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1973: The Presupposed Party. William Hinton's Mechanical Marxism and the Vanguard Party Strategy Printer Friendly Version

The Presupposed Party

William Hinton's Mechanical Marxism
and the Vanguard Party Strategy

James Herod

June 1973
New York City

Table of Contents


1. How Can We Tell Which Class is in Power?

2. The Universal We of the Bourgeoisie

3. Organization, Discipline, Theory, and Leadership

4. What Does It Mean To Seize Power?

5. Can Proletarians Themselves Seize Power?



  The initial core of this essay was written on February 24, 1973 as a response to a talk I heard William Hinton give in New York the previous evening at a Guardian Forum on China.(1) The essay was subsequently expanded into its present form in June of 1973. Further editing and some revisions were made in late 1974. The Foreword and Footnotes were added in April, 1976.

  The essay is not a study or critique of Hinton's many books on China. It is rather a response to a particular line of his reasoning, regarding the role of a party in making the communist revolution. And even here I am just as concerned to join issue with Marxists-Leninists in general as I am in joining issue with Hinton. Thus although the immediate occasion for the essay was provided by Hinton's speech and my urge to put down a reply to it since it was a contemporary expression of the vanguard tendency in the movement here, the more general target of the essay is the authoritarian conception of the proletarian revolution embodied in the Russian and Chinese experiences.

Chapter One

How Can We Tell Which Class Is In Power?

  Hinton begins with the question: how do we know which class is in power? That is, how can we tell whether or not the working class is in power? This question gets transposed immediately into the question: how can we know whether the party in power is a working class party? Already in the first two sentences then we can see the root of the difficulty: he takes the necessity of a party as a given. Thus he by-passes the very question that needs to be answered. The real question, about how power is exercised by the working class, about the form that the concrete exercise of power by proletarians might conceivably take, is avoided from the outset and in the place of this question an assumption is put, namely, that the power of proletarians is exercised through a Party, albeit, their party. Other possibilities, direct proletarian democracy for example, are never examined, perhaps not even perceived. Naturally therefore there is no attempt made to explain or justify the claim that the power of the working class is exercised by a party.

  Thus it happens that the second question takes the center of the stage, the question about how we know whether a party in power is a working class party. But Hinton is also unable to answer this question, as it turns out. His answer to this question leads us right back to the same assumption, to the same begging of the question, to the same presupposition of the party. The circularity of the reasoning becomes obvious.

  He first of all argues that you can't tell whether a party is working class by examining the class origins of the leaders because some of the leaders in high offices in China are not from working class or peasant families, but from bourgeois families. This is not proof of course but only a statement of a prior assumption that the Chinese party is a working class party, and hence if its leaders do not have working class backgrounds then the class origins of the leaders cannot serve as a test of a working class party. He also discusses the class backgrounds of leaders on the local level, incidentally, finding working class and peasant backgrounds the rule there, but he still concludes that this is not proof that the party is a working class party because after all Nixon has a lower class background and his party is certainly not a working class party. This statement has the same circularity. His knowledge that Nixon's party is not working class is derived from the outside, arbitrarily, a priori. The question of how we know the class character of the party in power is the very question that is being asked, and so far a criterion has not been established. Hinton eliminates nevertheless an examination of the class backgrounds of the leaders as a way of telling whether a party in power is a working class party.

  Next he eliminates the test of the past history of the leaders and their service in the revolution. It can be argued for example that even though leaders may have come from rich families they might long ago have abandoned this class and have gone over to fight for the proletariat, so that even though they came from bourgeois families they adopted the proletarian cause as their own and this is what proves that the party they lead is a working class party. The trouble with this, says Hinton, is that some of these leaders, twenty years after the revolution, in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, turned out to be capitalist-roaders. This statement once again begs the question. He assumes that the verdict rendered against these leaders by the victorious faction in the fight is true. Thus the question of how we determine what the socialist road is as opposed to the capitalist road, that is, how we decide who is right in any given debate about policy (how we know whether the good guys win or the bad guys) is never even asked even though this is precisely the question that has to be answered. There is instead the implicit assumption throughout that the good guys win. That is how you know they are good guys, because they win, which means they must have the correct strategy or else they would lose. This is how you know Mao is a good guy, for example, because he has won consistently for so many years. So a good record of past participation in the revolutionary struggle is no proof, Hinton concludes, that a person is working class or that a party or faction composed and led by such persons is working class.

  Hinton argues that the only way to tell whether a party in power is a working class party is to examine the policies that that party advocates and pursues. Does it pursue a policy that leads to socialism? If so, it is a working class party. At this point, obviously, in order not to appear completely tautological (a socialist party is one that leads to socialism), Hinton is forced to introduce a definition of socialism. He says that socialism means an egalitarian society and that the whole problem of the revolution is to get from an inegalitarian society to an egalitarian one. A working class policy is one that leads to such an egalitarian society. So once again he begs the question, which in this case becomes: who says that socialism means an egalitarian society? Thus he presupposes the party once again. This becomes clear as soon as he goes on to describe in more detail this socialist-roader policy which he believes is leading to egalitarianism by adopting the standard phrases of the party presently in power in China. He describes a socialist policy as one which relies on the masses, seeks to unite the many and defeat the few, serves the people, and so forth. These are the policies that lead to socialism, he says. He thus assumes, as he did on the two previous tests, that the present party in power is a working class party and that the policies it is pursuing can be used to distinguish a working class party from one that is not.

  The real question is: who decides what a proletarian policy is? Hinton can't get at this question (and in fact never raises it) because he begins by taking the party as a given and in this way entangles himself in a complex web of circularities, until he ends by introducing a definition of socialist policy from the outside, as a given, and by assuming that a socialist policy is what the party in power says it is (relying on the masses, uniting the many, serving the people).

  Most Marxists-Leninists of course do not even put themselves to the trouble that Hinton has about the nature and class character of the party in power. Nor will they allow themselves so much attention to reality as to even sense that it is the party that is in power and not proletarians themselves. They simply assert and take as a given, from the beginning, that proletarians are in power: Russia is a dictatorship of the proletariat, China is a dictatorship of the proletariat. And that's that. Never mind how, why, when, where. They simply skip the whole argument about the role of the party. For them the coming to power of a so-called proletarian party(2) is synonymous with the coming to power of the proletariat. The two things are the same in their eyes.

  The question for Hinton however is whether or not the party in power is taking the socialist road or the capitalist road. When one talks about the party in power rather than about the class in power this is at least an implicit recognition that it is not the proletariat itself that is in power, but rather the party, and the party may or may not be a working class party. Unfortunately though, he does not dwell long on this distinction but instead, having somehow established, he thinks, that the party is a working class party, then goes on to claim, or at least assume, that since the party is a working class party proletarians therefore are themselves in power. That is, he takes his deliberations about whether the party is a working class party as an answer to his original question about how you tell which class is in power.

  Thus we see that to presuppose the necessity of a Party for the achievement of socialism, and to equate the exercise of power by a working class party with the exercise of power by the working class, is precisely what prevents us from getting at the question of how proletarians themselves might exercise power. Can proletarians seize and exercise power by themselves, directly, without a party, and if so how? It is one of the great failures of the proletarian revolution so far that this question has never been answered satisfactorily.

Chapter Two

The Universal We of the Bourgeoisie

  It is obvious that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way Hinton is approaching this whole question about the class character of the party in power. Otherwise he wouldn't find himself entangled in such an embarrassing web of circular reasoning. Let me suggest that the difficulty stems from the dualistic stance he takes in formulating these questions.

  I have just demonstrated how, on each of the criteria put forward to answer the question about the class character of the party in power, Hinton is forced into an a priori position. In the case of the class origins of leaders as a test of a working class party he is forced to assume that the present leaders constitute a working class party even though they do not have working class backgrounds because he is apparently unwilling to consider the other logical possibility that since the leaders are not working class in origin perhaps the party isn't working class either. In the case of the past history of leaders he is forced to assume once again that the present leaders, the victors, are working class since he accepts the conclusions that those who were purged were capitalist-roaders. On the criterion of party policy he is forced to introduce an a priori definition of socialist policy. In all three cases he has introduced a solution from the outside.

  This dualistic stance, this outside perspective, is evident also in his use of the term `we' in these questions. Who is this we anyway? Consider the difficulties that would be encountered if we asked these questions about the United States. How do we know which class is in power in the United States, for example? I for one am convinced that the bourgeoisie is in power in the United States. I feel sure that Hinton and I would agree at least on this point. I know a lot of other people who would agree. On the other hand, unfortunately, when I talk to people whom I categorize as bourgeois they have a very different view of things. They scoff at the very notions of bourgeoisie and proletariat. I've heard it many times. ``We are all citizens,'' they say. ``The United States is a democracy. There is no ruling class here. There is no proletariat or bourgeoisie. These are outmoded, unworkable ideas, sheer ideology. We live in a land of freedom and equality.'' Thus there is a disagreement here.

