Reaching for the Heights & Flying Without a Safety Net
Revolutionary Worker #1208, July 27, 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.
One of the last points I want to speak to is the question of going against the tide. This is another thing that can involve complex contradictions. In the course of the Cultural Revolution in China, and particularly in the last great battle Mao led against the revisionists who were taking the capitalist road, it was popularized that "going against the tide is a Marxist principle." Well, that's true. And, unfortunately, this stood out when that last great battle was lost, shortly after Mao died, and the revisionists succeeded in pulling off a coup and restoring capitalism in China. This put communists everywhere to a real test--especially those who had looked to Mao's leadership for inspiration--and confronted us with the necessity of "going against the tide"--refusing to be taken in by and to go along with those revisionists, who for a time were pretending to be upholding Mao's line and continuing on the socialist road.
I have told the story before about how the Guardian newspaper in the U.S. related to this. The Guardian was sort of the "left flank" of the revisionists in the U.S. during the upsurge of the 1960s and into the `70s. (You know how sometimes a motorcycle has a sidecar on it; well, the Guardian was more or less the "left sidecar" of the revisionist motorcycle, and its role was to "sweep along" those who were repulsed by the rank revisionism of the CP, USA but had not ruptured with the same sort of politics and ideology.) The Guardian wrote basically gleeful articles when China went revisionist. And when our Party did not come out in support of the revisionist coup in China, the Guardian wrote snotty articles about how we had been snubbed by the new Chinese leadership, and that's why we weren't supporting this new leadership. The truth (and the "chain of events") was exactly the opposite of that.
The truth was that, from the time this coup happened, while some others were rushing to embrace it-- and were therefore being invited to China and shown in publications from China expressing their support for the revisionists--our Party recognized that this was a momentous development that required us to involve the whole Party in studying and grappling deeply with what was going on in China, what was represented by the different forces--those who had won out and seized control of the government, and those whom they had crushed and were denouncing as "the gang of four and their followers"--and what the implications were, for the masses of people in China and throughout the world, of what was happening in China. And it was because we did not rush to embrace what was happening in China that we quickly got on the "shit list" of the new rulers there.
Now, at the very beginning, right after the coup, the general feeling in the leadership of our Party was that what was happening in China was very bad, that it represented the triumph of the revisionists and the defeat of the revolutionaries in the Chinese leadership and would result in the reversal of the revolution, the destruction of socialism and the restoration of capitalism. But, after a little while, when it became clear that those we had all identified as revisionists were consolidating their hold on power and that "the gang of four and their followers" had been decisively defeated, a group within the leadership of our Party started expressing support for those who had won out. (We later dubbed this group within our Party "Mensheviks," because their outlook, position, and methods were similar to the grouping by that name in Russia who opposed the socialist revolution led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks).
These Mensheviks in our Party took this position for essentially two reasons: First, they adopted the classical pragmatic approach and method that is a hallmark of the American bourgeoisie in particular--in essence, their reasoning came down to: these people won, so they must be right, and the "gang of four" lost, so they must be wrong. And, secondly, it turned out that, as it became more and more clear that the revisionists, now that they had seized power, were abandoning and trashing the revolutionary line and policies that had been developed under Mao's leadership to build socialism in China, and were replacing this with policies that amounted to adopting capitalist methods and encouraging foreign capitalist investment--and everything that goes along with that--these Mensheviks within our Party found this to their liking, they upheld it as the more "practical" course. (They could recognize in Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the revisionists, a kindred spirit--after all it was Deng Xiaoping who had declared, with regard to developing China's economy, that it didn't matter by what means, socialist or capitalist, this was done--it doesn't matter whether a cat is a white cat or a black cat, he insisted, as long as it catches mice.) So a major struggle developed within our Party--which was concentrated in the Party leadership--which finally resulted in the defeat of this Menshevik/revisionist line and in our Party publicly coming out in opposition to the revisionist coup and capitalist restoration in China.
Now, as I said, those of us who were strongly inclined to believe, from the first, that the "smashing of the gang of four and their followers" represented nothing less than a revisionist coup, also recognized that this was a very momentous development, and that it was necessary to develop a whole process in which these questions would be deeply investigated, studied, and wrangled with on all levels of our Party. And, as part of this process, we did have a delegation go over to China, shortly after the coup. But how we approached this didn't please the revisionists, because the assignment of this delegation was to go and investigate and learn--not take a position one way or the other, not get drawn into supporting or opposing what was going on, because our Party hadn't resolved this yet, and this delegation's role was part of the process that would lead to that resolution, to our drawing conclusions and taking a position. And there is something very valuable, in terms of principles and methods, that can be learned from how the comrade who was leading this delegation handled things--the trip as a whole and the interaction with Chinese officials.
