Reaching for the Heights And Flying Without a Safety Net

Part 9: Flying Without a Safety Net, And the Relation Between Reverence and Irreverence

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1204, June 22, 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.

A lot of times, especially when you're newer to things, you have a certain level of responsibility, but not the highest level of responsibility, and you're doing something and you say, "Well, that's good enough--because I know that, if it's not really good enough, somebody else is going to clean it up for me somewhere up the chain; it's going to get to somebody who knows how to straighten out this shit." This is a tendency everybody has--and just about everybody has wished, at one time or another, that there were actually a god. Especially if it would actually help you win basketball games and do your work right and everything. But there isn't--that's the reality of it. Yet everybody kind of has these tendencies in one form or another--you want somebody to step in and clean up your shit or figure out things you can't figure out. And believe me, for everyone, on every level, there are many things we haven't figured out.

So everybody feels inadequate in certain ways--feels frustrated that there are problems they are having a hard time solving, or don't yet know how to solve--but we have to have the orientation of flying without a safety net. If you're not on the top leadership of the Party, you don't have the same responsibility as those who are, but you do have real responsibilities and you do have to take real initiative. And you have to have the orientation of contributing everything you can and not thinking: "Well, somebody will clean up my mistakes." It is true that, whatever level of the Party you're on, what you do, including things that you're incapable of resolving all by yourself, has to become part of the larger collectivity of the Party and its development of line and practice. But what is your orientation toward that? Is it that you're going to contribute as much as you possibly can and be part of that process--and take as much initiative as you can--or are you just going to kind of go through the motions and let somebody else worry about resolving things and figuring everything out? There is a very important difference in orientation there.

Related to this, I want to talk about the relation between reverence and irreverence. These things are contradictory, they form a contradiction with each other (a unity of opposites). For example, reverence--if it means, as it sometimes does, worshipping someone or something, then obviously that has no part in what we're all about and is something we have to work to overcome. So that's on the one hand--we don't want reverence in that sense. On the other hand, to really revere someone or something, to respect them for things they've done and what they represent, is a part of what we're about and should be part of how we're leading the masses--to respect people who have made contributions, to respect the Party for what it represents, to revere it in a certain sense--yes, we do need that. Not only is that not wrong, that's important, that's a positive thing. So there's a fine line there between uncritically following, on the one hand, and on other hand following with your mental faculties working. Reverence, correctly understood, is a question of respecting, even revering, but not worshipping, those people and things that are deserving of this. Those things that deserve to be respected should be respected. Those things that don't deserve to be respected should not be. But nothing should be worshipped. Nothing should be uncritically followed. Nothing should be blindly carried out.

If irreverence means, as I was just saying, that you don't worship things, that you don't blindly follow people, that you critically think about everything, that you challenge anything or anyone if you think they're wrong--whether you have a developed basis for thinking that, or even if it's just your impression-- irreverence in that sense is very necessary and vital for what we're all about. To defer to people simply because they have more experience, or because in an overall sense they may actually know more than you, or because they've made more contributions than you--to just blindly defer to people for those reasons-- that's wrong and can be very harmful.

There is that line from (actually the title of) the Springsteen song: "prove it all night." We have to prove it all night in what we're doing. You could be right a thousand times, but the next time there's still truth, there's still reality, and there's still what's right and wrong. And you have to be right every time. Not that anybody ever will be, but you have to strive to be right every time. And if you think somebody's not right, it doesn't matter who they are. In the correct way and the correct spirit, you have to challenge them, you have to raise what your thinking is, you have to raise what you think is incorrect. That's essential in what we're trying to do, in terms of getting to the point of seizing power and transforming society, and it's essential to what we're doing it all for and what we're all about, the kind of society and world we are struggling to bring into being. So we do need irreverence in that sense. We don't need irreverence "for its own sake"--we don't need people to just challenge others simply because they're in authority, without analyzing the content of their authority and how they exercise that authority.

It's good to challenge authority, but it's not good to do it for its own sake or just because people have authority or leadership roles. And it's not good, just because you may have certain questions or disagreements, to not have a dialectical view of that and not to recognize the contributions that people have made and what they represent if they do represent positive things, whether individuals or the Party collectively. There is a fine line there, but it is an important distinction. So, here again, we have to strive for the correct synthesis of these contradictory aspects of reverence and irreverence.

The Relation Between Basic Principles and Creatively Applying Them

This is similar to the principle that's stressed in the Declaration of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM) where it says that you have to handle correctly the relation between standing on our basic principles and at the same time creatively applying them. And creatively applying includes being open to understanding that things you may hold to be very dear and very crucial may not be entirely correct, or may even be wrong, may be proven to be wrong or to be no longer applicable. So there's a unity of opposites there too. And it's the same with reverence and irreverence. The point that's made in the RIM declaration is that if you don't stand on the basic principles, then any creative application you do is going to land you in the swamp. We have plenty of experience of things like Khrushchevite creative development of Marxism-Leninism--that is, revisionism. On the other hand, on the basis of firmly grounding yourself in basic principles, if you just blindly apply that, it's going to turn into its opposite. And it's the same with reverence and irreverence. It's because we have tremendous reverence, in the sense in which I talked about it, for the leaders of our class historically and for our comrades internationally--it's because we stand on that, that we also have a certain irreverence. Our irreverence is dialectically related to, and ultimately grounded in, our reverence, in that sense. And, so to speak, if we were to "unhinge" our irreverence from that reverence, then we would turn into just bourgeois critics and take up the bourgeois point of view.

Let me give you an example. "Conquer the World"* was and is extremely controversial (in case that isn't obvious). Some people have said, for example, that in "Conquer the World" I attacked everything and everybody we should hold dear--all the great leaders of our class and all of our accomplishments--that I've reduced them all to sort of a tattered banner. In one sense, they're right. In other words, in "Conquer the World" much of the historical experience of the proletarian revolution and the roles of the great leaders of this cause are subjected to a lot of critical analysis. And this should be done. Otherwise, what are we about? On the other hand, those who say this are fundamentally wrong: it isn't a matter of attacks. I did attempt to make a critical analysis and some synthesis of some crucial experience of the history of the international communist movement, including the role of its main leaders, beginning with Marx and Engels (and not just Stalin, for example). But here again it's a matter of irreverence and reverence and the correct dialectical relationship between them. I didn't say--and I don't believe--that we have a tattered banner. I didn't say, "All these people ever did was mess up." What I said was that there are decisive lessons we should be learning. We should have a critical attitude toward everything, including the history of our movement and the contributions of its leaders, even the greatest of them. This, too, is a contradiction that is very important to handle correctly, dialectically and on a materialist basis.