Revolution Online, February 21, 2010
An Historic Contradiction: Fundamentally Changing The World Without "Turning Out the Lights"
When this contradiction was first posed, my immediate response was that this was concentrating a painful truth, but it just really shouldn't be true and it's just a wrong orientation on the part of the communists that's made it true. But the more I thought about it, it's not just the mistakes of communists that leads to this, and we can't just idealistically say, "well this is just wrong, and no problem because we have the new synthesis." (As Bob Avakian said sometime ago, the new synthesis is dealing with objective contradictions.) Nor is it just the "anti-communist verdicts" (though those are also real). There is an objective contradiction here, and one we have to fight for a different answer on than "turn out the lights... the party's over."
On a fundamental level, there is tremendous joy and exhilaration that exists in fighting to free humanity from the completely unnecessary, centuries-old and pervasive shackles that have us all brutally bound. Yes, there are times of great frustration, danger and sacrifice. But there's nothing else more stimulating, challenging, full of laughter and heart-soaring hope. And you think about what it will mean when the masses of people truly rise up, when millions of people lift their heads. Think of all the creativity that can be unfettered, the energy and the artistry. We don't even fully know what could be unleashed, what is crushed under today.
And the new synthesis provides a radically different understanding and ability so this is not the case (here come the communists, turn out the lights, the party is over). Not just no problem, but a truly different framework to provide a different answer, not a blueprint, but a framework and pathway. On the level of epistemology in terms of Marxism embracing all of reality—learning from different spheres, a rupture with the utilitarianism in relation to philosophy, culture, the appreciation of play and awe and wonder. The methodology that appreciates the multi-layered map and the way in which different contradictions get expressed through many channels, and not just in relation to the main social contradictions at any given time. Understanding this—and understanding more deeply what it's going to take to transform the mental/manual divide—requires space, ferment, dissent and debate. And socialism with this new understanding will be a truly incredible place to live, and thing to be a part of.
In thinking about this, I first thought about a point from The Fever that has always stuck with me. Wally Shawn is talking about the "in the city where I grew up, the city I love most of all" and he describes what it's like on a cold winter night where it's not snowing yet, but "you feel it would like to." He talks about being in a nice part of town, where a wetness covers everything, "like the wetness you see on a frozen cherry" and "the men in their overcoats are staring harshly with open mouthed desire at the fox-headed women whose lipstick ripples, whose earrings ripple, as they step through the uneven light and darkness of the sidewalk... And that's the kind of thing that the communists will never understand..."
And on one level, there is clearly a bigger point he's making about beauty, frivolity, sheer loveliness that communists should understand, have to understand. And the way he's posing this is quite poetic.
But on the other hand, no, it's not good when men "stare harshly" at women on the street "with open-mouthed desire." But nor can you only say "goddamn right, we won't accept that as beautiful because what does it mean to the lives of women, and women as a whole to be nothing but objects of that kind of desire, objects of visual and sexual satisfaction for men—and all the violence, brutality and degradation that comes with that objectification (even perhaps despite the subjective intent of some of many of those men)." (I was on the train just last week and was on the other end of one of these ubiquitous comments, and I happened to be in some kind of crappy ass mood and you just wanted to scream, the city is not some fucking museum of women as baubles and objets d'art for you to go around admiring our legs, butts, hair or whatever the fuck!)
So it does have to be said this isn't any good... if humanity is to actually be liberated, women have to be treated as full human beings, not objects for ogling, not any women eliciting "open mouthed desire" from any man. And this has to be struggled over broadly in society, and from different angles, and within a larger process—what it means to be beautiful has to change, the content of sexual desire has to change. (And there also has to be struggle for the understanding of what comes along with how Wally sees that beautiful moment, that moment is part of a bigger package that Wally doesn't like. Not that everyone will understand this or agree, but there does have to be struggle around this broadly, and not just from the Party out even as there will be laws and standards.) And you can hear Wally Shawn saying, "see what I mean?"
But it's not that the communists should go around waging struggle every time someone upholds exploitative or oppressive social relations, on every question in every sphere. That would be turning the lights out, stifling and putting a chill over all of society. But there does have to be struggle—and in this realm, a great deal of struggle. And again, this can't go at every individual on every question every time, but it does have to hit people "where they live" and there are many people for whom they would argue that is "turning out the lights, party over."
