Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bob Avakian

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

Chapter 2: Can You Do Away With Leadership?

As I said, I have agonized over the question that the party can in fact get turned into its opposite and can become the leading force in restoring capitalism and imposing dictatorship over the masses and transforming the proletarian state into a bourgeois state, a bourgeois dictatorship. And you could just take the attitude, okay let’s not have a vanguard then, that way at least we won’t demoralize the masses by having another revolutionary party turn into something bad – which is a cop-out ultimately if you want to get right down to it. I’ve come to understand this point much more deeply. This also connects to a question on bourgeois democracy which was provoked in my mind when I saw “Fort Apache, the Bronx.” (See RW 117): the proletariat – and even more than just the proletariat, but the future communist society when there isn’t even a proletariat any more – has to evolve and develop something higher than a “perfection” of bourgeois democracy. That was one of the main points I was trying to bring out in that piece; the point of communism politically is not that we will clear away all the class obstacles and then we can have pure democracy – because there is no such thing.

Participatory Democracy

Remember when back in the ’60s, there used to be “participatory democracy”? A lot of times people took up this idea out of the best intentions; and then there were those who took advantage of it, the Tom Hayden types and so on, (we remember him back then too). They would take advantage of it in a very callous and cynical way, for manipulation; they would promote participatory democracy out in public and at the public meetings, and before and after they’d have the clique meetings and decide everything and then let the masses play little games like they were deciding things. And that’s just the point.

Now there was an SDS meeting I remember one time in Berkeley that I didn’t go to but it was described to me. Even if you allow for a certain amount of exaggeration, I know from my own experience in things that the kernel of this is undoubtedly true. There was an SDS meeting called (given what I’m going to describe next, how somebody even managed to call the meeting is quite an accomplishment and a little bit miraculous); but the meeting somehow got called, people showed up and it was participatory democracy. This was the theme and the method of the time. So they had a problem, they wanted to start the meeting but they didn’t know how to start it so somebody got up and suggested that they start the meeting and somebody else said, “Well, it’s not for you to say we should start the meeting. People should decide whether they want to start the meeting or not.” So then somebody else got up and suggested that they sing songs and see if they could get in the mood to get the meeting going. And somebody said, “Well, we have to first see if everybody wants to sing songs and we have to have a vote on that.” But then how did they know that that was the question they should debate, whether they should sing songs or do something else: “Where do you get the right to say we should discuss the question of singing songs or not, rather than some other thing maybe people want to do?”

So finally they managed to get beyond that because life does assert itself and either they were going to go on like this forever and not have a meeting or they were going to have to make a few decisions despite themselves and despite their even good intentions to try to do everything in a d-e-m-o-c-r-a-t-i-c way. But then they couldn’t decide what songs to sing and they got into the same debate over that: “Who are you to say we should sing this song and not that song and we have to have discussion about that first.” “Well, let’s see if we can elect a temporary . . .” I don’t think they wanted to call it a “chairman of the meeting” but somebody like some “secretary of the meeting” or something, because again there’s reality and life asserted itself. But it went on like this.

Now all that’s humorous on the one hand, but it shows that there is this dialectic between democracy and centralism and you really can’t have democracy if there’s no centralism, that is if there is no vanguard leadership. How exactly that’s going to work itself out in classless society, communism, I don’t know, but even then there will have to be some form of centralism, some people who have the responsibility. Even if this responsibility is able to change then, and not be permanent in a certain sense the way it is now with the party, still you’re not going to be able to get away from that contradiction. You can’t. Life doesn’t allow you to discuss everything all at once and endlessly, or else life will come to a standstill and you might even revert back to feudalism or something. Literally, I suppose that’s impossible at the stage of communism; ideologically people wouldn’t do that; there’d be a basis not to do it, materially and ideologically. But if you did actually just stand around and discuss forever then the Tom Haydens and so on would come in and maybe even get so far as restoring capitalism, or maybe socialism or something.

