On Proletarian Democracy and Proletarian Dictatorship: A Radically Different View of Leading Society: From "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World"

Part 9: Individual Leaders and the Larger Interests of Society and the People

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1222, December 14, 2003, posted at rwor.org

This series by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian is excerpted from a previously unpublished talk titled "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World."

Another aspect of socialism, about which there is great distortion on the part of the bourgeoisie, is something that was spoken to in A Horrible End, or an End to the Horror (and also in "End/Beginning"1): the dialectical relation between the "personal authority" of leaders (or as it's sometimes formulated, the cult of the personality, or the cult of the individual) on the one hand and, on the other hand, institutionalized, constitutionally established, rights and "due process" in socialist society. Here I want to elaborate further on the political--and also get into the philosophical--dimension of this.

In A Horrible End, or an End to the Horror2 it is put this way: "However much it may drive liberals, social democrats, and bourgeois democrats generally up a wall, there is also a dialectical relation--unity as well as opposition--between cult(s) of the individual around leading people and on the other hand ease of mind and liveliness, initiative, and creative, critical thinking among party members and the masses following the party. In the future communist society, this need for firmly established revolutionary authority as an `anchor' will no longer exist and would run counter to developing the critical spirit and critical thinking; it too will have to be abolished as an important part of the advance to communism. But to demand its abolition now runs counter to that advance, and to unleashing and developing that critical spirit and critical thinking" (p. 212).

This, of course, is a very controversial statement. And it does, in addition, speak to a very acute contradiction, which is bound up with the larger contradiction of leadership and led to which I spoke earlier. This statement (from A Horrible End, or an End to the Horror ) puts it right: there is unity and opposition here--between, on the one hand, authority invested or embodied in certain individuals and, on the other hand, ease of mind and liveliness, individual initiative and creativity and critical thinking among party members and the masses broadly--there is this unity and opposition, and it is very important to handle this correctly, precisely in order to advance toward the strategic goal of abolishing any need for such personal authority, along with the abolition of the need, or possibility, for any one group within society to institutionalize its leadership and authority.

This point is also spoken to in the Leadership Resolutions that were adopted a few years ago by our Party's CC. These Resolutions, in speaking to the contradiction between the collectivity of the party and the role of individuals, including individual leaders within the party, put the emphasis on what is the principal aspect--the collectivity of the party and its democratic centralism--and situate the role of individuals, even leading individuals, within that context and that framework. They also speak to the importance of and the essence of democratic centralism within the party--that is a matter of applying the mass line within the party as well as outside the party (in other words, between the party and the broader masses). These are the basic principles that have to be grasped in understanding this contradiction between individuals--and more particularly the role and authority of individual leaders--and collectivity.

Now, in grappling with this question of the personal authority of individuals and how this fits into the proletarian revolution and the transition to communism, I found an interesting "angle" on this in a book by Stanley Fish, who is a major figure in American academic and intellectual circles. He was a professor of mine at Berkeley "back in the days"--way, way back in the early '60s. He taught an honors course on John Milton (author of the epic poem Paradise Lost ) that I took one summer. I hadn't seen or heard from him in nearly 30 years, and then I got a copy of a book he had written, There's No Such Thing As Free Speech--And It's a Good Thing Too.(The title sort of intrigued me, and I recognized that he was probably the same professor I had known, so I dug into this book.)

Fish is one of these people who could be said to be generally associated with a certain kind of deconstructionism, and he has some weaknesses in terms of lapsing into aspects of relativism and "truth as an organizing principle" (a pragmatic outlook and method that was criticized in Lenin's Materialism and Empiro-Criticism ). But this book by Fish ( There's No Such Thing ) is very interesting, in a number of different ways, including the fact that parts of it consist of his side of the debates with Dinesh D'Souza (a fairly prominent "conservative" mouthpiece) on a number of campuses over the question of affirmative action and related questions (Fish was taking the good side of the debate, obviously--upholding affirmative action).

