Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bob Avakian

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

Chapter 6: Pay Attention to the Day to Day Needs of the Masses – But Don’t Overdo It!

I remember being interviewed on WBAI in New York a couple years ago by a woman who was either with the Communist Party or certainly had a lot of similarities in her line. (See RW Nos. 27 and 30) And I was running down the essential thrust of our line. (We have since developed it further, but by that time we had made a leap in grasping the essential thrust of it.) She tried to do a form of guilt-tripping: “Is that what you tell people in the winter when they don’t have any oil, when they are freezing to death?”

I remember looking right back at her and saying, “Yes, that’s exactly what we tell them.” And while we have to fight for partial demands, and such struggles can be important, the most important thing is that we have to imbue people with the understanding that the whole system is thoroughly rotten and has to be overthrown and we have to move beyond it to a whole different stage of society and that there is no other solution to all the many different problems and outrages and abuses that exist other than that. And yes, that’s exactly what we tell them.

But, obviously there’s more of a problem here than just an opportunist trying to guilt-trip people. And, again, this is really where political courage comes in: There is a spontaneous pull and it is a reflection of a real contradiction. While that revolutionary answer is a fundamental truth (and one that you have to instill and imbue in the masses and enable them to grasp), it’s also true that you can’t make revolution right away. So the problems of the masses remain and the abuses and outrages and the struggles they give rise to will continue to take place. And there will therefore be a pull toward “Let’s do something more immediate, let’s do something more practical,” and even the pull toward “This is the way in which we have to win the masses to revolution.” This has been and remains a very big current in the communist movement – and not only in the U.S. in our recent experience, but also, of course, historically and internationally. The idea has been that you cannot build a revolutionary movement unless you satisfy or somehow find the way to deal with the most immediate, pressing needs of the masses and unless you become the leaders of their day-to-day battles and their most immediate struggles.

There is influence of this idea, for example, even in the Chinese “General Line” polemic[1] in a section that actually puts emphasis on carrying out all-around preparation for revolution and stresses that unless that’s done you won’t even be ready to seize a revolutionary opportunity if it does arise and you will throw it away even if the chance is there. Even that section, which we’ve quoted in the past, talks about while leading the day-to-day struggles of the masses you must carry out all-around preparation, etc. It’s not that you should never lead any day-to-day struggles, or it’s not that you should make a principle out of not leading any day-to-day struggles. But neither should you make a principle that you must lead the day-to-day struggles, which is what it has been – a principle – in the past in our own thinking and work. This remains a very widely held current in the U.S. among many groups and internationally, and it’s an incorrect tendency.

There’s an essay by Mao called “Be Concerned with the Weil-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work” in Volume I, written in 1934. It’s often cited by people who are influenced by this incorrect tendency I’ve just been talking about. In there Mao talks about the need to “solve the problems facing the masses – food, shelter, clothing, fuel, rice, cooking oil and salt, sickness and hygiene and marriage. In short, all the practical problems in the masses’ everyday life should claim our attention.” Now, I think the most important thing to point out in relation to this is what is the context in which it is occurring. Volume I in general covers the period of the first and second revolutionary civil war and the beginning of the war against Japan. The general characteristic of the Chinese revolution, as Mao pointed out and stressed, and even Stalin noted, was that the armed revolutionary camp was from the beginning fighting the armed counterrevolutionary camp. In other words, the form of struggle around which everything else was organized was revolutionary warfare pretty consistently throughout this whole long period from 1927 on.

Mao wrote in “Problems of War and Strategy” that the central task and highest form of the revolution is the armed struggle for power. So here they were, carrying out the highest form of revolution, which in the imperialist countries in a general way is what you build up to during a period of preparation. But in China at this stage (and this does have broad and important application for revolution in the countries similar to China, though it shouldn’t be applied mechanically), they were carrying out revolutionary warfare almost from the beginning; and from the time that Mao’s line even began to come to the fore and even before it fully triumphed, from the time he went to the countryside and formed the first base area, the forces under his leadership were carrying out warfare almost constantly.

Warfare Central

So, in other words, they were already carrying out the highest form of struggle, and Mao insisted in a number of writings in this period as well as later that everything else was subordinate to this form of struggle – to warfare. Political work, everything else, was subordinate to that. So it’s in that context that Mao is talking about how you’ve got to solve all the masses’ practical problems. He doesn’t say, well, before we can launch revolutionary warfare we have to go out and make sure the masses have enough salt, and that their problems of marriage are taken care of. He’s raising this in the context of waging war. He even starts this particular essay out (one which does put some emphasis on this problem) with this very point. After a short introduction of the subject of the essay, he then goes on to say, “Our central task at present is to mobilize the broad masses to take part in the revolutionary war, overthrow imperialism and the Kuomintang by means of such war, spread the revolution throughout the country and drive imperialism out of China. Anyone who does not attach enough importance to this central task is not a good revolutionary cadre.” And then he goes on and says on the other hand, if you do not attach enough importance to the problems of the masses you are not doing right either. But this is what he begins with and this is in fact what their work, everything, revolved around.

