Revolution Online, February 21, 2010
An Historic Contradiction: Fundamentally Changing The World Without "Turning Out the Lights"
"And the world stays fundamentally unchanged. Capitalism-imperialism continues humming in the 'background,' crushing lives and destroying spirits in its meat-grinder of exploitation. And the horrors continue unabated."
This is our standing and powerful refutation of every other trend in the world. On the other hand, the way that a lot of people look at what we're about—and not entirely without justification—is: "Here come the communists, turn out the lights, the party's over."
I've been thinking a lot about method and approach since I read this. In particular how previous communist leaders especially those who have led socialist states have dealt with the question of necessity—and often extreme necessity. To state the obvious the aspect of "not entirely without justification" speaks to the limitations and often grievous errors and shortcomings of the first socialist states that the Chairman has been wrestling with and which the new synthesis addresses. A synthesis, which has a conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that comprehends both continuing and recasting the positive experience and theory from the international communist movement (ICM) as well as making significant ruptures with what has gone before.
What is concentrated in the Manifesto is radically different than what anyone else in the world has arrived at. It is also radically different and a more scientific understanding of socialism and human societies than what communists have understood previously.
"In short, in this new synthesis as developed by Bob Avakian, there must be a solid core, with a lot of elasticity. This is, first of all, a method and approach that applies in a very broad way.... A clear grasp of both aspects of this [both solid core and elasticity], and their inter-relation, is necessary in understanding and transforming reality, in all its spheres, and is crucial to making revolutionary transformations in human society....
“Applied to socialist society, this approach of solid core with a lot of elasticity includes the need for a leading, and expanding, core that is clear on the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the aim of continuing socialist revolution as part of the world struggle for communism, and is determined to continue carrying forward this struggle, through all the twists and turns. At the same time, there will necessarily be many different people and trends in socialist society pulling in many different directions—and all of this can ultimately contribute to the process of getting at the truth and getting to communism. This will be intense at times, and the difficulty of embracing all this—while still leading the whole process broadly in the direction of communism—will be something like going, as Avakian has put it, to the brink of being drawn and quartered—and repeatedly. All this is difficult, but necessary and a process to welcome. (From Manifesto, citing the Constitution of the RCP,USA)
I've been thinking a lot about how Lenin, Stalin and Mao dealt with necessity and some of the methodological problems they were constrained by and which still constrain revolutionary leadership. This had to do with actual necessity they were up against—being at war, preparing for war, recovering from war in a world where imperialism is still dominant—and how much that impacted the class struggle internal to those parties. But it also had to do with a method and approach to dealing with that necessity.
The more perspective you get on this—the more painfully evident it is how much the Communist movement has been saddled with economic determinism, reification and positivism. This has had real consequences, done very real damage and continues to exert noxious influence. It's influenced how Communists have dealt with necessity—for instance—thinking about your point in "Unresolved Contradictions, Driving Forces for Revolution" that Mao at first had hope in the intellectuals... "It is interesting that Mao made the comment, during the course of the Cultural Revolution, that at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution he was thinking in terms of bringing forward a core of intellectuals as successors in terms of the top leadership of the revolution, but he became disillusioned with the intellectuals because they proved unreliable. So, then he began to think more in terms of the whole Red Guard phenomenon—unleashing the youth as a revolutionary force."
Not to be simplistic about what Mao was up against or to negate that there were objective social forces to be looked to and relied on—and that these were forces that could and should be marshaled for continuing the revolution—or that there are strata that objectively must be the backbone of the revolution—but this must also have cast how Mao summed up the 100 flowers campaign (something to be looked into again) and the significant problems of approach in that. An instance where Mao went against Mao's own emphasis on the decisiveness of ideological and political line [and where the questions get concentrated] but also drew wrong and sweeping conclusions about the intellectuals. Mao's back was really against the wall—he was searching for answers—and weighed down by strains within the science that he both criticized and waged struggle against but also carried substantial elements forward into "Maoism." And due to this there were ways in which the lights did go out—without civil society with space for ferment, of elasticity and things going in many different directions, without dissent AND the ability for scientific, intellectual and artistic inquiry and creation to go outside what are the main lines of what the Party has identified as key faultlines and key transformations to be made—the air does go out of society. Critical thinking, scientific inquiry and ferment and artistic work that did not go along with or go well with "the mainstream of the mass movement" (even when that was going mainly in a correct direction) were stifled and the society as a whole was deprived of important insights, truths, innovation and new things from unexpected quarters that could have greatly contributed to the goals of the communist revolution in the fullest sense.
