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Birds Cannot Give Birth to Crocodiles, But Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon
By Bob Avakian
Insight PressCopyright © 2014 Bob Avakian
All rights reserved.
REVOLUTION AND THE STATE
In the Manifesto from our Party, Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, the parallels are drawn between development and change (evolution) in the natural world and change in human society. In the words of that Manifesto, the dialectical materialist understanding of human society and its historical development:
provides the basic answer to those who raise: Who are you to say how society can be organized, what right do you communists have to dictate what change is possible and how it should come about? These questions are essentially misplaced and represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of historical development — and the possible pathways of change — in human society as well as in the material world more generally. This is akin to asking why birds cannot give birth to crocodiles — or why human beings cannot produce offspring that are capable of flying around the earth, on their own, in an instant, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and having x-ray vision that can see through solid objects — and demanding to know: Who are you to dictate what can come about through reproduction, who are you to say that human offspring will have particular characteristics and not others? It is not a matter of "who are you" but of what the material reality is and what possibilities for change actually lie within the — contradictory — character of that material reality.
A Fundamental Understanding of Human Society — and How It Changes
With this in mind, it is important to review "where we are" with regard to how human society has actually developed historically (in interrelation and interaction with the rest of nature) and what pathways for change actually exist — and must be seized. This gets us right to the heart of historical materialism: the relation between the economic base in any society and the superstructure of politics, culture and ideology, including morality.
More specifically, it is important to focus on the question of why, with all the contradictory dynamics involved, fundamentally and ultimately the economic base of society sets the terms for the superstructure of politics, ideology and culture, and why the superstructure must, in the final analysis, conform to the economic base. And it is worthwhile "doing a thought experiment" about what happens if the base and superstructure are fundamentally out of alignment.
Matter has not disappeared — reality is not just "virtual"
Now, as we have pointed out a number of times (in the Manifesto from our Party, and elsewhere), in a society like the U.S. — with the seal of parasitism set on the entire society, as Lenin so incisively put it — for many strata, particularly the broad middle strata which are to a significant extent divorced from the basic process of producing and distributing the material requirements of life, it is very easy to lose sight of the fact that without this production and distribution of the material requirements of life, life would grind to a halt and all the things that go on in society which seem so far removed (and in some ways are far removed on an ongoing daily basis) from the fundamental economic activity that underlies society, would no longer be possible.
There was that movie A Day Without a Mexican which tried to get at what would happen — and this is very relevant in the context of the anti-immigrant hysteria that's being whipped up — if all the Mexicans didn't go to work on a particular day. Well, you could expand that and ask: What would happen if all the masses of people in the world, including little children, who labor under conditions of exploitation, and often extreme exploitation, stayed away from work? All of a sudden, all these people who think "matter has disappeared" would discover that they needed to go on a desperate search for this matter because they couldn't do hardly anything without it. Before long — and especially if this "staying away from work" were extended over any period of time — they wouldn't have the basic boards for their computers and all the other things which they think exist in some airy "virtual reality" totally divorced from material reality.
So that's a bedrock point. That has to do with production — the production of the basic material requirements of life, and in fact the production of everything which constitutes the foundation for what people do in society. But as we know — this is a basic scientific Marxist understanding — production doesn't get carried out in the abstract. It can only be carried out through certain relations of production that people enter into; and, as Marx also emphasized very importantly, these relations of production have been established and are in effect largely independently of the wills of individuals. In other words, the relations of production are not arbitrarily determined by the will of individuals, including individuals who comprise the ruling class of society and who dominate in the ownership of the means of production — they don't get to choose arbitrarily what kind of relations of production will be entered into. Those relations are basically "handed down to them," along with everybody else in society, by prior historical development — including radical changes that have been brought about in previous times on the basis of transforming what previously existed — and not by certain people just "conjuring up" changes out of their imagination, in a way that is fundamentally independent of and divorced from the material conditions with which they are confronted. Here again is the analogy between changes in human society and changes — evolution — in the larger natural world.
This was also Marx's point when he stressed that there is a certain "coherence" to human history. We have emphasized that there is no inevitability about communism, no inevitable direction to human society. But there is a certain coherence. So everybody, including the members of the ruling class of any society, has to deal with what is handed down in terms of productive forces — and production relations — from previous generations, even though at certain critical junctures leaps are made in terms of transforming the production relations through a revolution in the superstructure — which, as we know, occurred with the emergence and triumph of capitalism, for example, through the overthrow and replacement of feudalism.
