Interview on Michael Slate Radio Show
Note: The following is the text of excerpts of an interview with Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, USA, which aired on Michael Slate’s “Beneath the Surface” show on KPFK radio in Los Angeles, on January 25, 2005. This interview consists of two parts published together here: Part 1, on leadership—vanguards and individual leaders; and Part 2, Stalin and the experience of the Soviet Union and socialist society. In publishing this here, some editing has been done, particularly for clarity—including the addition in a few places of brief explanatory passages within brackets.
MICHAEL SLATE: [Introduction] About another future being possible, there’s a big question that comes up. Isn’t it dangerous to invest so much into an individual leader for any movement that actually is talking about freeing all of humanity—to invest so much into an individual leader? And then the other question that comes up, related to that, is one that I think—too often I think the left, and particularly the left that has supported socialism as it has existed in both the Soviet Union and China, I think, is very timid about speaking of this—and that’s the question of Stalin. And I know every time I talk about the future and socialism, I get lots of very thoughtful emails from folks asking me about Stalin and what I thought about what happened under Stalin. And I thought this is a really good way to get into this, to actually lay out some thinking, some very, I think, unique and provocative thinking. So that’s what I asked Chairman Avakian were those two questions, and that’s what you’re gonna hear now. This is Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
Michael Slate: Well, let’s move into this question about the world and what it could be. And it’s interesting, on the one hand, you get the sense that people are really wanting another world. On the other hand, you also get a sense immediately when the question of communism comes up, or the question of Maoism comes up, you get people talking about immediately equating that with totalitarianism and raising, in opposition to that, this thing of: well, we want democracy. And I think one of the things, one of the big questions that it begins with, is actually a question about leadership, both about a vanguard but also about individual leaders. And it’s come out in relation to you in particular, but it’s also come out in general when people talk about: isn’t it dangerous to invest so much in one leader, isn’t that a very dangerous thing for creating a new world?
Bob Avakian: Well, it depends on what you mean by investing so much in one leader. If you recognize that, as happens, leaders do emerge who play an outstanding role—who represent a concentration of understanding of the way the world is, and how it can and should be changed, on a higher level than others around them at a given time—then that can be a very positive thing. To have something like that and to recognize it can be a very positive thing. And it requires people to rally to that and defend it at the same time as it requires them to come forward and play their own role in this struggle. So it depends on what you mean by “relying on.” If you mean putting everything in the hands of a few people, and everybody else passively follows them or just leaves all the thinking to them—or uncritically follows them or doesn’t try to wrestle with the same kind of problems that they’re trying to wrestle with—yes, that’s not a good thing.
So there’s a unity there as well as a contradiction between, on the one hand, someone who does come forward who has an advanced understanding and does concentrate, as I said, on a higher level than others, a certain understanding of how the world is and how it could be changed; and on the other hand, the role of a lot of other people, and growing numbers of people, in taking up the same approach to changing the world—the same communist outlook and methodology—and making the biggest contribution they can to it. And the more that both those things go on, the further we’re going to be ahead. So, yes, it would be a problem if you do it in the sense that’s more like what the bourgeoisie does: find a few great people and put everything in their hands. That’s actually ironically more the bourgeois way of doing things, even though they deny that they have “cult of the personality.” We’ve been through all this Reagan [bleep]. 1 But also they’re defending an old way of life and they have a lot of the advantages that go with being the entrenched system, the entrenched ruling class. And they can bring forward a lot of people to administer their system, relatively competently, for their needs.
But we’re trying to go up against the whole way the world is and make innovations and breakthroughs in order to do that, that have to be on a world-historic level because that’s what we’re up against. And we do have unevenness. Because we’re not the ones who have been on the top of the struggle for a while, and chasing the imperialists to a few corners and running them out of the world altogether—we’re not at that stage yet. We represent the forces that are rising but haven’t yet gotten the upper hand—let’s put it that way. So it’s more difficult for us to have as many people who have as advanced an understanding and can lead as will be possible for us to do further along in the struggle, when we’ve overcome more of these oppressive divisions in society.
