By Bob Avakian
Revolutionary Worker #915, July 13, 1997
Contradictions among the people are resolved by the method of persuasion, not force and coercion, not by treating these contradictions as antagonisms, not by treating friends as enemies. And so, in struggling with people who put forth religious views but who try to use their religious views as a basis for standing with the oppressed, people who in fact actually do side with the fight against oppression, at least in some important aspects--in struggling ideologically with such people, in putting forward dialectical materialism in opposition to religion and showing how religion cannot lead to complete liberation and will ultimately stand as an obstacle to that liberation--we should do so in a comradely way, with respect for these people and their contributions, in accordance with our strategic views and our strategic orientation of uniting all real friends against the real enemy.
Contradictions with the enemy, however, can only be resolved by antagonistic means. Now, struggle in the ideological realm does have its own particularities. In this realm we have to expose and defeat the arguments of reactionaries, such as the Christian Fascists, and show the links between their religious obscurantism and their thoroughly, grotesquely reactionary political objectives, and we have to do this through convincing analysis and arguments. But we have no need or basis to seek unity with these forces. It's correct and necessary to treat these people and their particular religious expressions--or the political and ideological views that they put forward through and in connection with their religious expressions--as enemies, as part of the enemy camp.
It's appropriate for our stance to be antagonistic in exposing these Christian Fascists and their program and ideology. But even here, a further distinction should be made: In speaking of "these Christian Fascists" I am talking particularly about the leaders of these forces--leaders of the Christian Coalition, of things like the "Promise Keepers," and similar types--who are conscious representatives and "operatives" of the ruling class. As for those who are following these people's lead, some of them will remain die-hards in the camp of reaction, but it should be our objective to win as many as we can away from this, or to politically neutralize them, as part of the overall struggle, and there will be more possibility of doing so as the proletarian-revolutionary camp gains in strength politically-socially and ideologically. But this will never be done without waging sharp and uncompromising struggle against the reactionary ideology and political program they are now following.
Another, very different, aspect of the struggle against religious ideology can be characterized this way, using the movie, Menace II Society as a point of reference: "What does Old Dog know, and what does Old Dog not know?" In this movie, Menace II Society, there was this character named "Old Dog." At the start of the movie he shoots an Asian store owner and takes the in-store video and in effect snitches on himself by passing the video all around and getting some people, including himself, in a lot of trouble. Anyway, at one point in the movie, this character "Old Dog" says something like: "Well, there's too much god-damn religion among Black people anyway." That's what "Old Dog" knows.
(It's interesting, and may reflect something not so positive about the intent of movie makers here, that they put this line in the mouth of a negative character--but I'm not sure of that--that would require further investigation.) How this is handled in this movie is very different from how this same contradiction is dealt with in the movie Panther, where it has a more positive character talking about how the Panthers believe, and how there is something to the point that "maybe we need to get beyond all this religion--we need something else to get us out of this oppressive situation we are in."
In any case, that is what "Old Dog" knows--that there is too much sway of religion among Black people--"Old Dog" is right about that (whatever the intention of the Hughes brothers, who made the film). Among Black people, and among the masses generally, there is too much god-damn religion (this is kind of an ironic way to formulate it--too much god-damn religion, but that irony does express a real truth). Now, what "Old Dog" doesn't know is that there's too much capitalism--that is, too much influence of capitalist thinking, of the dog-eat-dog mentality and the rest of this stuff--among Black people and among the masses generally. And the character "Old Dog" is a perfect example of that. But at least he knows the first part--that there's too much religion. So there's the question of what he knows and what he doesn't know.
Here it is necessary also to address and answer a frequently made argument--sometimes I've heard it formulated something like this: "Religion has been crucial for the survival of Black people as a people." The question is: Is that true? Well, we could say that there is a certain aspect of truth to it, particularly speaking of the past--though even then it was a secondary aspect, and not the essence of the matter.
But the essence of the matter could be put much better by saying this: Religion has been crucial for the survival of Black people, as an oppressed people, as an oppressed nation in the U.S. It's been an integral part of keeping Black people in an oppressed condition. And the particular form of religion that is practiced among the majority of African-Americans, namely Christianity, was specifically imposed upon them and inculcated in them by their slavemasters. That's where it came from, and however much some ministers and others may have tried to take it and fashion it in such a way that it could serve the struggle against slavery and against oppression, it ultimately comes back to the point emphasized earlier, that there is too much baggage, too much oppressive and exploitative relations, bound up with all this to ever allow it to be fundamentally a weapon in the struggle for liberation. In fact, in an overall sense it has been an integral part of keeping Black people in an oppressed condition. It has been, and remains, a key ideological fetter in doing that.
This may sound harsh, and some people may not like it when we say this, some may be offended by this. But it is true--it is one of those truths that may be painful but is also liberating. And if we are going to represent the revolutionary proletariat and bring its liberating ideology to people, we have to tell them the truth. We shouldn't beat people over the head with the truth, but we have to tell them the truth--we have to arm the masses of people with a true understanding of reality and of how it can and will be radically changed.
