Communist Parties are the Custodians of the Future (1982)

25 February 2010 347 hits

The lively debate that will surely take place in the wake of Road to Revolution IV should help propel the party forward. Ideological struggle that leads to sharper class struggle and sharper struggle for the allegiance of the working class is The lifeblood of a communist party. The questions raised by Road to Revolution IV hold vital interest for billions of people, both subjectively and objectively. Many workers and others already think seriously about the sort of society they want to live in and look in various ways for an alternative to the present system. Furthermore, history has shown that communist parties are indeed custodians of the future because the future depends primarily upon the line that communists win workers to carry out.

The party must strive for ideological clarity about the nature of all its goals, short-range, intermediate, and ultimate. The old communist movement defined its goals in a straightforward manner: first the seizure of power, then the dictatorship of the proletariat, then the protracted historical period known as socialism, and finally the withering away of the state and peaceful transition to communism and a classless society.

But the old communist movement is dead. The PLP would not exist otherwise. Our party came into being in the struggle against revisionism, grew in the course of this struggle, and fights today to launch a new international communist movement in the period of bosses' war, fascism, U.S. imperialist collapse, and the new "highest stage" of world capitalism, revisionist imperialism.

Over a decade ago, Road to Revolution III broke radically with certain traditional goals and concepts of the old movement while at the same time retaining others. Road to Revolution IV takes another step in this direction. There will be others. Reality always moves faster than theory. The earth had been round for billions of years before its roundness was discovered. It revolved around the sun all the time people believed the sun revolved around it. The old communist movement had turned into its opposite long before its death became obvious. Each of our party's major theoretical statements over the past decade and a half--Road to Revolution I, Road to Revolution II, Build a Base in the Working Class, Road to Revolution III, Reform and Revolution, and now Road to Revolution IV -- A Communist Manifesto (1982), has been an attempt to grapple with the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat, to analyze the causes of the reversion to capitalism by the formerly socialist states, and to learn a little better how to win.

In the year between the first discussion concerning Road to Revolution IV and its present publication in final form, quite a few articles appeared expressing disagreements with one or another aspect of its line. This article will attempt to analyze and answer some points made in these disagreements.

The central thesis of Road to Revolution IV asserts that egalitarian society must be the immediate goal of the proletarian dictatorship, that the wage system must be abolished right away, that the majority of workers and their allies can and must be won to these aims during the course of the fight for power and afterwards, and that nothing less will bring victory. In and of itself, this reaffirmation of egalitarianism does not constitute the new element of Road to Revolution IV. Every leading communist from Marx on endorsed this concept. However, Road to Revolution IV does break with the traditional timetable, which states that under the dictatorship of the proletariat, an indefinite period of social stratification must precede communism because not enough people can be won immediately to the abolition of wages and to egalitarianism. Road to Revolution IV breaks even more sharply than Road to Revolution III with this standard estimate about the protracted unwinnability of the masses to communist ideas.

Those who disagreed with Road to Revolution IV offered a series of reasons for maintaining the revolution-socialism-communism timetable as laid out in Marx' Critique of the Gotha Program and other classic writings. One argument states that since an egalitarian society has never yet been built after the seizure of power, we cannot do so: "Neither the party, nor the masses, nor the international working class in its history," it says, "has ever had any significant mass experiences with a mode of production for all of society that is free of all material incentives."

Stated in other words, this argument boils down to the thesis that because a thing has not happened before, it therefore can never happen. It is really a corollary to the proposition that the more things change the more they remain the same. Viewed from either angle, as a general scientific abstraction, this point is an absurdity. If you argue that what hasn't happened can't happen, you are really making a case for the line that Galileo really didn't see the moons of Jupiter, that human beings can't fly, or that a worker who hasn't yet become a communist leader will never be able to do so. This is certainly not the intention of Road to Revolution IV's critics, but arguments have logic independent of their makers' motives.

The real issue is not that the communist movement has yet to attempt building an egalitarian society immediately after the seizure of power: this point is moot. The history of the dictatorship of the proletariat shows that in the past, the communist leadership always found reasons for not abolishing the wage system and moving straight to egalitarianism; asserting that we can't do it because they didn't do it is redundant at best.

