by Bob Avakian
October 4, 2021
In today’s world, to fundamentally change society, you must seize power—overthrow the existing state power and establish a new state power.
In the article Commodities & Capitalism—And The Terrible Consequences Of This System, A Basic Explanation, I examined the basic contradictions which have historically developed in the foundation and at the core of the capitalist system, and how the communist revolution—and only the communist revolution—can bring about a resolution of these contradictions that is in the interests of the masses of humanity, and ultimately humanity as a whole.1
In another article, I spoke to this crucial understanding about the nature and dynamics of not only capitalist society but human society more generally, and the basis for the radical transformation of society:
people live in societies that are organized as systems—systems that are grounded in the ways people interact with each other, and with the rest of nature, in order to meet their basic needs and provide for future generations. And those systems have certain basic relations, and ways of functioning, that are independent of the will of any particular individuals or groups of people, even those who occupy the dominant position within those systems.2
In other works, including The New Communism and Breakthroughs, this fundamental point is emphasized: The mode of production sets the framework—the terms and the limits—for what goes on, and is possible, within the society grounded in that mode of production. “Mode of production” is another way of saying “the economic system,” or the economic base of society. This is the fundamental way in which people are organized to “interact with each other, and with the rest of nature, in order to meet their basic needs and provide for future generations.”3
Since the break-up of early communal societies among human beings thousands of years ago, economic systems have been based on the exploitation of the many by the few: a situation where these “few” who own and control the major means of production (land, factories and other production facilities, machines and other technology) are in a position to force others to work to create wealth for them—and if these “others” do not do this, they will not be able to survive. Such, for example, is the system of outright slavery, but also the system of feudalism, where large landowners exploit masses of serfs—peasants owning little or no land and basically having no rights which those landowners are bound to respect. This was the situation not only in large parts of the world—including in Europe, Japan and China—until more recent times, but also with the system of “sharecropping” in the southern U.S., where masses of Black people, and some poor whites, were viciously exploited by plantation owners, for nearly 100 years after slavery was (for the most part) abolished through the Civil War of 1861-65.
In the world today, the dominant system of exploitation is capitalism, which has developed into capitalism-imperialism, a worldwide system that not only exploits tens of millions of wage-workers in this country, but even more viciously exploits hundreds of millions of people, including more than a 150 million children, in a vast network of sweatshops, mines and farms, particularly in the Third World (Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia).
But here is something that is crucial to understand: economic systems (or modes of production) are not just something that some powerful people somehow invent and impose on masses of powerless people. The nature of the economic system is basically determined by the relations of production—the way in which people are organized to utilize the forces of production that exist (the forces of production consist of the means of production, along with the people, with their knowledge and abilities). And, again, the mode of production constitutes the foundation, and sets the terms and limits, for what goes on in society overall.
An Illustration of These Basic Relations and Dynamics: Why Are Black People Still Viciously Oppressed?
Here’s an example from fairly recent history in this country that illustrates this basic point.
The system of sharecropping, in the U.S., particularly in the South, after the Civil War, was based on intense manual labor by people, particularly (though not only) Black people, who owned little or no land, and were in debt to large landowners, who controlled and profited from the crops that were produced and sold. The technology was very primitive, compared to the technology of today, with much of the plowing done by horses and mules, and the harvesting of the crops mainly done by hand. But then, after World War 2 (which ended in 1945), new technology had been developed, such as tractors and picking machines, which began displacing large numbers of sharecroppers. With the creation of a larger market for their products, and in a situation of heightened competition, not only within this country but also internationally, it was necessary, and it was more efficient and profitable, for these large landowners to use this machinery in place of sharecroppers.
This, along with the striving to escape terrible conditions of oppression, in the rural South in particular, was a major factor propelling masses of Black people into the cities in the South, but also a mass migration of millions to the urban areas of the North and West. But what situation did masses of Black people find themselves in, under these new conditions? Not only in the South, but throughout the country, they were subjected to systematic segregation and discrimination, backed up by continuing terror, carried out by police along with other white supremacist thugs. All this was a major impetus for the civil rights and Black liberation movements that powerfully erupted in these new conditions. But, even while important changes were brought about through the great struggle and sacrifice of masses of people, this did not eliminate the basic situation of oppression and exploitation of the masses of Black people.
