Revolution #96, July 22, 2007
The Editors Respond
From the editors of Revolution newspaper in response to the criticism of the article “Elections: The Hype and the Reality”
We agree with this criticism. Building socialism with the goal of a classless, communist world requires proletarian state power and leadership. But not the kind of state power and leadership described in the article “Elections: Hype and Reality.”
Our article actually put forward a wrong model, one that is very different from what is referred to by the reader and is discussed in the writings and talks of Bob Avakian. It looked at the difficult contradictions involved in leading the masses and adopted a wrong answer to those contradictions--a top down, linear view where the party thinks it knows everything and is “firmly in control.” In this model, elections could actually end up being a way for oppositional forces--and many others, for that matter--to be suppressed, despite whatever “good intentions” the revolutionary regime might start out with.
Also, as the letter points out, this article had a wrong approach towards the middle class and intellectuals under socialism. The article did not appreciate the objective role of intellectuals in society and the need to fully bring those who work with ideas into the whole process of transforming and revolutionizing society. The view that such forces in society are a “problem” that must be subjected to “firm control”--which is how the article portrays this contradiction--does NOT at all proceed from the goal of emancipating all of humanity.
An important goal of socialism is to continually narrow the gap between mental and manual labor--transforming the situation where whole sections of society are locked out of the realm of “working with ideas.” The situation must be changed where such divisions provide the material basis for intellectual elitism, privilege, and notions of ideas as private property--and where such thinking, in turn, reinforces the gap between mental and manual labor. At the same time, there is a particular and important way that intellectuals and intellectual ferment can really contribute to the dynamic wrangling that needs to characterize socialist society overall. Among intellectuals there is a very positive tendency to look at things in new ways, to question the status quo, and to pursue creative and fresh approaches to problems. This must be fully appreciated, given scope, and developed in socialist society as an essential part of the search for truth and knowing and changing the world. And you want to give space and scope to intellectuals, artists, and scientists, and unite with and lead them to contribute to building a new society.
Overall, the essential picture that emerges from that article is of a socialist society where the only real political life is a kind of official politics that comes directly from the party. And if people want to participate in political life, that's how they'll do it…and “get educated” in the process. But socialism has to be far wilder and far better than that! It has been in the past and must be even more so, to a qualitatively greater degree, in the future.
How Will the Party Lead?
Yes, the revolutionary party definitely does have to lead, and this role must be institutionalized in the constitution. To abandon that principle would mean throwing away everything that had been won through the struggle and sacrifice of millions and handing it back to old and new exploiters. But then the crucial question is how will the party exercise that leading role--toward what ends, and through what means? And how, through a whole process, will the party itself continue to be revolutionized, and also promote a whole process through which the masses come into increasingly direct involvement in 'affairs of state…and the transformation of the world’? How will the party, and increasing numbers of masses, come to more deeply understand the world, and sort out right from wrong? The struggle in the realm of ideas over what is true is crucial to transforming the world, and this struggle must be as vigorous and involving as possible. In this context, elections and other forms where views are openly contested and debated are essential--as are the right to protest, to strike, to publish, to hold meetings, and to speak out, etc.--if a socialist society is actually to be a transition to communism, where people are consciously and voluntarily transforming the world and themselves in the process.
The question really is whether or not you’re going to have a society in which the role of the masses is still mainly reduced to working and producing wealth (with perhaps some more resources devoted to their social welfare). Or whether you’re going to have a truly liberating society in which the masses of people are increasingly and ever more fully participating in the whole process of understanding the world, figuring out the direction of society, and thrashing out how to transform not only the economy, but culture, philosophy, science, and every other realm of life. Socialist society must be characterized by the back-and-forth dialectic of people transforming their world outlook as they in turn change the world around them.
But the world portrayed in the article we wrote is not a society conducive to people understanding the world in all its complexity and then acting on that understanding to emancipate all of humanity; because of that, it is not a world anyone would want to live in, either.
The article failed to step back and look at things from the framework of some key questions: First of all, how does the proletariat, led by its party, firmly hold onto power--and make it a power worth holding onto, one that will carry forward socialist transformation of every sphere and move society toward communism? How does the new state power defend itself, in a revolutionary way, against overthrown exploiters who want to get back on top and imperialist attacks, while carrying forward the transformations to a communist world and the necessary upheaval that will involve? How do the masses increasingly get drawn into this revolutionary process of building socialist society as a transition to communism? What are the contradictions involved in moving society forward, through tumultuous, back-and-forth struggle, in the direction of achieving a classless society where the need for the state will have been surpassed, and the state itself will have been abolished, together with oppressive and antagonistic divisions among the people? And then how do we examine everything-- including the role of elections--in this light?
