Reaching for the Heights And Flying Without a Safety Net

Part 8: Taking Responsibility, Taking Initiative, and Not Being Paralyzed by Mistakes

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1203, June 15, 2003, posted at

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 want to talk a little bit about "what it takes," that is, what is required to rise to the responsibility of leading, being a part of the vanguard and even being part of the leadership of the Party. In the Constitution of our Party it makes the point that Party members should be prepared to take any post and fulfill any task that is required to carry out our responsibility to the international proletariat. That's a very serious challenge for us. Now, it is important to make an honest assessment of what you are capable of contributing at any given point--if you're called on to do something you're not really capable of doing, you should say so. That's part of objectively analyzing reality, as well. But that shouldn't become a sort of rationalization for not rising to challenges when they're presented. We have to have an orientation of wanting the ball, an orientation of rising to the responsibilities and the challenges we face -- those that are brought forward by the objective development of things, and those that result from what the Party, through its collectivity, its channels and its leadership, calls on us to do.

We should not take this up uncritically, unthinkingly, but we have to have that orientation of taking up any post and any responsibility we are called on to assume. We have to have a conquering spirit, not in some sort of quasi-religious sense, but grounded in materialism and guided by dialectics. And this means not being intimidated or overawed by things. This is an important aspect of being able to lead and to take responsibility on whatever level you're called on to do it. Of course, we should all realize that the stakes of things these days are very great, and are constantly being raised. If we make mistakes they have real consequences. We don't have state power to lose, unfortunately, but we could lose a lot if we make serious mistakes. So that can be intimidating, that can be paralyzing. But that's why we have collectivity, and why we have a structure to the Party and leadership, why we have guidelines, why we have various documents as well as the Revolutionary Worker to orient people. But, within that framework, we need people to take initiative. And we need people not to be intimidated or overawed.

We have to handle a very acute contradiction between, on the one hand, the fact that if we make a serious mistake we could really screw things up, and on the other hand, needing an attitude on a certain level of: if you make mistakes, so what? That's another unity of opposites. You have to handle that correctly. You can't have either just one or the other. "Oh, if I make a mistake, so what -- so I caused a real setback -- that's OK." Well, it's not OK. On the other hand, if for fear of that you don't take initiative, you are always waiting for people to tell you what to do about every aspect of things -- or even when they do tell you what you should do, when they give you basic orientation and guidance, you don't do it because you're afraid of making mistakes, you're afraid of your own shadow, you're paralyzed by fear of causing dire consequences. Clearly, that won't lead anywhere positive either. We have to take responsibility for everything, including what we do and our own mistakes. And taking responsibility for that means being willing, on the one hand, to risk things in the framework in which we should-- which is ultimately and fundamentally determined collectively, but also has an individual component, an aspect in which individual initiative, on the basis of the common line and policy, is very important. It also means taking responsibility for recognizing and correcting our errors and openly discussing them with others and helping others as well as ourselves to learn from them when we make them, and doing our best not to repeat errors.

At the same time, let me emphasize it again: it is of decisive importance not to be paralyzed by our mistakes, or by the fear of making mistakes--there is an aspect in which it is correct to say "so what?" with regard to mistakes that we may make. In this regard, it is worth looking at the document "Revisionists Are Revisionists...and Revolutionaries Are Revolutionaries...," which was written as part of the struggle within our Party over what stand to take toward the revisionist coup in China following Mao's death in 1976.*

"Revisionists/Revolutionaries" is full of "so what's": the Chinese leadership, after they overthrew the "gang of four," they had a big demonstration and millions of people denounced the gang of what? It's full of a lot of "so what's" like that, and those "so what's" have meaning. It's not just being oblivious to reality and going blithely along--ignorance is bliss. It's saying, "Look, let's keep our eye on the big things, on the essential questions here." As it points out, anybody can organize a demonstration of a lot people if they have state power. That's not so hard to do, at least in the short run. That doesn't answer the question of what line different forces represent and what road this or that program will take people on.

So, it's important to have an orientation of, on the one hand, taking all this very seriously, and taking responsibility for all that we do, including our mistakes; but, on the other hand--and correctly understood-- we need that "so what" orientation of being unafraid, including being unafraid to make mistakes, even while working very hard to minimize mistakes as much as possible, and to learn from them as much as possible when mistakes are made.


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