Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bob Avakian

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

Chapter 4: Lessons from Iran on Coming From Behind to Build the Party

Q: We are talking about revolution in the colonies and dependent countries and how it’s not some kind of absolute law that it can only be led by the proletariat. How does that relate to the question of party building, the party and the masses?

BA: Take the Iranian revolution. We do say “the Iranian revolution” – it was a revolution. It did lead to the toppling of one regime, and it did lead to the coming to power – at least in the short run – of new and different class forces than were represented by the Shah. Now at this point that revolution has clearly been turned into its opposite and a new reactionary bourgeois (ultimately comprador bourgeois, pro-imperialist) force is consolidating, or one can basically say has consolidated, its rule for now. But that doesn’t change the fact that there was a real revolution there. There was mass uprising, there were all the conditions that characterize a revolution.

If you want to make the argument that the only revolution in this era that’s really a revolution is the proletarian revolution, and that can only be led by the proletariat – well, that’s a tautology; it’s a circular argument. To say that the proletarian revolution can only be led by the proletariat is obvious. But it’s incorrect to say that in this era the only real revolution is a proletarian revolution. So in that sense the Iranian revolution was a real revolution.

Now it is true that in the world of today there are ultimately only two classes that can rule society – the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. And in these oppressed nations, the colonial and dependent countries, what that means is that either the imperialists will ultimately rule them having as their dependents the local reactionary forces, or the proletariat will rule them and make them base areas for the world proletarian revolution. But the fact that that’s ultimately true doesn’t deny or obliterate the fact that there are transitional steps in between. It is still correct to say that as a general rule (though not in an absolute way) there are two stages in the revolution in such countries, even though it’s true that ultimately only the bourgeoisie or the proletariat are going to rule those countries – and that means not the local bourgeoisie or the proletariat, but either the proletariat or the imperialists.

In the course of work on the book America in Decline we’ve come to understand much more sharply that the relation between imperialism and these oppressed nations is also a production relation. It’s a political relation, but it has a foundation as a production relation. Lenin insisted on the distinction between imperialist countries and the oppressed nations. And we’ve come to understand that the expression in the economic base, or the political/economic expression of this, is that the economies of all the countries in the world of today are controlled by finance capital, by imperialism. But the distinction is that in the imperialist countries – and not only the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but the imperialist countries of Europe and Japan as well – it is the local bourgeoisie that controls that finance capital, whereas in the oppressed nations, and in the colonial and dependent countries, they do not. There it is not the local bourgeoisie that controls that finance capital; it is controlled by finance capital internationally, or different blocs of finance capital. That is, it is foreign imperialism which controls that finance capital. And as I said, that’s the political/economic expression or the expression in the economic base of that basic distinction between imperialist countries and oppressed nations. So that when we say that only the bourgeoisie or the proletariat can control these countries (talking about the “third world,” for a short-hand expression), we don’t mean the local bourgeoisie or the local proletariat. In the final analysis either it will be the proletariat – and that has to be the proletariat representing the international proletariat, programmatically as well as ideologically, in terms of what it is fighting for and how it’s contributing to the world revolution in the final analysis – or it will be the international bourgeoisie, if you will, or different blocs of it, that is, imperialism will control these countries in the final analysis. But in between, that is before the final analysis, other class forces can come to the leadership of movements that are genuine movements that have at least an aspect of opposition to imperialism and its lackeys and that temporarily change the regime or even the relation of class forces in terms of who is in power. Iran is an example of that, where it was not the imperialists and the class forces that were their direct reserves that dominated power in Iran for a while; it was local bourgeois forces, but not the imperialists and their compradors who were in power for a period of time. And that is for a number of reasons which need to be looked at again.

This experience of the Iranian revolution is a very important experience in recent history that has a lot of lessons for the future, even the immediate future. The U.S. imperialists were on the horns of a very sharp dilemma in Iran; they had to decide whether to go down the line with the Shah and as a result risk being further exposed and having broader and deeper opposition rallied against them in Iran and internationally (even in the U.S.), or whether to try to cut the Shah loose and save their own appearance to a certain degree – that is, to cut their losses and try to work through other forces. They went back and forth and had very sharp struggle in their own ranks about this.