First of all they are waging warfare as the highest form of struggle, and as the central form of their work around which everything else is revolving. And second of all, they actually are holding power in a number of areas; therefore they have the actual practical problems that a government has. This is something that also has some provocative implications that should be thought through more deeply, because in fact when you are in power you do have to pay attention to those kind of problems in a way that you don’t have to and in fact shouldn’t when you don’t have power. This is one of the particular aspects of the Chinese revolution too; they had power in a partial sense for a long period of time because they had base areas.

So, if anyone wants to take what Mao says, even stresses, in this essay and abstract that from that situation and make some kind of general rule that when you are making revolution you have to make sure the masses’ marital problems are solved, you have enough salt and cooking oil and so on and so forth, and raise that as the sine qua non (that is, your starting point without which you can’t do anything else), then they have actually perverted what Mao is saying and in fact they have reversed it. Mao was very clear on this too; without waging war as the central thing they were doing, all this stuff would lead to reformism and social work divorced from the concrete question of waging revolutionary war and of having base areas and so on. Elevated up to a principle in and of itself, it would lead to reformism in politics and capitulation ideologically as well. If you try to make this the central thing around which your work has to unfold, or the starting point without which you can’t do anything else, then you will inevitably be pulled toward reformism.

We can look also at our own experience in the revolutionary movement. Even though it is limited there are some lessons we can and should draw out of it. What I’m addressing here is this line that you have to prove yourself “a good fellow”; like Stalin once wrote in this hideous essay in 1925,[2] you’ve got to prove yourself to be a good fellow in the trade union struggle for a few years before you can win the masses to communism. That’s a ridiculous reformist recipe. But such a line and current does exist; you have to prove yourself in terms of people’s day-to-day needs before they’ll listen to you about the larger questions. In an overall sense this is just exactly the contrary of the truth and is a reversal, an inversion, of the actual dialectic at work.

In our own experience, for example, let’s take the students and in particular when the RU got involved in SDS. In the Bay Area and in Berkeley in particular, SDS was not very strong. It was not the main form through which political work against the system and anti-imperialist struggle and revolutionary development was taking place there. But, if you took the U.S. as a whole and in terms of the students, it was the most advanced form and in that sense the most important form of organization for a period. So while we weren’t locally involved in SDS and hadn’t earned our spurs or earned our right to speak by being actively involved for a long time in SDS and all of its local struggles, we were invited in to take part in the struggles in SDS nationally. It’s sort of ironic we were invited in particular by Mike Klonsky and some others at the time, basically because being the mechanical hack that he always was and remained (remains I guess, whatever he’s doing now) he was incapable of carrying out any kind of real ideological struggle. And one was shaping up very sharply between a number of different trends, particularly against PL (Progressive Labor) at that time in SDS. So on the basis of some contacts and especially the drafts of Red Papers which were circulating among some different circles at that point, they invited us in.

But whatever the mechanics of how that came about, the point is we went to those SDS meetings in 1969 and there were just a few of us that went. The RU was known partly on the basis of Red Papers and partly on the basis that we had been involved in an oil strike in Richmond, California. But what we had done in Richmond which attracted people and, if you will, gave us a certain right to speak, was not that we went there and took responsibility for all the day-to-day needs of the oil workers. It was that we were doing advanced political work – even with problems and errors, including some of these same wrong tendencies that I have been describing, there still was a thrust of advanced, even revolutionary, political work the RU was doing, helping to link up the Third World Strike at San Francisco State with the oil strike and actually doing some political work among those oil workers to win them politically to supporting that. But, that was the kind of work we were doing there; we also got involved (maybe a little too much, but I wouldn’t say it was wrong in principle certainly) with some of the tactical problems of the time, of the strike. But this was always from the point of view, and always with a thrust toward trying to bring forward advanced political ideas and win people politically to a more advanced stand, and advance the struggle – not just the oil strike, but the larger political movement – on that basis.

