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

If the Vanguard Doesn't Lead, Who Will?

What Kind of Party, What Kind of Revolution?

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1247, July 25, 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."


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 The previous excerpt in RW #1245, "Centralization, Decentralization and the Withering Away of the State," discussed 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. Here Chairman Avakian discusses the leading role of the vanguard party in socialist society in relation to the complex contradictions of the socialist transition to communism.

If the Vanguard Doesn't Lead, Who Will?

Let's return to the formulation in the CRC document's "new orientation": "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". Here it must be asked: what is meant by this "whole people"? Does it include or exclude the overthrown exploiters? And what about newborn exploiters, arising from within socialist society itself? And what about degenerated elements from among the working people themselves, since no reasonable person can deny that in socialist society there will be such? Once it is allowed that dictatorship must be exercised over these groups, then we are back to the fact that "a social system acceptable to and practised by the whole people " cannot come about right away or in a short time--without protracted and at times very acute class struggle and in fact the thorough transformation of the economic base and the superstructure of society and moreover the whole world.

What, in this context, can "survive on its own" mean? Does it mean that if the "whole people" decide they do not want this system, it must be abandoned until a time in the future when, perhaps, this "whole people" will decide that after all they do want this system again--at least for a while. The absurdity of such a concept--which is related to the absurdity of this Khrushchev-like notion of a classless "whole people"--should be readily apparent.

Oh, but it is said that this "whole people" must practice this "socialist" system "under the leadership of the proletariat". But here this CRC document runs into a logical contradiction of its own making. According to its own logic, it can legitimately be asked: who gave the proletariat "the right" to assert its leadership? From the point of view of this "whole people", why is that not just as bad as the dreaded "dictatorship of the party"? But, even if this proletarian leadership were to be accepted, how would this leadership be actually exercised--institutionally or "extra- institutionally"--what would be the means and mechanisms for this that would not actually land you back in the same old situation where the vanguard of the proletariat plays the leading role?

In fact, once again the very logic of this document will lead to the conclusion that there should not be any vanguard, at least not a proletarian vanguard. And, further, it will also lead to the conclusion that no one, no social classes or forces, should be excluded from "the whole people"; for who gave any one group "the right" to set itself up as the judge of who can be included among "the whole people". There is, of course, an answer to this, but it cannot be provided with the bourgeois-democratic outlook that runs through this CRC document.

At this point the CRC document seems to allow that the leadership of a vanguard party will be necessary to carry out the overthrow of the old state power, the smashing of the old state machinery and then "the establishment of the new political system". (par. 10.4) And further, "The vanguard party of the proletariat will have to play the leading role until the new political system starts functioning effectively, by completing the process of the socialisation of the means of production and then consolidating the power in the hands of the new ruling classes under the leadership of the proletariat. Once this is achieved the communist party must give up its monopoly control of the revolutionary transformation and allow the system to function on its own. Under the proletarian democratic system, the effectiveness of the new system will be accepted or rejected by the people through an open democratic process in which the whole people will be freely involved through their own political organisations or otherwise." (ibid)

Once again, the document is embroiled in all kinds of logical contradictions of its own making.

First, on the question of violently overthrowing the old system and the role of the vanguard party in this, as was pointed out in the beginning of this critique, in drawing some general conclusions concerning the CRC document: this document's position on the so- called dictatorship of the party is inescapably linked to a position that a violent overthrow, especially one led by a vanguard party, is also wrong--elitist and coercive not only against the bourgeoisie but also against masses of people who may not, at the start at least, agree with the vanguard party about the need to carry out this violent overthrow. Shouldn't this question (of whether or not to overthrow the old system) be put to a vote of the "whole people"? Or perhaps it should be put to a vote of the "whole people" minus the old ruling class and those (openly) siding with it?--but then, again, you would run into the vexing problem of who would decide, who would have "the right" to decide, who exactly should be included and excluded from the ranks of the "whole people". Before long, this kind of formal democratic preoccupation would overwhelm any orientation toward overthrowing the system!

This might seem like a caricature of the CRC document's position, but it is not. It is not accidental that Khrushchev's line on "the state of the whole people" was part of a package that also included "the peaceful transition to socialism". And the parallel also exists with regard to the line and logic put forward in this CRC document. If this line and logic is persisted in, it won't be long before some version of "peaceful transition" is also more or less openly adopted.

