Excerpt from 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, An Interview with Ardea Skybreak

Leadership: Does It Stifle or Unleash Initiative?

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In the early part of 2015, over a number of days, Revolution conducted a wide-ranging interview with Ardea Skybreak. A scientist with professional training in ecology and evolutionary biology, and an advocate of the new synthesis of communism brought forward by Bob Avakian, Skybreak is the author of, among other works, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters, and Of Primeval Steps and Future Leaps: An Essay on the Emergence of Human Beings, the Source of Women’s Oppression, and the Road to Emancipation. This interview was first published online at www.revcom.us.

Q: I think part of what you’re pointing to also is this question. There’s a widespread conception in society that leadership stifles initiative. But does it stifle initiative, or does it actually unleash people and unleash initiative?

AS: There’s no question in my mind that in any sphere, including in the natural sciences, but also in this scientific communism, good leadership is always seeking to unleash initiative, but this has to be done in a disciplined, organized manner. Think about it. If you were doing a project in the natural sciences, and you were trying to get people to tackle a particular problem or particular set of questions, and you were trying to get people to work together collectively on the project, it wouldn’t work out very well if everybody just took off willy-nilly in any old direction of their own personal choosing and started off by applying completely different sets of working assumptions and theoretical frameworks and templates to the problem right at the outset, in a kind of anarchic manner. Certainly the best collective natural science projects I’ve ever been involved in have been led, and have unleashed creativity and individual initiative on that basis. Have definitely unleashed individual initiative and creativity and all sorts of individual contributions, but on the basis of initial, and also ongoing, good scientific leadership. I’ve learned a lot from that kind of leadership/led interaction, when it’s correctly conceived of and unfolded.

Leaders of scientific teams in the natural sciences are generally not shy about providing leadership! [laughs] Such leadership is often provided in the form of such things as: identifying key problems to resolve and the questions to focus on at any given time; delineating core guiding principles and methods, based on prior accumulated knowledge and the most developed experience in a given field or sub-field of natural science; articulating sets of working assumptions and hypotheses and the basic theoretical framework to take out into the world, with which to poke and probe and seek to transform reality. In short, one way or another, good science projects are led. And I think most natural scientists understand on some level that, no matter how many people might be involved in a project or how much money or other resources you might have at your disposal, you’re never going to get anywhere or make any real progress in advancing scientific understanding or in resolving complex scientific questions or problems if you proceed to work on things in an anarchic manner, absent a sound scientific base and ordered structure from which to proceed, including to best enable you to encounter and explore completely new things or concepts that were previously completely unknown or not yet understood. Without this underpinning in an ordered base and structure, in what is essentially the best possible grounding in the most developed scientific theory available at the time, you won’t be able to even pose the right questions or correctly and systematically analyze and synthesize what you encounter as the project unfolds. And you certainly therefore won’t have a very good basis for either further contributing to the accumulation of new scientific understanding or to transforming material reality in certain desired directions (by curing a disease, figuring out how to protect an ecosystem, or whatever) if this also happens to be your objective. Right? Well, all this is definitely the case in the natural sciences, but the very same principles also apply if you’re trying to apply science to understanding and transforming a society, including by applying scientific methods to the complex process of making a social revolution. This process, too, needs to be led, and individual creativity and initiative and all sorts of individual contributions definitely can and must be unleashed, but this can best be done on the basis of sound scientific leadership. This ongoing and very positive interplay of leadership and led is especially important to keep in mind and actively contribute to if you’re actually trying to change things in the world, for the benefit of the many, and not just trying to indulge your “self” or just your own individual interests and proclivities.

