Leadership is both an art and a science. At one time it was exclusively an art; but now some aspects of leadership have been summed up theoretically, and turned into science. The prime instance of this is the mass line (though even the use of the mass line remains an art and not a science, to some extent).
The mass line is the primary method of Marxist leadership, but there are also other methods and techniques which should be mentioned. In addition, we must discuss the presumptions and outlook behind all Marxist leadership methods.
But before we explore the Marxist conception of leadership, we have a rather disagreeable task to perform—the investigation of the bourgeois attitude toward leadership.
Every class and every tendency seeks to lead. In order to contrast proletarian methods of leadership with those of the bourgeoisie it will be useful to start by outlining the bourgeois conception of leadership. There are a vast number of books and articles on leadership from the bourgeois point of view. In addition, a great many bourgeois notables have commented on leadership. Harry Truman, for example, remarked: "A leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do and like it." This is one of the most common themes—how to get people to do what they don't want to do. Another common bourgeois leadership theme is "how to take charge". There is currently a heavily marketed series of 8 audio cassettes entitled "Leaders: The Strategies of Taking Charge", as if that was the essence of what leadership is all about.
But rather than attempt to survey this vast (and repulsive) bourgeois literature on leadership, I have selected a representative item for close review. My text is the article "Understanding Leadership" by W. C. H. Prentice which appeared in the Harvard Business Review, and which has also been reprinted as the lead article in a collection on leadership because it is "so good".
The article defines leadership as "the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants". So we see immediately that the bourgeois conception of leadership excludes the determination of goals; the goals, big or small, are already known, are already determined. The leader himself may have set the goals, or he may "merely carry out the plans of others". In either case it is clear that the goals are not the natural, collective goals of the people the leader is attempting to lead. It is not the interests or goals of the masses that are at issue, but those of the leader or the leader's superiors, which of course the leader is expected to make his own as well. Leadership, to the bourgeois mind, means: How to get people to do what is necessary for them to do in order to achieve your goals. It is definitely not a question of the leadership and the led working together cooperatively in order to achieve preexisting, common goals. Bourgeois leadership is thus inherently undemocratic, and even—to be blunt about it—inherently fascistic.
Since bourgeois leadership is the attempt to get people to do what is fundamentally in the leader's interests, not theirs, the key problem is how to involve their interests as well, or at least how to make it seem to be in their interests. This can only be done through trickery—which has severe limits—or, more importantly, through the exercise of some kind of power over those the bourgeois leader seeks to "lead", either the power to reward or the power to punish, or both. Or as the Godfather would have expressed it, the key problem of bourgeois leadership is how to make them an offer they can't refuse.
When the bourgeois leader wants to lead an army, for example, he must start by either hiring the jobless with a part of the wealth he and his class have extorted from the working class, or else he must draft his conscripts through threats of prison or other punishment if they refuse. (The accompanying trickery of patriotic propaganda is also important, but only an adjunct to the basic methods.) Similarly, at the work place, bourgeois leadership is achieved through rewards such as wages, and threats of punishment such as demotion or dismissal.
Our bourgeois expert, Mr. Prentice, is concerned however to caution bosses not to be too crude about all this, and of course he generally puts things far more "delicately" than I have:
The usual method [of leadership] is to provide adequate recognition of each
worker's function so that he can foresee the satisfaction of some major interest
or motive of his in the carrying out of the group enterprise. Crude forms of
leadership rely solely on single sources of satisfaction, i.e., monetary rewards,
or the alleviation of fears about various kinds of insecurity. The task is adhered
to because following orders will lead to a paycheck, and deviation will lead to
The bulk of Prentice's article is about ways of fine-tuning this basic model. One point he emphasizes is that the good bourgeois leader must find ways "to take advantage of" (his words!) the special needs and interests of particular workers. If someone enjoys solving chess problems and mathematical puzzles, for example, the leader should put such a person to work on intellectual problems on the job. If a person has a special need for personal recognition and appreciation for a job well done, the good leader will provide this. (No point wasting bonus money or a raise on a worker when a slap on the back will do just as well!)
Prentice "recognizes" that the basic, "crude" model is sometimes "unavoidable", such as in the military.
It is ironic that our basic image of "the leader" is so often that of a military
commander, because—most of the time, at least—military organizations are the purest
example of the unimaginative application of simple reward and punishment as motivating
devices. [This has the result that]... in no other human endeavor is morale typically
so poor, or goldbricking and waste so much in evidence.
But in the work place, at least, leaders (says Prentice) must recognize that "human beings are not machines with a single set of push buttons". No indeed, the wise bourgeois leader must view people as having many sets of push buttons, with particular buttons being more important with some individuals than with others. And he must be capable of pushing the appropriate buttons as needed. Any means is fair:
Human beings respond not only to the traditional carrot and stick used by the driver of a donkey but also ambition, patriotism, love of the good and the beautiful, boredom, self-doubt, and many more dimensions and patterns of thought and feeling that make them men.
Thus the fundamental moral of this masterful bourgeois summary of leadership principles is that the "traditional carrot and the stick used by the driver of a donkey" must be supplemented by more subtle rewards and punishments, to the point where we may say that the ideal form of "low-pressure" bourgeois leadership is leadership by manipulation.