And you can’t just start the discussion about this in the middle. You have to go back to the beginning or down to the foundation of it. Why do you need leaders in the first place? Why is there unevenness within a movement or within a party—why is there uneven development? Why are some people more advanced than others? Why is there, yes, a very significant gap between an organized conscious vanguard of people and broader masses of people? Is this because the people who are in that organized vanguard went out to create this gap? Or in fact is their mere existence as a vanguard a reflection of this gap, an expression of this gap? [If you’re thinking about] 90 percent of the people or more in the world, many of them, frankly, can’t even read and write because of the workings of this system and what it denies to them. But even those who can, most of them are weighed down by the daily struggle for survival and bombarded with the ideology of the ruling class to where on their own, spontaneously, they may rebel, they may see important aspects of the truth about the world and about society and about what’s wrong with it, but they can’t come to a systematic, comprehensive understanding that enables them to get past all the obstacles that lie in the way of really changing that.
At any given time within a society like this, given its tremendous gap between most people who are in that kind of situation and a small number who have access to and who work with ideas and wrangle in the realm of theory and all that, it’s going to be among the latter group that you’re first going to get people who come to this understanding, who break through and sort of get a penetrating insight into how this society and the world actually works and what’s the motion and development through history of that, where is it all tending and where does it need to go and how can it get there. That’s why you have this gap.
I mean, I was talking the other day with people about the movie Contact where, you know, this character played by Matthew McConaughey says to the Jodie Foster character, who’s sort of an atheist, “Well, what makes you think you know so much? Ninety-five percent of the people in the world believe in god—what makes you so smart?” Well, she happens to be right—there is no god. Because she’s been able to be in a position where she’s been able to study and learn about reality and wrestle with questions of theory and philosophy and science and come to that understanding. The 95 percent of the people who believe in religion—most of them haven’t been able to do that. Some have and go to religion for other reasons, but most of them have never even had the opportunity to do that. So is that her fault, or something wrong with her? Or is that a reflection of what’s wrong with the world?
And this really is the same with the leadership, with the vanguard party or with individual leaders. They are people who—we were talking earlier about some of my experiences—well, part of it was being in a situation where there was lots of intellectual ferment and being in a position—and frankly having the opportunity and even the luxury, coming from a middle class family—to be able to have the time to get into all these kinds of things and debate them and not be dragged down by all the weight of society on you. This is partly what youth are able to do, anyway. But then there’s a class differentiation. And if you’re from the bottom of society and everything is weighing on you the way it does, it’s difficult to break through that. Some people do. Like I was talking with someone the other day who’s an intellectual who comes out of very desperate circumstances and I asked him, “How did you get to be that?” He said, “Well, just one year, I couldn’t get any work, I couldn’t do anything. I read every book I could get my hands on.” So that happens, but it’s pretty rare. You’ll find it in prison. A few people in prison, for their sanity or whatever, start reading, they start writing, and they start investigating and studying lots of things. And they become “self-made intellectuals.” But let’s face it, most people in prison are going to be ground down by what goes on there and are not going to be able to do that.
Well, whether you come from prison or whether you come from the circumstances of this person who was literally living on the street a lot of the time, or from my circumstances, wherever you come from, if you come to a certain understanding and you see not only that the world needs to be changed but there are forces in society who could bring about that change and need that change, then you go to them with the understanding that you’ve developed and you bring them forward. But there is going to be unevenness, and where you have people who do have this understanding, they shouldn’t be shame-faced about it or defensive about it or not wanting to exert influence on other people. They should not have an arrogant attitude. They should recognize they have a tremendous amount to learn from people who are going through the hell of this society every day, but also they have important things to bring to people. And there should be that dialectical process, that back-and-forth process, so that you’re bringing forward masses of people who are the ones who are eventually going to bring this change, but you’re also, at any given time, cherishing and defending the leadership you have that has emerged that does have this advanced understanding and can link it with the practical conditions of the masses of people and with their own desire to find a way out of the world that they’re chained in, and can bring them forward on that basis.
I see this more in that kind of way, and wherever in the world and whenever we get leaders who do have a developed capacity—going back to what you were saying at the very beginning of our conversation about someone commenting about how I combine theory and an understanding of how to bring this to masses of people. Well, I want to be able to do that even better, but I think objectively there is some important truth to that. And where that emerges, then that’s a very valuable and precious thing for the struggle, and that should be recognized and it should be defended—because it’s not easy for something like that to be brought forward by the whole mass upsurge of the people, which is really where I came from, as do other people who do come to this kind of position. And you combine that with studying theory—but without that impulse from the masses of people that we’ve been talking about, I wouldn’t have even wanted to take up that theory or seen the need to or been inclined to.
