it that way, you are just going to polarize the society the same way it was before, or in slightly different forms but essentially the same. And this is what has happened in China since the revisionists came to power. Especially in the cities but also to some degree in the rural areas, you have a relatively small stratum that is profiting, while the great masses of people are suffering terribly. Tens of millions of people are leaving the countryside, just like in all the rest of the Third World countries, coming to the cities, and many of them remain unemployed there, because the whole economy has been geared to a certain stratum, and the differences between the city and the countryside have been further accentuated.
Well, when China was socialist, all this is what they were going after to transform. They were on a completely different road — the socialist road — which reached its high point during the Cultural Revolution. And you could go through all the different spheres of society — education, for example. Before the Cultural Revolution, education was turning out an elite that would actually better serve a bourgeois system, and was going to reinforce the inequalities that already were there. And the same in every sphere. Take culture: Mao denounced the culture before the Cultural Revolution — he said it should be renamed the culture of beauties and emperors and so on. Because those were the only people being portrayed on the stage. All the old feudal works of art, which supposedly embodied "classical" representations of Chinese society, were being performed and were reinforcing the old ways of thinking and the old ways of being. So this is something they set out to transform.
Now, did they make errors in that? Sure. Are there things that we should learn to do better? Of course. But they also made tremendous advances. This is a society in which, until 1949, many women had their feet bent under and crushed so that they would look more "dainty." Even prostitutes had to have these bound feet in China because it was considered to be unattractive for women to have normal size feet.
I remember seeing Barbara Walters doing a program in the 1970s on shoes from around the world. And she showed a shoe from the old China, a shoe for bound feet — a very small shoe — and she said, "You can see that Chinese women needed an equal rights amendment." And then she actually added: "Well, in fact they have one." This was back in a different time when even some things like this, some of the truth about what was happening in China, exerted an influence even on the mainstream. This was before the coup in China. But here is this shoe that embodied the plight of tens of millions of Chinese women; and, less than two decades after that, you had women performing in these revolutionary ballets doing things that had never been done before in ballet, anywhere in the world by anyone.
This was a tremendous transformation, not only in the content of these ballets — in that they were putting forward revolutionary themes and the masses of people were on the stage representing revolutionary struggle — but even in the social relations within the ballet — and these were of very high artistic quality. You can criticize that there weren't enough of these works, and that other things were being suppressed, or not being fostered; and there is more to look into on that. But these were works of very high artistic quality. And you had women who, two generations before, would have had their feet crushed under, performing incredible feats in ballet that had never been done before.
And you can go down the list, in every part of society. I don't have time to go into all of it here. The point is that Mao was trying to find new ways to do this. And it wasn't just all from the top down. One of the things that Mao said at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution was: In the past we tried to find a form which would enable us to address these problems (that these inequalities were being reinforced, and the old ways of thinking were being reinforced), but we didn't find a form and a means for the masses of people to address our dark side from below. What he meant by "our dark side" was the part of the Chinese Communist Party that was taking the revisionist road, and the policies that were embodied in that. There was not a way that they were able, before the Cultural Revolution, to bring forward, from below, mass criticism — and not just mass criticism but also mass struggle — against all these things, and therefore, he said, it didn't go anywhere. There would be criticism from the top, they would have education movements to bring out the need to change things, but they didn't go anywhere, because, as Mao said, before the Cultural Revolution, we never found a form in which the people could rise up and criticize us and struggle against these things, from below, and in a mass way.
The cultural revolution was precisely the form in which that became much more possible. Of course, there were all kinds of contradictions in it. But that became the form through which such mass criticism and struggle became much more possible. Even the way the Party was reconstituted after the Cultural Revolution was a reflection of that, because to a large degree it was disbanded in the swirl and chaos of the cultural revolution, and the mass criticism, and the way in which the Party was reconstituted was what they called "open door meetings" where Party members (or potential Party members) would go before the masses and be evaluated and criticized. So in that way, too, they were making advances and developing forms for the masses to play an increasingly conscious role in all this.
But then, what did they run into? The Cultural Revolution was, once again, not carried out in a vacuum. Mao and the others who wanted to lead the Cultural Revolution had to take into account the very difficult circumstances, within China and in the international arena, in which the Cultural Revolution was carried out. And, for that matter, at one point, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party it was only Mao who wanted to, and was determined to, unleash this Cultural Revolution. (As Mao put it — this is typical Mao — "I was the only one on the Central Committee who agreed with my opinion.") In other words, nobody else there wanted to carry out the Cultural Revolution at the start. So some new leaders had to be brought forward, and some other leaders had to be won over. And they did that with varying degrees of success.
