Reaching for the Heights And Flying Without a Safety Net
Revolutionary Worker #1197, May 4, 2003, posted at rwor.org
Editors' Note: The following is taken from the transcript of a tape-recorded talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, toward the end of 2002. It was originally intended for distribution among Party members and others close to the Party, in particular revolutionaries of the newer generations, but we are happy to be able to share excerpts from this talk with our readers. They have been edited and footnotes have been added for publication here.
I have been talking about how, even in the face of truly mass and truly heroic struggles and even where partial victories are won and concessions are wrenched from the powers-that-be, they will work to undermine and reverse these things--and the fundamental nature of the system and the fundamental conditions of the masses of people will not be changed, at least not for the better. Let me give another example of this--one which involves the outlook of people on what has been a gigantic question in the U.S., throughout its history and down to today: the oppression of Black people, and their resistance to that oppression.
I recall that about 25 years ago (I believe it was in 1977) when, as part of the concessions coming off of the tremendous upsurge of the '60s which carried over into the early `70s, there was a whole TV series, Roots.It was up to that time, maybe still today, the most watched TV series in the history of television in the U.S.--it was watched by something like 100 million people, including a lot of white people.
Roots was the history of a Black family, but it was also much more than that--it touched on the history of Black people in America as a whole. The story went back to Africa and the enslavement of people there and their forced transport to America, and it came all the way up into a period not far from the present day. And I remember the stories that comrades would tell of people working in factories or other work places, the white people in particular, who would be going to Black people they worked with and saying, "I had no idea about this"--which says something about the educational system and what the bourgeoisie wants people to know and not know. "This" referred to even basic level things, like the fact that Black people's names go back to the names of the slavemasters who owned their ancestors, and what that actually represents in human terms. The fact that little kids would get sold to another slave owner, ripped away from their mothers and sold at 8, 9 years old. White people in particular would say, "You know, I had no idea" and they would be very moved by this. This was a very transformative thing, to use that phrase, in terms of the consciousness of millions of people in the U.S., including and in particular a lot of white people who had never understood this.
And yet today you've got these types who want to blot all that out. You know, Michael Moore wrote that book, Stupid White Men --you've got a lot of these stupid white people who write letters to editors in papers like the USA Today and say ignorant things like: "What is all this complaining about slavery --what about the Africans who owned slaves?" Or: "My parents came here from Europe and we never owned any slaves..." All this kind of nonsense that betrays, at a minimum, a woeful ignorance of the horror of slavery and white supremacy and oppression of Black people even after slavery and right down to today in the good ole USA.
Why is there such ignorance? It's not really because there was an epidemic of stupidity that washed over the country or something. It's that the bourgeoisie worked very hard to wipe out and reverse what many people learned through the upsurges of the '60s and in its aftermath. Beginning with Reagan in particular, when he became President in 1981, there was a massive ideological assault to undo what people had learned, to make them "stupid" and to promote another view, a reactionary viewpoint. Sometimes you forget these things--and the ruling class works, through its media and in other ways, to get people to forget important lessons they have learned and to reverse important verdicts that get passed in society broadly, such as the basic fact that the origins of the U.S. are rooted in slavery and genocide.
I remember that, back in the late '80s or the early '90s, Jesse Jackson made an outrageous statement, along these lines: "I hate to say this, but if I'm walking down the street somewhere at night and I hear people behind me and I look around and see it's white people I'm relieved, because I'm worried about what Black people might do to me." That's what Jesse Jackson said. Now, this is probably not something he wants to trumpet around today, but at that time Jesse Jackson was repeating this whole bourgeois line about crime and gangs, blaming the masses of Black people for the conditions the system has forced them into and forcibly kept them in --where even conservative analysts have to say that crime is a "rational choice" for millions of these youth. What Jesse Jackson was running on this was a straight-up bourgeois line that went right along with the racist propaganda by the Reagans and the rest, which basically said that Black people are inferior and are criminal by nature. These reactionaries were even trying to revive "theories" about the genetic inferiority of non-white people and how they are just genetically predisposed to certain things and incapable of certain things.
