From Sunsara Taylor:

Digging into BAsics—“Reform or Revolution; Questions of Morality, Questions of Orientation”—with Students as Part of Our Campus Tour

March 21, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


Even before others arrived, a young Black woman who has protested police murder and proudly wears her hair in a natural Afro pointed to a sentence that spoke to her deeply in BA’s essay “Reform or Revolution; Questions of Morality, Questions of Orientation”: “Right now, you don’t get that much ‘social approbation’ for being a revolutionary, and in particular a revolutionary communist.”

“That is so true!” She lamented the way so few of her peers are into revolution and the way her parents constantly tell her to focus on “getting ahead.” She was moved by BA’s insistence that you have to be for revolution despite all this and work to change other people’s minds. At the same time, she wondered if it was really possible and how long it would take.

We had met the day before, when Carl Dix and I spoke at her school as part of our national speaking tour inviting students to meet the real revolution. Soon several others from the event joined us at the table. We had been straight up with the students that getting into the leadership and new synthesis of Bob Avakian and joining the revolution he is leading is the most important thing they could do with their lives. Now, we were beginning to follow through with them.

After reading the essay out loud together, another woman expressed appreciation for the analogy BA makes about going back in time when a great plague was wiping out huge numbers. BA asks us to imagine that the antibiotics necessary to treat the plague are brought back by some time-travelers, but that these time-travelers hoard the antibiotics, guard them with armed thugs, and won’t distribute them unless they get paid an amount most people can’t afford. He asks, in that situation, is it better to just try to comfort people as they die or to rise up and steal the antibiotics and end the epidemic. This young woman said the essay made her think about how elastic people are and how all the treacherous things they do to each other (like crime) as well as the horrible things that are done to them by the system all “trace back to capitalism.” She agreed that the problem is not human nature, but the system we are all trapped in.

A woman from China said the contrast between reform and revolution in the essay made her think about the difference between radical feminists, which she considers herself, and liberal feminism. A fourth young woman voiced her support for revolution and also appreciated the analogy. But, she asked, “Why does the title link together the question of ‘reform or revolution’ with the question of morality?”

This was a great question, one that others hadn’t yet considered, and it drove everyone back into the essay. Eventually, a member of the Revolution Club read aloud from a part where BA expressed admiration for the morality of people who want to alleviate suffering, who do things like put water out in the desert for immigrants crossing over from Mexico. “But,” he writes, “that cannot provide the fundamental solution to that particular problem, of the suffering of these immigrants and what drives them to leave their homelands in the first place, nor can it eliminate all the other ways in which masses of people, throughout the world, are oppressed and caused to suffer. Or, again, while I admire the people who volunteer with things like Doctors Without Borders, if they were to say, ‘this is the most anybody can do, there’s nothing more you can do,’ we would have to engage in principled but very sharp struggle with them, even while uniting with them and admiring their spirit, because it is objectively not true that this is all that can, or should, be done—and it is harmful to the masses of people to say that this is all that can be done.”

The Revolution Club member walked through the imperialist plunder and exploitation that drives people from their homes in Mexico or Honduras and how righteous it is for people to leave water in the desert so that these immigrants don’t die. “But,” she echoed BA, “if you say that is all that should be done you are wrong! That is not true. That doesn’t fix what’s being done to their countries. That doesn’t fix the racism and exploitation they face in this country. And if you oppose revolution—which can fix this—then you are doing something very harmful and wrong!” She fought for people to really think about what BA was getting at and how what you think is moral depends on what you understand to be true and if you recognize that the problems can only be solved through revolution than it is immoral to do anything less.

Just as people were beginning to see how the question of “reform or revolution?” fits together with questions of morality, a new question emerged: “But how do we respond to people who can’t see that objective truth? Even if we see it as objective—like what you are saying about immigrants on the border—isn’t truth relative?” The woman who asked hesitated a little, saying, “Maybe that is too philosophical.” But it wasn’t “too philosophical.” The question of how to determine what is true, or whether “everyone has their own truth” is one of the most pressing philosophical questions of our time.

