A Reader Responds to "What's Wrong with 'History by Memoir?'"
January 20, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
I think it is really important to recognize that the special issue of Revolution newspaper, "You Don't Know What You Think You 'Know' About...The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future," is a phenomenal resource. I think it is critical to study, broadly spread, and stir up discussion, debate and controversy in society around this issue in all kinds of different ways, as part of working to bring closer and prepare for the radically different future conditions that would make revolution possible.
The statement "On the Strategy for Revolution" from the Revolutionary Communist Party makes the point that: "In order for revolution to be real there must be: a revolutionary crisis, and a revolutionary people, numbering in the millions and led by a far-seeing, highly organized and disciplined revolutionary party." Key features of these future conditions will be that millions of people will be conscious of the need for revolutionary change and determined to fight for it; that millions of people will have come to view this system and its rule as illegitimate; and that there will be a core of thousands of people who have been brought forward, oriented and trained in a revolutionary way, reaching and influencing millions of people in society before a revolutionary situation and, quoting the strategy statement again, "and then, when there is a revolutionary situation, those thousands can be a backbone and pivotal force in winning millions to revolution and organizing them in the struggle to carry the revolution through."
All of this is going to necessitate transforming the thinking of people on a massive societal scale, and radically reshaping the political terrain! And we must be working on this transformation of people's thinking and reshaping of the political terrain now, as part of working towards and preparing for the future conditions in which revolution would be possible. From that standpoint, I think this special issue of Revolution newspaper has tremendous importance. Because one of the biggest elements of people's thinking that needs to be transformed... one of the biggest dimensions around which the political terrain needs to be radically reshaped... one of the biggest factors keeping people from seeing the necessity and possibility of revolution and the illegitimacy of the current system... one of the biggest things standing in the way of them getting with the movement for revolution... is that people, broadly, in this society do not know that a whole different world is possible, and/or they have accepted the idea that any past attempts to radically change the world through revolution have been a nightmare. In other words: The only actual solution to the horrors confronting humanity—the communist revolution—has been written off the agenda, and people broadly in society have no idea about decades of experience of that revolution in which humanity lived a radically different way than they do now. And people broadly in society do not know about BA's new synthesis of communism, which provides a framework for a new stage of communist revolution, for humanity to correctly understand and also advance beyond even the best of that previous experience. Again, all this keeps people locked into accepting and working within the confines of the capitalist-imperialist system. But getting this special issue of Revolution way out into society has the potential to change all of that.
So those were some brief general thoughts on how I see the importance of this special issue. But in this letter, I wanted to focus on and share some thinking about one particular section of the interview with Raymond Lotta that I thought was really illuminating and important: The section titled, "What's Wrong with 'History by Memoir'?"
Think about it: How often, in the course of talking with people about communism—and more generally in the academic and societal discourse about communism—are individual memoirs and personal accounts from those who lived in past socialist societies cited as definitive "proof" that these societies were nightmares and disasters? Who, in the course of carrying out work building the movement for revolution, has not encountered from the masses of all different strata some variation of the following objection (even if not expressed in these exact words): "If communism is so great, and if previous socialist societies were so liberating, how come I've read or heard all these stories from people who lived in these societies saying it was terrible?"
The way Lotta speaks to this in the interview ideologically equips people to correctly understand, speak to, and take on this objection.
So, in this letter, I wanted to highlight what I thought were some really important points from how Lotta goes at the question of "history by memoir," and also share some brief additional thoughts provoked and inspired by this section of the interview.
How do you determine the essence of an experience?
This system of capitalism-imperialism, the ways in which its economic and social relations pit people against each other in dog-eat-dog competition, and the ethos, morality, ideas, and culture this produces, constantly train people to think, and to evaluate everything, in terms of the individual, and in terms of individual/personal experience. Individual accounts and "narratives" are held up as the ultimate yardstick to measure what is true, and what is right: "What are things like—or what were they like—for me?"
When you combine this pervasive individualism with the non-stop barrage of cartoon-like attacks on communism and the experience of the communist revolution put forth by this system's ruling class, media, and educational system, and its advocates and representatives in different quarters—attacks that are, at this point uncritically swallowed and repeated by the vast majority of people in society, including many progressives who should know better—you get a situation in which individual memoirs and accounts from people about how "horrible" communism supposedly was are both accepted at face value, no questions asked, and also treated as the "be-all, end-all," the final word on the communist revolution and the experience of past socialist societies. This shit gets over on people, and I think it is a significant part of shaping what people think they know—but in fact do not know—about the communist revolution.