  Nor is it only with people whom I call bourgeois (they reject the label of course) that I have this disagreement. There are many other people, whom I call proletarians (they also reject the label, saying that they are Americans, middle class Americans), who also do not share my views that there is a ruling class in this country, a bourgeoisie, and that this class exploits the rest of us who are mostly proletarians, and that therefore this is a system of slavery we are living in, not a democracy. I have sometimes argued these questions for hours, presenting what I considered to be overwhelming proof of the validity of my views, but to no avail.

  Nor is this disagreement likely to be changed very much by recourse to the so-called facts. I feel certain that most of the people I call bourgeois will never accept my opinion that they constitute a ruling class. They will always remain in their own eyes American citizens, although rich ones. I hope that people I call proletarian do not also continue forever to reject these views. In any case, the we in Hinton's `How do we know which class is in power?' includes only part of the people. It excludes many people with opposing views and is therefore blind to the disagreement that exists. At the very least it does not include most of the people I call bourgeois, and at present it does not even include the vast majority of proletarians.

  Similar disagreements appear in the case of Hinton's party in power problem and in his labored attempt to establish whether or not a party in power is a working class party. One of the first things a party in power is faced with, once it seizes power, is the necessity of defending the revolution against revisionists, capitalist-roaders, imperialists, and other enemies of the revolution. In other words, immediately upon coming to power decisions have to be made and policy has to be set and to do this disagreements have to be resolved. Since the party feels itself responsible for getting the entire country to communism, it is inevitable that the party will try to continue to play a dominating role in policy making. It will attempt to defeat all factions which it believes are taking the road to capitalism. There is a huge circularity then, right at the heart of the phenomenon of the party in power itself, and not merely in Hinton's handling of the question. All he is doing is adopting the point of view of the party itself and its circular reasoning. The party's aim, it says, after it seizes power, is to preside over the transition from capitalism to communism. Yet at every fork along the road to that goal, where decisions have to be made, the party feels impelled, because it feels responsible for the revolution, to be the deciding voice in order to keep the revolution on the right road. And since it has monopolized decision-making for itself (that is what it means to seize power), it is able to have this deciding voice. It is virtually impossible therefore for there ever to arise a situation where disagreement about policy can be resolved in a way where the party doesn't have an unequal say in deciding the issue. In the last analysis therefore it is the Party that defines what the socialist road is, as long as it is in power. This is done even against, if necessary, the majority will of the proletariat. The party cannot risk being voted down since by definition its own views constitute the correct road to socialism. Hence a defeat would amount to taking the capitalist road. Opinions which diverge seriously from the party line are thus necessarily seen as counter-revolutionary. Disagreement about policy, and the establishment of policy in general, is therefore permanently trapped within the hierarchical framework. There is no way to break out of it short of a majoritarian revolution against the party and the establishment by proletarians of procedures whereby they are able to establish policy themselves, are able that is to resolve disagreements among themselves by themselves.

  It can be seen therefore that it is even false to say that the party is a mediating force. The party is not merely mediating. It is not merely making it possible for proletarians to resolve their differences. Rather, it is a force outside and above the proletariat which resolves differences among proletarians for proletarians, by force, that is, by imposing its own policy, the Party Line. Thus at the very best it is merely a responsive government, a benevolent dictatorship, practicing a policy of `From the People, To the People'. This is what the Chinese mass line strategy boils down to in the last analysis.

  It might be countered that all this takes the party as a homogenous, monolithic body and treats it as an abstraction whereas in fact there are disagreements and factions within the party as well as among proletarians. True. But this does not change the situation at all. Each faction within the party claims to be the real party, the real working class party, the real socialist-roaders. There is no outside way to say which is which. And from the inside it all hinges on who wins the fight, on who is the better strategist, rallies more support, makes fewer mistakes, and so forth. Obviously the faction that wins need not be Right, certainly not from the point of view of those who lose. It is in fact meaningless to argue that winners are right and losers wrong. Yet winning factions in these circumstances always do claim to be not merely strongest but also Correct, and for objective reasons of course.

  The very idea that there is a way to determine what is correct (true) from the outside is what the whole trouble is. There is in fact no outside position. There is only the inside position. Everyone is inside. The planet earth is inside the universe and humans can only gain a knowledge of the universe by looking at it from their position inside it. There is no way to look at it from the outside. That is, human beings are inside nature because they are a part of nature. They are inside society as well. No one is outside society. This is what the revolution is all about: it seeks to overcome the false bourgeois duality whereby some people pretend to be outside history, outside society, above society (universal, objective). The Party perpetuates this duality by assuming a stance outside the proletariat. It's outlook is merely that of the bourgeoisie in radical guise. The whole struggle is to look at things from the inside, from inside the proletariat, the first class in history with a potentially majoritarian, democratic, egalitarian, nonuniversal, collective, nonhierarchical, particular, unalienated, nondualistic, concrete, social, dialectical, that is, communist point of view.

  This is the root of Hinton's problem. He cannot explain successfully whether or not the party in power is a working class party because his standpoint is that of the duality. He takes a position outside society, above society. He is forced to put forward an a priori definition of socialist policy because his framework doesn't enable him to deal with the question: who decides? The we in Hinton's `we know' is the abstract, universal we of the bourgeoisie: We the People; it is not the concrete we of the proletariat: Workers of the World. It is the voice of the part speaking for the whole.

  This is not all that difficult to see it seems to me. The fact that there is no outside can be readily comprehended. Simply imagine that we are all in one society where policy is set by majority rule and everyone votes. How could a so-called correct policy ever be established under such circumstances. There are only two positions on any given issue, even after resorting to the facts. You are either in the majority and feel you are right and get your beliefs transformed into policy, or else you are in the minority and feel that you are right but do not get your beliefs put into policy. It has only seemed like there was an outside (objective) way of determining what is correct because there has been a de facto inequality of power whereby some people are excluded from decision-making and others are able to impose their own judgment on those excluded. These rulers naturally claim that they are right: all healthy humans believe they are right. It is not so natural that they claim that it is because they are right that they are getting their own way. They appropriate for themselves all the power, set themselves up above society, exclude others from decision-making, and act as if the views of their opponents do not exist. Then they pretend to speak for the entire society. Having thus avoided confronting the disagreements, they can all the more easily define themselves, a partiality, as the totality, and convince themselves moreover that their views are correct, objective, and supported by the facts.

  The party's point of view in this regard is thus exactly analogous to the bourgeoisie's point of view, discussed earlier. The bourgeoisie claims that we are all citizens, that society is democratic, and that there is no ruling class. It defines as subversive anyone who seriously rejects its views. The party, in similar fashion, when confronted by those who feel excluded from power, claims that the society is a free one, that it is democratic, that it is on the road to socialism, and that proletarians are themselves in power. It defines as counter-revolutionary anyone who seriously rejects its views. Given the de facto (as judged by the proletarians) monopolization of power in both cases (a charge that is denied by both the party and the bourgeoisie) these responses are inevitable, inherent to the situation, and to be expected.

  It is this situation that raises serious questions about the vanguard party strategy for making the communist revolution and that adds weight to the claim that a revolution made under the aegis of a party is in fact a bourgeois revolution, regardless of the intentions, claims, and self-conceptions of the revolutionaries. This is how Lenin and Mao went so wrong. They trapped themselves inside a dualistic framework. Thus there is this huge error running clean through their works: they presuppose the Party, they presuppose an outside, and then they build a whole strategy for revolution on this presupposition.

Chapter Three

Organization, Discipline, Theory, and Leadership

  Let me pursue this question of the presupposed party further by quoting a passage from Hinton's small book on the cultural revolution in China.(3) It should be pointed out that this short book is about China; there is no concrete analysis here anywhere of conditions in the United States; nor is it a discussion of cultural revolution in general; it is strictly an interpretation of the cultural revolution in China. Nevertheless, in the last six pages of the book, without examining the concrete situation in the United States at all, Hinton transfers the China strategy to this country. He argues that the revolution here will undoubtedly be long and difficult just like it was in China, and then asserts that

``Only a mature and seasoned working class party with a high level of consciousness and a high level of discipline can carry it through.'' (page 107)

  It may well be that Hinton has his reasons, based on his knowledge of conditions in the United States, for believing that a party will be needed here to make the revolution. But he does not demonstrate that this is so by examining the situation here, certainly not in any of his books or in any of his lectures that I have heard or know about. He simply asserts that it is so. It seems to me therefore that he transfers this strategy into our situation mechanically, apparently because it was judged to have worked in China, or because the Russian revolution was similarly accomplished through such a party, as were all other presumably socialist revolutions so far – the North Korean, the Cuban, the Vietnamese, the Algerian, and so forth.