Folks went at this in different ways, including by returning to the immigrants in the desert. “Is this just a ‘narrative’ or is it objectively true that these immigrants are being driven out of their homes because of U.S. imperialism? Is it just a ‘narrative’ or is it objectively true that leaving water for them is good, but won’t really solve the problem?”

Several Club members argued that truth is objective and not dependent on what people think, but others weren’t so sure. They felt strongly that what goes on to immigrants is true and wrong, but felt very conflicted about telling anyone else that they were wrong if they perceived it differently.

This question did not get fully resolved, because each question would stir another. Someone asked, “So, what about the people who don’t see it this way, who aren’t awake. Does this revolution reach out to and try to change people on the far right as well? Like hardcore racists? Or just focus on those who are closer to ‘objective truth?’” Everyone at the table was encouraged to give their thoughts on this question. Some expressed hope that we could do something about the hardcore racists, but mainly people felt that we needed to focus on those who might be more likely to agree. Carl Dix and I spoke briefly about how we are today fighting to prepare the ground, prepare the people, and prepare the vanguard to get ready for the time when millions can be led to go for revolution all out with a real chance to win. This means we are right now bringing forward thousands to work actively together with us to influence the thinking of millions. At the same time these thousands are being trained and enabled to lead millions as larger crises break out and millions are ready to be led to put everything on the line to bring this system down and bring something much better into being. All this is being knit together and led through our website,

As a big part of that, we emphasized, is for them to keep getting deeper into this strategy and the kinds of philosophical questions that had already come up in the discussion, even as we are acting together to fight the power and to let the whole world know about the leadership of Bob Avakian. We led people to look through the full table of contents of BAsics—appreciating the scope, from why revolution is necessary to what kind of world we are fighting for, from the question of strategy to the scientific method and modes of thinking, from communist morality to the responsibility of leadership. We spent the remainder of our time exploring initial plans to take this revolution out into the world—joining in actions for International Women’s Day and the upcoming student strike against police murder—and to schedule further discussion of the rest of the chapters of BAsics.

Same Essay, Different Richness

The next day, after going out to together to promote the revolutionary leadership of BA at a local high school, we gathered students from a different university to discuss the same essay. While some similar themes were touched upon, in some ways this developed in a very different way.

The first big debate that broke out was over what was being gotten at by BA’s analogy about the time-travelers who were hoarding the antibiotics in the midst of a major plague. The first student who dove in thought this was referring to the way Americans go to other countries and have all sorts of advanced medical treatments but won’t distribute them unless they can make a profit. He saw the problem as greed and thought that we need to get different people in charge and different people needed to become capitalists so that they could be more compassionate about pricing.

A second thought the analogy was arguing that, for the people suffering the plague, the antibiotics were from the future, just like today for people suffering under capitalism, “Communism is in the future—it is something that hasn’t happened yet and we are still trying to imagine it.” He made clear that, to him, the fact that communism “hasn’t happened yet” didn’t merely mean it has yet to be achieved; he thought it meant that it hasn’t yet been “proven to be the cure.”

For a while, people continued to pose different interpretations of BA’s analogy. Eventually, a Revolution Club member walked through how she understood the analogy. “Let’s put into our scenario some other people who had also gone back in time from the present age and had taken with them a big stash of antibiotics, which could prevent the millions of deaths that were caused by the plague several centuries ago. But these other time-travelers were monopolizing the ownership of these antibiotics,” she read from BA. She paused to ask people who the time travelers were, and agreed when someone suggested they are the capitalists.

She continued reading about how these time-travelers, “had organized and paid an armed force of thugs to guard this stash of antibiotics, and were refusing to distribute any of these antibiotics unless they could profit from it, by charging a price that most of the people could not afford.” She suggested that this “armed force of thugs” seemed to her like today’s reactionary armies that defend capitalism and keep everyone suffering under this system where no one can eat or get medicine unless the capitalists get a profit.

