Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bob Avakian

If There Is To Be Revolution, There Must Be A Revolutionary Party

Chapter 1: Why We Are “What Is To Be Done?”-ists

Q: There were a number of points you raised about the party in your recent talk that I want to get into. The first one was the concept of “Leninism as the bridge,” in particular in regard to the party – and how “Marxists” (so-called) and ”Maoists” (so-called) see the party. The second was to get more into the point you made that in regard to preparing minds and organizing forces, the party was the key aspect of organizing forces. The final thing was the point raised about the relation of qualitative and quantitative aspects of party building in the last part of that talk. I had always looked at the question of building up the party quantitatively and had not seen the qualitative aspect being key in that. These three things struck me in going over “Conquer the World? ...” as things I’d like to see developed more.

BA: Do you want to start at the first point – the section on “Leninism as the bridge”? I’ve read over a few books from people who are like this guy Djilas, who was part of the Tito apparatus in Yugoslavia (then he had a falling out with Tito, but basically has a Titoist, social-democratic, bourgeois-democratic outlook on things). Djilas wrote a book, Conversations With Stalin, where, from a bourgeois, revisionist, social-democratic point of view, he does some criticism and also exposure of some things that Stalin said. I haven’t actually read Conversations With Stalin (which I should read), but I’ve seen significant quotations from it, references and also there’s this other book out now by a Soviet defector; the book is called Nomenclatura, which is the name for the apparatus and the privileges associated with the apparatus in the Soviet party and the Soviet state. And there’s this other book I read, From Comintern to Cominform, by this guy who was a revisionist “critic,” you know, and defector from the revisionist Communist Party of Spain.

All of these are from the bourgeois-democratic, social-democratic point of view and all of them are attempting to sum up from their point of view what went wrong with the Soviet Union and how the revolution there was corrupted, perverted, betrayed from within – however they look at it – and they all have the common view that it ended up being a dictatorship of the party, and the interesting thing there is that all of them – I think this is extremely significant – all of them go back to What Is To Be Done?. When they want to find the kernel of where everything went wrong, the kernel of this development of the revolution into its opposite, into a dictatorship of the party over the masses, all of them go back to What Is To Be Done? and in particular the whole thrust there, not just on the organizational question of the party. They really sort of get the point with a little bit of profundity anyway, that is, of Lenin’s whole struggle against spontaneity and how that’s linked with the organizational question of the kind of party, not just a party in general but the kind of party, a democratic centralist party, that Lenin fights for. They all recognize those two things are very closely tied together: the whole political, ideological and philosophical question of bowing to spontaneity and tailing behind the masses versus a vanguard role, and the organizational expression of that being the principles of the party, the Leninist party, a democratic centralist party. So it’s kind of striking that all of them say that this was the embryo of the future party dictatorship, then you look to the whole idea of professional revolutionaries, of an organization whose backbone is professional revolutionaries – that is the basis for a future elite.

Of course several things strike you there. One is the idealism of these people in the sense that rather than looking at what the contradictions in society are that make a vanguard necessary, it’s sort of treated like a willful thing on Lenin’s part, or even if they give Lenin a certain amount of credit, then he just made a voluntarist error of wanting to try to make revolution by pulling the masses along into it. They do this instead of looking at what are the material conditions in society that make a vanguard necessary: the division of labor in society, the fact that people live under a bourgeois dictatorship and so on that means that people are not, in their masses and certainly not all at once, going to become politically conscious, revolutionary-minded internationalists and just rise up to make revolution. There are objective contradictions that make a vanguard necessary which itself also becomes in a certain way a concentration of some of those contradictions, that is, the contradiction between the vanguard and the masses becomes a concentrated expression of the contradictions that make the vanguard necessary in the first place.