  It is difficult for me to understand how vanguardists like Hinton can discount the vast differences between the situations in these countries on the periphery of capitalism where these so-called communist revolutions have occurred and the conditions existing in the core capitalist countries. This distinction – between core and periphery, heartland and hinterland, mother countries and colonies – is somehow not a living one for Marxists-Leninists. For me the fact that those are predominantly peasant countries, whereas in the advanced capitalist states the majority of the population is proletarian, is a very significant difference. And this is only the beginning of a long list. Most people here can read and write; there they can't. Here we have known two hundred years of bourgeois democracy; there they never experienced this. Here there is a highly developed communications system and a highly mobile population; there there isn't. Here the level of wealth is sufficiently high to make time potentially available for policy deliberations; there the time needed for the production of basic necessities is still quite substantial. And on and on.

  But never mind all this say the vanguardists. The same strategy that was used in the agricultural colonies can be used in the industrialized center. And in a certain sense this follows quite logically if you believe that communist countries are indeed being created in these former colonies and quasi-colonies by means of vanguard revolutions, like the Marxists-Leninists do. Differing conditions then need be examined only to the extent necessary to make the strategy that worked there work here. My question therefore is not basically whether a so-called working class party could ever seize power here (I don't believe it ever could), but whether such a strategy has anything at all to do with the proletarian revolution here or there. We too often forget that vanguard revolutions have been made, in almost every case, over enormous opposition from other revolutionaries who rejected the vanguard route but were defeated. This was especially true in Russia. Large democratic forces have existed in other revolutionary situations, however, like in Spain, Algeria, and Chile. I am willing to bet they existed in China as well but were relegated to the dustbin of history by the victors.

  Let me quote Hinton at greater length from this same text on the question of the party. (my italics)

``A student movement can make a lasting contribution only if it is linked to and serves the working class and all those allied with workers in struggle, and only if it is led by a working class revolutionary party which bases itself on Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought – i.e., on the accumulated scientific knowledge of all mankind and on the accumulated social experience of the working class in revolutionary struggle throughout the world. Where such a party exists, as in China, revolutionary students have rallied around its proletarian core – that is around Mao Tse-tung and those who follow his line. Where such a party does not yet exist, as in America, revolutionary students should help build one by joining, supporting, and helping to bring together such genuine revolutionary sprouts as the Black Workers' Congress, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Young Lords Party, and the Revolutionary Union. In addition there are local and regional groups not yet linked to any national organization that study and apply Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought seriously and strive to unit all forces that can be united against the main enemy. These too may also be called genuine revolutionary sprouts. They form part of the base from which a national working class party may eventually be built. (pages 108-109)

  This is a confirmed Marxist-Leninist talking. Note for example:

  (1) The capitalization of the word Thought, as if to say that the thought of these men constitutes the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, Dogma.

  (2) The equating of the accumulated knowledge of all mankind with Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought. (No comment.)

  (3) The belief that Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought is something that we study and apply. There is no stress here on creatively solving our own problems and making our own revolution, but only on applying this already canonized Thought.

  (4) The implication that the party, not the working class itself, is the repository of the accumulated social experience of the working class in revolutionary struggle.

  (5) The assertion that Mao Tse-tung is the proletarian core. This confirms my earlier claim that Hinton fails to establish any criterion for determining what a proletarian party is but instead assumes throughout that the present leadership is proletarian.

  (6) The blatantly authoritarian phrase ``and those who follow his line.'' Vanguardists claim that the line is formed democratically. If that were really so such a phrase as this would be impossible.

  (7) The outside, a priori stance implicit in the sentence ``strive to unite all forces that can be united against the main enemy.'' This presupposes a definition of the main enemy. How was this arrived at? Who decided who the main enemy is? Here, as elsewhere, Hinton imposes (as does the party) his own definition. Anyone can agree with the slogan, `Unite the Many, Defeat the Few'. The whole problem is: around whose program?

  (8) The arbitrary claim that the Black Workers Congress, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Young Lords Party, and the Revolutionary Union are revolutionary. How did he determine this? What would the Socialist Workers Party say about this, or the Communist Party? (This is not an argument for not taking a stand on who is revolutionary and who is not. It is an argument against doing that from an outside position like Hinton does.)

  (9) The unquestioned doctrine that the party will be built upon a base. This base/superstructure formula is one of the cardinal principles of the vanguard strategy, and one of the most erroneous.

  (10) The belief, finally, that a party is needed to make the revolution here and that what we have to do now is build one.

  This is absolute nonsense. It is especially galling to see this kind of thing happening to Marx, who started his long revolutionary life by criticizing Hegel for the false use of abstractions and ended it claiming that he was not a Marxist. Even Lenin insisted again and again on the necessity of a concrete examination of every concrete historical situation, and Mao has repeatedly warned against importing foreign models. Unfortunately, this did not stop Lenin and Mao from being vanguardists. Nevertheless, one might hope that what would be absorbed by more people from the writings and lives of Marx, Lenin, and Mao is that the need is for more revolutionaries, not more Marxists-Leninists-Maoists.(4)

  What is behind all this? One clue can be found in the paragraph immediately preceding the one just quoted. Here Hinton is concerned about the "anarchistic" tendencies apparent in the student movement. He says

``Another trend with many student adherents is anarchism. This expresses itself, both in China and the United States, as opposition to organization, discipline, theory, and leadership. Anarchists claim that ``all power corrupts'' and urge young people to ``do your own thing.'' In confrontation with the organized power of imperialism such concepts have demonstrated their bankruptcy over and over again.'' (page 108) – [Note, April 2007. In typical Marxist fashion, Hinton here misuses the term anarchism as a label for fanatic individualism. In the original essay as written in 1973 I had absorbed that usage unwittingly. Later I learned, of course, that anarchism is a social philosophy, rooted in cooperation and mutual aid, and that this is just the way Marxists have misrepresented and disparaged anarchism for more than a century. In a few passages below I had repeated Hinton's usage. So I've now substituted the terms individualism, fanatic individualism, or egoism in the instances where I had repeated this misuse. It doesn't affect the meaning at all, because I was actually talking about fanatic individualism (do-your-own-thing'ism). I think this is fair and warranted. There is no point in needlessly alienating contemporary revolutionaries, most of whom are anarchists. There is an individualistic wing of the anarchist movement, of course, but that is another matter.]

  This is a very revealing paragraph. Hinton identifies only two positions: those who push to ``do your own thing,'' and those who push for ``organization, discipline, theory, and leadership.'' This statement reveals clearly Hinton's own authoritarian politics. The concepts of organization, discipline, theory, and leadership put forward in this way merely represent the polar opposite of individualism (do-your-own-thing'ism) – that is, dictatorship, authoritarianism, tyranny – not its transcendence. Hinton has thus suggested, as the solution to fanatic individualism, merely its other face, the other side of the same coin. These are both bourgeois positions because they repeat in radical guise the two major tendencies of thought and behavior in a capitalist society – individualism and authoritarianism.(5)

  What I am saying is that organization, discipline, theory, and leadership are false abstractions which avoid the crucial issue. The choice is not between individualism and organization but between individualism or tyranny on the one hand and proletarian self-government (democratic collectivity) on the other.(6) That is, there are two major kinds of organization – hierarchical (authoritarian) organization and egalitarian (democratic) organization. The same with discipline. The real choice is not between discipline and lack of discipline but between lack of discipline and two kinds of discipline – authoritarian discipline imposed from above by leaders, or collective discipline which grows out of egalitarian processes of collective self-government.(7) Similarly, what kind of theory is being sought? The Thought of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism learned by rote like scripture from the Little Red Books of sectarian communism, or the creative, living praxis of the working class. It is surely significant that Hinton mentioned only theory in this phrase not practice (``organization, discipline, theory, and leadership''). Vanguardists characteristically separate theory from practice, rarely treating them as a unity, except when they are admonishing others to `Unite Theory and Practice', a slogan which presupposes the duality it seeks to avoid, by picturing theory and practice as things that require unification rather than as things which cannot be separated. Everyone has both theory and practice whether they like it or not. What sectarian communists really mean by this slogan is that we should bring our practice into alignment with their theory. The theory intended here is obviously Marxism-Leninism. Practice is merely the application of this theory. That's where organization, discipline, and leadership enter the picture. These are the things that ensure that the application is carried out, and correctly carried out, you can be sure. Finally, what kind of leadership is sought? Is it the leadership of a bureaucratic, centralized, hierarchical party, or the capacity for purposeful, coordinated, conscious activity that grows out of a genuinely egalitarian, collective, democratic, self-governing, working class movement.(8) I am sure of course that Hinton would deny that he is advocating an authoritarian organization with a sectarian dogma imposed through discipline from above by leaders, or at least I hope he would deny it. But his whole analysis betrays his real position despite his self-image or the disclaimers he might make when under criticism. Tyranny is always exercised in order to serve the people (and in the public interest, as the bourgeoisie likes to say), or so the tyrants manage to convince themselves.