And then back to the other part of the contradiction I think Wally is talking about, there are things that have beauty that aren't so good and this is complicated, though much of this you have to have space, and for some things, even appreciation for. Bob Avakian’s point about Shakespeare here is really important. Or take a contemporary example—largely, music today is pretty awful on the woman question and a lot of it is, frankly, unlistenable, but there are a lot of things you have to understand and let go, or sift through. (Eminem is an interesting and complicated contradiction on this one, a truly incredible and creative lyricist, with a lot of very good defiance and heart for the youth and really interesting angles on the national question. But a lot of that defiance is channeled into upholding and rhyming about the murder of women—literally killing his ex-wife and putting her in the back of a trunk and I know for me, I love a few songs on any given album and just can't listen to the rest. Or a different angle, that Dolly Parton song Jolene—it's really pretty terrible, but I find it to be a moving and beautiful song.) The question of levels of matter, knowing what is essential at any point and what is not, and an appreciation for a complex reality and intangibles in art and culture (without then falling off the other end as art and culture being some kind of untouchable, exceptional sphere).
While it's not simply the mishandling or wrong orientation on the part of communists, in the history of our project, this contradiction has rung true. In working on this, I looked through a book on "Street Art of the Revolution: Festivals and Celebrations in Russia, 1918-1933." It's just incredible. After the seizure of power in the Soviet Union, there was a lot of necessity but there was also a great flourishing of creativity, literally like an uncorking. And a lot of artists were both taking responsibility to be part of meeting that necessity, including bringing the masses into political and cultural life, and there was a great deal of experimentation in that regard.
In October 1918, Lunacharsky (who was the commissar for public education) said, "let us make the squares our palettes, the streets our brushes!" This book explains, "The cities were turned into huge open air exhibitions with hundreds of large decorative panels and monuments. Street shows and plays—some with thousands of performers, and tens of thousands of spectators—light effects, music and songs, created an entirely new synthesis of art forms." The pictures in this book show great festivities, huge red banners hanging all over the streets, big murals, sculptures and tens of thousands of people filling the streets. It's breathtaking. They also wanted to unleash the artists to put themselves to architecture, and every other part of life, Lenin had a vision of the walls being covered in frescoes.
[I found a really interesting and significant quote from Lenin in this book that I hadn't heard before: "In relation to all forms of popular education, Lenin emphasized that 'it would be the greatest and most terrible mistake which a Marxist could make to think that the millions of craftsmen and peasants could emerge from the darkness along the straight line of pure Marxist education.' These simple people, he said, 'must be approached in such a way that their interest is awakened—they must be roused from all directions and by all manner of means.'" (the book says "simple people," and the citation for this was in Russian so I don't know where it's from). I thought this was very interesting in terms of the dynamism and vibrancy Lenin was fighting for, and learning from that, you can see the role for the enrichment in terms of taking up all spheres.]
There was a lot of discussion about this art serving the people, and from what I can tell this was a lot of the impetus of different artists themselves and there was a great deal of experimentation with abstract art. A lot of it was geared to the building of the new society (and Rodchenko talks about art of construction). But there was also a great deal of experimentation here and a lot of use and playing with abstraction. Rodchenko, for example, wanted to make a new kind of painting that reflected the new world and new people. He wrote in one place, "Down with ART, the means to ESCAPE FROM LIFE which is not worth living. Conscious and organized LIFE, the ability to SEE and CONSTRUCT, that is the modern art." (This is most definitely not the only kind of art that is required, and I think even this doesn't have quite enough space, but there is a lot to learn here including again, in the experimentation and how different artists saw filling the needs of this new society broadly understood.)
Toward the late '20s the festivals became very geared towards celebrations of industry (this was in there before, but it became really constricted around that) and there was in the arts the single focused emphasis on socialist realism. The book I have on Rodchenko describes it this way, "The climate had changed, and at a time when the Soviet Union was struggling with a series of Five Year Plans to modernize industry and agriculture to establish economic viability it was felt that the simple rhetoric of Socialist Realism provided a more easily intelligible framework for communicating the changes that were taking place. Like many of his colleagues Rodchenko was not able to comply with this prevailing aesthetic and as a result he was thrown more and more in upon himself with few outlets for his work."
The lights more or less went out. And yes, there was a profound amount of necessity they were facing—the numbers lost in the war, and what it took to fight that war are staggering. The newness of all this was a big deal. And you do need economic plans, but not everything that goes on in your society has to immediately serve that or it's no good. This was an unprecedented flourishing, and it's not like everything should continue at the same height or intensity (or that it was all fantastic), but the constriction around all this, along with many other contradictions, did lead to "turn out the lights, the party's over."
On a different level, today there is often a great deal of narrowing we, the communists, do. We still have a situation where a lot of comrades spend a lot of time going around, "correcting" the masses—struggling over a lot of smaller contradictions. There is still not enough learning from what is impelling people, learning what contradictions they're up against, and yes, waging struggle, but that existing in a larger context.
