Making the Absolute Most Out of an Incredible Dialogue
December 8, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
In this letter, I want to start by sharing some thinking about the truly unprecedented Dialogue that went down November 15 at Riverside Church between Bob Avakian and Cornel West. I want to speak both to the significance of the Dialogue itself, and also to the tremendous need and basis to exponentially spread this Dialogue and its impact throughout society, and for the movement for revolution to make real leaps forward coming off November 15. Then, I want to share some thinking about the relationship between this Dialogue and the current political moment with the outrageous grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York and the righteous outrage around the country that has grown even stronger in the aftermath of these decisions. These two things—the Dialogue and this political moment—both have great importance in their own right. But they also are very much linked, and it would be out of line with reality, as well as a costly mistake, to separate these two from each other. Both the Dialogue and this current political moment only highlight further the urgency of one another.
I want to say right away that I am not just writing this letter in order to share my own thinking. Rather, I am writing with the hope and suggestion that people reading this reflect on the points raised here and discuss them with others, in a consistent way, and that this whole process will lead to lots of further thinking and ideas about the points raised in this letter. Hopefully, this letter will inspire further correspondence and grappling, because I think these points are not just important in the next week or two, but in a lasting way.
So, let me start by talking about the Dialogue that just happened between Bob Avakian and Cornel West. And let's start by talking about what this Dialogue actually was.
There is a cliché that is often spoken—perhaps about great works of art, or times of great political significance—that sometimes one has to temporarily step back from something in order to truly grasp and appreciate its significance. With that in mind, I want to urge those who attended this Dialogue, those who promoted and organized this Dialogue, those who are part of this movement for revolution, and in fact anyone who wants to see a different world, to step back and fully appreciate what a truly big deal this Dialogue was.
Let's really take a minute to stop and reflect on this...
On November 15, nearly 2,000 people packed one of the most famous churches, one of the most prominent and historic venues in the country, to experience—live and in person—Bob Avakian in dialogue with Cornel West. As a recent article in Revolution newspaper pointed out: "It was the first public appearance in decades by Bob Avakian, the revolutionary leader and architect of a whole new framework for the emancipation of all of humanity, who spoke directly and in depth to the need and basis for revolution; in dialogue with Cornel West, one of the most important and provocative public intellectuals of our time and who spoke and engaged in dialogue from the perspective of Christian and Black prophetic traditions, and as an uncompromising champion for the oppressed." The crowd of nearly 2,000 people came from all over the country—New York, Ferguson, Chicago, as far away as Hawai'i—and included people from the housing projects, the high schools and college campuses, the religious communities, the arts, the front lines of political struggle, and more.
This crowd experienced a substantial, electrifying presentation by BA, a revolutionary leader who was completely on fire with both the scientific understanding and visceral feeling that the world doesn't have to be this way, that people don't have to live this way, that a radically different world is possible, and who has a plan for how to get to that world. Thousands of people got an up-close and personal introduction to Bob Avakian, everything he's about, and the revolution that he's leading, and an up-close and personal invitation and challenge to step forward and be part of this revolution. And they experienced this leader, Bob Avakian, engaging in an extremely warm, principled, provocative, thoughtful, and substantive exchange, which included exploration of key points of unity and disagreement with Cornel West on the major themes of revolution, religion, and human emancipation, along with a wide range of burning questions related to those themes.
For all of the reasons spoken to above, and more, there has never been anything like this Dialogue. That's not just something cool and provocative to say. It's a simple fact.
So, while there is obviously much more to be said, those are a few overall points in terms of what this Dialogue actually was. But now, in the immediate and long-term aftermath of this Dialogue, there is a big question confronting the movement for revolution, and in fact confronting anyone who was inspired by this Dialogue and wants to see it have significant, lasting impact: How do we make the absolute most out of this Dialogue?
How will the thousands of people who were in the house at Riverside Church November 15, those who watched live webcasts in Los Angeles, Oakland, and London that day, all those who have watched the Dialogue on Livestream since then, and the even greater numbers of people who learned of this Dialogue through the work to promote it, be led to understand its content and significance? What will be done with all the hearts lifted, eyes opened, minds challenged, expanded, and inspired?