Leaving that aside, the point is that you’ve got to have some kind of leadership; there’s got to be some sort of direction to things; people have to take responsibility for giving some direction and leadership. With all the problems involved in a party, the real contradictions between the party and the masses, those real problems and those real dangers stem from something more fundamental, from the division of labor and from the contradictions that generally characterize class society. And if you just want to turn your back on or walk away from those contradictions, the only thing you’ll be doing is guaranteeing that the masses’ role in things will be suppressed, that they will in fact be led around by the nose, they will in fact be taken advantage of by demagogues. That’s the only thing you can guarantee if you refuse to have and build and strengthen the role of the vanguard.

The irony for all those people who recognize this problem but who recoil from it is that it’s only with the role of a real vanguard party, a real revolutionary party based on Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tsetung Thought, it’s only with that vanguard that there’s the possibility of the masses playing a conscious role in changing things and eventually overcoming that contradiction between the party and the masses. That’s the contradictory nature of it; the greater the role of the vanguard, not in the sense that the more it has its hands organizationally on everything, but the greater its role is ideologically and politically, the greater the chances for the masses to actually take these things consciously in hand and transform the world in such a way as to eventually even eliminate the need for the vanguard when all over the world the basis for classes is eliminated. But that does not guarantee that the party won’t go bad, that the party won’t turn into a bunch of demagogues or its leadership won’t become a new core of a bourgeoisie; there’s no guarantee against that because you are dealing with real contradictions and they can get resolved one way or the other and they depend, as we’ve learned more deeply, more than on what’s just happening in just one country at one time. But still it’s only with that vanguard and precisely to the degree that its role politically and ideologically is strengthened – it’s in relation to that, not contrary to that, that the conscious role of the masses is developed.

Earlier I referred to authors like Djilas and so on who are revisionists and pro-Western imperialist apologists, hyenas, but there are other people with much better motivation, with no desire to promote and serve imperialism, but still out of an incomplete or incorrect understanding, they end up falling into the same position. For them this is an error, while for the others it’s a conscious and pro-imperialist policy. So I think that’s a point that really has to be put before people and they have to grapple with.


All the anarchists and so on who want to abolish vanguards ... I remember Chang Chun-chiao in a speech on the Tien Anmen Square incident in China that was reprinted in And Mao Makes Five, made the point that the anarchists don’t really want to abolish leadership by a small group; what they want to do is abolish your clique and establish their own clique. Now that was referring to people who were more consciously promoting anarchism in order precisely to install bourgeois dictatorship, which was the situation then in China. But there are also people who spontaneously tend in that direction and they do unconsciously, in those cases, promote the same thing, contribute to the same result because as much as the anarchists may wish it they cannot eliminate this contradiction. Society can’t be run like those participatory democracy SDS meetings; even SDS couldn’t be run like that.

You’re dealing with much more profound contradictions, and you’re dealing with, you know, with a much larger process than simply one meeting or even one society and so the choice is not leadership or no leadership, it’s one kind of leadership or another: precisely a bourgeois leadership or a proletarian leadership. And I don’t mean just what label it wears because we’ve learned that’s not the question either, we’ve learned that a lot more deeply. But precisely the question is what’s the content of leadership, in other words, as Mao very importantly pointed out, what’s the ideological and political line, which Mao pointed out is decisive. Of course, as Mao also said, sometimes even though your line is correct you can lose in the short run, which is a point that we had to bring out in opposition to our own Mensheviks around summing up the events in China.[1] Saying that ideological and political line is decisive does not mean that if you have a correct line you’ll go straight ahead and win in a straight line because motion only proceeds through twists and turns and in a spiral development. But still, it’s precisely the content of the leadership, the character of the leadership in that sense which determines whether or not there is a real revolution with the conscious role of the masses being developed, unleashed and increased or whether that’s suppressed. It’s only with that kind of a vanguard that’s even possible; it’s not with anarchism.

Even in a more limited sphere as we pointed out in the article on the Spanish Civil War[2], the anarchist line was a line for defeat; it was ultimately a reformist line; and in its content, if not always in its intention, it was a capitulationist line. There was a very sharp example of the actual contradictions you’re dealing with; there was an army in the field against you that was centralized and while you didn’t want to have centralism on the same bourgeois basis that they did, you had to have centralism on a proletarian basis if you were going to defeat them.

