Once Again on the Intellectuals

By Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP,USA

Revolutionary Worker #1087, January 21, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

I want to grapple here with some of the challenges we face in correctly handling contradictions involving the intellectuals (and, in a general sense, the artists). It might be good to begin by referring to a comment by Mao (or one that he allegedly made) by way of criticism of the "Gang of Four" and their handling of intellectuals. Now, this was a statement that was only published after the "Gang of Four" had been overthrown--after the revisionist coup, in other words--and then, when the campaign was launched by the revisionist usurpers to discredit the "Gang of Four." This campaign included, at the beginning, an attempt to use quotes allegedly made by Mao in criticism of The Four as a key part of the campaign to discredit them and defeat them politically and ideologically, even after they had been arrested.

The particular point I'm focussing on here is one where Mao supposedly said, in criticism of their handling of intellectuals, that the intellectuals are not being given enough air to breathe; and, as a way of making this point, Mao was quoted as saying something to the effect that "even Engels protested when Duhring was deprived of his post at the university." The point being that, although Engels had written a whole book, Anti-Duhring, very sharply laying bare and dissecting what was wrong with Duhring's whole philosophy and methodology, as well as his political line, Engels did not think it was right when the reactionary authorities moved to deprive Duhring of his post at a university. Engels protested this vigorously. And (assuming this statement to be authentic) Mao was using this example as a way of saying that we have to criticize and struggle with intellectuals, but we should not use crude means and administrative-bureaucratic measures to deal with them and, unless they are die-hard counter-revolutionaries, we should not be using the organs of proletarian dictatorship and the overall force of the state to suppress them. Rather, we have to deal with the problems with them, but this has to be done with more patience and through correctly carrying out ideological struggle and work with them.

Now, before getting further into the substance of this, a general comment here on method and approach. My general view of at least many of these quotes attributed to Mao criticizing the "Gang of Four" (and this view is reflected in "Revisionists are Revisionists... Revolutionaries are Revolutionaries" in putting forward our basic stance and some basic analysis of the coup in China) is that, for the most part these quotes are probably authentic, but they were being totally distorted and taken out of context, because they are the kinds of things that were said by someone (that is, Mao) who is relying on these people that he is criticizing; and, precisely in that spirit, he is criticizing them sometimes sharply, because he wants to be able to rely on them. With his understanding of the monumental character of the struggle that was going on, Mao saw that these mistakes could be very harmful, and therefore he was very sharply trying to "pull their coat" to these mistakes and get them to correct them--because they were going to cost in the struggle that was extremely intense at that time. That's the way I have looked at most of these quotes, including this one about Engels and Duhring: they are probably authentic, but their basic thrust and intent were being totally distorted by the revisionists in seeking to discredit the "Gang of Four" who, in fact, went down fighting for Mao's basic line. Yet, at the same time, I think there are some things we can and should learn from these quotes, even though we have to recognize that they are out of context and are being misrepresented as statements directed by Mao against people in the enemy camp, rather than people who are not only in the same camp with Mao but who are being relied on by him--and therefore he feels the need to sharply criticize them.

"But that's not the point of the story" (to quote one of Danny Hoch's characters). That's not the essential thing. The essential thing is what we can and must learn from this--the general principle that's involved with the example of how Engels was upset about Duhring's being deprived of his post, and how this applies to our approach to the intellectuals (and also, in a general sense, artists) both before and after the seizure of power.

To get into this, let's go back to something else Mao said (about which there is no doubt concerning its authenticity). He emphasized that ideological struggle is not like other forms of struggle: it has to be dealt with on its own terms and by its own methods. It must not be dealt with crudely or by relying on force and coercion. (This is a paraphrase but it captures the essence of what Mao said on this point--I believe in "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.")

This is an application of another important principle Mao stressed, in "On Contradiction," that qualitatively different contradictions are resolved by qualitatively different means: class contradictions are resolved by class struggle, national oppression is resolved by struggle and war against that national oppression, and so on; but ideological differences are resolved by the means of waging ideological struggle and criticism and self criticism. So the correct handling of ideological questions is an important application of that broader principle that qualitatively different contradictions are resolved by qualitatively different means.

