Grasp Revolution, Promote Production - Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation

Seizing Power and Exercising Power--The Relation Between the Vanguard and the Masses

by Bob Avakian

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

Here I want to speak to the question of the dialectical relation between leadership and direction, as concentrated in the vanguard, on the one hand, and diversity, criticism, dissent, and so on, on the other hand--which is spoken to in our Draft Programme. This is also spoken to in "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy," ("GO&GS")* and one of the ways it comes at this is to take a quote from Eric Hobsbawm (in his book, The Age of Extremes, p. 389) in talking about the problem of (as he presents it) the "irremovability" of the Bolshevik-type leadership in socialist societies as they have existed in reality. In other words, once the party gets in power, then it begins to assume the position that it must remain in power no matter what.

Hobsbawm says the communists make the assumption, first, that once power is seized the revolution must not be reversed; and then they go on to make the assumption that their holding on to the reins of power is crucial to the revolution not being reversed. And what's said in "GO&GS" is that the problem is--and what makes this so complicated is--that on one level this is true. [BA laughs] The revolution must not be reversed. "GO&GS" says that, from a world-historical sweeping outlook we can understand that there will be setbacks and reversals, even major reversals, and we have to face that reality. It's happened. It's part of the reality we're dealing with, whether we like it or not. And the hallmark of science, and particularly our science, is that you do accept reality as it is, whether you like it or not. You don't just accept it passively. You set out to transform it, but you don't refuse to accept it at a given time if that's the way it is. So we have to face this, but on the other hand at any given time -- that is, with regard to any situation where our class actually holds power --we don't accept that the revolution should be reversed or will be reversed. We have to fight with all of our ability, marshalling and unleashing all the forces we can, not only to seize power but, once having seized it, to hold on to it.

After all, think about what goes into making a revolution, regardless of the particular path or road of revolution--whether it's protracted people's war in a Third World country, surrounding the cities from the countryside (which has proven to take decades where it has succeeded, although you can't make a law out of that either) or whether it's the kind of situation we're confronted with in an imperialist country like the U.S., where it's a long period of struggle and political work leading up to a crisis in which the objective conditions ripen for revolution and then you go over to the seizure of power--regardless of which road you're on, just think about everything that goes into making a revolution and actually succeeding in seizing power.

And then think of everything that can be done once you have seized power and you begin to embark on the socialist road. All these problems that are "insoluble," that cannot be solved under this system--whether it's the starvation of people, whether it's their terrible health conditions, the lack of education or the lousy education they get if they get any at all, whether it's the exploitative relations, the oppressive conditions of women, national oppression. It's not a minor matter that you can now start changing all these things. It's tremendously important to the masses of people in more immediate terms, but also in terms of moving on to uproot the whole basis for all this. So anybody who would recognize all that and then say, "Well, you should try to get power, and if you get it, you should be willing to give it up easily"--anybody who would say that is a fool or worse. That's the only thing you can say about someone who would make an argument like that: they're a fool or worse.

At the same time, the "rub" is that, while the revolution must not be reversed, it's also true that in order for that not to happen, you need to have a vanguard force which continues to play that vanguard role and in a certain sense is at the core of the revolutionary process all the way through to the eventual triumph of communism on a world scale. Those things are true. But, on the other hand, they contain very acute contradictions and within them are the seeds of the undoing of the whole thing. See, here's where the anarchists are wrong, for example. They think, or are prone to the line, that the reason we have a dictatorship of the proletariat and the reason that we have a vanguard party is because of the willfulness of people who want to establish or maintain a hierarchal society with themselves on top. Well, there are people like that and they do get into revolutions. There's no point in ignoring or denying that. But that's not the essence of the matter and not the profound reality that we're dealing with. If that were all that's involved, it would be much easier to deal with.