Instead, the approach of the article was basically: “This is something that will pose a ‘problem’--i.e., the masses will want elections and this could get messy, so we have to tightly control things, even while we talk about ferment and dissent.”
The article quotes Bob Avakian--but it does not proceed from his overall method and approach, and vision, on this whole question, which pivots on the concept of “solid core with a lot of elasticity”; hence the quotes end up out of context and gutted of meaning. In Bob Avakian’s re-envisioned conception of socialism, “elasticity” includes many different forms of creativity, initiative, unconventional thinking, and dissent. And on the basis of a solid core which has as its point of departure the goal of communism and classless society, and in that context firmly holding onto state power to serve that goal--this elasticity must not only be allowed, but encouraged, welcomed, and fully unleashed. This is a vision of a very vibrant society in which there is broad wrangling over all kinds of questions--a society more wild and more filled with ferment and dissent than what has existed in previous socialist societies.
So what does this mean in terms of the real contradictions posed by having elections in a socialist society?
In approaching this, it remains a cardinal principle that the proletariat cannot share power with other classes ; in any state, either one class or another will exercise power and transform society in accordance with the underlying economic and social relations characteristic of its kind of society. This has real concrete meaning under socialism--to take two crucial examples, the army and the top courts will be particularly responsible to the party. At the same time, there will be a constitution and laws, which will provide the context for how this leadership is exercised; and, as Bob Avakian has emphasized, while in an overall sense the army and the courts must be accountable to and led by the party, they must also be accountable to and in conformity with the constitution and the laws; and the party cannot--and must not attempt to--"step outside" of or violate the Constitution and the laws, in its leadership of the army and the courts, or in any aspect of its leadership. And Avakian has also argued that there should be a distinction between the key levers of state power, such as the courts and the army, and ‘the broader institutions and functions of government in socialist society, including decision-making bodies, a legislature of some kind more or less, as well as centralized institutions that can effect the carrying out of decisions or an executive of some kind.”* Avakian poses this in relation to the need--while maintaining firm control of the state through the leadership of the party--for the masses to be “increasingly drawn, not only into the exercise of state power, but also into other forms, other aspects of the governing and administration of society, and the law-making of society; and how can the political process that goes on in socialist society, on the basis of the firm control by the proletariat over the state as exercised in a concentrated way through the leadership of its party--how on that basis can the political process lead to, or contribute to, the kind of ferment that I’ve been talking about as an essential element of what needs to go on in socialist society, including the emphasis on the importance of dissent?” And, in this excerpt from this pathbreaking larger work, he proposes having part of the selection process of people to legislative bodies in local areas, and even on the national level, open to contestation.
Under socialism, the masses must not only have the right to demonstrate, criticize, and raise disagreements with official policy or even with the leading ideology--but this must actually be encouraged and promoted as a crucial and necessary part of the process of broad debate and struggle which must go on in order for the party, together with the masses, to more deeply know and change the world. And in this light, elections are one way to provide the kind of grand, societal wide contention that is needed to struggle over and actually figure out what direction to go in, what policies to implement, and what kind of leadership is needed.
Elections under Socialism: Real Stakes, Not a Mere Formality
Elections under socialism will not be a mere formality or some kind of gimmick to make people feel like they have a say in things. It is NOT the case that the party already “knows everything” and so it just has to “educate and bring the masses along.”
“We’re all going to be in this together,” and the party has to both lead the masses, while learning from them, and learn while leading. And it has to be recognized that, while in an overall way, applying the communist world outlook and method enables one to get more deeply at the truth in a fundamental and all-around sense, this doesn’t mean that at any given time the party will know the truth of something.
Again, the fundamental socialist nature of society (including its socialist economic base, the main organs of state power, the key institutions) cannot and will not be “put up for grabs”; these will be encoded in the constitution of socialist society. But elections will include real contesting of views between different candidates, and real mass, public discussion, wrangling and debate over the most acute, contentious, and visionary questions facing society, some of which will be concentrated as clashes over concrete economic, political, and social policies. Those running in these elections must be provided financing and access to the media and a real chance to argue for their views.