Another expression of this is what I have been getting at in emphasizing (for example, in "End/ Beginning"*) that while we must be firm about the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat, the exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat does not and should not only mean outright suppression but should include a wrangling spirit and approach in handling the contradiction and struggle between different ideas and world outlooks. (In fact, in "End/Beginning," to make this point in a somewhat provocative way, I said that even a few books by reactionaries should be published under the dictatorship of the proletariat, because it would help the vanguard and the masses of people to sharpen their understanding of things and might even raise some points that we would learn more about by having to dig into and answer what these reactionaries put forward. This is a way of emphasizing, from a somewhat provocative angle, the point that, yes, we need the dictatorship of the proletariat, but this dictatorship doesn't just involve suppression of class enemies, and shouldn't be reduced to just suppression, but should also include a wrangling spirit and approach in handling the contradiction and struggle between different ideas and world outlooks.)

Now, in this connection I want to recount a story I heard a number of years ago. This involves a comrade in our Party who was arguing with a relative, and that relative accused the comrade, and more generally our Party, of being dogmatic--"You're just like the Catholic Church," was the specific accusation that was made. And to this, as I recall, our comrade replied: "Yeah, except that we're RIGHT!" Of course, on a basic level, that is true--and that is a fundamental difference--but that is not enough and not the essence. Beyond that, there is a whole way in which our outlook and methodology is and must be profoundly different, including in the way we readily acknowledge the simple fact that we are not "infallible"!

More generally, there is a profound difference in the way in which we are open to new ideas and to criticism, even while we are firm in upholding and struggling for our basic principles as best as we understand them at any given point, and even as we understand the qualitative difference between (to paraphrase Lenin) the recognition of the relative within the absolute, on the one hand, and relativism on the other hand. The first of these (the recognition of the relative within the absolute) conforms to objective reality and to the truth that reality is constantly changing--that human knowledge is, and is bound to be, limited at any given time and overall in relation to the infinite universe and its infinite changingness; and that boundaries in nature (and in society) are conditional and relative, not absolute. All that is correct but is also qualitatively different from relativism, which in essence denies objective truth altogether. So, as Lenin put it--and to re-emphasize the essence of the matter--there is a profound difference between recognizing, as dialectical materialism does, that there is the relative within the absolute and, on the other hand, relativism.

My purpose in making these methodological points--in stressing these methodological principles--is to underline that my orientation in the discussion of this question here (the question of intellectuals, and artists) is one of emphasizing the need for appreciating the long-term strategic aspect of the contradictions involved, while also learning from history and striving to handle this in the best way--through the most correct application of our strategic orientation of building a United Front under the Leadership of the Proletariat--at every point. Especially since the coup in China, I have continued to come back to these questions in grappling with some of the major world-historical dimensions of the communist revolution, and I have spoken to important aspects of this fairly extensively in a number of places over the past 10 years or so (including in "End/Beginning"). Here I want to review and further explore some important aspects of this.


One thing I want to say about intellectuals, and artists--and this gets to the heart of what I'm trying to grapple with on this question--is that it is extremely important to have the correct, dialectical materialist approach to "giving rein" to the initiative and expression of artists and intellectuals and to their probing into things--or exploring different forms in the case of art--and, as Mao put it, letting "a hundred flowers bloom" and "a hundred schools of thought contend" in the arts and sciences. (This is particularly important in approaching things from the strategic standpoint of what the policy should be where the proletariat, led by its vanguard, holds power; but the same basic principles should apply to our approach more generally and even where we have not yet seized power.) It is important, especially in these fields of the arts and sciences (and the sphere of ideas and intellectual pursuits in general) not to be too quick to jump in and slam our fists down and say "this is right" and "this is wrong." At the same time, we do have to keep all this grounded in the fundamental interests and outlook of the proletariat and the worldwide advance towards communism.

This is not an easy contradiction to handle well, as we know. It's easy to veer off one way or the other. In "End/Beginning" I talked about how there are two things that, particularly in a situation where you have state power, are relatively easy to do, at least in the short run. One is to keep a very tight rein on the intellectuals and not allow them much initiative at all--which means that things will stay under your control for a certain period of time, but also that things will tend to become very dry, that the critical and creative spirit will tend to be undermined, not only among artists and intellectuals but more generally in society. A kind of a chill will set in, and you'll fail to learn a lot of things that you could learn, because people will not feel inspired and encouraged to grapple with things in a creative and daring way, including from some different angles than how the Party may be seeing things at a given time.