Returning to the question of when and according to what criteria it should be determined that the party should no longer play an institutionalized leading role in the new society, we run into another of the by-now-familiar logical contradictions in the CRC document. Who is to determine when "the new political system starts functioning effectively" and specifically when the consolidation of "power in the hands of the new ruling classes under the leadership of the proletariat" has been sufficiently achieved that the party must give up this role? Is it the party that decides this? But that is a contradiction in itself--how can the party decide for the masses that they no longer need the party's institutionalized leading role? Or, if this is not decided by the party, then by whom and by what means is this decided--do the people vote on it? But then who decides when it is time to have such a vote, who organizes such a vote, sets the rules for it, etc., etc.? The silliness of these questions is a reflection of the underlying idealism of the whole line set forth in this CRC document.

Turning to the economic aspect, in no socialist country to date has there existed anything close to complete socialization of ownership, certainly not in the sense spoken of by Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Programme (where he conceived of all ownership being ownership by society as a whole). And experience suggests that it is likely to involve a long period before such complete socialization can be achieved. In both the Soviet Union and in China when they were socialist, the fact that things had not yet advanced to the stage where all means of production were owned by the whole people was identified as a major reason why commodities and with them the law of value continued to play a significant, if not overall regulating, role in the economy. In China, collective ownership by groups of peasants was still the most widespread form of ownership, with the relatively small production teams still the main economic accounting unit. Mao, and Chang Chun-chiao following him, identified this as a significant and long- term contradiction, very much bound up with the existence of classes and class struggle and the continual engendering of the bourgeoisie under socialism. So, to say that the party should step down from its institutionalized vanguard role when the process of socialization is completed, without addressing crucial questions like this, is another, more serious, reflection of the idealism of this CRC document.

The fact is that, exactly because of profound contradictions such as this and their reflection in the superstructure, the party will have to continue to play the leading role for a long period--in fact throughout the entire historical period of socialist transition, which is marked by such contradictions. And to actually play this role in the correct way --in the correct relationship to the masses-- this leading role must be institutionalized. As pointed out before, if this is not the case, then, owing to the actual contradictions still in force, some other group must and will dominate decision-making, but it will be bourgeois cliques of one kind or another.

What Kind of Party,What Kind of Revolution?

In opposition to this understanding, the "new orientation" envisioned in this CRC document holds that, from the time of the seizure of power, even when it must still play the vanguard role, the party "must assert its authority only politically through the bodies elected by the people", and moreover the party must function as an "open party" and be "very democratic even allowing factions etc. as a matter of principle". (par. 10.5) And then, once the functioning of the new political and economic system has been developed according to the principles set forth in this document, the party "should formally relinquish its monopoly of power", and, "Its right to govern should be strictly based on the electoral support gained by its platform just like any other platform." (par. 10.9)

This is yet more idealism. It is mere playing at socialist revolution, if it is even that. This may be an appropriate party for a socialist society existing in some idyllic imaginary world where there is no imperialist encirclement, no soil constantly giving rise to the bourgeoisie within the socialist society itself, no significant social distinctions and class contradictions among the people themselves, no ideological influence of the exploiting classes, and so on. But it is clear that this has nothing to do with a revolutionary party that must act as the vanguard of a determined class struggle, both within the country and internationally, against a class enemy that still has a powerful base internationally and even within the socialist society itself has some powerful material conditions operating in its favour.2

It may sound "very democratic" to talk about an "open party" that allows factions within it "as a matter of principle", and so on. But in reality this is just a recipe for a party with many different "centres", none of which will be capable of representing the revolutionary interests of the proletariat, especially in periods of acute class struggle--a party that will degenerate into bourgeois factionalism. All this is indeed "very democratic"--it is very bourgeois -democratic--the "principle" involved in this is bourgeois principle.3

It should be recalled how the experience of the Bolshevik Party, in leading the October Revolution and the Soviet state it gave birth to, involved, as a significant aspect, breaking with the influence of social- democracy, represented most prominently by the German Social-Democratic Party of Kautsky. This was a process which culminated in a complete rupture, focused around World War 1--a sharp turn in which the majority of the parties in the Second International went from quantity to quality in degenerating into opportunism, while on the other hand the Bolsheviks also went from quantity to quality in breaking with erroneous tendencies that had long held considerable sway in the international socialist movement. One of the sharpest focuses of this was precisely the question of the party.