Reactionary Army Held Back

At a certain point it was pretty clear that the Shah was going to go anyway, unless they were willing to go all out to save him, that is unless they were willing to at least give very forceful backing to the Iranian army and maybe even come in directly with armed forces themselves. At that point, given the overall developments and current situation in the world, they decided to cut their losses and not to throw everything in opposition to the fall of the Shah’s regime and the coming to power of new and different class forces. Obviously they did that very calculatingly, with the aim of recouping their losses and of reestablishing and consolidating their hold over the country on an even more powerful basis if they could. That much is perhaps obvious. But, what struck me at the time was that the Iranian army was not being fully mobilized, to a certain degree it was being held on its leash, and the Shah was bitter about that, too. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a genuine mass uprising or that as a result of the whole revolutionary process there weren’t divisions within the Iranian reactionary armed forces that expressed themselves at the time of the February uprising.

But still, the army was held back. And the question is why was that the case? I think it was because the calculations were made by the U.S. imperialists and those who were following their orders that if they threw that army in entirely they risked a chance of really losing even bigger, that is, of having that army defeated, splitting even more, cracking open even more deeply in its foundation, and having a much more thoroughgoing revolution and also having the kind of chaos that the Soviets could come in and take advantage of more directly. So they decided not to do that, and for that reason, a large part of that army was held intact.

But that, you see, is the kind of thing which also pretty much guarantees that in the short run bourgeois forces, as opposed to proletarian forces, are going to be at the fore and are going to come to power. By that I mean bourgeois forces within the revolutionary camp as it shaped up at that time – the bourgeois or petty bourgeois forces or a mixture of them such as those grouped around Khomeini. That kind of revolution was only partial, but it was a real revolution and in terms of participation it was very broad. It really did almost engulf the whole nation in opposition to the monarchy. But that’s the point. It was in opposition to the monarchy.

But as far as, for example, the peasantry being mobilized to carry out an agrarian revolution, as far as the proletariat being able to come to the fore, that’s something that would have taken a longer and more deep-rooted – it’s not so much a question of time – but more thoroughgoing revolution which also does take more time and more twists and turns. When Haile Selassie fell in Ethiopia in 1974 bourgeois forces there also came to the fore. And even though it was a much sharper and broader mass movement in Iran, including real mass armed struggle in that uprising, and there were legitimate defections of the army into the camp of revolution, it was precisely something that in its development and even in terms of the way the imperialists maneuvered was bound to, in a certain sense, in the short run lead to bourgeois forces being at the fore and coming to power.

It didn’t go through enough for the proletariat to really win leadership and to carry out a thoroughgoing revolution even in the first stage – a thoroughgoing anti- imperialist democratic revolution in Iran. And that’s important to sum up. Otherwise you can get demoralized: “Well there’s another revolution that turned into its opposite.” But that revolution was a real revolution, and it was not led by the proletariat. Such things not only are possible theoretically but happen in practice.

This goes against the tendency that whenever anything happens in the revolutionary movement that’s an advance, there is a tendency to turn it into a law in some absolute metaphysical sense. For example, the revolution in China was led by the proletariat, and every other class was summed up as proven incapable of leading a thoroughgoing anti-imperialist democratic revolution. That’s true, and not only was it true in China then but ultimately it’s true in general in countries like China. But ultimately is one thing and making some sort of automatic, metaphysical, absolute law out of this is another thing.

What were the class forces that led the struggle in Cuba? Wasn’t the Cuban revolution really a revolution? I think it was. It was led by petty bourgeois forces that ultimately became a comprador bourgeoisie for new imperialists, but it was still a revolution. To say that the Cuban revolution was not a revolution, or that the Algerian revolution (to take another example) was not a revolution because it didn’t ultimately lead to the proletariat seizing power is metaphysics. And that’s the point I was trying to get at; if you say that, then you’re not going to really grasp the profundity and the thoroughgoing character that has to be imparted to a revolution to really enable the proletariat to come to the fore and come to power, even in the short run. (I say in the short run because we know that power can be restored and the bourgeoisie can restore capitalism – a new bourgeoisie in particular.)

Why Communists Didn’t Lead It

There is also the fact that, because of the repression there and a number of other reasons, the Marxist-Leninist movement was not very developed inside Iran itself. Now there was the kind of thing that went on in the Russian revolution where a lot of the Marxist-Leninist development, the polemics, the clarifying and sharpening of line questions that went on in relation to the Marxist-Leninist forces in Iran actually went on outside Iran, among the students, intellectuals and others who were outside the country for a period of time under the Shah’s regime. But there wasn’t the development inside Iran of a powerful Marxist-Leninist movement. It was really having to try to come from behind, and in the short run was not able to take leadership in that struggle. I think in large part that’s because of what the other side – in particular the U.S. imperialists – did, which made it much more difficult for them to be able to come from behind in that kind of accelerated way, because of what I was just talking about. The imperialists themselves took steps to see that the thing would sort of “get resolved” to a certain point, in the short run, and also to see that forces that they could both work with and also undermine more easily, put pressure on and hopefully win over or partly win over, would be in the forefront and would come to power.