You know, a lot of people who are honest, especially a lot of petty-bourgeois people but not only them, also people who are also somewhat more politically aware among the basic proletarian masses–it’s not like they’re blind to history. There is something that’s being seized on here, that obviously the state in socialist societies like in Russia and China, for example, got turned into its opposite, into a bourgeois dictatorship and obviously the role of the party is pretty central in that. This makes people spontaneously gravitate toward the line consciously promoted by the bourgeoisie to discourage people from making revolution, which is, “What’s the use, you make revolution, the masses will make revolution but it will be an intellectual elite or a party elite who will reap the fruits, come to power, and once they come to power then they’ll want to conserve their power just like every previous ruling class and so really there’s no difference, maybe the ideals proclaimed are different in their particulars, but the process and the result will end up being the same.” This is something some people genuinely agonize over and some people have become cynical as a result of their perception of this, but not in their rational understanding of what is involved. And even some people who are genuinely revolutionary-minded, who hate the present society in a pretty deep way, become a bit cynical. This also reinforces reformist tendencies in them because they become convinced that revolution won’t work out anyway, so if you can make life a little better through some form or other, then that’s the best you can hope for.

What Are We Supposed To Do?

This is something that I’ve been thinking about because if you try to be more scientific about it, this is the same problem Lenin ran up against. Lenin was not blind to the fact that in previous revolutions this process had gone on nor was he completely unaware of the dangers of a party turning into its opposite, even though the first socialist revolution was the one he was involved in so obviously he hadn’t had the experience of it to sum up previously, and the Paris Commune was destroyed from the outside, so to speak, not because of the internal contradictions within the Commune itself leading to its degeneration. (Although, obviously, internal contradictions inside the Commune made it more vulnerable to the attack by reaction.) In any case, Lenin was not totally unaware of this and the question is, put it this way: what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to say OK, because we can see this danger, then we won’t have a vanguard party and, OK, then we won’t even have revolution, then we can be sure of avoiding this problem!

But the problem is that there’s an objective need for revolution and it’s subjectively felt or at least the need for drastic change in the society is felt by the great majority of the world’s people, even if it’s not felt, at least in normal times, by the majority of people in the imperialist countries where they have a relatively privileged existence because of the nature of imperialism and the relations in the world today. But what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to say well, OK, therefore in order to avoid the possible degeneration of the revolution, in order to avoid the contradictions that do arise when you have a vanguard party, we just won’t have a vanguard party, and in fact we won’t even have a revolution and therefore we can avoid those problems.

Well, you see, that’s the kind of point of view that I find unacceptable, not just morally, but because I think that this is an idealist point of view that doesn’t actually look at what are the material contradictions that underlie this problem and therefore seeks to go to the roots and solve them that way. It’s not that I believe that just because you want to solve a problem there’s bound to be a solution (though I do think there’s something to the Marxist law that a problem doesn’t pose itself in a direct and immediate way, if you take that in a historical sense, on the agenda of history unless there is a solution at hand or a solution maturing within the womb of the present conditions), but I think the correct, revolutionary, scientific Marxist-Leninist way to approach this problem is to look more deeply at the underlying contradictions and figure out and struggle to grasp more deeply how to resolve these contradictions in the process of moving forward.

Eurocentric Go-Slow Chauvinism

What strikes you when you study this sort of Titoite, social-democratic, bourgeois-democratic line is, for one thing, its tailism and its open promotion of bowing to spontaneity and, another thing, its Eurocentric chauvinism. Now Yugoslavia is not exactly an advanced capitalist country but neither is it an oppressed nation in Africa, Latin America or Asia. The same thing is true of Spain; Spain is not one of the top imperialist powers in the world, but it is certainly capitalist and I would even tend to say an imperialist society, even though it has some backward features within it which make for particularities in the revolution there. But, it’s not accidental that this is the kind of line that arises from people who are pro-Western imperialism, let’s put it that way, because that’s what all these people are: Djilas, this guy who wrote this Nomenclatura (even though he sometimes wraps himself in a Marxist guise) is pro-Western imperialism and so objectively is Claudin who wrote the book From Comintern to Cominform. Basically what they are saying is that until the masses themselves are ready for socialism you can’t force them to have it, so you just have to sort of carry on with the business of ingratiating yourselves with the masses where they’re at, and then–in comes the theory of the productive forces along with the bourgeois democracy–eventually the development of society and the productive forces and the masses’ own organizations, like trade unions and democratic organizations, will eventually lead to socialism like you have in many parts of Europe–that is, imperialism ruling under a very tattered pink banner of socialism. So this is one feature.