Even when you get to communism you’re not going to be able to have anarchism. I don’t believe that communism will be the same thing. In a shorthand way Lenin said our difference with the anarchists is that they want to abolish the state right now and we know that we can only do it later. Well that was correct in one aspect, but it was kind of a shorthand way to explain a difference. And as we’ve learned more, and also going into this question more deeply, we have even a more basic difference with the anarchists. We never are going to be for the anarchist line. Not that we want order and “everything-in-its-place” or anything like that. We want upheaval and disorder in that sense.

But what I mean by we’re never going to be anarchists, is that really what the anarchists are at bottom is bourgeois democrats. They think that if you can just remove all obstacles and let democracy flourish in its pure form – it sort of gets down to the town hall concept – then everything will be all right; and they think that anything that goes against that is bound to become corrupted and destroyed anyway so what’s the point, what’s the use – which is also the line of the so-called “Marxists,” that is, social-democratic, Titoite, bourgeois-democratic pro-Western imperialists. Those people’s line is, “Okay, maybe you can say to us that our line is, ’Wait, wait, wait,’ but the Leninist line is worse.” Their view is that the Leninist line of “trying to accelerate revolution by having a vanguard” and “introducing” as they put it (there’s the heart of their idealism), “you’re introducing a difference between the vanguard and the masses,” rather than this difference arises out of the division of labor and the contradictions that characterize society in this epoch. And their bottom line is that by that “willful introduction,” as they see it because they’re idealist, “you are going to produce something, which is going to end up even worse, i.e., look at the Soviet Union today, even worse than imperialism.” That’s where it links up with the social-chauvinist pro-Western imperialist line: “so therefore you’re worse than we are.” “Yeah, okay you can say we ’re just trying to go along with the flow, but by trying to divert the flow of things, you’re only going to lead to worse disasters.” You can see how in some ways their pro-Western imperialist line is in unity with these anarchists who say that anything that goes toward centralism in the name of advancing the revolution is only going to make things worse anyway.

But the simple fact is that because of the material conditions, because of the actual contradictions underlying things not only today but even under communism, it will never be possible to have “pure democracy.” In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” there’s a good relevant point, although it’s from sort of an individualist, not a communist, point of view. This is the movie based on the book by Ken Kesey, whose weaknesses came out sharply in his other book Sometimes A Great Notion. In the movie there is a scene where McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) wants to watch the World Series and Nurse Ratched doesn’t want to. And she is a perfect bourgeois democrat in this context. Being sure of the situation she says, “Well, let’s have a vote.” So they have a vote and McMurphy wins the vote among the people that are there but then Nurse Ratched insists on having all these other people vote who are just literal zombies. So McMurphy gets up and says, “What, you’re gonna have these people, these clowns vote? They don’t even know what the hell we’re talking about!”

A Philosophical Question

There is a good critique of bourgeois and pure democracy; just allowing people to vote, or frankly even if they did know what you’re talking about on one level, just allowing them to have their say is no guarantee that the interests of the broadest masses are going to be realized. There’s no guarantee of that just by people having a “right to speak” because life’s not that simple, and not only is it not that simple, there’s a philosophical question involved. Is there or is there not objective truth? Not that all of it can be known at a given time but is there or is there not objective truth? Are there or are there not things that lie in the direction of progress, advancing society, developing things? The philosophical underpinning of bourgeois democracy is agnosticism and eclecticism, “There’s no truth anyway, so the important thing is that the majority of people have their will.”

But the problem is that there is truth. That is, even truth as understood correctly as a contradictory phenomenon, a thing advancing through motion and development, or through contradiction. Precisely because there is objective truth, and it also moves in that dialectical way as a result of the dialectical motion of matter, then truth will assert itself anyway. The masses can all have their say and decide something that is not in line with the development of things and then their interests won’t be served – especially if you’re looking broadly at the interests of mankind as a whole.

