Reaching for the Heights and Flying Without a Safety Net
Revolutionary Worker #1195, 20, , posted at rwor.org
Editors' Note: The following is taken from the transcript of a tape-recorded talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, toward the end of 2002. It was originally intended for distribution among Party members and others close to the Party, in particular revolutionaries of the newer generations, but we are happy to be able to share excerpts from this talk with our readers. They have been edited and footnotes have been added for publication here.
To begin, I want to set a certain context and frame this in terms of the historic and strategic goals of our whole cause. The first thing I want to say very straightforwardly is that communists have to have an orientation that what is required to fundamentally transform society is seizing and then holding on firmly to state power, because everything we're talking about has no meaning ultimately if state power is not won. There is also the question of what we do with state power, and who the "we" is who has state power--whether it's power exercised, in a fundamental sense, by the masses of people, as opposed to just a small group--all of which I want to talk further about later. But we have to have a bedrock orientation that the aim is to seize and then hold on firmly to state power, or else there's no point ultimately to everything we're doing.
Now, that doesn't mean that it's not important to wage struggles around particular abuses and outrages, particular faultlines or concentrations of contradictions in society--it's very important to do that. And it's very important to actually strive to win these battles. It's not just a matter that we get into these struggles simply for the purpose of being together with masses in some sort of general abstract sense; nor is it a matter that we get involved simply in order to propagate our revolutionary vision and program-- although we most definitely must do that, in a living way. But it's actually important not only to wage these battles but to actually seek to win them--to win real victories and to beat back real attacks. But, in the final analysis, without revolution, the fundamental conditions of the masses, not just in any particular country, but worldwide--their oppression and their tremendous and unnecessary suffering--are going to continue. So it's important that we have that understanding as kind of a guiding star for everything we're doing, or else what we're doing will ultimately not amount to anything. This is another way of expressing that phrase from Lenin: without state power all is illusion.
This is something that has been emphasized in the interview that I did with Carl Dix earlier this year.* One example that is given in that interview is the whole tremendous struggle around Vietnam. There was actually a 10-year-long struggle that went on from let's say 1964-'65 till the glorious scene of those American helicopters leaving Saigon in '75--a shameful moment for the imperialists and a moment of tremendous exhilaration for revolutionaries and for masses of people all over the world. That was a 10-year-long battle. It went through a lot of phases.
One of the points that is important to keep in mind, as stressed in that interview, is that it's not like sometimes it's presented in retrospect--like everybody, including most of the bourgeoisie (!), was always against the Vietnam War, and somehow it just continued--this was not the case at all. It was tremendous struggle, first of all and most essentially on the part of the Vietnamese people but also on the part of the people supporting them, including an important element played by the growing opposition to that war within the U.S. And there were real sacrifices made. You know about Kent State. You should know about Jackson State, where Black students were murdered by the state, and there were tremendous outpourings of opposition like the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War that were brutally attacked (and a Chicano journalist was murdered by the police during that Moratorium). I personally recall many demonstrations in which I took part that were viciously attacked by the police, and even the National Guard, and in one of these demonstrations someone was shot and killed by the police.
A lot of sacrifices were made by a lot of people in the context of that whole period, around Vietnam and in other struggles. And towards the end of that war, even when the prevailing opinion among the powers-that-be came to be they had to accept defeat and get out of Vietnam, they didn't just say: "OK we lost, we give up" or "we lost, therefore you who opposed this war get to sum it up." That's not the way things work.
Even the summation of what happened is a part of the class struggle. That's true in any particular battle and it's definitely true of major battles. It's true, as we see now, in terms of summing up the experience of socialist countries. How do you sum that up? The summation of what happened there is a tremendous and intense battle, a key part of the class struggle. If you go, for example, to bookstores anywhere in the world you'll see just endless propaganda, directly put out or promoted by the bourgeoisie, which heaps slander on the experience of socialist countries, including all these anecdotal accounts by different people of how they were mistreated in the Cultural Revolution in China--and it's presented as if what happened to this or that individual or this or that village is the essence of the whole Cultural Revolution. This is a conscious attempt--at least on the part of the ruling classes who promote such things-- to distort and even to obscure and cover up the actual essence of what went on, to confuse people and to keep them from even understanding what the actual situation was, what the profound and complex contradictions were that Mao and other revolutionary leaders were confronting, what their actual aims and objectives and principles and methods were, what were the actual terms of this momentous struggle, what were the programs and objectives of the contending forces, what would be the consequences for the masses if one side or the other won out--and what have been the horrible consequences, for the masses of people in China since, unfortunately, the revisionists (the people like Deng Xiaoping and the current rulers of China) ultimately won this battle and have taken China down the road back to capitalism (which is what actually exists now in that country). This is the way the class struggle goes--summing up particular battles, or world-historic questions like the experience of socialist countries, is always going to be part of the class struggle as long as there are classes and class struggle.