Broadly speaking, will people who experienced this Dialogue merely understand and approach it as a "really cool," "really interesting," "controversial," perhaps even "amazing" event that happened one Saturday in November 2014, one that they will always remember and perhaps were lucky enough to personally attend? Or, will we really apply ourselves to building on this Dialogue in order to achieve major leaps coming off this Dialogue in making Bob Avakian (BA), his work and vision a reference point for people throughout society; putting real revolution on the map in this country; actively organizing people into the movement for revolution on many different levels, including in the form of people who are ready to do so joining the Revolutionary Communist Party at the core of this movement; and changing the political terms and terrain in society in a major way?
Related to this question, here are two key points I think we have to grasp: As great as this Dialogue was, it will not consistently project itself out into society—we have to consistently project it. And as inspired and transformed as many of the people who experienced or watched this Dialogue will be, they will not organize themselves into the movement for revolution—we have to organize them.
In fact, this reality was reflected in one of the questions that an audience member posed to Bob Avakian and Cornel West at the Dialogue itself: "I wish life could be like this room tonight all the time, but when we leave here, we go back to a hard world, where some people go through hell, and others harden their hearts and heads to the possibility that things can actually be much better. How do we carry the spirit of mutual respect back home and sustain it while we struggle to change the world. I mean, cynicism is deep; how do we keep our heads?"
I think this sentiment likely speaks to how many people who experienced this Dialogue will feel, and the process that they will go through after watching it: On the one hand, they will feel incredibly inspired and changed by what they heard and experienced, with their eyes opened, their hearts lifted, their sights raised, wishing "life could be like this room all the time." They will feel on fire to learn more about, and get deeper into, what BA and the movement for revolution that he leads are all about. On the other hand, at least one part of these same people will feel the next day, or the next week, that they are preparing to "go back to a hard world, where some people go through hell, and others harden their hearts and heads to the possibility that things can actually be much better."
But that is not the end of the story. That is where our responsibility comes in. We have to bring people back to, and bring them forward from, this Dialogue between Bob Avakian and Cornel West.
This means that we have to vigorously and consistently follow up individually with people who experienced, or learned about this Dialogue, at the same time as we are vigorously and consistently following up in a mass way by spreading this Dialogue throughout society in all kinds of different ways—through mass "on the ground" work on the streets, campuses, in the neighborhoods, and anywhere people are resisting the crimes of this system; online and through social media, and more. Through the synergy of this individual and mass work, many more people will discover this Dialogue for the first time, while those who already heard about it or experienced it will be given the basis to dig back into it and go deeper.
Very importantly, for people who have already seen the Dialogue—and especially those who were in Riverside Church and experienced it live and in person—we need to talk with and learn from people about their thinking and reactions, and the impact this had on them. In doing this follow-up and social investigation, we need to apply the understanding concentrated in this quote from Bob Avakian: "What people think is part of objective reality, but objective reality is not determined by what people think" (BAsics 4:11). In terms of how we are specifically applying this point to our approach in the immediate aftermath of the Dialogue: We need to be broadly exploring and scientifically summing up what people thought of the Dialogue and the two speakers, how they were impacted, key points and themes they were struck by, how they came away feeling, things that they agreed with and disagreed with, things they were surprised, excited, or perhaps even disappointed by, etc. However, even while there are very important insights and observations that will come from this process and even as our overall understanding of reality will be strengthened by this process of scientific inquiry and synthesis, we also need to keep firmly in mind that people's reactions and perceptions about the Dialogue are not the same thing as what this Dialogue actually was. And, related to that point, we need to recognize the need to lead and transform people's thinking about all this, and about the Dialogue as a whole.
Whether people loved the Dialogue, really didn't like it, or anywhere in between, we need to be doing what BA modeled in the Dialogue and what he does so well in all of his work: inviting and challenging anyone who is serious about changing the world to go deeper. We should be—on both an individual and societal level—fighting for a correct, scientific summation of the substance and significance of this Dialogue, while consistently leading people to go back to, and go deeper into, the Dialogue itself. The Livestream of this Dialogue that is now available on revcom.us is a great resource to do this!