So it’s that whole back and forth that’s important. And where you do have these leaders, you should recognize it, you should recognize how important it is, how much the enemy wants to destroy that. They have people who study this and they don’t wait until you have a massive influence. They don’t want to sit around and find out how well you’re going to do. As soon as they see anything emerging like that, they’re going to start developing their tactics for how to crush that and eliminate it.
On the other hand, precisely the role of people like that is to bring forward growing numbers of people, including among those who can be and have to be the driving force for this whole revolution. That’s the whole orientation and objective that I’m pursuing—is together with and through our party as a whole and leading the party to do this, to bring forward that base of people and to bring forward people broadly and to build a broad united front with that basic proletarian force as the driving thrust within all that, to make this revolution. And then to begin transforming society to where individuals increasingly don’t have such a—what you might call disproportionate influence—that their importance isn’t out of proportion to that of others in the society. But in order to get to that, we have to first of all get rid of this system and its oppressive divisions, including this whole mental/manual contradiction that is what I’ve really been talking about: those few who work with ideas and work with their minds, and the many who work with their backs and their hands if they can work at all. You can’t get rid of that contradiction by wishing it away or pretending it doesn’t exist.
It’s that contradiction, in large part, that gives rise to the need for leaders and for a vanguard, and then the contradiction goes forward and becomes: how does that vanguard lead the masses of people to move society forward to eventually eliminate that contradiction and the need for that vanguard? And all along the way, yes, that vanguard can turn into its opposite and leaders can turn into their opposite. That’s the contradictory nature of what we’re doing. You can’t do this without a vanguard, and yet it can be turned into its opposite; and we have to struggle to resolve that in a forward moving way to get to where leaders and vanguards, in the sense we’re talking about them, are no longer necessary and will go out of existence and be replaced by the more collective process of the masses of people without those kinds of distinctions of mental labor and manual labor and the role of particular individuals being such a heavy one, so to speak.
MICHAEL SLATE: I think that’s really important. And one thing, you know—the question that’s actually behind a lot of this stuff about leaders and communism, I mean the big question that’s always sort of in the room, and in a way it’s the first thing that comes up is: OK, you’ve had some experience around this stuff—Stalin. And I know that’s a big, big question, but it’s also something that—I think you know—look, a lot of listeners on KPFK, for instance, that’s the big question mark. Immediately they go right to that: Stalin, totalitarianism.
BOB AVAKIAN: Well, that is a big question. I mean, I think you know, as there is these days with Mao, even with Stalin, there’s a lot of distortion. Stalin did lead the development of the first socialist country in the world against some very difficult odds. And a lot of times when people talk about…especially in American society, you’re sort of conditioned to think of everything through the prism of the way this society is now, and not to even know about, let alone to really think about, the implications of things like the fact that Stalin came to leadership after a period in which there was a revolution and a civil war [in Russia] which left the country in a shambles because it came out of the context of World War 1 to begin with. And the economy was broken down; there was a question of could they do anything in terms of rebuilding the economy—and in particular could they do it along socialist lines, or did they basically have to give up that idea once there was not a revolution in large parts of the world besides Russia? And Stalin was the one that came forward and led people in actually building the socialist economy without any prior experience and in very difficult circumstances, where increasingly they were facing a threat of attack—which did come from Germany [in 1941]. This is something which a lot of people, even people who consider themselves educated, don’t know, or forget about—or don’t realize the full implications of the fact that they lost 20 million or more people in World War 2 in the Soviet Union. I mean that was out of a population of less than 200 million at that time. So think about that—you’re losing more than a tenth of the population. Think about what that would mean in the U.S. and what the effect of that would be. And that was looming before them and over them for much of the time that Stalin was leading the Soviet Union [from the mid-1920s, on].
And you combine that with the fact that it was a backward country where 80 percent of the people were peasants. It had been less than 100 years since they’d been freed from literal serfdom. That happened at the same time as the Civil War in the U.S. It was one of two major changes in the world going on at that time—the abolition of slavery in the U.S. and the abolition of serfdom in Russia, where the serfs were virtually if not literally owned by the landlords. That happened only in the 1860s, and they weren’t very far from that [at the time of the Russian revolution]. And there was tremendous backwardness in the country; even though there was an empire run by the Tsar [absolute monarch], the country itself was largely backward.