  The unexamined and mechanical assumption about the role of the party that we discussed earlier can thus be seen to stem in part from these other false abstractions (organization, discipline, theory, leadership) which Hinton mistakes for concrete concepts. The given character of the party in Hinton's approach stems from the fact that he is trapped on one side of a false duality: individualism or organization. Duality is a characteristic of the bourgeoisie, not the proletariat. This duality, therefore, like most dualities, is only another version of the main duality of bourgeois society – wage-labor and capital – atomized, isolated individuals facing life on their own with only their labor-power to sell as a means of survival versus the organized, oppressive, dominating power of capital. Egoistic or individualistic tendencies are rooted in this marketplace of free labor and free ideas, as well as in competition among capitalists themselves. Authoritarian tendencies are rooted in and flow from the dominating power of capital over labor, and from the concentration of capital itself. The task of the revolution is to transcend this duality. This can only be done from a position of democratic collectivity. It cannot be done by taking as one's position one half of the very duality that has to be overcome. But this is what vanguard strategies attempt to do. This is what all the stress on the party boils down to, certainly in the terms in which it is generally raised, as for example by Hinton.

  Moreover, it is because Hinton can only identify two possibilities (individualism or hierarchy) that he is forced to presuppose the party and to assume that the party is necessary to make the communist revolution. The genuinely proletarian option, the social option – democratic collectivity – is not even perceived, and consequently, neither is a strategy for achieving it. Rather only the two bourgeois options are perceived. If these are indeed the only options (rather than individualism-hierarchy on the one hand versus democracy on the other) it is not difficult to see why organization is the preferred choice. Nothing is possible under egoism. But this distortion of the real options before us merely reveals the limited revolutionary perspective that serves as the starting point for the vanguard strategy. The end, it is said, is communism; but the means is the party. The goal is to achieve communism – the classless, egalitarian, nonhierarchical society – but the tightly disciplined, hierarchical vanguard party is a necessary means to accomplish that goal. The party, as the leadership of the proletariat, must seize power and preside over the transition from capitalism to communism. If this is true, if it is true that the party must come to power before the proletariat can come to power, then indeed the party is indispensable. But is this true? Might not the opposite be true perhaps, that if the party comes to power first, the proletariat can never come to power, not without another revolution at least.

  One obvious obstacle in the way of its being true is that the whole dynamic changes once the party is in power. The party's stress before its seizure of power – on discipline, the party line, and hierarchy, that is, on those things needed to weld the party into a force sufficiently strong to enable it to capture power – enters into the picture after the seizure of power. But the situation at that point is entirely different. The problem facing the party then is to get itself out of power and get the proletariat into power (rather than get itself into power as it had been before). For this task the party is poorly equipped. It is not an appropriate vehicle. It was not designed for this. Its hierarchy, discipline, and dogma are precisely the things that are not needed now because they contradict in their very essence the goal of proletarian self-government. The question, then, is whether it is possible to change all of these things in midstream, so to speak. This is clearly what would be required for the vanguard party strategy to succeed in achieving communism. First the party would have to get itself into power by teaching the workers strict discipline and blind obedience to the party line. Then the party would have to get itself out of power somehow by teaching the workers how to think for themselves and how to function in an egalitarian, collective fashion, that is, how to govern themselves. One obvious objection to this strategy is that the workers are being tutored in both phases. But even aside from this condescension, is this a plausible scheme? What if the workers themselves said all this: first we will be authoritarian in order to win and then after that we will be democratic.(9) Is this a plausible strategy?

  We must remember that we are not involved here with things that can be turned on and off at will but with the character structures of individuals. What is at issue is the personalities of concrete human beings, and personalities do not form overnight. Nor are we dealing with just a few persons of one generation. If this were so it might still be plausible for them to at least try this strategy of changing course in midstream by saying: ``Okay, for the next twenty-five years of our lives we are going to try to be authoritarian, strictly as a way of seizing power, and after that we will be democratic.'' But no. We are not speaking here of only a few people in the same generation, but of generations of proletarians, and of complex social norms, cultural traditions, and personality structures built up over long periods of time. Assume, for example, that it takes another century to make the proletarian revolution in the United States, as an optimistic estimate. Does this mean that for the next four or five generations we are going to try to inculcate in ourselves, our children, and our comrades the quality of strict authoritarian discipline required by the vanguard party strategy and then expect, the day after seizing power, to begin to reverse all this. This is absurd on the face of it. One cannot help but suspect that this is not merely a long detour that we are being called upon to make, but rather a permanent change of direction, a different road entirely, and one leading in the opposite direction from where we want to go. The struggle for communism is supposed to bring into being a new socialist person and here we are contemplating four or five generations of strict authoritarian discipline.

  Even so, if it could be shown conclusively that four or five generations of strict discipline under the aegis of the party were absolutely necessary to reach communism, that this would indeed get us there, and that it would be possible to change course in midstream, then it would still be possible to go along with the strategy. It is conceivable that proletarians, even several generations of proletarians, would be willing to make such a sacrifice in order to get out from under the yoke of capitalism.(10)

  It would be a mistake to say, that is, that hierarchy as such is the main objectionable feature here, although it is indeed very objectionable. This would be a mechanical view of the relationship between ends and means. A mechanical view is that hierarchy (a means) can never lead to no hierarchy (an end), or that violence (a means) can never lead to no violence (an end). We have to keep the whole configuration in mind and always think concretely. Just as collectivity cannot be defined as people working in groups (because a collectivity can be a coerced (authoritarian) collectivity as well as a free (democratic) collectivity), just as individualism cannot be defined as someone working alone (because that person's activity may in fact be profoundly collective rather than individualistic), so also a hierarchical organization may or may not be contributing to the achievement of communism, in the same way that a democratically structured group may be either counter-revolutionary or revolutionary. Thus the evils of hierarchy – the perpetuation of patterns of domination-passivity for example, or the blind acceptance of the thinking of others – have to be weighed against other possibly positive factors in the situation. It is the goal of an activity and its place in the total configuration that gives it its meaning, not the activity itself.

  The main problem with the vanguard party strategy therefore is not necessarily that it is hierarchical, although as we have seen the whole problem of changing course in midstream raises such serious questions as to severely impair the plausibility of even this aspect of it. Rather, the main thing wrong with the vanguard party strategy is that one of the projected steps in the strategy – the seizure of power by the party – derails the revolution and does not lead to the goal of communism as claimed. This is because, as I demonstrated earlier, the party is in reality only a partiality, posing as the totality. The party aims to seize power. It is this, its goal, that defines its nature, not hierarchy. It aims to turn itself, a part of the whole, into the whole, which of course is impossible. This is why if it wins it will have to presume to be the whole. It is inevitable, however, given the party's partiality and given its goals, that is own traits (e.g., hierarchy) will become general if it succeeds in seizing power. It is at this point, when the hierarchy of a partiality is transformed into a hierarchy for the totality, that hierarchy becomes objectionable in and of itself. The evidence is now overwhelming that the seizure of power by the leadership of a hierarchically organized, tightly disciplined, so-called proletarian party does not, has not, and can not, certainly not without an other revolution of the proletarian majority against the party, lead to the desired goal – communism, a classless society, an egalitarian, free society.

  Behind the four generations of discipline is thus concealed a dead end. It's like driving blind without a map, or with a faulty map. The vanguard strategy is a blind strategy, a mindless strategy, for everyone except the leaders. It is not based upon consciousness, but instead upon discipline and dogma. It is built upon blind obedience to the thinking of others, and to the decisions of the leaders or the central committee. This is especially important it seems to me given the absence in the vanguard strategy of any explicit, concrete image of how power might be seized and exercised by proletarians themselves. There is instead a deeply entrenched counter claim: vanguardists say that it is impossible to know yet what a communist society will really look like. Thus the party has a very explicit plan for getting itself into power (the first stage of the journey to communism, according to its scheme), but never gives an explicit plan for getting itself out and the proletariat in (the second half of the journey). It's like Nixon's secret plan to end the war. The whole claim that proletarians, by supporting the party's seizure of power, will eventually come to power themselves must be accepted on faith. This `eventually' cannot be stressed too strongly in light of the long, vague transition period envisaged by the vanguardists between what they call socialism (dictatorship of the proletariat) and communism (the classless society and ultimate goal).