YOU CAN'T DO AWAY WITH INEQUALITY WITHOUT A VANGUARD

The problem is that there are these underlying contradictions in society that make a vanguard necessary if you're going to make revolution and if the masses are going to be brought forward in that revolution. And anybody who talks about making a revolution without a vanguard is talking about "making a revolution without the masses," whether they recognize it or not, because there are these underlying objective contradictions in society that are very profound: the contradiction between mental and manual labor; the contradiction between men and women; the contradiction between the city and the countryside, especially in Third World countries but not only there (it applies in "modern" countries like the U.S. as well); the contradiction between different nationalities. All these contradictions are very important and the mental/manual contradiction runs though all of this in a very profound way.

Imagine, for example, if we seized power and then the next day we went to the masses who've been living in the housing projects and we said, "How many of you want to be astrophysicists? OK, sign up here and you can go take a six-week course and be astrophysicists." Well, that's crazy, and most of the masses are going to say, "What a bunch of stupid assholes. Why did we ever follow these people? I can't be an astrophysicist in six weeks. I don't care what kind of self-help book they have."

To be an astrophysicist takes work. These spheres take work. They take study. Maybe this can be telescoped--maybe it won't take as much time as it takes under bourgeois rule, where they're also interested in perpetuating a division of labor and oppressive relations, but it takes work, it takes effort in these spheres. And the same with doctors. We need doctors in socialist society. You can't have medicine for the masses if you don't have doctors. We can train the equivalent of the barefoot doctors they had in China-- large numbers of "ordinary people," particularly peasants, who were trained to give basic medical care to the masses broadly--but you still need people who specialize in medicine. Where are they going to come from? You're going to just go to the masses and say, "OK, everybody who wants to be a doctor, line up over here and here's your medical kit, start practicing medicine"? The masses of people won't like it very much if we do that--they'll say, "Where are the old ones that ruled? At least we got some kind of medical care; even if the medical people fucked us over a lot, at least they weren't idiots like these people and butchers in the same way as these people who don't know what the hell they're doing." And you can go from one sphere to another, we can multiply these examples many times.

The point is that, even with the overthrow of this system and the seizure of power, we can't just wish away the inequalities that the whole history of class society and human history in a larger sense has "bequeathed to us." It's like Lenin said, we don't make revolution with people and conditions as we'd like them to be; we do it with people and conditions as they are at the time of seizure of power, and then you have to set out to transform both conditions and people, including the vanguard as part of that.

So these are the underlying contradictions that give rise to the need for a vanguard. As pointed out in the appendix in the Draft Programme on the Party (actually this is spoken to in both appendices on the Party), the need for the vanguard resides in these contradictions; and as part of the mental/manual contradiction and the overall oppressive divisions in society and the domination of not only political power but intellectual life by a small elite, you get a situation where most people, and specifically most proletarians who ultimately have to be brought forward as the core and backbone and driving force of this whole revolutionary process, are shut out of and denied the opportunity to really get into intellectual spheres, into questions of theory and working with ideas, especially (to refer to the movie O, Brother Where Art Thou?) the realm of "abstract thought." Now, proletarians do deal with ideas and theory, and it would be wrong to ignore that; and there are some masses who, owing to their own particular circumstances and efforts, manage to enter into and conquer--make real conquests in--these spheres; but they are more the exception than the rule under bourgeois society and even for that matter in the initial stages of socialism when you still have the profound tasks of overcoming all these inequalities. We can't just wish this away and say, "everybody to their own devices, everybody can do everything equally, and let's just have laissez-faire." Again, if we have laissez-faire in that kind of way, it will lead back to capitalism (or lead us to never get out of capitalism in the first place).

Here's the important distinction: We have to recognize that at any given time, not only for humanity as a whole but speaking specifically of the masses, there are many things they don't know, even many questions they don't know are important, or things they've never been introduced to, in terms of how to approach important aspects of reality; but there is nothing, no sphere of knowledge, that they are incapable of engaging and learning about (just as it can't be said that there is anything which, in principle and by definition, is unknowable). That's another important principle, another important unity of opposites.