So people enter, and can only enter, into this most basic of human activity — the production and distribution of the material requirements of life — through definite production relations. Now again, this is, on the one hand, the ABC's of Marxism; but, unfortunately, this is also very little understood in society at large and, frankly, by most Marxists, at least in any living sense. People all too often tend to divorce political, ideological and cultural phenomena from this underlying economic base; or, on the other hand, especially in the case of some very poor Marxists, mechanical materialists, they tend to treat politics and the rest of the superstructure (culture, morality, ideology in general) in a very reductionist way in relation to the economic base, rather than really applying a dialectical materialist understanding of this relation, in which the base does set the foundation, but there is a great deal of initiative and autonomy in the superstructure even, as ultimately, unless there is actually a profound revolution in society, the superstructure cannot rupture with the bounds and confines set by the economic base — or else, in fact, within the confines of the existing system, if the superstructure and the base were essentially out of alignment, society would break down.
Why there is no basic "right to eat" under capitalism
One example that I've cited before — and it's worth citing again because it very sharply gets to this point, and to the very nature of capitalism and the historical limitation of capitalism, with all of the proclamations about its being universal and being the highest and final point of human development — is the question of the "right to eat." Or why, in reality, under this system, there is not a "right to eat." Now, people can proclaim the "right to eat," but there is no such right with the workings of this system. You cannot actually implement that as a right, given the dynamics of capitalism and the way in which, as we've seen illustrated very dramatically of late, it creates unemployment. It creates and maintains massive impoverishment. (To a certain extent, even while there is significant poverty in the imperialist countries, that is to some degree offset and masked by the extent of parasitism there; imperialism "feeds off" the extreme exploitation of people in the Third World in particular, and some of the "spoils" from this "filter down" in significant ways to the middle strata especially. But, if you look at the world as a whole, capitalism creates and maintains tremendous impoverishment.)
Many, many people cannot find enough to eat and cannot eat in a way that enables them to be healthy — and in general they cannot maintain conditions that enable them to be healthy. So even right down to something as basic as "the right to eat" — people don't have that right under capitalism. If you were to declare it as a right, and people were to act on this and simply started going to where the food is sold as commodities and declaring, "We have a more fundamental right than your right to distribute things as commodities and to accumulate capital — we have a right to eat" — and if they started taking the food, well then we know what would happen, and what has happened whenever people do this: "Looters, shoot them down in the street."
If this became a mass phenomenon — people taking something as basic as food, for which they have a vital need but which many cannot afford under this system — the system would come completely unraveled. And that is why, although the law does not make it illegal to lay people off work and have people unemployed — since that is actually crucial to the dynamics of capitalist accumulation — it does make it illegal to act on the right to eat without paying for what you eat. And, if people do declare that they have a right to eat, regardless of whether they can be employed in a way that makes profit for some capitalist, then they are denounced by at least certain representatives and spokespeople of sections of the ruling class as "lazy" and "undeserving" people. We have heard this in the whole debate about unemployment insurance in the U.S. — where some politicians declare: "We shouldn't extend unemployment benefits because then people won't really go out and look hard for work, they'll just be eating off the fat of other people's work." It's like that reactionary bumper sticker: "Work Hard, Somewhere There's Somebody on Welfare Depending on You." That kind of fascist mentality. Well, that kind of thing would be invoked: "You can't do this, you can't just take food because you're hungry, you have to go out and find a job and 'work like everybody else' in order to have a right to eat." That is a reflection, in the realm of ideas, of the way the system actually operates. It does actually operate so that you have to go out and get a job, if you can — you have to create more capital for whomever you can find who will hire you, in order to then get remuneration in the form of money, which you can use to buy commodities that you can consume in the form of food and other basic necessities of life.
So if, in the legal sphere — or in the political sphere, or in the cultural and ideological sphere — you were to promote and enact a basic rebellion against that whole set-up, the economic functioning of society would grind to a halt and things would become chaotic. You can go down the line and think about other basic necessities besides food and other realms in which, if the superstructure is not in line with the capitalist economic base, society will, in fact, fly apart — it will not be able to be maintained and function with the dynamics that are necessary for that economic base.
The base and the superstructure — economics, politics, the state, and ideology — and why this system cannot be reformed
You can think of this in terms of politics and the state: If you didn't have, not only laws but a state apparatus of repression with the armed forces, the police, the courts, the prisons, the bureaucracies, the administrative function — if you didn't have that, how would you maintain the basic economic relations of exploitation and the basic social relations that go along with that? How would you maintain the domination of men over women, the domination of certain nationalities or "races" over others, if you did not have a superstructure to enforce that, or if that superstructure — the politics, the ideology and culture that is promoted, the morality promoted among people — were out of alignment with those social and, fundamentally, those economic relations? Once again, you wouldn't be able to maintain the order, stability and functioning of the system.
