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

The Bourgeois Electoral Model vs. Leading the Masses to Remake the World

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1249, August 15, 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 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 on line at

In the two excerpts featured in this issue1, (RW #1249) Avakian continues on the theme of the vanguard communist party--contrasting how elections in bourgeois society trap the masses in a dead end exercise that atomizes the individual in a process to perpetuate the status-quo vs. the liberating role of a genuine communist vanguard in leading the masses to remake the world; and he discusses democratic centralism and the crucial role of two-line struggle in keeping the party on the revolutionary road.

The party must not rely on its position of authority, it must rely on the masses; but that does not mean it should degenerate into acting like any old social-democratic party, tailing the masses and reducing its role to the framework and confines of bourgeois-democratic politicking for votes, abdicating its responsibility to act as a vanguard and actually lead the masses in revolution.

That the CRC document's vision of the functioning of the "proletarian democratic system" is in reality not qualitatively different from a classical bourgeois-democratic system should be clear by now. Its "model", where the communist party's "right to govern" is "strictly based on the electoral support gained by its platform just like any other platform", would, at best, translate into a situation where rival power centres, coalesced around different platforms, would compete for the votes of the masses. The result of this (again, at best) would be some sort of "coalition" government, in which "socialists" and "communists" of various kinds would be involved together with representatives of various other, more openly bourgeois and petit-bourgeois, "democratic" trends, and in which the fundamental interests of the masses would be "compromised away" and no radical transformation of society would be carried out (and any attempt at this would be quickly and ruthlessly suppressed by this "coalition" government). Hasn't there been enough--indeed far too much!--experience, all over the world, to graphically illustrate this?2

The notion that somehow this kind of electoral process will result in the expression of the "political will" of the masses can only elicit a cynical snort of laughter from anyone who is at all familiar with this kind of electoral process and who is not suffering from "political amnesia"; it is a notion that could be believed only by people who take bourgeois democracy more seriously than the bourgeoisie itself does--who have not learned, or have "unlearned", that such democracy, with its electoral process, is an instrument that serves the exercise of dictatorship by the bourgeoisie over the masses. This does not mean that there is no legitimate role for elections in socialist society, but such a role must be based on the recognition that the formal process of elections cannot represent the highest or most essential expression of the "political will" of the masses; that elections can only be a subordinate part of the overall process through which that "political will" is expressed; that elections, like everything else in class society, will be conditioned and shaped by the fundamental class relations; and that in socialist society elections must reflect and serve the exercise of political power by the proletariat, with the leading role of its party.

In contrast to this, the following characterization of the role of elections in bourgeois society applies as well to the (bourgeois) democratic electoral process the CRC document envisions for its version of "socialist" society and its "proletarian democratic system":

"This very electoral process itself tends to cover over the basic class relations--and class antagonisms--in society, and serves to give formal, institutionalized expression to the political participation of atomized individuals in the perpetuation of the status quo. This process not only reduces people to isolated individuals but at the same time reduces them to a passive position politically and defines the essence of politics as such atomized passivity--as each person, individually, in isolation from everyone else, giving his/her approval to this or that option, all of which options have been formulated and presented by an active power standing above these atomized masses of `citizens'." (Avakian, Democracy,p. 70, emphasis in original)

Throughout the CRC document we find many references to the "political will" of the people or of the proletariat. But nowhere in this document is there the understanding--in fact this understanding has been repudiated--that there is no way of realizing, and more than that no way of even determining, the "political will" of the proletariat and the masses except through the leading role of the party--through its practice of the mass line and its application of a communist ideological and political line overall.