Why? Because this struggle took place within—and did not bring about the overthrow of—the system that dominates in the society as a whole: the system of capitalism-imperialism. Although masses of Black people were now living in new conditions, they were not starting over with a “blank slate,” free to choose any way to live that they desired. In order to live and provide for their families, they were forced to seek employment in large factories and other workplaces that were owned by capitalists, and forced to live within a capitalist society—which, from the beginning and throughout its history in this country, has had white supremacy poured into its foundation and woven into all its dominant relations and institutions.
The Basis Now Exists for Emancipating All Oppressed People, All of Humanity
This gets to another important point about the systems that characterize the societies that people live in. These systems are historically evolved. This means that changes in human society are based, and can only be based, on transforming what already exists in that society, on the foundation of the forces of production that have been developed at any given time.
And even revolutionary changes—a radical leap from one system to another—can only proceed on the basis of transforming what exists. This cannot be done by coming up with ideas or notions about how society “ought” to be, if those ideas or notions have no basis in the existing reality.
What is crucially important to understand is that the basis now exists to enable the billions of people on this planet to have the means for a decent life, worthy of human beings—a life that is continually being enriched, not just materially but socially, intellectually and culturally. But, at the same time, the way human society has developed under the domination of this system of capitalism-imperialism has led to a highly “lopsided” world, where billions of people in the world live in horrific conditions of oppression and misery, with millions of children in the Third World dying each year from starvation and preventable diseases. Quiet as its kept:
All this is the basis on which a relatively small part of the people within this country, and a very small part of humanity as a whole, has the conditions and the “freedom” to develop and apply their initiative and creativity—only to have this serve, under this system, to reinforce the “lopsided,” highly unequal and profoundly oppressive conditions in the world as a whole and for the masses of people in the world.
And all this is completely unnecessary.4
It is the productive forces that have been developed under the capitalist-imperialist system that actually provide the material basis to move beyond all this. But, at the same time, it is this system, with its mode of production based on exploitative relations of production, that is the direct barrier to making this a reality—is a chain on the masses of people throughout the world, and on humanity overall.
This brings us to the fundamental contradiction of capitalism—between socialized production and private appropriation. Under this system, things are overwhelmingly produced through organized means of mass production, with the machinery and other technology that makes this possible. This is carried out, and can only be carried out, by large numbers of people working together in different sites of production (factories, and so on) and ultimately millions, and billions, of people organized into interconnected chains of production and transportation (“supply chains”). And this is what forms the basis for society’s functioning and for people to survive and reproduce. But all this is controlled by—and the products of all this are appropriated by—competing capitalists, with the most powerful and dominant anchored in a few capitalist-imperialist countries (such as the U.S., Germany, Japan, Russia, and China).
This fundamental contradiction—between production that is socialized and the private appropriation of what is produced, and the corresponding concentration of not only wealth but the means to create wealth (the means of production) in the hands of a small minority of humanity, in a small number of countries—this acts as the essential barrier and chain on human emancipation and suffocates the vast human potential that is now shackled under the domination of this system. This is what is preventing humanity from acting as fit caretakers of the earth, by approaching this in a planned and cooperative way, and instead is driving things toward environmental and ecological disaster at an ever accelerating pace.
On the other hand, it is the communist revolution which has the basis to resolve this fundamental contradiction, by socializing the ownership of the means of production—moving to make them the common property of society—and, on this basis, carrying out economic development in a planned and sustainable way, revolutionizing the relations of production as a whole, as well as the corresponding social relations (for example, gender and “racial” relations), and the superstructure of politics, culture and ideology. (A “superstructure” is something which is built on top of a foundation; so, for example, the walls and the roof of a house constitute a “superstructure” that is built on the foundation of the house).
