The Vanguard Party and the Exercise of Proletarian Power: Lessons of History

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1061, July 2, 2000

The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA announced last year its plan for forging a new Programme-a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Programme-for making and winning revolution in the United States.

The RCP is calling on people to help produce this new Programme. The Party wants to work with people to do research and investigation into the class structure and social fabric of the U.S. It wants to engage people in discussion, wrangling, and debate: about issues of analysis, about its vision of a new society and about its strategy for creating such a new society. The Party wants to hear people's opinions and observations about the current (1981) Programme, and their suggestions for the new one.

To assist people in taking part in this project, the Revolutionary Worker is running a special reprint series which includes excerpts from the current Programme, from writings by the Chairman of the RCP, Bob Avakian, and from articles that have appeared in the Party press. The idea is to provide a background and grounding in certain Marxist-Leninist-Maoist principles, and in the Party's developing analysis of society and the revolutionary process.

We continue the series this week with excerpts from a piece by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can And Must Do Better Than That." Here Chairman Avakian 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 our class. He explains how the masses rule and why the proletariat needs a vanguard party to carry out this rule and to carry forward the all-round trans-formation of society and the world. He also explains how the proletarian concept of freedom is different from bourgeois notions of electoral democracy. This essay originally appeared in A World To Win, March 1992. It is a critique of the document "On Proletarian Democracy," by the CRC, the Central Reorganization Committee, Commu-nist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) - a Marxist-Leninist formation in India whose main leader launched an attack in 1990-91 on Lenin, Mao, and the dictatorship of the proletariat and later abandoned revolution.

Lenin talks openly about how the new Soviet Republic was existing in a petit-bourgeois atmosphere, and that they have to learn how to find some form of accommodation with the petit-bourgeois strata, particularly among the peasantry, without compromising away the basic interests of the proletariat. He discusses the whole problem in historical terms-how you can expropriate and crush the resistance of the big bourgeoisie and landlords, relatively quickly once you've seized power, but you have to carry out a policy of long-term co-existence and struggle with all the small-scale producers and generally with the petite-bourgeoisie-as he puts it, you have to both live with and transform the petit-bourgeoisie, in its material conditions and in its outlook, as part of advancing toward the elimination of class distinctions (such a discussion can be found, for example, in Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, which was written in the first few years of the Soviet Republic). So Lenin's writings and speeches from those years-including, incidentally, some that are quoted, in a distorted way, in this CRC document itself - make very clear what Lenin's basic approach was, and that his was not an orientation that anyone who raised criticism of the government and the Bolsheviks should be suppressed and denied political rights.

Instead of seriously grappling with what Lenin has to say about these difficult contradictions, the CRC document looks to Rosa Luxemburg's* misguided criticisms for guidance. Much of what is mistaken about these criticisms, and their underlying orientation, is revealed in the statement by Luxemburg that freedom is "always and exclusively freedom for one who thinks differently." This, of course, is linked to Luxemburg's call for "unrestricted" freedom of press and assembly, etc. And this is in line with classical bourgeois democracy, which identifies freedom with the rights of the minority against "the tyranny of the majority." For example, this is very similar to the formulations of people like John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville in their writings on democracy and on individual liberty. In response to this, the question must be posed: who is it that, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, "thinks differently" most of all - if not the bourgeoisie and counter-revolutionaries? I am not being facetious: the "logical conclusion of the logic" of Luxemburg here is that they, above all, should be granted freedom, full political rights. And then where is the dictatorship of the proletariat?

It is very instructive to contrast Rosa Luxemburg's statements on what freedom is, "always and exclusively," with the profound statements of Mao Tsetung on what constitutes the freedom, or the fundamental rights, of the laboring people in socialist society: the right to control society, the right to be masters of the economy, the right to control and suppress the antagonistic forces that are trying to restore capitalism, the right to exercise their rule in all spheres of the superstructure. Everything flows from this freedom, or these fundamental rights, as discussed by Mao. This represents something much more profound and correct than Luxemburg's definition of freedom - in fact it is the opposite of Luxemburg's democratic formalism - it speaks to the essence of the matter.

"Who is in control of the organs [of power] and enterprises bears tremendously on the issue of guaranteeing the people's rights. If Marxist-Leninists are in control, the rights of the vast majority will be guaranteed. If rightists or right opportunists are in control, these organs and enterprises may change qualitatively, and the people's rights with respect to them cannot be guaranteed. In sum, the people must have the right to manage the superstructure." (Mao, A Critique of Soviet Economics, New York: Monthly Review, 1977, p. 61, emphasis added)

Here Mao, like Lenin before him, puts forward the correct, the materialist and dialectical, view of the relationship between the exercise by the masses of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leadership of their communist vanguard...

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

Yes, it is true, 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 centers, 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?

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 practiced 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 capitalism restoration? If we contrast the Cultural Revolution with the recent (bourgeois) "democratic upsurges" in China [the 1989 Tiananmen uprising of students and workers], 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.** 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 foundaton 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 - of 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." (Avakian, For a Harvest of Dragons, Chicago: RCP Publications, 1983, p. 84, emphasis in original).

*Rosa Luxemburg was a German revolutionary. Originally a supporter of the Russian Revolution led by Lenin, she later criticized its methods for being "undemocratic." Luxemburg was murdered by German soldiers in 1919.

**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.

***The Paris Commune of 1871 was a great armed uprising of the French masses. The workers took over the running of Paris and implemented radical political and social changes. The bourgeoisie counterattacked, drowning the Commune in the blood of thousands.


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