Taking BA Everywhere to the World Science Festival

June 20, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a reader:

What is sound? How does gravity work? What are the ethical challenges of rewriting the human genome—the “coding” in the genes that shapes all life—from scratch? Why is Einstein such a big deal, really? Does science destroy—or enhance—human beings’ awe and wonder at the world? What is our responsibility to the well-being of the planet?

World Science Festival logo

For five days in early June, thousands of people gathered in New York City to dig into these and many more questions at the ninth annual World Science Festival, founded by Brian Greene and Tracy Day. The festival began with a beautifully choreographed tribute to Oliver Sacks, an iconoclastic neurologist and compelling storyteller who explored and shared the lives of his patients in ways that brought alive their humanity as well as shed new light on previously little-understood neurological disorders and the make-up of the brain. Among many other topics, including the ethics of editing genomes and the threat to bio-diversity on planet Earth, the festival grappled with the relationship of the human mind to its neurological functioning, and the dazzling discoveries and life of Albert Einstein. On the latter, we highly recommend watching the film The Genius of Einstein: The Science, His Brain, the Man on the festival website.

One of the special treats of this year’s festival was the participation of some of the leading scientists behind LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). They discussed the science underlying the detection last September of gravitational waves triggered by the merging of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. (See “Hearing the Universe for the First Time—The Detection of Gravitational Waves and What That Has to Do With... Everything” for coverage of this extraordinary breakthrough.) The festival offered a rare chance to listen to the people who had conceived of the experiment decades ago and worked, again for decades, to bring it to fruition. They talked about why and how they had fought for this, and how it opened up a whole new “lens” to study the universe.

There was a spirit of excitement towards not just the conclusions of science, but also the scientific method and the importance of scientific pursuit. Some people asked whether scientists should “sell” the need for science funding to Congress and taxpayers based on the market value such science could produce, or instead based on the fact that “we are human and should know how the universe works.” The lead LIGO scientists insisted, without hesitation, that research should be argued for on its scientific merits in their own right. This was refreshing and in sharp contrast to narrow practical or financial utility that too often characterizes such discussions.

Why does all this matter to revolutionaries? Because this is part of the rich process of knowing and changing the world, not some narrow instrumentalist view of political work.

Winning Scientists to Engage With Bob Avakian

With an appreciation of the scientific spirit and mission of the festival, we felt a sense of urgency to win scientists—and the broader community interested in science—to engage with and contribute to opening up societal engagement with Bob Avakian (BA). BA Everywhere is a massive, multi-faceted fundraising effort to make BA a household name and his work a point of reference in society. The festival was a forum where big ideas were being discussed, with those attending able to potentially contribute big funds to an initiative that really matters. Plus, the heart of it all was a discussion of science, which is the essence of BA’s breakthrough: that is, the thoroughly scientific understanding and approach he has forged to making revolution and emancipating all of humanity. Successful revolutions involve the transfer of allegiance of a section of the intelligentsia to the “new order,” and we have to be struggling for this right now, and scientists are a critical part of this. For all these reasons, we had to be there.

This was an exciting part of a process of engagement and struggle with this stratum, over big questions of science and method, of revolution and communism, of a radically different world and possibilities for humanity. As expected, BA and what he represents was controversial—in a VERY good way—unsettling thinking, posing and provoking new questions, and eliciting various responses. The all-round relevance of BA’s work was truly striking, and we got an even greater appreciation of what a difference it would make for BA to be Everywhere. This is part of what we revolutionaries live for!

It is an unfortunate thing that very few had heard of BA—and this needs to change urgently, the goal and raison d’etre (purpose) of the BA Everywhere fundraising campaign. That’s part of what we’re trying to change, and we went to work on it right there.

Flyers distributed at the Festival:

"Bob Avakian has made a historic breakthrough for human emancipation."
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Ardea Skybreak, Science and Revolution: On the Importance of Science and the Application of Science to Society, the New Synthesis of Communism and the Leadership of Bob Avakian and other works
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First, as expected, and should be expected, there were a variety of initial responses to what we had on our flyers, and what we spoke to people about in line with them. There was the positive—such as the leading scientist who said, “Wow, thank god, the revolutionaries are here!” as well as their colleague—who travels the world and has seen the conditions of large sections of humanity in the Third World—who said, “I know we need something different, I don’t know what it is. Maybe this is it!” Then there were those who did not want to engage and were more dismissive. This is all part of the process and, again, something to work on and struggle over.

Based on presenting what BA represents and has brought forth, there were the more substantive exchanges and struggles, sometimes really sharp, and mostly fun, vibrant, and revolutionary. We did not aim to nor could we definitively “settle” everything right there, but wanted to set terms on what is correct and scientific, and on this basis, open the process of engagement. Following are a sample composite of the more substantive responses and exchanges, which we thought our readers would be interested in.

» To those who commented, “If BA is so great, why haven’t we heard of him”? we responded, “Precisely what we are trying to change with THIS campaign, and why you are needed” and we started an engagement from there.

» Along with struggles and wrangling on a scientific approach to science itself (as opposed to mechanical materialism, empiricism, and outright relativism), there were a number of inter-related questions which all had to do with whether science can be applied to society. As Ardea Skybreak points out in her interview Science and Revolution, this is a point of struggle with natural scientists. Part of this, I realized through the process, is that people are used to bourgeois economics and sociology being the methods. But what is represented by communism—from the breakthrough of Marx to the qualitative advance represented by BA—is not well-known and more often misunderstood.