The other reason I say that it’s not only very tailist and bowing to spontaneity but also very Eurocentric chauvinist is because it’s fine, if you’re going to take the point of view of pro-Western imperialism, to talk about just waiting and waiting and waiting. I’m being sarcastic when I say it’s fine, but maybe you can find some basis among more privileged workers and more privileged sections of the masses, petty bourgeoisie and so on in these imperialist countries who are sort of gradualists: “let’s go slow or let’s not try to hurry things . . . what’s the big hurry, things will come anyway, as the masses gain experience in democratic organizations and society develops,’’ while meanwhile all this is based on plunder internationally as well as the exploitation of significant sections within these imperialist countries themselves. It’s based on international plunder of those countries where the desire of the people for revolution, even if they don’t consciously understand everything about what that means, but still their desire to drastically change their conditions is very acute.

So here you get this lopsidedness of the world. If you were an internationalist, if you were looking at the world as a whole you’d say there’s tremendous urgency, we have to figure out everything we can to actually accelerate this process, yes, by making revolution by relying on the masses, but to look at the world as a whole is all the more reason not to be tailing. If you end up tailing consciously and promoting this kind of line in a European imperialist country or in a Western imperialist country, then you’re consciously promoting chauvinism.

This is something that is more particular to our situation than Lenin’s, because Lenin was in a country that overall was part of the British-led imperialist bloc that the U.S. became a part of also, and was an imperialist country but was also backward in many ways. The conditions there were sort of midway between East and West in a certain way. Even though overall it belonged in the imperialist camp, there were some very backward conditions and the masses were in very desperate straits a good part of the time. But at the same time Lenin viewed things on a world scale, as well as just taking account of the particularities of Russia and the acuteness of the situation there and the conditions that did, if correctly and dialectically understood, cause Russia to be a certain kind of weak link at a certain point. So he understood the need to accelerate the process of revolution and he saw very clearly that if you sat around and waited for the spontaneous development of the revolution, you would actually be contributing to retarding the revolution.

This view, this sort of Titoite social-democratic, bourgeois-democratic view in vague Marxist coloration tries to wrap itself in the mantle of Marx by playing on the fact that Marx’s ideas of the party were not as developed as Lenin’s. When Marx and Engels dealt with the question of the socialist revolution (although you know in opposition to some slanders to the contrary, Marx and Engels paid a lot of attention to important instances of colonial oppression and still more to rebellions in the colonies, whether in China, India or Ireland, and drew important conclusions), still they were largely looking at things from a European context and correctly so in the sense that that was exactly where the most important developments influencing the world, particularly toward socialism, and the working-class movements generally, were concentrated at that time. Some of the questions that Lenin was confronted with, that were brought sharply to the fore in the imperialist era were only beginning to assert themselves toward the end of the lifetimes of Marx and Engels, like after the Paris Commune. At the same time, as Lenin pointed out, the period of several decades between the Paris Commune and World War 1 and the developments leading directly up to it, say at the turn of the century with the advent of imperialism, was a period where by and large, while the world was not quiet in any sense, for Marxists only slow patient work was possible. And then the contradictions accumulated and brought a lot of these questions sharply to the fore. What Lenin summed up was precisely all the lessons, the rich lessons, the very important lessons that are concentrated in What Is To Be Done?, in terms of the spontaneity of the masses and the consciousness of the revolutionaries and the need for a vanguard party, whose backbone is professional revolutionaries. (Not that every member has to be a professional revolutionary, in fact we have to learn how to combine the two: people who are not full time cadre making up a large base for the party or in the party at the same time as you have a backbone of professional revolutionaries, a backbone of the party who are professional revolutionaries.) This is an important development in Marxism; it is precisely this that these people want to negate.