  I think this vagueness of the vanguard strategy, when it comes to the second half of the journey, is highly significant. It is exactly the same as the bourgeoisie's reluctance to examine the real consequences of its policies and hence the real politics implicitly hidden behind its high-sounding phrases. What the bourgeoisie calls for is trust. What the party calls for is discipline, which amounts to the same thing as trust since discipline when accepted voluntarily also implies trust or faith in those whose judgments are being accepted uncritically. One thing is clear however. Once the party seizes power the decisions shaping the future society are in its own hands. This is why it is in no hurry to make its plans public, if it has any. It will decide as it goes along. Actually, uncertainty and lack of explicitness about the future go hand in hand with wielding real power. Those who are making real decisions, because the outcome of the deliberations are genuinely unknown, never know in advance what their course is going to be. It is only when one is excluded from these deliberations and then expected to swallow the results with no questions asked that one begins to get a bit nervous with the plea to `Trust Us'. Those who seek to monopolize power for themselves are never eager to make procedures explicit. Opposition to explicitness, and hence democratic collectivity, thus comes mainly from two groups, interestingly enough, the individualists and the organizers: the do-you-own-thing'ers, and the do-it-our-way-or-else'ers. The party obviously falls in the latter group.

  Once the party seizes power the revolution is thus necessarily derailed. This is a step away from the ultimate goal not toward it. The vanguard strategy is merely a strategy for making a revolution in the name of proletarians. It is not a strategy for revolution by proletarians. The Party, hierarchical and tightly disciplined, has under certain circumstances enabled those creating it to bring into being a social force of sufficient strength to seize power. It has thus been able to put itself in power in place of the bourgeoisie. In order to see more clearly why this is so it is necessary to ask: what does it mean to seize power?

Chapter Four

What Does It Mean to Seize Power?

  I have become more and more convinced that the continuing failure, the staggering, tragic, and perplexing failure of the proletarian revolution in the West, turns on this single question, at least in so far as this failure is related to problems of strategy. We have suffered a damaging confusion, as I have tried to point out above, between the seizure of power by the party and the seizure of power by the proletariat. We have no clear idea of what the exercise of power by proletarians would even look like or how it might be won. The prevailing strategy, the vanguard party strategy, emerged out of and was designed for countries on the periphery of capitalism, where, paradoxically enough, the seizure of power by a vanguard party was and still is possible but where seizure of power by proletarians was only a remote possibility because of their weakness, if it was even conceivable at all. It is painfully ironic that most revolutionaries in the West have attempted to apply that strategy, with disastrous consequences, in the heartlands of capitalism where exactly the opposite conditions exist, where the seizure of power by a vanguard party seems a remote possibility indeed, and increasingly so given the size and repressive power of advanced capitalist states, but where seizure of power by proletarians is clearly conceivable and definitely a possibility.

  It is especially unfortunate therefore that we are now witnessing yet another resurgence, following the thorough-going collapse of the New Left, of the vanguard party strategy. The emergence of a host of new Old Left groups like Revolutionary Union and October League, the further expansion of established Old Left groups, and the current agitation for a New Communist Party, are as disheartening and monstrous as they are a deadly threat to the revolution in the coming period. Far from representing an advance on the politics of the 1960s, these developments merely reveal the dismal inability of the revolutionary movement in the West to devise a strategy rooted in and relevant to the conditions existing in the core capitalist countries. The resurgence of the Old Left highlights the continuing defeat of the proletarian revolution in these countries, not its march toward victory.

  Hinton has done his share to encourage these developments. He is seen as a leading authority on the Chinese revolution by many radicals in the United States. His book Fanshen has been and continues to be one of the most widely read books in the movement. He is in demand as a speaker and is heard or read by large numbers of radicals through his speeches, articles, and books. He has an audience. Interest in China and the cultural revolution are very high, and that is a good thing. What is not such a good thing is that Hinton and others are succeeding in using this situation to revive and strengthen the vanguard strategy. China is now the new model for all those radicals who seem to need a revolution somewhere else to hang their hats on. If not Russia, or Cuba, or Vietnam, or Algeria, or Korea, or Mozambique, or Chile, then the New China. China especially is able to fill this role now because the Cultural Revolution is thought to have provided a way out of the bureaucratic quagmire which had begun to seriously undercut the vanguard strategy. Now vanguardists can argue that first you have to seize power with the Working Class Party and then you have to have a series of Cultural Revolutions, and that this is the road to socialism.(11)

  I could not disagree with this view more. It is based, I have argued, on a whole series of assumptions and false premises. The call for a Party is part of a package deal. Along with the party comes Marxism-Leninism, discipline, leadership, the Little Red Books, and democratic centralism. And this is only the tip of a huge iceberg. There follows the party line, condescension, positivism, Third Worldism, authoritarianism, up-tightness, sectarianism, emulation, dogmatism, hierarchy, paternalism, mechanical marxism, vulgar materialism, proselytizing, manipulation, and on and on. These things add up to a coherent political orientation, an integrated style and politics. It is a politics that is shot through with a dualistic stance, as I have shown, which consistently places its proponents outside and above the proletariat in an elitist, authoritarian position, exactly analogous to the position of the bourgeoisie. At the very center of this political worldview is its projected goal (buried implicitly under the abstraction `seize power'): the Party's capture of the functions of the bourgeoisie.

  What are the functions of the bourgeoisie? The bourgeoisie monopolizes the ability to make, execute, and sustain decisions. It decides what happens, in so far as what happens is determined by decisions: what to produce, where, when, and how to produce, what to do with what is produced, and so forth, as well as how to maintain the power to make these decisions. And this is where the bourgeois state comes primarily into play in the mixed economies of the West, although more and more the state plays a direct role even on questions of what, where, and how to produce. The bourgeois state is thus one of the instruments that enables the capitalist ruling class to rule, to control. It is a decision-making apparatus.

  It is by means of the institutions of the capitalist regime, whatever they might be (parliament, president, commissar, corporation) that decisions are taken, policy set, and choices made which preserve and perpetuate the capitalist order. This is what it means to control the means of production. Thus in a capitalist country decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a few, in a minority of the society, in the ruling class. This is what it means to have a class society. One class controls (decides about) the means of production. The other class or classes do not control. They are excluded from power, control, decision-making. They are instead controlled, that is, oppressed and exploited.

  It is this decision-making function of the bourgeoisie that is seized when the party seizes power. And since the party is itself a partiality, a minority, even with regard to proletarians (who themselves are only a part of society, although now the majority part in core capitalist countries), it is easy to see why the structure of power has not changed one bit. Decision-making remains monopolized in the hands of a few, especially since even within the party decision-making is concentrated in the Central Committee. A state after all is not a material object like a building that can be seized physically. A state is merely the goal-oriented labor of specific human beings. What vanguardists obviously do when they seize a state therefore is adopt the behavior, procedures, patterns, and relationships of the capitalists they replace. This is why it is possible to say that the party has merely put itself in power in place of the bourgeoisie since now it is the party that decides about and controls the means of production rather than the bourgeoisie. The idea implicit in (or rather synonymous with) the notion of control of the means of production, namely that proletarians themselves should exercise decision-making power with regard to production (for what else could it mean for proletarians to control the means of production) has somehow gone by the way. How did this happen?

  The party claims that it represents the interests of the proletariat. It argues that with its seizure of power the state apparatus becomes merely administrative and is no longer an instrument of domination and exploitation in the interests of one class. The trouble with this is: who defines what the interests of the proletariat are? We are back to Hinton's socialist policy criterion as a test of a working class party and to the circularity involved in that, as well as to my earlier question about who decides what a proletarian policy is. Thus we see here the origin of that preposterous separation of the idea of control over the means of production from the idea of proletarian self-government, that is, from the function of decision-making. It is claimed that the proletariat controls the means of production even though the decision-making function remains in the hands of the party. It is obviously not difficult to draw the opposite, more plausible, conclusion: that since the party makes the decisions so does it also control the means of production.

  The party claims to represent the interests of the proletariat because the party is the embodiment of proletarian consciousness. It says that it knows what the interests of the proletariat are. This is because these interests are objectively and scientifically determinable. Knowledge of these interests is evidently part of the accumulated scientific knowledge of all mankind that Hinton talks about which is supposedly contained within Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-Tung Thought. It is through scientific analysis and the application of the principles of Marxism-Leninism that the party is able to arrive at this proletarian consciousness, which it then teaches to the workers (liquidating those who resist, if necessary).

  In the parallel version of the same idea the party is portrayed not as the tutor of the working class, but as it student: learn from the masses. In this version the working class is fetishized and romanticized. The working class, it is believed, possesses an accumulated wisdom within its own ranks. If a problem has to be solved, talk to the workers. There is a catch of course: it is only the party that can perform the function of extracting and distilling the wisdom of the masses. Hinton has described Mao as ``...genius linked to a great mass movement..., extracting from the experience of millions of people in motion the lessons derived from their actions. Mao's thought is the crystallization of the experience of the Chinese people through decades of revolution.''(12) It is in this way that the party supposedly becomes the repository of proletarian consciousness, by extracting and crystallizing the lessons of the struggle (which are then fed back to workers in the form of the party line). One wonders if Hinton believes these ``millions of people in motion'' ever think, for themselves, or do they only act? It is all too clear that this process represents a suppression of real proletarian consciousness, not its enhancement. It is a process that ends up with a party imposing its own consciousness on the working class of an entire nation because it claims that the working class does not yet have a genuinely proletarian consciousness.