One of the things people used to say around the Vietnam war was, “This is an unconstitutional war and was not declared by Congress.’’ Well, who gives a fuck? I wouldn’t have liked it any better if it was declared by Congress. This is not necessarily to condemn those people, or at least not all of them, who fell into saying things like that. But it wouldn’t really do even to say “This was never submitted to a vote of the American people; we didn’t want this war.” Well, there’s something there you can agitate around but you can’t carry that very far because even if they’d had a plebiscite and all the American people, or the majority, had voted to have the Vietnam war, that wouldn’t make it correct. It wouldn’t make it in the interests of the majority of the people of the world, the interests of mankind, in line with progress, revolution and advance.

Having been inculcated and trained demagogically in the false concept of democracy, it may be tempting to think that you’re being very radical if the most you can put forward is that we should remove all the fetters and have pure democracy. But pure democracy doesn’t guarantee that truth (not in the absolute metaphysical sense but truth in a dialectical and materialist sense), will be grasped and acted upon and that progress and advance and development of things will be pushed forward. That’s what’s wrong with the anarchist line and that kind of approach will be wrong even under communism.

Like I pointed out in that little excerpt on bourgeois democracy that was reprinted (in RW No. 117), there is a definite revolutionary reason that we’re for having people thrashing things out. We’re preparing the basis now to have even people who oppose us and have even opposition lines printed now in our newspaper (not without leadership, not anarchistically, but to not raise people in a hothouse). For example around the “Sooner or Later” debate or the one around the party’s Programme or “100 Flowers” we’re laying the basis for doing that in the future and doing it by thrashing it out now. The importance of doing it right now is precisely that things do develop through contradiction but it’s essential that people thrash these things out and that they know the opposing lines as well as the party line at a given time for two reasons: for one thing somebody who opposes it may actually point out things wrong with it and they may have a more correct understanding of a part of something, even if at the same time their overall line is incorrect and the party’s is correct; it’s even possible that the reverse may be true at a given moment, they may have more of the truth and the party’s line may be off at that given time, but even if that’s not true they contribute something. Second of all, even if they’re completely wrong, it’s important for people to recognize and battle out these things and get a much deeper sense of what’s right and what’s wrong through that kind of struggle. But that’s why we’re for it because people should come to a much more profound grasp of objective truth in its motion and development and not just have things fed to them.

But none of that will ever eliminate the need for centralism. And you know that that’s the case. All of us who’ve been through these attempts at participatory democracy with the best of intentions on the part of the majority (if not the Tom Hay dens) know it very well and fairly deeply. At least we have the basis to know it deeply, in our experience of trying that kind of thing. Even if we removed the bourgeoisie, imperialism and class society from the scene, it still wouldn’t work. You still can’t do things without any centralism, without the dialectical relationship between centralism and democracy, that is between the people taking up questions and grappling with them but having some leadership. If people don’t take responsibility for preparing agendas (in the broadest sense) that is, for helping to decide which are the essential questions to take up now, how are you going to sort all that out? Are you going to call everybody together and do like that famous SDS meeting? Are you going to spend two hours debating whether or not you should debate what should be on the agenda? As you see, that’s like endless quicksand.

So these are some points, I think, that need to be stressed, and this does link up with why we say to people, “Look, if this party is going to continue on the revolutionary way, that depends on the development of things in the whole world on the one hand, but on the other hand, we have a role in influencing that. It’s not like we’re passive observers of what’s happening in the world.” We’re conscious forces within that and there is a responsibility on people who are advanced enough where they want revolution, where they see the need for revolution and also see the dangers and the problems that arise because the party can go bad and the revolution can get corrupted and turned around from within.

Those people have to make the next leap, they’ve got to cross over that river, they’ve got to make that leap to coming into the party and fighting it out in that context, because otherwise, indirectly and unintentionally, they’re contributing to the possibility of the wrong line winning out. Precisely the people who see that that’s a question, and a vital question, need to make the leap – not without taking up in an all-around way the questions of revolution, the line of the party, and so on but it’s precisely the leap they need to make. That’s just one reason they need to make it, but even that is a reason why they need to make that leap.


Q: You’ve been stressing that coming to the fore now in the international communist movement is the fact that there is no Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tsetung Thought without Leninism. You’ve talked specifically about the “Marxists” – that is, social-democratic, social-chauvinist, pro-Western imperialist attackers of Lenin. What about the other side of that, the so-called “Maoists” against Leninism?