I don't know extensively about it, but there is a whole scene coming out of the hipster culture, but also seeking to break with it in some ways that is seeking out love and support, a searching for community. And a lot of this finds expression in spirituality—both Christian, and the more vaguely "eastern" kind (generally an amalgam of chakras, meditation, seeking to tap into the energy force). I went to a loft party of this artists' collective who were friends from college who started this collective because they wanted to find the same support and artistic pushing and challenging and collectivity they found in college. It was an interesting scene and there was a lot of sweetness, and actively trying to break out of "smug irony" which colors so much of hipster culture. (Interestingly, a couple of the women were part Middle Eastern and one was part Palestinian and they were very open to talking about radical ideas.) This was definitely not something radical in its own right, but they are attempting something positive. (One interesting thing to think about is the way a lot of these sections did get pulled into very active political life around Obama, and the contradictoriness that could mean now.) One contradiction that is often spoken to in these scenes which divides into two is that we shouldn't be so angry, and we should not just focus on the negative of what they (the rulers, however that's understood) are doing, but also on the positive that we can bring into being. On the one hand, there really is something to this—we do have to talk a lot more about what can be made possible with the DOP [dictatorship of the proletariat], what kind of world is possible, and really learn from others in how they see that. But posed in the way this gets posed is also seeking to step aside from what people really should be angry about. Anger at crimes against humanity is not a big negative, or big downer—well maybe it can be, but you do have to go back to that bumper sticker, "if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention!" You do have to confront, "it is what it is." And yes, it can be transformed through struggle. But that confronting of it is what it is is really no fucking good. I'm not arguing you stay in a big determinist, negative state but it's not all roses, or just "focus on the positive."
And part of the contradiction here is that very real, living and realizable positive vision—which I think can inspire on a whole higher level—won't be brought into being unless we confront the reality, and go up against, and overthrow this system.
Or there's another scene, which I need to learn more about, at this gritty bar where these rock 'n rollers sing gospel funk. The musicians are incredible. I went to one show and it was infectious and amazing musically, but the singer fills between the songs with actual preaching—"you are special, you're loved, each and every one of you, and we can all learn from that Jewish carpenter, a life of love etc." A very multinational crowd, and again, people weren't being ironic, they were passionate and enthused about the music and the scene, and there is a real community around this (though I'm sure many of the people who come aren't actively religious). There are A LOT of problems in all this, and it has potentially very bad directions. But there are positive aspirations (especially up against a more apathetic backdrop) that need to be radically ruptured and transformed.
Without tailing it, or being idealist and humanist (ie, "it's all good and loving and great"), and with a full understanding of the negative potential, we can't just look at the negative side. We have to look at what can be learned, including what can be learned about what we need to be speaking to, what needs we need to be meeting out in the world (I also thought this was important in light of the stuff in the new talk [“Unresolved Contradictions, Driving Forces For Revolution”] about some of what is attracting people to this Christian Fascist morality is the desire from people to be about more than consumerism). And in the context of a serious movement for revolution, how this can be repolarized (not that they're going to necessarily stop playing religious music, but that taking on a different character and that largely a part of something bigger in society).
I want to speak too to the first part of the contradiction—the world can't stay as it is. There is the brutal lopsidedness in the world, and the fact that while I'm sitting here, children in Tanzania are literally living off fish carcass and huffing glue as the only means of survival and sanity, or the Bangladeshi 8-year-old on the cover of the New Year's issue of Revolution. What is her life like, and what is our responsibility to her? This is a question that we have to ask, both ourselves, and the masses broadly. Not as a "religious guilt trip," but because we actually do have a responsibility towards her, and as Bob Avakian has continued to emphasize epistemology does meet morality.
Now many people are genuinely agonized about this, and are seriously trying to dedicate their lives to do something about it (this is an interesting and important element on the terrain on campuses today for example). But most Americans really have no idea. And among more progressively minded people, this is taking particularly sharp expression around Obama, and what people are accepting because he's doing it. To understate it, it's not always so popular to wage sharp struggle around this, and you're not always the hit of the party so to speak.