  The party's stance thus oscillates between condescension and emulation, paternalism and deference. In the first case the party is above the working class looking down; in the second it is below the working class looking up. The working class is either talked down to or put on a pedestal. In both cases the party is outside the proletariat. In neither case is it inside the proletariat as an equal. This dualistic stance could not be more perfectly expressed than in the Maoist slogan, `From the People, To the People'.

  There are in reality only two positions. I either base myself on the dialectic or I base myself on the duality. If I base myself on the duality then I can be either a bourgeois fascist or a bourgeois democrat, a conservative or a liberal, a hawk or a dove, a right-winger or a left-winger, a do-it-my-way-or-else'er or a do-my-own-thing'er, an intellectual or an anti-intellectual, an Old Left bogus radical or a New Left bogus radical, a dogmatist or a pluralist, a leader or a follower, an idealist or a materialist, a tutor or an emulator, an objectivist or a subjectivist, a doer or a thinker, a recruiter or a recruit. I will often exhibit both sides of these dualities simultaneously or in oscillating phases. What I cannot be is a proletarian revolutionary.

  There is still more to the party's claim to represent the interests of the proletariat. This claim is not based on nineteenth or twentieth century bourgeois notions of representation which are built on the idea of electing decision-makers. The election of representatives to decide things, even though all the candidates represent the ruling class and not the people, is nevertheless an act of choosing, sham though it is with no very fundamental consequences. The party's claim is a step backward even from this sham. It resembles far more the earlier, eighteenth century bourgeois claim that the bourgeoisie was liberating the entire society, and that its interests were universal, benefiting everyone and not merely itself. Thus members of the Central Committee of the Vanguard Party do not really think of themselves as representatives in the ordinary sense of persons elected by a constituency. Lenin, Mao, Castro, Ho, and Kim after all do not run for election. They see themselves as leaders. The party-mass relationship is felt to be an organic one. The proletariat is thought of as an entity, as a single body. The Party is its head, so to speak, the administering, coordinating, thinking, conscious part of the proletariat, the rest being the Masses. In a strange way the question of a possible discrepancy between rule by the party and collective self-government by proletarians never even arises for vanguardists because under the party-mass formulation rule by the party is rule by the masses. The party is the expression of the will (consciousness) of the masses and hence represents their self-government. For vanguardists, seizure of power by the party is synonymous with seizure of power by the proletariat because in their eyes the party belongs to the proletariat and was created by the proletariat. The party is the proletariat's form of self-organization, and hence it is the proletariat's own interests which are being expressed in party decisions and policies. It is only in this way, through the party, that the masses can rule themselves, according to the vanguardists. Remember Hinton's automatic transposition of his first question (how can we know which class is in power?) into his second question (how can we know if the party in power is a working class party?).

  This is a peculiar view. It is based on that same false use of abstractions that I pointed out earlier in reference to Hinton's phrase `organization, discipline, theory, leadership'. The term proletariat after all is only an abstraction. It is a very powerful and useful abstraction which catches the essence of bourgeois society (along with its companion concept, capitalist), but it is nevertheless an abstraction. It is a label for all those persons who have to sell their labor-power in order to survive. It is a general term for all wage-slaves. There is always the danger of course, as with all abstractions, that it will be misused. In this case the danger stems from using the word, which is a collective term, to apply to a single subject. The proletariat is often spoken of as if it were a single subject, whereas actually it is merely a category composed of many subjects, many wage-laborers. Before the proletariat could `act' as a single subject a whole series of conditions would have to come into existence. Even so its acting would in no way be similar to the acting of an individual wage-laborer. For an aggregate like the proletariat to act as a single subject with one `will' some way would have to be found for all these individuals making up the proletariat to forge their differing ideas and behaviors into an agreed upon and accepted common will (policy, decision). There would have to be a way for all these individuals to coordinate their separate actions toward a common end or goal so that it could be said (but still inaccurately because it would be a very different thing going on) that the proletariat was `acting' to accomplish its `will'. The words that it is necessary to put in quotes in even talking about it in the usual way point up the difficulty: the terms are ones that refer to an individual subject, not a collective one.

  There are only two ways whereby an aggregate of individuals can come to act in a coordinated fashion toward a single objective: hierarchy and democracy, that is, rule by a minority or rule by the majority. Both are coercive. There is no noncoercive option, no possibility of so-called absolute individual freedom in the sense of do-your-own-thing. Freedom is a collective policy and a collective achievement. The vanguard strategy is obviously based on the first of these principles, hierarchy. The party imposes a common objective from above, through discipline and leadership, even though this line may have been formulated only after extensive consultation with the masses, as for example through an intense flow of information up the hierarchy from exemplary workers. In so doing, the party appropriates for itself the role of subject, based on thinking, consciousness, and decision-making, whereas the masses becomes for it a mere object, something to be organized, manipulated, and indoctrinated with the party line, something to be welded into a mass base. There is no word in the whole Marxist-Leninist vanguard litany that I detest more than the word masses (unless it is leadership). `The Masses' is a bourgeois concept par excellence. It is precisely their condition of being a mass that proletarians have to overcome by forming themselves into a collective-conscious, collective-governing entity, thereby reconstituting society along egalitarian lines. This is almost a definition of the revolution. As long as there are Vanguards and Masses the revolution still remains to be made.

  In a certain sense of course the leader-follower relationship is an organic one because neither one could exist without the other. Masses create leaders and leaders create masses. Therefore when communist leaders justify their positions by saying that they enjoy mass support and mass popularity they have a point. When they become unpopular though they take up the gun and say that the masses do not yet understand the correct road. Since leaders rarely abolish themselves, and since those who do are quickly replaced, it is mainly up to followers to get rid of them by ceasing to be followers. Passivity, not domination, is thus the greater obstacle to proletarian revolution.

  It is easy to see, given all this, that the party, far from bringing about the unification of theory and practice for which it prides itself, is in fact based on the forced perversion of these faculties. One is tempted to say that the party is the theorist, while the masses are the practitioners. It is not so however that theory and practice are thus separated, for this is impossible. In reality the party has a practice as well as a theory and the masses have a theory as well as a practice. Rather, the trouble is that for the masses their theory is not their own. Thus except for those few privileged people at the top of the party hierarchy who are getting to live creatively by acting on the basis of consciousness and thought (who have a praxis, who make decisions and act on the basis of those decisions) the vanguard strategy is based upon the suppression of self-government, decision-making, theorizing, and consciousness among proletarians at large. The strategy depends upon the perpetuation of the division of labor between the thinkers and the doers, just as under bourgeois rule. The party embodies the consciousness of the proletariat, it is said, the crystallization of its experience. For the rest, for the millions, they are merely in motion, as Hinton put it.

  If persons are deprived of the decision-making function they are thereby subjected to a forced perversion of the intellect. Their ideas no longer emerge out of their own life activities but are the ideas of those who make the decisions and rule. Their leading ideas are the ideas of those leading. Intelligence loses its adaptive function for these persons. They become powerless and have no control. They are not allowed to be thinking human beings, conscious beings. The function of the intellect in them, and hence of their senses, of their sensuous beings as Marx would say, is suppressed and blunted. They are prevented from being fully human. The vanguard party thus becomes, wittingly or not, merely an agent for the perpetuation of alienation.

Chapter Five

Can Proletarians Themselves Seize Power?

  Can proletarians themselves seize power? If proletarians are to seize power themselves they have to conceive of, construct, put into use, and defend a decision-making apparatus through which they can express their will, through which they can formulate proletarian policy. They have to force a shift or transfer of the decision-making function out of the bourgeois apparatus into a proletarian apparatus. Such a proletarian apparatus will of necessity be an entirely new creation. The bourgeois apparatus is inappropriate to the needs of proletarians since it was designed for the exercise of control by a few people, by a minority (e.g., the Board of Directors, the Party, the President, or the Congress). Moreover, the bourgeois apparatus has a center, whereas it is impossible for a proletarian apparatus to have a center. The bourgeois apparatus is built around that center. It is centralized, concentrated, hierarchical, bureaucratic. It is pointless therefore for proletarians to seize this apparatus because it won't work for them, although it will work for the party, as I have argued above. There is no conceivable way that proletarians can function or express themselves through such an apparatus. Proletarians must not seize but smash the bourgeois state by seizing power away from it and exercising power themselves through their own institutions, through their own apparatus.