I remember this comrade recounting how, after the Chinese officials had taken them to various places and tried to show them how everything was very stable and everybody was following the new leadership and its policies, a dinner was held at the end of the visit. And during this dinner, one of these Central Committee members of the Chinese Party stands up and says, to the head of our delegation: "Well, you've been to many places around China. All the foreign press is saying how much tumult and turmoil and upheaval there is in China, that there's no stability. What is your opinion?" And the leader of our delegation replied: "Well, everywhere you've taken us, everything seems to be very stable." And the more you think about that, the more you'll recognize the brilliance of that answer, especially in the context where the delegation had the assignment not to take a position one way or the other but to investigate, and where there was obviously a tremendous amount of pressure to go along with and express support for the revisionists (and there were members of our Party on that delegation who supported the position of the Mensheviks in our leadership, who were factionalizing and pushing that the delegation should come out in support of the new leaders of China).
Because of the principles and methods we applied and the approach we took, that was the last time our Party was invited to send a delegation to China. But we didn't base our stand on whether we got invited there or not. We based it on our analysis of what was represented by the opposing forces and their lines and programs, and what this meant for the masses of people and the revolutionary struggle not just in China, or in the U.S., but throughout the world. And we got "disinvited" to China because of this approach and because of the position we ended up taking on the basis of this approach. But that didn't bother people like the editors of the Guardian,because to them--as to the Mensheviks who had been in our own Party, and to opportunists in general--truth is not really important. In his great philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism , Lenin criticized the notion of "truth as an organizing principle." This is a notion closely akin to pragmatism--it says in essence that truth is what is useful to you, and that you declare something to be true in order to make certain things happen which are desirable to you. In other words, this is the opposite of the scientific understanding that truth is the correct reflection of objective reality, and the opposite of the scientific method of seeking to determine what is and what is not objectively true, what does and does not accurately reflect objective reality. Notions of this kind--"truth as an organizing principle" and related subjectivist and pragmatic approaches and methodologies--cannot lead to determining what is actually true; and, especially when confronted with momentous events, which have profound effects and implications, applying such a methodology and approach can only lead to disastrous results. And the danger posed by such a methodology and approach is all the greater when there are strong pulls and powerful pressures to go along with something because it has won out (at least in the short run) and can point to its victory as proof that it represents what is true and what is good.
So, going against a tide of that kind is extremely important. It was obviously important for our Party to take the stand we did in opposition to the revisionist coup and capitalist restoration in China. That our Party took this stand--along with some other groups and parties in various parts of the world--was of crucial importance for the international movement, which was frankly in a great deal of disarray at the time, splintering in all kinds of directions in the face of what was objectively a devastating setback. It is only on the basis of taking that basic stand and decisively drawing the line of demarcation between revolution and counter-revolution, between Marxism and revisionism, that it has been possible to maintain, and to rally forces to, the communist standard, to undertake and to make important advances in regrouping and building the unity of genuine communist forces throughout the world, to unite the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement on the basis of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and to continue the struggle to win other forces to this banner.
The question of going against the tide can also be very complicated and tricky. This is something the revolutionaries in the Chinese Communist Party also pointed out: going against the tide is a Marxist principle, but first of all you have to be correct in knowing what a tide represents, and whether you should swim with it or against it. And it is a fact that, in the history of our Party, and before that in the struggle to form the Party, there have been important instances of correctly going against the tide. The stand we took on China--and the process and methods through which our Party arrived at that position--is one example. And, before that, the way in which, particularly during the early 1970s, we struggled against nationalist tendencies within the communist movement--correctly distinguishing between even the most radical or revolutionary form of nationalism and the internationalist ideology of communism, and distinguishing between forms of nationalism that could play a positive role and be united with in the mass movement overall and what was necessary as the basis of unity for a communist vanguard--was decisive in being able to form a Party that was truly founded on communist principles and could actually represent and lead the proletariat and masses of people in accordance with their fundamental revolutionary interests. But this was not easy and was accomplished only through very difficult and wrenching struggle: nationalist tendencies within the communist movement, broadly defined, represented at that time a very powerful tide that was not easy to go against but was crucial to go against in order to forge a communist vanguard out of all the revolutionary upheaval of that period.
But it is also objectively true that we have not been correct in every instance in which we have gone against a tide. For a long time, in the face of a lot of opposition and criticism, our Party clung to a line on the homosexuality question which we have now summed up was incorrect. And, believe me, we didn't stick to this for opportunist reasons--because it was making things easier for us. We didn't win a lot of favor among a lot of people for sticking to that position. So we were going against the tide--and, in this case, we were wrong. Now, in fact, some aspects of the tide we were going against were also wrong, and particularly as we developed and made some changes in our line on this (even while it was not yet fundamentally changed), some of what we were identifying as pivotal in evaluating this question was more correct than the way others were approaching it. Most importantly, our understanding that the woman question (the role of women in society, and the struggle to uproot their oppression and bring about their full emancipation) must be put at the center of any analysis of intimate relations--this was and remains a very crucial point of orientation. And it must be said that some criticisms of our position involved significant distortion of what that position actually was. But, even so, for some time our position, despite some important positive elements, was not essentially correct, and many of the criticisms raised were valid.*
This is an illustration of the fact that the question of going against the tide can be complicated. It's important to go against the tide, but most important, once again, is what is objective reality, what's true, what's right and what's wrong. What's the correct line? What is the correct understanding of reality and how to transform it in line with the interests of the proletariat and the masses of people? Going against the tide can be a very important thing, a very good thing. But if the tide you're going against is more correct than you are, that's obviously not good.
