The Vanguard Party and the Exercise of Proletarian Power, Part 2

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1062, July 16, 2000

This cry of "the dictatorship of the party" is inescapably linked with "they should not have taken to arms"—the refrain raised by counterrevolutionaries in condemnation of the Paris Commune* as well as the Russian Revolution, as Lenin pointed out, and the common refrain of such people in opposition to all genuine revolutions, especially proletarian revolutions. Here it is important to recognize that all revolutionary armed struggles that have led to the seizure of power by the proletariat have so far started—and in the future are likely to start as well—with a minority. This is true whether these armed struggles have been protracted people’s war in a Third World country or urban insurrection in an imperialist country. Such armed struggles are begun before the majority of the people (even in the immediate areas where the armed struggle is started) have been won to support for them. And such armed struggles, however much they may fundamentally rely on the masses, do after all exert an element of coercion, not only against the enemy but also, in a qualitatively different but real way, even on the masses affected by them —in a real sense they force the masses, in particular those not already involved, to take a stand in relation to them.

This was certainly the case with the Bolshevik-led October Revolution in 1917. It is quite probably a fact that not even a majority of the workers in the Soviets, considering the country as a whole, were yet won to the idea of launching the armed insurrection at that time. Certainly this was true of the peasants throughout the countryside. And even in the main cities where the armed insurrections were first carried out (in particular Petrograd and Moscow), the majority of the non-industrial workers among the people were certainly not consciously supporting the Bolshevik banner when the Bolsheviks launched these armed insurrections, yet these non-industrial workers must be considered among the broad category of "the people." So, according to the logic of this CRC document, there is nothing left to conclude but "they should not have taken to arms." You cannot "logically" argue that the vanguard must not impose its will on the people when it is in power but it may do so in coming to power in the first place. The contradictions involved here can be resolved through the application of materialist dialectics, but this cannot be done by applying the (bourgeois) logic that has been adopted in this CRC document.

Of course, it is true—and a profound truth—that the actions of the Bolsheviks in launching and leading these armed insurrections were in the interests of the majority of the masses – not only in some general and long-term historical sense but in terms of corresponding to the immediately and urgently felt needs of the masses and to their "political will." But that is just the point: criteria like this are precisely what the CRC document is now rejecting and replacing with the logic and demands of formal (bourgeois) democracy, that is, the insistence on the forms of democracy without regard to the social and class content, or the raising of the form above the content.

The same logic will also lead to the abandonment of the dictatorship of the proletariat itself as an "undemocratic" system of government. The dictatorship of the proletariat also involves an element of coercion, by the state, in relation not only to antagonistic classes but also to individuals among the (broad category of) the people. Basic policies—including everything from differential wage scales to such things as the sending of millions of educated youth to the countryside to integrate with the masses of peasants—all such things include an element of coercion.

Of course, coercion cannot be relied on in relation to the masses of people—education and struggle on the basis of a communist ideological and political line must be relied on—but this cannot eliminate altogether the element of coercion involved here. This is related to the underlying existence of inequalities left over from the old society—such as the differences between the city and the countryside, between the workers and the peasants, and between mental and manual labor. Lenin spoke of how the state was still necessary in socialist society (and he meant even after ownership of the means of production was completely socialized) because of the existence of such contradictions. This state is necessary, he said, in order to ensure that such contradictions were handled in a way consistent with the advance to communism, but at the same time the exercise of this state power—the dictatorship of the proletariat—includes the enforcement of "bourgeois right" (the expression in law and policy of relations that contain the elements of inequality left over from the old society). To drive his point home, in a somewhat provocative way, Lenin referred to this state as "the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie" (see Lenin, The State and Revolution, Collected Works [LCW], Moscow: Progress Publishers, vol. 25, p.476).

The logic guiding this CRC document cannot provide an answer to the question posed, according to the same (bourgeois) logic: If socialism is really in the interests of the majority of the people, if it relies on the masses of people and corresponds with their interests, while the interests of only a small minority of exploiters lie in opposing socialism and restoring capitalism, then why is it necessary to have a dictatorship at all?

I spoke to this question at great length in Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (particularly chapter 7). There I quoted extensively from Lenin’s work "The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky," which deals with this question in a very trenchant way. Lenin speaks to both the internal basis and the international connections of the bourgeoisie which give it real advantages over the proletariat which is newly risen to power and does not have historical experience of exercising power. He shows why, for all these reasons, the dictatorship of the proletariat will be necessary for a long period of time.

This same question was returned to repeatedly by Lenin during the early years of the Soviet Republic, and his works during that period give a very rich, if still beginning, analysis of why the dictatorship of the proletariat will be necessary for an entire period of transition from capitalism to a higher stage of society. And, as we know, Mao developed this analysis further and systematized it into the basic line that socialism constitutes a long historical period of transition from capitalism to communism, that all throughout this period there are classes and class struggle, and that it is necessary to combat capitalist restoration and continue the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the CRC document has lost sight of all this: with its logic, it cannot give a materialist explanation of why the dictatorship of the proletariat is absolutely necessary throughout the stage of socialism and how this dictatorship is not in conflict with but consistent with the fact that socialism and the advance to communism conform to the fundamental interests of the proletariat and broad masses in opposition to a handful of exploiters...