This wasn't the result of totalitarian urges and absolute power corrupting absolutely but it does have to do with how communists have faced necessity—Mao did make historic breakthroughs (from Stalin's theory of the productive forces to understanding where the danger of capitalist restoration does arise from) and Mao also carried forward elements of reification, nationalism and positivism that had become part of the "canon" of Marxism—that if persisted in are very bad (just as persisting in the theory of the productive forces in China was not just an honest error but revisionism that got picked up by representatives of class outlooks that wanted to rig up the capitalist system).
Looking at trends within the ICM—for instance the kind of spontaneous economism and reification picked up by those who uphold Mao Tsetung and are trying to regroup the left in various countries—or the influence of this in some places where there are parties—by comparison you see once again the rupture with this and how essential this is to both to making revolution in the world as it is and has developed and to staying on the communist road—or more accurately to be able to open up the Communist road once again.
I've been going back to the talk Communism: A Whole New World and The Emancipation of All Humanity—Not "The Last Shall Be First, and the First Shall be Last" and thinking about the section in the second half that speaks to the problems of positivism—and reducing things to immanent causes—an understanding of reality that is flat and linear and leaves out qualitative leaps from one form of matter to another. In that section you talk about positivism applied to history being a form of economic determinism—to direct extensions of economic factors that are narrowly conceived. That negates the relative autonomy and initiative taken in the superstructure. You give there the example that the Civil War did not happen as soon as the two modes of production in the economic sphere came into conflict. Political spokespeople articulated positions and developed rationalizations and philosophy. And due to political events and initiative taken by different actors on that stage the situation did finally erupt into warfare. Initiative was taken by people in the superstructure.... by people who have thinking and wills and who are shaped by production relations but that is a very complex process mediated by and modified by a lot of factors... culture ideology and individual wills, (decisions and blunders that influenced how things turned out). Mechanical materialism and determinism generally do not see the factors that may lead to ruptures from an existing framework.
It does seem that in the face of great necessity the blunt instruments of reification and reductionism have been a huge problem in the legacy of the movement and departing from this is really a radical and liberating rupture. Listening to this talk again after the exchange in the ICM over Communism being a science—I was reminded of the point you made that Communism is both objective and partisan but it's not objective because it is partisan. Dialectical materialism corresponds with the broadest interests of the proletariat (from the mountain top) and is a method that can approach reality. You made the point that unlike previous exploiting classes the proletariat does not have institutionalized impediments at getting at the truth. All truths are good for the proletariat. As a class the proletariat is not compelled to violate the scientific approach and if it does it only undermines the partisanship of what we are trying to bring about. (apologies this is paraphrased here from notes vs verbatim)
The irony or tragedy here is that Communists have constructed institutional impediments—for example trying to impose an official ideology that was actually an impediment that got in the way of correctly grasping and transforming reality. And when Communists have done that—this has undermined the partisanship of what this revolution is all about—and constructed obstacles and impediments to abolishing the 4 alls and getting to communism. People won't want to go there and they will not be satisfied and many will rightly want to overthrow you if the society you run is one without oxygen and ferment or a society. The lights go out if there is not space for people to undertake non-proscribed initiative in many different spheres, to be able to innovate, follow curiosity where it leads and organize political action to accomplish objectives and to organize dissent. And more fundamentally you can not get to communism with an understanding of socialism that is using instruments to understand reality that are crude and blunt—that don't see the actual multi-dimensional and uneven nature of reality as an advantage vs something to be feared and flattened. It's far more difficult to repeatedly go to the brink of being drawn and quartered—and it takes a much more conscious understanding of the whole process of getting to communism—that the masses have to take up and engage in an increasingly expanding way—but to demystify it, what other human endeavor has not had to make quantum leaps in theory and practice and to do so often with perilous stakes? On the other side of this—when you think about leading hundreds of millions of people who have been cruelly oppressed the majority of whom will be part of the revolution with the spontaneous outlook of revenge and hundreds of millions more who join the revolution at a time of crisis and want to get back to the way things were... If you don't think Marxism is a science you don't have a prayer of leading a revolution the way it is being newly re-envisioned.
Geometry until the 1970s had no way to comprehend reality that was not man made—it was smooth and ordered and there was no way to measure the "roughness" of the physical world until the development of fractals in mathematics. Solid core and elasticity as an abstraction is a qualitative leap and deeper reflection of reality and method for transforming it in the direction that conscious forces—with leadership—are working towards. Understanding that "there will necessarily be many different people and trends in socialist society pulling in many different directions"—that this is not only "the reality" but if you can embrace this—while leading the whole process, broadly in the direction of communism—all this unevenness is not just evil necessity. All of this can ultimately contribute to the process of getting at the truth and getting to communism.
