Reaching for the Heights And Flying Without a Safety Net

Part 7: Understanding and Changing the World: A Question of Outlook and Method

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1202, June 8, 2003, posted at

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.

With the preceding parts of this talk as a basic foundation and framework,* the question I want to turn to now is the role and responsibility of leadership, our outlook and methods in general and methods of leadership in particular. In the section of "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production" on methods of leadership a number of contradictions are spoken to, including the contradiction between practice and theory and correctly handling the dialectical relationship between them.** This relates to something that's in our Party's Draft Programme, where it talks about science and art, and it emphasizes this point: "Our proletarian ideology leads us to appreciate the importance of science and other intellectual and artistic work that more directly serves the ongoing struggle of the proletariat, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, to appreciate scientific inquiry and intellectual engagement and artistic experimentation that is not tied in such a direct way--and certainly not in a pragmatic, "instrumentalist" way--to the policy and more immediate aims of the proletarian party at any given time." (See the Appendix "Art, Science, Education, Sports, and the Challenge of Creating a Whole New Superstructure in Socialist Society.")

What is said there, in the Draft Programme, concentrates something of great importance in terms of the masses of people, as well as the party, having a correct understanding and orientation toward these spheres, and being able to correctly engage them, as well as in terms of humanity's advancing in its ability to understand and transform reality overall. And there is an importance to understanding the world "in its own right," even though ultimately that can't be divorced from the question of social practice because, first of all, reality cannot be correctly understood apart from practice. It can't be understood without correctly handling the dialectical relation between practice and theory, in which, in an overall and ultimate sense, practice is primary, is the point of departure and ultimate point of determination of theory. And understanding the world cannot be divorced from the question of social relations, because there is not only the question of how theory is developed and truth ultimately determined but also, and very much interconnected with that, there is the question of "for whom and for what" theory and knowledge in general is developed. But, with all that, there is an importance to understanding the world "in its own right"--that is, apart from any immediate use, any particular practical application, of such understanding.

In a way, we could say that this is similar to the fact that there is importance to things like play. That's one of the things that's important to humanity--it's one of the things that characterizes the human species. Many people think that we communists don't know that--and there have been certain tendencies in the history of our movement not to correctly grasp this, in part because we have such very serious things we're trying to do. This is not a game. But there is a role for games. That's part of what we're trying to do and part of the world we're trying to create. A lot of times the reason people think we communists don't know about play is because we have so many important things we're trying to do--and it's not just that we decided to cook up a bunch of things so we could feel important. These are world-historic things weighing on masses of people, as spoken to at the beginning of this talk.*** Yet, we can't lose sight of the importance of play.


All of this is part of being what we are; it's also part of leading. It's part of correctly applying the mass line--drawing from the ideas of the masses, applying MLM to synthesize and concentrate what is correct in those ideas, developing this into lines and policies, and then uniting and persevering together with the masses to carry out these lines and policies...and learning through this. This is an ongoing process, which proceeds through cycles, or spirals, combining learning and leading, in a way that is closely related to the dialectical process of practice-theory-practice.

There's a lot that goes into all this. There is the question of knowing the masses and knowing them well. From our standpoint, this is principally a matter of carrying out political work among the masses. But it also involves hanging out with them and getting to know them in that way, seeing how they feel about many different things, what they have to say about these things when they're "letting down their hair" because they're getting to know you better too. All these kinds of things are both what we have to be about politically and also are part of the kind of world we're trying to bring into being.

We have to bring into being the shoots and elements of that future even now, even though we can't bring it into being in a qualitative way until we make revolution. And we can't ourselves fall into illusions or spread illusions among others that we can sort of piecemeal bring the future into being. In the process of building the movement, building resistance to all the various outrages and injustices of this system, there is much that is really great and represents seeds of the future. We should cherish that; we should nurture it. But we can't think that we're going to sort of quantitatively build that up and somehow have a different society and a different world, without overturning and uprooting the system that now dominates the world. This goes back to all the points I was speaking to at the start of this talk: without overthrowing and transforming, none of these positive things, these seeds of the future, can be nurtured and developed, in the final analysis.

There is the question of mass line within the party as well as among the broader masses. This involves all the aspects I've been talking about, including the importance of knowing comrades well when you're in a position of leadership. Mao talked about how, in the Chinese revolution, in the conditions where they were based in the countryside, different comrades could hear the rooster crowing in their neighbor's yard, they lived that close, but they never visited with each other and talked to each other outside of meetings. Well, although our Party is in different conditions, from what I understand the same kind of phenomenon exists and the same principles should be applied. Everyone is very busy, and it's not like there are arbitrary reasons why people don't do these kind of things--visiting with each other, getting together and talking outside of formal meetings, and so on. But this is an important part of getting to know the masses, including the masses you may be leading within the Party, as well as the masses outside the Party.

Now, again, a number of these points were spoken to in "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production," so I'm not going to dwell on them at length here. But I did want to highlight these points concerning the practice-theory-practice dialectic and the mass line, both within the Party as well as among broader masses, and the importance of correctly handling these dialectical relations.


You can err in two directions also with regard to the practice and theory relation. You can be dogmatic--and, to use philosophical terms, a priorist , in other words, you have a conception of reality in advance (which is what a priori means) and then you try to impose that on reality. There's a lot of that in the world. And there's been a lot of that in the history of our movement, because communists do not exist in a vacuum, we're not "sealed off" from the rest of the world--nor could we do what we are setting out to do if we were somehow isolated like that--and so the conditions and conceptions that have influence in society generally also have an influence on us. The difference is that we have an outlook and methodology that enables us to recognize this and to struggle for a more correct approach to engaging and transforming reality. But, again, it is not that we aren't influenced by subjective ways of approaching things, including a priorism--we are not immune from this tendency of wanting things to be a certain way so badly that you try to impose your subjective wishes and aims on reality, instead of confronting reality as it actually is and transforming it in accordance with how it really is and how it is actually moving and changing.

