Reflections on What Humanity Needs: Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism:
The Critical Importance of Leadership
by Lenny Wolff | November 4, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
I recently went back over the interview with BA (What Humanity Needs: Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism). This interview is extraordinarily wide-ranging. It deeply explores questions involved in bringing forward new initiators of a new stage of communism; the new synthesis of communism; questions of strategy; culture; science and morality; the "head and the heart"; and other really critical questions. And it explores all these from many different angles, from the most world-historical to the personal.
I started this particular reading of the interview with an intention to deepen my grasp of its sweep and depth "in its own right." But as I read, I was struck by its direct relevance to some particular problems that the movement for revolution (and those working to lead it forward) confront right now. So I wanted to pull out and highlight, and comment on, a few things that struck me in that light. I'm not trying here to speak to the whole interview, and it would definitely be wrong to reduce the interview to these points—but, as I said, a few points did strike me with particular impact about some of the problems confronting the movement for revolution. The stakes right now are very high and, one way or another, what revolutionaries do in this period will be pivotal to whether we break through the "tough spot" we face—and not breaking through is not an option. So I'm raising all this in a spirit of a hard, scientific look at some trends and tendencies in our work that pull against our breaking through, and of drawing all that we can from what is a very rich piece by BA.
As I was reading through the interview, I thought of a question posed to me by another comrade: do we realize that in everything we do, we have to be leading people? Not just getting them to do this or that particular thing, or to have a conversation about this or that particular point or topic... but actually leading them to engage with, contribute to and be part of building the movement for revolution. Struggling with people, and learning from them as well...and doing all of it as part of something larger. As I went through the interview, not only was BA talking about leadership—in fact, this is a major explicit theme that weaves through the whole interview, and I want to get to that shortly—but he was also providing a model in this.
In talking about this with another comrade, she said well, leadership is line. That's true—but what is line?
Here I want to draw on something that has struck me every time I've read the interview. At one point, in a really rich answer to a question by Brooks on the importance of line, BA notes that, "Line is the application of a world outlook and method to reality. It's a probing of reality and the drawing together and synthesizing of the lessons that are learned from probing reality."
I want to focus on that phrase "probing reality." BA does this in the interview, throughout. Look, for example, at the question that Brooks raises, referring to what someone said on the contrast between the '60s and today, in the section "Resistance... and Revolution." What's BA's approach here? First off, he's doing deep listening—he's thinking about the reality behind Brooks' question, and then he's looking at that reality from different angles... he's using line to probe the reality beneath the question. It's not just "here's where you're right, here's where you're wrong"... or "here's where we agree and here's where we don't, so let's move on." It's not a canned answer taken off the shelf of a set of positions. It's a real exploration of, yes, objective reality—one which fleshes out the contradictory forces and directions of the two different periods under discussion, explores how these played out and still play out in a number of different dimensions, examines how other developments entered into the process, and really fleshes out the dynamics of how things have developed over time and why they did. From there—from that probing of reality—he goes to both the challenges we confront and what we actually have going for us in confronting those challenges. And because it's a fully present, in-the-moment consideration, and because the pulse of life that beats within the abstractions is kept in mind, there's a real freshness to it—new ways of looking at the question, new insights are unearthed. In other words, there's a deep probing and, on that basis, a real synthesis.
You can see this method throughout the interview1, and you can see it in other things too. It's in the questions and answers at the end of the Revolution Talk, for instance—listen again, for instance, to the answer on whether Black people should receive reparations for slavery and the oppression that has followed slavery. Or listen to the recent interview with BA done by Cornel West.
Over and over: probing reality, and synthesis. I'm stressing this because I think that all too often, in practice, a lot of us treat line as if it were a static set of ideas that we bring forward against other sets of ideas (or else, sometimes, as a set of ideas that we don't bring forward because they may "get in the way" of a particular objective!). There's no life to that. And there's no real leadership involved in that either.
This emphasis on probing reality relates to another major theme of the interview—being scientific in our approach, letting other people in on this scientific method, and struggling for that method. Popularizing the scientific method, demystifying it, and explicitly posing it against other methods. I wonder how often, when we're wrangling with someone and they're clearly basing themselves on another method—post-modernism, or religion, or pragmatism, or whatever—I wonder how often we say, "hey, that's not quite scientific" and explain why and then work things through with them with a scientific approach. This has always been a hallmark of BA, but it's extremely striking in the interview—and it's something that, again, I think we could all stand a little self-interrogation on.