The real issue is whether or not such an approach is feasible. The argument that it is not depends heavily on the estimate that the masses are too backward, too deluded by capitalist individualism to accept such an advanced concept. In one of his more profound comments, Marx mentioned that humanity produces only problems that have solutions, because a problem could not exist if the elements of its solution didn't also exist. Here we have a problem: are vast numbers of workers and their allies--all of whom suffer under capitalism and none of whom has yet received communist leadership based on the line of Road to Revolution IV--winnable now and during the struggle for power to fight for an egalitarian way of life described by Marx and others as the higher phase of communism?

The argument that capitalism's crass morality and ideology have rendered workers too selfish, too backward for them to fight from the outset for egalitarianism leaves a lot to be desired. It examines only one aspect of the contradiction, the obvious one. We all recognize that selfishness is the dominant motivator under capitalism. We should also agree that workers have an enormous stake in fighting against it. Certainly no one has yet argued against Road to Revolution IV by attempting to show that workers have a material interest in perpetuating social inequality. The dispute rather seems to concern the viability of speeding up the ideological struggle. Road to Revolution IV argues that in fact, when left to their own devices, workers have often implemented major facets of egalitarianism. Some of the criticisms dispute this, but the point is overwhelmingly in Road to Revolution IV's favor when one examines the history of the communist movement in the twentieth century.

In the revolutionary upsurge of 1917-1921 in the Soviet Union, the worldwide struggle against fascism in World War II, the Chinese Revolution, the battles against imperialism of the 1950's, 60s and 70s in Asia and Africa and in many other struggles, the response of millions was to live in a manner which contradicted capitalist social organization. Practice once again outstrips theory. The one development that did not occur during these struggles was a break by the official communist leadership with the traditional two-stage theory of winning power and building the new society.

In the second place, it is also useful to look further back in history than the communist movement and examine the forces that have motivated masses in precapitalist and early capitalist societies. The traditional capitalism-socialism-higher-phase-of-communism timetable alludes to the final stage of communism as the latter-day version of primitive communism, the dominant social form when classes had not yet developed and the basic contradiction of life pitted humanity against nature. However, it is also one-sided to assume that the thousands of years between the fall of primitive communism and the Communist Manifesto were characterized exclusively by the ideology of self-interest. To be sure, as Marx and Engels pointed out, the ruling ideology of a period will be the ideology of the ruling class, and therefore the world-view of the leading exploiter will dominate the superstructure of any stratified society.

But the history of humanity since primitive communism is also the history of class struggle, and classes have fought bitterly for many centuries over ideas as well as wealth, possessions, and the physical necessities of life. It is a serious distortion of history to pretend that under slavery and feudalism the masses fought exclusively for the modern equivalent of a ten-cent raise. One need not fall into the idealist illusion that scientific communist ideology has existed for thousands of years to see just how far back in history oppressed classes have put ideological incentive over material gain and, furthermore how profound a motivating force in the class struggle has been the striving for some vision of equality.


The "Golden Age of Athens" is generally regarded as the most advanced pre-Roman European society. The great achievements of Greek architecture, sculpture, philosophy, and science appeared during and in the wake of the 50-year period in Athens that saw the flowering of political democracy. We know this democracy had severe limitations: women couldn't vote; and Athenian wealth grew from the exploitation of colonies, a contradiction that was to hasten Athens' downfall. All the same, Athenian democracy was a revolutionary breakthrough in its time. If we are to believe the words of Pericles, Athens' most capable leader and its dominant political force during this period, political rather than material incentive remained the most effective method of stimulating the citizen population in time of crisis. In his famous funeral oration at the burial of the first dead of the war between Athens and Sparta, Pericles starkly contrasts the openness of Athenian society with Sparta's oligarchy, and the vibrance of Athens' culture with the sterility of Sparta's. The important point to retain is that the greatest statesman of his age relied primarily on the ideological commitment of the Athenian citizenry to defend a democratic way of life. He says, " [We do not believe] that a man who pays no attention to politics minds his own business. We say he has no business here at all." Later, he explains that the soldiers who died fighting against Sparta surrendered something less valuable than they would have lost had they lived to see the defeat of Athenian democracy. "Some are brave out of ignorance. Others are brave out of fear. But he who can most truly be accounted brave is the man who knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and what is terrible and who then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come." The contradiction between crass material self-interest and commitment to political goals whose realization may require considerable self-sacrifice thus dates back at least 2400 years.