This was a revival of shit that was disproved and discredited decades ago--theories of genetic differences between races which make some superior and others inferior, and all kinds of shit for which it has been clearly shown that there is absolutely zero scientific basis. That's been shown time and time again, and yet here it came again--with books like The Bell Curve that tried to give this racist garbage a "scientific" veneer. And the people who wrote The Bell Curve , they weren't treated as crackpots--they were treated as legitimate researchers, writers and intellectuals, respectable intellectuals. The bourgeois media, including the supposedly more "highbrow" New York Times , treated these authors with respect and treated their rehash of long-exposed racist rubbish as if it were serious science.
All this was systematic--there was a systematic effort and campaign on the part of the ruling class to blot out important truths that people had learned about the history and the present-day nature of American society and to attack these truths through the revival of worn-out reactionary garbage. So, when we witness a lot of this "stupidity" from more than a few white people in the U.S., this is not just something spontaneous--it is not just some kind of "personal prejudice" they developed all on their own--it stems from the underlying relations of white supremacy, which are built into the system in the U.S., and it has been consciously and systematically promoted by the ruling class whose system depends on and could not survive without this white supremacy and the corresponding racist ideas.
You know, I once wrote something speaking to the question of what's wrong with white people--and I concluded that there's a lot wrong with white people in the U.S., which is not surprising, given that they live in a white supremacist society, but it's nothing that a good proletarian revolution couldn't cure.* In fact, there is a lot wrong with people living in imperialist countries in general, especially people in the more privileged strata whose privilege stems in no small part from the way in which imperialism plunders the world and super-exploits millions and millions of people in the Third World in particular. But this is not something inherent in them--it's not "in their genes," it's not "something they're hard-wired for," and all the rest of that. Rather, it comes from their social experience, their social position, their place in the imperialist network of exploitation and oppression throughout the world. And it comes from the tremendous ideological bombardment and the systematic miseducation perpetrated by the imperialist ruling class.
* This article, "What's Wrong with White People?" appears in Reflections, Sketches & Provocations by Bob Avakian (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1990).
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And, once again, whenever and wherever that ruling class has to make concessions-- including concessions to reality, concessions to the truthful accounting of the history of the U.S. and the history of capitalism, which, as Karl Marx pointed out, comes into the world dripping with blood from head to toe and which had slavery built into its foundation, along with other brutal forms of exploitation-- whenever the ruling class is forced to make such concessions, they set out, in a systematic way, to undermine and reverse this.
Returning to the example of Roots , the ruling class allowed this on TV at that time (the late 1970s) because they really needed a whole "cooling out" period after the tremendous upheavals of the '60s, which carried over into the early 1970s, and which shook this system to its foundations. If you didn't live through that period, maybe it's a little bit hard to understand it from today's vantage point, but they really needed a process of regrouping and of "recouping"--a systematic effort to win back, or neutralize, millions and millions of people who had become thoroughly disgusted with and alienated from the ruling structures, institutions, and values. With Carter in the presidency, they declared an "amnesty" of sorts--they had thousands of veterans, for example, who had deserted and whose status was sort of in limbo, living in Europe, living in other places, in Canada, in the U.S. itself, living a kind of "semi-shadow" existence. They had to give a kind of pardon to those people and say: "OK--reconciliation--you can come back out of the shadows." In other words, they had to make all kinds of concessions to try to "cool things out" after the upsurges that rocked the country through the '60s and into the early '70s. And Carter was a good choice for them as the president to preside over this.
Of course, the ruling class never stopped brutally repressing people and groups who challenged it in any fundamental way, and the system never ceased brutally exploiting and oppressing masses of people, in the U.S. itself and all over the world. And, by the time Carter left office in 1980, he was putting forward a very different image and posture--he was threatening war with the Soviet Union if it challenged U.S. supremacy in the Persian Gulf area, and he came forward with a new war-fighting doctrine, including nuclear weapons--which Reagan then picked up on and carried further when he beat out Carter for the presidency. Among other things, and beyond what it exposes about Carter himself, this was yet another illustration of the truth that it is the operation of the system and the needs of the ruling class that fundamentally sets the terms of things--and not which politicians are in office, or the personality traits or personal inclinations of those politicians.