Consciousness and the Conscious Element

To me there is something very significant to learn from that, it is a very good teacher by negative example of how important, once again, What Is To Be Done? is, that all these people feel compelled to go back to that and attack Lenin for that, precisely because what’s concentrated there is not only the organizational line of the party, but its underpinnings, which is the more developed sense of the role and importance of consciousness and the conscious element in relation to the masses which, yes, involves a contradiction and requires this contradiction be handled correctly. But still, the role of consciousness and the conscious element is a very indispensable element for the revolution. The masses will not spontaneously develop socialist consciousness. They may gravitate toward it, as Lenin said, but they will not spontaneously develop socialist or Marxist consciousness and that has to be, in a certain basic sense, imparted to them from without, even at the same time as that doesn’t mean standing to the side of them in the political sense. But it does mean not simply merging into their midst, that is, tailing behind them. It means carrying on active political revolutionary work in their midst, especially paying attention to the advanced but also even more broadly among the masses, being in their midst in that sense, but not just sort of merging into their midst, that is, submerging yourself beneath their level of consciousness and struggle spontaneously developed at any point.

This is a tremendously important point that Lenin raised. And I know that sometimes people accuse us of being “What Is To Be Done ?-ists,” as if that’s a crime, but this helps you to understand much more fundamentally just how important it is and how proud one should be to be a What Is To Be Done?-ist. Sometimes people have said, “you just uncritically take everything in What Is To Be Done?, you don’t even have any criticisms of it.’’ And I say, yes we do, we have some points of disagreement with Lenin because there are some places where he still made certain concessions to the German social-democratic (which really was social-democratic) trend. You can see that even in What Is To Be Done? there are certain ways (probably mainly for tactical reasons because he wasn’t in a position to call into question the whole German social-democratic party and its pronounced role of leadership in the Marxist movement) that Lenin holds them up as a model even though the whole thrust of what he says goes up against what they were doing, something which he brings out openly when there’s no longer any choice in World War 1, when, as he says, their opportunist boil burst. But Lenin was not able to go back and tie together all these threads and it is important to do so.

This is what we started doing in the last Central Committee report, in the “Charting the Uncharted Course” section in particular. We’ve held up this German “WORKING CLASS” social-democratic model in more sharp relief as a negative example. This Eurocentric “WORKING CLASS” model is what I’m talking about with all these people like Djilas and the Nomenclatura author, Claudin, etc. It’s not accidental that they have to bring What Is To Be Done ? right into their sights and fire on it; you can see again what an important contribution it was; I mean, it does have its organizational expression, but not only that. You can see what’s the basis by seeing what they say, using them as a negative example of the importance of a Leninist party and what it’s based on. This notion of just “going slow” and “if the workers don’t want revolution then nothing can force them” is of course a way of pitching yourself to the most backward.

“Alienated from the Masses”

It’s very current now in the movement in the U.S.; it’s a recurrent theme that all opportunists dump on us because we’re always doing things to “alienate ourselves from the masses,” by which they mean the lowest common denominator. In particular the viewpoint comes through that ”you shouldn’t do anything to offend the American people” which, if you think about it, is ridiculous. I mean, why shouldn’t we? For example you have to say from being around, and you yourself were involved, that when the Vietnamese people rose up in revolution against U.S. imperialism they offended a good part of the American people. And, precisely if they hadn’t been offensive in that kind of way then a lot of the good results – not only in Vietnam and internationally at the time, but even in the U.S. itself – a lot of the very positive results would not have developed. People who were themselves oppressed, outraged at their situation, alienated, in a frame of mind to rebel and looking to reach out to others who were in the same situation and with the same sentiments, would not have been encouraged and drawn forward to the degree or in the same way they were because the Vietnamese people rose up: Black people in the U.S., a lot of the youth, and so on.

