Revolution Online, February 21, 2010
An Historic Contradiction: Fundamentally Changing The World Without "Turning Out the Lights"
In thinking about the experience of our project and the basis for "here come the Communists, the party is over, turn out the lights," I went back to the discussion in "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity" about the reification of not only the proletariat but the reification of socialism itself. At the time "Making..." came out, this was one of those jump-off-the-pages points—the tendency to equate the immediate objectives of a particular phase with the whole transition to Communism, rather than seeing any particular phase as part of the larger process of the transition on a world scale to Communism. Along with this or as a result of this linear and mono-dimensional conception of socialism came real constriction of developments that appeared to (or in fact did) conflict with the main direction of things at any given time and/or of things which deviated from a linear conception of the socialist road to getting to Communism.
Isn't it part of the reification of socialism to narrowly equate or to measure "the value" of human spheres of activity based on what they directly or demonstrably contribute to the political sphere in relationship to those immediate objectives rather than understanding how it is part of the overall process? And how unevenness as a phenomenon is going to be reflected in the overall process as well and between different spheres as well as within them? An appreciation of the rigorousness and the complexity of intellectual work in an overall sense and in relationship to specialization (which itself creates important new necessity in terms of the universal and particular but which I don't think can be handled by negating the need for specialization). The pull to gauge everything through the political arena and the immediate objectives you are fighting to accomplish could lead to negating both the embrace side of things and the does not replace side. And doing the latter without over simplifying the contradictions or tailing but being able to lead that as part of the overall process and maybe even mainly through the overall process.
One expression of the "turn out the lights," I think is a great underestimation of the complexity of social activities that human beings engage in in many discrete spheres that need to be a vital part of the process—part of the mix of what it will take to uncork human potential in ways that can ultimately uproot all the vestiges of class society and the corresponding social relations and ideas. The recent quote from Bob Avakian (BA) run in the newspaper very poetically frames it ... "far from suppressing awe and wonder and imagination it will flourish in dialectical relationship with—AND IN AN OVERALL SENSE AS PART OF—a systematic and comprehensive scientific outlook and method for comprehending and transforming reality." This is the opposite of the lights going out. The part of the quote in caps is getting at how these are not irrelevant distractions or dangerous deviations but an essential part of what makes us human and of the process of getting to Communism.
I also think this is related on many levels to the new synthesis, solid core and elasticity and the role of decentralization and individual(s) within the overall collective framework. It is complicated what goes into developing a passion, talents, abilities and breakthroughs or different schools of thought in different fields or opening up new fields of human knowledge altogether. There is much about how intellectual and scientific and artistic life cross national boundaries more so than ever before. (The point is not that artists and scientists aren't influenced by nationalist considerations and cultural biases etc., but that interknittedness of the world has become more pronounced in part due to imperialist globalization and what that has made possible and necessary.)
There are often complex mixes of historical "stamps" of different periods in different parts of the world, along with an individual's personal interaction with the proximal and larger dynamics of their circumstances (both in terms of causality and of chance) and how that all gets concentrated in different people who make contributions on different levels in many different realms of life. If leading/guiding institutions under socialism are too quick to prevent this from emerging in any robust way ... or try to channel these "impulses" and trends into what is most immediately needed or at least deemed "safe" outlets, it could very well squeeze the diversity and vibrancy out of social life that in the name of Communism will keep us from ever getting there.
In looking back on the ’60s I can think of a wide range of examples where the developments that contributed to breaking things open came in very unexpected and unanticipatable ways. It wouldn't have been the ’60s without the influence of China and the emergence of the most revolutionary forces in the U.S., but it also wouldn't have been the ’60s without the upheaval and challenging of convention that was going on especially among the youth and the attendant counter culture and many of the wild turns and dead ends that it spawned as well. The fact that there wasn't a revolution meant that what was unleashed had to find expression within the framework of imperialism/capitalism because the whole framework wasn't broken open. So this may account for some of why things went in a lot of these specific, different paths. But, I tend to think it’s not simply or even mainly this but rather the opposite. Great societal upheavals with strong revolutionary currents can give rise to much ferment and creativity throughout society in many aspects of social life and in very unexpected ways.