Finding There's No Such Thing interesting and provocative in a number of ways, I wanted to read other things he had written, and I came across Doing What Comes Naturally , another collection of essays by Fish. In one of these essays ("No Bias, No Merit") he makes a point which I believe has some relevance to the question of the cult of the individual (or personal authority) and its relation to the objectives of the proletarian revolution.

In this particular essay Fish puts forward the analysis that there is never a situation where the ideas expressed by different people are all given equal weight, solely with regard to their "merit," independently of any bias. He puts forward that people should--or in any case will--give greater weight to the ideas of people who have established themselves within any field or institution as some kind of authority. Merit, he argues, "rather than being a quality that can be identified independently of professional or institutional conditions, is a product of these conditions." Now, as I see it, Fish's view here--as in general--is characterized and marred by a tendency toward relativism and "truth as an organizing principle." But he nonetheless has a point in arguing that there is a legitimate--or, as he might put it, unavoidable--tendency to give more weight to some people's ideas than to others.

This relates to the problem within the ICM of "father parties" and why some parties are given more weight--why lines and policies and what's argued for by certain parties which are in power (again, using that as a short- handed expression), or which are leading significant revolutionary struggles or revolutionary wars, are given more weight than those of a party which is small and doesn't have that large a following. This divides into two. It is not all wrong for people to approach things in that way. There is a relationship there between theory and practice--without being reductionist, narrow and pragmatic--that does correctly lead people to attach more significance to what people who have accumulated a great deal of experience, and frankly, positive achievements, have to say about questions-- particularly but not only questions around which they have accumulated important experience.

From a different angle, this is what Stanley Fish is speaking to, even though his view is marred, as I said, by certain erroneous, relativist tendencies. He's speaking to the fact that there is a legitimate (or, again, he might say unavoidable) tendency to give more weight to some people's ideas than to others. Certainly, in class society, this is always going to be a phenomenon. Within any party, within any struggle, and on the international level, this is going to find expression. People who are leaders, who have led through various twists and turns, who at key junctures have taken the right side and led people in fighting for that right side, are going to be given a certain authority, and a certain "benefit of the doubt"; what they say is going to be (to use an odious phrase) "invested" with more authority than what someone who is inexperienced--or hasn't played such a leadership role, or hasn't played a critical and decisive role at certain key junctures--might have to say.

So, all that's on the one hand, and we can't say that it's without any legitimate basis. But how does this relate to the statement by Mao himself, on the other hand, (I believe this is in Mao Tsetung Unrehearsed , the book that was edited by Stuart Schram3) that truth, in the beginning, is always in the hands of a minority of people, and that generally speaking it is the mavericks who make innovations and bring forward new things and who recognize the "new truths" first, while they have to go up against conventional ideas and established authority in coming up with and fighting for new ideas?

In the course of making this point about truth often being in the hands of the minority and people having to go up against convention and the established norms and authorities in forging new ideas or making innovations and grasping certain aspects of reality that weren't previously recognized, Mao makes the statement that people should follow whoever has the truth in their hands. If a peasant has the truth, you should follow him. You shouldn't blindly follow any authority or follow people simply because they are in authority--which of course is profoundly true and a very important principle.

But, here again, we have another unity of opposites. On the one hand, there is a legitimate and real basis for why certain people's ideas and thinking and arguments are given more weight than others, and on the other hand, the fundamental and essential principle here--and the ultimately principal and decisive aspect of this contradiction--is that truth is an objective thing, that reality exists objectively, and that correctly reflecting reality is what constitutes truth.