  The terms `institution' and `apparatus' here should not be thought of as something physical, or metaphysical. I am merely talking about the patterned behavior of proletarians, about their self-organized and recurrent activities, about their exercise of control by means of their own praxis. An institution is merely a configuration of the patterned activities of concrete human beings and has no meaning or existence separate from such behavior. It is still quite mystifying therefore to talk about proletarians constructing and defending an `apparatus'. What we are really talking about is a set of procedures. The bourgeoisie has a set of decision-making procedures designed for rule by the few, by the bourgeoisie. Proletarians will have to create a new set of procedures adequate to their own needs, to the needs of the many. There is no way they can ever seize the bourgeois procedures, unless perhaps they capture and enslave the men and women currently working in the state bureaucracies and capitalist corporations and force them to continue doing what they have always done. They might also I suppose simply learn these hierarchical procedures themselves and take over the jobs and functions of the capitalists and bureaucrats they kick out. These are the only two ways I can see that workers could seize a bourgeois state, and neither has anything to do with the proletarian revolution because the very act of doing them transforms workers themselves into capitalists, the very people they set out to overthrow.

  However, if a shift in the location of decision-making could be accomplished, out of bourgeois procedures and into proletarian ones, with basic policy thereafter being established by all proletarians through direct democracy, then it could be said that the bourgeois state had been smashed. Only under such circumstances would the state – the new proletarian decision-making apparatus and its auxiliary institutions – cease to have a political function (in Marx's use of the term to mean oppression or exploitation) and would indeed become merely administrative, administering the policy established by proletarians themselves. This is what it means for the state to wither away. The oppressive state apparatus (as opposed to the merely administrative state apparatus) withers in direct proportion to the flowering of the capacity of proletarians for collective self-government. Most of the withering will take place before the decisive shift of power out of the procedures of the bourgeoisie into the procedures of the proletariat. The decline of the bourgeois state during and after such a shift in the location of policy formation will be much more cataclysmic. That's when the smashing will be done. Obviously, however, even after the decisive capture of power, there will be some functions that will pass more slowly into proletarian hands. Democratic government will not be an easy thing to learn.

  What would a proletarian decision-making procedure (apparatus) look like? How can we characterize it? It follows from all that I have said above that proletarian power can only be constituted on the basis of direct democracy. This is the first thing. Why is this so? The reasons have already been hinted at. The proletariat is not a single subject but an aggregate made up of many subjects, one that has the potential of becoming a collective. It is not a homogeneous body. The various individuals making it up do not necessarily see eye to eye on everything. There is disagreement within the proletariat. Given disagreement, and given the fact that there is no outside way of determining what is correct, direct democracy is imperative. It is the only form of collective life that is not alienating, that does not violate the relationship between the senses (and hence the intellect) and activity (labor). It is only through the struggle to achieve the proper relationship between labor and intelligence (between being and consciousness) and to destroy the division that has been imposed between these human faculties by ruling classes like the bourgeoisie, as part of their monopolization of power and wealth, it is only in this way that a new socialist person can come into being. Without direct democracy the concept of the new socialist person is an empty phrase, and the hope of overcoming alienation is equally empty. Without direct democracy, where every worker participates in formulating, debating, and deciding issues of basic policy, it can never be said, for example, that the state is merely an administrative apparatus. As long as representatives set policy, be they politicians, experts, or leaders, the state remains an oppressive force outside and above the proletariat, and the division between the thinkers and the doers, the capitalists and the wage-slaves, the owners and the nonowners, the superiors and the subordinates, is perpetuated. Rule by representatives is synonymous with rule by a minority. It is necessary to reject the notion of representative democracy precisely in order to achieve majority rule, and majority rule is needed because otherwise some people are being excluded from the deliberations which establish social policy, with all of the implications and consequences previously discussed.(13)

  Without direct democracy the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat becomes a grotesque euphemism for tyranny. Dictatorship of the proletariat can only mean that the proletariat, now the vast majority in the core capitalist countries, will impose a democratic society, a society ruled by the majority,(14) on all those who oppose such a majority rule and who prefer to perpetuate the present minority rule by the capitalists. How the notion of dictatorship of the proletariat ever got transformed into a synonym for dictatorship by the party is beyond me. But it is surely not unrelated to the fact that the Vanguard Party, as a strategy for reaching communism, emerged in countries where the proletariat was not the majority class but where it was instead weak and small and where any thought of it imposing a democratic regime on the country by itself was out of the question. The fact that a very sizable proportion of revolutionaries in this century have perceived the victories of Vanguard Parties in the hinterlands of capitalism as socialist victories merely shows how very heretical Marx really was and still is.

  Without direct democracy it will never be possible to speak of a classless society. It is only through the proletarian struggle to overthrow the bourgeoisie and to establish an ``association of free and equal producers,'' to quote Marx, that the class society can be abolished. This is the meaning of proletarian democracy. Proletarians, by abolishing themselves as proletarians and their masters as capitalists and by establishing and defending a direct democracy, can bring into being the classless society. This can happen only if power is in their own hands, not in the hands of their leaders, and this means that proletarians themselves must control, make decisions, and formulate policy, not the party.

  Many people argue that direct democracy is impossible, that not everyone can be in on the decision-making, even with regard to basic policy. I don't believe that this is true but it is natural and understandable that the bourgeoisie at least would press such a case. It is a little more disturbing that the vanguardists say the same thing. They say that there will always be leaders and that this is not a bad thing. What is bad, they say, is class. Get rid of class and the leaders become mere administrators. Thus the trouble lies not with leaders per se, but only with bad leaders. Even aside from all the problems with this view that I have explained above, it is, in addition, founded upon a faulty understanding of class. The class relationship is the master-slave relationship, the lord-serf, capitalist-wageslave, boss-worker, order-giver/order-taker relationship. These are the relations of production. Relations of production have to do with who decides. The concept of ownership has no meaning aside from the power to control something and to decide what happens to it. As long as there is a situation where some people give orders and other people take orders, where some people make decisions and other people carry out those decisions, it cannot be said that the relations of production have changed or that class has disappeared. Class has to do with power. Only in a situation where everyone participates, on an equal footing, in the formulation of collective procedures and policies could we talk about a classless society.(15) Thus if direct democracy is impossible so also is a classless society. The vanguard's claim that there will always be leaders can thus be exposed for what it is – a smokescreen behind which to hide the vanguard's own continuing patronization of the future society. This is the real meaning behind its rejection of direct democracy as well as its insistence that it is still far too early to say anything very concrete about the structure of the communist society. As long as this structure is left vague, the vanguard's hope that it will itself be able to determine the structure's shape remains alive.

  It seems to me that the concept of direct democracy is the key, the crucial missing piece, to a proletarian theory of democracy. Without this notion, it is impossible to fashion a defensible, concrete image of the proletarian exercise of power. With it, things begin to fall into place.

  Instead of arguing so hard that direct democracy is impossible, thus in effect going over to the enemy camp, revolutionaries should get on with the job of bringing it into being. If direct democracy is impossible then there is no escape from slavery. If there must always be the Leaders and the Led then we are trapped forever in a hierarchical society. If this is so then we should face up to it, recognize our fate, and stop talking all the time about our struggle for freedom. But I do not believe that it is so. If the communist revolution is not a fight for freedom, then what is it? If it is not, then why bother? So this is the first thing: direct democracy.

  The second characteristic of a proletarian decision-making apparatus is this: proletarian power can only be exercised on the basis of workers councils. Why workers councils? Why not, say, neighborhood councils? It is only at the workplace that proletarians are related as proletarians, functionally, so to speak. In fact the workplace is one of the few spots left in the monopoly capitalist countries that remains `social'. There are of course numerous voluntary organizations which continue to exist, but only on the periphery of power. Real power and function have been drained out of local organizations into the monolithic, centralized capitalist state. Except for the workplace then proletarians exist only as a mass. Even in the workplace they are massified and atomized in very important ways. But there, at least, a basis for collectivity exists in the functional, social relatedness of workers in production; whereas elsewhere, say in the neighborhood, no such basis for ongoing collective organization exists. In the neighborhood, although there are compelling problems, there is no basis upon which neighbors can get together on a permanent basis, since they are profoundly fragmented. There are, in addition, powerful pressures on them to continue relating only as a mass. Strategies for revolution based on community organizing therefore are misguided. They are strategies aimed at gaining control over the means of consumption rather than at gaining control over the means of production, and control over the means of consumption is an inherently secondary aspect, control of which can never lead to a transformation of the society.

  It is only at the workplace that capital and wage-slavery confront each other directly, head on. And it is only there that proletarians can hope to seize power. It is only by constituting themselves as a democratic collective at their places of work that proletarians can break out of their atomization, overthrow capital, and rebuild society along egalitarian lines. In the process they will of necessity junk all the paraphernalia of bourgeois democracy – campaigns, politicians, parliaments, secret balloting, parties, national elections, atomized voters, platforms, and all the rest.(16)

  I don't want to labor this point further because it is a commonplace idea. Unfortunately, it receives only lip service from the party because the party's whole conception of seizing power leads it in a very different direction. The idea of workers councils has been central to the concept of proletarian power for decades, but it has remained vague and undeveloped, in part because the strident voices of the vanguardists have prevailed in the movement. They have been careful to sweep the idea under the rug. There are many vanguardists of course who do endorse workers councils but only as a co-institution alongside the party, or else as a mediating force between the masses of workers on the one hand and the party on the other. At worst, it becomes in their eyes merely a synonym for [what they think is] anarchism.