In fact, as we have seen, the CRC document consistently poses the vanguard role of the party against the conscious activism of the masses. This is unmistakably clear in its claim that, once the standing army has been abolished and replaced by the arming of the whole people, and once the party and its "vanguard role" have been reduced to a matter of the party competing for electoral votes on the basis of its platform ("just like any other platform"), then "unlike in the hitherto practised forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the new political structure, the people wielding the real power in their own hands, also with the arms in their hands, will be playing a very active role in the whole political life of the society, thereby being the best guarantee against restoration and also ensuring the best conditions for seizing back power if restoration takes place". (par. 10.9, emphasis added)

This is a most amazing statement! How, for example, could people familiar with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution argue that the masses in China were not "playing a very active role in the whole political life of the society"--both in general and specifically in combating revisionism and capitalist restoration? If we contrast the Cultural Revolution with the recent (bourgeois) "democratic upsurges" in China, we can say, without the slightest hesitation, that the conscious activism, the class-conscious revolutionary initiative, of the masses of Chinese people was expressed "a million times more" in the Cultural Revolution. And this has everything to do with the fact that in the Cultural Revolution the masses had the leadership of a communist vanguard, while the recent struggle has not had that leadership.3 In this recent struggle there were positive factors and progressive, even revolutionary, forces taking part--there were open expressions of respect for Mao and support for Mao's line, there were contrasts explicitly drawn between Mao and his revolutionary followers on the one hand and the corrupt revisionist rulers of today on the other hand. But, with all that, in an overall sense, the forces and lines that occupied the leading position within the mass upsurge represented the interests of the bourgeoisie.

Here it is worth repeating the following on the role of the Leninist party and its relation to the masses, which applies after the seizure of power and throughout the socialist transition period as much as it does to the struggle for the seizure of power:

"Lenin forged and applied these principles by leaping beyond what had previously been worked out by Marx or Engels and further by rupturing with conventional wisdom and practice in the Marxist movement, but he did so from the foundation of basic Marxist principle, by adhering to its basic methodology and entirely consistent with its revolutionary, critical spirit. To raise in opposition to these principles the experience of the Paris Commune, which was defeated--in part, if only secondarily, because of the lack of a Leninist-type party--or the Second International, which degenerated into an outright instrument of imperialism, is thinking turned inside-out and facing backwards, to put it mildly. To argue that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution can be traced to the very nature and role of the Leninist party itself is first of all contrary to the facts and an evasion of the fundamental problems besides. Lenin's argument in What Is To Be Done?--that the more highly organized and centralized the party was, the more it was a real vanguard organization of revolutionaries, the greater would be the role and initiative of the masses in revolutionary struggle--was powerfully demonstrated in the Russian Revolution itself and has been in all proletarian revolutions. Nowhere has such a revolution been made without such a party and nowhere has the lack of such a party contributed to unleashing the initiative of masses of the oppressed in conscious revolutionary struggle.And, argue that a vanguard, Leninist party may degenerate, may turn into an oppressive apparatus over the masses, and therefore it is better not to have such a party, only amounts to arguing that there should be no revolution in the first place; this will not eliminate the contradictions that make such a party necessary, the material and ideological conditions that must be transformed, with the leadership of such a party, in order to abolish class distinctions and therewith, finally, the need for a vanguard party." (Avakian, For a Harvest of Dragons,Chicago: RCP Publications, 1983, p. 84, emphasis in original)

Democratic Centralism, Two-Line Struggle and Keeping the Vanguard on the Revolutionary Road

The CRC document proceeds with its discussion of the party, taking up "the principle of democratic centralism, evolved and implemented by Lenin" as the organizational principle for communist parties. (see par. 11.2) The CRC document upholds democratic centralism, in theory, on the one hand, but, on the other hand, proceeds to argue that its implementation in practice eventually was turned into an orientation of overemphasizing centralism, virtually to the exclusion of democracy (this was the case, according to the document, especially after factions were outlawed in the Bolshevik Party and then this was made into a principle that has been generally adhered to by communist parties). Not only was this given theoretical expression in the "the whole concept of the monolithic communist Party, propounded by Stalin and solidified during the whole Comintern period and afterwards" (par. 11.4); but even "Mao's attempts to develop the two-line struggle within the party" as a "step to re-establish the style of functioning of democratic centralism practised by Lenin, in a more systematic manner" did not really bring any fundamental improvement, because Mao would not break with the orientation set, first, with the outlawing of factions and then with the whole experience of Stalin's leadership in the Soviet Union and the Comintern. Thus, "in effect the two- line struggle etc. were only some minor steps at rectification within the overall framework established earlier". (see par. 11.5) In opposition to this, the CRC document argues, what is needed is, "A thorough re-examination of the concept and role of the communist party in the historical process of building socialism and communism." (par. 11.7)