That also was a very big factor in why the Marxist-Leninists were not able to win leadership, because Khomeini and the forces grouped around him had a real advantage over the Marxist-Leninists in the short run due to the way all the different forces were operating and the specific resolution of the contradictions that occurred (in a partial and limited sense) at that particular juncture. So, the limitations of the Marxist-Leninist movement also have to be understood in that light, not just in terms of the limitations of the Marxist-Leninists themselves, isolated from the rest of that. And that’s not raised as a criticism of the Marxist-Leninist forces in Iran. It’s just trying to draw some important lessons, because that revolutionary movement and that revolution of a kind there have been extremely rich in lessons, and we should draw all the lessons we can from this.

All this ties up with the question of the party. Mao talked about three magic weapons that they had: they had a revolutionary army, they had the united front, and they had the party. And these were the three magic weapons of the Chinese revolution. And correctly (not mechanically applied) those are three basic principals or three magic weapons of any revolution. But they are not magic weapons in a metaphysical sense. In other words, the question in Iran was not whether they had a group that called itself a party, or even was a party objectively. They didn’t have it, but if they had had it that wouldn’t have changed everything drastically either, just in and of itself. For example, in the U.S. there is such a party; there is our party. But what I was trying to get at with the lesson of Iran is when a revolutionary situation does emerge, how strong the party is will be crucial at that point. We can come back to this later in terms of the qualitative/quantitative aspect, because both are important, but quality is the principal aspect and the key link – even in building the quantity. But how strong the party is qualitatively and quantitatively is going to be crucial at that point.

Can’t Pull a Party Out of a Hat

Precisely what the experience of Iran shows is that you can’t just create that all of a sudden. How strong the party is then has everything to do with what it has done and how it has been built, which is the element we continue to underestimate, not give enough attention to. It is very important to pay attention overall to what gets carried out and how much and in what way the party has been built (that is, the quantity and the quality), all the way up, all through the process of preparation.

Let’s take the question of the proletarian Black masses, for example, one of the most crucial forces for revolution in the U.S. Not to separate them out in any kind of an overall sense, but just to isolate that particular very important force for a second. Does anybody really think that just because their objective interests lie in proletarian revolution that there’s not going to be any other major tendency among them at the time when a revolutionary situation develops? Or that even among the most advanced there won’t be a constant pull back and forth and a struggle over which tendency to support and rally behind and help build? And it’s going to come down to life and-death questions of how to influence and win over at that time literally thousands of people at a time. When we talk later about quantity and quality in party building, one of the things we will talk about and get into is this whole revisionist policy carried out, for example, by some parties we can see right around us, who give you a piece of literature and say “Join up with the Communist Party. Send in the form and you’re in the CP.” And that’s also what they basically do in the U.S., all these revisionist parties. They’ve had a history of it for years before; they’ve gone down this counterrevolutionary road even in the ’30s with the CP. in the U.S. So it’s not a question of quantity in the abstract, numbers in an absolute way, but how much you are able to bring people forward to the banner of the revolutionary communist party in a large scale way in a period of revolutionary crisis. Then it is correct to win over thousands, maybe not to joining your party literally on the spot, but maybe to joining it very quickly because everything becomes telescoped and accelerated in that kind of period.

And how are you going to do that? How are you going to win those people? There are going to be people out on the street; there will be real genuine mass debates, which will precisely be promoted by and in the service of the overall class struggle. How are you going to influence those people? How are you going to be able to get up and concretely win them away from bourgeois and nationalist forces among the Black people or just demagogues of one kind or another generally representing the bourgeoisie among the masses?

Social democrats, all kinds of forces are going to be in the field. Ron Dellums will be out there maybe pulling out all of his old speeches to prove he’s always been a socialist and for revolution – and if not him somebody else. Maybe even Tom Hayden, we don’t know. There are those types that will be out there, and their representatives will be out there. And how much we are in a position to influence that, to win people concretely, will be decisive.

Even in the imperialist countries, while the stage of revolution is a proletarian revolution, you can have something that starts out as a revolution and, as we have pointed out, ends up in a constitutional crisis. That is, a revolutionary movement develops but because the leadership falls into the hands of or remains in the hands of bourgeois forces, or forces ultimately serving the bourgeoisie, the revolution is aborted.