Prentice denies that he favors manipulating people; he opposes "hoodwinking" workers or using cheap psychological tricks. But to the bourgeoisie every human relationship is at bottom a business transaction, and this is just the way Prentice views leadership. And "a business transaction", he says, "should benefit both buyer and seller". Since the leadership "deal" between the leader and the person led involves giving the person led something too (wages, the right to continue working, personal recognition, the "right" not to be sent to prison, or whatever), Prentice does not see this as manipulation. But to anybody whose perspective is not poisoned by the glories of the bourgeois contract, it is clear that when someone has power over you and uses that power to get you to do as he wishes, he is manipulating and controlling you. Someone like Prentice talks blithely about "pushing people's buttons", "taking advantage of their needs", and "using them", but does not even recognize any of this as manipulation!
In fact—get this!—this bourgeois analyst views his conception of leadership not as the autocratic, manipulative thing that it really is, but rather as something "democratic". You see, the leadership "transaction" is giving the worker something he wants or needs. "Leadership is democratic if it provides each worker the maximum opportunity for growth without creating anarchy." Of course it can never be the worker who determines what that "maximum opportunity for growth" is—that would be anarchy! It must always be the "leader" who sets the terms of the leadership "transaction".
Nor does Prentice see anything "undemocratic" in the necessity of the bourgeois leader to maintain a relation of superiority towards his underlings. He agrees it is not wise for a leader "to let his workers think that he considers them inferiors" but he must nevertheless "maintain a kind of psychological distance" from them "that permits them to accept his authority without resentment". The reason for this is that "it is harder to take orders from one whom I do not consider in some sense superior".
In order to be able to know just what "buttons to push" for each individual under his authority, the bourgeois leader must not have too many people directly under him, says Prentice. It follows from this that any bourgeois organization must have multiple leadership layers, an extensive officer corps, i.e., a bureaucracy. (General Motors has 17 levels of management.) The job of each individual in the bureaucracy is to manipulate and control those beneath him, and the job of the bottom rank of the bureaucracy is to manipulate and control the workers or the rank and file.
In summary, then, bourgeois "leadership" is always a form of coercion, manipulation and control based on the leader's authority and power over the people being led. It is always an attempt to get the people led to do things which are fundamentally not in their interests, by fooling them and/or by forcibly involving some of their personal interests. It is inherently commandist, authoritarian, deceitful and undemocratic. It is despicable, and everything we are against.
We Marxists agree with other classes on really only one significant point here—that leadership of the masses is necessary. It is true that a few people, some of the anarchists, have disputed even this point, but it is impossible to take them seriously. As Lenin expressed it, "Not a single class in history has achieved power without producing its political leaders, its prominent representatives able to organize a movement and lead it."
But in contrast to the sickening bourgeois conception of "leadership", the Marxist concept is that leadership is a joint enterprise of the leadership and the led, a joint effort based on common, collective interests, with not only the means being determined by all involved, but also the ultimate ends.
Now certainly the leaders lead, and the led are led. But this is a relative situation, a dialectical relation. In the Marxist conception, "the led" also lead the leaders to some extent, and the "leaders" are also the led to some extent. (A mutual interpenetration of opposites.) No doubt the heads of those who do not habitually view things in a dialectical fashion are already swimming! So let us go slowly here.
We say that the leaders are also led because they learn how to lead and where to lead, in large part, from the masses they lead. And since the masses thus show the "leaders" how and where to lead, we may say that the masses also, to some extent, lead their leaders.
There is a clear distinction between the leaders and the led, of course. And where there is a distinction there is also contradiction. There is always a contradiction between the leaders and the led. (This contradiction will be discussed further in chapter 31.) But any contradiction may also be considered as a whole, as a unity, and the nature of the contradiction and the unity of its contradictory aspects is completely different when the leaders and the led are engaged in a common enterprise around mutual interests than when they have irreconcilable interests. This, at the deepest level, is why (genuine) proletarian leadership of the masses is fundamentally different, and morally and politically superior to, bourgeois leadership.
In the Marxist conception of leadership, those who are led participate in determining not only the means to achieving ends, but also the ends themselves. I imagine that this claim may have some sectarian-dogmatists howling, so once again it is necessary to carefully state my position here. It is of course true, as Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto, that communists have the advantage over the mass of the proletariat in being able to see further or more clearly the ultimate goal, the ultimate ends of the mass struggle. But the communists have themselves determined those ultimate ends from a scientific study of the masses and their struggles. Furthermore, at no time during the proletarian class struggle are those ends completely and finally determined for all time. The party must continually refine its picture of the ultimate ends of the movement, at least in their details, as the struggle proceeds. And once again, it can only proceed to flesh out this picture of the ultimate goal by continually learning from the masses and their struggles. And all this is even more true with respect to the myriad of intermediate goals in the proletarian revolutionary process.
Some dogmatists may not wish to be reminded of the fact, but even communists are not all-knowing gods, standing above the masses like the pantheon on Mount Olympus. Instead, we are the vanguard of the proletariat, a part of the proletariat, which at any given time is only relatively more conscious of the ultimate interests and goals of the proletariat than are the average workers. This relative advantage is of course important, and indeed critical from a leadership perspective, but it should not be made into a god-like absolute. We are part of the masses, a creation of the masses, a tool of the masses. That is the first thing to remember.