And, as pointed out in the appendices on the party in the Draft Programme (especially the first of these appendices: "The Party and the Masses"), these oppressive divisions--in particular the division between mental and manual labor and the fact that only a small number of people in bourgeois society have access to and opportunity to engage, in any kind of deep-going way, in the realm of theory-- means that, so long as we live under this kind of a system, it will be largely among those people who do have access to and experience in the realm of ideas that revolutionary theory is going to be grasped first and even, to a large degree, further developed and brought forward in an overall sense. But then here's the contradiction: if these people are really far-seeing, and they grasp the whole process (as Marx did, for example) they will also grasp two fundamental truths. First, there is the process in general but then there's the actual particularity of carrying it out (or there's the process of carrying that out in all its particularities). And another very profound contradiction is that these people, while they can grasp this whole process in the theoretical realm, are incapable of carrying it out by themselves.

As I said in the very beginning, this is not a process that can be carried out by a few individuals. And so the challenge, the contradiction, is how do you go to the masses and bring them forward to ever more consciously take this up, and how do you learn from them and lead them at the same time--the whole question of the mass line (which I want to speak to a little bit more, later in this talk). These are the real contradictions that are involved. It's not a question of some people just wanting to perpetuate hierarchy, or to re-establish hierarchy in a new form. It's that we are dealing with these profound contradictions, and if you don't see the need for a vanguard and you insist that there be no vanguard, you're insisting that the masses be shut out of the process , no matter what your intentions are and even if your intentions are the very best.

But, on the other hand, what's inherent (if you will) in all this is the potential for this contradiction between mental and manual labor, broadly speaking--and in particular the way this contradiction is expressed in the relationship between the vanguard and the masses--to be turned into an antagonism, to be turned into a relationship of exploitation, or manipulation or whatever. This is true even before the seizure of power but obviously is the case in a much more developed and concentrated and magnified way once you have seized power and then (as is pointed out in the second appendix on the Party in the Draft Programme: "The Party Under Socialism, and the Transition to Communism") there is a profound change in the role of the party--it is now a party that's at the core of a proletariat in power, and there is the potential for this to be turned into its opposite. Out of this party, and particularly its leading ranks-- and, more fundamentally , out of the contradictions that give rise to the need for such a party --there is the potential for a section of the party to become a new bourgeoisie. We've not only understood this theoretically, but unfortunately we've seen it--with all of its consequences--in practice, in reality.

But just wishing away these contradictions or thinking we can just level everything all at once, like these PL** idiots are always putting forward--that's not going to work. It's just pure idealism. And why not? If everything is in the realm of ideas anyway, if winning people to communism is just a matter of winning them to a set of ideas, well why not win them to communism and dispense with socialism? Why bother with something intermediate? But if you actually have to go through and transform material reality, it's a very different thing; and if your theory has to reflect that whole process and that whole struggle, in all its complexity, then that's a very different matter. Then you have to understand that this contradiction-- revolving around the need for a vanguard, the essential role of a vanguard, and the potential for this vanguard to turn into an oppressive force--has arisen as a result of what we've "inherited," what we're "presented with" as a result of human historical development and particularly its embodiment in bourgeois society, its class divisions and its oppressive divisions overall at this point--and we have to work our way through these contradictions. We can't just ignore them or wish them away or try to knock down all this objective reality with one stroke.

This is a contradiction that we're going to have to be grappling with throughout this whole process. Obviously, Mao made very crucial and world-historic contributions in this regard, but that's a foundation from which we have to go forward to continue to grapple with this, even now in the realm of theory--even in advance, unfortunately, of a situation where we once again have socialist states and the dictatorship of the proletariat and a vanguard leading all that. We're never going to correctly handle this--it's going to be much more difficult to get there, and certainly much more difficult to learn from past experience and to handle this even better in the future in socialist society--if we don't grapple with this now in the realm of theory, even before we're at the point where this is immediately presenting itself to us as a practical problem.

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Notes:

* "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy" is an unpublished work by Bob Avakian; excerpts from it have been published in the RW, issues #1127 through 1142, November 18, 2001 through March 10, 2002. They are available online at rwor.org

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** Progressive Labor Party

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