Critical Points of Debate

First is the thinking that because society involves people and people are different, with varied thinking, science cannot be applied to society. But as we pointed out, from having grappled with the Skybreak interview, how does the scientific analysis of human society differ from scientifically studying ecosystems, with all their multi-faceted dynamic interactions and inter-relationships? Then there is the question of where people’s thinking comes from—and the basic fact that most of the dominant ideas pumped out by the propaganda organs of media, with some variation, are largely consistent with how this society functions in its economic “base.” An example we kept coming back to is the idea that “human nature is selfish,” and capitalism is the “natural extension of that.” There is no evidence of this: Humans are capable of great good and great “evil,” and we’ve seen both, and what we call “human nature” is really “the nature of the system.”

Second is the thinking that there are “many solutions” to social problems and we are all doing our part toward a “common goal.” This was presented coherently by an ecologist who had earlier presented a very dire picture of the threat to the world’s ecosystems and bio-diversity. A comrade of mine really challenged him on whether he would apply the same method to cancer of a loved one, or whether a scientific approach of determining the diagnosis and forms of treatment (i.e., problem/solution) is necessary, applicable, and warranted. Given the overall sincerity of most of these scientists, this was provocative and unsettling—and opened a door to engagement on what it is that BA has actually brought forward in the new synthesis of communism, raising sights in the process to a radically different “solution” and world that has a real chance to go to work on the world’s ecological and environmental problems.

Third, BA’s basic method and approach for scientifically summing up past socialist societies was intriguing to many. We met a medical professional who was really disturbed at the inadequate level of discussion around the ethics of synthetic genomes. She subsequently engaged our team on a variety of discussions. A product of the post-’60s, and really sick of the world “as is,” she was sympathetic to “revolution,” but at the same time profoundly “skeptical” that something “good” could come out of it. This led to a discussion of what BA has actually done, for over 40 years on this question, and his re-envisioning of socialist society, concretized in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America. She was won over to this approach, and bought it to study.

» A relatively prevalent line was that capitalism is “not all that bad” and has “lifted millions out of poverty.” There were different threads to this essential argument:

A New Theoretical Framework for a New Stage of Communist Revolution What is New in the New Synthesis? An Explorer, a Critical Thinker, a Follower of BA; Understanding the World, And Changing It For the Better, In the Interests of Humanity Some Thank Yous That Need To Be Said Aloud Order the book here Download the full interview in PDF format here

First, we hadn’t realized it till this festival, but Steven Pinker is a big point of reference among some of this stratum, for seemingly having “proved” that “violence has declined,” that “the world of the past was much worse.” This is not the place to refute this thesis (and a comrade of mine did a lot of agitation on Pinker’s flawed methodology), but the point we made—with revolutionary passion—was the suffering we do see now is utterly needless: the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, millions cast off their lands, one in four women victims of sexual assault, mass incarceration in the U.S., and the fact that one in three Black males born today is slated for prison. This is because of the nature of this system and the history of this country, and we need an actual revolution to get this off our backs. Once confronted with this reality, as was expected, things divided out in interesting ways, with some wanting to continue talking, and others not.

Second, among the scientific-minded, there are those who saw this more as the era of science than of capitalism, that “science has advanced the world in the last 300 years.” They pointed to things like modern medicine and communication. We returned to the basic point that the vast gap between what science has brought forth and the fact that billions are locked out of it is unacceptable and needless—from the science of evolution to the actual technologies that make lives better such as health care.

BA, in his essay “Marxism and the Enlightenment,” says we have to divide the Enlightenment into two—a radical rupture with capitalism while basing ourselves on and advancing science and the scientific method, both arising out of the Enlightenment.

» Politically, there were some whose line was “first we have to defeat Trump, then let’s talk.” The struggles around this often became sharp. For example, with a scientist one of us was talking with, we posed that any system that holds up Donald Trump as “legitimate” is itself completely illegitimate and only underscores the need to engage the real alternative that has been brought forward by BA. The scientist argued that things are too urgent, too dangerous for “all that,” and that he’s working for Hillary just to stop Trump.

“She is a war criminal,” we insisted. Someone nearby defended her, but the scientist backed off for a moment, clearly aware that Hillary has indeed carried out international crimes. So, we challenged him again, “If you support her, you don’t stop the capitalists from ruling over us, you just become complicit in the crimes she is carrying out.” He responded defiantly, “Then I’ll be complicit!” We challenged this very sharply, on the morality and ethics of this position, and the fact that there is a “radically different alternative”—with the argument still ongoing, but this reflects the thinking of way too many people, trapped within the terms set by the criminals who rule over us. A few comrades had similar struggles.

» A refreshing aspect was that while there was some basic slander that “communism didn’t work,” which could be easily dismissed with actual evidence, compared to the “usual political circles,” there were few objections on the need for leadership, or the role of the individual per se. We were commenting on this with each other, that at one level the festival was celebrating the individual roles of Oliver Sacks, Einstein, and others such as the leading LIGO scientists. “Pulling the lens back,” it’s an example of what Skybreak says in her interview—that really good scientists and those dealing with reality generally recognize the unevenness in society, the value and role of those who are far ahead and make great contributions and advances for humanity, and from whom there is a lot to learn and follow.

All in all, this is the beginning of a process, and we aim to continue forth with this.



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