But why did nobody else "agree with his opinion"? Because, among other things, this wasn't happening in a vacuum. It was going to create chaos in society. As Mao said, chaos was created on a grand scale. He said that even about the Great Leap Forward that preceded the Cultural Revolution. Chaos was created on a grand scale, and I take responsibility, he said. Well, this happened on an even grander scale in the Cultural Revolution. And it was happening in what context? Think about the world then. The U.S. was in Vietnam, escalating the war there. There was always the question of whether they were going to actually invade North Vietnam, which borders on China. You had all these U.S. troops in Korea, which also borders on China, although they were in the South, but not very far from the Chinese border. And there had already been a war fought in Korea in the 1950s, right after the victory of the Chinese revolution. And, on top of that, you had the leadership of the Soviet Union having gone back down the road to capitalism, and having turned the Soviet Union into a social- imperialist power — socialist in words but imperialist in deeds and in essence — and the Soviet Union was directly threatening China. There were lots of border clashes in the late '60s; and according to Henry Kissinger and some others, the Soviets were actually drawing up plans for attacking and dismembering China, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons. In particular they were aiming to grab the industrial heartland of China, in the northeast, and then basically reduce China to a bunch of dismembered and scattered provinces that would be effectively under Soviet domination. And the U.S. opposed this very strongly for its own reasons.
But this is the kind of circumstances in which Mao said, let's throw the whole society into chaos. So you can see why nobody but Mao "agreed with his opinion," because it was not an easy decision to make. They faced this very serious situation. After the Cultural Revolution had reached a certain stage, and with the international situation undergoing dramatic changes, Mao reversed course in a certain sense, and decided to try to work out a certain accommodation with the U.S. (and allies of the U.S.), as one key component of dealing with this very real threat from the Soviet Union. And so China had this whole "opening to the West," which began in the early '70s.
And it was very disorienting and disconcerting to many people, including to Maoists all around the world, our Party among them, to see the Shah of Iran being praised as a great leader of Iran. And Haile Selassie who — apologies to Rastafarians — was a brutal oppressor of the people in Ethiopia, was hailed as a great leader by the Chinese government. And Marcos, a fascist dictator in the Philippines, who was seeking to suppress a people's war led by Maoists in the Philippines, was praised. And so on and so forth. This is what happened as a result of this "opening to the West."
Mao and other leaders in the Chinese Communist Party who were grouped with Mao were attempting to implement a policy similar to what the Soviet Union had done in relation to World War 2. That is, they saw an attack coming from fascist Germany, and so they began to maneuver, from the mid-1930s on, to try to deal with this threat. First — and this is a lot of history that is often covered over — they tried to get France and England and even the U.S. to unite with them in certain ways to oppose German expansionism. But the U.S. and Britain were not interested in that. Their outlook was captured a little later by Harry Truman, who got up in the Senate — he wasn't yet Vice President or President, he was still a Senator from Missouri — and he said (this was before the U.S. got into the war but at a time when it was becoming clear that Germany was likely to attack the Soviet Union): let them fight it out and weaken each other, the Soviet Union and Germany, and then we will intervene on the side that is losing.
So these imperialist powers were not interested in uniting with the Soviet Union against the expansionism of German imperialism under the Nazis. They thought it was in their interests to have Germany push out in this way, so long as this was directed "toward the East," that is, toward the Soviet Union.
You had the whole famous, or infamous, incident of Neville Chamberlain making an agreement with Hitler. This is always invoked these days as an example of capitulation that leads to disastrous results — and as a reason why we have to go after Saddam Hussein, for example, because "remember when Chamberlain conciliated with Hitler and said `I have made peace' — and then look what happened" — blah, blah, blah. Well, never mind about the fact that this analogy is totally inapplicable. The fact is that what Chamberlain was really doing was trying to direct Germany to the east, trying to direct them to attack the Soviet Union. That was a lot of what that maneuver was about. And then in this situation, at a certain point the Soviet Union shifted course and said, okay, these western imperialists don't want to unite with us against Germany, so we will come to terms with Germany. And the Soviets knew very well that Germany was very likely to still attack them, but they were trying to buy time to prepare — to move their industry, to build up their armed forces, to produce more planes and tanks, and so on. There is a whole discussion that could be had about their military strategy, but that is beyond what we can do here today.
