Reaching for the Heights And Flying Without a Safety Net!
by Bob Avakian
Revolutionary Worker #1205, June 29, 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.
Communist leadership is, in essence, a matter of line. This is opposed to the bureaucratic, bourgeois method and in general top-down methods of leadership and the sense that leadership is essentially issuing orders--cooking up "brilliant ideas" all by yourself and then imposing them on other people, and insisting on your way when there are problems. That is not our method of leadership. Our methods of leadership, and the essence of our leadership, is essentially leadership on the basis of line. Leadership is concentrated in line, and line is concentrated leadership. We lead people through line. We lead them by examining the contradictions that we're up against and working together with them to provide a means for dealing with these contradictions and putting that in the context of the larger reality we're dealing with. That's what is meant by line, and that's essentially how we lead--as opposed to cooking up fanciful ideas and imposing them on people.
Mao said that working out ideas and using cadre well is the essence of leadership. But he didn't mean that in an idealist or commandist sense. He meant applying the mass line, inside the party as well as more broadly--drawing from the ideas of the masses and then systematizing those ideas by applying our scientific ideology of MLM, concentrating what is correct, and then uniting with, persevering together with, and leading people to carry out lines and policies that are developed on that basis. And using cadre well means unleashing them--it doesn't mean "using" them in a bourgeois sense--it means unleashing them and enabling them to take initiative.
Now, in relation to the aspect of working out ideas, I want to refer to something that was touched on in the article "Working With Ideas"* which was written by Ardea Skybreak as food for thought and to stimulate grappling with what it was raising. Skybreak emphasizes that working with ideas, working in the realm of ideas, is something that has its own "laws," or dynamics. It is something that has to be taken up in its own right, while at the same time, its ultimate source and point of determination--and the proof of ideas, to put it that way--is practice. So there's another dialectical relation, another expression of the relation between theory and practice. And in order to be able to lead a revolutionary movement, you have to be able to deal in the realm of ideas--and not just one to one with practical problems of the movement, although that's extremely important. You have to be able to range over a broad variety of different subjects and be thinking about all kinds of things.
This goes back to the principle that is stressed in our Party's Draft Programme **: there is importance to things, in the realm of ideas and theory, that don't have any direct relation to immediate political and practical tasks, while at the same time you have to have a profound sense of the practical movement and you have to be carrying forward the practice/theory/practice dialectic. Theory is not, and should not be reduced to, only theory that is immediately and directly related to practice and practical problems at any given time.
Mao talked about having a poetic spirit. This applies in many ways, and in a broad sense, including to how working with ideas should be approached. It is important to be ranging broadly. There are certain dynamics and there is a certain process to working with ideas.
One of the profound contradictions that has to be confronted and overcome through the process of the proletarian revolution is that, in capitalist society and through thousands of years of class-divided society, with its oppressive division of labor, the masses of people have been largely locked out of this process of working with ideas. Fundamentally, overcoming this is something that can only be achieved after the proletariat has seized state power and through the revolutionary transformation of society, under the rule of the proletariat; but we cannot wait to begin breaking down this division. And in particular the vanguard of the proletariat has to be developing this facility for working with ideas among all of its members and also among the masses more broadly, particularly the more politically awakened masses at any given time. This is also part of preparing the proletariat and masses to rule and revolutionize society. This, again, is one of the main reasons why a major issue of the Revolutionary Worker was devoted to the question of evolution, and why there is a whole series on evolution in the RW--people need to learn the scientific method, and they need to learn how to apply dialectical materialism in a living way to all kinds of spheres, not only in order to wage the struggle now but to prepare to transform all of society in the future, once they have seized power. They have to learn to grapple with ideas.
Of course, what is discussed in the evolution series is very much related to crucial ideological and political questions and struggles, particularly though not only in the U.S. But, beyond that, there are basic methodological principles that are being applied and illustrated through this series. In this connection, I was interested to see, in a report on a conversation with a supporter of the Party--a Black professional--about this evolution series, that one of the things he indicated he really liked about it was that, other than the polemics against the creationists, these evolution articles were "not political." Reading this made me think: what did he mean by "not political" and what appealed to him about this? I believe that what he was getting at was that this series isn't one of those "instrumentalist" things where the politics is determining the science, but instead these articles on evolution are proceeding from reality and using the scientific method to analyze an important aspect of reality, namely the question of evolution and evolution vs. creationism. And perhaps he also meant that the article did not attempt to "force in" a separate discussion of how Marxism applies to this subject; instead the series as a whole is a living application of the Marxist outlook and method to the subject of evolution and an illustration of how to apply that outlook and method in general. Doing this is part of what's necessary in order to be able to lead. You have to be able to deal not just with communist political theory, or Marxist political economy, and so on--as important as that is. You have to be able to work with ideas in a more overall sense. You have to develop the flexibility of thinking that is necessary to be able to think creatively about all kinds of things--including the political questions that present themselves, but not just those questions.
But, again, there is the profound contradiction that this whole realm of working with ideas is something that the masses of people have been largely locked out of--and in fact are discouraged from taking up--by the oppressive division of labor and the overall functioning of capitalist society and their role within that. They are not only discouraged from thinking about important political, social, cultural, and scientific questions--they are discouraged from thinking about thinking, to put it that way. But we want and we need people to be thinking about thinking as well as grappling with all kinds of questions in all kinds of spheres. And, as much as the "normal functioning" of the capitalist system, along with the conscious policy of its ruling class, discourages and even suppresses critical and creative thinking among the basic masses in particular, there are continually ways in which people raise their heads and break through some of this. There are many experiences in our Party's work, as well as more generally in society, where among the basic masses people grapple with all kinds of big and deep questions, having to do with not only politics but philosophy, culture, science, and so on. And when questions of this kind are put forward to people in a way that, yes, challenges them--because all this is not easy and cannot be reduced to simple formulas--but at the same time is made accessible to them, more than a few people take this up very hungrily and enthusiastically.