This is fundamentally why a system of this kind cannot be reformed. This goes back to the point that's in the Revolution talk about systems, and how they have certain dynamics and "rules." You can't just play any card you want in a card game or slap a domino down any time you want, anywhere you want, because the whole thing will come unraveled. And you can't have, as any significant phenomenon, cooperative economic relations in a system that operates on the dynamics of commodity production and exchange in which labor power itself, the ability to work, is a commodity.
A lot of reformist social democrats will talk in these terms: "Let's have real democracy in the superstructure" (they don't generally use terms like "superstructure," but that's the essence of what they mean) "and then," they'll say, "on that basis let's 'democratize' the economy." What would happen if you tried to implement this "democratization" of the economic base? That economic base would still be operating on the basis of, would still be driven by, the anarchy of commodity production and exchange in which, once again, labor power is also a commodity — in fact, the most basic commodity in capitalist relations and capitalist society — and soon your "democratization" of the economy would completely break down, because the dynamics of commodity production and exchange would mean that some would fare better than others, some would beat out others — plus you have the whole international arena where all this would be going on.
A lot of points relevant to this are made in Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, talking about the agrarian ideal of Jefferson: If, as Jefferson advocated, you had a society based on a bunch of yeomen, a bunch of small independent farmers, pretty soon you'd get polarization, once again. You couldn't maintain such a society unless you tried to use the superstructure to maintain it — and if you did that, the whole thing would once again rupture and break out into warfare and violent conflicts of various kinds. You couldn't maintain such a society as a viable, stable system while you had the dynamics of commodity production and exchange churning away.
Excerpted from Birds Cannot Give Birth to Crocodiles, But Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon by Bob Avakian. Copyright © 2014 Bob Avakian. Excerpted by permission of Insight Press.
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Table of Contents
PART 1: REVOLUTION AND THE STATE,
A Fundamental Understanding of Human Society — and How It Changes,
The "Divine Right of Kings" and "Democracy" — Two "Cohering Mythologies" of Two Different Systems of Exploitation,
The Real Bases for Change — and the Real Alternatives,
A Crucial Breakthrough, A Deeper Grounding in Materialism: Understanding the "Driving Force of Anarchy" as the Decisive Dynamic of Capitalism,
You Want to Radically Change the World — You Have to Make Revolution, and Establish a Revolutionary State Power,
A Materialist, Not a Utopian, Approach to Changing the World,
Democratic Intellectuals, Idealist Notions, and the Need for Materialism,
The Theory of "Social Contract" and the Lack of Materialism,
The Fundamental Difference Between Communism and Anarchism,
Dictatorship — of the Proletariat — and the Transition Beyond Dictatorship,
Back to Birds and Crocodiles,
Incorporating Aspects of Utopianism — On a Materialist Foundation,
Constitutions and Laws, Property Relations and Class Interests,
The Social Content of Law and Its Interpretation,
The Peculiar History of the United States: Slavery, "States' Rights" and the Federal Government,
Bourgeois Political Philosophy, Its Limitations and Distortions,
Bourgeois Democracy: A Reflection of Material Interests and Forces,
The Notion of "Human Nature" — As a Reflection of Capitalist Society,
The Basic Nature, and the Constitution, of a Socialist State,
An Historic Leap, A Whole New Height and Vista,
Socialism and Capitalism, Constitutions and Laws: Similarities — and Profound Differences,
A Legitimate Understanding of "Legitimacy",
Communism — A Radical, Epochal Transformation,
Communism and Capitalism: Fundamentally Contrasting Views of Human Nature and Human Freedom,
PART 2: BUILDING THE MOVEMENT FOR REVOLUTION,
Culture and Morality — a Critical Arena of Struggle,
A Radical Revolt Against a Revolting Culture,
Some Further Thoughts Relating to "On the Possibility of Revolution",
We ARE BUILDING a Movement for Revolution ... and What That Means,
Basic Contradictions, Forces for Revolution, and the UFuLP Strategy,
Hastening While Awaiting a Revolutionary Situation,
Accumulating Forces for Revolution,
Alternate Authority and Building the Movement for Revolution,
The Two Mainstays,
A Materialist, and Internationalist, Orientation and Approach,
Bringing Alive the Link Between What We're Doing and the Possibility of Revolution,
The Party and Organizing Forces for Revolution,
Meeting, and Advancing in the Face of, Repression,
Conclusion: The "Impossible Dream" of a Radically Different World — and the Scientific Methods and Means That Make It Possible,
ENDNOTES (for Parts 1 and 2),
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,