The appreciation of reality as multi-layered and multi-dimensional—of transformations coming not from trying to flatten the complexity of society into linear lines of attack on key social contradictions—as crucial as those are—seems to be one of the things the next round of socialist revolutions are going to have to handle very differently. We've gone into some of this—the necessity Mao and the revolutionaries faced of being encircled by the spontaneity of bourgeois culture, and the superstructure of Chinese society being relatively untouched—but then reducing the oxygen for initiative in the superstructure to the model operas and shutting out and tightly constraining initiative from artists not consciously trying to create proletarian art forms. Of having to narrow the great difference between the countryside and the city—but seeing that only as "bringing the bottom up" and not seeing the positive role for things going in many different directions especially but not only in the cities and how that might impact the whole situation—or the reductionism of dealing with the "problem of the intellectuals" by sending them "down" to the countryside. The reification in that—of seeing class position and possible pathways for transformation in a very reductionist way—of what position you occupy in the division of labor of society as being determinant in a very reductionist way—contrasted with the more scientific approach you've been fighting for with the New Synthesis. In socialist society new things will arise that will have to fight for recognition including correct ideas and social movements in different arenas with revolutionary potential that do not come just "from the proletariat" but from unresolved contradictions in the society, and communist leadership has to be able to embrace and synthesize all this and lead it forward with the outlook and interests and scientific method of the proletariat that is seeking to eliminate itself as a class and emancipate all humanity.
If you really want to get rid of all exploitation… If you want to take up the scientific outlook of the proletariat vs the proletarians… the further distance traveled in "Unresolved Contradictions, Driving Forces for Revolution"—between the Communist Movement and the Labor Movement—is indeed something to be celebrated! I'm sure I'm not the only one who yelled hurray for busting out of the "traditions" of economism!
Reification and economism and the flattening of different levels of contradictions and reality when put into power have in significant ways dimmed the lights—of the rich diversity and vitality needed for the kind of vibrancy where people and society can really begin to thrash things out and thrive—the kind of society people want to live in and fight for and carry forward. Flattening the contradiction between the individual and society is not something people will put up with for long—or be attracted to and willing to make great individual and collective sacrifices to bring into being. But to bring this back to the contradiction that I began with—handling great necessity—including being able to put your arms around the process as a whole—and not to narrow political, ideological and cultural life and curiosity to solving the most acute social contradictions or leading struggle along necessary major faultlines—is something that I think about or worry about.
This is something that I think you have written about—that this is part of the contradiction of the need for leadership and a Party on one hand—and part of the contradiction that objectively exists about being a disciplined vanguard when you gear up the machinery so to speak. And this too is something that elasticity based on a solid core speaks to. The vibrancy people around the world were inspired by in the Soviet Union in the ’20s being extinguished by the threat of war and Stalin's mis-identification of problems and solutions. The mobilization of the whole society to address the differences between the countryside and the city—while an advance from Stalin—still carried with it problems of reification and flattening the contradictions that socialist society is teeming with to address an acute—strategic contradiction, and it seems like this same method has some connection to identifying the short term necessity with the long term objectives on the international level.
Elasticity based on a solid core—embracing and leading all of it—while still leading the whole process broadly in the direction of communism—as something like going to the brink of being drawn and quartered—and repeatedly. That is a radically different way of understanding socialism and transforming reality—this formulation from the Manifesto is like one of those equations that mark a break and a leap in human understanding (like E = mc2 or the equation for fractals) that scientists are just beginning to mine and only a relative handful in the world right now actually understand—the stakes are enormous but there is a basis for people to take up this method and approach that has revived the viability and yes the desirability of Communism.
There are reasons people think "Here come the Communists—the party is over turn out the lights" that have to do with slander and reasons that have to do with how the proletariat has actually led society so far—and ways that this same ditty concentrates the gulf between the Communists and the masses that has to be bridged. You CAN get a positive cognitive dissonance going that gets on the grapevine—by challenging the verdicts in a societal way and people encountering the comrades who model something quite different—and more than anything by people learning about the Leadership We Have and becoming familiar with Bob Avakian—both as a leader who has come to concentrate what Communism IS and the person.
There are also ways that this beginning of a new stage of a communist movement has to look and feel like something entirely different than "turn out the lights" to the people stepping into it—and for those people dealing with the same gap between misconception and reality among their peers. Some of the same concerns expressed above about how we handle necessity and key objectives and not shutting out the many channels and multi layered nature of reality and how people come to take up communism are contradictions we have to do better on—and I'll try and write more about that as part of reporting on the process of forging cores of ardent advocates for this line.
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