BA: Well, there’s the question of so-called (again this is so-called) Maoists – so-called Marxists, so-called Leninists, so-called Maoists. For example, there are people – so-called conscious people – who pervert the lessons in the advances achieved through the Cultural Revolution. Basically they end up back in unity with the so-called Marxists on a number of points, on bourgeois democracy in particular, and also on nationalism (and especially in its expression, when it’s in an imperialist country, of social-chauvinism).

These are people who try to be Maoist by negating Leninism – rather than seeing Mao Tsetung Thought as a development in crucial areas of Marxism-Leninism – a leap in that sense, but not a negation of Leninism. And Mao, I pointed this out in that talk (“Conquer the World?. . . ”), was very clear about the need for a Leninist party; one of the main objectives of the Cultural Revolution was precisely to reconstitute the party on an even higher level through the whole process of the upheaval and the advances made in the Cultural Revolution as a whole.

Necessity, Freedom and the Party

Strengthening the party in this way was precisely one of Mao’s main objectives in the Cultural Revolution, and never did he have in mind the idea of abolishing the party. That’s the point he made when he said, “We have to have a party” in discussing the shortcomings of the Paris Commune in light of the experience at the time of the Cultural Revolution. He’s very clear that you have to have a party, you have to have a vanguard and he’s not just saying it in a negative sense “you have to have it.” Mao is very clear on the dialectical relationship between necessity and freedom. It’s a necessity to have a party, which includes the necessity of contradiction and struggle to maintain it as a revolutionary party, as the experience of China very sharply demonstrated. But the necessary role of the vanguard, where a correct line is able to be won and maintained in command through struggle, does open the door to more freedom, more freedom for the masses in the broadest sense, and that is in the sense of the worldwide advance toward communism. We can even say that applies internationally, too, the need for a vanguard leadership. But just talking in terms of a party, or parties in different countries, there’s a need for the vanguard there as well.

Somehow the idea gets promoted that the experience of the Cultural Revolution makes the Leninist line on the party, the Leninist party, somehow depasse, no longer valid or surpassed by further experience. This is ridiculous and also reactionary and the people who promote this think they’re being very profound but they’re really only bringing in through the back door the same old bourgeois democracy and social-democracy that we’ve been talking about before which is more openly promoted by these so-called Marxists we’ve talked about.

These “Maoists” who are anti-Leninist say, “We will have a party based on the experience of the Cultural Revolution,” but really what they’re talking about is a party based on their own perversion of what the experience of the Cultural Revolution is. They are one-sidedly viewing only one aspect of the Cultural Revolution and turning it into its opposite in the way they’re treating it. That is, they are taking the upsurge of the masses and the fact that the old party apparatus had become an obstacle to the revolution because it had come into the hands of a deeply entrenched bourgeois leadership and was under the command of their bourgeois line. It had become a counter-revolutionary instrument and the Cultural Revolution had as one of its main objectives to reverse that situation and not just simply restore the party to its vanguard role but, through the spiral-like motion, to strengthen its vanguard role, to strengthen it as a revolutionary instrument of the proletariat. But, these people take only the one aspect of the situation, that is the mass upsurge including its opposition to the party bureaucracy, and they treat that one-sidely and freeze it. Then they think that they’ve come up with some brilliant new invention which is a social-democratic notion of a party or a non-party (or at least a non-Leninist party) in opposition to the Leninist line which Mao was consistently fighting for, and at the same time actually advancing.

Mao was actually advancing the understanding of the role of the party in relation to the masses, particularly when the party is in power; the party itself has to be revolutionized in those situations and even more than before. Although that’s constantly a task, it’s an even more important question when the party’s in power. And beyond that, because you know that’s not the whole of it, what Mao also grasped was that precisely in order to do that, the party had to be thrown up for grabs in a certain sense. The party itself develops in a spiral-like motion as part of the overall spiral-like motion of the revolution and of events in the world in the process of the development of the world from the bourgeois epoch toward the communist epoch. As part of that whole spiral motion, the party itself develops in a spiral-like way and at certain points it comes to crucial junctures or conjunctures where the question of what the nature of the party will be becomes a concentrated expression of which direction society will take and of the general overall struggle in society and even in the world, between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution.