  However, even for nonvanguard proponents of the idea, councils are usually pictured as a structure held together by federation and hence representation. Therefore even in its most developed form, to date the idea of workers councils has been based on the bourgeois notion of representative democracy rather than upon the proletarian notion of direct democracy. It is by combining workers councils with direct democracy that we can begin to fashion a revolutionary view of the proletarian exercise of power. This is a powerful idea.

  Instead of fighting to establish councils however revolutionaries have far too often put their energies into other, usually worthless, battles. They have fought to win elections, strengthen the unions, harass the empire, petition the government, stage rallies and mass marches, establish community control, wage guerrilla warfare, or organize the working class into the party. Let us hope that the long night of the Vanguard Party will soon come to an end and that the struggle for workers councils will then move to the fore of the proletarian revolution where it belongs. This is obviously not going to happen by itself through some mystical process, but can only come about through a sustained, militant, political initiative. So this is the second thing: workers councils.

  The third characteristic of the proletarian exercise of power is that these workers councils must be united. By this I do not mean that they must all agree. That is neither possible nor desirable. What I mean is that they must be linked together into a network. Issues can be discussed and voted upon by people within each council but their votes must be tallied across all councils. Councils cannot seek, each of them, to become autonomous. If that is attempted then it also becomes necessary to create (or tolerate) an outside force like a party to establish the general policies and coordinate the work or perhaps even to regulate the market which might be reintroduced (or kept) as a coordinating mechanism. Autonomous councils necessarily remain merely small capitalist enterprises seeking to maximize profit, no matter how democratically the work is organized inside the workplace. Workers control cannot stop at the factory gate or the office door. It must also extend to decisions about what is produced, how much is produced, and what happens to what is produced, not merely to how it is produced. It is only by functioning (deciding things) together as a unit that workers councils can become an expression of proletarian power.(17)

  A proletarian decision-making procedure can thus be pictured as a network of workers councils united on the basis of direct democracy. This is what has to be created and defended if proletarians are to seize power. It is obviously impossible for any party to accomplish such a feat.


(1) Cassette tape recordings of the talk were placed on sale by the Guardian, 33 West 17th Street, New York, New York 10011.

(2) That is, a party whose claims to being proletarian they accept, for these same Marxists-Leninists reject other parties, and with equal arbitrariness, depending usually it seems on whether the party adheres to or deviates from their own arbitrarily established dogma.

(3) The first, shorter study, Turning Point in China, 1972, Monthly Review Press.

(4) I object even to the term Marxism because such a label, in itself, turns the work of Marx into a doctrine, into dogma. The revolution takes its proper name from the class that is making it, not from any single person or revolutionary, however great. Thus proletarian revolution, proletarian revolutionaries, and proletarian praxis, not Marxists, Marxism, or Marxist revolution. This is the way to speak. Proletarians, militants, radicals, revolutionaries, not Marxists.

(5) Authoritarianism is in fact only a version of individualism. It says: let's all do this together, my way, or else. We are thus confronted with a pluralist or liberal individualism (do-your-own-thing'ism) and a fascist or right-wing individualism (do-it-my-way-or-else'ism). Both are equally dogmatic by the way. Similarly, individualism is only a version of authoritarianism, since to the extent that do-your-own-thing'ism prevails an elite is necessarily thrown up. The overall social coordination of the society which must exist is left to the authorities.

(6) Egoism (fanatic individualism), it should be pointed out, is a purely mythical choice. It never has existed and never will. It can only appear to exist, on any ongoing basis that is, within a larger hierarchical framework such as that provided by the bourgeois democratic version of capitalism. Thus there are in reality only two options: democracy versus hierarchy.

(7) The term `collective discipline' is a very poor one for this second thing however. The term discipline takes its real meaning from hierarchy and cannot be applied very well to democratic conditions. We are without a term for this second thing.

(8) The term `leadership', even collective leadership, is an unacceptable term for this second capacity for purposeful, coordinated activity for which no adequate term exists. It is interesting that in the culture at large leaders are often seen as praiseworthy but followers are not so favorably viewed. There is no positive sounding term followership for example comparable to the positive term leadership. Vanguardists attempt to overcome this widespread notion that it is not good to be a follower (and that it is better to think for oneself) by making a virtue out of discipline, thus euphemizing the passivity that is being elevated into an admirable trait.

(9) This is of course not the way it is at all. The reality is that the militants who want to make the revolution go out and agitate among workers, advocating a vanguard strategy, saying that strict authoritarian discipline is a necessary means to reach the goal and hoping to win workers over to this notion.

(10) But can't you feel the implausibility, the strange unreasonableness of even this speculation. The idea that generations of proletarians will sacrifice their freedom, the very thing they are fighting for, so that others later on will be free is itself an authoritarian fantasy flowing out of a serve-the-people mentality. What guarantee is there that their sacrifices will in fact pay off in the fifth generation? The whole thing is so implausible it is hardly worth discussing even as a hypothetical case.

(11) It seems to me that the main result of the Cultural Revolution was to strengthen and extend the power of the central authorities. The authority of the Party now reaches down into every obscure niche of the society. The so-called invisible leadership, which so many pro-Mao visitors to China rave so much about, merely means that the authority structure is so universally accepted that no one notices it. Thus the situation is even more retarded than if open revolts were going on, and all that much more authoritarian. To have convinced virtually everyone, even observers from the United States, that the leaders are not really there is no mean feat for the leaders to have accomplished.

(12) From the pamphlet China's Continuing Revolution, by William Hinton, 1969, China Policy Study Group (no page numbers).

(13) Nor is it a solution to say that representatives will be subject to instant recall. If workers have in operation procedures with which to decide about and accomplish instant recall and if they know enough about the issues being debated by the representatives to decide whether someone should be recalled, then they are obviously in a position to vote on these matters themselves. If these procedures and capacities do not exist then recall is no safeguard at all. Furthermore, if no previous policy has been established by the workers themselves how can it ever be claimed that a person picked to represent these workers is violating their wishes and therefore ought to be recalled. The so-called principle of recall is a mirage, and the deeply embedded resort to this principle as a justification for rule by representatives is most unfortunate. The proper role of workers in councils is to establish basic policy themselves and to decide, furthermore, what areas of decision-making can safely be left to lower assemblies, sub-groupings, or even to individuals. That is, they will have to decide which questions are matters of basic policy and which aren't. They will also have to find ways to ensure that lower level decisions are in accord with basic policy, and this is something only workers themselves can judge.

(14) But this majority will not be identical to or synonymous with the proletariat. The proletariat will cease to exist once a decision-making procedure is established through which everyone can have a voice in the formulation of basic policy.

(15) Excluding, perhaps, the sick, the young, the imprisoned, and the retired, who would probably not be members of a council, although this might conceivably be accomplished. Everyone else, including formerly bourgeois and petty bourgeois people, as well as previously dependent groups like welfare recipients, will work and hence will become members of a council either during or shortly after the proletarian seizure of power. Thus the distinctive feature of the proletarian revolution is that it is inclusive. It abolishes the outside by including everyone inside. This is what it means to abolish class. Proletarians can only revolt meaningfully by abolishing themselves as a social category, thereby becoming simply humans. This is why proletarians, although they are only a part of society, a partiality, just like the bourgeoisie or the party, are not merely a part seeking to speak for the whole. This is also what distinguishes the category of proletarian from such categories as women, blacks, and youth. People cannot abolish themselves as women, blacks, or youths, and therefore cannot base a revolution on sex, race, or age identities, at least not a socialist revolution, not a revolution which seeks to establish liberty, equality, and democracy.

(16) Such a focus also renders meaningless any discussion of an electoral strategy for reaching communism.

(17) Nor is it a matter of size. The decisive thing is not the size of the unit but the structure of decision-making within it. The widespread clamor, therefore, in certain sectors of the movement (the liberal-individualist wing) to break up the United States into smaller territories, and to decentralize, thus misses the point completely. The struggles over democracy or hierarchy would be no less severe within each of the smaller units.

(18) At the abortive Constitutional Convention in Washington, D.C., in November 1970, I distributed a few dozen copies of a Draft Constitution which attempts to give a concrete expression to this conception of the exercise of proletarian power. There are obviously profound implications for revolutionary strategy in defining a communist society as a network of workers councils united on the basis of direct democracy. I have attempted to grapple with some of these issues, in an initial and tentative way, in my essay, How Do We Get There?