Revolution Online, February 21, 2010

An Historic Contradiction: Fundamentally Changing The World Without "Turning Out the Lights"


I have been reflecting on what it means when people are turned off by the prospect of communist revolution and think, not entirely without justification, "Here come the communists, lights out, the party's over." These sentiments are in response to what have been some real shortcomings of the previous socialist experience—shortcomings which while secondary to the unprecedented and truly liberating achievements of socialism, nonetheless were serious in nature and contributed to the loss of state power and the restoration of capitalism, first in the Soviet Union and then in China.

For decades, Bob Avakian has been wrestling with what is a world historic challenge: how to hold on to state power while at the same time leading and unleashing the necessary tumultuous process required in making the two radical ruptures that define the communist revolution, the radical rupture with traditional property relations and the radical rupture with traditional ideas. He has been coming at this contradiction from different angles and directions, and in the course of this developing a new synthesis that has been encapsulated as "solid core with a lot of elasticity." This has provided a theoretical basis for the reenvisioning of socialism as a society that is far more wild, far more vibrant and creative, far more alive with intellectual ferment, than any society that has existed thus far in history. This is a socialism where human beings would truly flourish.

There are many different dimensions of the new synthesis which are relevant to a discussion of this "lights out" characterization of previous socialist societies. However, for the purposes of this letter, I would like to focus on the question of whether under socialism, communist ideology should be the official ideology, a question which I think has direct bearing on this discussion of the character of socialist society and the challenges of leading the state and the revolutionary process.

Several years ago in the talk Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism, Avakian posed the question of whether under the dictatorship of the proletariat, there should be an official ideology. As part of a longer discussion of this topic, he stated:

"With regard to the question of the party, I think two things are definitely true. One, you need a vanguard party to lead this revolution and to lead the new state. Two, that party has to have an ideology that unifies it, an ideology that correctly reflects and enables people to consciously change reality, which is communist ideology.

"But more broadly, should everyone in society have to profess his ideology in order to get along? No. Those who are won over to this ideology should proclaim it and struggle for it. Those who are not convinced of it should say so. Those who disagree with it should say that. And there should be struggle. Something has to lead—the correct ideology that really enables people to get at the truth, and do something with it in their interests, has to lead; but that doesn't mean everyone should have to profess it, in my opinion. And this is just my opinion. But it's worth digging into this a bit, it's worth exploring and wrangling with the question."

To be honest, until Avakian raised this, I had never questioned the concept of communist ideology being the official ideology under socialism. It seemed so much an intrinsic feature of past dictatorships of the proletariat that in a certain sense I took it for granted. Avakian's comments prompted me to look at this more closely and with fresh eyes. I have been turning this over in my mind and finding that the more deeply I have studied the new synthesis, the more my thinking on this question of official ideology has shifted. In the spirit of exploring and wrangling with this question as Avakian has called for, I wanted to offer some initial thoughts, by no means fully developed, on how I am now looking at this, based on reflecting on the history of socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat so far through the prism of the new synthesis.

In the context of tremendous strains on a fledgling socialist state, emerging out of war, surrounded by hostile imperialist forces, I could see the necessity that would motivate communists to declare communism the official ideology. By giving communist ideology an official imprimatur (with the social approbation that would naturally accompany this), I think that communists were attempting to neutralize elements that were antagonistic to socialism and create more favorable conditions to win the masses to this ideology and cohere them around this as part of consolidating the new socialist state and advancing towards communism. However, as I have tried to look all-sidedly at this question of official ideology, I have come to suspect that this may have had the opposite effect and caused more harm than good.

Let me start by speaking to some bedrock principles. I agree with the comments by Avakian that it is essential for the communist party to be cohered ideologically around communist ideology, otherwise it will be incapable of leading the state and the revolutionary process towards communism. I also agree that in regards to socialist society as a whole, communist ideology has to be the leading ideology in order for society to stay on the revolutionary path and advance towards communism.

What I found provocative in Avakian's comments was the distinction he drew between communist ideology being the leading ideology and its being the official ideology.

To me, it seems that declaring communist ideology the "official" ideology amounts in essence to imposing this ideology on people, many of whom have yet been won to it on their own volition. The effect of this is to artificially paper over differences and diversity in thinking and to tone down ideological struggle and debate by keeping it within prescribed parameters. I find this troubling on a number of counts.

First of all, this short-circuits the process of knowing and understanding what is true. Communist ideology can't grow and deepen in a sterile hot house environment. As with all science, it is through being challenged that those aspects that are not in accordance with reality can be recognized and discarded, while what is true can be deepened and enriched. A recurrent theme in Avakian's body of work is that it is by being receptive to ideas coming from outside the Marxist framework that Marxism itself develops and that what is true can be determined. He therefore puts great weight on the open contestation of ideas, including within socialist society, where he has argued that even ideas that are oppositional to those in authority must be welcomed into the intellectual ferment.