The initial phase of Christianity probably represents the first mass egalitarian movement. Religion has played a reactionary role for thousands of years, but the early Christians nonetheless contributed certain concepts with revolutionary implications for a society based on slavery, empire and the accumulation of monumental wealth in the hands of a few rulers. If one cuts through the mumbo jumbo about Jesus as the "Son of God", the early Christian leaders appear not as 'saints' but rather as political organizers building a movement against the social inequities of their time. The idea that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor, that a rich man can enter it less easily than a camel can pass through the eye of a needle, or that charity' is a virtue greater than even hope or faith--these concepts arose from a mass struggle two thousand years ago whose participants aspired in many ways to a life without social stratification. The revolutionary content of these ideas was not lost on the Roman ruling class, which otherwise would hardly have taken the trouble to torture and murder the early Christians as vehemently as it did.

For a variety of reasons which Marxism enables us to understand, Christianity was ultimately coopted and the church became and remains one of society's most oppressive institutions. But. one should not lose sight of the contradiction's other aspect as it developed historically: the fact remains that an ideology based on a vision of egalitarianism has existed in some form for a long time.

The brief violent revolt of peasants known in France as the Jacquerie had been a mass upsurge without a program. Its English counterpart a generation later developed a conscious political line. The Lollard priests and others who stood up against the feudal church had made an impression on the peasants. So too had John Ball, with his theory of 'leveling:'

"Matters cannot go well in England until all things shall be held in common; when there shall be neither vassals or lords, when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves. . . Are we not all descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve?" (quoted in Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror; p.374)

Although they could not bring about the society they envisioned, the Levelers could still perceive the inescapable contradictions of a stratified social order, As they roamed the countryside, telling willing ears that if human beings had a common origin and a common end, if everyone was equalized by death, then the peasants were not obligated to accept the Church's dogma that inequality on earth was the will of god. Many "backward" peasants six hundred years ago must have agreed with this line: otherwise the rulers of the time would not have shuttled Ball, the movement's ideologue, from prison to prison for twenty years.


By all estimates, the French Revolution stands as the greatest of bourgeois movements. It also produced the first proletarian countermovement to claim the name communism. The triumphant capitalists distorted the ideas of liberty, equality and brotherhood for their own class purposes. However, they could not fulfill their goals without mass support, and since this revolution brought about the most radical transformation of society yet seen, it could not prevent social inequality from emerging as a mass question. By far the greatest of prerevolutionary political theorists was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with his idea that "the earth's fruits belong to all, the earth itself to no one," and his profound dialectical insight that "The first man who closed off a plot of land, who said 'This is mine,' and who found people foolish enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society." At the height of the revolutionary struggle, the implications of this idea were to make a deep impression on Gracchus Babeuf, the man generally acknowledged as the first communist organizer and certainly the furthest left of all the French revolutionaries.

One need hardly point out that in modern histories of the French Revolution, little mention is made of Babeuf or of his writings. Although he failed, although others before him failed, and although as various arguments against Road to Revolution IV have indicated, the revolutionary process has yet to produce a society free from material incentive, the historical record nonetheless shows that for thousands of years, the aspiration toward non-stratified, egalitarian life has been a deeply imbedded element of class struggle and class consciousness. Winning, of course, is another matter, but the knowledge that for centuries before Marx, masses lived and died fighting for aspects of this concept should embolden us and broaden our thinking about what a scientifically organized party can accomplish now and what it should set as its goals and slogans.

It has been further argued against Road to Revolution IV that egalitarianism is premature in the initial stage of proletarian dictatorship because revolutionary commitment is too uneven and because building a base for the party will require too many concessions to the "inevitable backwardness" of the masses. These concessions, the argument goes, are required to maintain unity.