So that was Mao’s development. And it did involve an aspect of going against the “Leninist norms” as they are presented, in rigid, metaphysical, dogmatic and ultimately revisionist (that’s why we say, dogmato-revisionist) form by the Hoxhaites and people who want to uphold even some significant errors of Stalin, including the so-called monolithic party, in a metaphysical sense. Hoxha’s dogmato-revisionist line holds that the party always is correct, that the party is sort of like the leader in a bourgeois sense, that the party imparts the correct line to the masses in a bourgeois metaphysical sense; but what these so-called Maoists promote in opposition to this is not real Maoism but the opposite pole of the same stupidity, social-democracy and bourgeois-democracy.

Often they have the same sort of notions of participatory democracy and so on, “We’ll just say to the workers and to the masses ’come on in, join with us and make this party our own’” – as if that’s not a question of line, and as if you can do away with the question of leadership even within the party itself, let alone the contradiction more broadly between leadership and led as it expresses itself between the party on the one hand and the broader masses on the other. Of course, that always means, whether people intend it or not, as I was drawing out earlier, that there will be demagogery, manipulation of the masses on a much more developed scale because in fact you cannot do away with the need for leadership.

The Only Real Choice

The only way you have a chance for correct leadership is to grasp the contradictions that make leadership necessary and to handle that contradiction correctly through struggle. If you deny the need for vanguard leadership and for leadership even within the party, then you are guaranteeing that bourgeois methods of leadership and bourgeois forms of leadership will prevail. That is the only real choice – proletarian leadership and methods of leadership vs. bourgeois – not leadership vs. no leadership, not “vanguard vs. no vanguard.” The question is not whether there will be a separation of a kind, even while there is interpenetration, between the vanguard and the masses. That will exist, and will take one form or another. Of course you could say it won’t be between the vanguard and the masses because if you have the bourgeois form it won’t really be a vanguard. But it will be, in that case, a clique; it will be a clique separated from the masses, but dominating over them in that situation. But exactly this will be the end result, too, with the line of denying or trying to pretend that you can somehow will away the contradiction at this stage between the leadership and led and that you can ignore or will away the underlying contradictions that give rise to that contradiction between leadership and led.

Really what it comes down to is taking certain aspects of the form of the Cultural Revolution – particularly mass democracy – and turning them against the content. Mao himself pointed out in “On The Correct Handling Of Contradictions Among The People” that some people think democracy is an end, but really it’s only a means to an end. He was saying it has a class character and in particular, as it was developed more fully in the Cultural Revolution a decade later, mass democracy had the purpose of waging the class struggle against the bourgeoisie and transforming the thinking of the people, advancing their consciousness as well as the forms of organization in society and among the masses that enable them to play a fuller and more conscious role in ruling and transforming society. That was the point of the mass democracy. But to make it an end in itself makes it a little game, makes it a luxury, and turns it against the class struggle – of the proletariat that is.

Frankly, this objectively has the character of demagogery and at least on the part of some people it is conscious demagogy because always these types who promote this, at some point or another themselves come up against the fact that there’s a contradiction there. Then they either change their thinking about it or else they become much more cynical and consciously manipulative because they know damn well that they’ve got their own ideas and that they want those ideas to prevail. But if they continue saying to people, “Come on in and do whatever you want and let’s have mass democracy,” well, then they become consciously demagogic and manipulative. They themselves more and more consciously put into practice the things they claim to be opposing, all the things they claim to be the evils of, and inherent within, the Leninist understanding and Leninist character of a party. Of course, this is no more Maoism than the other tendency is Marxism; I put it in quotes or say so-called because it’s an attempt to cut off an aspect of the development of the science of revolution, of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tsetung Thought and use it against the thrust of it.


[1] Referring to a faction within the RCP, USA which split from the party in 1977.

[2] Revolution, No. 49, June 1981.