In many respects the party is like a brand new school teacher, who must struggle to stay a chapter or two ahead of the students (the masses) in the textbook. Our knowledge of the final chapters is only a tad better than that of our best students. It really can be no other way, since the text book itself is being written as the struggle proceeds.
It is we who have decided to join up with the masses' struggle (in the fullest sense of the phrase), and not the other way around. It is the masses' struggle to liberate themselves that we are really talking about, and not our struggle to liberate them. The party is only a part of the masses' struggle, though certainly an indispensable part.
Lao Zi [Lao Tzu], in the 6th century B.C., remarked that "When a leader's work is done, the people all say 'We did this ourselves'." If the Marxist method of leadership is adhered to, not only will the people say this, it will be completely true.
What, in summary, are the essential differences between proletarian leadership and bourgeois leadership of the masses? Bob Avakian expressed them well:
As to the question of the essential differences between bourgeois leadership and revolutionary leadership, the difference is rooted in what interests they represent, what program they're seeking to carry out and, to put it that way, what kind of world they're trying to bring into being or to maintain, in the case of the one and the other.
In my younger days I was a member of a "commune" in Virginia, consisting of 10 to 25 people whose original goal was to set up a society similar to that outlined by B.F. Skinner in his novel Walden II. (All I can say by way of excuse is that I was young and ignorant; although I realized that all previous utopian socialist experiments had failed, I had no knowledge then of the theoretical summation by Marx and Engels 125 years earlier which explains why utopian socialism cannot possibly change society.) Even with so few people, the political and leadership struggles in the commune were intense. One of the big issues was whether the commune should somehow seek to involve itself in the revolutionary struggle of the late 60s, or just devote itself to building a comfortable life for the few people who happened to have joined the commune.
Years later "Kat", the primary champion of the latter view, who was also a person with a very strong personal desire to be the leader of the group, wrote me a letter in which she remarked:
My point was... that you and I should not get ourselves into a tizzy wanting to be the great leader.... Yes, I remember your wanting to be a Mao, though I can't conjure up the scene when you said it.
She attributes to me (and by implication to revolutionaries in general) the same leadership "temptations" she recognized in herself. But the question here is one of motivation. A desire to personally lead, let alone to be "the great leader", is a bourgeois motivation. But this does not mean that all leaders are bourgeois egoists. All bourgeois leaders may safely be assumed to be individuals who glory in power and authority, who succumb to the "temptations" of leadership for their own psychological benefit. But not all leaders are bourgeois leaders. My response to Kat follows:
Wanting to be a leader can be right or wrong—depending
upon the reasons, and the degree or extent of leadership aspired to. Moreover, being a
leader should be likened to being a teacher.
So let me shift the question temporarily to "Should one want to be a (the?) teacher?" The answer, it seems to me, is that when you know important things that others do not, you should try to be a teacher. When you realize that others know things you do not, you should try to be their student. It cannot possibly be right to want to always be the teacher.
In just the same way, if you know what should be done (i.e., what should be done to further the interests of the people), you should try to lead. If you do not know what should be done you should by no means try to lead. Instead you should either follow, or if there is no one trustworthy to follow, you should try to learn (by studying the views of others, by studying the relevant existing scientific theory, or by trying to further develop the theory governing the situation).
Of these three situations (leading, following, studying), the one that makes sense most of the time is "following". This is because most situations which we encounter have been encountered before, and there are other people ("experts" or "authorities") who have become qualified leaders in dealing with those situations. If there is an outbreak of hepatitis rational people follow the leadership of the medical professionals in dealing with the problem. If some workers are trying to build a house, the rest of the workers should follow the leadership of the most skilled carpenter.
In politics the same principles apply. Groups of people with common interests (classes or sub-groups within classes) have their own political parties. If these parties are any good, the most authoritative and skilled members of the party will be elevated into leadership roles appropriate to the various situations the party and the people face. As long as those whose interests the party represents trust the party and its leadership, they should follow it. To the extent they do not, they should try to change the party and its leaders, or else abandon that party (and look for, or start, another party). This at least describes the situation for the relationship between the working class and the proletarian party(ies)....
An important element of the mass line method of leadership, whose theory Mao developed, is the step of learning from the masses. Before you can lead the masses (teach them), you must first learn from them, and also from the scientific theory governing how to advance the people's interests—i.e., Marxism. Of course even the best parties do not always adhere to such admirable methods. But when they do they can accomplish miracles.
To want to be a leader (even in some limited sphere), for any other reason than because you think your leadership will help to advance the interests of the people, is wrong. It is wrong if it is done just to be boss, or lord it over people. It is wrong if it is done for the sake of increasing one's personal standing or prestige. It is wrong if it is done for careerist motives, or because one gets enjoyment out of it. (Even if a person's leadership is genuinely in the interests of the people there is something suspicious about his or her getting a personal thrill out of it.) And anytime or anywhere, to want to be an absolute leader is absolutely wrong.
I think there is something incorrect about your conception of leadership that comes out when you accused the both of us of yearning to be a (the) leader. To my mind to have such a "yearning" seems to imply that the person wants to be a leader for the wrong reasons (personal psychological reasons). While I very much yearn for the world to be changed, I do not yearn to be "the one" to lead the masses in changing the world. On the other hand I do yearn to somehow be able to make a personal contribution to the effort of changing this rotten world. In those small areas and spheres of influence where I feel I can provide some leadership, I feel the obligation to do so.
