Revolution #197, April 4, 2010
EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF A TALK BY BOB AVAKIAN, CHAIRMAN OF THE REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST PARTY, USA, FALL 2009
UNRESOLVED CONTRADICTIONS, DRIVING FORCES FOR REVOLUTION
[Editors' note: The following is the last in a series of excerpts from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian in Fall 2009, which is being serialized in Revolution. The first thirteen excerpts appeared in Revolution #184-196. The entire talk can be found online at revcom.us/avakian/driving.]
In this context I want to say something briefly about the important role of our comrades in the Communist Party of Iran (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) around the woman question. These comrades have made a very important contribution in their insistence that the communist movement overall must focus much more attention on this question, as one of decisive importance for the radical transformation of society and the world as a whole; in their recognition of the even greater role that the struggle against the oppression of women—and, as our slogan says, unleashing the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution—can and must play in the next, new stage of communist revolution; and in calling for a scientific materialist, as opposed to a sociological or a cultural, approach to this question, while emphasizing the need to learn from, and to synthesize from a scientific communist standpoint, the work of others and in particular feminist scholars on this question. All these are important contributions of our Iranian comrades.
In carrying out further work on this crucial question, it will be important to consistently ground this work in the scientific outlook and method of dialectical and historical materialism. There is a need to guard against tendencies toward mechanical materialism and, specifically, toward attempting to situate the essential basis for women's oppression in, or even to reduce it to, the fact that throughout human history it has been women who have borne children and that women have had to take the main responsibility for the nurturing of children in their early years. Along with this, it is necessary to guard against ahistorical tendencies that fail to give the necessary attention to the specific forms which the oppression of women takes in the context of different modes of production and the property relations, as well as the ideas, customs, etc., that correspond to a particular mode of production.
In order to more fully chart the path of the emancipation of women, as a pivotal part of the emancipation of humanity as a whole, while recognizing the role of women's biology—specifically in giving birth to children and in their early care, particularly in conditions where prolonged nursing remains a necessity—it is also important to recognize that it is not this biology itself which is the fundamental source of women's oppression. Rather, it is the way in which this biology has figured into—or, better said, has been encompassed and subordinated within—definite production relations (and the corresponding social relations). These relations are historically evolved and have, in different societies and different epochs since the emergence of class society, differed with regard to the specific forms and the specific ways in which they embody class division, exploitation and oppression, even as they have in common that they all are, in one form or another, an embodiment and a fountainhead of exploitative and oppressive relations.
This understanding and approach is critical in order to be able to fully develop the conception, the strategic orientation, and the policies and actions flowing from this, which can lead, in fact, to the emancipation of women and of humanity overall in the most fundamental and thorough sense.
In this regard, it is also important not to underestimate the importance of the Declaration by our party: For Women's Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity. This Declaration begins with, and throughout brings forward, searing exposure of the oppression of women in many different forms, in all parts of the world, including the so-called "advanced" capitalist countries. It also contains important analysis of how and why the capitalist-imperialist system does not, and cannot, eliminate the oppression of women, including as this is embodied in traditional gender roles, but on the contrary this system perpetuates and enforces such oppressive relations, in both "modern" and "medieval" forms, in both the capitalist-imperialist countries themselves, most definitely including the U.S., and in the Third World countries it dominates and exploits; and it drives home that only through revolution and the advance to communism throughout the world, and the decisive role of the struggle for the liberation of women in that revolution, can the oppression of women be ended together with all forms of exploitative and oppressive social relations.
Still, this Declaration is precisely that—a declaration, a very crucial statement of basic principles and orientation, situated in both the current conditions in the world and in the strategic framework of communist revolution. It is not intended to itself make, but to help inspire, the further deeper analysis and synthesis with regard to this question which is necessary in order to have a still more powerful foundation for carrying forward the struggle for the liberation of women—from all tradition's chains, from all the horrific forms of their oppression, not only throughout history, but in the present world—as a crucial part of achieving the emancipation of humanity as a whole.
And here I want to (so to speak) step back to "Steps and Leaps" (Ardea Skybreak, Of Primeval Steps & Future Leaps: An Essay on the Emergence of Human Beings, the Source of Women's Oppression, and the Road to Emancipation, Banner Press, 1984). This is an important—and, I believe, still too much overlooked—work. The following concise statement in "Steps and Leaps" provides some rather jolting historical perspective with regard to the development of a scientific understanding of the origins of the oppression of women: "It is sobering to recall that the material origins of the subordinate social status of half the human species throughout recorded history was not posed as a question, nor certainly deemed worthy of serious investigation, until the middle of the nineteenth century." And Skybreak goes on to point out that Marx and Engels:
cut through the societal prejudice of their time to insist that the subordinate position of women had nothing to do with either some innate deficiencies of female nature or any divine decrees (or "natural features") sanctifying this order of things. They maintained, instead, that the oppression of women was a product and consequence of the social organization of human beings, basically determined in any given society by the particular level of development of the productive forces and the corresponding set of production relations. (The above quotes are from Skybreak, p. 107)
In no way should the profound importance of this initial breakthrough by Marxism, and its continuing significance, be underestimated. At the same time, however, this is, from an historical standpoint, an initial breakthrough—a beginning foundation which must be built on and qualitatively advanced. This, of course, is something which applies to all scientific breakthroughs, and all the more so when they have to do with the crucial, and highly contentious, question of human relations, the character and prospects of human society and the struggle bound up with all this.1
"Steps and Leaps" points to, and makes very important contributions to the analysis of, pivotal developments in relation to this very important contradiction: the initial and essentially unavoidable division of labor between men and women in early human society, owing to biological differences relating to childbirth and the rearing of children in their early years—emphasizing that this division of labor would not have constituted an oppressive relation, at least not in any fully developed and institutionalized sense, but that, on the other hand, it contained seeds of oppressive relations, between men and women in particular, which would then (to continue the metaphor) ripen into oppressive relations with changes in the productive activity of various human societies, the relative weight which different kinds of basic productive activity acquired, and along with that the emergence of the differential accumulation of material surpluses, and corresponding changes in the property and other social relations.