And so, after a period of some concessions and "cooling out," came an aggressive reactionary offensive from the ruling class. This was personified by Reagan but it had many manifestations--it was many-sided. It was felt in every sphere of U.S. society, as well as in the international arena, and of course it had a whole dimension of molding public opinion, including through the means of mass popular culture. One sharp example of this was the TV show Hill Street Blues.(This is also spoken to in Reflections, Sketches & Provocations.) This show had the explicit purpose of "repairing the image of the police" in the face of a situation where, through the whole upsurge of the '60s, millions of youth and others had come to see more clearly the real repressive and murderous role of the police, and it was widely popular to call them "pigs." Daniel J. Travanti, the lead actor in that show, openly talked about how it aimed to help repair the relations between the police and the people. Of course, he didn't mean that the show was somehow going to get the police to stop murdering people, particularly youth in the inner cities, time and time again; nor that it would somehow keep the police from attacking and seeking to suppress people protesting and rebelling against the system. No, the reality was that the show was aiming to repair the public relations image of the police. And, very interestingly, Hill Street Blues was kept on the air, even though its initial ratings were very poor. They kept it on until they built up an audience for it, because it was very important to them ideologically.
It's important that we understand these things and that we enable other people to understand them, because one of the things the ruling class really likes to do, and constantly seeks to do, is to blame the masses for everything. You know, "people get the leaders they deserve" or "we're just giving the people what they want," whether it's politics, or popular culture, or whatever. They do this with elections and in all kinds of other ways--they give people "choices" that are no real choice, that all fundamentally come down to the same thing, and then they say that "the people have chosen this"! So it is very important for us to understand and to enable other people to understand that this is the workings of the system, both the "unconscious operation" of the accumulation process and dynamics of capitalism-imperialism, but also the conscious policy and actions of the ruling class through the superstructure--that is, through the political structures and institutions and the institutions of military power, as well as the mass media and the institutions and instruments of culture and (mis)education in general.
Let's take another example of how the ruling class maneuvers and manipulates: the right to abortion. This was a major concession on the part of the ruling class. It's hard to imagine it, and I know a lot of young people, including a lot of young women, have a hard time imagining what it was like before this concession was made in the form of the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Many people today, including unfortunately many young women, take this for granted and they get confused even about the "moral issues." Part of the reason for that is because of the ideological offensive of the ruling class to make abortion seem like, at best, a "necessary evil." But part of the reason, also, is that, for 30 years now, people, and women in particular, haven't been living in a situation where, if they decide they really want an abortion, they can't get it, legally. And that can be a life-determining decision--to have, or not to have, a baby at a particular time in your life. I don't mean that in the sense that the reactionaries say it: that you're going to regret it the rest of your life if you "kill your baby." I mean it in the sense that whether you're going to have a child at a given time, and all that is bound up with that, is obviously a big decision about the whole direction of your life, and it has a major impact on what your life's going to be like. The right not to have this decision forced on you --the right for a woman to be able to make this decision herself--was a major concession that was also wrenched out of the ruling class coming off the '60s and the whole emergence of the women's movement and everything related to that.
For its own reasons, the ruling class hasn't yet moved to take away this right wholesale, but they've been chipping away at it, practically--putting more and more restrictions on it, doing more and more things to define fetuses as people with rights, etc., etc., even when they aren't now trying to overturn Roe and outright abolish the right to abortion. And politically and ideologically, bourgeois politicians and spokespeople, including "defenders of the right to abortion" like Al Gore (and Bill Clinton), have been propagating this whole notion that abortion should be "legal but rare"--that, in essence, while it is a right, it is also a real tragedy. Again, they are presenting it as a necessary evil--instead of what it is: a key aspect of the struggle to emancipate women.