As we know, in order to prepare for and then lead the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks, under Lenin's leadership, had to fight a fierce battle to establish and maintain the kind of vanguard party necessary for the tasks of proletarian revolution. And, in the aftermath of the seizure of power, the Bolsheviks again had to make another, further leap in conceptualizing and realizing a vanguard party that could lead the continuing struggle. One significant expression of this was the outlawing of factions within the Party. It is true that, while this may have been initially seen as a temporary measure to deal with an acutely difficult situation in the wake of the civil war, it was then given more general and long-term application. And this was correct.

Genuine communist parties, real vanguards of the proletarian revolution, need the contention of opposing views and a vigorous ideological struggle within their own ranks, but they also need this to be done through the unified organizational structure of the party and not through the formation of organized factions, each with a different platform, set of leaders, and so on. Serious breaches of discipline and factional activity within the Bolsheviks almost killed the October insurrection (Kamenev and Zinoviev, who disagreed with the insurrection, or at least with the timing of the insurrection, publicly revealed the plans for the insurrection, with nearly fatal consequences); and, had factions not been outlawed when they were (1921), they would have killed the new Soviet Republic and obviously prevented the building of socialism under the dictatorship of the proletariat.4

With the line that is put forward in this CRC document on the nature and role of the party under socialism, how will the proletariat be able to exercise its leadership--in fact its all-around dictatorship--in the superstructure, including such crucial spheres as culture? What kind of culture, representing which class, will dominate the stage in this kind of setup? It is worth recalling that, in discussing the reasons why the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was absolutely necessary and most timely, Mao pointed to the fact that, even after power had been seized and up until the time of the Cultural Revolution, culture and education had overall remained under the domination of the bourgeoisie (of the revisionists in particular). It required a monumental struggle to seize control of these crucial spheres from the revisionists and to embark on the radical transformation of them. It would be extremely idealist to think that a proletarian line will dominate in the sphere of culture--or the superstructure generally--on the basis of spontaneity and without the systematic, all-around leading role of the party--a single party unified on the basis of a single line, not one divided into factions and riddled with factionalism. In the absence of such leadership, the superstructure will in reality be dominated by the bourgeoisie, and this, in turn, will mean that capitalist relations will become dominant in the economic base--that capitalism will be restored in society as a whole.5


1This series began with several segments on the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx hailed the Com mune 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 featured an excerpt "On the Events of the 1980s and 1990s in the Former Soviet Bloc and China."

In RW #1245 "Centralization, Decentralization and the Withering Away of the State" began a series of excerpts from a section on assessing the historical experience of the proletariat in power.

[Return to article]

2The CRC document doesn't entirely forget to mention class struggle here. It says that the system of proletarian democracy it is advocating "will have to evolve further" ("Since socialism itself is a period of revolutionary transformation") and that, "The question of such changes in the political-social-economic structures will itself be a matter of class struggle." (ibid) But this vague notion of "class struggle" is part of the CRC document's idealized vision of "socialist society", in which the material basis for the existence, and strength, of the bourgeoisie is not taken seriously into account--is not even correctly comprehended. This "class struggle" could only be as imaginary as the "socialism" this document dreams up. It has nothing to do with the real, and decisive, class struggle that must be waged as the key link throughout the socialist transition. It doesn't help to talk about "class struggle" and "a period of revolutionary transformation" in a context where the nature of this "period of revolutionary transformation" is distorted and the basis and centrality of class contradiction and class struggle throughout this period is misapprehended and misrepresented.

[Return to article]

3One of the main expressions of bourgeois principle involved here is treating ideas, including the lines and "platforms" of political parties, as commodities that have to find their value in the "market place of ideas" (and the petite bourgeoisie is particularly susceptible to the illusion that in the operation of the "free market" equality will actually prevail). There is a basic failure to recognize that the essence of the capitalist market in particular is class domination and exploitation.

[Return to article]

4While it may be the case that the counterrevolutionary treachery of Kamenev and Zinoviev in this politically (and literally) life-and-death situation did not result from their involvement in an organized faction--and, in any case, this could not have been prevented simply by the organizational measure of outlawing factions--still their actions were of a clearly factional character: acting according to their own line and discipline in opposition to that of the party. And, as a matter of fact, the more full-blown and ongoing existence of factions will even more fundamentally undermine the unity of will and action of the party and make it incapable of playing a vanguard role, of leading the masses in revolutionary struggle, first to carry out the seizure of power and establish their own proletarian dictatorship and then to carry forward the revolution under this dictatorship.