For instance, Chihuly who is famous now for his incredibly beautiful blown glass works went off during the ’60s to Europe to study the traditional masters and then did something very unique with the art form in size & composition and in public art presentations which were interactive with nature. Or Alice Waters who was in SDS at Berkeley is seen as having "revolutionized" concepts of what we eat. Stephen Jay Gould was another example. Bruce Lee. It isn't a surprise that these people came out of a particular time and even areas that were the concentrated "hotbeds" but each in the overall tumult of the times and the overall ethos fused this with their own passions and interests, in ways that changed the terrain in their fields and interacted back on other fields and the overall ideological and political terrain as a whole.
New areas of study and scholarship opened up that had not been conceived or tackled before and new questions were being asked. Ecology (this was relatively new back then; animal liberation as well). Gender studies. The recent discussion of the party's line on the woman question and how the important work being done on these questions got written off; didn't get embraced, sifted through, recast and synthesized to a higher level (embraces does not replace) is indicative of the problem when some unorthodox and radical currents emerge which don't "fit" with the Communist movement to date.
We need to understand how what others are delving into about reality and its transformation can open up new insights and clash up against our understanding at any given time. And I would think that even more important is the ability to dig into our own underlying assumptions and examine do they really correspond to the transformations needed to get to Communism. In thinking about the third section of the new talk “Unresolved Contradictions,” part of the poverty of our thinking (economism) was because it didn't get beyond the realm of bourgeois right and as discussed in the article "Most of the time most Communists are not Communists", the Communist revolution can be turned into a vehicle for a more radical bourgeois equality rather than the most radical transformation of the historically conditioned social relations that arose with class divided society. An aspect of this, I think that is part of the unresolved contradictions is that the more that things can be radically transformed heading in the right direction, this will unleash even more ferment and questioning on the one hand at the same time that there will be a pull to settle for what has been achieved as basically good enough. Or if handled correctly the resulting ferment that is unleashed through the process can give rise to a deeper understanding of the contradictions and what it will entail to thoroughly transform things in ways that it is hard to even imagine at the start of the process.
Most important here is the method that would enable the Communists and everyone who is seeking to transform the world, to really look at these things from the lens of the truly radical transformations that we seek to help usher into the world.
I still think the way that Avakian framed the questions and the criteria that are needed to guide looking into the question of, in order to help frame the scientific investigation, debate and synthesis and for others to engage as well, is a very good model. A very important lesson in the discussion of that question is that the masses can be used to suppress in ways that is not that much different than if the state does it and that overall the chilling effect is very harmful for society.
One of the problems I have thought about in relationship to this question of the lights getting turned off—in a successful revolution, there is both the pull of "running things" and a settling in and the conservatizing effect, including in the party that the "trajectory" or strategic conception for many of the big questions is basically set and the process is one of working through the contradictions to step by step carry out the remaining transformations. This has been a big question throughout the cultural revolution in the party around the importance of theory, and of line in contrast to the view that the line is set and the question is how to implement it. I think this would really contribute to turning the lights out—we know what we need to know so really the only question is how can different sections of people be won to helping implement or carry out the immediate objectives that correspond to the current stage of the process. There is also a pull to want that to be an orderly process, even allowing for periodic outbreaks of class struggle, in contrast to the vision the chair has painted of a societal environment where the level and scope of contestation in society is not at all "managed". The debate is fostered, encouraged and allowed to rip and ripple throughout society with the party being in these currents as well as able to step back and look at the whole panoply of contradictions (and not just the things which are demanding the most attention spontaneously) to help lead the process. Looking for the basis of change in the unevenness of the transformation process, the unresolved underlying contradictions in socialist society and on that scale is an important part of the strategic conceptual rupture with past socialist societies.
I went back and re-read Skybreak on some idea of the social role of art and there is a lot of good food for thought in those essays relevant to these questions, including appreciating the social role of art that is distinct from other spheres like science or politics. One point that I thought captured this, "The particularities of the artistic process in no way free artists from having a social role and social responsibility, whether they recognize it or not. But the fact that art can, and should, present "a wide range of alternatives" and fresh insights into life and that it can contribute to the forging of new outlooks through a conscious skewing of reality and by being freed of the strictest accountability in this regard..." (and then it goes on to talk about both sides of the contradiction of being freed of strictest accountability). And later the article gives an example which I appreciated differently in this reading about the stream-of-consciousness writing of "some of the dadaists and early surrealists which were, I think, valid social experiments, testing and probing the limits of 'sociality' and individuality of artistic production and perception and fulfilling a useful function in the destruction of old and stuffy formalism among other things—even as these writings also revealed their own methodological limitations. And they revealed the fact that 'freshness' in art is after all not fundamentally dependent on some idealized notion of spontaneity, but on an ability to consciously 'skew' things in new and different ways—'change the focus,' alter and bend perspectives to provide fresh views and insights—all of which can only be aided by conscious reflection and struggle."