I would like to understand this more fully, but my definite sense is that there is a lot of confusion on this question, including among a lot of young women who "should know better"--not to blame them, but they're confused, they've been bombarded with this whole idea that your role is to be a breeder...or even if it's not that crude, that it's "selfish" of you to want to have your own life separate and apart from being a bearer of children. And this is another thing that powerful forces in the ruling class have been pushing --another way they're seeking to reverse right and wrong and turn things upside-down. And this goes so far as to attack people who stand up against oppression and have sacrificed in the struggle against oppression as "self-indulgent." Here we have the whole "'60s generation"--and, of course, I'm not talking about Dan Quayle or people like that, but the people who defined that generation. What was that generation defined by? It was Black college students and white college students and others who went to the South to join in the fight against open segregation and white supremacy, and who faced what that meant, lynching and all the rest of it. And then many of these youth came back and initiated or supported the Black liberation struggle, the movements among Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, the antiwar movement, the women's movement.
These were people making all kinds of personal sacrifices for larger social objectives and for the social good, in broad terms. And all of a sudden that's been redefined as a self-indulgent generation! Here is a generation that was the most self-sacrificing we've had so far--to be surpassed by the new generations hopefully--it was young people motivated by and acting on the objective of fighting against injustice and uprooting oppression. And how do they slander it to make it seem "self-indulgent?" You know: "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." Well, loosening things up, breaking out of repressive constraints, bringing forward new and fresh things in the culture and in relations among people, was part of the rebellion of the '60s too.
It may be hard to imagine now the uptight and suffocating shit that was the norm, socially and culturally, at the time in the U.S., and it was righteous and necessary to rebel against that. Of course, the bourgeoisie does what they do with everything--you know, people come forward with opposition to all this uptight, socially and sexually repressive stuff, and what do the powers-that-be do? They promote pornography and all kinds of bourgeois shit as if that's the alternative. But that's not what people were rebelling for. Again, it's important to understand that many of those things that were like "personal life style" questions had to do with rebellion against the whole highly restrictive and repressive social and cultural rules and regulations and ethos of the time. They were part of a larger, overall rebellion against repressive and oppressive relations and values. And somehow that's all been redefined to be "self- indulgent"; and somehow now it's declared to be "self-indulgent" to want to have an abortion, to want to have a larger life, to take part more broadly in society and not be reduced to being a breeder.
One of the things that should be posed is this question: How many of these people who oppose the right to abortion also don't oppose birth control? Very few. So there you get right to the essence of the matter. It's not a matter of "killing babies"--they want women to play a certain social role, it's very important to them. The family, as a patriarchal institution, is very important to them, it's very important to the whole bourgeois structure, especially when there are a lot of strains and contradictory trends pulling at society and a lot of changes that are undermining a lot of the traditional, oppressive relations and values.
The point I'm trying to emphasize here is that there was a high tide when some of these things were very clear and there was a whole generation of women--and secondarily, but importantly, men--who were enlightened about the whole role of women in society and the struggle to break tradition's chains in this regard, and this became concentrated in one major way around the question of abortion. And yet, one of the things that frustrates some of even the more reformist-minded feminists today is that a lot of the younger women coming along don't understand this. It's not just that they don't understand everything, all the struggle, that went into winning the right to abortion; but, beyond that, it's how many younger people, including many young women, have been influenced in how they look at the question, "morally," ideologically and politically, how they're being influenced by this bourgeois rampage, really, and this concerted effort to "reverse verdicts," to reverse right and wrong, just as there has been around the question of national oppression and racism in this society.
Beginning in the 1980s, there has been a whole orchestrated and concentrated campaign to blot out the whole history of white supremacy in the U.S., right down to today, to pretend that the U.S. is a "color blind society," or one in which everyone not only should be but actually is judged simply according to their merit and achievements... and therefore , if you talk about the reality that there is not equality, that national oppression is still rampant and deeply rooted, that this remains a society in which white supremacy is widespread and deeply embedded, then you are somehow being "racist." In other words, according to this perverted logic, in order not to be "racist" you must accept white supremacy and inequality! This is a whole offensive that has been waged, for more than two decades now, to turn things around. And this is not just in the realm of ideas--it is not just affecting people's thinking about this decisive question--although that is very important; it is given practical application in things that are under attack--ethnic studies, affirmative action, bilingual education...all these things that were wrenched as concessions and have since been made into focuses of attack.
