Revolution Online, February 21, 2010
An Historic Contradiction: Fundamentally Changing The World Without "Turning Out the Lights"
I first became aware of the phrase and song, "Turn out the lights, the party's over," thru Don Meredith on Monday night football. His use of it was to declare that the particular game they were televising was for all intents and purposes over, that it was decided who was going to win and who was going to lose. So when I heard this phrase as something the intellectuals would say when they saw the revolutionaries coming, the first thing that hit me was them having and expressing their sense that revolution (the party) has been tried and failed. And that it was time to turn the lights out on that project. But paying a little more attention to what we were being asked to address made clear that the expression we were being asked to speak to had to do with their sense that the kind of world the revolutionaries would bring into being if we succeeded in making our first great leap, would be one where the lights would go out on much that would make it a world that people would want to live in.
Much of this sense of revolution as a world where the lights would be out is rooted in the lies and misconceptions promoted by the anti-communist offensive the imperialists intensified in wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The talk that Stalin, and Mao, murdered millions, that all freedoms were stripped away from individuals, that intellectual life was curtailed, etc. And by the lack of critical thinking about what these revolutions were trying to accomplish and what they were up against. Like seeing that adults in revolutionary China wore clothes that were all the same color and attributing that to a desire to create a world where the color and life had been squeezed out of people and society.
Not getting what they were up against here. That given the lack of resources they were dealing with, they decided not to devote the resources needed to dyeing the clothes worn by adults. But that they did begin to dye the clothes worn by children, a decision that explicitly came from deciding that the children should have more "light" in their lives. But the reason for these decisions and other steps taken by the revolutionaries in power in China and the Soviet Union are outside the considerations of people when thinking about the things that are said about those revolutions. The verdicts on these revolutions remain unexamined.
There's another part to the sense that the lights will go out if the revolutionaries succeed. It is that the revolutionaries made mistakes, got some things wrong and fell short on others. In a discussion over the Manifesto, one young person who works closely with the Party spoke of a scientist from the Soviet Union in the '30s who had wanted to explore an area of research that the Party decided was something that wouldn't directly advance the goals they were trying to accomplish. He wasn't allowed to pursue his research, so he risked his life to go into exile to pursue it. As I recall, the person said he walked across a frozen river, at one point falling thru a thin part and having to swim in icy water to make it out. A close tie who was engaged in this discussion asked whether it would've been possible for the Soviet Union to devote the resources to the area of research this guy wanted to pursue. That maybe it was better that they put those resources to some other purpose.
I figure that's exactly what they were thinking in the Soviet Union at the time, and that there will be a huge pull to that kind of thinking in a future revolutionary society. "There's a lot of things we need to do right now. A lot of immediate needs to meet, as well as necessary transformations to make. How can we fritter away our resources by chasing those paths which might lead to nothing but dead ends?" There will also be a social base for this kind of thinking.
(It's a key indicator of the potential for successfully charting the uncharted course—making revolution in this kind of country—whether we could win people like this tie to grasp and take up the re‑envisioning of communism that BA has been bringing forward. Millions and millions of people from the social base for revolution having a solid, if basic, understanding of the important role of winning the allegiance of broad sections of the intelligentsia to revolution and winning sections of them away from aligning with imperialism will be a key part of having a shot at making this kind of revolution in the first place.)
It seems like the question here wasn't just resources, but was it a problem for the revolution to have these intellectuals pursuing various avenues of research and knowledge without the oversight of the state. Not only would much of this, if not most of this, not lead to directly advancing very real and important goals that it was life and death for the revolution to achieve, but it would leave you with all these people going off in their own directions, investigating things, finding things out that may or may not be good for the revolution for them to be discovered and exposed.
Here this goes beyond the immediate constrictions the Soviet Union faced resources-wise to even the better experience on this front in China. There was the 100 flowers campaign, and I know the conventional wisdom on this, or at least what gets said in a lot of the books and articles on this, is that it was basically a trap. Let people express their bourgeois ways of thinking so you could identify who was the problem and then arrest them for it. I know there is a complex reality to this—that forces opposed to Mao's leadership seized on difficulties coming off the Great Leap Forward to gain the initiative and reverse a lot that he was trying to do. And that this could've meant that these forces did indeed use the campaign Mao had initiated—the 100 Flowers—for a purpose different than he intended. And actually arrested some of those who had spoken out during the 100 Flowers.