This is why I think what Lotta speaks to in the "What's Wrong with 'History by Memoir'?" section of the interview is so important: With some exceptions, looking at memoirs is not, in fact, a good way to determine the main character and essence of a rich and complex experience that involved and impacted hundreds of millions of people and radically changed society as a whole and in so many different particular spheres, or to evaluate the various social and class forces, programs and outlooks in contention. This is a methodological point that not only applies to the communist revolution, but in fact to the question of how any major social experience should be evaluated. Lotta cites an example in the interview: "You know, I was reading a discussion on memoir literature by an historian of the Soviet revolution. He made the point that you would never attempt to understand a major event like the French Revolution through personal stories...you know, the telling of 'here's what I went through,' or 'what I heard,' etc." (Revolution #323).
And there are many other examples you could think of as well. Would you seek to evaluate the U.S. Civil War—its causes, its effects, its principal character—by looking at individual accounts from people involved in or impacted by the Civil War, or who lived at the time of the Civil War? Or, would you look at the broader, overall social and historical context and experience of the Civil War, asking some basic questions like: What did it mean that millions of Black people were brutally enslaved for centuries prior to the Civil War? And what did it mean that the Union side of the Civil War was seeking to, and—through emerging victorious in the War—in fact did, put an end to slavery?
As Lotta points to in the interview, it's not that there is nothing to learn from some individual memoirs, and in fact there are some memoirs that do "capture and analyze the main lines and trends of the whole historical period the author lived through," but: a) these are the exception, not the rule, and b) in an overall sense and as a methodological point, looking at individual personal accounts is not a good way to evaluate broad, rich and complex historical experience.
Given the vicious and ludicrous anti-communist ideological assault that I mentioned earlier in this letter, and for reasons I will speak briefly to a bit further on, nobody should simply accept personal accounts of "horrors" experienced under communism at face value. In other words, some negative personal accounts—to be frank—are just going to be straight-up lies and bullshit in which people are wildly distorting experiences and events with the conscious aim and agenda of slandering communism and the past experience of the socialist revolution. But the methodological points Lotta emphasizes in the interview apply even in instances in which personal accounts of unjust persecution are, or may be, at least partly accurate. To illustrate this point, let's look at a more recent example—the L.A. Rebellion of 1992. Obviously, to be clear, the L.A. Rebellion was not part of the past experience of communist revolution! But there are still many important lessons to be drawn from this experience, including in relation to the subject of this letter.
For those who don't know the history of the L.A. Rebellion: In 1991, the LAPD was caught on videotape viciously and mercilessly beating Rodney King, a Black man whom they had pulled over and who was handcuffed as they were beating him. And in 1992, despite this videotape, the four white officers charged with beating King were found "not guilty." This shit was just too much to take for many, many people in, and well beyond, Los Angeles, particularly masses of Black people and those most brutally oppressed every day by this system, for whom the beating of King and subsequent acquittal of the officers was a concentration of the brutality and injustice that the police and the system as a whole heap upon them over and over and over again and who, after learning that the beating was videotaped, felt that this time they would finally get justice, only to have those hopes crushed and mocked. The masses in L.A. rose up in rebellion in response to the verdict, an event that inspired people in this country and all over the world who experienced, or had a deep hatred for, oppression and injustice. It forced people to confront, on a huge, societal scale, what the police and what this system do to Black people. It led those brutally beaten down under this system to raise their heads and fight back, to think about big questions and relate to one another differently.
In the midst of this rebellion, a white truck driver named Reginald Denny, who just happened to be passing through the area where the rebellion was taking place, was beaten. This was not good, and should not have happened. Now, if my memory is correct, Denny actually ended up taking a good stand and, in spite of what had happened to him personally, expressed sympathy for the rebellion. But let's say, hypothetically, that he hadn't. Let's say that Denny wrote a personal account of his experience during the LA Rebellion, using what happened to him to say how horrible this rebellion was. And let's even say for the sake of argument that his description of what happened to him personally was accurate. And let's say that he told this story divorced from the context of everything described in the previous paragraph about the situation for Black people in the U.S., the causes, effects, and circumstances of the LA Rebellion, and everything that this represented and concentrated. What kind of picture of the LA Rebellion would one get from such an account?! And which would actually be the correct way to arrive at an understanding of the main character and essence of the L.A. rebellion: looking at everything that is outlined in the previous paragraph, and on that basis identifying and learning from individual experiences and excesses such as what happened to Denny? Or to approach Denny's experience in isolation and arrive at the conclusion: "I heard that a truck driver was unfairly beaten in the LA. Rebellion. Therefore, the rebellion must have been a horror."