Nevertheless, this is what the Soviets were maneuvering to do. They made an agreement with Germany, and they even carved up Poland as part of this agreement, with secret protocols and so on, in order to try to get a buffer. And they did other things along the same lines.
Well, eventually, at tremendous cost, the Soviet Union was able to turn back the attack of Germany that did come, and then the rest was history, as they say — that was really the decisive turning point in World War 2, especially in the European theater. I mean, Normandy — the Normandy invasion by the U.S. and Britain — came long after the tide of the war had been turned in Europe, when the Soviet Union, after the battle of Stalingrad, began hurling back the German armies. Even Churchill admitted that something like three-quarters of the fighting against Germany was done by the Soviet Union. That's not what they like to talk about these days, but that was the reality and truth of it.
The Soviet Union won the war, but there were many things that were undone in the process of doing that in the way it was done. There was a lot of disorienting of the international communist movement. People got confused. The U.S. and England were just referred to as "democratic countries." Their imperialist nature was significantly covered over. And, within the Soviet Union itself, they made all kinds of appeals to Great Russian patriotism. Feudal monarchs and despots, like Ivan the Terrible, were brought back as icons of national unity. A lot of patriarchy that still had a strong pull among the people was appealed to. And there were all kinds of other ways in which problematic things were done.
So that even while winning victory in the war and saving the Soviet Union, a lot of the socialist road was undone in the Soviet Union. Now, it's easy to sit and criticize this, but it was not an easy thing to deal with. I mean, Germany at the time it invaded the Soviet Union, was an army on the march. It seemed invincible. It had built itself up into a very powerful military machine. It had crushed France quickly and driven the British from Dunkirk out of France and back to their island, and all that, and it had come close to conquering Britain itself.
This was an extremely difficult experience, and yet it appeared for a while after World War 2 that the socialist camp in the world had expanded. Shortly after World War 2, there was the Chinese revolution, even though that was made to a large degree by defying the Soviet Union. And there were what appeared to be socialist countries that emerged in Eastern Europe. But a lot of this was more appearance than essence. We don't have time to go into all of this here, but in a lot of ways the seeds of its undoing were very strongly sown in how the Soviet Union approached and fought World War 2.
But, while Mao and the Chinese Communist Party broke with, and went against, some of this, in some very decisive ways, they never really summed up the negative aspects of all this in any systematic and all-around way. They just looked at it as their revolution occurred in this context, the socialist camp expanded in this context, and even though they recognized the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe were no longer on the socialist road by the mid to late 1950s, as often happens people don't sum up the negative aspects of their positive experience. There is this whole point about how defeated armies learn well, but we have to emphasize that victorious armies have to learn, too, and have to be always questioning and interrogating themselves. Because one of the easiest things that can happen is that when you are doing well, you don't tend to criticize yourself and you don't tend to listen well to criticism. Triumphalism sets in, or pragmatism sets in — this worked so it must be right. And you don't keep critically summing up and interrogating yourself and interrogating that experience and dividing it into its contradictory aspects.
So when China faced what they saw as a similar situation in the early 70s, they didn't see any problem with essentially repeating this same model, as the Soviet Union did. After the U.S. did get into World War 2, at the end of 1941 — and, even before that, after Germany attacked England and France — the attitude of these Western imperialists changed. And after the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany, in 1941, these Western imperialists formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. So that was the complex history of that war. Well, the Chinese looked at that and said, by analogy: the Soviet Union, now a social-imperialist power, is similar to and is playing an analogous role to Germany in World War 2; and we are in an analogous role to the Soviet Union during that war. So why wouldn't it work out for us to make an alliance with these Western imperialists ourselves, as the Soviet Union did in World War 2?
Well, the problem is that the situations were not completely the same or analogous in many ways. And there were a lot of problems with this whole "opening to the west" by China. It disoriented, once again, large parts of the Maoist movement around the world. It was very difficult to sort this out. I went on a trip to China in 1974, and we — myself and someone who was in the RU at that time, the precursor of the Party — we put a lot of hard questions to the Chinese about what they were doing; and we never got any answers. We were very dissatisfied. We went and asked them about all this stuff I've spoken to here — what's this shit with Marcos? They didn't like this very much. We were persistent and wanted to know what this was about, and we were obviously critical of it. But we never got any real answers. There was a lot of talk about defeating our enemies one by one. They drew that from their own experience, as well: in the Chinese revolution, after Japan invaded and occupied large parts of China in the 1930s, the communists actually united with Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese, which in effect meant uniting with the U.S. and Britain, who were behind Chiang Kai-shek. Now, in that case, that was a correct strategy that did lead to an advance of their revolution, not just in a narrow sense but in a more profound and fundamental sense it did lead them closer to the socialist revolution.