Sometimes it's not easy to determine this. In some cases it takes time to sort these things out. And sometimes it takes longer than it should--for objective and some subjective reasons. Mistakes that you're making in approach and methodology may keep you from recognizing that your position on something is erroneous. You know, sometimes you can't win for losing--you're persisting in a mistake that you don't realize is a mistake and it kind of goes around in a circle and maintains itself. You should realize it, but until certain things develop you don't realize it. And what do you do when you recognize that you have been wrong? Do you hang your head and say, "Well, now we can't be a vanguard because we made this mistake?" No. That would be compounding a mistake with an even greater mistake. That might make some people happy but, to use that phrase, it would not make the proletariat and the masses of people in the world happy if we were to do that. If we were to fold up our tents because we made mistakes, even serious mistakes, and say, "we're not capable of being a vanguard," that would make the bourgeoisie and reactionaries (and perhaps some other people) very happy, and it might make some people relieved, but it would be a terrible thing for the proletariat and masses of people.
This is really the point: if we make a mistake, including a big mistake, we should confront it honestly. This is why I have stressed that we need to keep listening to the criticisms and the "interrogation" of others, and we need to keep interrogating ourselves so we don't repeat mistakes, so we learn from mistakes we've made, whether big or small, and find the means for avoiding those mistakes or minimizing them. Because we're not going to be able to avoid mistakes altogether, even some serious mistakes. There is another unity of opposites. You could say: "Well, we can't avoid mistakes, so what's the big deal?" You could use that as a rationalization for doing anything and not taking responsibility for it. "Well, you know, it's an historical law--you're going to make mistakes, people aren't perfect, vanguards aren't perfect. So what's the big deal?" No--that is just a cop-out. On the other hand, once again, we can't be paralyzed by our mistakes and we can't be paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes. But if we become good at interrogating ourselves and listening to the interrogation and criticism of others, if we learn from our mistakes--not only the particular content of a particular mistake, but what went into that mistake, the methodology, the ideological errors--if we're willing to take responsibility for everything, even in that sense, then we can minimize our mistakes on the one hand, and we can correct them more readily and enable everyone else to learn from our mistakes as well--which is also part of our responsibility.
We don't do self-criticism as a gimmick or meaningless ritual. Whenever we make mistakes, people suffer. Whenever anybody who influences other people makes mistakes, people suffer from those mistakes. There's no getting around that. If you are a party that's seeking to do what we're seeking to do and trying to have as much influence as we can have, if you make mistakes people suffer. That's a reality. Do we feel bad about that? Of course. Do we wish it weren't the case that we made those mistakes? Yes, without question. We should learn very deeply from our mistakes and do our very best to minimize our mistakes, to not repeat them, and to learn--and help others to learn--as much as possible from mistakes we do make.
We should continue interrogating ourselves, even when we think we're doing very well, and listen with an open mind when people tell us we're not doing right, even if we're pretty damn sure that they're wrong. There have been occasions when we have been pretty sure we were right about something, and we've been proven wrong, and then there are a lot of times we've been pretty sure we were right about something and we were right, even when everybody was carping at us and taking snipe shots at us. But that's the key question: are you right or not? Or are there aspects of something that you should change even while you're essentially right? Or are you essentially wrong about something? Or were you right but then things have changed, and if you cling to something, you will go from being right to being wrong?
We cannot be complacent and have a passive, "everything is everything" approach-- "it's all good"--"it's all part of the experience," as the Chevy Chase character said in the movie Christmas Vacation , when his daughter was freezing because he had dragged the family out in the snowy wilderness to cut down a Christmas tree. We can't have that attitude: people suffer because of what we do--"no big thing, it's all part of the experience." No. But, in another sense, it is all part of the process. We are going to make mistakes, and we can't be paralyzed by fear of making mistakes, or even the fact that inevitably if we make mistakes people will suffer because of that. And we definitely cannot cease to be the vanguard, and to rise to the responsibility that requires, just because we've made mistakes that people have suffered from. Again, as Mao said, the important thing is to be good at learning--learning from our mistakes, as well as what we do right, and learning from the criticism of others, having an open mind and assimilating whatever we can recognize as correct in their criticisms. That is an essential part of being a vanguard.