Applying this overall point of method to the specific question of how one evaluates the experience of the communist revolution and the socialist societies it brought into being: Should one do this by looking at individual personal accounts of excesses, or supposed excesses, or unjust suffering—even if some of these accounts might even be true, or partly true, and important to learn from? Or by looking at the totality of the experience, its principal character and objectives—the degree to which these societies were moving towards, and guided by the goal of, overcoming all exploitation and oppression; the degree to which people's basic human needs were being met; the steps these societies took to overcome the horrors of the old societies out of which they emerged; the radical positive transformations that were made in education, health care, employment, the status of women and oppressed nationalities, in art and culture, just to name a few spheres of society; the degree to which the thinking and relations of people, and whole sections of people, changed radically and for the better; the steps that were taken to overcome divisions and inequalities between people; the way these societies related to, and inspired, people all over the world; the degree to which life dramatically improved for literally hundreds of millions of people?
Personal Accounts of "Horrors Under Communism" Should Not be Taken at Face Value!
In addition to speaking to the critical methodological points that Raymond Lotta raises in the interview about the correct means to evaluate the experience of the communist revolution, and broad social and historical experience more generally, I also wanted to briefly raise a few other points and questions that I think are very important in relation to this topic:
"Where, When, and What Are You Talking About?"
Whenever anyone says that they read, or heard, accounts from people "who lived in communist countries and said it was terrible," one of the first questions that needs to be asked is: "Which country, and which time period, are you talking about?" One major element of the anti-communist ideological assault discussed earlier in this letter is that people's sense of what socialism and communism even are, and which countries are or were genuine socialist countries, and when, has been completely warped and distorted! So, it is quite possible that when people reference "horror stories" that they heard about communism, they are actually talking about societies that are/were the furthest thing from socialist or communist, such as North Korea, countries in Eastern Europe that used to be part of the "Soviet bloc" after the Soviet Union became thoroughly capitalist, countries in Latin or South America, or perhaps even Scandinavian countries. In addition, many people do not even realize that China and the Soviet Union have now been capitalist countries for decades! So, it is also quite possible that they are referring to China and Russia after these societies became capitalist countries!
So again, I think it is important to find out what countries and time periods people are referring to, both to continue to learn about people's thinking about communism and what is shaping that thinking, but also—very critically—in order to set the record straight about what genuine socialism and communism actually are and what we are talking about when we talk about the communist revolution.
The next few points and questions I want to raise relate to "horror stories" that people tell, or repeat, in relation to Russia and China when they were genuinely socialist countries...
Consider the Source
Two other basic questions I think need to be raised and explored when someone says—or references someone else saying—that they experienced horrors under communism: Who is saying that their experience in these societies was a nightmare, and what are they saying was horrible about it?
Now, I think it is very important to understand and approach this correctly, because there is a right way to understand and apply that point, and a very wrong way to understand and apply it. Whether or not something is true does not depend on the class background of the person saying it. This understanding is one of the critical breakthroughs—one of the critical ruptures with the past experience of the communist revolution—that BA has made in forging the new synthesis of communism. In other words: The point is not that if someone who comes from privileged sections of society says that something happened to him or her in socialist societies, then he or she must be lying, or must have been hostile to the revolution, or that his or her experience is unimportant or simply representative of that person's individual or class "narrative." Similarly, if someone comes from the oppressed and exploited sections of society, this does not mean that what he or she is saying must be true, or must be representative of the interests of the proletarian revolution, or simply a reflection of that person's individual or class narrative. There is one reality, not several different realities for different classes or billions of different realities for different individuals. Here, I would refer people to the points made in the special issue, including in the article, "But How Do We Know Who's Telling the Truth About Communism?" on why it is critical to take a scientific approach to all of reality, including the experience of the communist revolution, in order to determine what is true.
So, the point of saying "consider the source" is not that one should determine what's true based on the source. The point is that you can't look at these memoirs and personal accounts in a vacuum, or simply accept them at face value, without questioning and exploring who is saying his or her experience was terrible and what they are saying was terrible about it.