I don't think a doctor tends to feel anything like the "temptation of leadership" when he or she takes charge in a medical emergency. Merely the obligation. I see this as a good indicator on the question of whether leadership is desired for good or bad reasons. Just as everyone has the obligation to be both a student and a teacher, everyone also has the obligation to be both a leader and a follower. It all depends on the sphere in question and the people involved.
Very few people who have achieved high political leadership measure up to the standards I have argued for here. Marx, Engels and Lenin immediately come to mind as three models. Especially Lenin, who even in the situation of becoming head of Soviet Russia, continued to prove himself the model of how to be a selfless leader. Many others, despite important contributions they have made to the people, have not fully measured up in the way they handled the "temptations" of leadership. Even Mao deserves some criticism in this area, such as for allowing an undue personality cult to be built up around him.
As for me "wanting to be a Mao", I don't recall ever saying or imagining such a thing. But I would say that it is by no means wrong to try to emulate the great individuals of history, to try to follow in their foot steps. In fact, I think it is one of the very best techniques of moral education to instill in people a recognition of the true heroes in history and a determination to follow their examples. (The bourgeoisie recognizes this too; hence the stories of George Washington and the cherry tree. But the problem for the bourgeoisie is that most of their heroes have feet of clay. George Washington did lie, own slaves, etc.)
In the emulation sense we should all want to be a Mao. But in the sense of wanting to be "Mao—the top leader"—that is clearly wrong. That is definitely a bourgeois attitude.
Because no one individual can always lead, in an overall sense leadership must be collective. In the very broadest sense, as we have seen, even the masses contribute to and participate in their own leadership. But with the establishment of the most advanced and conscious section of the masses as a vanguard party, there is a qualitative change in that the party becomes the focus of leadership of the masses. The masses bring forth their primary leadership organ in the form of the party.
Relative to the broad masses, the proletariat is the primary source of leadership. Relative to the proletariat and the broad masses together, the proletarian party is the primary source of leadership. Relative to the rank and file of the party, the central party bodies are the primary source of leadership. And within the central bodies there are individuals who can and must play leadership roles.
But though there are individual leaders in every party, in the case of a properly functioning proletarian party at least, these individuals—as individuals—are only leaders in a relative sense, to a degree, and never absolutely. This is why leadership at all levels within the party is in the form of committees. It is of course true that within any committee, some members will have more experience and/or a better grasp of Marxism than other members, and they will be appropriately looked to for leadership within the committee. But all the members of each committee are responsible for its work and decisions, and all have an obligation to put forward their views and exercise varying degrees of leadership.
Naturally, in the real world, as opposed to theory, there will sometimes be aberrations; and where there are aberrations there will need to be corrections. In 1948, Mao drafted a document for the Central Committee of the CPC, for a Party-wide rectification along these lines:
The Party committee system is an important Party institution for ensuring collective leadership and preventing any individual from monopolizing the conduct of affairs. It has recently been found that in some (of course not all) leading bodies it is the habitual practice for one individual to monopolize the conduct of affairs and decide important problems. Solutions to important problems are decided not by Party committee meetings but by one individual, and membership in the Party committee has become nominal. Differences of opinion among committee members cannot be resolved and are left unresolved for a long time. Members of the Party committee maintain only formal, not real, unity among themselves. This situation must be changed. From now on, a sound system of Party committee meetings must be instituted in all leading bodies... All important problems (of course, not the unimportant, trivial problems, or problems whose solutions have already been decided after discussion at meetings and need only be carried out) must be submitted to the committee for discussion, and the committee members present should express their views fully and reach definite decisions which should then be carried out by the members concerned.
In an overall sense, the proletarian party both leads the masses collectively and is collectively responsible to the masses. But at the end of the just cited document, Mao mentions another central principle of Marxist leadership: "Furthermore, we must take care that neither collective leadership nor personal responsibility is overemphasized to the neglect of the other."
There are two aspects to individual responsibility: First, in a collective (a committee, or voluntary group) all decisions, lines and policies are (or should be) determined collectively, but each member of the committee voluntarily commits him or herself to implement these decisions to the best of their ability. Each takes some individual responsibility for their implementation. Second, to some extent at least, each member of the committee must take "public" responsibility for the decisions of the group (even in cases where they have been in the minority and may still privately disagree). A member of a committee is always to some extent responsible for the decisions of the committee. If an individual is unable to voluntarily agree to represent the committee or group in both respects, on some important matter, then they have an obligation to resign from the committee or group. (For more on this see chapter 29 on democratic centralism.)
No one should ever be able to hide or excuse their own shortcomings by blaming the group as a whole, when by continuing to voluntarily belong to the group they have thereby taken on part of the responsibility for the decisions of the group, and for the implementation of these decisions.
It is worthwhile to contrast the Marxist principle of collective leadership/individual responsibility with the exact opposite which is exalted by fascists. According to the Nazi "Führerprinzip" (leader principle), there must always be individual leadership, with a single individual, "Der Führer" himself, at the very top of the pyramid: "Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer!" (One nation, one people, one leader!) Rudolf Hess explained why everyone should always follow Hitler without question: "One man remains beyond all criticism, and that is the Führer. This is because everyone senses and knows: He is always right, and will always be right. The National Socialism of all of us is anchored in uncritical loyalty, in a surrender to the Führer." Hitler defined the Führer principle as "unrestricted authority downwards, unrestricted responsibility upwards". On the other hand after World War II, when it came time to assess responsibility and blame for all the Nazi atrocities, every Nazi except Hitler (who was dead) claimed no responsibility whatsoever and said that they were "merely following orders". We constantly see this same tendency in the U.S., with its "imperial presidency" and the minions who do the dirty work (like Ollie North) claiming that they are "just following orders". The Führer principle may have been "raised to the level of conscious theory" by Adolf Hitler, but all bourgeois gravitate toward it.