The first part of what's spoken to in this contradiction has real life meaning for billions of living, breathing, thinking people—the world cannot stay as it is. And that is a struggle that many people do find uncomfortable and unpleasant. There are a couple friends I've not gotten invited to hang out with again because it's not a conversation they want to have. Now maybe that will change some time in the future for these particular individuals, and maybe not. But you also can't flatten this out and get dogmatic, religious or revenge-ist about it. I'm reading Wally Shawn's essays and this is exactly the contradiction he speaks to—we should enjoy and celebrate life, and appreciate the beauty of it, but what does it mean or is it possible to do that, when there are people being tortured and mutilated, millions living their lives in profound suffering and struggle. And these aren't just parallel facts—who are the people that made the clothes I'm wearing, what is it like for the woman who sewed the tag on this sweater, what does she have to go through to even to get to the factory in Tijuana or Juarez? There is a real relationship there, and while again, we can't flatten reality or objectively have an orientation that seeks to just turn the tables, this does and frankly should make you lose sleep. (And it is part of who Avakian is that this reality is something he returns to repeatedly, struggling to bring to light the exposure around all this, and yes, the visceral feelings one should have about it.)
The point is that turning the tables isn't the only way this can be changed and actually that wouldn't fundamentally change it at all. Or that the only way this lopsidedness can be overcome is at the cost of intellectual space, ferment, debate, awe, wonder and artistry. But there is a tension there—in terms of orientation, line, resources, and the need for a radically different kind of dictatorship, an actual living application of solid core with a lot of elasticity. And the answer has to include unleashing those 8 year olds, those women in Juarez and kids in Tanzania to be part of that intellectual debate and ferment on all questions, and be learning from and approaching correctly the need for intellectual space, ferment, debate, awe, wonder and artistry.
Ok... so I've spent time on the reality of this contradiction being objective, and what the pulls have been to "turn out the lights, party's over." But now I want to speak more to this "at what cost" question, and on a higher level, speak to why it can't be the case that the party is over when the communists come. It is bound up with being rooted, and struggling to stay rooted, in our final goals. Not constricting or narrowing the struggle around necessary immediate goals to be all of what you're embracing or wrangling with.
I go back a lot to the situation in Tom Stoppard's Rock 'N Roll. This is a very anti-communist play taking place in Czechoslovakia, not a communist country... but it deals with the emergence of the rock 'n roll subculture and the band "plastic people of the universe." (Much of this is based on history, letters back and forth etc, but I'm only going from memory of having seen it once...) Anyway, the state ended up arresting the band, arresting many of its followers, the main character's record collection was entirely smashed and their long hair was cut in jail. There's a whole discussion in there about this subculture being so dangerous because they didn't care. The main character has a monologue about how the state knew how to deal with Havel (the writer) and other dissidents because they cared, and they couldn't exist without each other. Setting aside Stoppard's cynicism, I thought there was something to this. Here was something that was so totally other, and it's not that the content was necessarily that advanced, or advanced at all (and there was a lot in early rock 'n roll that isn't really that good if you were gonna pick it apart), but it was something fresh, something that felt free-ing (and that was freeing in real ways in terms of different social relations and new attitudes). A socialist society needs subcultures... or maybe it's better to understand it this way—there will be subcultures, and while there are potential "sharks," there's also a lot of potential life in there, crackle, springing things in the air. An organized white supremacist subculture won't be allowed, ie, a group whose sole mission is to brutalize and actively and violently keep oppressed a section of the masses. But, for the most part, this really has to be given space and a lot of this can be windows into what is missing in society, a place people can get a certain sustenance. It's not that "it's all good," but the kind of flourishing needed won't happen otherwise.
(An interesting point from the example I cited above about the band that plays gospel-funk, there are ways fascist movements can also conceivably get inside some of these alternate scenes and work to make them serve very counter-revolutionary aims.) I think part of the dynamics here is that you can't just take things on their own terms, but also look at what they are, or can be, a larger part of in society. I was talking with a comrade about this question of sexuality and social relations, and I was thinking about what Bill Ayers describes in Fugitive Days about the sexual relations in the Weatherman. They basically had a line that monogamy was bourgeois and people all slept with each other. This was bound up with a lot of dogmatism and religiosity and even some degree of what came off as fanaticism in terms of breaking down individual desires, and even Ayers talks about the male chauvinism that this was all still soaked in. Taken on its own terms, or seen as an end, this really wasn't any good. But stepping back, and seeing what it was coming out of, the larger context of all kinds of things being sprung into the air, and the need for that to break open and transform into different relations (like if there had actually been a revolution, what that kind of sexual experimentation could've been a bigger part of instead of quickly turning into its opposite). This is part of the problem with quick verdicts on everything, as if everything has to be compressed into whether it's the complete answer or not and not what may be part of a bigger process, what may be pulling against that bigger process... and no, we shouldn't be liberal. We do have to fight for standards, and yes, measure things against whether they're liberatory or not but not in a flat way. Sometimes you have to let things play out some, and open up struggle to broader society.