To Fundamentally Change Society, You Must Seize Power
Here we come to another crucially important understanding that is brought to light through the application of the scientific method of communism: the economic base (the mode of production) is the foundation of human society; and, on this foundation,there will be a superstructure of politics, culture and ways of thinking (ideology) that, in their dominant expressions, reflect and serve to maintain this economic base. (In other works, such as Breakthroughs, Birds Cannot Give Birth to Crocodiles, But Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon, and Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity, I have spoken to, and provided examples illustrating, why it is that the superstructure of any functioning society will, and must, correspond to, and serve to reinforce, the economic base of that society.5)
It is the superstructure that maintains and enforces the existing economic base (mode of production) and the corresponding social relations. So, while the economic base is the foundation of society, which sets the terms and limits for how all of society can and must function, it is in the realm of the superstructure—and in particular the domination of political power—where the direction of society, and in particular the potential to radically transform society, is determined and resolved.
In its most essential terms, the domination of political power is expressed through a monopoly of armed force and violence (and, in particular, institutionalized armed force and violence which is declared “legitimate”). To see this in simple and graphic terms, think of what happens under this system when people mobilize in the attempt to bring an end to injustice and oppression: they are met with the repression and violence of the superstructure of this system, in particular the police and armed forces, the courts and prisons—which concentrate the state power enforcing the existing system.6
In order to transform society to put an end to the injustice, oppression and exploitation that is built into this system, and is grounded in its mode of production, it is necessary to break the back of its system of state power, its violent rule over society (the dictatorship of the capitalist-imperialist class), and establish a new system of power, a socialist state power (the dictatorship of the proletariat), in order to radically transform the economic base, the corresponding social relations, and the political and ideological superstructure as a whole, toward the goal of uprooting and finally abolishing all relations of exploitation and oppression, everywhere.
To sum up this essential understanding of the relations in society and the basis for radically changing society: The economic base (the mode of production) is the foundation of society, which sets the ultimate terms and limits for what can happen in a given society; but it is in the superstructure where revolution can and must be made, by overthrowing the existing state power and system of political rule, and establishing a radically different state power and system of political rule, in order to move forward to transform the economic base, the social relations, and the superstructure as a whole, including the political institutions and processes as well as the culture and ideology.
Or to put things in basic and simple terms: In today’s world, to fundamentally change society, you must seize power—overthrow the existing state power and establish a new state power.
This Revolution Is Possible, and Urgently Needed
This is the historic necessity and challenge before us today: the overthrow of the capitalist-imperialist system, with its monopoly of political power, concentrated as the monopoly of so-called “legitimate” armed force and violence, and the establishment of socialist state power, enabling the radical transformation of society as a whole, and aiming for the final goal of communism, with the abolition of all relations of exploitation and oppression, throughout the world.
This revolution is not just a historic necessity in some general (or abstract) sense. It is a pressing, urgent demand of our times, when this system of capitalism-imperialism—through its massive arsenals of nuclear weapons, which must be abolished, and its increasing destruction of a liveable environment—not only imposes horrendous, and unnecessary, suffering on the masses of humanity, destroying lives and crushing spirits, but also poses a growing threat to the very existence of humanity.
More than that, as a Declaration from the revcoms makes clear, and as I have gone into in an article elaborating on key points in that Declaration: This is one of those rare times when this revolution becomes possible, even in a powerful country like this.7
This rare opportunity must not be wasted and squandered. It must be actively worked for, in an organized way, with scientifically-grounded passion and determination, by everyone who hungers for a world without the misery, brutality, and destruction, and the agony, alienation, dread and despair that is the daily life and terrible condition of billions of people across the earth, when the time has long since passed when that is necessary or can in any way be justified, and there is the basis and the possibility for a radically different and emancipating existence and future for humanity.