One of the things that, to a significant degree, was disorienting for a whole generation of people (essentially my generation, if you want to put it that way) was the experience around Vietnam and the tremendous struggle this involved. After a certain point, in the U.S. itself, as well as in many other countries throughout the world, there were legions of people out demonstrating who were shouting things like "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, The NLF is gonna win."** And they really wanted the NLF to win--they had really come to see who were the people they should be siding with in the world. They wanted their own government to go down to a righteous defeat, they wanted those people waging revolutionary struggle against U.S. imperialism to win.
But there wasn't a lot of understanding--there was only understanding among a small number of people at that time--that there was a growing revisionist influence within the Vietnamese Workers Party, the leadership of that struggle. (This revisionist influence was expressed particularly in increased reliance on the Soviet Union, which by then had become a social-imperialist power--socialist in name but imperialist in deed and in essence--which was seeking to make use of the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people for its own ends, seeking to bend that struggle to make it serve Soviet imperialist objectives and contention with the U.S. for top-dog position in the world.) But, again, this was not widely understood or widely accepted at that time; and, in particular, within the ranks of those who supported the Vietnamese people in their war of liberation against U.S. domination, it was only those who took up the analysis Mao made of the social-imperialist nature of the Soviet Union, who were able to get a basic understanding of the realities and the complex and contradictory nature of all this.
So many people actually thought that, when the NLF won, great things were going to result from that. And that was one of the most disorienting and demoralizing things for people who were part of that generation, including many who were part of that decade-long struggle against the Vietnam War. When the NLF did "win," when the U.S. was driven out, when the government led by the Vietnamese Workers Party consolidated power over the whole country, the result was not good. It was not good for the people of Vietnam, because the influence of the Soviet Union and of revisionism increasingly exerted itself. That was a contradiction running all throughout that struggle--the contradiction between the just and heroic liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people, in which they made tremendous sacrifices in defeating the U.S., and on the other hand the growing revisionist influence that was running counter to and would eventually undermine that victory. This was a heroic struggle, a genuine struggle of liberation in which millions lost their lives--in the context of the overall international situation, the Vietnamese took on and defeated this monstrous power, U.S. imperialism. And yet the ultimate result was what we have seen unfolding in Vietnam over the last 25 years, where now they have Nike and everything else running in there, super-exploiting the people of Vietnam.
So this was very disorienting for many people: What was all that struggle for? And, when the NLF won, what happened--and why? How come it turned out to be as bad as it is? It gave tremendous grist to the propaganda mill of the imperialists. And I raise this not because we're going to go into all that now, but just as an example of the fact that here was a major struggle in the whole world, which was a defining struggle of the whole period, and it was successful, globally speaking ("globally" both in the sense of "on a world scale" and "globally" in the sense of "generally speaking," our side won). And yet the result was not good in the final analysis. You got another form of bourgeois rule and exploitation and oppression of the masses. Understandably, this can be very disorienting and demoralizing. And if people aren't grounded in a revolutionary understanding--and more than that a scientific MLM understanding--if that isn't in there as part of the mix increasingly influencing people, then, when there are twists and turns--and especially where there are major setbacks--people will become not only demoralized but very disoriented politically and ideologically, and the effects of the setback or defeat will be further magnified.