And for that matter, when the Black people rose up in the U.S. or the youth and so on, didn’t they offend a good part of the American people? And these people were around then too. The CP was also around then. Unfortunately, some of the very same people who are now putting up stop signs and saying ”no offense, please, you can’t offend the mainstream,” were themselves involved in doing it then. That’s one of the big tragedies, people from the ’60s who drew the incorrect conclusions from the temporary ebb in the movement, especially in the mid-’70s. But there was the CP then pushing the same line: you know, you said, “U.S. Out of Vietnam,” and they’d say, “Can we have a little negotiation, fellows?” and so on. This was tied up with the whole Soviet international line and their relationship to that, but also the way they see carrying out even that line for that matter, which is you can’t offend the masses.

One thing that comes up is you can’t offend the national sentiments of people. Well, for Christ’s sake, if we didn’t offend the national sentiments of the American people how could we be communists and proletarian internationalists! It would be absolutely impossible. This is where this leads you though. It’s not a correct theory and it leads to problems in the oppressed nations; for example, it leads you into promoting bourgeois nationalism and reformism in the final analysis, anyway. But especially in an imperialist country this is directly and immediately a recipe for chauvinism and pro-imperialist reaction. And of course, all these people I’ve cited, that’s what they’re promoting, some of them almost openly and consciously and with little disguise, some of them with more of a leftist disguise, but this is the whole idea. This is a tendency that is accentuated with the development of imperialism and in the imperialist countries, in particular “go slow” and so on. It attempts to wrap itself in the mantle of Marx, as I said, by taking advantage of the fact that Marx’s work was done before the real development of the imperialist era, at least the qualitative leap involved in the development to imperialism. But, it is also a retrograde trend, it’s not really just upholding what Marx said, but out of condition, time and place. It’s also retrograde against Marxism, of course, because what it’s doing is taking advantage of the fact that with the development of imperialism and, particularly since the Second World War there has been a temporary retarding in the revolutionary movement, particularly among the working class in these advanced imperialist countries, especially of the West. There has been much more of a material basis for these kinds of lines and the basis to say “let’s go slow.” But that has also, because of the same material conditions, put you much more directly – especially if you’re talking about conscious forces, people with worked out theories and not just people who are just acting spontaneously – in opposition to the international proletariat, makes you much more a leech, and a conscious pro-imperialist chauvinist in relation to the international proletariat. That’s what’s involved.

Here’s where the importance of the point about “Leninism as the bridge” in terms of What Is To Be Done? links up with “Leninism as the bridge” in terms of revolutionary defeatism and opposition to one’s own imperialism. You see what I’m trying to say? This trend concentrates how they come together in a negative sense.

Q: You mean the way you talked about imperialist economism?

BA: Exactly. And bourgeois democracy. You can see the bourgeois democracy; these people, not accidentally, all push bourgeois democracy. You see, one point I wanted to bring out in relation to this, and going back to what I was saying earlier, I myself have done some agonizing over this. It’s true, there is a real danger and a real risk that you try to develop a party and the party goes bad when it’s in power and becomes a bourgeois party and institutes a bourgeois dictatorship, turns the state into a bourgeois dictatorship. We put a lot of emphasis, and I myself have fought in particular to give leadership on this question of preparing now against that, and that preparation is very important, although when the time comes you’re going to have different material conditions and the ideological preparations we do now will be important then but obviously won’t be sufficient, there’ll be tremendous struggle anyway because it’s different when people are in power than when they are being hunted and hounded and everything.

Q: I noticed in your speeches and even in some of your radio talks, it’s something that you pay attention to, something that’s a question on the masses’ minds, “whatever happens when you guys get in power?” And you always try to deal with that question.