So you had all of these things—obstacles that Stalin had to go up against, with no prior experience—and yet great achievements were brought about. They industrialized the country, but also in terms of the health care, the living standard of the people, the role of the working class in remaking industry and changing the relations—all that kind of stuff. And [great changes in the conditions of] the peasantry in the countryside. And the abolition of tremendous and horrendous forms of oppression of women in the Soviet Union. You can imagine in a society that was still heavily steeped in feudalism, with a lot of religious fundamentalism and absolutism in different forms throughout the society—and [there were] tremendous advances for women. All that’s on the positive side—and is usually blotted out and ignored. And it is more contradictory than that—even the positive stuff is more contradictory. But it’s important to situate this in the realities of what they were up against and also the realities of what was positively accomplished.
And then there were some real weaknesses on Stalin’s part that increased the more the difficulties became acute—and the more in particular they could see that war was looming, particularly in the form of an attack from Nazi Germany once Hitler came to power in 1933, and beyond—in Germany during that decade of the 1930s. So Stalin made a lot of errors partly because of difficulties of circumstances, but also partly because of his methodology. Mao once jokingly, or half-jokingly, said about Stalin that he was raised—you know, educated—in a religious seminary; he never really shed that outlook completely. And that translated into his being sort of mechanical, wooden—a tendency to be wooden, to see things in absolute terms. This was sort of the way the absolutist religion was at that time. And yes, certain influences of patriarchy and things like that, that came from that whole tradition. And although he [Stalin] shed a lot of that, Mao’s point was that a lot of it remained in how he approached problems.
As Mao also put it, Stalin tended in significant ways—and in growing ways as the threat to the Soviet Union grew in the ‘30s especially—to mix up two different kinds of contradictions, as Mao identified them: those among the people, making up more than 90 percent of the society; and those between the people and the enemy, the old overthrown exploiters and actually active, conscious counter-revolutionaries who were sabotaging and trying to destroy the economy, and some of them were even collaborating with the Germans, but in one way or another, in one form or another, [people who] were trying to bring back the old capitalist society. Stalin tended to mix those things up, and that increasingly became a problem the more acute the dangers in the Soviet Union became.
And I think there was also a thing where Stalin —and this has been a broader problem in our movement that we’re struggling to root out—you start becoming convinced, or you become convinced, that you represent the wave of the future and everything that opposes you—which goes along with mixing up these two different kind of contradictions, to try to get at specific or particular aspects of this—everything that opposes you, criticizes you, dissents from what you’re doing can be too readily dismissed and too readily cast into the camp of people who are bound to take things back to capitalism. Now some people that are going to criticize you when you’re building socialism do want to go back to capitalism, but many people don’t actually want to, and even [though] sometimes their ideas would objectively lead that way, but that’s not where they’re consciously coming from. And these things have to be sorted out—not just by a few leaders, but by the masses of people. They have to be thrashed out, they have to be struggled out. And there have to be increasingly developed the forms for people to struggle out what is really in the interests of the broad masses of people, what is the way forward to uproot these centuries-long chains of oppression in various forms, and what is the way to remake the world and join with people throughout the world in the revolutionary struggle to get beyond all this, get to a whole new era of human history. People have to thrash those things out. And there was a tendency, a very marked tendency in Stalin—but it’s not limited to him—to [think like] “We know the way” and anybody who opposes us not only might be wrong—which they might be, or they might be right—but is trying to take this a whole different way [back to capitalism].
And I think that there was a tendency [like that], which increasingly set in, and the more necessity impinged on them in terms of the dangers, and the more that Stalin felt that they had to go through a breakneck pace to industrialize and arm themselves in a heavy way to be able to deal with this military threat, the more there wasn’t any air to breathe or room allowed for experimentation, for criticism, for dissent, for people trying to strike out in different directions and see how that could all be part of the process, and for the masses to get involved in struggling out what really is the way forward out of all this. And not just THE WAY (with a capital T, capital W), as if there’s only one way, but many different pathways which all ultimately have to be directed toward, or have to find their way toward and be led toward the goal you have, but [people] may find a lot of different pathways there. I don’t think that you can advance through those processes that I’m talking about by one straight, narrow highway. I think that was an understanding that Stalin didn’t have or increasingly lost sight of.