So again, good leadership should constantly try to consciously unleash initiative, and you can’t make a social revolution without unleashing a tremendous amount of conscious participation and conscious initiative on the part of growing and increasingly diverse numbers of people and types of people. But the problem is, it’s a two-way street! You have to take some responsibility for this process yourself. You know, when you look into Bob Avakian’s materials, you see that he’s constantly calling on people–inviting people and struggling with people–to enter into the process, to actively engage things and not remain passive. But some people resist that, even some well-intentioned people sometimes resist that. If somebody says, “I don’t wanna get a headache trying to wrestle with complicated questions, so just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it”–that’s no good. You have to struggle with them. You can’t make a revolution that way! You have to say, “No, that’s not right!” You have to do some work yourself. You have to think about what’s right. You have to study the orientation, the direction that’s being provided by leadership. You should try to evaluate it critically while, yes, at the same time, going out with it, taking it out into society, into the material world. In other words, you should work to take things out into society, systematically and in a disciplined way, on the foundation of the leadership guidance that’s being given, but then you should also be sure to contribute to systematically analyzing and reporting back on what you’re encountering, what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been learning, so that all this can feed into and enrich the overall collective process. That’s a scientific approach to unfolding revolutionary practice.

Q: I think this also gets at the question of the role of outstanding individual leaders, and in particular the role of BA, because, just to go back to what you were saying a minute ago, you were making the point that BA is miles ahead of everyone else, both in terms of the development of the theory and also in terms of the application of the theory, the practical application of the theory. So I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about the kind of the relationship there is, or should be, when you have someone like BA who actually has that advanced understanding and how that actually contributes to unleashing that initiative, like you’re saying, in an organized and disciplined way.

AS: Well, look, to me it’s a question of basic scientific materialism to understand that everybody’s not going to have the same abilities, everybody’s not going to have the same level of understanding, just to state the obvious. And I do think that anybody who has some honesty, some principle and integrity, who actually does a close study of the work, of the extensive body of work, that BA has developed over a number of decades, is going to be struck by the fact that...look, whether you agree with it or not, if you are an honest person with principle and integrity you should be able to pretty quickly recognize that this work is of a whole order of magnitude beyond what prevails in the society generally, beyond what has passed for so-called leadership in the so-called political movements, or even revolutionary movements, in recent history. BA’s one of those rare individuals that comes around once in a great while, as the world changes, as society changes...in the context of these objective changes and developments, sometimes individuals emerge who have particularly developed skills and abilities and some very new ways of thinking and some trailblazing approaches to leading and transforming things in some very new directions. This is true in every sphere. It’s certainly true in the natural sciences, and in things like sports, music or all the many other spheres of art and culture. Just think about it for a minute and I’m sure you can come up with quite a few examples from those different arenas. For a number of different reasons, factors and influences that come together in sometimes unexpected ways, there are simply individuals who periodically emerge with particular qualities and particular skills and abilities at a given time, and who kind of rise above everybody else in their field. And the crime, frankly, is when other people in society are not willing to recognize that, or even seriously check it out and take a good look to see if that’s in fact the case. It took a long time before a visionary pathbreaker like John Coltrane could be recognized and appreciated in the field of jazz for instance, just to take one example. At first, people covered their ears and complained his music was just too dissonant, and uncomfortable to listen to, and oh yeah, his solos were too long! [laughs] Seriously though, especially when somebody is dedicating their whole life to trying to make a better world for all of humanity, you would think that this would require that people at least give them a good solid hearing–and actually read and study what they’ve brought forward–and not just engage in facile dismissals, without even really investigating what it is that has been brought forward. And it galls me to no end that most of the people today who engage in “facile dismissals without serious engagement” of BA and his body of work, are people who themselves have nothing of substance to offer in terms of any kind of serious programs and solutions to the world’s complex problems. We should keep asking such people: “What’s your program? What’s your strategy? What’s your solution to the problem of the recurrent horrors generated by this system?” And, well, if you don’t have much to say about any of that, if you don’t have much serious substance to offer in terms of strategic plans and programs for systemic change, then maybe you should have the decency to shut up for a while and get to doing some serious work yourself to at least more thoroughly explore and engage the substance of the work done over a number of decades by someone who in fact is proposing a substantial, multi-layered, radically different and yet coherent and scientifically grounded in reality, vision and plan for the future.