It's most definitely not that the sexual revolution was all good but then it was all good in a bigger sense, because it was a part of a much bigger thing happening—morés being challenged, gender roles being changed, the sixties were coming out of a painfully repressive society combined with mass ignorance. And a lot of this was tied to the women's liberation movements. You see powerfully from the new talk, and then reading that Female Chauvinist Pigs book [by Ariel Levy] what it has meant, not only that there wasn't a revolution (!!!), but also the points from the Chair on not the right synthesis coming out of those movements... There's a lot to say about the situation today which I won't go into now (I do have thoughts on this to write soon) in terms of reversal of a lot of this, backlash and the grotesque expressions all this takes among young women today. (One example of these reversals I was just thinking about—I grew up around that book, A New View of A Woman's Body, and I remember in high school drawing diagrams on the girls locker room mirror in lipstick of where women's clitoris' were because almost none of the young women I went to high school with knew, and I'm afraid that's even worse today.)
Really stepping back to all this, those three levels Avakian talked about in the Conversations book in relation to sexuality are very important (some things you make laws around, some things you have educational campaigns or big struggles around, and some things you just ignore, or let be). This relates to the realm of sexuality, but is something that also applies more broadly.
There would have to be a lot put into the hands of the masses themselves—posing different contradictions for struggle, and learning from what is bubbling up from below or different directions, different forms and forums of debate that wouldn't necessarily include the voice of the Party because you don't want to weight an argument yet, or we're not sure how to fall out on something at a given point... again, this isn't just all without risk, especially with other shit popping off.
There will be howling contradictions of holding on to state power and meeting people's needs, especially given the environmental crisis and the necessity that will pose—but we have to lead this so those real needs don't end up trumping the biggest need—building a society that can actually get to communism, that doesn't close down, become stultified and static... with the guarantee of where that will lead.
[There are also different levels of society where you have different kinds of freedom. You'd really have to think through what degree you'd let some kinds of experimentation go on in the army. It's one thing in your society if there are things going on and you don't quite know what will come out of it, but you don't have that same level of room in the army, it will have to be a disciplined force, and would also have to have a higher degree of consciousness. I don't want to make this solely about sexuality, but as an example, what if there is a movement on a college campus of experimenting with orgies. The Party may think this isn't so good, but it's maybe part of something bigger in society, and important to let it play out, encourage discussion and debate. There's not the same level of freedom in the army for that kind of open-endedness, though throughout society, and definitely in the army, there does have to be discussion and struggle about standards, about the content of something at any given time, and changing both solid core and elasticity. And on the basis of certain laws (ie, outlawing rape, pornography etc), the Party would sometimes weigh in on these debates, and sometimes not. More to think about here in all this...]
All of this has to be given much more life in how we're approaching people today. In the meeting where this was discussed, I raised that there are lots of people in the arts and intellectual spheres who have no idea that what we're doing has anything to do with their deepest concerns. And while it's also the case that on the other side of it, we better have an understanding of the flip side of that—that what they're doing has something to do, not narrowly or instrumentally, but broadly with what we're doing—changing the whole world (the questions they're going at and posing, the artistic forms they're bringing forward, scenes they're creating etc.). We do have to understand that, but that alone doesn't solve it.
Some of these artists think they don't have anything to talk with us about because they're "not political." There is not a lot of cross-pollination in these cultural scenes, and as we've come up against, not a lot of ferment. So the way some people see it is "they're artists, and focusing in on how these notes sound together." (This is what someone said to me just recently.) And yet, they're also people in the world—posing big questions in their art, agonizing about the reality in the world, and wondering, even if not always consciously, why it is this way... There does need to be engagement with all this with the most radical, revolutionary thinking on the planet today. And yet they think it doesn't apply. Communism doesn't relate to what they're dealing with. This is something we have to change, not by arguing they need to have a "political discussion," but by posing the questions and the need for this engagement in a bigger context.
We have to answer this contradiction with the lights on, and answer it repeatedly—and the more I'm wrangling with this here, the more you grasp how essential this contradiction is to beginning a new stage of THIS revolution. We do face a great deal of necessity—and there's a lot bound up with this campaign in terms of the stakes and the contradictions being bound up and bound together. To use shorthand, the coming together of "up on the mountain and down on the ground."
Again, there is a real contradiction here, but it has to be answered on a higher level. With strategic confidence, and deeply rooted scientific and lofty approach. With all the sharpness, and fire for revolution, with the intolerance and impatience that the world can't stay as it is, and fueled by our biggest aims and goals of what it really means to be fighting for the emancipation of humanity—with our eyes and approach set there.
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