That's another point that I have been emphasizing in some recent talks and writings: There are other forces out there--and this will be true even under the dictatorship of the proletariat--who don't have the same responsibilities as the Party, and at a particular time may not fully share the outlook of the Party, but in grappling with a problem in a way that is different than how the Party is approaching it, they may actually shine some important light on and bring forth some insight into that problem. We have to know how to let that process go on, as well as letting the same kind of thing go on in the arts, and be able to bring forward the right synthesis out of all that, without being too crude and rough and without, on the other hand, being too liberal--failing to bring forth any criteria or standards, and not seeing to it that the interests of the proletariat come to the fore through this whole process.

In the arts, and in the intellectual sphere in general, there are a lot of things that we'll be deprived of--and by "we" I mean not just the Party or the Party leadership but the masses and the society will be deprived of this--if we don't allow some experimentation, and if we don't encourage and foster a lot of wrangling over things, including disagreement with and criticism of the Party. Even when that disagreement and criticism is not necessarily raised in the best spirit, we shouldn't be too quick to just jump on it, because there may still be something of value, perhaps even something very important, contained within this disagreement and criticism; and, more generally, we want to encourage, and not pour cold water on, an atmosphere where people feel free and positively encouraged to speak up, to think creatively and critically, to challenge things they think are wrong, and so on.

There are fine lines here, but we have to learn how to distinguish those lines, and we have to learn how to handle all this correctly. It is not easy to do that. As I said, one way you can err, especially when you have power, is to exercise too tight a rein. The other error, the opposite error (and I also pointed this out in "End/Beginning"), is to give complete rein to the intellectuals and to the artists, to allow them to follow their own impulses freely and without criticism, without direction, without leadership. And it is a fundamental truth, in which we have to keep firmly grounded, that if we do that--if we allow the spontaneous tendencies of the intellectuals completely free rein in that way--the interests of the masses of people will be compromised, and will not be upheld, and fundamentally, before too long, the actual rule of the proletariat and its struggle to transform society will be undermined and overturned.

So these are some very difficult contradictions we have to handle, and the reason I introduced this particular discussion by referring to Mao's comments about how ideological work and struggle is different than other kinds of struggle is to emphasize the need to not be crude and mechanical in dealing with the ideological sphere (applying that broadly to include art as well as intellectual pursuits). I mean, just think about it--take any group of people on any level in the Party, from the top leadership down, and have them watch a somewhat complex movie. How likely is it that there won't be disagreements, even some significant disagreements, about what the movie is saying and whether it's primarily positive or negative, politically as well as artistically?! Sometimes things are more or less immediately clear, but many times there will be disagreements because by definition art is often complex and involves symbolism, imagery, etc., that is open to different interpretations. This is not to say that art is an exceptional sphere in which there is no right and wrong, no good and bad, and everything is simply subjective standards and interpretations. But this example does illustrate the point that it takes time, patience and work to sift through things and that, without lapsing into relativism and agnosticism, in the arts and sciences--and the ideological sphere generally--you shouldn't be too quick to bring the hammer down and say "this is right" and "this is wrong."

And, as I have given a lot of emphasis to in recent talks and writings, we definitely have to struggle against this whole tendency that was expressed strongly in Stalin and has been a strong tendency in the international communist movement down to today--a tendency toward what could characterized as "instrumentalist" thinking--a certain kind of pragmatic method and approach that says, in essence: whatever serves the immediate struggle is true and good and a correct form, and anything that is opposed to that is bad and should be suppressed.

In "Soaring to Great Heights...And Grubbing in the Dirt" (RW #1086), I gave the example of the Lysenko experiments in the Soviet Union and their vulgarization of science--which, with Stalin's backing, was upheld and popularized for pragmatic and instrumentalist reasons--essentially to try to give a shot in the arm to agriculture through developing new strains of wheat. Beyond that particular example, we have to systematically struggle to avoid and combat any kind of instrumentalist and crude, mechanical approach which really falls into the same kind of pragmatism that is so characteristic of the bourgeoisie, particularly the American bourgeoisie that we're directly struggling against. We can't adopt their ideology no matter how much pressure we may be under at a given time. And that's usually why these things happen. Everybody tends to be better when they're not under pressure--individuals, parties, leading groups, all tend to be better when they're not under pressure. The real test is: Do you stick to the correct methods and apply dialectics as well as materialism when you are under pressure? That is when the real test comes. Of course, it's important to do this when you are not under great pressure, too, but my point is that it's easier under those circumstances and it's all the more important to struggle to stick to correct principles and methods when you are under real pressure.

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