Again referring to the evolution series in the RW , I have seen a number of reports indicating how popular this series is among youth--including college students but not limited to them--as well as how this series is being engaged by some prisoners and other basic people. I read a report about a conversation with an immigrant worker who started out saying: "Well, I don't want to believe in evolution, because if I believed in that then I wouldn't think there would be any purpose to life." This led to a whole discussion about evolution, at the end of which the person began to have a very different viewpoint on this. They had been conditioned by religious tradition and indoctrination to believe that there had to be some overarching, transcendental, beyond-human, god-ordained purpose to life. Well, is there a purpose to life? Yes. But only a purpose--or, in fact, different and even conflicting purposes--that we human beings ourselves give to life. There isn't any transcendental, metaphysical, god-imposed purpose to life. There's a purpose, or differing purposes, which human beings determine. There are conflicting ideas and struggle about what those purposes are and should be--all of which ultimately reflects the different interests and viewpoints of different classes and groups in society. And there is plenty that is living and vital in all that.
As much as the masses are discouraged, in a thousand ways, from engaging and wrestling with these kinds of questions, there are continually shoots that break through this suppression, there are repeatedly instances where basic people raise and grapple with big questions, and there is a definite gravitation toward and enthusiasm for this kind of wrangling with big questions, whenever they are presented to people in a way that is accessible to them and that captures their imagination. You'll find that some of the most "down" gang members, for example, will sometimes step aside from what they're normally into and get into all kinds of big questions, not just about their own experience or society more generally but about questions like why reality is the way it is. This is suffocated continually, but it also repeatedly breaks through. And this we want to nurture and encourage and develop, not only because of its importance now but especially looking to the future. In terms of leading, this is essential.
All this relates to the principle that working with ideas, in the broadest sense, is an essential aspect of what we're all about and how we have to lead people, and enable increasing numbers of people to themselves become conscious revolutionary activists and leaders. And an important part of this is the orientation that, even while we're deeply immersed in the ongoing struggle and have a profound grasp of the practical movement, we have to also take the time--or "carve out" the time--to pay attention to and to grapple with all kinds of questions. It's important to be paying attention to big strategic questions, even while being intensely involved in mass work and struggles and all the contradictions that have to be addressed in that context. It's important to be stepping back from the daily routine, no matter how important it may be and how much attention it may actually require, so that first of all, routine does not become rut. And so that strategic questions do not get lost and the link become severed between whatever is being taken up and focused on today and those larger strategic questions and interests. And it is important to be engaging not just the larger political questions, as important as those are, but big questions like the role of art in society, or the nature of the universe and why does the universe exist the way it does. Now you can get "trippy" with that in a bad way --actually get divorced from any materialist foundation--but you can also get trippy with that in a good way, and you can be materialist about this even while you're "tripping out."
Another important aspect of our methods is something I stressed in "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production" ***: We should be constantly "interrogating" ourselves, as well as listening to the criticisms of others and seeking to learn from the ideas and insights of others. Marx said that the proletarian revolution goes forward by picking itself up and learning from its mistakes. And there's that old saying: "defeated armies learn well." We have to apply that, in a broad sense, but we also have to apply the principle that victorious armies should learn well (of course, this applies metaphorically and broadly, and not just literally to armies).
We shouldn't only learn when we're messing up, though that's a good time to learn. We also need to learn when we're doing well. Even then we shouldn't just go along with spontaneity or be on "automatic pilot." When we're doing well with something, we should still look for shortcomings and seek to correct and overcome them, without losing sight of the advances that are being made and the importance of building on them. And we should always listen to people who think we're not doing right. We shouldn't agree with them if we don't agree with them--if they don't convince us, we shouldn't embrace their criticism as such--but we should never fail to listen to people who think we're not doing right, even when we are doing well. That's a very important principle. This relates to the principle that is emphasized in the Declaration of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM) about the importance of standing on and applying our basic principles but creatively applying them and being open. We need to have that orientation of being willing to learn and anxious to learn at all times, even when we're doing well--listening, with an open mind, to the "interrogation" of others, and also interrogating ourselves.
None of the qualities which are required for leadership, or to be a communist in general--none of this is innate. Nor is it genetic. All these qualities are things that are learned, even though they are not, and they cannot be, learned all at once. Developing as a communist, like everything else, is a process and it proceeds through waves or spirals. And it is marked by being repeatedly confronted with the need to make leaps and ruptures at critical junctures when the challenges become particularly acute. Different people have different particular experiences--both personal experiences and the larger social experiences in which these personal experiences occur--and this leads to different people having different strengths and weaknesses. What our orientation should be, both in terms of leadership and in terms of the broader Party and the broader masses, is one of combining all positive factors, as Mao put it--helping people to build on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses, even while recognizing that not all people are going to have the same strengths or the same weaknesses. Nor would it be possible or desirable to live in a world where everybody had exactly the same strengths and the same weaknesses. That would, in fact, be impossible--and it would be an awful world if it were possible.