We come now to the unpleasant subject of "personality cults", or "cults of the individual". The term 'personality cult' derives from Marx, who wrote in a letter that
Neither of us [Marx or Engels] cares a straw for popularity. A proof of this is, for example, that, because of aversion to any personality cult, I have never permitted the numerous expressions of appreciation from various countries, with which I was pestered during the existence of the International, to reach the realm of publicity, and have never answered them, except occasionally by a rebuke. When Engels and I first joined the secret Communist Society we made it a condition that everything tending to encourage superstitious belief in authority was to be removed from the Rules.
Lenin, too, followed this fine example. As even bourgeois biographers acknowledge, Lenin "strongly disapproved of anything that smacked of what later became known as the personality cult". Another bourgeois historian, Sheila Fitzpatrick, says:
While Lenin lived, the Bolsheviks acknowledged him as the party's leader. Nevertheless, the party did not formally have a Leader, and it offended Bolsheviks to think that it necessarily required one. In moments of political turbulence, it was not unheard of for party comrades to rebuke Lenin for trading too much on his personal authority; and, while Lenin usually insisted on having his way, he did not require flattery or any particular show of respect. The Bolsheviks had nothing but contempt for Mussolini and his Italian Fascists, regarding them as political primitives for dressing up in comic-opera uniforms and swearing loyalty to Il Duce. Furthermore, they had learned the lessons of history, and had no intention of letting the Russian Revolution degenerate as the French Revolution had done when Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself Emperor. Bonapartism—the transformation of a revolutionary war leader into a dictator—was a danger that was often discussed in the Bolshevik Party, usually with implicit reference to Trotsky, the creator of the Red Army and hero of Communist youth during the Civil War.
There is indeed a tremendous difference between having a leader and having a Leader. I am sorry to see the RCP making Bob Avakian into a Leader, which can only harm the party, and perhaps even bring contempt down upon Avakian in the long run.
In 1920 Maxim Gorky published a series on Lenin in one of his journals which praised him extravagantly, remarking for example that "In a religious era, Lenin would have been considered a saint... A stern realist, a shrewd politician, Lenin is gradually becoming a legendary figure. This is good." These articles were reprinted together with an editorial by Gorky, without Lenin's knowledge or approval, in the magazine Communist International. In response, Lenin drafted the following resolution and circulated it for approval by the Politburo:
The Politburo of the C.C. considers the publication in no. 12 of "Kommunisticheskii internatsional" of Gorky's articles extremely inappropriate, especially the editorial, since there is not only nothing communist about these articles, but a great deal that is anti-communist in them. In the future such articles must on no account be published in "Kommunisticheskii internatsional."
Lenin actually seemed so concerned to prevent a cult of personality around himself that he occasionally went a bit overboard. In April 1920 he initially opposed the publication of his collected works, for instance.
But with Stalin, things went to hell. The glorification of the authority of Stalin went to wildly extravagant extremes, and collective leadership eventually became a totally empty phrase, especially at the top level. As has often been remarked, the Party became synonymous with the Central Committee, the Central Committee became synonymous with the Politburo, and the Politburo became synonymous with Stalin. Whatever Stalin said was law, and even beyond mere law, practically the word of God. Nothing that Stalin said or did could be criticized, or even questioned, whether within or outside of the Party. Such an approach to leadership is not scientific, and it is not Marxist.
This is not the place for an extensive critique of Stalin, and his role in history. But I will hazard a capsule summary: On the one hand, socialism—considered as a socio-economic system—advanced considerably and was consolidated in the Soviet Union while he was in charge, and the overt enemies of socialism were warded off internally and externally. These were no small accomplishments. But on the other hand, it is clear that as the years went by he more and more failed to rely on the masses and to lead the masses in the revolutionary transformation of society; he often confused broad sections of the masses with the enemy, and was responsible for the murder of massive numbers of innocent people including large numbers of honest workers and revolutionaries; and while socialism advanced for a while under his leadership, the transformation of social relations was then halted, and the development of socialism came more and more to be seen as mere increase in production (what we might call "socialist Economism"). Stalin thus committed many crimes against the people and the revolution.
Socialism, properly understood, is a period of transition from capitalism to communism, and not any specific economic structure. Apparently only we Maoists look at it this way. Thus when the phony "socialism" in the revisionist Soviet Union and eastern Europe collapsed in the late 1980s, we were delighted. We found the hand-wringing distress of western "socialists", such as those connected with Monthly Review, over this collapse to be both comical and pathetic.
But many Maoists themselves seem to forget this basic point about socialism when it comes to evaluating Stalin. In the 20s and 30s Stalin did promote and lead transformations of Soviet society (especially in the cooperativization of agriculture), transformations which were indeed generally in the direction of communism despite the crudity and even brutality of the methods used. But then Stalin stopped the progress towards communism. If the essence of socialism truly lies in its being a continuing transformation of bourgeois social relationships, then Stalin himself must be charged with aborting socialism.