It’s a real challenge: How do you have a society in which you have a lot of ferment and you have a lot of dissent, and you have people proposing and struggling for different things, and yet you do find the way to keep that all—put your arms around that in the sense of an embrace, not in the sense of suffocating it—but reach out broadly and get your arms around all that, so you can lead all of it to go forward without suffocating it, and without constricting it, and so that the masses of people get involved in actually thrashing these things out and determining what’s the way forward? So there’s a lot of that, that was missing in Stalin. It was too much like: “This is the way forward—we know it, we’re going to go 1-2-3, and anybody who opposes that, or has any other idea, can only be working for the enemy.”
And that increasingly became the problem, as I said, when…as the necessity increasingly—and it has a lot to do with necessity. I mean, when the Soviet Union was invaded—you know they talk all about World War 2, but they don’t talk very much about [the fact that] when the Soviet Union was invaded a lot of their industry was destroyed—whatever the Nazis could get their hands on, was taken [by the Nazis] or destroyed. And in the Russian winter people were going without heat because they were under siege. People were eating wallpaper off the walls in Moscow to try to survive the siege, which lasted a year or whatever. And people divorce all that—you can’t divorce the errors that were made from those circumstances, on the one hand. On the other hand, you can’t just use those circumstances as a way to dismiss all the methodological questions that have to be summed up much more deeply and critically in order to see how—yes, in circumstances in the future where we’re going to face similar kinds of necessity—we can do much better with it, and yet not be crushed and defeated.
MICHAEL SLATE: You know, it’s interesting because I think the answer you’re giving is refreshing and actually another way—it really does put it in proper context and perspective. I think actually, though, the thing that a lot of people still come down to—it’s come down to people saying: Look, you can talk about methodological errors, you can talk about all this stuff, but you’re still talking about—it ended up, it wasn’t just errors, it ended up in people being killed, people being shunted off to gulags and dying and disappearing. And they portray this as not—they portray it as a reign of terror. Now, granted, a lot of this stuff comes from people like Solzhenitsyn who actually was—they always conveniently forget to say that he was actually advocating and fighting to bring back the Tsar until the day he died. But this is still a question that comes up—it’s like: Look, there were deaths here, there was this reign of terror that was unleashed, not just a squashing of dissent, but a reign of terror.
BOB AVAKIAN: Well, when I talk about methodological errors, I don’t mean to talk about this as if it’s detached from what happens to real people. When you are leading anything—and especially a society, and having a major impact in the world—when you make errors, especially serious errors, people suffer for it. That’s part of what’s involved in taking responsibility for something like this. And so I’m acutely aware that people suffered. When you mix up the two kinds of contradictions and you repress people who are just raising disagreements or dissenting—even if their dissent is really off base and it really would cause problems if you were to implement their policies—then when you mix that up and mishandle that and your methodology leads you to do that, which is the point I was making, then yes, people do suffer real consequences.
Now, I think it’s still necessary to study more and sort out more what [are] the slanders, fabrications, and distortions that come from people like Solzhenitsyn—the Solzhenitsyns and the imperialists who promote them and that whole viewpoint—and then what was the reality of what happened. And it’s complicated to do this. I know someone who studies these things who told me that now that they have Putin in there [heading up the Russian government], and now that they’ve dropped the mask of socialism altogether, and the Soviet Union is no longer in existence, well, now we’re supposed to believe that everything that these people claim to dig out of the archives from the old Soviet Union is the gospel truth. Before when they were KGB agents, everything they said was a lie. Somehow now they’re “disinterested” people and everything they say about the past—which they’re interested in discrediting themselves to a significant degree—somehow that’s the gospel truth and shouldn’t be questioned or looked at critically. So we need a more critical approach than that, and it is difficult to sort out, but we need to sort out more what actually did happen.2
I mean, I’ve read things like Arno Mayer’s book, The Furies, about the use of terror and repression in the French Revolution as well as the Russian Revolution, and his figures on the number of people who were sent to “gulags” [in the Soviet Union when it was led by Stalin] was a lot lower than what’s usually cited. And I don’t know if that’s the whole picture, but it’s certainly part of what we need to be learning from. And there needs to be more digging into this. But I will say that there were people who were wrongly repressed, that there wasn’t the kind of vigorous—especially after the mid-’30s—there was some earlier, but even then, not enough, but especially after the mid-’30s there wasn’t the kind of vigorous ferment in society and struggle over the road forward and clashing of different ideas and opinions [that there should have been].