We have seen to a considerable extent already what this CRC document's basic notion is of the concept and role of the communist party, but it is worth examining how, under the title "Demystification of the Communist Party", the document lays out a relativist and pragmatic line on this question. This begins with the statement that, "The Communist Party's role of being the vanguard of the proletariat is to be tested and proved in the course of the historical process" and that only when a communist party "realizes that it is always subject to the test of historical reality, can it come down to the complexities of reality. Then only can it realize that no authority has been bestowed upon it either by the working class and the people or by history." (par. 12.1) The document then goes on to discuss "the qualitative distinction between the party leading a revolution to seize power and the party with monopoly in power": in the former case "the party is compelled by the very context to be self-critical and continuously correct and develop its line and practice in order to mobilise the masses for revolution"; while "in the second case, the pressure of circumstances operate in the opposite direction". (par. 12.1)

The CRC document has touched on some real and profound questions here, and it might seem to be handling them in a correct, dialectical way. But, unfortunately, once again this is not the case. First of all, it must be pointed out that, while a party that is not in power does face the necessity to be self- critical and to apply the mass line and thereby constantly develop its line and its ability "to mobilise the masses for revolution", this will exert itself as a compulsion on the party only so long as it remains a revolutionary party, only so long as it maintains an orientation of leading the masses to overthrow the old order and carry forward the revolutionary struggle toward the goal of communism.In other words, at any point, the party, rather than engaging in self-criticism and critically summing up and developing its line and practice in a more revolutionary direction, can do just the opposite--it can abandon the revolutionary road and thereby eliminate the need to be self-critical and to continually correct and develop its line and practice in order to mobilize the masses for revolution.

This is hardly a frivolous or minor point. The CRC document has overlooked here the very real and powerful pulls that are exerted on parties faced with the task of leading the struggle for the overthrow of the old order--pulls to give up on that struggle and to degenerate into revisionist, reformist parties. Historical experience indicates that resisting these pulls and remaining on the revolutionary road is extremely difficult and requires arduous struggle.

On the other hand, for parties in power, while it is true that there is a real pull in the direction the CRC document indicates--in the direction of not systematically applying the mass line and critically summing up their line and practice--it is not the case that such parties are almost bound to degenerate once they come to power (and especially if they have a "monopoly in power", as the CRC documents puts it). In the one case, as in the other, what the CRC document leaves out of the equation- -or, at a minimum, fails to focus on as decisive--is precisely the ideological struggle within the party over the cardinal questions of line, including most fundamentally the question of what is the final goal for which the party is aiming--and indeed which must define its very purposes as a party-- and how do the more immediate objectives and policies of the party link up with and serve that final goal?

It is hardly coincidental that the CRC document downgrades the importance of two-line struggle within the party, declaring Mao's major contribution on this to be a limited and flawed contribution. In fact, in insisting on the decisive importance of the struggle within the party between the two lines of Marxism and revisionism--and the two roads of socialism and capitalism--Mao indicated a key means for combating the tendency of the party--in particular a party in power--to degenerate into a revisionist party. And an important part of the basis on which Mao made this contribution was precisely his criticism of the undialectical notion of a "monolithic party" (see, for example, Mao's comment that, "To talk all the time about monolithic unity, and not to talk about struggle, is not Marxist-Leninist"--in Mao's "Talks at Chengtu", Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed: Talks and Letters: 1956-71,edited by Stuart Schram, London: Penguin Books, p. 107).

Mao recognized that, objectively, there would be different tendencies within the party--reflecting different forces, ultimately different class interests--within society as a whole, and that the unity of the party could only be relative and not absolute, would not be static but dynamic, developing through a process of unity-struggle-unity. But what is essential to grasp--and what shows the essential difference between Mao's line and that of the CRC document--is that Mao did not pose the necessity for struggle within the party against the need for the party to be firmly united around one line and on that basis play the--institutionalized--leading role in socialist society, until the achievement of communism.4

Mao did not approach the question of struggle within the party from the standpoint of bourgeois factionalism or petit-bourgeois anarchism. Mao recognized that, in a society marked by class contradiction and class struggle, organized factions within the party would inevitably mean bourgeois factionalism. Such factions would disrupt not only the unity of action of the party but also its unity of will; they would not only undermine the party's ability to lead the masses but also--and what is basic in being able to lead them--to learn from them. Factions disrupt not only the chain of command of the party; they also, and even more fundamentally, disrupt its chain of knowledge --the flow of ideas from the masses, through the basic levels of the party, to the party leadership. In short, they disrupt the ability of the party to play its role as the vanguard of the proletariat in its revolutionary struggle, before and after the seizure of power.