When we went to the SDS meeting, Red Papers and the articles in The Movement that I wrote at that time about the work in the oil strike all made for some more receptivity to what we had to say. But when we got up and struggled in these SDS meetings, nobody said, “Who are you, how long have you been involved in SDS.” “What have you done practically” and “What have you done about this or that problem with the students,” or whatever. Or if anybody wanted to say it, they didn’t get very far with it. People wanted to know what we had to say because they were involved in a very sharp struggle over what direction that organization should take and that was being debated as a part of a larger question of what direction the overall movement should take and even how to make revolution. Nobody demanded to know if we had earned our spurs by paying attention to the everyday needs of themselves or somebody else and had been “good fellows” for such and such a time in a reformist way. People wanted to know what we had to say politically. They were interested in our ideas and they were interested in the ideological struggle and the struggle over what political direction to take. That’s what they wanted to know: “What the hell do you have to say,” not “Have you been good fellows in your local SDS chapter for so long.”

Upside Down View

Now you could say, well that’s the students, and students are intellectuals in a certain way (and I guess even in the U.S. that’s true in a broad sense, even with all the philistinism there is). But I don’t believe, and nothing in my own experience or what I’ve read about convinces me, that when the broad masses become politically active and politically involved and begin to take up these questions, they are more narrow than the intellectuals in this regard. They are not more insistent that first you prove your spurs by having been “good fellows” in some immediate struggles or in relation to their immediate needs, or that you have no right to speak to them unless you’ve earned it first by paying attention to all their everyday problems. That’s not my own experience, not what I’ve studied, and it’s not our experience nor generally the experience of the revolutionary movement. It’s not the case, to put it simply. If that were the case it’s true we couldn’t carry out “Create Public Opinion . . Seize Power.” It is true that there are backward masses or only awakening masses, or even masses who can’t really even be called politically awake, who go into struggle and have a narrower view and largely remain interested only in the immediate questions of that struggle. But it’s also true, and a much more profound truth, that we should not be pitching our work to those masses. Even though we should not ignore them nor fail to take them into account, we certainly should not be basing ourselves on them.

This upside-down view that first you have to prove yourself and earn your spurs does a great deal of harm. It influenced our own ranks for a long period of time, and its influence will continue to assert itself in our own ranks and among others because it is a pull. It does have a basis in reality and it is a pull of spontaneity. It is something that has to be much more deeply rooted out. You cannot cite that essay of Mao’s, “Be Concerned with the Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work,” as though that is the central problem that is being dealt with. If you read through that whole Volume I, of which it is a part – here I’m looking at some titles: “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War”; “The Tasks of the Chinese Communist Party in the Period of Resistance to Japan”; and then a little bit later it’s “Win the Masses in Their Millions for the Anti-Japanese National United Front”; there is “Why Is It that Red Political Power Can Exist in China?”; “The Struggle in the Chingkang Mountains”; “On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party”; “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire”; “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” and so on. The central theme and the line that comes through here is not that first we must pay attention to all these problems of the masses, then we can think about starting a revolutionary war after we have proved ourselves to be “good fellows.” The emphasis is just the opposite in these overall writings, including in this very essay.

It’s true for us as well in a different way even though the form of our work in this period is not one of armed struggle, and even though we do not hold political power in the sense of having base areas the way they did in China, still the essence of our work is “Create Public Opinion . . . Seize Power,” with agitation and propaganda central now and exposure as the key link. The same relationship that existed for Mao also exists for us, though in a different way, with different practical implications. That is, in that context, and grasping that as the overall and essential thing that we are doing, then we have to pay attention to, or be conscious of, the problems and everyday needs of the masses. I mean that in the sense that we have to take them into account in carrying out our work.

When I say this it doesn’t have the same application it had in China because we are not waging revolutionary warfare and we’re not holding power, so we’re not able to and should not try to solve those problems in the same way that they had to in the situation that Mao is describing. But we do have to take them into account in carrying out our overall work. It’s true that we would be making a mistake if we carried out our overall work and did not pay any attention to – ignored – the conditions of the masses and their everyday needs, especially the masses who actually are the most solid social base for a proletarian revolutionary line. The “Basic Principles” document* states that first of all these everyday needs and the struggles they give rise to are one important (though not the most important) source of exposure, of agitation and propaganda. And second of all, around some of these questions and in some of the struggles that develop or can be developed in relationship to them, there is potential to lead masses in a way of militantly fighting back that can contribute toward the building of a revolutionary movement – precisely if it’s seen in that light and governed by a revolutionary outlook and approach.