But look, it’s not so simple as just everything that comes from a section of the masses of people is always right. If that were the case, we’d be way ahead of where we are in the world right now. Things are contradictory and complicated. A big condemnation of the Soviet Union is its role in the Spanish Civil War [in the latter part of the 1930s]. We wrote a whole article studying this in the magazine Revolution a number of years ago—actually about 20 years ago now. 3 And a lot of people think that the problem with the Soviet Union—or the [Spanish] Communist Party, following the Soviet Union—in Spain was that they were too centralized. Well, that wasn’t the essential problem. The essential problem was that their line was one of subordinating the struggle in Spain to the Soviet Union’s attempts to make deals with—come to agreements with—France and Britain, in particular, against Germany, against the Nazis, because of the threat they [Stalin and the Soviet leadership] were perceiving. You actually did need a lot of centralization in that army [the Republican army in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s] in order to effectively fight [the fascist Spanish General] Franco and all the backing that he had. And a lot of the anarchists’ programs [during the Spanish Civil War] were programs that would have actually undermined the necessary struggle. And they actually reflected the interests of a lot of small artisans and petit bourgeois forces—as we analyzed in that [ Revolution magazine] article—or they did represent sections of workers whose programs would have pitted their interests against the larger interests of the working class and the people who were part of the Republican struggle as a whole.
So it’s not always—this came up in the Chinese Revolution, for example. It’s described in Fanshen [a book by William Hinton, about how the Chinese revolution unfolded—and involved and affected people—in the Chinese countryside]. There were the poor peasants who were the poorest of the poor in the countryside and landless to a large degree. They wanted to expropriate everything that [was owned by] everybody above them, even the relatively not-well-off, lower sections of the middle peasantry, as it was defined. And there had to be struggle against that [“poor peasant line”], because had their program been implemented, they would have very quickly found themselves back in the same situation, perhaps with a slight reshuffling of who was where in the polarization, but they wouldn’t have been able to break out of the overall poverty, because that required going at it a completely different way—of moving through cooperative labor to cooperative ownership and then larger collective ownership of the land and a whole program like that, and not just eating up whatever was at hand at a given time—which would have—there wasn’t very much to eat up. You would have just been redistributing poverty, at best. And a lot of the forces that they wanted to expropriate were people you should have been aligned with and working together with, as you moved from individual ownership to cooperative labor to cooperative ownership, and then larger collectives of ownership of peasants as a way out of the poverty of the countryside. And it was the Communist Party that understood this and struggled against this “poor peasant line.” And sometimes it was a pretty sharp struggle. You could say: “Well, look at the Communist Party, it’s betraying the poor peasants.” It wasn’t actually. It was actually fighting for their interests in a way that spontaneously some of them weren’t seeing and were acting against. And the same thing happened in the Soviet Union at times or in the Spanish Civil War.
So it’s complex. Just because a section of the masses, for example, might rebel against the government doesn’t mean the government is wrong in every situation. It depends on what the program of these different forces is. Now, if a section of the masses rebels against the government that is a socialist government, the government and the leaders of the society should struggle very hard to have that resolved non-antagonistically, as a contradiction among the people. But it’s not always possible to completely do that. And this is what makes for the complexities of things.
If certain interests are being insisted upon by a section of the masses that would actually undermine the overall interests of the proletariat, then you can’t go along with that. Say you raise the wages of a section of the working class, but the effect of that is to actually undermine the accumulation [necessary] for expanding the socialist economy as a whole—which, over a little longer period, would raise the standard of living of the working class and masses of people much more broadly. Well, you have to fight against that line [of insisting on a wage increase for a section of the people] because maybe that wage increase, while it might be a good trade union demand under capitalism, is actually working against the advance of socialism and even the interests of the workers who are raising it, in a more fundamental sense.