You don’t have to agree, but it’s unconscionable in my opinion not to seriously delve into this work. Unless, of course, you just don’t care. Which I guess is a big part of the problem in the current self-absorbed society: too many people care more about cultivating personal views and opinions that they can personally feel good about, than about exploring methods and approaches, and strategies and programs, that might actually enable millions...billions...of people to free themselves from horrific conditions of exploitation and oppression that weigh down their entire lives. That’s what we’re talking about freeing people from. What are YOU talking about?

And I think that anybody who does look into BA’s work seriously, and who’s basically honest, is going to end up saying, “Oh, OK, well, I didn’t quite realize the complexity of what was involved, and all the thorny contradictions that are being wrestled with, and all the ruptures with some past incorrect methods and approaches that BA has been leading, and I wasn’t really familiar with the ways in which he’s been arguing for a whole new framework, on many different fronts, in terms of the process of how to build a revolutionary movement, what kind of revolution to make, how to have a chance of winning, how to develop a new society...I hadn’t realized he’d been working on all that, with this much depth and substance…” There’s so much that’s new, and so much that’s rich and complex, that any honest person willing to set aside prejudice and misconceptions and really explore his work with an open mind will likely quickly recognize this and may well be intrigued and provoked to explore things further.

But then the question comes up, what about everybody else? OK, there’s BA and everything that makes him stand out as unique, but what is everybody else doing? Well, for one thing, “everybody else” isn’t the same either. There are different levels of revolutionary communist leaders, people with different strengths and shortcomings, with different abilities, making various contributions to the revolution; there are also different levels and abilities of participants in the broader movement for revolution; and there are of course brand new people, people who come from a wide variety of different backgrounds, entering into all this for the first time. But what I want to stress here is that everybody has a role to play in the revolution, everybody has something they can contribute to the process. That’s something that BA always promotes and encourages. It is important to understand that this is a revolutionary movement that is not just for intellectuals, for those who may have the training to handle complex abstract theoretical writings; and that this revolutionary movement is also not just for the basic people who are the most exploited and oppressed at the bottom of society (though it most certainly is, especially, for them). This is a revolutionary movement that is truly for anybody who feels that the whole world, including this U.S. society, is currently overflowing with absolutely unacceptable horrors and injustices and outrages, and who wants to put a stop to those things, and work for a better and more just world. A world where you can actually advance toward the emancipation of all of humanity–not just work for the emancipation of your own group, or just your own “identity,” so that your own people or your own identity can get a chance to lord it over other people–instead, work concretely for the genuine emancipation of all of humanity.

And there is a place for anyone who thinks and feels like this to participate in this movement, and there is a place for everyone to learn and develop more as they go along. I think it’s very important for people to realize that they are actively being invited in to be part of this process, including directly by BA himself, and to know also that the revolution, the revolutionary process itself, ultimately cannot go very far forward without them. That’s a simple fact.

So, in my opinion, people should do more conscious thinking about not only the responsibilities of leadership but also the responsibilities of the led. The responsibilities of the led vis-à-vis leadership, as well as the responsibilities of leadership vis-à-vis the led. I don’t think enough people, even in the revolutionary movement, give enough conscious thought to that. It’s not just a question of getting people to “do a bunch of stuff” and to just participate in various actions, or various initiatives, as important as all that is. Again, the approach can’t be one of just trying to get people to “do a lot of stuff.” It’s getting people, on every level, every kind of person who wants to be part of this and who can be part of this, to bring their ideas, their experiences, their questions, their initiatives, and to help further identify and better develop the ways that they and others like them can be actively part of all this–participating in finding their place in the revolutionary process, contributing to it, and working on developing themselves, as well as others, in order to help raise everyone’s level in an ongoing way.