In order to consider this point, one must first examine the line and logic of Road to Revolution III the operating strategy of the PLP between 1969 and 1981. RR III argued that the reversal of socialism in the USSR, China and elsewhere came about because the communist parties had failed to win workers to proletarian dictatorship and revolutionary ideology and because this failure made subsequent concessions to capitalist forces inevitable. RR III already set forth a concept of revolution substantially different in some respects from the Bolshevik model. It advanced the thesis that political power emanates less from the barrel of a gun than from the political ideology of the worker holding the gun. It stated further that most people, except those who cast their lot with the enemy, are winnable, and that victory for the party means recruiting them to its ranks. RR Ill strongly implied that state power cannot be won, much less retained, without a qualitatively larger mass party and movement committed to proletarian dictatorship than the party and movement led by the Bolsheviks.

Either the line makes sense or it doesn't. The operating strategy of our party in the decade preceding Road to Revolution IV was based on the premise that it does. The arguments set forth in contradiction to Road to Revolution IV do not explicitly put RR 111 into question. However, the logic of many of them contradicts RR 111 nonetheless, because Road to Revolution IV represents the step beyond RRIII.

RR 111 broke with the traditional estimate about the concessions needed under socialism to the "backwardness" of the masses. It said that most workers could be won to fight for their own class dictatorship. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not an abstraction, nor is it simply millions of workers running around with guns: Iran in 1981 was hardly a workers' state. One must also know the ideas the guns are fighting to carry out and the political and social content of the government they protect. Road to Revolution IV argues that from its inception, the communist movement was weighted down with too much excess baggage, that if workers have more or less on their own done all the things alluded to above as well as many others for a vision of egalitarianism, then they will fight willingly and enthusiastically for a proletarian dictatorship based on egalitarian principles, provided the communist party gives them the leadership to do so.

This is the crux of the question. Backwardness is an aspect of everyone's ideology. The category of likeness and difference is based on reality; therefore different methods of struggle are needed to deal with different forces. But the call for concessions to the masses argues for a flexible line. It disputes the notion that the masses are winnable to the proletarian dictatorship and implies--or in some cases states overtly--that most workers will need guns held to their heads to live in an egalitarian society without wage slavery. One can dispute in the abstract until one is blue in the face about what workers will accept. Practice remains the ultimate arbiter. If you believe in inevitable backwardness, you won't fight for a very advanced line. If you believe there is a basis to transform this backwardness into its opposite, you will fight for advanced concepts. One thing is certain: no proletarian dictatorship has ever fought to implement communist principles, and no proletarian dictatorship remains standing in the world today.

As Road to Revolution IV points out, the question of wages and the maintenance of the wage system lies at the center of socialism's reversal. Road to Revolution IV calls into question Marx's theorem that after the seizure of state power, bourgeois rights must be partially maintained as a concession to the birthmarks bequeathed to socialism by the old way of life. The modern argument that wages remain essential under socialism constitutes an attempt to have one's cake and eat it too, because underneath the argument lies the assumption that a distinction is possible between "capitalist" and "socialist" wages. The distinction is specious. When Marx called for maintaining the wage system under socialism, he did not deny that wages remain a capitalist institution: the money equivalent of labor power sold on the market as a commodity, the only commodity owned by workers. Wages are synonymous with capitalism. A system of distribution based on equality cannot be a wage system. Either one keeps a form of capitalist wages or one abolishes wages altogether. There is no middle ground. This is really the decisive issue raised by Road to Revolution IV--along with the absolute primacy of the party. RR III already analyzed the fundamental error of the old movement as a right-wing tendency to build socialism on a capitalist cornerstone. This was a radical insight, but it didn't go far enough. Now Road to Revolution IV takes the necessary next step by saying that the reversal of socialism did not come about because too many concessions were made, but rather because of the nature of the concessions. The error lay not simply in settling the question of how to build socialism: at the root of the matter stood the problem of precisely what to build under the proletarian dictatorship.