In order to examine this question more fully, it is worth reviewing the specific circumstances that led to the outlawing of factions in the Bolshevik Party in 1921. The Bolsheviks confronted the challenge of rehabilitating a war-ravaged economy that now faced breakdown, of re-establishing links with key sectors of the population (particularly in the countryside), and of strengthening its organization in a milieu of social dislocation, political disaffection (including within the urban working class) and wavering among middle strata. The civil war had been won, yet the fate of the revolution still hung in the balance. New tasks had to be faced, major policy adjustments were called for (the New Economic Policy was the systematic expression of that necessity), and new skills, especially in managing the economy, had to be developed. Meeting the challenges of the new situation required a united and resolute party, yet the party itself was, and could not but be, affected by the strife and upheaval of the preceding civil war period. Sharp two- line struggle raged over the road forward. That was inevitable. But the successful prosecution of that struggle was complicated by the growing problem of factionalism.

Various opposition groupings were organizing around separate platforms, forcing the agenda of party discussion around secondary questions, and putting adherence to their own platforms above party discipline. Lenin was concerned about the real danger of a split in the party at this crucial time; and he was concerned that the necessary liberalization in economic matters not fan bourgeois-democratic tendencies in the party. It was also the case that, where and when they were in a position to do so, factional elements sought to implement their own programs (for example, followers of Trotsky tried to carry out their program of militarizing the trade unions, a disastrous policy that would feed demoralization within the trade unions and distrust towards the party within society as a whole, exactly at a time when the need to restore popular confidence in the revolution was at a premium). The influx of many young and inexperienced members into the party, alongside many unreconstructed ex-Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries, etc., created fertile ground for factional organizing within the party.

Left unchecked, factionalism would make it more difficult to arrive at and carry out party decisions, would undermine party unity and give greater scope for incorrect policies to take hold; in short, it would weaken the foundations of proletarian rule. Further, precisely because the Bolsheviks were now a party in power,factionalism took on a new and threatening dimension. The internal and external enemies of the revolution could, as they did, speculate on and take advantage of factional intrigue and work through groupings close to power in order to further their aims, while the proliferation of groups organized around their own platforms gave the enemies within the revolution greater room to manoeuvre and organize.

While the particular circumstances that led to the outlawing of factions in the Bolshevik Party in 1921 were ones of acute crisis for the new proletarian state and its leading party; and while the existence of factions within a party in power provides a particularly strong basis for counterrevolutionary forces, inside and outside the socialist country, to weaken and even to overthrow the socialist state or to subvert it from within and turn it into its opposite; there are more general principles involved. The history of the Bolshevik Party illustrates that, even before the seizure of power, the Bolsheviks already needed to rupture more fully with the organizational line that predominated among the socialist parties of the Second International, a line which allowed factions, etc., within the party. This was a line which flowed from the increasingly reformist outlook and program of the majority (and the most influential) of these parties--a line which was not oriented toward leading the masses to overthrow and smash the existing bourgeois state apparatus and establish a new, proletarian state. The outlawing of factions in the Bolshevik Party in 1921--and, beyond that, the establishment of this as a basic organizational principle of communist parties--represented the bringing of organizational practice and principle more fully into line with the objective needs of the proletarian revolutionary struggle, both before and after the seizure of power.

This question of factions within the party will be returned to later, in discussing the concluding sections of the CRC document.

[Return to article]

5In the pamphlet Three Major Struggles on China's Philosophical Front it is noted that Mao warned "that if we do not build a socialist economy, our proletarian dictatorship will become a bourgeois dictatorship, a reactionary, fascist dictatorship". (Three Major Struggles, Peking: FLP, 1973, p. 19) And, as the other side of this, if the proletariat does not in fact exercise all-around dictatorship over the bourgeoisie in the superstructure, including the spheres of ideology and culture, it will not be possible to build a socialist economy and remain on the socialist road. The line of this CRC document is an echo of--or actually the "reverse side" of--the line of Liu Shao-chi and his philosophical followers who, after the seizure of nationwide political power in China, advocated a long period in which the economy would be of a "synthesized" capitalist-socialist character and the superstructure would serve both the socialist and the capitalist sector and "`also serve the bourgeoisie'". (ibid p. 16) The CRC document's line arrives at the same place "from the other side": it would undermine the exercise of all-around dictatorship by the proletariat in the superstructure and create a situation where, in theory, different class forces would be "sharing power" in the superstructure; in reality, of course, this "synthesized" superstructure would mean that the bourgeoisie "synthesized"--"ate up"--the proletariat and seized control of the superstructure as a whole and transformed society in its image--back to capitalism.

[Return to article]