Now it is particularly important, in emphasizing this point in the context of things in the U.S. today, where there are all these burnings of Black churches, to put our criticism of religion and its role in relation to the struggle of Black people (and the revolutionary movement generally) in its correct context. It is important to apply dialectical and historical materialism to this question too. In other words, whoever the particular forces are who are behind this burning of Black churches in the recent period in the U.S., the fact is that the effect of this, and very likely the intent, is to terrorize the masses of Black people as a whole. To deliver a message to Black people that: "There is not any institution that you can have, no matter how safe and respectable and how much a part of the status quo it may seem, that is immune from being viciously attacked." So certainly the effect and very likely the intent is to carry out this general terrorizing of Black people in the context of an overall assault on them as well as on the proletariat and oppressed masses generally.
In understanding how to correctly deal with this in relation to the need to carry on ideological struggle around the role of religion, we could make an analogy with voting: It is very important for us to bring out to the masses of people, including the masses of Black people and the proletariat as a whole, that voting is not only not a means through which they can achieve basic change in society and win their emancipation, but it is actually a trap; it is part of further ensnaring them in the whole political machinery of oppression, of bourgeois dictatorship, reinforcing the underlying mode of production with all its exploitation and oppression of the masses of Black people and the masses as a whole. On the other hand, if today the ruling class came along and said "Well, we have looked at this experiment of having Black people vote, and they haven't done very good things with the vote, they haven't really showed that they are responsible voters, they don't even vote that much anyway, so we are going to take away their right to vote after all"--then it would obviously be silly, and worse than silly, to be dogmatist and say "good, take away the right to vote, since voting under this system is no good for people anyway." In circumstances such as that, we would have to wage a relentless struggle to expose and oppose what the ruling class was doing in moving to take away the right to vote, even while we would struggle with people about how actually voting is a trap and is not a means to achieve liberation.
The analogy here is this: We have to relentlessly and militantly expose and oppose this whole effort to degrade and terrorize Black people through the burning down of Black churches, even while we carry on ideological struggle around the actual nature of religion, ideologically, and the negative role it plays in terms of winning final and complete emancipation.
The fundamental point I'm getting at is that we must tell the truth to the people, about every important question, including religion, while at the same time seeking to unite all who can be united, including religious forces who can be united with in the struggle at every given point. It is not that we actually want to ban god--that is, religious forces--from the movement. In reality, objectively, god is already banned by the mere fact of the non-existence of god. But we are not trying to ban belief in god. I bring this up because I was watching this videotape of a meeting in the aftermath of the "Million Man March"--a Black leadership conference. And at one point, Ben Chavis got up and went into this whole harangue that the problem with the movement since the '60s has been that god has been banned from the movement--the movement had to be all so secular--that has been the problem, and now we got to get god back into the movement, get god back into the commanding position.
Naw...! We are not trying to "ban god," but religion can't be in the commanding position in the movement if we are going to get where that movement has to go, if we are going to build a revolutionary movement that can ultimately overthrow this system and bring about real and complete liberation. In fact, that was one of the great things about the '60s, and one of the great strengths of the movement at that time, among Black people and in general--that the revolutionaries were increasingly gaining the initiative, with the Black Panther Party at the forefront then. They were basing themselves on the ability of the masses to liberate themselves through revolutionary struggle. In very significant ways, they were breaking with the whole religious tradition that has weighed so heavily on the oppressed masses. And to a large degree, the preachers and ministers felt compelled and often inspired to recognize the vanguard role of the revolutionaries and to follow their lead.
As our Party has repeatedly pointed out, the problem with the '60s movement was not at all that it was "too radical" or "too extreme," either in its approach to religion or in general. The problem was not that it "went too far," but that it did not go far enough--that we did not succeed then in actually making revolution to overthrow this whole system. What is needed now is to build on and learn from the experience of the revolutionary movement, and to take it further--take it all the way--and for the vanguard revolutionary forces to rupture more fully with the dead hand of the past, including in how this is expressed through religion.
Again, it's not that we want to ban god in the sense of banning religious forces from the movement, nor could we actually do so. In fact, we must and will unite with religious forces where and to the degree that they stand up against oppression and stand with the masses in fighting oppression--and further we will struggle with such forces to go farther in this stand and even to rupture with their religious outlook, while we continue to unite with them "where they are," ideologically, at any given point. But it ain't gonna be that the preachers and ministers lead the proletariat. It's got to be the other way around.
That doesn't mean that, as representatives of the revolutionary proletariat, we can expect to exercise direct leadership in every struggle or at all times in the struggle, but that has to be our strategic orientation--to win proletarian leadership in the overall struggle. It's just not something that can be accepted, that the preachers and ministers--that "god" in the embodiment of the preachers and ministers--are going to lead the movement. It can't be accepted, from a strategic standpoint, if we're going to really meet the basic needs and serve the basic interests of the masses--not of the communists in the abstract, or divorced from the masses, but the basic needs and the basic interests of the proletariat and of the broad masses of people, which only communism can represent in the final analysis. If the preachers and the ministers are in the lead, those basic interests are not going to be served in a consistent and thoroughgoing way and liberation is not going to be achieved. It's that basic.
It's got to be the other way around--the proletariat has got to lead all these other class forces and strata. Yes, we have to win leadership in practice, but that has to be our goal and orientation, or we won't get anywhere--or at least we won't get where we need to go: ending all oppression and exploitation by overthrowing its source and going on to uproot its basis. So these are some ways I think we need to wage very sharp ideological struggle, including polemics, around religion in particular and around other key questions, while continuing to apply our strategic orientation of uniting all who can be united and not only holding out the hand of unity, but in fact struggling to forge unity as broadly as possible, including with many people who at any time still cling to religious beliefs to various degrees and in various ways.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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