But this does not change the fact that, through the Vietnam War, the U.S. imperialists were handed a powerful defeat, and they actually were reeling from that defeat for a certain period of time. They were forced to regroup through the 1970s, and at the end of the '70s there was that whole debacle for them in Iran where yet another despot they had put in power, the Shah of Iran, was knocked from this throne, and there was a tremendous outpouring among the Iranian people against U.S. imperialism. This involved the seizure of the U.S. embassy and the taking of hostages there--hostages who included many CIA and other intelligence operatives, who were plotting to once again pull a coup in Iran (as the CIA had done in 1953, bringing the Shah to power). And then Carter sent in helicopters--I don't know how many people remember this or know about it--but he sent a helicopter squadron in to try to rescue the hostages, and the helicopters crashed in the desert in Iran. It was another debacle for this arrogant imperialist power
But the problem is that the imperialists have remained in power, their system is still in effect, it still does what it does. It regroups, in some ways it restructures, it deals with the necessity it's confronting and keeps going. And that has an effect on people. It's not that most people in a broad mass movement are going to have a scientific MLM understanding at this stage of the struggle, even before imperialism has been overthrown and a new socialist society is being built, but to the degree that this element is not in there struggling and bringing forward its independent line as part of the overall resistance, then even where victories are won in the struggle, the basis can be strengthened for people to become demoralized and disoriented when there are the inevitable twists and turns and when the exploiters and oppressors regroup and come back with a vengeance, as they will. Of course, even if we do our work very well, there is going to be the dynamic that as long as they hold on to state power they're going to work at--and they're going to have success in--undoing victories we win and overcoming setbacks that they suffer. That's the nature of the class struggle, once again. The whole experience around Vietnam provides a profound illustration of that.
In Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones ***I give another example of this. In the part of that book where it's examining the limitations of and polemicizing against some of the views of Jim Wallis (an evangelical Christian who has sharply criticized some aspects of U.S. society and the role of the U.S. in the world) it takes this story which expresses Wallis's model of how things ought to be done to make changes, peacefully and by relying on good will, because he's a religious figure who believes you have to appeal to the righteousness in people. He tells a story about how there were these peasants in Brazil (this was some 20 to 30 years ago now) who were about to be evicted from their land. And the women in the peasant village went and appealed to the wives--there was a fair amount of patriarchal stuff mixed in with this story as Wallis recounts it, but they went and appealed to the wives of members of the Senate of Brazil. And the wives, in turn, put pressure on their husbands and so the Senate voted to prevent those peasants from being evicted from their land. Wallis cites this as a great example of how--without revolution, without violence, without overturning and uprooting of the whole basic system--you can achieve change for the benefit of the people.
Well, in working on Preaching from Pulpit of Bones I did some research into this, and (as I pointed out in the book) in the course of the same period of time that Wallis is talking about, something like 15 million peasants in Brazil were driven off their land. So, for one brief moment, you have this one instance where apparently the senators in Brazil vote not to evict these particular peasants from their land-- and who knows what the final story of that village is, they've probably been driven off too by now. But, in any case, what's the essence of the matter here: This one little village or the larger picture of masses of peasants being driven off their land, because of the underlying economic and social forces of the system, together with the operation of the superstructure--especially the political institutions of power and in particular the military--which serves the dominant economic interests and reinforces the dominant economic and social relations? What is the main trend and the essence here?
The same thing is happening now in Mexico with the whole struggle around the airport at Atenco where the government, headed by Vicente Fox, was attempting to force the peasants there off their land to make way for this airport. Now, in the face of truly heroic resistance by the people of Atenco and the support they were increasingly winning, the Fox government had to back off. But what do we think is going to happen there over any period of time? Can this victory--as real and important as it is--actually be spread throughout the country, can it become a model in the sense that village by village, or area by area, all the peasants are going to succeed in beating back the whole move of the imperialist system and its "local partners" in Mexico to drive millions more peasants off their land, not just in Mexico but throughout Central America (through things like the Plan Pueblo-Panama)? Or are the imperialists and their various institutions going to go ahead with these plans of theirs, even if they have to tactically maneuver on occasion or even back off, here or there and for a time? The hard reality is that, so long as the imperialists and exploiters and oppressors aligned with them are in power, and their system is in effect, they are going to continue plundering and rolling over the masses of peasants and the masses of people overall.
I don't say this to in any way underestimate or downplay the significance of the victory of the people of Atenco and their supporters and the fact that the government which was determined to build that airport there had to back off. That's not the point at all. It's not that we can't win partial victories or that they're unimportant. But, even where that happens, and while we're appreciating and celebrating such victories, we have to understand firmly and also bring out to the masses of people involved in these struggles and the masses more broadly what is the nature of the fundamental problem we're dealing with and what are the laws and dynamics operating? I'm not saying we should go out and talk to people using exactly those terms. We have to translate that into living terms for people. But that's what we have to bring to them in very living terms--what are the underlying forces at work here and what have they led to and what will they lead to until we deal with the fundamental problem here and overturn and transform the whole system and the whole society--and ultimately the whole world? And where we win victories, we should build on those victories, work to make them spans in the bridge toward strategic revolutionary objectives, toward the fundamental solution.