But history doesn't always repeat itself in the exact same forms — in fact, it rarely does. The world was not the same in the 1970s as it was during the period leading into and during World War 2. U.S. imperialism was a major force in the world, a major oppressor of the world's people, and it was very disorienting to people to see China seeking to unite with it. And really, it didn't work out in the same way as the Soviet policy in relation to World War 2 did, even with all the very great problems with that. And unfortunately, this policy of China's — this "opening to the west" and everything that went along with that — not only disoriented Maoists in other countries, but undoubtedly had an effect within China itself in terms of strengthening some of the arguments of the revisionists, the "practical arguments" of the revisionists, whose way of avoiding war with the Soviet Union was to become revisionists themselves, among other things. Let's put it this way, their desire to avoid that reinforced their revisionist positions, which they held in any case.
So this is something that needs to be summed up more deeply as well. What was the basis on which the Chinese adopted this policy? What necessity were they feeling that compelled them to do this? What were the consequences of this, and what was the right and wrong of this? Because, while it may have been true that the Soviet Union posed the most immediate and gravest danger to China at that point, it wasn't true that that was the case in the world as a whole. And the problems with what the Soviet Union did in World War 2 were once again expressed very sharply in what China was seeking to do in this period in the early 1970s.
One of the things that you realize when you start digging into this — once more an acute expression of what we are going to have to work our way through in making revolution and carrying out the transition to communism, worldwide — is that often we find that at times when contradictions on a world scale are very sharply expressed, great dangers and great opportunities come closely bound up together. The same kind of crisis in the imperialist system which produces these wars, of one kind or another, and which draws the whole world deeply into the maneuvers and machinations of the imperialists and the way in which they are moving in the world — the ways in which these things get concentrated and the whole world gets drawn in, in the wake of this into political motion — heightens the possibilities of revolution, on the one hand, but also heightens the dangers of being crushed on the other hand. This applies to a party at whatever stage of development, even as it applies in a very concentrated way to socialist states where they exist.
The crisis that existed through the 1930s and then erupted into World War 2 heightened the possibilities of revolutionary advance throughout the world, but it also heightened the danger that the Soviet Union itself would be wiped out, which very nearly happened. And the same kind of thing posed itself again in the early '70s for China. There were certain ways in which the contradictions of the imperialist system, and in particular the contradictions between the imperialists — especially between the U.S. on the one side and the Soviet Union on the other — were being heightened, and the whole world was getting drawn into motion as a result of this in different ways. But this also posed a much more acute danger that China would be attacked by the Soviet Union in particular. And it would not have been easy to defeat that attack. It would have been a very daunting challenge to defeat that. That's not to say it couldn't have been done, or that it couldn't have been done without this "opening to the west" and seeking alliances with the U.S. and the forces allying with it (and under its domination). But it would not have been easy. There would have been tremendous destruction in China, tremendous loss of life, probably in the tens of millions anyway.
It's not a matter that Mao shrank in the face of this danger. It's that, to put it a certain way, "he went for what he knew." He went back to what he still regarded as a viable approach. And there were problems with that approach, the first time around, with the Soviet Union. There were also significant changes in the world - - the world was not configured exactly the same way as it was in the period leading into World War 2.
All this is something we also have to learn from. Even where we have made great advances, and even while we are in the midst of making great advances, we have to have a critical attitude of looking for the negative aspects within that. We have to always go back to and continue to take a deeper look at things that we have done, even things that we have done well. Victorious armies have to learn how to learn well, not just armies when they are defeated. It's easier to accept criticism, or at least sometimes it is, when you are clearly not doing well. Either you just give up, and become immune to any kind of criticism — or, you put up a defense and resent such criticism — but more likely, you will be open to it, because you are in a difficult spot and you have to figure out how to get out of it.
But what about when you have done well in the past by taking a certain approach, or what about in the midst of advancing, how do you interrogate yourself in those circumstances and draw the necessary lessons? Once again, all this becomes very sharply posed when great dangers and great opportunities come closely bound together. How do you avert and avoid the great dangers, or minimize them, while maximizing the advances? That's a very difficult contradiction we also have to learn how to do better with.