Let's take the example of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in China (1966-1976) which—as is pointed out in the interview—is one of the most vilified periods in the entire history of the communist revolution. As Lotta discusses in the interview, the GPCR was a society-wide struggle in China between the socialist and capitalist roads, a real revolution launched by Mao after he recognized that the persistence in socialist society of class divisions, inequalities, and the ideas that went along with this—if not overcome—posed the danger for capitalism to be restored in China, and after he recognized that the core of those fighting to restore capitalism in China were within the Communist Party. To take just two examples of key things that happened in the course of this major social upheaval involving tens of millions of people: 1) The masses, with revolutionary leadership, identified, criticized, called out, struggled against, and in many cases overthrew Party leaders who were taking the capitalist road. 2) The educational system was totally changed. As Lotta describes it in the interview: "The old teaching methods, where students are just passive receptacles of knowledge and are driven to grub for grades, and the teachers are absolute authorities—that was challenged, very sharply. Instead, the critical spirit was fostered. Study was combined with productive activity. The elite admissions policies into the universities that gave sons and daughters of Party members and professionals kind of a special track...these were overhauled."
What do we imagine capitalist-roaders who were overthrown in the course of the GPCR—or those who were sharply criticized and struggled against yet persisted on the capitalist road ... or teachers who were determined to hold absolute authority over students and did not like having this authority challenged... or students whose special educational privileges as party members and professionals were overhauled... might have to say about the GPCR, and about their overall experience in socialist society? Would it be surprising if they had very negative things to say? And would these accounts be a good yardstick to use in evaluating the essence, nature, and overall experience of the revolutionary societies of which they were a part?
Or, to take another example: Let's think about people who, prior to the Russian and Chinese revolutions, were wealthy landlords or landowners who bitterly exploited and oppressed the masses, and whose land was taken away after these revolutions as part of massive redistribution of land to the formerly exploited and oppressed peasants. Same two questions: What do we imagine that these former exploiters might have to say about their experiences under socialism? And would these accounts be a good way to evaluate the essence, nature, and overall experience of the revolutionary societies of which they were a part?
Now, again, the point is not that negative personal accounts about experiences under socialism automatically fall under the heading of capitalist-roaders, former exploiters, or the elites complaining about their privileges being challenged or taken away... nor, very importantly, is the point that whether or not negative personal accounts are accurate, or worthy of consideration, depends on the class background of the person providing these accounts. And neither is the point that there were not problems, errors, and shortcomings in the past experience of socialism; as discussed in the interview, there were—including in relation to how intellectuals and their role in society was understood and approached, and Bob Avakian has deeply analyzed, learned from, and ruptured with these errors and shortcomings as part of forging the new synthesis of communism that allows humanity to do even better in the next wave of communist revolution.
But the idea that personal accounts from people who lived in socialist societies and say their experiences were terrible should be uncritically accepted as true, portrayed as representative of the essence of these societies, or approached in complete isolation from the social context in which these experiences occurred... the notion that the existence of these memoirs somehow constitutes evidence that previous socialist societies have been a horror... is ridiculous!
Why are certain memoirs and personal accounts actively promoted while others are NOT?
The following are just two of many excerpts that could be cited from personal accounts of people who grew up in socialist China and have very positive things to say about their experiences:
I am very grateful that I grew up in an extremely special moment in Chinese history. The dominant ideology was that women hold up half the sky; what men can do, women can do. Those may sound now as hollow slogans; but I lived through that period really believing in myself, in my ability in bringing about changes in my own life and the lives of other people.
(Bai Di, from "Bai Di: Growing Up in Revolutionary China," an interview with Li Onesto that is available at thisiscommunism.org)
Before the Cultural Revolution, we were only doing farming. During the Cultural Revolution years, the high school graduates helped diversify our village economy. We had a forest team composed of high school graduates. They planted many different kinds of fruit trees, pepper trees, as well as other trees. And we also built a factory. And there were 175 people working in that factory. In China today, rural young people have to leave the village to find jobs in the cities. But during the Cultural Revolution years we didn't need to go anywhere. We were not anybody else's slaves. We worked for our own future. And the 175 people working in the factory were able to generate an income for the collective, which greatly improved farmers' livelihoods.
(Dongpin Han, from "Dongpin Han: The Unknown Cultural Revolution," available at thisiscommunism.org. People should ask themselves: Why is it that I have not heard these accounts, and others like them, but I have heard accounts from people saying communism was a "nightmare"?