Leaving aside these complexities for the moment, it does seem to have been the case that while Mao had a better grasp on the role of the intelligentsia, his approach was one of leading a controlled process. One where people who held unpopular ideas weren't suppressed for that and involving the masses in the process of directing the new society was to be how things worked, but that all this was to be guided in the desired direction that the revolutionary authority felt things needed to be taken. A kind of 'everybody marching in step' toward the desired communist goal.
This is something different than solid core with a lot of elasticity, than creating an atmosphere that encourages diversity, questioning, involvement and dissent, including from those who oppose the goals for the revolution. Also different than unleashing and trying to lead a process that repeatedly drags you to the brink of being drawn and quartered. Not that if you fuck up, you could end up being dragged to this brink, but that if you're doing things right, this will repeatedly happen.
Why do we need to take this approach? We're trying to bring into being a classless, communist world. Why do we need the involvement of people who oppose that goal? They not only don't know how to realize that goal—they don't want to see it realized. What's the point to giving them the ability to have their say?
This reminds me of another engagement with a tie who was grappling with Avakian’s new synthesis. One of the parents of police murder victims who has been a stalwart in that movement, and who has been supportive of some of the things the revolutionaries have done that weren't directly related to fighting police brutality. (This divides up. Some of those initiatives he supported were being guided by an overall revisionist approach. But he also watched the Revolution talk DVD. And he loved the talks by BA on religion and democracy we held after this talk.) In hearing us talk about why it would be important to create an atmosphere of interrogation and dissent, including by people who weren't down with the goals of the revolution, he said "You all can deal with those people. I don't think I'm gonna want to hear from people who weren't with us when we made the revolution."
There's a lot of people who feel this way about this. And when the question of revolution comes to the fore, isn't something that's the "farthest thing from people's minds" like it is for most people today, there will be many, many more who think this way. And we'll need to tap into, unleash and lead such people to make revolution in a country like this. Which means we'll have to win large numbers of people to see why we do need to be willing to listen to people who aren't with the goals of the revolution, but to be encouraging them to tell us what they think about things, including what they think about what the revolutionary authority is doing and not doing.
Back to why we need to take this approach—this comes down to needing to know reality as deeply and as it really is and as it's developing in order to transform it in the desired direction. It matters that our aim is to end exploitation and oppression once and for all, but having good intentions won't guarantee that we'll not go off track in trying to realize that goal. We need to know what we're dealing with as best as we possibly can and need to be able to check that understanding of reality along the way often from different angles to stay on course. Our approach should make us best able to get at reality as it actually is, but even applying that approach correctly won't cut it. We'll need to have all the forces in society we can unleash also investigating reality and posing what they're finding out and thru sorting thru what's correct and incorrect in our and everyone else's take on reality that we'll be able to come to as deep an understanding of reality as we can.
There will be forces seeking to fish in these troubled waters—reactionaries wishing to use the chaos this approach will necessarily unleash to bring forth forces aimed at overthrowing the revolutionary authority. Again, it's not that this could happen if we fuck up, but this seems like it will be a part of the process. Such forces won't cede the field to the revolutionary authority to see how well it does, and they will be attuned to what openings our approach provides them. The revolutionary authority will have to work to stop such forces from succeeding in their aim to turn society back to capitalism without closing down the elasticity they'll be trying to fish in. Because without this elasticity, we won't be able to unleash the process that can keep the process of revolutionary rule moving in the direction of communism.
In going thru this I was initially thinking about things like scientific research and political expression, but it also has application to the realm of culture, broadly considered. Look, after revolution is made in a country like this, it would probably not be possible to immediately make available a television system with 100's of channels like are available today in this society. But if the upshot of the revolution is that people have to give up access to a wide variety of different cultural expressions, we're going to start hearing from a lot of folk that things were better before the revolution.
I don't know all the right terms for this, but we're going to need to be able to have cultural expressions on the level of fine arts—painting, sculpture, movies, music, other kinds of performance, as well as more popular level cultural expressions in a variety of arenas. Some of this will take the form of breaking down barriers that kept broad sections of people from participating in these realms, but it can't just be that. On a radical list that I subscribe to, someone posted a stream of consciousness e mail that in the midst of touching on a number of topics ranted about how it was BS for the Russian revolutionaries to have funded the Bolshoi after seizing power. After all, wasn't ballet just something for those who were better off. Something the masses wouldn't give a damn about.