Secondly, there is a world of difference between people being won to voluntarily take up communist ideology (and the radical transformation in consciousness that this represents) and being mandated to accept it. As Avakian noted in the passage quoted above, by declaring communism the official ideology, people may feel social pressure to profess this ideology, even when they don't believe it. This contributes to ideological differences festering beneath the surface of society instead of being out in the open where they can be struggled out and through this process, consciousness can be genuinely transformed. In this regard, I think it is helpful to look at how the new theoretical journal "Demarcations" describes its purpose: "to compare and contrast various theoretical perspectives and programs and to draw a broader audience into a deeper understanding of engagement with communism, as a living and developing science, and its most advanced expression in the new synthesis." This type of ideological debate and engagement is a vital component of the proletariat preparing or "fitting" itself to rule, a process that is beginning now as part of making revolution, and must become society-wide under socialism.

(While this is in the realm of speculation and requires both further thought as well as some actual investigation, I also wonder whether establishing communism as the official ideology in China might have contributed to the blurring of the distinction between the party and society, and in turn might have led to lowering the ideological bar, so to speak, in relationship to the party. This may have factored into the political and ideological disorientation in the wake of Mao's death, where many party members were unable to distinguish between communism and revisionism and ended up siding with those who staged the counterrevolutionary coup to restore capitalism.)

To expand a bit more on the problems with declaring communist ideology the official ideology, I think it might be helpful to come at this from another direction and consider why, for those intellectuals who genuinely uphold critical thinking and intellectual integrity, the notion of an official ideology—of any sort—tends to rankle them. They equate an official ideology with promoting unquestioning acceptance of ideas and the dampening of critical thinking. While this view may be influenced by illusions that in this society, they are "free thinkers" somehow immune to the way that capitalism and bourgeois ideology shape and condition people's thinking and the very framework in which ideas are explored, nonetheless do they have a valid point? Or to put it another way, does this criticism of official ideology still hold when the official ideology in question is communist ideology which provides, in an overall sense, the most consistent, systematic, and comprehensive means for arriving at the truth?

I think that this criticism has validity, and that making communist ideology the official ideology in a socialist state is antithetical to the heart and soul of this ideology, which is not some religion based on blind faith but rather a living science, whose very lifeblood is questioning and challenging ideas.  Making communism the official ideology ends up giving it the trappings of dogma.

But if one recognizes that this question of making communism the official ideology does not arise in a vacuum and if one is serious about confronting the acute contradictions and challenges involved in holding state power under socialism, one has to ask: In the absence of communism being the official ideology, wouldn't there be a danger that people would spontaneously gravitate towards bourgeois ideology, which after all has the weight of tradition behind it? Wouldn't this in turn contribute to centrifugal pulls and strains on the new society? At the same time, wouldn't counterrevolutionary forces attempt to take full advantage of any openings in intellectual ferment in order to spread opposition and discontent, with the objective of overthrowing the socialist state and reinstating capitalism?

All of these risks are indeed very real. But I think that the resolution to this dilemma does not lie in resorting to bureaucratic methods, which is what I think declaring communism the official ideology amounts to. What the new synthesis points to is a different path: finding ways to unleash ideological debate and ferment but firmly leading it with communist ideology. This gets back to a cardinal point of orientation, and a thread, which runs through Avakian's writings and talks, namely that when it comes to providing communist leadership and holding on to state power, there is no playing it safe and no easy or pat answers. This world historic endeavor is fraught with risks and dangers; one has to fly without a safety net (to borrow Avakian's analogy). State power can be lost by too much firmness (as reflected in trying to clamp down on or keep tight control over dissent and ferment) as well as by too much flexibility (as reflected in opening the floodgates to bourgeois democratic currents). Trying to achieve the right synthesis—"solid core with a lot of elasticity"—in an ever-changing objective situation where the stakes are so high is a constant challenge. It seems to me that making communism the official ideology reflects an unwillingness "to go to the brink of being drawn and quartered," as Avakian puts it—to take the risks that are so necessary to the revolutionary process of advancing towards communism.

The more that I have thought about this question of an official ideology under socialism and the more deeply I have grasped the new synthesis, the more it seems to me that making communist ideology the official ideology is strikingly dissonant with the reenvisioned view of socialism that Avakian has brought forward. In my opinion, it runs counter to the type of society we are striving to build and the intellectual ferment which must run through it. As a result of this, it also works at cross purposes with the crucial challenge of winning over a section of the intelligentsia to communism.

So those are some beginning thoughts on this question of an official ideology.



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