Furthermore, the methods used in the socialist transformations which did occur while Stalin was running things tended to undercut the possibility of further transformations towards communism. Instead of leading the masses in a struggle to prevent the growth of a privileged bureaucracy, he actually promoted its growth. Instead of using the mass line to allow the masses themselves to change things, and to learn how they could change more things later on, he in effect disarmed the masses by ordering changes from above. The more you appreciate the mass line and its indispensability in genuine socialist society, the less you should appreciate Stalin.
If we have to set a sharp line between the socialist period in the Soviet Union, and the revisionist period, that line can only be Khrushchev's coup d'état not long after Stalin's death. Nevertheless, in many respects the Stalin epoch must be considered not so much as a period of socialist transition, but rather as a period of transition from Lenin's fully revolutionary Marxism to Khrushchev's totally anti-revolutionary revisionism.
Specifically, with respect to questions of leadership of the masses, Stalin must be severely criticized. At least after the early years, if then, he did not use the mass line at all. (See chapter 36 for more on this.) And he set a terrible precedent with his personality cult. Since his time, it has almost become the norm for personality cults to be built up around both real and phony Marxist leaders to varying degrees.
I am not concerned with the personality cults which have been erected around phony communists, such as the now justly dead Ceausescu in Romania—one expects such things with bourgeois dictators, whether or not they wear the false mantle of Marxism. It is the growth of such cults around real Marxist leaders that concerns me.
The personality cult built up around Mao, for example, was in some ways even more extreme than that around Stalin. In Mao's case though, it was concentrated more in the area of public adoration, and he did not flout the principles of democratic centralism to anywhere near the degree that Stalin did. Moreover, Mao—unlike Stalin—constantly employed the mass line, continued to learn from the people, and always endeavored to lead the masses in the transformation of society towards communism.
Unfortunately, the personality cults of Stalin and Mao continue to be emulated. It has gotten to the point where it is common for personality cults to be erected around leaders of communist parties which have not even achieved political power. The Communist Party of Peru now speaks of its application of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to Peru as "Gonzalo Thought", after the top leader of the Party, Chairman Gonzalo (Abimael Guzmán). According to the Wall Street Journal, they also refer to "Presidente Gonzalo, the Fourth Sword of Marxism". Presumably the first three swords are Marx, Lenin and Mao.
The following oath of loyalty which prefaced a letter from an unidentified party member to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Peru gives the flavor of the extremes to which things have gone:
Central Committee of the Communist Party of Peru
There have also been signs of the beginnings of a personality cult around Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Central Committee of the RCP. This started when Avakian was indicted on a whole series of trumped up charges after he led a demonstration in Washington, D.C. in 1979, against visiting revisionist Deng Xiaoping. In this situation there was an obvious need to build support for Avakian and the other "Mao Defendants". In recent years this fledgling mini-cult seems to have been toned down. Nevertheless, the RCP's May Day declarations in recent years have ended with the following three slogans:
OUR IDEOLOGY IS MARXISM-LENINISM-MAOISM
OUR VANGUARD IS THE REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST PARTY
OUR LEADER IS CHAIRMAN AVAKIAN
While the last slogan does serve to unduly build up the prestige and authority of Bob Avakian as an individual, it also truthfully expresses a basic fact about the RCP so far in its history. Not only RCP members, but many outside the Party—including me—have tremendous respect for Bob Avakian and his role in the development of the American revolutionary movement. I think the world can forgive us if we individuals publicly show some of that respect—as long as we keep our appreciation within reasonable limits. But it is one thing for individuals to be moved to express such feelings, and another thing for the Party itself to do so, or to actively encourage it.
I have great respect for both Chairman Gonzalo and Bob Avakian, and for both their parties, and have learned a great deal from them. But I disagree with these personality cults, even when they are restrained. I think such cults detract from the stature of these leaders, rather than increase their stature. A French writer once remarked: "Do you want to injure someone's reputation? Don't speak ill of him, speak too well."
However I don't want to simply attack personality cults out of hand, without considering the arguments which have been raised in favor of them, at least in a limited form. Yes! There are such arguments, and on the surface they are not total nonsense either.
First, in response to Soviet revisionist criticism of the personality cult around Stalin (and by implication, at least, the one around Mao also), the Communist Party of China responded that
To raise the question of "combating the cult of the individual" is actually to
counterpose the leaders to the masses, undermine the party's unified leadership which
is based on democratic centralism, dissipate its fighting strength and disintegrate
Elsewhere, the Chinese also pointed out that Soviet revisionist criticism of Stalin's personality cult served primarily as a useful bludgeon against socialism itself. There is considerable truth to all of these charges; in the hands of the revisionists, the criticism of personality cults was in fact insidious, on top of being hypocritical (since they built up their own personality cults around Khrushchev and the others).
The fact is, any mistakes that we revolutionaries make will inevitably be used by the enemy to argue against Marxism and revolution more than to argue against the mistakes themselves. But this should not lead us to deny our mistakes, or enshrine our actual misdeeds as good things. If we do that we continue to play into the hands of the enemy. We give them the means to continue their attack. Instead we should correct our mistakes, and deprive the bourgeoisie of whatever valid criticisms they can direct at us. Then they will have only bald-faced lies and blatant distortions to work with, along with their alien class perspective.
