From Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That

Centralization, Decentralization and the Withering Away of the State

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1245, July 4, 2004, posted at

The RW/OR presents an important series, based on a major 1991 article by Bob Avakian, "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That."

RCP Chairman Avakian's polemical essay takes head on key arguments and questions that have been raised in opposition to the overall historical experience of socialist states in the world. He defends the crucial essence of that historic experience from attack, and, in doing so, brings new insights into learning from the achievements of the proletariat in power, as well as the mistakes, to carry forward with communist revolution in today's world.

In various excerpts that will appear in this series, he examines the experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and China under Mao and draws out lessons for the future. He discusses why the proletariat needs a vanguard party and a specific kind of state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, in order to carry out this rule and carry forward the all-around transformation of society and the world. He examines how the masses rule, and the complexities and contradictions involved in that--all of which has origins in underlying economic and social factors in socialist societies and in the world as a whole, which only the continuing proletarian revolution can uproot and transform. He also explains how the proletarian concept of freedom is different from bourgeois notions of electoral democracy.

Chairman Avakian's article originally appeared in the international journal A World To Win in 1992. It is a critique of the document "On Proletarian Democracy" by the CRC--a Marxist-Leninist formation in India whose main leader, K. Venu, launched an attack in 1990-91 on Leninism, Maoism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat and later abandoned revolution. What is at stake in this argument over the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing less than the right of the proletariat to rise up in revolution and establish their own rule, and carry through the long revolutionary transformation of society until the abolition of classes, communism, is achieved. Without the hope of that path--and the leadership to take it--the masses would be left, as Bob Avakian wrote in his article, "under the domination of an economic system of capitalist exploitation and a corresponding political system where, as Marx put it, they have the opportunity to choose, every so many years, which set of exploiters will rule over and oppress them."

The entire article by Bob Avakian is availabe on line at


This excerpt is from a section of "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That" on assessing the historical experience of the proletariat in power.1 Here, in opposition to the idea that centralization is bad and decentralization is good, Chairman Avakian discusses how the withering away of the state involves drawing the broad masses (and ultimately the people as a whole) into the administration of society--on both the central and local levels--as part of the whole struggle to overcome the division between mental and manual labour and all oppressive divisions of labour and related inequalities in society overall.

Assessing Historical Experience

Viewing, from its standpoint, the whole history of socialism so far, the CRC document draws this conclusion:

"While upholding the heroic effort to create a new society and the new things which emerged through socialism (things which have played a positive role in shaping history) as communists our task is to focus on our mistakes and correct them; not justify them in the name of historical limitations." (par. 9.6)2

In response to this, three points:

1. In fact, as communists our main task in this regard, especially in today's concrete circumstances, is to uphold and defend not merely "the heroic effort to create a new society" but the great historical achievements of the dictatorship of the proletariat in actually bringing into being a radically new society, for the first time in the Soviet Union, and then carrying this to even greater heights through the Chinese revolution and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. At the same time, and on this basis,we must also ruthlessly and penetratingly criticize our actual mistakes and seek the means of avoiding those mistakes in the future and minimizing mistakes in general to the greatest degree possible.

In this regard, it must be frankly said that it is inconsistent, not to say hypocritical, for the CRC document to speak of upholding "the new things which emerged through socialism (things which have played a positive role in shaping history)" while at the same time insisting that "from Lenin onwards" the basic line and practice of the international communist movement regarding the most decisive question of proletarian state power was fundamentally flawed, that within a few years after the October Revolution the "dictatorship of the party" was instituted in place of the dictatorship of the masses, and that even the Cultural Revolution did not break out of this framework of "dictatorship of the party". To be consistent--that is, consistently Marxist--the necessary conclusion that would have to be drawn from such an analysis is that there never was any socialist transformation in those societies: for how could a Marxist think that such a world-historical transformation--and socialism, though it is not yet classless society, nevertheless represents a world-historical transformation--could be achieved not by the party leading and relying on the masses but by imposing the dictatorship of the party over them?! Viewed from this perspective, there would be very few, if any, "new things"--in particular, socialist new things--to uphold.