Here’s something else to think about: What kind of a revolutionary movement would it be if individuals came into it at a sort of beginning, elementary level at one point, but then years go by and they seemed kind of stuck in place, like they hadn’t developed significantly more theoretical understanding, more practical skills, more scientific methods or the ability to take on significantly more leadership responsibilities? This would be a real cause for concern, and something that would really need to be addressed by leadership in order to transform this situation, right?

On the other hand, you know, you look at an example of somebody like Wayne Webb (Clyde Young) who came from the basic masses of Black people and who did quite a bit of time in prison in his early years. People can learn about his life and contributions at revcom.us. My point here is that he learned, he studied while he was in prison. He became a revolutionary. He got into BA, followed the leadership of BA, and himself became a high-level leader in the RCP, the Revolutionary Communist Party. That’s the kind of inspiring transformation that actually can and does happen, especially under this kind of leadership. You know, many prisoners actually do a lot of serious study, many seriously study the revolutionary process, and they’re a tremendously precious resource. When I was writing the Evolution book, there was a great deal of important feedback that came from some of the people who are incarcerated, and who I guess were pretty motivated...they had the time to read and study, but it wasn’t just that–they also had the motivation...because I guess they understood that this kind of learning wasn’t just about learning a few, even a few very important, scientific facts and principles–some of them seemed to really “get” that all those questions of scientific methods and principles, the ones that are repeatedly hammered at in that book, have a great deal to do not only with understanding material reality as it actually is (in all its dynamic contradictoriness and unevenness) but also a great deal to do with understanding that, within those very contradictions (whether you are talking about a biologically evolving system, or a societal system that will change through conscious human interventions) lies the very basis for that reality to change, or to be changed. So some people, including some people who live under the difficult conditions of incarceration, do seem to get why all this matters, profoundly.

Again, whether people come from very difficult circumstances in life, live in very oppressed conditions in the inner cities, or are even incarcerated, and whether they have had the privilege of fancy education or have received very little education, there’s room for everybody, and there’s a need for everybody to get involved. Anybody who basically says, “Enough! I’m not going to tolerate any more of this–these police murders, these rapes of women, these endless wars, this destruction of the planet, these hounding of people across borders–I’m not going to accept a world like this any more, I’m not going to agree that this is the only way, or the best way, the world can be,” anybody who sincerely feels this way, and who is serious and honest about being willing to learn, to study, to discuss, to actually participate in the revolutionary struggle, will find a place in the movement for revolution, and should themselves, right from the start, be learning what it means to lead.

And if you do want to learn to lead in a revolutionary movement, here’s a tip: study how Bob Avakian leads. Study what he models in his books and writings, in his talks, in the films, in things like the Dialogue he did with Cornel West. Study what he does: how he talks to different sections of the people; what he focuses on; how he brings out the problems in society; how he brings out the solutions; how he doesn’t pander or cater to people’s backwardness or misconceptions, but, rather models that Malcolm point: he tells people what they need to hear. Even if they don’t necessarily wanna hear it, he tells them the truth, and what they need to hear. Study how Bob Avakian struggles, repeatedly and right down on the ground, with his audiences, with various kinds of audiences, to bring them to a better place, to a higher level of understanding. And then go ahead and work on doing this yourself, in your revolutionary work, in your discussions with family and friends. Learn from those methods, and be part of the revolutionary process in that way. And generally, keep thinking about that important relationship between leadership and led. This is something for everyone to reflect on who wants to be part of the revolutionary movement.


Ardea Skybreak Science and Revolution excerpts A New Theoretical Framework for a New Stage of Communist Revolution What Is New in the New Synthesis? The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic--A Visionary and Concrete Application of the New Synthesis Serious Engagement with the New Synthesis--The Difference It Could Make An Explorer, a Critical Thinker, a Follower of BA Some Thank Yous That Need To Be Said Aloud Order the book here Download the full interview in PDF format here



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