The discussion of why these were valid social experiments and what they revealed about their own limitations and in doing so how this helps deepen an understanding of what achieving "freshness" of perspectives more pivots around etc. This example of dadaism (which I don't know much about although I knew young artists who got into this in the ’60s as a form of challenging the suffocating atmosphere) and neither outright dismissing it nor uncritically embracing it but understanding and learning from it is the kind of approach that is needed to many phenomenon and trends that emerge in society (and to fostering an atmosphere where they can emerge and contend in the first place). This is where the moving multi-layered map becomes very important to understand not only the historical context and the potential pathways of change including whether/when/how to divert them from their spontaneous path. When I re-read this I thought if the Chinese Communist Party didn't like jazz, they definitely would not have seen anything positive about the role of dadaism or surrealism and what gave rise to it, what role it was playing when it emerged etc.
I can understand the pulls involved in this because it goes on now in an embryonic form, the flattening of everything into the main direction that things of necessity must take but which can suck the air out of the vibrancy and the joy of the process. Understanding what we are doing as leading a process with all its richness and complexity. I have always been struck by the fact that even in the most dire situations (like the speech to the party meeting that launched the Cultural Revolution inside the RCP) that Bob Avakian evokes a lot of laughter not because the situation is funny but because he gets us to step outside ourselves and look at things including from through the lens of the absurdity of a particular argument or line. I find this to be in keeping with the last lines of Harvest of Dragons—defeating the bourgeoisie without in the process of what it takes to do this becoming like them.
I saw a play by Tom Stoppard, Rock and Roll which is set in a supposedly socialist Czechoslovakia in 1968 (not) as it is being invaded by the Soviet Union as the backdrop. While it has important basics wrong, nonetheless the play is raising important questions, even if the play ultimately wraps them up into an anti-Communist package. The play revolves around the arrest and imprisonment of a Czech rock band and its ardent followers (which is a true story apparently) and beyond that dominant story line, there are other characters who are banging up against the defense of a rather economist vision of socialism articulated by a member of the Communist party—and unfortunately his arguments were not completely foreign. I guess what I am trying to say is that it was not a gross caricature of the Communist. There unfolds a sense that the social relations are too empty. For instance the professor's wife is angry with him because he is unable to comfort her during her battle with cancer — treating her as if she is merely a set of ideas disembodied from her person. Anyway, the band and its fans are not taking up this music because they want to topple the government. They love the noisy music (and maybe some amount of wanting to embrace the west or at least the youth culture of the west which is not synonymous with the governments and social structures). For the music fans, there seems to be a big element of breaking with the stifling atmosphere of the revisionist, drab society—and the music captured the youth who wanted to wail/rail about their alienation. In the play, the government and the party see the music as so threatening to the "order" of society that it has to be suppressed.
Coincidentally to writing this, I was recently listening to the 1st question from the film of the talk by Bob Avakian, Revolution... Why it’s necessary... as you laugh along with the answer to the question — will people be able to smoke weed under socialism? You feel like the party is definitely not going to be over if a Communist leader like Avakian is leading the new socialist society. (And I am not just saying this because it still resonates personally!) The answer goes into how there should be many ways people will find to get high from being in a different kind of society and in that context we'll see how people want to relax and if people want to smoke weed. Then it makes the point about our mission is not to ban people from having fun in ways that don't harm others. The fun in the answer to this question is captured in both the comedic response, and in the way it is getting at something deep about our job is not to banish fun ... far from it. Communism and the scientific approach to freedom and necessity and transforming the world should be exhilarating and unleash a lot of fun in doing it even as there are very real stakes for what we are doing and will be all along the way. And I thought the way this was cast, the "we" (i.e. we collectively) was an expression of what we are setting out to do in putting before people the big questions (ok smoking weed is not THE big question) and expanding the "we" who will be part of figuring this out.
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