The Party – A Leap

Again the question is not just quantity, how big a party you have, but quality, how trained people are. We have done a lot and have to even go further and more deeply into the process of overcoming to the degree possible the distinction between the party and the masses, not in the sense of trying to obliterate that distinction but trying to open up the questions that the party is thrashing out to the masses as broadly as possible; still there must be a distinction between the party and the masses, not only organizationally, but even ideologically and politically. The way in which questions are gone into, the depth in which they are gone into, is much fuller, much deeper in the party than more broadly, and it can be and it has to be because of the very reasons and contradictions that make a party necessary in the first place.

There is a leap to becoming a conscious communist and that leap has to organizationally be expressed in terms of joining the party and taking part in the life of the party. However much we advance and even make real breakthroughs in terms of opening these questions up to the masses and involving the masses in them, if the way in which those same questions are treated is not on a more advanced level in the party, then we are making mistakes on the other end. Then we are obliterating the role of the vanguard, and we are not going into those questions as deeply with the people in the party as we should be and can be; we are obliterating the role of the vanguard in the name of involving the masses or even in the process of seeking to genuinely involve the masses. Even as much as the masses have to be involved, party members have to go into the same questions from different angles and much more thoroughly and deeply and they have to thrash them out in a much more profound way because that corresponds to what the party is, what the level of consciousness is that’s required, and the commitment based on that consciousness that’s required to be in the party. And if you are not doing that you are downgrading the role and the importance of the vanguard, and then ultimately downgrading what the masses can do and how they can be involved and the ways in which they can take up and fight through these questions as part of the overall class struggle.

So, it’s not enough to be selling the newspaper, reading the newspaper, and even maybe writing correspondence to the newspaper and contributing on that level, and being involved in the process of thrashing and grappling with these questions and fighting it through, in that kind of way and on that level – outside the party. For people who have gotten to that point, they need to take a further leap; people in the party need to keep on developing, too, but there is a very crucial qualitative leap to when you’ve gotten to that point, then you have to come into that arena where you can do this in a much more thoroughgoing way and through the course of it get trained in a much deeper way than you can do outside. The party is an arena where those questions are, have to be, thrashed out in a much deeper, more profound, and more all-around way than it is possible to do at this stage of society outside the party exactly because of what the party is and why it is needed; what it is that gives rise to the need for a party also makes it the case that the party can and must take those questions up much more thoroughly and train people much more deeply. And people have to see the connection between all that and what we are aiming for, that is, our objective, our long-term objective in the more limited sense, that is, to make revolution, to carry out the “seize power” part of it.

Preparation Key

If people see that at a certain point things are going to come to a head, at whatever time that is, and that everything we are doing is preparation for that, in eluding the building up and strengthening of the party, qualitatively and also quantitatively, then they can grasp more deeply how important it is that they get into that whole process and be part of that whole struggle in that arena within the party. They’ll see they need to get that kind of training, and not just get that kind of training but on the other side of it also contribute to the struggle over what kind of line and direction we are going to take. The question of whether or not we are going to carry out this line of Create Public Opinion . . . Seize Power is not a settled question absolutely in the party. It’s settled in the sense that that is our line and we’ve fought it through to a certain degree. It’s not a settled question. At each point in which we run into serious difficulties there are going to be people not only on the outside who attack, but people who jump out inside on various levels to oppose that in various degrees.

People who understand the need for revolution, who want revolution and more than that, begin to see what’s involved in revolution, have to get in and be involved in that struggle too; and get trained through the course of that, so that they are able to deal with all the complexities and twists and turns; so that they are able to carry out the work of preparation, and specifically so that they are able to deal with what all of that preparation is preparing for – that is when the revolutionary situation does ripen that they are able to make the biggest contribution. And if they are sitting, maybe not on the sidelines in one sense, but in another they are staying outside of that arena, then they are not going to be able to contribute. And the lack of that contribution, if you multiply it by the numbers of people who are in that situation, could mean the difference between victory and defeat. And that’s how important it is. It’s not a question of trying to hype people, but it is a question of their really grasping that very deeply.

That has everything to do with grasping the line around the whole central task and everything that’s concentrated in that, and the whole question of preparation, as active preparation. We’re carrying out revolutionary political work now, but it’s aimed towards something and we are preparing for something, including in the way we take up the question of the party and how to build the party, and whether or not we pay enough attention to that and in what way we pay attention to it, with what line.

These are some of the lessons we can draw from recent experience internationally, particularly in Iran – and not only there, but that’s a very concentrated example. If you see these things then the conclusion can and has to be drawn much more sharply around the question of the party, of people joining the party, the struggle to build the party, and of that aspect of preparation. You can see much more clearly how important that is; you can see it in a much sharper light.