2. With regard to our mistakes, the first thing is to make a correct appraisal of what they were --and were not --and on that basis dig into the roots of them--the objective and subjective roots, those which did result from historical limitation and from an unfavourable balance of class forces and those which resulted from errors in outlook and methodology and in political strategy and policy.

3. This CRC document has failed to correctly appreciate and sum up the lessons from either the great advances or the actual mistakes involved in this historical experience. And this is not accidental: it is not possible to correctly analyze the mistakes without correctly evaluating the achievements and vice versa (this is related to the basic point of orientation stressed in the section of the RIM Declaration cited earlier--pointing out how the summation of historical experience is itself an arena of acute class struggle and that criticism of this experience and genuine creative development of Marxism is inseparably linked with a fierce struggle to uphold the basic principles of Marxism). Unfortunately, however, the CRC document abandons basic principles of Marxism.

Centralization, Decentralization and the Withering Away of the State

As we have seen, an incorrect position on the role of the party, particularly under the dictatorship of the proletariat, is pivotal in the CRC document's abandonment of these principles. And the document actually goes so far as to assert that:

"another tendency encouraged by Lenin's stand on the Party's central role in the dictatorship of the proletariat is the dominant thinking in the communist movement which considers that the party determines everything in relation to social revolution". (par. 9.7)

To attribute such a position to Lenin clearly flies in the face of reality--including Lenin's practice as a leader of the October Revolution and the international communist movement and his contributions to Marxist theory. But to attribute this to Mao is especially outrageous. It was Mao who crystallized the understanding that the masses are the makers of history, that the people and the people alone are the motive force in the making of world history--Mao gave this concentrated theoretical expression and he consistently applied it in practice, in the struggle to seize power, to exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat and to carry forward the revolutionary struggle toward communism. And it is not surprising that, with such a distorted outlook on what has been the actual "dominant thinking" and practice in the international communist movement, this CRC document, while "on the one hand" upholding a leading role for the communist vanguard, soon proceeds to deny that leading role "on the other hand" and in essence.

This becomes even clearer as the document gets into what it calls a "new orientation". Not surprisingly, however, this "new" orientation is far from new: it is a rather well-known conception common to a variety of petit-bourgeois and bourgeois "socialists". And, as is common to such conceptions, this "new orientation" is grounded firmly in idealism. Continuing to discount or dismiss the very real contradictions, within socialist society and internationally, that have been the essential basis for why, in certain significant respects, the actual historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat has differed from what Marx projected from the short-lived and very limited experience of the Paris Commune, this document insists that:

"A qualitatively new understanding of proletarian political power must be the starting point. It must reflect Marx's concept of the Paris Commune--as the reabsorption of state power by the whole society. So the proletarian state should not be a state like the bourgeois state or the state under socialism so far practised by the communists which concentrated the whole power in the centralised state structure. It will have to be a new political system in which the state ceases to be a state by starting the process of reabsorption of state power by society, through a process of decentralising political power, aimed at reaching a stage when the (political) will of the whole society can get expressed and realised directly without the mediation of the state. Such a system can be developed only by achieving the genuine socialisation of the means of production, which can again be assured through a political system which ensures proletarian democracy. This socialist system, in which the socialised economic base and the proletarian democratic political system are complementary aspects, must survive on its own becoming a social system acceptable to and practised by the whole people, under the leadership of the proletariat." (par. 10.3)

Note the equation: centralization--bad; decentralization--good. Again, this reflects the classical petit-bourgeois aversion to the rule of the proletariat through its powerful centralized state and its centralized control over the economy. This document is, in effect, calling for the abolition of the proletarian state --as soon as the proletariat has consolidated its rule and socialized ownership--and the replacement of this state by a non-state democratic political system.