Truth is not the property of any individual or party or group, but exists objectively, and whoever has the truth in their hands, has it. You should recognize the truth no matter who puts it forward--even if it's put forward by people who oppose what you are all about. Even if the truth about something is put forward by people who are opposed to everything we stand for, we still have to acknowledge that truth. And this is certainly no less so when we're dealing not with an enemy but perhaps someone among the people who is not accorded, generally speaking, the same kind of authority as a leader in a society, group, or party--and may even be opposing those who are in positions of authority within that society, group, or party--it can be the case that in the particular instance the truth is in their hands. You have to take up the truth, whoever brings it forward.

This can be a very acute contradiction, especially if people who are "invested" with a certain authority don't have the truth in their hands and come up with wrong lines. And, more generally, in the working out of the leadership/led contradiction, this will also be another aspect in which things can get acutely posed--this contradiction that some people are legitimately accorded more authority while at the same time, objectively, reality is reality, truth is truth, and all ideas, regardless of who puts them forward, have to be evaluated according to the same standard, with the same scientific approach and method.

Now, going back to this point about the authority (or, in a certain sense, the "cult") of the individual and what's said in Horrible End/End to the Horror about the dialectical relation between this and creative thinking, the critical spirit, initiative, ease of mind and liveliness on the part of party members and the masses broadly: Something occurred to me in thinking about this, which has to do with a comment made a number of years ago, I guess in the mid or late '70s, by Irwin Silber (a revisionist who sometimes adopted a somewhat "left" stance). I remember hearing at that time that he made a speech where he was putting forward the revisionist line on what was going on in Indochina, and Cambodia in particular, coming from the vantage point of pro-Soviet revisionism--I think this was the point where the Vietnamese either were about to, or had, invaded and driven out the Khmer Rouge and installed a government in Cambodia that was "friendly to" the Vietnamese government. Silber was either justifying this, and/or generally running down the Khmer Rouge government and Pol Pot. At some point in this, it was reported to me, he said, to elucidate his point for his audience and to give what he regarded as a vivid illustration of what Cambodia must be like: "Imagine if you lived in a society that was run by Bob Avakian!"

I thought this was a very interesting comment, and there are a number of levels on which we could respond to this. Leaving aside here the question of the actual character of Cambodian society under the Khmer Rouge and very real problems with that4--and putting to the side as well that Silber was slandering our Party and its leadership--in reflecting back on this recently, in preparing this talk, something about this stood out to me. I myself would have to say that I wouldn't want to live in a society like that either, in the sense that he meant it. In other words, I wouldn't want to live in a society where any individual, no matter who, and no matter whether they represent the proletariat or not, is invested with authority in such a way that they can and do exercise that authority on the basis of personal ambition, whim, caprice--and tyranny--in the way Silber was presenting it. Again, putting to the side for the moment his slander of our Party and its leadership, there still is the question: Is that the kind of society we want? Is that what we mean by the correct aspect of the authority of individuals within a party and within socialist society? Clearly and emphatically, the answer is No.

In other words, we would not want a society in which the way the dictatorship of the proletariat (or, really, a fundamental distortion of the dictatorship of the proletariat) was exercised resembled a monarchy, in which the will of the individual leader stands above the law, above everything. Now, in fact, even in an "absolute monarchy," the will of the monarch is not absolute but is conditioned and shaped by the class relations of which that monarchy is an expression. And this is true of all forms of rule, all dictatorships. But the point here is that we would not want to live in--and we are not striving for--a society where in a general sense the rule and the will of the "monarch"--or an individual leader--supersedes (or "trumps") all other institutions and all other principles in society, so that this ruler, or leader, by individual decree, outside and above laws, can condemn or pardon people, can take acts which are independent of and above any law and legal procedures, can make his (or her) own will carry the force of law, and so on.

While there has never been a dictatorship of the proletariat where this was what existed (and in fact there has never been any kind of state where this was true in the most literal and absolute sense), there have been instances in which there has been a distortion in terms of individual authority in relation to the overall rule of the proletariat, and in which the leadership/led contradiction has been mishandled in significant aspects, even while the society overall was socialist and where the dictatorship of the proletariat was in very general terms being upheld. In particular, this applies to at least part of the experience of the Soviet Union under Stalin's leadership. Not that it was ever as extreme as in the characterization of "absolute monarchy," or something like that, but there were tendencies in that direction, where, let's just say, what was written down on paper, regarding the principles governing the functioning of society and the state, was at various times and in various ways "modified" or even superseded by what particular individuals--and a leading individual specifically--was determined to do.