To give a particularly gross example of this kind of subjectivism and a priorism , I remember when I was first involved in the movement, back in the mid-1960s, I knew some people in Berkeley who were in PLP (Progressive Labor Party) and at one point there was an article in the New York Times quoting one of them as saying: "We have ten thousand members in Harlem." So a bunch of us were talking with this guy and we said: "What the fuck is that? What are you talking about? You don't have any ten thousand members in Harlem or anywhere else. What the hell is that?" And the guy's defense was: "Well, it's true that we don't have that right now, but if we say we do then that will help build us up and then we'll get ten thousand members." Well, it's fairly easy to see that that's not any kind of scientific methodology, let alone a genuinely communist methodology. But that's an example of a kind of a priorism that's akin to dogmatism as well as pragmatism.

Here's another example of dogmatism--of theory divorced from practice. In the early days of the RU,**** there was a guy who was with us for a little while--he was one of these people who read constantly, read theory constantly, which is good, very good. But one day I ran into him and I said, "Hey Mike, what are you up to?" And he answered: "Volume 40." He'd been reading all of Lenin's Collected Works, beginning with the first volume, and he'd almost completed that-- he'd gotten all the way up to Volume 40. That's good, I'm not going to put it down. Theory is important, very important. But his approach did not reflect a correct grasp of the relation of theory to practice--it was theory almost completely divorced from practice. So what did it mean? He ended up quitting the RU pretty soon after that. I don't know what he's into now, but I'm sure it isn't MLM. So there is a real problem with theory that is divorced from practice.

On the other hand, the bigger tendency and much greater problem in a country like the U.S., in particular, is the tendency to pragmatism--which in effect denies there is objective truth and defines truth by whatever is useful to this or that individual or group at a given time. In terms of the communist movement, the tendency to pragmatism takes different forms but they all amount to not recognizing what Lenin emphasized: without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement. Even many people who have all kinds of theories claim to be anti-theoretical because that's so much the currency, especially (although not only) in the U.S.

There are many who say things like: "We don't want to have a whole worked out theory because that would be too `totalizing.' " This is connected with all kinds of political tendencies, like, for example, the Zapatistas, whose position is that you don't want to have a whole integrated theory, and you don't want to have state power. And those two things go together--in an ironic and upside-down way, this does reflect reality. If you don't have a comprehensive revolutionary theory and you aren't grappling with theory, you won't ever get to the point of seizing state power either. So the Zapatistas don't need to worry about that, because they openly proclaim that they are not aiming for state power. But we need to worry about it. We need the correct dynamic, or dialectic, of practice-theory-practice. And, once again, the U.S. in particular is rife with anti-theoretical, anti-intellectual tendencies, and crude know-nothingism, all of which is so widely promoted and fostered by the American bourgeoisie, with its pragmatic philosophy. And this does find its way into the movement of opposition, because again people are living and breathing this--taking in the air and atmosphere, so to speak, of this kind of outlook.


So, we need to struggle to come to the correct appreciation of theory, as well as practice, and the correct handling of the practice-theory-practice dialectic. Everybody who wants to change the world, and certainly every communist, has to grapple with theory. This has to do with the basic orientation we all must have of "flying without a safety net." Even when you're not in a top leadership position in the Party, you should try to operate without a safety net in terms of your orientation. In other words, you should grapple with theory, with line, and you should do as much as you can do, individually and as part of the overall Party collective, to contribute to the understanding and the line of the Party as a whole. We don't want a division like they had in the old Communist Party, even before it fully degenerated into revisionism, where there were the "thinkers" and the "doers"--a great separation between those who developed line and those who carried it out. This is something we definitely don't want.

Everybody has to take responsibility for grappling with theory and developing line. It doesn't matter what your particular assignment is at a given time, what your particular role or position in the Party is at a given time--everybody should grapple with theory, everybody should seek to carry forward the practice- theory-practice dialectic--overwhelmingly as part of a collective, but also individually. Take initiative and think about things and raise questions that occur to you. Don't assume that somebody else in the Party is going to pay attention to this. Maybe they will, but maybe they don't have time, or maybe they haven't thought about something you've thought about. Maybe there's a question you've run into in carrying out mass work, or a theoretical problem you've been grappling with; maybe, in the course of your work among the masses, people have raised things which, as far as you know, nobody else is thinking about--or you're not sure anyone else is thinking about this. Well, the Party leadership needs to know about this--and you need to continue grappling with this yourself while also making that part of the collective life of the Party-- that's very important, no matter what your particular position and role is in the Party at any given time. It's important for the life, the vitality of the Party, and it's important for the collectivity of the Party, it's important to really make the channels of the Party a chain of knowledge as well as a chain of command. There is all kinds of lively shit going on out there, all kinds of different trends in the movements of opposition, there are all kinds of opinions that masses of people have.

Sometimes I read these reports, and I just howl hysterically at some of the backward shit the masses come up with--I have to say it's often very creative and even very entertaining! But there are also a lot of insights they have. And both are valuable and important to know about--both their advanced ideas and sentiments and the backward shit they get pulled into. All this has to be part of the living dynamic of the Party's development of line and policy and of carrying this out in practice. So in that sense we all have to fly without a safety net. It's not somebody else's responsibility to develop the line. Yes, we have a structure to the Party, we have a chain of knowledge and chain of command. I'm not encouraging people to just come up with their own theory and line, all off by themselves, and then to carry this into practice. But everybody is responsible for grappling with theory and developing the line in the correct way, through the correct channels. This, too, is an important aspect of applying the mass line inside the Party as well as more broadly among the masses.