Going back to Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones , and in particular its critique of Jim Wallis's views, there is another illustration of the basic point here. Wallis talks about what a great day it was when Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa and how this points to the way things can be radically changed for the masses of people. Well, let's look at this further and more deeply.
The fact that they had to release Mandela from prison, even in a certain sense the fact that apartheid was ended in South Africa and Mandela ended up being the president, is a result of a couple of important factors. First, changing international conditions and especially the demise of the Soviet Union. But also the struggle of the people in South Africa--which again was a heroic struggle, involving tremendous sacrifice-- and support for that struggle around the world. But, more fundamentally and essentially, what did Mandela's coming to the presidency mean for the people, the masses of people in South Africa who waged that struggle--for that whole generation, the Soweto youth**** and others who embodied and symbolized the mass uprising in South Africa?
What have their conditions become? Have their conditions of oppression and exploitation been ended--or are they on the way to being ended--through the road represented by Mandela and his being elected President? The bitter truth is that the answer is clearly no .
In "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy"***** this question is discussed, and it refers to the movie Dangerous Ground , in which Ice Cube plays a South African who went to the U.S. as a youth and then returns to South Africa and is outraged because, as he sees it, the people there are wasting their victory over apartheid. At one point this character, played by Ice Cube, makes a speech about how in the United States we had the civil rights movement and we won our freedom and then we didn't make use of it the right way, so now we have all these problems, crime and everything, and the same thing is happening in South Africa. Well, that's a perversion--a bourgeois-democratic distortion--of reality. But there is a reality there that's very important for us to understand.
What is happening in South Africa? What are the conditions of the masses of people? Have they really been qualitatively improved by the changes that first brought Mandela to the presidency? No, in some ways they are even worse. And one of the ways in which they are worse is that people are disarmed and disoriented politically and ideologically: All this struggle that produced these changes, and there are Africans heading the government now, but the conditions are the same or worse--the conditions of the masses of landless and land-poor peasants in South Africa, the conditions of the people in the urban shantytowns, the conditions of the miners, are the same or worse.
And that could be very demoralizing and disorienting, if there is not a revolutionary line bringing out to people this point--that without state power all is illusion. Because, while some forms of oppression and exploitation have changed in South Africa and some forms of the government have changed, and those changes are not without any significance, the fundamental fact remains that the oppressed condition of the masses of people has not been changed, the system continues to exploit and oppress them, and the machinery of the state continues to forcibly maintain them in that oppressed and exploited condition. Once again, that doesn't mean that struggles aren't important, or that partial victories have no meaning or effect; but unless things advance to the point where the masses of people overthrow the old, oppressive order and bring into being a whole new, revolutionary political power, there can be no fundamental change in the system and in the conditions of oppression and suffering to which the masses of people are subjected.
In South Africa, we see many horrendous indications and expressions of what this means for the masses of people. There is the widespread and growing devastation of HIV/AIDS, which is directly related to the exploited and oppressed conditions of the masses of people. And there is the phenomenon which the Ice Cube movie ( Dangerous Ground ) was picking up on, even though it did not point to the underlying problem and the real solution--a phenomenon that is very familiar to basic masses in the U.S.-- the fact that crime is on the rise, for example, in the shantytowns in South Africa, where youth who before would have been joining and building revolutionary organization are now forming gangs.
The lesson here, of course, is not that the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa was unimportant, that the end of apartheid was not a good thing, or that somehow the masses of people were better off under apartheid! The point is that this struggle has not yet gone far enough, that it has not yet swept away the whole system, of which apartheid was one outrageous form, that it has not yet overthrown the basic oppressive relations in society and the political and armed power that enforces those relations and conditions. And the point is that to put forward the election of this or that person as the chief executive of this oppressive system, to say that this is the way to end oppression, is to fundamentally mislead the people and misdirect them away from where their struggle needs to go.
This is really a bedrock point. We always have to keep our eyes firmly on what is really happening with the masses of people broadly. We have to remain firmly grounded in our understanding that unless and until there is an overthrowing and transforming--an overthrowing of the oppressive state power and a transforming of the whole society--the masses of people will continue to suffer this horrendous oppression and exploitation and unnecessary horrors and outrages.