And a society where that is the principal aspect and essence of things (and, again, that was not the case in the Soviet Union, even with Stalin's mistakes) is not the kind of "society" we want to live in. That is not the kind of society that we are striving to bring into being. That is not the kind of society that would lead to communism. The correct aspect of the authority that comes to reside in certain individuals does not, and must not, translate into the fact that individuals stand outside of the collectivity of the party and the overall interests of the proletariat; that they can substitute their own individual will or whims at a given time for the line and policies of the party, for the principles of the party and of the state; that they can make their own will, or their own sense of what's right and necessary, supersede or circumvent the collectivity and the democratic centralism of the party, and of the socialist society, and the principles and even the formal structures in which those principles are embodied. That's not what we mean by the positive and necessary aspect of the "cult of the individual" or the fact that certain individuals do have a certain authority associated with them. This--the correct aspect of this--still must exist in the context of, and be expressed through, the collectivity of the party, through the principles and the institutions and structures of the party- -and, where the party is leading the proletariat in exercising state power, the structures and institutions and principles of that society as a whole. Not outside or above them.

Along with that--this is kind of an aside but an important one--I would also say that, besides not wanting to live in a society like that, I would also not want to live in a socialist society that did not have a place for people like Mario Savio, or Mumia Abu-Jamal, or Alice Walker, or many others that we could think of. I do not believe that such a society could lead to communism. This is pointing to something which I want to come back to later --the relationship of unity/struggle/unity we should have with various other forces throughout the socialist transition, and how we deal with people who have viewpoints other than ours but who, globally speaking, stand with the people and against the enemy. In other words, if we can unite with and recognize the important role and contributions of people like this now , then certainly the socialist society that we are striving to bring into being should be one where these contributions are enhanced, even with all the, at times, acute contradictions involved in this, rather than a society where we cannot find a way to give expression to these people's positive qualities and even bring them forward more fully.

To return to the main point here, the party must lead--and, as is said straight up in the polemic vs. K. Venu, the leadership of the party must be openly acknowledged and even institutionalized in socialist society--or else we will end up with a bourgeois leadership, with a bourgeois dictatorship and a bourgeois society overall. But, at the same time, one of the key aspects of our leadership must be the correct application of unity-struggle-unity with other class forces among the people and the all-around application of our UFuLP5 strategy (once again, I will return to this at various points in the remainder of this talk).

1 "The End of a Stage--The Beginning of a New Stage" (Late 1989), Revolution No. 60, Fall 1990.

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2 Bob Avakian, A Horrible End, or an End to the Horror (RCP Publications, 1984).

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3 This refers to the British edition. The book was subsequently published in the U.S. as Chairman Mao Talks to the People (New York: Pantheon, 1974).

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4 See "Condescending Saviours: What Went Wrong with the Pol Pot Regime," A World to Win, 1999/25. This article was a beginning attempt to analyze the important and complicated questions involved in the experience in Cambodia during the war in Indochina and the devastation U.S. imperialism brought not only in Vietnam but in Cambodia, as well as Laos; the armed struggle led by the Khmer Rouge against U.S. imperialism and its puppet regime in Cambodia; the eventual victory and seizure of power by the Khmer Rouge; the policies of this new Khmer Rouge regime and their effect on the situation and the masses of people in Cambodia and; after a few years, the defeat of this regime by invading Vietnamese armed forces and the installation of a regime essentially dependent on the Vietnamese government.

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5 UfuLP refers to the RCP's strategic orientation of united front under the leadership of the proletariat.

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