Here you have someone professing to be some kind of revolutionary explicitly calling for turning out the lights if revolution were to be made in a country like this. This won't be our problem, but we will have to ensure that we don't end up turning out the lights in the name of focusing our attention and society's resources on meeting the needs of the masses and carrying out the reconstruction that will be necessary. And that we don't mishandle maintaining the allegiance of the intelligentsia and/or the class struggle in ways that could end up affecting our ability to keep the lights on. Because it won't be the case that the revolutionaries will be able to bring forward all the cultural expressions that will need to be out there in the new society. This isn't just a matter of keeping people from getting dissatisfied with the new society, but making the new society one where the relationships between people and between people and the state is continually being transformed in the direction of communism.
There will need to be cultural expressions developed on the basis of communist principles that are out there impacting public opinion. But there will also need to be other cultural expressions out there contending with them, with other people bringing forward things that interrogate what the revolutionaries are producing and are themselves being engaged by the masses broadly. Some model works will be needed, but if all the masses have access to are the model works, then people will be saying, as I said above, "things were better off before the revolution."
When people actually consider what's involved with all this, one thing that we've heard is that you might intend to run things in this way, but when push comes to shove, you'll grab for what you have under your control. Meaning we'll unleash the organs of the state to make sure things don't get out of hand, and maybe add to that unleashing the masses who are down with the revolution to coerce those who are straying off in the wrong direction (especially among the intelligentsia) to get back in line.
There will be a need to do some of this at certain points. After all, part of the synthesis that Avakian has brought forward includes involving the masses broadly in the administering of the new society and going about things in a way that consciously works toward eliminating the need for a state structure to be above society directing it. Without unleashing the revolutionary masses, you can't be acting to carry those parts of the synthesis Avakian has been developing. But the aim of doing this can't be to keep everybody marching in line in the same direction. And there will be key times when the revolutionary authority will have to hold back from unleashing the revolutionary masses exactly because doing so would shut down a process or processes that are going off in some directions not directly in line with what the revolutionary authority has in mind or doesn't contribute directly or immediately to the goals that this authority has given highest priority to.
Handling all this will be complex. Here we are in a wealthy society like the U.S. where anti-intellectual sentiment is very widespread. Think of how intense such sentiment could be in a poor society in other parts of the world. Where people have lived their lives on the edge of survival, there would be every reason for people to rally to the cause of revolution, but also to bring with them intense revenge sentiments directed at those who had lived more comfortable lives in those societies. Attention paid to winning and maintaining the allegiance of intellectuals in the course of preparing for revolution in such societies and in carrying out socialist transformation in those societies could be sharply contested. And such attention would also be sharply contested in a society like this one, partly due to the night and day difference between the intellectual and the shopkeeper, and the impact populist, anti-intellectual strains have historically had on sections of the people in this country. And also due to the revengism that will be a part of what comes forward as the idea of revolution becomes something that's back on the map for people and is frankly already there with some of the masses who have already been attracted to the revolution.
This brings me back around to the misunderstanding of the phrase that I raised in the beginning. It's Bob Avakian's re‑envisioning of communism and how to realize it that give us a shot at keeping the lights from being turned out on the communist project. Without it and the cultural revolution he has led in our Party, this vanguard would've continued its march to the revisionist swamp and with it would've gone the potential for revolution to become once more a pole of attraction for masses in this country. And the potential for a revolutionary communism that has identified the key questions on which the previous experience of revolutionaries in power had to become a pole of attraction among communists, and masses who yearn for a way out of the hell imperialism has inflicted on the planet, worldwide.
At the same time, this synthesis is what gives us the potential to bring into being a society where the lights don't go out once the revolutionaries are in power in a society like this one, or in any kind of society. One where people are not only allowed to engage in questioning and dissent, but encouraged to do so. One where, on the basis of having brought forward a solid core on the basis of revolution and communism, an elasticity is unleashed that has people going off into different directions, digging into a variety of different arenas and bringing forward a variety of expressions. Keeping the lights from being turned out in both ways rests on the wielding of the synthesis that Avakian is bringing forward.
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