But with all that, that is still (a) not the most important thing we should be doing, (b) not the main thing we should be doing, (c) not something more important than or a necessary prelude to carrying out our central task and particularly exposure as the key link, and (d) the idea that we do have to do all that first is a trap of quicksand that we have to very, very rigorously avoid. That’s what it will become if you fall into the idea that somehow the day-to-day needs of the masses are the most important thing we have to pay attention to, or as we used to formulate it “the center of gravity.” It becomes a thing that drags you down if you make it the center of gravity. Or to use another metaphor it is a trap to view that as a fulcrum of your work, or even a prelude to more advanced work, or that without doing this you cannot carry out more advanced work.

In other words, alright, it’s true, in a general sense, we have to pay attention to these questions, as it says in the “Basic Principles” document. You cannot carry out revolutionary work while ignoring the everyday problems, especially of the less privileged masses, the people who are the more solid social base for a revolutionary communist/proletarian internationalist line. It’s true, you cannot in an overall sense carry out revolutionary work if you pay no attention to these things. So in that sense, yes, you have to pay attention to them. But, number one, all the things that I’ve been stressing are different between our situation and our kind of work now and the kind that Mao was talking about have to be immediately and firmly grasped. And number two, it was not said by Mao, and it’s even less true in a situation like the U.S. where you are not now carrying out revolutionary warfare, that these everyday problems of the masses are the center of your work or a necessary starting point for your work without which you can’t carry out broader and higher-level political work.

The Party

While you have to pay attention to this, that’s precisely what you have to do; you have to take them into account and you have to find the ways that these questions can be made elements of and parts of the overall process of building a revolutionary movement. They have to be approached from that angle, which is of course how Mao is approaching them under different circumstances. But, again, the principle in an overall sense remains the same, that these things are not the heart of your work and they are not a preliminary condition before you can carry out more advanced work. Quite the opposite. In his and our conditions alike, they are treated in the context where a more advanced form of work is what is in fact central to revolutionary work.

This leads back to two different views. One ultimately (and not too ultimately) is a reformist one; the other, an actual revolutionary line. An important, even crucial aspect of the struggle between those two lines will be the struggle over how you approach the question of the party, the importance and role of the party – is it really a vanguard, how important is it and in what way should it be built? And that’s why, while maybe it’s obvious that the party is the most important organization of the proletariat and it’s the most important aspect of organizing forces, still it hasn’t proved so obvious. It is part of the view that you have to, as a principle, pay attention to the day-to-day problems and struggles of the masses as the basis for carrying out other kinds of work, and as a way of winning the right to carry out more advanced work. Owing to the influence of that kind of line and the general reformist tendency and pull that it is a part of, there has been a tendency even in our own ranks in the past to see it as “sectarian” to talk about building the party as the most important form of organization. “What about the masses? What about mass organization? Isn’t building the party putting our own needs above those of the masses?”

That’s your view only if you somehow think that the party in the most fundamental sense is something other than an instrument for serving the needs of the masses and the proletariat. It’s the highest and most concentrated expression of doing that. That’s what it means that the party is the vanguard. And second of all, if that’s your view, it means that you actually fall for that guilt-tripping revisionism of the woman on that radio program, for example, based on the idea that somehow there is a way that the problems of the masses (particularly the solid, real proletarian masses) can be solved other than through revolution; or based at least on the idea that the only way you can win those masses to see that revolution is necessary is by doing what’s impossible, that is, trying to solve all their problems without revolution. If you think about it, those ideas, especially when you pose them that way, are sort of ridiculous. But it’s taken a lot of struggle for us to get to the point of being able to see how ridiculous they are and there will be continuous struggle over that in the ways in which this question will continually reassert itself, even if in different forms and if in a sense more advanced forms, now that we’ve fought through certain aspects of this.

To the degree that that line still exerts influence, the role of the party will be downgraded. To the degree that the real grasp of the revolutionary line is firm and increasingly sharpened, the importance and role of the party, the fact that it is the most important aspect of organizing forces and the need to build it will come to the fore more powerfully.

There was just one point I wanted to make before we went on. It’s on this question of paying attention to the well-being of the masses. I think what I said earlier is correct, that you do have to pay attention to those questions, in the sense in which I put it. But on the other hand, to be provocative about it, particularly given the pull of economism and spontaneity, in a certain way we could almost say that you have to have the ability not to pay attention to some of those problems to a significant degree. In other words, on the one hand, you cannot fail to pay attention to them at all, or as some kind of principle, in the ways that I talked about earlier. But on the other hand, there has to be a conscious effort not to pay too much attention to them, and that is the much more dangerous and much more powerful current that has existed and continues to exist even within the trend within the international communist movement that we are a part of. I just wanted to summarize it that way to be a little provocative about it.


[1] “A Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement”, FLP, Peking, 1963. Point 12 is especially being referred to here.

[2] “The Results of the Work of the 14th Conference of the RCP(B)”, 1925.