Once more, the point of all this is not that these struggles weren't worthwhile, or that winning even partial victories, wrenching some concessions from the ruling class--that all this is unimportant. None of that is the point. The fundamental point that I'm trying to drive home here, from these different angles and with these different examples, is that until we overthrow and transform, none of these victories can be anything but partial and they can't be permanent. And the oppression and exploitation of the masses of people, the totally unnecessary suffering and all the horrors that they're subjected to, will go on and intensify. So this understanding has got to be our fixed point, our north star, our guiding orientation; and we have to not only be firmly rooted in this ourselves, but we have to be consistently bringing this out, in a living way, in all the work we're doing with--and in our unity-struggle- unity with--other forces. Or else, ultimately, there is no point to what we're doing and there is no need for us.
You know, when I was a student, I thought about being a doctor or a lawyer in order to serve the people in that way. And there is a role for that, and people who try to do that are very precious and should be valued and supported, but that is not going to deal with the fundamental problem. I became aware that the good you might be able to do for people is going to be overwhelmed--you help one patient and 50 patients are going without health care or being mangled by the so-called health care system. This applies to any field you can think of. And, left at that, and left to themselves, many people who set out to do good in these fields become discouraged and can even become cynical. Because the problem is much bigger than what they can do, and the solution cannot be found within this system.
So this is the first point I want to make. We need revolution. We have to seize power--and, once we get it, we have to hold on firmly to state power, until the conditions have been created, throughout the world, where this kind of power, and where the state itself, even of the most revolutionary kind, is no longer necessary and must be replaced by a freely associating world community of people. And, at the same time, while there remains the need for the state, and while we must hold on firmly to state power, there is the profound question of who "we" is and how the "we" has to change, both quantitatively and qualitatively--has to continually expand, to take in ever broader ranks of the masses ruling society, and has to increasingly become radically different from any previous form of the state. But, with all that, we shouldn't be the least bit defensive about the objective of seizing and holding on firmly to state power. We should be very offensive, in a good sense, about this.
We want state power--we want it for the masses of people, but goddamn it, we want it! And when we finally get it, we're not going to give it up either. The basic truth is that capitalist society is ruled by an exploiting class, the bourgeoisie. Under this capitalist state, power can never be in the hands of the people, whether or not they are allowed to vote for which group of bourgeois politicians will be in office; while in socialist society, with the dictatorship of the formerly exploited class, the proletariat, state power can and must be exercised by the masses of people. (I have analyzed this in some depth in the book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?but it is very important to continue returning to and deepening people's understanding of this.)
So, if we take ourselves at all seriously, why would we not want this kind of state power, and why, once it has been won, would we give it up? Of course, when communism has been reached, this state power will no longer be necessary: getting to communism means bringing into being the conditions where the state can and must "wither away"--where institutions of repression and political power by one part of society (or the world) over another will no longer be necessary, or possible, and new institutions will be developed that reflect this and that serve the functioning of freely associating communities of people throughout the world, citizens of a true world community. But in order to get to communism, we need this radically new kind of state: the dictatorship of the proletariat.
I have made this point before, but I want to make it again: what it would mean to have a whole different kind of state, to have revolutionary political power ruling society, to have a whole different kind of system--think of everything we're trying to do, and think of everything that has to go into actually making a revolution. So then we have state power and somebody comes along and says: "Oh well, it's not really that important that we hold onto it, now. After all, we might turn into oppressors, or we might just solidify a hierarchal structure here that keeps the people down, and it might turn out that the new boss is just as bad as the old boss, so why don't we just hand power back over to the bourgeoisie? It's not that big a deal, is it?" Such a person would be insane, or very foolhardy, at best.