Look, I think we should recognize that when people first meet, or even are relatively new to, Bob Avakian and the movement for revolution that he leads, even those who are extremely enthusiastic are going to "get it" on one level, but not yet get it on a deeper level. The reason this is so is because everything that BA stands for, and the understanding he has forged, is at one and the same time in line with reality and how it can be transformed, and completely at odds with the way that this system and society have conditioned people to think their entire lives. But again, this is not the end of the story! Both of the following two things are true and important not to lose sight of: First, that people and their thinking can be and has been profoundly transformed, including in a life-changing way, by experiencing BA, all the more so with having had that experience live and in person. Second, this does not mean that people who came to this Dialogue from all these different frameworks of understanding are going to wake up the next morning and suddenly have become revolutionary communists overnight, or that all of the questions and contradictions in their thinking are going to have vanished. That's just not how it works! The process through which people's thinking, their understanding of the world, transforms is just that—a process. Experiencing BA live and in person, and this whole Dialogue between BA and CW, can dramatically accelerate and deepen that process on both an individual and societal level. But those of us who, on various levels, understand the tremendous significance of this Dialogue now have to follow through: We have to fight to bring people back to what they experienced and how they felt, lead them to go deeper into the Dialogue, in synergy with repeatedly projecting this Dialogue and especially projecting BA throughout society, even while we ourselves are getting deeper into this.
I want to speak briefly to one more element of this process of leading people to go deep into the Dialogue, and fighting for the correct summation of it—guided by the understanding that "What people think is part of objective reality, but objective reality is not determined by what people think." While it certainly was not the dominant reaction in Riverside Church, there were—and will be—some people saying that BA spoke too long. I don't think we should be surprised or disoriented by this, nor overly preoccupied or at all defensive. Again, when something is going up against all the thinking, and methods of thinking, that this system and society drills into people, it is not scientific to expect that literally everyone is going to have a singularly good reaction. Nor is that the goal or the yardstick by which something should be evaluated. And even among people who are, or can be won to be, very enthusiastic about the Dialogue overall, there is going to be contradiction in their thinking. At times, even some people who feel very positively about the Dialogue overall might, be temporarily swayed by wrong summations of it.
But, to return to a theme of this letter: That is not the end of the story! If there are people who felt that BA spoke too long, that is important to understand because these perceptions are part of the reality of people's reactions that we need to understand. But this is not a correct verdict on the Dialogue, and we have to struggle for the correct understanding. I do think there's a basic level on which we have to say to people who raise the complaint that BA spoke too long: "Well, what was it BA talked about that you think there should have been less of?" I don't think this needs to be, or should be, said in a nasty or antagonistic way; I think it should be posed matter-of-factly, as part of leading people to actually engage and grapple with the content of the Dialogue and to raise their questions, agreements, disagreements, and concerns about that content. Yes, BA gave a roughly two-hour presentation—about how humanity can get free and the whole world can be radically different, and the strategy and vision for that. Isn't that a great thing? Which part of that should there have been less of? I think posing things in these terms compels people to either recognize and acknowledge that they had been looking at things in the wrong way, and/or it compels people to get to where their real discomfort or disagreement lies—with the content, or at least an aspect of the content, of what BA had to say. In which case, let's talk about that.
Furthermore, anybody who honestly and without prejudice watches the Dialogue cannot help but come away recognizing that there was a very rich, deep, substantive, and warm exchange between Bob Avakian and Cornel West.
Brief Points of Orientation—and Concrete Ideas—for Following Through on This Dialogue
1. Once again, people will generally not bring themselves forward into and further forward into the movement for revolution—at least not in a consistent and sustained way. We have to actively bring people forward. This—working to bring people forward—is a process that we should think of in both ideological and practical terms, and not in a narrow way.
In other words, in working to bring people forward, we should be asking them to step forward and take up different concrete tasks and responsibilities and forms of practical involvement in the movement for revolution, but we should also—and even more fundamentally—be working with people ideologically, to develop and transform their thinking in an ongoing way.
2. In relation to the above point, but also a point that is obviously really crucial on its own: Coming off this Dialogue, we should be leading people to get into—and get more deeply into—BA.