In the words of the opening of A Declaration, A Call To Get Organized Now For A Real Revolution, from the revcoms:
To everyone who can’t stand this world the way it is … who is sick and tired of so many people being treated as less than human … who knows that the claim of “liberty and justice for all” is a cruel lie … who is righteously enraged that injustice and inequality go on, and on, and on, despite false promises and honeyed words from people in power (or those seeking power) … everyone who agonizes about where things are headed and the fact that to be young now means being denied a decent future, or any future at all … everyone who has ever dreamed about something much better, or even wondered whether that is possible … everyone who hungers for a world without oppression, exploitation, poverty, and destruction of the environment … everyone who has the heart to fight for something that is really worth fighting for: You need to be part of this revolution.8
Upcoming Articles by Bob Avakian at revcom.us:
- Abolition—Real and Illusory
- Living Marxism vs. Vulgarized Marxism
Liberating Revolution, Not Lifeless Reformism
- No Right to Kill with Religion
“Religious Exemptions” Are Not a Legitimate Reason for Refusing Vaccines
- Why the World Is So Messed Up, and What Can Be Done to Radically Change This—
A Basic Scientific Understanding
1. This article by Bob Avakian (Commodities & Capitalism—And The Terrible Consequences Of This System, A Basic Explanation) is available at revcom.us. [back]
2. Bob Avakian, Why Do People Believe the Most Ridiculous and Outrageous Nonsense? Wild Distortions Of Reality, Deadly Illusions Of “Painless Progress,” And The Urgent Need For A Real, Scientifically-Grounded Revolution. This article is also available at revcom.us. [back]
3. Bob Avakian, The New Communism, The science, the strategy, the leadership for an actual revolution, and a radically new society on the road to real emancipation, Insight Press, 2016. This book can be ordered from The Bob Avakian Institute (thebobavakianinstitute.org), as well as Insight Press, and through revcom.us. Breakthroughs, The Historic Breakthrough by Marx, and the Further Breakthrough with the New Communism, A Basic Summary, by Bob Avakian, is available at revcom.us. [back]
4. Bob Avakian,Capitalism-Imperialism—The Suffocation of Seven Billion—And The Profound Need For A World On New Foundations, is part of a collection of articles Bob Avakian: Writings in 2020—A Momentous Year, which is available at revcom.us. [back]
5. Birds Cannot Give Birth to Crocodiles, But Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon (Part 1: Revolution and the State; Part 2: Building the Movement for Revolution), and Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity (Part 1: Beyond the Narrow Horizon of Bourgeois Right; Part 2: Everything We’re Doing Is About Revolution) are available at BA’s Collected Works at revcom.us. In each of these works, see Part 1 in particular. Specifically in regard to the relation between the base and the superstructure, the author has called attention in particular to this passage from Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity:
It is important to grasp this point that the need for radical change in society gets called forth in the superstructure—in the thinking of people, and then in the political organization of people. People form groups, they form parties with programs and objectives which reflect—reflect not in a reductionist, linear and one‑to‑one sense, but reflect ultimately—what’s going on in the basic relations in society, in terms, most fundamentally, of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. This gets reflected more or less consciously in people’s thinking and then in their political organization. And in acting on their ideas, in seeking to bring about change in correspondence with their ideas, they come up against constraints—not only economic but also political constraints—the force of the state and the power relations in society which they have to shatter and transform in order to (once again in relative, not absolute terms) unleash and liberate the productive forces, including the people. This is how societies change in a fundamental and qualitative way—how and why revolutions are called forth and occur, through momentous struggle.
6. For a further discussion regarding state power, see the article From Bob Avakian: Once Again On Why All Dictatorships Are Not Bad, And Why We Should Want, And Fight For, A Socialist Dictatorship, which is available at revcom.us. [back]
7. From The Revcoms (Revcom.us): A Declaration, A Call To Get Organized Now For A Real Revolution is available at revcom.us. The article From Bob Avakian—Revolutionary Leader, Author of the New Communism: This Is A Rare Time When Revolution Becomes Possible—Why That Is So, And How To Seize On This Rare Opportunity, is available at revcom.us. [back]