Just think about it--just look at the amount of wealth there is in the world at this particular time in history and look at how many people are suffering horribly, denied basic human needs, how many children are dying from diseases that are easily curable. I think, for example, of the story about the International Monetary Fund (IMF) regulations in Peru about a decade ago. The IMF came in and they restructured the loans to the Peruvian government which is deeply in debt to various imperialist banks and institutions, and one of things the IMF did, as they generally do, is that they forced the government to undercut subsidies for basic necessities for the masses. So then you had a noticeable, documentable increase in the number of children, in particular, dying of cholera in Peru. Why? Because, owing to IMF restructuring and regulations and the undercutting of government subsidies, something as basic as the price of firewood went up, and so masses of people couldn't afford to heat water to get rid of the bacteria. So they had an increase in diarrhea and cholera and children dying at a higher level.
Now right there, concentrated in just that one example, are so many things about the horrors of this system. And even the fact that many people in the world today are having to do things like buy firewood in order to boil water to have sanitary water--or think of what's happening in Iraq because the war and the sanctions imposed by the U.S. (and its "allies") destroyed the infrastructure for water treatment- -this is totally unnecessary. It is only because of the exploitative relations and the military power that backs them up. It's not like we're living in an era where there is no material basis to eliminate these things, and yet here we are living in a world where half of the world's people are struggling to survive on a couple of dollars a day and where a billion people are either starving or on the brink of starvation and several billion more have to struggle every day to try to have enough to eat and have shelter and other basic necessities of life, and often don't succeed. And yet here's this tremendous wealth and parasitism in this lop-sided world we have.
All this is not going to change unless and until we get state power through our revolutionary struggles around the world, until we overthrow and transform. That's the only way this is going to change-- and short of that, it's just going to continue and get worse. I mean, why is it that the standard of living of the people in Latin America has gone down over the last three decades and in many ways is worse than it was 500 years ago? That's totally unnecessary. But there it is. And so this is not a matter of dogma when we say there needs to be a revolution. This is a matter of a living reality of billions of people around the world and what fate there's going to be for humanity--and that's not overstating the case. So it's important that we keep our eyes firmly fixed on that, our eyes on that prize: the need for revolution--and, yes, the need for state power, in order to make possible real and profound revolutionary change.
* Excerpts from the interview appeared in RW #1155-56, 1158-64, 1166-68, 1171, 1173-74 which appeared between June 16 and November 10, 2002. Audio available on CD from Revolution Books stores and outlets or RCP Publications.
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** For many years, until his death in 1969, Ho Chi Minh was head of the Vietnamese Workers Party and the leader of the Vietnamese people's liberation struggle against colonial domination; after World War 2 he led liberation wars against: first, France (which was backed by the U.S.) and then the U.S. itself; and after his death, Ho Chi Minh remained the rallying symbol in the continuing and ultimately victorious war to drive out the U.S. The NLF (National Liberation Front) was a united front, led by the Vietnamese Workers Party, in the southern part of Vietnam. The U.S. moved in to occupy the southern part of Vietnam after the French were defeated and forced to leave Vietnam in 1954 and the U.S. ruled over the south, through a succession of puppet governments, until the U.S. in turn was defeated and forced out of Vietnam in the 1970s. The NLF was the political formation through which the liberation struggle was led in the south of Vietnam.
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*** PREACHING FROM A PULPIT OF BONES, We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality, was published by Banner Press in 1999. It consists of a Prologue and two essays written by Bob Avakian: "The Reality Beneath William Bennett's Virtues," a critique of Bennett's The Book of Virtues , and "Putting An End to `Sin' Or, We Need Morality But Not Traditional Morality. These essays expose the hypocrisy of bourgeois moralists like Bennett and the murderous oppression and atrocities they seek to cover up or justify, as well as discussing the shortcomings and limitations of even progressive religious viewpoints. "Preaching" critiques bourgeois morality in general and contrasts it with communist morality, which reflects and serves the cause of abolishing all exploitation and oppression; and it explains why atheism and a scientific viewpoint and method must be upheld and applied in opposition to religious fundamentalism and indeed all religious doctrines and outlooks, while also speaking to the need for an approach of unity-struggle-unity with progressive religious forces in opposition to oppression and injustice.
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**** The township of Soweto in South Africa was a leading center and symbol of the revolutionary upsurge against the apartheid regime during the 1980s.
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***** "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy" ("GO&GS") is an unpublished talk given by Chairman Avakian several years ago. Excerpts from it appeared in RW #1127-1142 (November 18, 2001 through March 10, 2002.
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