Thousands of people just experienced—live and in person—BA, his leadership, his method, his vision, and got an extremely rich introduction to and concentration of his decades of work and everything that is all about. Let's really follow through on this! Coming off this Dialogue, we should really be repeatedly leading people to go directly to BA's works and dig into them. I think the analogy that was at the end of the "Jimi Hendrix of Revolution" piece definitely applies here: Just as those who saw Hendrix live and in person no doubt left feeling even more excited to listen to his albums, people who experienced BA live and in person should only leave more hungry and on fire to engage his works, and we've got to lead people—and give them the ways—to do this consistently.
This—people engaging BA's body of work, method and approach—while part of a whole, multifaceted process of how people will develop into revolutionaries and communists, is the single most important part of that process. And we've got to make it easy for people to get connected with BA's works and to find out about events and programs where BA's works are being discussed collectively.
Speaking of which... for all the reasons spoken to above... let's seize this moment in the aftermath of the Dialogue to really get the sessions at the Revolution Books stores viewing and discussing BA Speaks: REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! going on a whole different level. Let's invite lots of people to this, with a special emphasis right now on making a big deal about these sessions among people who came to the Dialogue. Let's really explain to them what we are doing with these sessions, why they're important, and why people should come. (I think the article that was on revcom.us in May—that spoke to the importance of these sessions in the context of the two mainstays and accumulating forces for revolution—would be important to return to in order to reground ourselves in the importance of these sessions and as part of making the case broadly to others.)
3. The BA Everywhere Campaign—nationally, and in different cities—the number of people who are taking up this campaign, and the amount of money raised for it, should all really be growing significantly in the aftermath of this Dialogue. There is every basis for this to happen, and we need to make it happen.
The Link Between Ferguson and the Dialogue
Because I am running out of time, I don't have time to write very much on this now.
However, for the time being, the main point I want to make here is this: I think we really need to constantly be bringing alive to people the links between this Dialogue and the importance of consistently digging into and spreading the Dialogue, and the need for people very broadly to stand up and fight the power on the heels of these grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City.
Another way to go at that is: It is absolutely critical that people are standing up and, in a courageous and determined way, resisting these completely outrageous grand jury decisions and all that they concentrate. This resistance has been extremely positive, important, and heartening, and it both needs to continue and in fact go to a higher, broader, and deeper level still.
At the same time, this urgent moment should definitely not result in building on the urgent need to build off and project the Dialogue being put "on the backburner."
The Dialogue and this political moment are linked in the sense that both BA and Cornel West spoke very directly to the significance of this moment around Ferguson during the Dialogue, and in the sense that there was a whole crew of people in the house from Ferguson who were very enthusiastic about the Dialogue, and to whom BA was speaking during the Dialogue, in both a literal and direct sense and in a more overall sense.
But even more fundamentally, the Dialogue and this moment of massive resistance sparked by outrageous police murders and the refusal to indict the murderers are linked for this reason: What people heard at the Dialogue, especially from BA, is about how we can get to a completely different world where outrages like the police murder of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—along with all the other horrors this system inflicts on people—never happen again.
Another way to get at this is that the link between this moment, and the tremendous importance of this Dialogue and the need to keep projecting it, has everything to do with the strategic approach of Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution. From that standpoint: It is absolutely essential that people fight the power in the wake of these outrageous grand jury decisions and all they concentrate, but it is also absolutely essential that people's sights be raised, their vision be broadened, and their understanding be deepened in relation to the larger picture these police murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the grand juries letting the murderers walk fits into—the system that causes police murder after police murder and what it will take to do away with that system and these outrages once and for all.
And this Dialogue—especially BA's presentation, but the totality of the Dialogue and the exchange between the two speakers—is a critical means of raising people's sights, transforming their thinking, broadening their vision and deepening their understanding in this way.
To be clear, as I hope is obvious from other parts of this letter, I am by no means reducing the importance of this Dialogue to the inspiring mass resistance to police murder. Rather, I am trying to speak to how I see the link between the two and one key dimension of how I think we need to be bringing this link alive.
Let me end by mentioning some resources that I have been thinking about in relation to understanding and illuminating the link between the Dialogue and the current political moment, which I think would be important for us to go back to, in addition—obviously—to the Dialogue itself!
*The opening section of the What Humanity Needs interview, where BA talks about Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution—including the relationship between the different interconnected elements of this
*The recent article, "The Forest and the Trees: It's ALL About Getting Free"
Well, I think I've got to end there for now, since I'm out of time.
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