Or, what if we were to say that, having overthrown the old oppressive state power, the masses don't need to have state power, we can just do away with the state right now? In reality, this would amount to the same thing as simply turning power back over to the bourgeoisie, because they would take advantage of such a monumental misconception and misstep on our part to seize power and to crush and punish the masses of people in the most cruel ways. This is of profound importance, it makes a monumental difference, not just to us communists, by ourselves, but more fundamentally to the masses of people.
Now, it should be clear that this doesn't mean that we don't need democracy for the masses under socialism. We definitely do--and we need to find the ways to make a living reality of Lenin's statement that such democracy, under the rule of the proletariat, will be a million times more democratic for the masses than the democracy that exists under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, a democracy that in essence is for the capitalist ruling class and serves its interests. But we must also recognize that to realize what Lenin said, to achieve a democracy under the dictatorship of the proletariat that is "a million times more democratic" for the masses of people is going to be a struggle. And, as important as this is, it is not an end in itself or the final objective. The final objective is to uproot and finally abolish all relations of exploitation and oppression, everywhere in the world, and to bring into being a new world community in which class distinctions, states and vanguard parties no longer exist, in which there will no longer be a basis or need for these things. All this is going to be, and can only be, achieved through the dialectical relation between the initiative of the masses and the role of the vanguard party, leading and at the core of this whole process. And in this process, while ultimately the goal is to eliminate states and political relations in the form of state power, until that objective is reached--and indeed in order to reach it--state power in the hands of the proletariat, led by its vanguard, is essential and indispensable, it is crucial for the masses of people and their complete liberation.
As is stressed in our Party's Draft Programme , on the one hand, without state power all is illusion, but when you actually have state power, all kinds of things that are illusions now can become reality then. All kinds of things that, as much as the masses of people want them, and as much as people of good will strive to do them, cannot really be brought into being under this system, will become possible once this system is overthrown and a new, revolutionary political power has been established. Providing health care for the masses of people, providing an education that actually enables people to learn about reality and to engage reality, to learn how to think critically, and to take up a scientific viewpoint and apply it in a creative way to all kinds of spheres--that's possible when you have revolutionary state power. Meeting other basic needs of the people, providing a culture that's lively and vibrant and revolutionary, but creative at the same time--becomes possible. All the shoots that get brought forward by the masses of people can be nurtured and allowed to flower--and, yes, led, but also given a lot of initiative. Feeding people, providing decent housing for people--getting rid of fucking rats, so people are not having their kids chewed by rats at two o'clock in the morning--becomes possible. There's no reason why these things can't be done--no reason other than capitalism. And actually enabling the people to exercise state power and to take up all these different spheres--from arts to sciences to medicine to education to political decision- making and affairs of state--that becomes possible.
It isn't that you just wave a magic wand and it all happens, just like that--but it's possible. Revolution opens up these possibilities, it creates the basis on which, through continuing struggle, these things can happen, and must happen, if we're going to keep going forward. And just think about that. Think about the fact that every day we're going out working among people of various strata, from the basic masses to people in the middle strata who suffer under this system in different ways, who even to the degree they don't suffer so much personally are outraged by the fact that things exist that they can see are unjust and unnecessary and they are frustrated because these things keep going, and there doesn't seem to be anything that can be done about them--which fundamentally, there isn't under this system . But all those things can be changed, transformed. A whole bunch of things which are impossible under this system, but are essential for the masses of people, become possible with revolution and the establishment of a new, revolutionary state power.
So this is something we have to keep clearly in mind--both sides of this contradiction --that without state power all is illusion, but with state power a lot of things that are illusory become possible. And that's a very important contradiction, or unity of opposites, that we have to grasp firmly and bring out to masses of people. It's not like we're some religious nuts or something--we don't go out "glowing," talking about supernatural nonsense--this is based on material reality and the actual necessity of masses of people, and it conforms to the way the world is tending, even though the tendencies in the world and society are sharply contradictory.