It's not an accident. After Mao died and Deng Xiaoping came to power in China and brought capitalism back, he launched a very conscious, vicious and massive ideological attack on the Cultural Revolution. Here is how Wang Zheng, a professor of women's studies at the University of Michigan who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, described this:
Thoroughly negate the Cultural Revolution' was a scheme by Deng Xiaoping to pave the way for his dismantling of socialism while consolidating political power. It was a way to whitewash or shift attention from his and his associates' crimes.
(From "Wang Zheng: 'We had a dream that the world can be better than today," available at thisiscommunism.org)
But it's not just a question of what gets promoted within China. The rulers of and advocates for this capitalist-imperialist system—certainly including the ruling class and major media and educational system of the United States—which causes one horror after another after another for humanity, have every interest in promoting the idea that any attempts to bring a radically different world into being were, and could only be, a nightmare! On this point, I would highly recommend that people read, or re-read, "No Wonder They Slander Communism," an excerpt from What Humanity Needs: Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism, an interview with Bob Avakian by A. Brooks. In this excerpt, which was published in the recent special issue of Revolution newspaper, Avakian brilliantly exposes and demystifies the barrage of slanders and ideological attacks on communism that are launched by the rulers of this system and its mouthpieces and advocates and then parroted by far, far too many people. People should really study both the content and method of this excerpt and keep returning to and struggling for the points Avakian makes there.
All This Highlights What a Huge Breakthrough BA's New Synthesis of Communism Is
To the degree that there were secondary problems and errors in the past experience of the communist revolution—and there were—BA's new synthesis of communism provides the framework for correctly identifying, understanding, and rupturing with these errors and shortcomings and doing better in the next wave of communist revolution.
After capitalism was restored in China following the death of Mao in 1976, causing great demoralization and disorientation for communists and others all over the world who had been inspired by revolutionary China, BA did the work—decades of work—to exhaustively and critically analyze the past experience, in theory and practice, of the communist revolution and the previous socialist societies it brought into being, synthesizing the lessons of what actually happened in the course of this experience and how this experience should actually be understood and evaluated scientifically. On that basis, along with drawing from many diverse fields of human endeavor, BA developed a new synthesis of communism that stands on the shoulders of the first wave of communist revolution and upholds the experience of that first wave as principally and overwhelmingly positive and emancipatory, while also identifying and rupturing with secondary shortcomings and errors in that experience and areas where humanity needs to do better in the next wave of communist revolution.
For a much fuller discussion of these points, I really want to emphasize and refer people to Lotta's discussion—in Part 4 of the interview—of BA's new synthesis of communism and the possibility it opens up for humanity.
And I want to close by quoting two excerpts from that section of the interview to illustrate some of the points made above.
The first excerpt is the one towards the end of the interview in which Lotta discusses the importance of, and then quotes, a point made by Avakian in What Humanity Needs:
Avakian identifies the great challenge, in an interview from 2012 entitled What Humanity Needs: Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism, where he poses a critical question that arises out of the first stage of communist revolution...and that the new synthesis has broken through on:
How do you give the correct and necessary priority to the fundamental needs of the masses of people in society—especially those whose needs have been trampled under the old exploitative system, economically, socially, and politically and culturally—while at the same time not undermining the necessary intellectual and cultural ferment, creativity, and even dissent that's essential in order to have the kind of process in society where both the masses of people as a whole, and also the leadership of the party and the government, is learning from this whole process, including the criticisms that are raised and the unconventional ideas that find expression in intellectual endeavor, and in the field of the arts, and so on—so that you have a richer process?
That's a huge breakthrough, part of a larger breakthrough based on deep study and wrangling which is the new synthesis, and it provides a real basis for hope on a solid scientific foundation.
And the second excerpt, with which I want to conclude this letter, is the very last paragraph in the interview with Lotta:
It all comes back to this: the world urgently cries out for radical change, for revolution. And correctly grasping the REAL character, the liberatory character, of the first stage of the communist revolution AND immersing oneself in the contributions of Bob Avakian in summing up that stage and providing direction for a new, even greater one is critical and necessary...to continue on and to make leaps in the journey out of that "darkness" of class society. It's about the need and basis for a world in which human beings can truly flourish. And it's about all of us rising to the great need before us: taking up this science and using it to transform the reality humanity faces.
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