All this is why Mao, while emphasizing the need for and decisive importance of two-line struggle within the party, also insisted on the three principles: practise Marxism, not revisionism; unite, don't split; be open and aboveboard, don't intrigue and conspire. And this is why Mao insisted that, while the Communist Party itself must be continually revolutionized, at the same time the Party must exercise leadership in everything.

Mao's line is aimed at keeping the party on the revolutionary road and strengthening its role as the revolutionary vanguard. In opposition to this, the CRC document's line would reduce the party to a reformist party, a party mired in relativism, tailing the masses and tailoring its line to adapt principle to immediate circumstances. This is revealed in the CRC document's statement that, "The proletarian class interest itself, under a given condition, is very much relative, changing according to the changing reality, though the ultimate interest of the working class, of building communism remains as a long term goal." (par. 12.1) This is fundamentally wrong: the proletarian class interest does not change in the way the CRC document argues; particular tactics, or even strategies, particular policies, even programs, may change in this way, but the class interest of the proletariat does not.

The difference here might seem merely semantic--since the CRC document does say that "communism remains as a long term goal"--but in separating this long-term goal from the "proletarian class interest itself, under a given condition" and declaring the latter to be "very much relative", the CRC document opens the door to allowing that anything--any particular policy, etc.--can be in the interests of the proletariat, so long as it is accompanied by some general statement about the final aim of communism. The CRC document's formulation on class interest is a "two-into-one" formulation: it eclectically combines the class interest of the proletariat with particular policies, etc., at any given time. The correct, dialectical understanding is that the class interest of the proletariat does not change, but at any given time it can be expressed in specific policies, etc., which can and do change.

The point, once again, is that, in any given situation and at all times, everything--all policies, programs, strategies, tactics--must proceed with the final aim of communism as the guiding principle and must serve--not only in word but in deed--as a part of the bridge leading from the present to the communist future. There is a fundamental identity between the interests of the proletariat at any given point and its overall interests in achieving communism, and this identity must be reflected in the unity between the policies of the party at any given time and the basic line of carrying forward the revolutionary struggle to achieve communism.It is this unity the CRC document would break with its eclectics, its relativism and pragmatism.

Given its overall viewpoint, it is not surprising that the CRC document does not see the need for a communist party whose principles of organization are consistent with and are an expression of the revolutionary aims and ideology of the proletariat and which enable the party to play its vanguard role throughout the long and unprecedented struggle against a powerful and desperate class enemy--an enemy whose desperation and determination to defeat the proletarian revolution become all the greater when it has been overthrown and can recognize the threat of its historical extinction. The party envisioned in the CRC document is not so much "demystified" as it is "de- revolutionized". And this is consistent with the non-revolutionary, social-democratic notion of "socialism and communism" that, unfortunately, characterizes this CRC document from beginning to end.


1This 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 featured an excerpt "On the Events of the 1980s and 1990s in the Former Soviet Bloc and China."

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

In RW #1247 "If the Vanguard Doesn't Lead, Who Will?" discusses the necessity of the vanguard party playing a leading role in socialist society and what kind of party the vanguard needs to be.

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2 Among the debacles suffered by socialist and communist parties that have fallen into bourgeois parliamentarism and/or focused their efforts on involvement in governments of "coalition" with various bourgeois forces, perhaps the most dramatic and tragic is the experience of the Indonesian Communist Party in the mid-1960s. This involved the massacre of hundreds of thousands of communists (and other Indonesian people), the decimation of a powerful communist party, at the hands of the reactionaries. Leading up to this, the Indonesian Party had increasingly made the focus of its work parliamentary and other forms of legal struggle; it had increasingly relied on its parliamentary successes and its positions in a coalition government (headed by the bourgeois nationalist Sukarno); and it was consequently unprepared for the counter- revolutionary coup d'etat carried out by the Indonesian military (led by Suharto) with not only the backing and back-stage direction but also the active participation of the U.S. CIA. (see "Historical Document: Self-Criticism by the Indonesian Communist Party, 1966", in Revolution,No. 55, Winter/Spring 1987)