We have to have a very sober approach in assessing the mistakes. There is no room for, and no good purpose served by, facile and flippant criticism which doesn't take into account the very profound and daunting challenges that were begin confronted. But on that basis of being materialists and really confronting this deeply, we really do have to dig for the lessons, and be unflinching in facing the mistakes and the shortcomings in what we have done so far, even while we fight to uphold and popularize the main thing, the overwhelming thing — which is the unprecedented achievements that have been brought into being in socialist society and through the dictatorship of the proletariat, even at this early stage of the advance to communism.
Through all this, there has been what I have described elsewhere as the end of a whole stage and the beginning of a new stage. We have had this whole experience, not only of the Paris Commune, but of actual socialist countries being brought into being in the Soviet Union and in China. And that's come to an end.
None of us wanted it to come to an end, but it came to an end. And that was also a point of very sharp struggle: are we going to face the fact that it has come to an end, or are we going to pretend that what they are doing in China under Deng Xiaoping still has something to do with socialism, because we can't face the reality that we have suffered a terrible loss — and it was a terrible loss. That was a big struggle that was necessary to go through in order to regroup on an international level, not just within particular parties.
But we have the end of a stage, but not the end of our project, not the end of the cause of communism, but the end of a stage and the beginning of a new stage, where we have to build on the previous advances and build on the advanced things that are coming forward in the world, and divert and lead them towards socialism, and we have to learn how to go more deeply and do better as we win victory, now here and now there.
The task is drawing, in as all-round and deep way as possible, the crucial lessons — negative but above all positive — from the experience of this first stage. This is of tremendous and decisive importance. With the very great challenges and problems that have been encountered, and real mistakes that have been made in the experience of socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat so far, it is very important not to forget, but instead to uphold and boldly popularize the great achievements of this first stage that has now ended, the achievements of the proletariat and its vanguard in ruling and transforming society in ways never seen before in the history of humanity. We should not cover over or avoid, we should confront squarely and dig deeply into, the errors and shortcomings. But we should never forget that with any shortcomings it may have had, socialist society is a thousand times better for the masses of people, for the great majority of society, than capitalism and imperialism and all their horrors. And, socialist society opens the road, a road of struggle, monumental struggle, to the even greater goal of communism worldwide.
We should steep ourselves in the understanding of this truth and continually develop our ability to bring this alive for people. We should remember that we really can run society much, much better than the bourgeoisie, and that this will have meaning and take form and expression in a thousand ways throughout socialist society.
There is no magic solution, no silver bullet, to solve these daunting and monumental problems, world historic contradictions that we have to confront and struggle through. There is no one thing that can solve the problem and provide some kind of guarantee against the reversal of the revolution even after it has triumphed, against the rupturing of society off the socialist road and back to the restoration of capitalism. It is a matter of continually learning and deepening our ability to confront and deal with the profound and acute contradictions that have to be confronted and moved through and struggled through and resolved in order to advance toward communism. It is a matter of continuing the revolution wherever the proletariat seizes power and establishes socialism, and defending it while at the same time, and above all, building the socialist country as a base area — a source of inspiration but also of assistance and support — for the revolutionary struggle throughout the world toward the common goal of communism.
Once again, this requires drawing the lessons from historical experience — in particular the historical experience where our class has seized power, established the dictatorship of the proletariat, and embarked on the socialist road — and it is a matter of building on this to go even further, and yes, to do even better, the next time around.
So, in conclusion, it is this, this dialectical and materialist summation of our historical experience so far, this discussion of the actual material factors and complexities involved, and the synthesis of this, arriving at an even deeper understanding, and an even stronger ability therefore to confront and transform reality — it is this, with its even more advanced vision of the society and world we are aiming for, a society and a world that in fact the great majority of people throughout the world, including of the educated strata and intellectuals, would want to live in — it is this that we need to be boldly taking to people, and engaging them around, in many different forms, and on many different levels.
We need to correctly handle the relation, in all this, of the complex, on the one hand, and the simple and basic, on the other hand. In other words, there are some simple and basic truths that we need to hold firmly to — the positive achievements and the real meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist society, and the fact that it is a thousand times better than anything that is represented by capitalism and imperialism. That is simple and basic. On the other hand, there is great complexity in understanding this whole process, and in carrying it forward. And we shouldn't oversimplify that, or vulgarize it. We should go into it in all its complexity, while holding firmly to what is simple and basic. This is another expression in a certain way of "solid core / elasticity."
It is this that we have to take to people and really deeply engage them around. And that's what I wanted to say. [applause]