(And I mean self-interrogation, and not self-cultivation or self-criticism—I mean going into shortcomings in how we too often come at things precisely in order to do better. I found this part of the interview very important in this regard:
Look, we're all gonna make errors, we're all gonna make mistakes. You can't do anything in the world of consequence, and you certainly can't engage in any major undertaking—and especially one which is trying to transform the whole of human society and the whole relations of people in the world, up against such powerful entrenched forces—there's absolutely no way in the world that you're gonna take very many steps, let alone carry out that whole process, and not make mistakes. The point is: do you learn from your mistakes, do you learn to learn more quickly and more thoroughly from your mistakes, do you honestly confront your mistakes, do you sum them up, and do you let other people know—do you popularize your understanding of the mistakes you made and why you made them, and enable other people to learn from your mistakes? That's the key thing. Because everybody's gonna make mistakes, okay?)
Again, this theme of leadership runs through the entire interview, right from the beginning with the doctor-patient analogy. But here I want to draw on one very pithy way that it's put toward the end of the interview, where BA is speaking to "the heart and essence of communist leadership." It's not, he says, "providing tactical advice in a particular circumstance or particular struggle, even though that may be something that people need to do, and it can be an important element of what they do." Then he goes on to say:
[T]he heart of it is actually implementing "Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution"—is actually bringing forward all of the things we've talked about in terms of enabling people to get a real understanding, scientifically grounded, of the larger picture that any particular thing fits into. What is the overall foundation and framework in which all these things are occurring? What is, to put it simply again, the problem and solution: what do all these outrages stem from; what are they all rooted and grounded in; what do we need to do to uproot and eliminate all this, and how do we actually build the movement to do that? All that is the essence of communist leadership, whatever level of a party, or whatever part you play in the division of labor of a party, as part of a revolutionary communist vanguard.
Think about that for a minute. This is not to say that particular things don't need to be done. But are we putting them in the "overall foundation and framework in which all these things are occurring" and which in fact actually determines their significance? Sometimes people will hunger for this. And sometimes it will be quite contentious. All too often, it seems, we let others set the terms on what IS the overall foundation and framework, and then we try to come at things from within those terms. Now it is not about "our framework vs. their framework"—as if these are two different, equally subjective narratives. It is about what is objectively real, and which framework corresponds to that. To return to the quote: "What is, to put it simply again, the problem and solution: what do all these outrages stem from; what are they all rooted and grounded in; what do we need to do to uproot and eliminate all this, and how do we actually build the movement to do that?" We have an understanding of that, we have a method and approach to deepen that understanding, we have a way to listen and go back-and-forth with people without losing that grounding and, indeed, for that very grounding to enrich it—but we have to lead with that.
This is not just a question of whether we do this when we talk with others, important as that is. There is in fact a more fundamental question to pose to ourselves: are we going back to what is said about the "overall foundation and framework" in our own approach to everything we do, to every objective we undertake? And when we do lead others in (very important) objectives—do we understand all that as being part of, and on that basis something that has to be knit into, a larger process, or do we mentally separate these off from that larger context? And, as one comrade recently pointed out in a discussion we had of this, if we don't consciously synthesize these objectives and activities into a larger picture, including how all these relate to preparing people to wage the all-out struggle for revolution when the situation emerges in which that can be done as the next major leap in emancipating humanity... and if we don't weave these together as part of a movement which contains many diverging threads and strands but is all forming a tapestry leading to revolution... then all this work will spontaneously and inevitably be synthesized into "just another part of the current scene"—that is, just another part of the ongoing permanent necessity the masses face. Now I definitely don't want to reduce the whole discussion of leadership in the interview, and even in this section, to just this point: but... again... are we doing this? And if we're not doing this, to quote Joe Veale from a few months back, what ARE we doing?
This leads to yet another important point to compare and contrast on: winning. This comes in at a number of points—and it grounds the whole interview—but here I want to highlight a particular point where BA has just emphasized the fact that what we represent really DOES objectively represent what humanity needs, and that what we're fighting against really IS utterly reactionary, cruel, needless, and, yes, evil. This is an important point of principle to deeply get and to fight for. "But, then," he goes on to say, "the 'good guys' have to win."