Finally, she read the question from BA, “Now, knowing this, which way would people be better served: by continuing to put towels on the foreheads of the fevered people, or by organizing people to storm the compound where the antibiotics were being hoarded, seize the antibiotics and distribute them among the people?” She posed sharply that she thought the analogy was drawing the difference between reform and revolution and revealing the need to seize the power of the state.

“But reform or revolution is not black or white, it’s a spectrum,” posed one student. “There is the least type of reform, like just putting water in the desert or putting blankets on the heads of the dying, but at the other end of the spectrum is working within the system to change the system. Even though this is a capitalist society, it is not completely. There are some socialist programs.” He went back and forth, acknowledging that things like welfare are just barely helping people scrape by, not really satisfying people’s real needs, but held out hope that this could be changed with reforms. He thought if more people were less apathetic, maybe we could do enough reforms within this system to solve humanity’s problems. He even posed that he would be satisfied going back in time and convincing the time-travelers to lessen the price of antibiotics, maybe it wouldn’t help everyone but it would at least help a few.

Another student voiced support for this “spectrum idea.” He pointed to the “REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS” shirt someone was wearing. “That shirt is saying we have to emancipate all humanity, but what if we just lower the price of the antibiotics. Most people will be better off. I could sit by with that I think. It depends on your own moral compass.”

A second Revolution Club member jumped in: “In Germany, during the Nazis, if you knew how to end the whole genocide, would you help a few people to escape or would you fight like hell to save millions? I don’t see a spectrum here—what’s the difference between helping 10 or helping 100... but there are millions being killed? That is where morality comes in, if you know there is a way to save millions you have to do that.”

The room fell silent for a minute, sitting with the weight of this challenge. But, rather than engaging it, a student redirected the discussion towards something more comfortable. “I see a different moral dilemma,” she posed, “I can see why you’d want to steal the antibiotics because it would help people who were suffering, but wouldn’t this be violating the rights of the time-travelers? I mean, if they belong to them, we can say we think they are wrong and try to convince them, but don’t we have to respect their right to decide how they should be used?”

At this, the guy who had first argued for the “spectrum” idea got uncomfortable. “That is what is happening now! There is a guy who just raised the price of the AIDS pill. That is an example where I disagree with the political system. If I were in power I’d say fuck this, even if it violated the [U.S.] Constitution. I would say the ends justify the means. What I am saying might not be the best, but at the end of the day it would be helping people out and people really need this.”

The first Revolution Club member argued that the morality of what the guy was saying was right, but that if he really wants a world that operates with that morality he needs to stop trying to hold on to this system. “Why should you hold onto a system where doing what you are describing, literally using the resources developed by humanity to save millions, is against the law? You are still seeing things through the capitalist framework, where people have the right to own what they invent and get more for it, rather than people working collectively to make the world better for all of humanity.”

For a while, people went back and forth. Should you have a morality that corresponds to a system where individuals have the right to own the copyright to a medicine and only sell it for a profit even if it means millions will die? Or, should you have a morality that corresponds to the communist revolution where the needs of humanity come first and production is not organized on the basis of profit? Can you have a morality that is based on meeting the needs of humanity while still having the system of capitalism intact? Do you actually need a revolution or can this system be reformed? All this got linked up with competing theories about “human nature” and what this might mean in terms of what kind of change is really possible.

In this discussion, as in the one the day before, what stood out was how seriously and deeply people were provoked to think and wrangle based on really engaging the questions and method focused up by Bob Avakian. And here, just as the day before, we argued that people have a responsibility to pursue these questions further. The Revolution Club member who led the discussion pointed to the need to get into the full new book from BA, The Science, The Strategy, The Leadership for An Actual Revolution, and A Radically New Society on the Road to Real Emancipation, because of the way—among other things—it goes deeply into the way that capitalist production is driven forward by competition and anarchy and, therefore, cannot be reformed. Plans were made for this to happen as well as for discussions to continue of BAsics with a broader group of students.



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