In actual fact, the withering away of the state is not equivalent to the abolition of a centralized administrative structure--such a structure will still be necessary in communist society, although there, even as compared with socialist society, it will be a structure of a radically new type. Nor does the process of the withering away of the state--the process of "the reabsorption of state power by the whole society"--find its most essential expression in the weakening of the central state apparatus and its replacement by decentralized political institutions. In essence, this process involves the drawing of the broad masses (and ultimately the people as a whole) into the administration of society--on both the central and local levels--as part of the whole struggle to overcome the division between mental and manual labour and all oppressive divisions of labour and related inequalities in society overall.

But let's look further at the question of centralization-decentralization and the CRC document's distorted view of this. In fact, what is being proposed with the CRC document's "new orientation" is the same old anarchist-syndicalist line that Lenin criticized: a line that sets decentralization against the centralized state power and economic control of the proletarian state--that treats these as essentially antagonistic, rather than grasping the non-antagonistic dialectical relation between them. Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, without a powerful central state apparatus and its centralized control of the economy, decentralization will only lead to a situation of conflicting local and particular interests, will foster capitalist competition and contribute to the restoration of the capitalist system. In the real world it is impossible for the proletariat to exercise dictatorship over the enemy, or to practice democracy among the people, just as it is impossible for it to be the master of the economy, without such powerful centralization: without such centralization there is no way to maintain a unified and integrated socialist economy, relying on planned and proportional development serving the revolutionary interests of the proletariat, and no way for the larger interests of the proletariat as a class to be translated into lines and policies guiding the entire society.

On the other hand, centralization without relying on the masses and giving wide scope to initiative on the local and basic levels will also lead to the restoration of capitalism, in the form (initially at least) of state capitalism. This is why Mao stressed that, in formulating plans for the socialist economy as well as in carrying out these plans, as with everything else, the mass line must be practised and fundamental reliance must be placed on the conscious activism of the masses. Summing up the pathbreaking experience in carrying out the line of "grasp revolution/promote production" in socialist China, Raymond Lotta points out that:

"The Chinese planning system delegated decision-making to local political authority, which, in conjunction with unified political direction and new forms of socialist management, increased the exercise of collective control by the proletariat. The Chinese revolutionaries demonstrated the possibility of combining regulation with creative experimentation, centralized control with local initiative, balance with breakthrough, and economic coordination with mass political campaigns; they put revolutionary politics in command of economic development. This model represents a qualitative leap in the theory and practice of socialist planning...".

"Mao summed up that too much top-down (vertical) control over the economy stifled popular initiative. Such a system of planning could not give full play to local capabilities and allow for creative utilization of local resources. It also undermined unified leadership over the economy as a whole, since there was no way that a complex and diverse economy could be managed on the basis of detailed commands from the top, no matter how thorough the statistical information and price calculations may be...."

"Thus the policy of giving greater scope to local authority was carried out in dialectical unity with unified central leadership and unified planning. Local initiative would have the effect of strengthening, not weakening, centralized leadership and unified planning. But the real glue of this system ensuring that the interests of the whole and the overall needs of the revolution were being met was political and ideological.And decisive to this was the practice of the `mass line' to ensure that planning was carried out in accordance with the interests of the masses and on the basis of mobilizing the masses." (Lotta, "The Theory and Practice of Maoist Planning: In Defense of a Viable and Visionary Socialism", Revolution magazine issue No. 62, Spring 1992 emphasis in original)


1 This series began with several segments on the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx hailed the Commune as the first historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In these excerpts ( RW # 1241, 1242, & 1243) Bob Avakian takes on the argument of the CRC--which essentially upholds only the Commune as a legitimate exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat and pits the Commune's experience--which was very important, but brief and initial-- against the entire historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat in socialist society beginning with the October 1917 Soviet Revolution.

RW #1244 features an excerpt "On the Events of the 1980s and 1990s in the Former Soviet Bloc and China."

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2 Throughout the article these paragraph notations refer to numbered paragraphs in the CRC document which will soon be available online at

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