We have to actually make this real. If we don't win, if we don't break through, first here and then there—and then, if we're set back, learn from that and go forward again with a new stage and a new wave of this revolution, and eventually get to the point where the imperialists are cornered and holed up in a few parts of the world, and then eventually they're swept away entirely—if we don't do that, then the suffering of the masses of people, the things we were just talking about that we should feel real outrage and passion about, are gonna continue; it may be in some new forms, but they're gonna continue. And the future of humanity is gonna be threatened in an even more acute way through what's happening—what this system is doing to the environment, for example, as well as through the wars that these ruling classes wage, directly or through proxies, or whatever—and they have these nuclear arsenals, and all the rest of it. If we don't sweep all that away and not allow them to destroy humanity in the process, then it ultimately doesn't matter that we're the "good guys." It matters, but in the final analysis it doesn't matter if we don't win.
Let's really sit with that for a minute. It's important to be right and it's important to actually BE "the good guys." But... it ultimately doesn't matter if we don't win. It's important to do the work ourselves to understand and ground ourselves in how everything we're doing is part of politically transforming the terrain and accumulating forces that could actually lead a revolution... that could actually win... and it's absolutely critical that we imbue others with this understanding. Otherwise, what's the point?
Now BA never loses sight—and he never lets others lose sight—of what it means NOT to win. The acute sense of what it means to let this system keep running—that's always there, in a living painful way, in the interview and in everything else. These are REAL PEOPLE being put on the rack every single day, by the billions. But he also never loses sight of the scientific basis for masses of people to defeat this. There IS a way out... and a way to win. Not a guarantee, not something that won't require a whole lot more work and struggle and mind-wrenching thinking... but a way. A possibility—a real possibility.
This is first of all a point of orientation for communists: is this what we are about? Is this what we are grappling with? Is this part of the "whole larger picture" that we ourselves are living in and thinking about—or is it off to the side? This is a "prove-it-all-night" question and, first of all, for us. But then there's the relationships we're building: are we not just telling people that this is important, but actually showing them how everything is fitting into that—into getting closer to the time when we can actually lead people to deal with all that? Not in a silly way or a way that could unwittingly open us up to distortion ... but are we making the effort to consciously situate everything, in our own thinking and the thinking of others, "from the revolution back." Another way to think about this: do we think about things from the standpoint of leaders of a future socialist state, and leaders of a revolution to get to that state? Do we exude that? It's not a gimmick; it's a question of basic approach. When people meet us, they should come away not only having heard a compelling case for why we need a revolution, but with a real sense that this party is taking responsibility to lead that and has a real grounded sense of how to go about it ... AND that there is a role for them in this revolution, a place for their thinking and suggestions, room for them to probe reality, and a need for them to get on into it, at whatever level of understanding and agreement they're at now.
If we DO understand and do this, then it should not be difficult to instill in the people we work with and lead the feeling that this work has real purpose and direction. I think the way in which the statement on strategy is paraphrased in the interview is important—it's a very basic and simple principle that everyone we're working with should understand, and see themselves in:
While we're reaching and influencing millions, thousands can be and need to be brought forward, oriented, trained, and organized in a revolutionary communist way and enabled to actively struggle for the objectives of this revolution. And, when the time comes that there is a much deeper and broader crisis in society that reaches objectively revolutionary proportions—when the ruling class really has much greater difficulty ruling in the way they've ruled, and masses of people in the millions and millions, and tens of millions, don't want to and, in an active sense, are increasingly refusing to, live in the old way—then that core of thousands can, in turn, influence, can bring into the revolutionary movement, on many different levels, and can lead the millions and tens of millions who are refusing to live in the old way, and are actively seeking radical change.
Yes, this involves struggle. People do not spontaneously see that larger picture, they do not spontaneously see where their activity fits into the whole movement for revolution and how it is transforming society and to what end, they don't spontaneously approach things scientifically (indeed, as BA points out early on, the whole question of whether society can even be approached scientifically is a hotly debated one). Even when they are drawn to revolution, they face all the resistance of society at large—the constant saturation of anticommunism, the constant attacks on the humanity of the masses, and the way in which all that has broad influence right now. And communists themselves, by the way, are subject to the same pulls on this as everyone else and also have to struggle against spontaneity.2
This struggle is a living process. It is itself scientific—or it must be scientifically approached and grounded—and not religious ("spontaneity, get thee behind me"). It is a question of a solid core, with a lot of elasticity, and those two aspects in constant dialectical interplay.