While attacking personality cults can obviously serve the enemy's purposes, personality cults are still wrong. Contrary to what the CPC implied above, all criticism of personality cults is not criticism of proletarian leadership, the party, and democratic centralism. In fact, just the opposite, criticism of personality cults from the Marxist perspective is a defense of the proper forms of proletarian leadership, of the proper relations between the party and the masses, and of the proper understanding of democratic centralism. It is a defense, for example, of the principle of collective leadership, and a criticism of the superstitious belief in authority which Marx decried.
But while we should definitely oppose the superstitious belief in authority, we do not deny the existence of authorities, nor deny their importance. As Lenin remarked, "The working class, which all over the world is waging a hard and persistent struggle for complete emancipation, needs authorities."27 Authorities are needed in all fields of endeavor, and generally serve as welcomed guides for the rest of us.
Human authorities have produced references and guide-books in every field. These are not sacred books, by any means, but they are in many cases very important and generally trustworthy. Dictionaries, for example, serve as authorities (which are themselves produced by many human authorities) on the actual meaning and use of words. To refuse to use dictionaries would be foolish in the extreme. But, on the other hand, to believe that whatever a dictionary says must inevitably be correct is also foolish; it is to hold the dictionary (and dictionary makers) in superstitious reverence. There are in fact lots of errors in dictionaries. As Samuel Johnson remarked, "Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true." And as Alfred North Whitehead said, "Learning preserves the errors of the past, as well as its wisdom. For this reason, dictionaries are public dangers, although they are necessities." Despite their occasional errors, we still need dictionaries.
We need authorities, but we should not hold them to be infallible. On the question of authorities, as on every other question, it is wise to adopt a dialectical viewpoint. Indeed, there is a lot to be said for the anarchist slogan, "Question Authority!" as long as it is not interpreted to mean "oppose all authority", or "deny all authority". (This slogan has been improved upon, by the way. I saw a bumper sticker which proclaimed: "Question Authority—Including Your Own!")
When Lenin was in exile in Zurich during World War I he once had a discussion with a young Romanian by the name of Valeriu Marcu. At this time Marcu was a pacifist, though he soon changed his mind on a number of essential points and Lenin got him involved in revolutionary work. Here is Marcu's recounting of this conversation:
He [Lenin] said to me, "Do you know the real
meaning of this war?"
There is certainly a great deal of wisdom in all of the comments by Lenin reported here. But I want to especially emphasize his dialectical view in relation to relying on yourself versus relying on authorities.
Keeping one's proletarian political balance is a matter of both relying on the appropriate political authorities, while reserving some personal judgment and not becoming brainless yourself. It is a dialectical balance between relying on others (and especially the party and its leadership, and the writings of the great revolutionary leaders of the past), and relying on yourself and your own investigations. It is even true to say that "relying on authorities" is principal here, while "questioning the authorities" is secondary. But there is the secondary aspect.
Moreover, it is just on the occasional problematic issue that it is wise to be somewhat skeptical, to consult more than one authority, and to give the matter extra thought and investigation yourself. In no field of endeavor, and certainly not in politics, is there ever only one authority, though one, or a few, may stand out from the rest. We Marxists, for example, have not only our proletarian parties with their leaders, but also such outstanding figures of proven merit and reliability as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao, whose writings we should all continuously study. (Physically, they are dead; as revolutionary authorities, they are alive and well!) And it is not for the leader(s) of the party to be the exclusive interpreters of Marx and Lenin like the revisionists in the Soviet Union claimed to be, or like the Pope with the Bible!
The Communist Party of Peru defends the description of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism applied to Peru as "Gonzalo Thought" with two main arguments:
Every revolution, in the course of its development, due to the struggle of
the proletariat as the leading class and, above all, of the Communist Party
which unwaveringly upholds the proletariat's class interests, brings forth a
group of leaders and principally one who comes to represent and lead it, a
leader of recognized authority and influence. In our situation, because of
historical necessity and for historical reasons, this has meant concretely
Chairman Gonzalo, leader of the Party and of the revolution.
There is one obvious thing that is wrong with these two arguments: the Peruvian revolution is by no means over. Proletarian power has not even been seized, let alone has society been transformed into communism. The arguments in effect assume that the theory of the Peruvian revolution has now been entirely worked out, at least in its essentials. It is, in other words, a static analysis of Peruvian revolutionary theory.
But all revolutions require dynamic theory, theory which gets extended and modified as the revolution proceeds. I know that Chairman Gonzalo has made many important contributions to the struggle, and has led the CPP in getting the revolution off to a tremendously encouraging start. But the Peruvian revolution still has a long way to go, and no one can be completely sure of the exact course it will have to take. Many, probably most, of the future ideas necessary for the continued success of the Peruvian revolution will come ultimately from the masses. Perhaps they will continue to be summed up and implemented under the direction of Chairman Gonzalo; perhaps not. It is for history to say, not for anyone to proclaim before it is accomplished.
(The above lines were written before the arrest of Chairman Gonzalo by the Peruvian fascist government in 1992. I fully support the worldwide campaign to win his release, and recognize that it is necessary in the course of this campaign to focus a great deal of attention on his personal contributions to the revolution. But at the same time, his arrest and possible eventual murder at the hands of the enemy does add further emphasis to one of the great dangers of portraying the revolution as depending on one single person; it invites a real setback if that person is captured or killed.)