The point I’m trying to make here is: this is complex, and the point of orientation has to be to look at the larger interests of the formerly exploited and oppressed masses of people, who are now becoming the masters of the socialist society, and wage a struggle for them to raise their sights to that larger picture and even to the world as a whole and the world revolution. For example, people in China made sacrifices to support the Vietnamese [in their war of resistance against U.S. imperialism, for a decade during the 1960s and 1970s]. They raised rice to get to the Vietnamese because a lot of the [Vietnamese] rice production was being destroyed by the bombing and the [overall] war that the U.S. was carrying out in Vietnam. Well, that was a struggle [among the Chinese people] because people were coming out of generations of not just poverty but starvation in China, and they had the Great Leap Forward [in China in the late 1950s] and they were still recovering from some of the problems that arose in that. And they did recover quickly—which is the first time in the history of that country that very quickly, after there was some real privation and even starvation, they quickly solved the problem, and for the first time in the early ’60s, or by the mid-’60s, China had essentially solved its food problem—meaning people were getting basic food stuffs to be able to live on—which hadn’t happened before in the history of that country. And this was only 15 years after the revolution succeeded essentially.
So sometimes you have to actually struggle against the demands that come from a section of the masses of people—even though you can see why those demands come and it’s speaking to a real need of theirs—because if you actually accede to that, you’re going to undermine the basis for raising the whole level of the people. And in that case [Vietnam, and Chinese aid for the Vietnamese war of resistance] you will undermine the basis of support of an important struggle in another country or part of the world.
So these are the kinds of things we need to dig into more deeply. I’m just trying to say that people who fall into these notions that, “Well, they put down this rebellion, or whatever,” sometimes are not looking at it from the point of view of the larger relations in the society and what it would have meant to accede to a certain demand from a section of the masses, even if they had real grievances. And that goes back to my point that when you’re talking about sections of the masses of people, and not overthrown exploiters or conscious counter-revolutionaries, you should seek to resolve that non-antagonistically—as Mao put it, as a contradiction among the people—but sometimes in the short run that’s not always possible. Because wherever in a socialist society there are grievances—here’s what makes it complicated: Stalin was wrong the way he dealt with a lot of things; he did treat contradictions among the people many times as contradictions with the enemy, but the complication is that the enemy does get in there. You know, the masses have grievances, and then the enemy fans those grievances to try to undermine the whole thing. And it becomes very complex because these two different contradictions—those among the people, and those between the people and the enemy—get mixed in together and meshed together and it’s hard to sort them out sometimes.
So I think there’s a lot to learn in terms of how we can do better, but what I’m struggling for is an orientation of really looking at the problems the way they actually present themselves in all their complexity and from the point of view of advancing to where this all needs to go—and not from the narrow trade unionist point of view, which is frankly how a lot of your anarcho-syndicalist and Trotskyite and other criticisms of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s leadership come at it, from that kind of a trade unionist or anarcho-syndicalist point of view, which is not really the point of view of how we’re going to move—transform the whole society and raise the whole level of everybody up and eliminate the chains on people to get to a whole different kind of world—but is more narrow and economist, as Lenin called it. More like: how does the particular section of the people improve their living and working conditions right now? And yes, we should do that in an overall sense, but there are times when that can come into a contradiction, even acute contradiction, with raising the whole level up.
1 Ronald Reagan, the U.S. president from 1981 to 1989, was infamous for openly threatening nuclear war, backing death squad regimes in Central America, promoting outright racism, and other outrages. Reagan’s death in June 2004 (half a year before the interview with Bob Avakian on Michael Slate’s radio show was aired) was the occasion for a flood of official ceremonies and commemorations, remembrances by top political figures (Democrats and Republicans alike), and major tributes in the mainstream media, all extolling this blood-soaked representative of the U.S. empire as a “beloved” leader who “restored greatness” to America. [back]
2 The Set the Record Straight project, which is inspired by the writings of Bob Avakian, has been carrying out educational and outreach activities “to take on the distortions, misrepresentations, and supporting scholarship that hold such sway in academia about the first wave of socialist revolutions, in the Soviet Union in 1917-1956 and China in 1949-1976.” To learn more about the project and access its resource material, go online to thisiscommunism.org.[back]
3 “The Line of the Comintern on the Civil War in Spain,” Revolution magazine, June 1981, pp. 32-70.[back]
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