Having elections with real contestation under socialism is not risk-free; there are high stakes. Masses can be mobilized around wrong policies, with real consequences; and if these policies should become law and become part of a whole direction undermining the fundamental character and direction of society, the ways will have to be found to wage struggle to keep society moving in a socialist direction--including, if revolutionaries think that the whole socialist character and direction of society is being reversed, all-out cultural revolutions. But not to have such contestation runs the much greater risk of turning into a power that is not going to communism and is not worth defending. This whole process of elasticity on the basis of a solid core is crucial because if you don’t have this--more generally throughout society and as applied to elections--you won’t actually get the kind of rich ferment, dissent, controversy, and debate that is absolutely necessary for the masses, together with the party, to sort out the truth of things and to figure out, step-by-step, what is needed at any given point to move things in the direction of achieving a communist, classless world. In such a wild and woolly process, the party isn’t going to win every debate (and when it is wrong it shouldn’t!). But it should learn from every debate and become better able to lead the whole process forward.
In all this, you have to make a distinction between people who are actually involved in attempting to overthrow the socialist government and those forces and people who are not, but are speaking out against and may even be organizing political opposition to the government or may even be voicing opposition to the whole socialist system but are not involved in actual organized attempts to overthrow it. This is difficult and challenging to do, but it must be done and done well--both keeping a firm grip on the state power and preventing counter-revolution, but also maintaining the necessary “elasticity” and fostering a situation in which there is “air to breathe” in society to the maximum degree possible. The constitution and the laws will reflect, at any given time, the basis and direction of the new socialist society. And attempts to overthrow the government would be against the law. State power and the socialist nature of society (as a transition to a classless, liberated world) will not be “up for grabs.” But there is a whole range of questions that will have to be continuously examined, thought through, discussed and debated, including ones that touch on the very nature of socialist society. This is why not only will dissent, criticism, and sharply critical--even fundamental--political opposition NOT be against the law; it will be fostered. Under socialism there must be--and people must really feel that there is--room to disagree with those in authority. And there have to be the resources and ways that people can express such views.
Dissent will be something seen as crucial to the whole political process in socialist society. And being a vanguard leadership under socialism will mean leading and unleashing vigorous struggle, knowing that this could--and in fact should-- get very messy, complicated, and risky.
There is an important epistemological method here. First of all, criticisms that people raise at any given time might be correct. And even if oppositional forces are overwhelmingly wrong, they might have some elements of truth that are important to learn from.
If all kinds of clashing views are not brought into the broad debate and struggle in society, you won’t get the kind of rich process that is actually necessary to get at the truth of things. And it is extremely important that the advocates of various positions, especially those with disagreements and criticisms of the government, be given the opportunity to fully present their arguments. Only in this way can the party, together with the masses, be able to really sort out, weigh, and come to the most correct understanding of the issues at hand. And without such a process, you won’t actually be building socialism in which the masses of people are increasingly brought into the process of figuring out what’s true and correct and how to keep revolutionizing society toward communism.
And what kind of society will you have if it is one where opposition is simply shut down and suppressed? First of all, society will not benefit from the positive side of dissent, opposition, real debate, and the broadest airing of different views. And such a society will pretty quickly become a society where no one wants to live--where there is an increasingly suffocating atmosphere and the masses of people are not increasingly involved in the process of consciously transforming every aspect of society.
These are the kind of real complex and dangerous contradictions that the dictatorship of the proletariat would face. This is what it actually means to take things to “the brink of being drawn and quartered”--where you actually risk losing power, but you still go forward despite that risk, because this is the kind of society and process necessary to get to communism.
It will take visionary leadership to navigate the complex challenges of building socialism in this way--the only way in which socialism can actually be built--a society where there is widespread debate, dissent and opposition; a society where there is creativity and experimentation, and tremendous upheaval in which people are striking out in many diverse directions. This is the kind of society we want and we need to get to the goal of communism, to a society free of classes, to a world of freely associating human beings.
- Reader Criticizes Revolution Article on Elections
- Excerpts from "The Role of Elections Under Socialism"
* See Bob Avakian, “A Materialist Understanding of The State and Its Relation to the Underlying Economic Base,” Part 2, Revolution #74; part of the larger work Views On Socialism and Communism: A Radically New Kind of State, A Radically Different and Far Greater Vision of Freedom [back]
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.