Although the Sukarno government did not, of course, represent the dictatorship of the proletariat, still there is an analogy between the situation of the Indonesian Communist Party in that "nationalist" government and the position that a communist party would be in if it tried to implement the line advocated by the CRC document on how a party should operate under the dictatorship of the proletariat. As noted, such a party would in effect find itself in a "coalition" government in which the party would not be able to exercise sole leadership--in fact, it would not really be able to exercise leadership at all. The party, and the revolutionary masses generally, would be extremely vulnerable to a reactionary coup d'etat (and massacres that would accompany it). Here, once more, it is crucial to recognize that, even leaving out the overthrown ruling class, the "whole people", under the conditions of socialist society, means many different classes--including newborn bourgeois forces--and "the arming of the whole people" would in reality mean the development of many different armed camps among the people, including armed forces effectively under the command of bourgeois counterrevolutionary leadership.

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3 Further, it should be noted that the great unleashing of the masses in the GPCR was possible, too, because it took place under the dictatorship of the proletariat, while the 1989 events were suppressed by a bourgeois state, a bourgeois dictatorship.

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4 In a talk, "On Democratic Centralism", in 1962, Mao says that "secret factions" must be prohibited, but, "We are not afraid of open opposition groups, we are only afraid of secret opposition groups." ( Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed,p. 183) In reading the whole passage in which these statements appear and taking the whole spirit of Mao's remarks, it seems clear that he is stressing a certain basic orientation of welcoming ideological struggle, if it is conducted in an open and aboveboard way; and when he talks about not fearing opposition groups that are not secret, he means something different from organized factions, with their own internal unity and discipline, operating within the Communist Party in opposition to the line and discipline of the Party. Rather, it seems he is talking about groups of people who will coalesce, less formally, to put forward a position on particular questions. Mao stresses that, "All leading members within the Party must promote democracy and let people speak out". (ibid) At the same time, he stresses that this must be on the basis that Party members "observe Party discipline, the minority must obey the majority, and the whole Party should obey the Centre". (ibid) In other words, discipline must be observed and unity must be preserved--the discipline and unity of the Party, not of factions--this is what people must uphold, even when they may be dissenting from the prevailing Party line or a particular Party policy. Thus, Mao says: "as long as they do not break discipline, as long as they are not carrying on any secret factional activities, we should always allow them to speak and even if they should say the wrong things we should not punish them. If people say the wrong things they can be criticized, but we should use reason to convince them."(ibid)

All this is related to another crucial principle that Mao emphasizes: "Very often the ideas of the minority will prove to be correct. History abounds with such instances. In the beginning truth is not in the hands of the majority of people, but in the hands of a minority." (ibid) But, again, the grasping of the truth and winning people to the truth will not be served--it will be undermined--by the existence of factions within the Party. And for this reason, the practice of the Chinese Communist Party, under Mao's leadership, was to strive for a situation in which there was lively, vigorous debate and ideological struggle throughout the Party (and in society generally) but not to allow organized factions within the Party (at least not in any full-blown, institutionalized and "permanent" way).

The basic fact is that organized factions will lead to factionalism--they will lead to a situation where those adhering to these factions put the line and "unity" of their faction above those of the party. In certain exceptional cases, when the leadership of the party has been captured by opportunist elements who impose a counterrevolutionary line but it is not correct to simply and immediately abandon the party to such leadership and attempt to form a new party, it may then be necessary to organize a revolutionary faction in order to carry out the fight to defeat the opportunist line and leadership and re-establish the party on a revolutionary basis. But after a certain period of time, this struggle must be resolved one way or the other--either in the triumph of the revolutionary line and the re-establishment of the party on a revolutionary basis or in the complete triumph of the opportunist leadership and line--and in the latter case it is then necessary to break with such a party and to build a new party on the basis of revolutionary principles, of an MLM line, ideologically, politically, and organizationally.

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