Commodity production is capitalism. If over an entire historical period one concedes the retention of wages and commodities in essence, while merely changing their form, then it is difficult to see how commodities and wages will wither away of their own accord. History proves that quite the opposite is the case. Wages beget wages and stratification; one commodity begets many--the issue is qualitative, not one of "dosage." A proletarian dictatorship that produces commodities has always gone on to produce more, not less, and to reconstitute itself as state capitalism. None of the arguments against Road to Revolution IV has demonstrated that "socialist wages" would follow a different course of development.

Road to Revolution IV calls for bypassing the phase of socialist development and moving directly to communism. It has been argued in opposition to this view that socialism is an inevitable feature of revolutionary development, a positive concept that should be retained once certain errors in it have been corrected.

In the first place, one should take care before canonizing a development as inevitable. Marx stated that his most important contribution was not the discovery of class struggle or even the analysis of surplus labor, but rather the proof that workers' revolution and proletarian dictatorship were consistent with the laws of development. This analysis is firmly rooted in the history of class struggle, the laws of dialectics, and plain common sense--oppressed classes have always ultimately triumphed over their oppressors. There may be some logic to the notion that restoration of capitalism by the first socialist states was inevitable because development is always uneven and the Bolsheviks had no previous experience to draw on, while the Chinese had only the Bolsheviks as models.

When Marx and Lenin spoke of socialism, they meant a period of transition to a higher form of society during which the workers' state had no choice but to preserve the wage system, stratification, and significant elements of bourgeois rights. And this is precisely what was built in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere. Only the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution's left wing seems to have broken with this notion, and it neither broke radically enough nor succeeded in freeing itself from the cult of Mao.

It matters little whether one retains the name socialism or comes up with something else. The important point is the content. The only plausible argument for retaining stratification under the dictatorship of the proletariat is the line that the party must capitulate to "birthmarks," "backwardness" and the "unwinnability of the masses," a line endorsed in one form or another by all the two-stage theorists. While our party recognizes that it stands on the shoulders of giants, that we would improve if we fought for our line one-tenth as hard as they, and that we are merely the inheritors of a great revolutionary tradition, the fact remains that if we build the dictatorship of the proletariat around the same old line, we will produce the same results. That, at least, is inevitable.

The advanced elements of the movement have always fought against the theory of stages. Lenin rips it apart in What Is To Be Done? The problem seems to have occurred in practice: the great revolutionaries rejected opportunism in principle but surrendered to it in life under the strain of certain pressures. Such is the line that led to the demise of the old movement: seize power; then, at all costs, avoid "sectarian" errors under the dictatorship of the proletariat and make "necessary" concessions to "backwardness;" establish a line of struggle around the immediate economic and political goals of the party; then, "over a period of time," backwardness will disappear and the peaceful transition to communism will take place.

The argument here and in Road to Revolution IV estimates that the transformation cannot occur unless the party fights for the most advanced concept from the outset. In the course of development, even more advanced concepts will arise. Our problem, like the problem of all revolutionary forces in the world, can never be the "backwardness of the masses." The greatest obstacle before us remains our own backwardness. For more than two thousand years, the masses have fought for aspects of egalitarianism. Given this history and the record of the dictatorship of the proletariat, we have no reason to believe that we can or should try to win the working class to fight for a line that has already failed rather than for the best line possible.

What has never been done before sooner or later always gets done. The earth is round and does orbit the sun. "True freedom," as the Digger Winstanley said, "lies in community in spirit and community in the earthly treasury," and if those who would achieve it must "turn the world upside down" and must make enemies doing so, then so be it. We communists have enemies, but they are the right enemies. We also have friends: they are the right friends, and they number in the billions.

The general trend of history is not only forward motion and revolution in geometrically increasing swiftness. Slavery lasted thousands of years; feudalism, a bit more than one thousand. The revolutionary bourgeoisie could not shake the spectre of the militant proletariat even at the very moment of capitalist triumph and barely a century and a quarter after this triumph, the first workers' dictatorship was established. Fighting for communist aspirations now cannot be utopian when only communist aspirations will meet the needs of the majority. Communist ideas will become a material force capable of changing history when communists fight for them without compromise. Once we overcome our backwardness in this regard, we shall see how rapidly the "backwardness of the masses" dissipates.