This kind of struggle actually deepens unity and should strengthen our relationships with people. Listen again to the interview of BA by Cornel West, where different outlooks and methods are clearly delineated, and this leads to the ground for unity being more clearly identified (and further strengthened and vitalized), while the areas for further grappling and wrangling are more clearly understood. It's not as if people have to be united with some checklist of points to be involved in this process—again, drawing from the interview:
Even people who may not agree with or may not know that much about the new synthesis of communism, for example—many, many people, thousands and thousands of people—can get actively involved in and be motivated to be part of helping to project this into all corners of society. They can find their own level, so to speak—as long as the way is provided for them to find their own level—to participate in that, with that kind of contradiction in their own understanding, and in their own approach.
That is one very important aspect of, at one and the same time, dealing with unity and contradiction, which is a lot of what you have to do in building the movement for revolution. There are different levels and different forms in which people can unite to fight oppression—to fight the power, to put it that way—even while they have disagreements about how to wage that fight, let alone about the bigger context and framework into which that fits.
- - -
I hope these points spark further grappling with the interview in its own right—which, as I said at the beginning, encompasses and speaks to quite a bit more than the themes I've chosen to focus on here... and further application of the interview to the pressing problems faced by the movement for revolution in both this and other very crucial spheres. In looking back through the interview as I'm wrapping this letter up, I see all kinds of points and passages that would be relevant to go back and put in, but this is the middle of a process, not the end, so I think I'll leave it here... for now.
1. To include just one, particularly striking instance of this approach to line, from a discussion toward the end of the interview on the new synthesis of communism:
I mean, what is represented by communism—and specifically the new synthesis of communism—is actually scientifically analogous to that [earlier an analogy had been made to a cure for "a massive epidemic which is causing horrific suffering"]. It is the way forward. It is not some magic solution. It's a scientific approach to forging the way forward. It has answered—or spoken in a significant way to—some real problems. At the same time, it has posed new questions, identified new contradictions that have to be confronted, which weren't seen as clearly before. And it's an ongoing process of discovering, confronting and transforming different aspects of reality that have to be transformed, in order to achieve the emancipation of humanity. That's what it is. That's why we put it forward. And that's why we struggle to let people know about it and to win them to engage it seriously—and, yes, to take it up—because that's exactly what it embodies and represents. It is analogous to a way to deal with a very serious epidemic. There is an epidemic in which the mass of humanity is suffering terribly, as constituted under this capitalist-imperialist system, and there is a way forward—not a magic wand to wave to solve all problems, but a means for forging a way forward on a higher level than before, as a result of this new synthesis that's been brought forward. [back]
2. In this regard, I want to particularly refer people to a passage in the very trenchant section "Particular Outrages, Particular Struggles, and the Overall Movement for Revolution":
And once you get that [communist] level of understanding—and, yes, it's a process and not a "once and for all" thing—but, once you make the leap to getting that basic understanding and grounding, then it's a question of continually struggling to remain grounded and to get continually more deeply grounded in that understanding, and to apply it in a living way to all the different particular aspects of building the movement for revolution—all the different spheres of struggle, be they cultural, ideological, or political, over major social questions or, as we were talking about earlier, over questions which, at first at least, don't seem to be major social questions but then, perhaps unexpectedly, become that. Now, for communists, like everyone else, there is the pull of what dominates in society. There is the pull of the putrid, revolting culture, ideology, and morals that you have to continually struggle against, not just individually but collectively, together with others. There is the political pull to seeing things in isolation from the overall and larger picture, and into simply being concerned with one particular form or manifestation of the oppressive nature of this system—losing sight of the larger picture into which this particular form fits. That is a constant pull on people. And there is a need—again, not just for individuals on their own, but together, collectively, with growing numbers of people—for struggle to continually loft all of our sights back up to the larger standpoint of seeing the whole picture and proceeding, with regard to any particular aspect of things, any particular part of the struggle, with this whole broad understanding in mind and as the constant guide in what we're doing. This all has to be built as part of preparing the ground for, and getting to the point where, when the objective conditions ripen, we can actually lead millions and millions of people to make this revolution we're talking about, to actually sweep away this system, to defeat and dismantle its repressive institutions, and bring into being new revolutionary institutions that really do serve the interests of the masses of people, and back them up in carrying forward the struggle to continue transforming society, to support others in the world waging the same struggle, and to help people see the need in other parts of the world to wage this struggle more and more consciously toward the common goal of a communist world. [back]
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