There is a wave-like character to the class struggle under socialism and in particular a wave-like character to mass upsurges to defend the dictatorship of the proletariat and carry the revolution forward under this dictatorship. To return to Lenin’s statement about maintaining the revolutionary energy and enthusiasm of the masses, the point can be put this way: as it has turned out, with the socialist transition period and the dictatorship of the proletariat lasting much longer than expected, and with the initial socialist revolutions not being closely followed by other revolutions in more technologically advanced societies; with the socialist state continuing to exist in a situation of being encircled by imperialism—with all of these factors that have been discussed, it is not realistic to expect nor has it been the case that the masses have been able to maintain a high pitch and intensity of revolutionary enthusiasm and energy on a continual basis. In fact, the expectation that they could is contradicted not only by experience but also by the principles of dialectics.

It is because of, and as part of, this contradictory nature of the whole process of transition from capitalism to communism, worldwide, that the role of the masses as rulers of society and owners of the means of production under socialism is real but is not absolute—it is relative and sharply contradictory—and is both expressed directly through their own involvement in all spheres of society and is mediated through a number of instrumentalities, above all the state and the vanguard party.

Once again, no formalistic approach – no insistence on formal democracy as the essence of the matter—can even seriously address, let alone resolve, this contradiction. And to insist on such an approach is in fact to act in accordance with the principles of bourgeois democracy and with the interests of the bourgeoisie in attacking and undermining the dictatorship of the proletariat precisely on the basis that, because it does not conform in every important respect to the principles of formal democracy, it therefore represents a negation of democracy, even for those in whose name it is exercised...

It seems important to speak to another practice of the Paris Commune that Marx identified as a matter of decisive importance: the "replaceability" or "revocability" of leaders. Once again the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat has shown that it has not been possible to apply this principle in the strict sense in which Marx spoke of it, drawing from the Paris Commune, where officials were elected by the masses and subject to recall by them at any time.

It must be said straight-up that it does not get to the essence of things if the masses have the formal right to replace leaders, when the social conditions (contradictions) are such that some people are less "replaceable" than others. To give an extreme example, if the masses in socialist China had had the right to vote Mao out of office, and if they had exercised that right foolishly and voted him out, they would have been confronted with the stark fact that there wouldn’t have been another Mao to take his place. In reality, they would find themselves in a situation where someone would have to play a role which, from a formal standpoint, would be the same as that of Mao; that is, someone would have to occupy leading positions like that, and the division of labor in society—in particular between mental and manual labor—would mean that only a small section of people would then be capable of playing such a role. Voting Mao out of office would only mean that somebody less qualified—or, even worse, someone representing the bourgeoisie instead of the proletariat—would be playing that leadership role. You can’t get around this, and adhering to the strictures of formal democracy would be no help at all.

This, of course, does not mean that the division between masses and leaders should be made into an absolute, rather than being restricted and finally overcome; nor still less does it mean that the leaders and not the masses should be seen as the real masters of socialist society. In revolutionary China great emphasis was given to the role of the masses in criticizing and in an overall sense supervising the leaders. And this found expression on a whole new level through the Cultural Revolution, which, Mao stressed, represented something radically new—"a form, a method, to arouse the broad masses to expose our dark aspect openly, in an all-round way and from below." (Mao, cited in Report to the Ninth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Peking: Foreign Languages Press [FLP], p.27). Yet, as important and pathbreaking as this was, the fact remains that throughout the socialist transition there will not only be the need for leaders—and an objective contradiction between leaders and led—but there will be the possibility for this to be transformed into relations of exploitation and oppression.

Given the contradictions that characterize the transition from capitalism to communism, worldwide, if the party did not play the leading role that it has within the proletarian state, that role would be played by other organized groups—bourgeois cliques—and soon enough the state would no longer be proletarian, but bourgeois. It must be said bluntly that, from the point of view of the proletariat, the problem with the ruling parties in the revisionist countries [for example, the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev and China under the anti-Maoist leaders] is not that they have had a "monopoly" of political power but that they exercised that political power to restore and maintain capitalism. The problem is that they are not revolutionary, not really communist—and therefore they do not rely on and mobilize the masses to exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat, and to continue the revolution under this dictatorship.

As spoken to above, through the Cultural Revolution in China new means and methods were developed for attacking the differences and inequalities left over from the old society—means and methods for restricting bourgeois right to the greatest degree possible at any given time in accordance with the material and ideological conditions. Yet it will remain a fundamental contradiction throughout the socialist transition period that there are these underlying differences and inequalities and their expression in bourgeois right, which constitute the material basis for classes, class struggle and the danger of capitalist restoration. This is a problem that cannot even be fundamentally addressed, let alone solved, by a formalistic approach. It has to be addressed through waging class struggle under the leadership of revolutionary communists—making this the key link—and in no other way. And this is exactly how it was approached under Mao’s leadership.

Specifically with regard to income distribution, through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution a basic orientation and, flowing from it, concrete policies were adopted to gradually narrow wage differentials—in accordance with the development of common affluence and mainly by raising the bottom levels up. As an important part of this, there was an orientation of keeping the difference in pay between government officials and ordinary workers as little as possible—the fundamental spirit of the Paris Commune on this was proclaimed and upheld in practice—although such pay differences still existed and were viewed as something that had to be further reduced. But, once again, as important as it was to apply such principles, in correspondence with the actual conditions at any given time, this could not change the essential fact that, for a long historical period, there will persist differences and inequalities in socialist society which contain within them the potential to develop into class antagonism if a proletarian line is not in command in dealing with them...


* 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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