It is true that historically there tends to be, at any given time and place, one proletarian leader who stands out above the others, who makes greater contributions to revolutionary theory and leadership, and who consequently achieves greater authority than the others. The party quite appropriately recognizes such an individual in a variety of ways: promoting such a person to the top leadership position in the party, promoting the study of the individual's writings, by both party members and others, and so forth. But it is one thing to recognize that individual leaders, and often a single preeminent leader will emerge, and another to build up such an individual or small group as the only source of correct leadership, let alone as an infallible source. It is to succumb to the superstitious worship of authority.
I cannot resist telling a story here about the occasion when even Buddha is said to have been amused by the absurdly exaggerated extreme to which his own wisdom and authority were viewed by others:
A philosopher asked Buddha: "Without
words, without the wordless, will you tell me truth?"
One might better say, a cowed dog runs even at the shadow of the whip. It seems clear that the "philosopher" imagined that he was getting some piece of wisdom from Buddha that was in fact not there at all. Similarly, when political leaders speak we must think about what they say (or don't say), and weigh it carefully ourselves. We must not accept something as necessarily true and profound simply because even the most authoritative and respected person says it.
Returning again to the discussion of the CPP's defense of the personality cult around Chairman Gonzalo: It is also true that during the course of any revolution, a body of revolutionary theory appropriate to that specific revolution must inevitably be developed. But the mass line point of view is that this body of revolutionary knowledge comes from the masses and not any individual or small group of people. It is true that a small group, perhaps led by a single individual, may well be the ones to sum up this mass wisdom by employing the mass line, but even so it is unseemly to give the impression that the revolutionary wisdom comes from one genius, or that only one genius could possibly sum up the wider wisdom of the masses. If history eventually wants to proclaim the contributions of Chairman Gonzalo as "Gonzalo Thought", or even as Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-Gonzaloism, it is fine with me. But it is not appropriate for Chairman Gonzalo and his chief lieutenants to do so at this time.
We must avoid the kind of thinking that Lin Biao fell into, the "genius theory of history". There is tremendous danger to the proletariat in coming to believe that it is a savior they need. What the masses need is not a single hero, but a party which grows out of their ranks, and which is led by the ideas which the party concentrates from the masses. Individual heroes must inevitably perish, and even while they live their contributions have their limits. It is wrong to look at things any other way, or to say and do things that seems to reverse the real situation, that the masses are the real heroes.
It is, ironically, Stalin, of all people, who provided one of the most important arguments against personality cults when he complained of leaders becoming unapproachable for the masses:
Lastly, there is yet another circumstance that impels us to self-criticism. I
am referring to the question of the masses and the leaders. A peculiar sort of
relation has lately begun to arise between the leaders and the masses. On the one
hand there was formed, there came into being historically, a group of leaders
among us whose prestige is rising and rising, and who are becoming almost
unapproachable for the masses. On the other hand the working-class masses in the
first place, and the mass of the working people in general are rising extremely
slowly, are beginning to look up at the leaders from below with blinking eyes,
and not infrequently are afraid to criticize them.
But even here Stalin does not fully appreciate the worst danger in the leaders becoming unapproachable for the masses (and perhaps unapproachable for most party members as well!), the danger that the ability of the leaders to apply the mass line itself will become seriously impaired.
As I admitted before, a case can be made in favor of building at least modest cults of personality. Such cults, if handled "properly", can in fact aid the party in its work of winning the support of the masses by giving them a hero to follow. This is just why cults of personality are so sinister and pernicious. In the short run they can help advance the revolution, but in the long run they are fatal to the cause of the masses, fatal to the revolution. Such cults lead eventually to the debilitation of the masses, moving them once again away from being a "class-for-itself". More and more they rely on their leaders instead of themselves; they show less and less initiative and creativity themselves; they take on less and less responsibility themselves for making revolution and reforming society. They stand in awe of their great leader(s), and become capable only of meekly following orders. If the leader becomes bourgeois, or if new bourgeois leaders emerge after the great hero dies, the masses are unused to even questioning their leadership, let alone rebelling against it. And thus they are lost. (This is one of the reasons that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China was unable to prevent a bourgeois restoration after Mao's death.)
It is the duty of sincere proletarian leaders to think about this issue extremely carefully, and come to recognize that the short term advantages of personality cults are limited, and not essential to making revolution, while the long term results are inevitably disastrous. The temptations must be resisted! In the final analysis, a cult of personality is a bourgeois tool, and must be completely rejected by the proletarian party if the revolution is to last.
Although personality cults are an extremely important issue, deserving of much fuller discussion, it would distort the focus of the present work to deal with them exhaustively here. I will only add that Marx, Engels and Lenin—perhaps the three greatest individuals in human history—had no use for personality cults, whether around themselves or others, and prevented their development while they were alive. If great individuals like that had no use for personality cults, I see no reason why anyone else should.
The truly great leader is a person who becomes one with the masses, who learns from the masses, and who strives to lead the masses in struggling for their own real interests. People like this are great, not because statues are built in their honor or because they are adored by the masses, but because they have incorporated the interests and the wisdom of the masses within themselves.
Walt Whitman put it this way: "I am large. I contain multitudes."
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