BA: Obviously events in China brought it out even more sharply. We all knew what happened in Russia; we’d all come to a basic understanding of what happened there and we also theoretically knew the contradictory nature of socialist society, but we were all taken off guard by what happened in China to one degree or another, so that has to tell us that our understanding was still far from really profound on this question. And it’s on the minds of the masses; they bring it up a lot, even the basic proletarian masses who really don’t have anything to lose; there is a difference in the way it comes up among different sections of the masses, but it comes up. Malcolm X gave the example in one of his talks that when slaves are leaving a plantation and somebody says “Yeah, but where are we going?”, they say, “Who gives a fuck, anything’s better than this.’’ Malcolm X was talking about outlook, not literally that it’s not important to know where you’re going. And that’s very correct and that is the outlook of the real proletariat that has nothing to lose but its chains. But on the other hand he was talking to an audience largely made up of that section of Black people, for example, yet he still had to make that argument, to struggle over that point with his audience, and the point of that story obviously was that there were some in his audience who were posing the same question, where are we going? Not that it’s wrong to pose the question, but it was still like wanting to know what’s on the other side of the river before they were willing to leave where they are, even as bad as where they are is. That’ll always come up, even among the basic proletariat, but especially in the U.S. where even the most oppressed sections are, after all, in the U.S.

As perverted as he’s become, when Eldridge Cleaver left the U.S. and went to Algeria and other places, and he saw the conditions, the much more stark conditions of the oppressed masses in other countries – and this was obviously for him the beginning of his capitulation – he started talking about how, compared to that, even the oppression of Black people in the U.S. is like being pressed between two velvet sheets. Well, obviously, that’s an exaggeration and going way too far and way over the line, and for him it was the beginning of his capitulation, the idea that things aren’t so bad even for Black people in the U.S. after all, and he didn’t see it as part, as just the much more extreme form of the same imperialist system. But, nevertheless, there is an element of truth in that, that even the most oppressed in the U.S., if you want to get into this sort of contest, reverse upsmanship to see who’s most oppressed, there are people outside the borders of the U.S. who will win. And it’s obviously a ridiculous and reactionary contest to get into.

Still, there is this question and it’s good that people pose the question because you don’t want people to rebel blindly, you want them to make revolution consciously with a sense of where they are going. But again it divides into two. On the one hand, it reflects that even people who are very oppressed feel they have a little something to protect, as against an unknown, and that shows that even for them, their consciousness is not unrelated to the sharpening of contradictions. They’re not constantly in the mood to exchange anything, whatever it might be, for what they have, it’s only when the contradictions sharpen up very acutely that they themselves are willing to put everything on the line without knowing exactly in every detail how everything’s going to work out.

Be Part of the Battle

On the other hand, it’s good that people do pose the question, it’s good that people do want to know where things are going and what’s the way forward out of this, including on this question, “Well, how do we prevent this revolution from becoming turned around, betrayed or turned into its opposite.” But it’s not quite correct the way they pose this. It’s good they pose the question but the way it’s posed often is sort of like us and them or us and you. What will happen when you guys get in power, instead of seeing their own role in this process which is crucial ultimately.

That’s why we’ve also emphasized that we have to put it back to the masses to a certain degree, not to duck the question or to avoid the point of our own role in this. We’ve emphasized that the role of the vanguard and the masses is not an absolute and we don’t want it to be an absolute. In other words, for people who are posing this question it’s precisely not a matter of saying, “Okay, we’re the party, we’ll do what we can, but now what are you going to do?”

There’s also the question of saying, “You have to make that leap to becoming part of this party to fight this question out from that standpoint too;” it’s not just enough to be an advanced person among the masses who rallies to the call, but keeps a certain distance and says, “Let’s see whether you guys are for real or not.” You’ve got to come in and fight to make this thing for real, because that’s the way it’s going to get determined whether it’s for real or not is people struggling it out and you can’t stand, keep a certain safe distance, or a certain distance in any case, to see what happens, you have to become part of that battle. And you can’t do that fully unless you join into the vanguard, because there is a real separation, at the same time there is interpenetration, between the vanguard and the rest of the masses, even the advanced masses. It is from this point of view, from this angle, that Marxists pose this question.