And "Steps and Leaps" points to this truly world historic conclusion: "the biological necessities associated with bearing children are themselves not immutable or necessarily permanent factors, and eventually the further elaboration of human social organization will be such that biological attributes will no longer contribute to channeling or restricting the activities of half the human species." (p. 137)
Along with this, one of the things that stands out very powerfully in "Steps and Leaps" is the way in which it examines all the different attempts—from sociobiology to general theories about human nature, and on and on—to evade, or in any case to come up with an alternative to, a scientific understanding of the fact that stares us in the face: The oppression of women, and all oppressive and exploitative relations, are rooted in actual material conditions that have resulted from the historical development of human society. Toward the end of "Steps and Leaps," this great irony is highlighted: At the very time when the need and possibility of abolishing and moving beyond all this is objectively posing itself more and more forcefully, there is more and more an attempt to turn away from that and to find any other kind of explanation for the state of human social relations and the very real horrors bound up with this—explanations which, whatever the intent, can only lead to the perpetuation of all this.
In acting on this objective basis, in terms of our conscious understanding and ability to take conscious initiative, we have a great deal to build on, but we also have many challenges to meet in going forward and achieving new advances. There is a need for further study and wrangling on the basis of consistently applying a scientific outlook and method, and specifically the scientific outlook and method of dialectical and historical materialism, as it has been developed up to this point, and doing so in a way that will contribute to its further and even qualitative development.
It is important to understand that here, too, it is not a matter of linear development. This is one thing that should be learned from the historical experience I have reviewed here, in stressing the need for further synthesis, including the missed opportunity for synthesis going back decades, as captured in the story about the meeting of the Revolutionary Youth Movement and the very heartfelt statement there—that if you are a man, and you truly want to be radical, you have to learn what it feels like to be a woman—and the overall point about how much of what was being challenged and wrangled with by the women's movement, particularly its more radical currents that came forward through the 1960s and into the 1970s, involved crucial questions which should have been, but were not then, fully welcomed, deeply engaged and correctly assimilated and synthesized through a consistent application of the communist outlook and method. This is what we have to do now. And, in doing so, we have to learn from our mistakes: We can't go back and correct that error of 40 years ago, but we can and must learn from it.
In 1970 Susan Brownmiller wrote that, "We want to be neither oppressor nor oppressed. The women's revolution is the final revolution of them all." (Susan Brownmiller, "Sisterhood Is Powerful: A Member of the Women's Liberation Movement Explains What It's All About," New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1970. Cited in Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Free Press, 2005)—a critique of women who promote the degradation of women through pornography and other aspects of "raunch culture.") Now, in reading Brownmiller's In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (Dell Publishing, 1999) it is clear that her politics have gone in the direction of reform rather than revolution. Even at the time when she was part of a more radical upsurge and made the above-cited statement, it seems clear that there were significant limitations in how Brownmiller conceived of "revolution," and that she was influenced by contradictory trends, including not only revolutionary but also revisionist ones. But whatever the full picture is with that, it does not negate the important contributions she and others like her made, particularly in the period of the late 1960s and early '70s, nor does it remove from us the responsibility of correctly understanding and synthesizing something very important that's spoken to with the statement that "The women's revolution is the final revolution of them all."
There are two things that are important to emphasize once more in relation to this. First, that the emancipation of women can only be achieved as part of a real and profound revolution—the communist revolution—the most radical revolution in all of human history, aiming for the emancipation of all humanity, the historic leap beyond all forms of oppression and exploitation, through the transformation of all the material and ideological conditions which give rise to and reinforce exploitation and oppression. And, at the same time, a fundamental and decisive component of that revolution, without which that revolution will never achieve its goals, is the struggle for the complete liberation of women.
This takes us back to the very important point from "The End of a Stage—The Beginning of a New Stage" about unresolved contradictions under socialism. What is said there is another way of expressing the understanding that the struggle for the complete emancipation of women will be a crucial part of "the final revolution." In other words, it will be a crucial component in propelling and driving forward not only the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the rule of capitalism-imperialism but to continue the revolution, within the new, socialist society itself, in order to advance on the road toward the final aim of communism. The point is that, among the unresolved contradictions which will remain in socialist society, and which can be a driving force propelling that revolution forward, the continuing ways in which the emancipation of women will need to be fought for and fought through will be one of the most decisive aspects and expressions of that.
It should be clear that what will be involved in this whole process is not a matter of linear development—not a simple straight line continuation of the theory of the communist movement and the experience of socialist society—but will of necessity be a more complex and much richer process, drawing and learning from a much greater variety of experience and of analysis and theorizing, carried out from different perspectives, representing ultimately different class viewpoints—all of which must be encompassed and embraced by, and at the same time synthesized through, the application of the communist outlook and method.
In conclusion on this crucial question, all that has been touched on here underlines the need for further ruptures and leaps—in theory, and in practice guided by that theory—with regard to the liberation of women, as a decisive part of the communist revolution and the achievement of the "4 Alls"2 in the fullest sense. It underscores the need for the method and approach of the New Synthesis to be more fully and systematically applied to this question and for crucial and urgently needed advances to be made on this basis.
Concluding this talk overall, the statement issued by our party, "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have," powerfully presents in a very concentrated way the situation and the challenges we face and the truly historic stakes that are involved. There is the possibility of serious, and perhaps even devastating, setback for our whole movement, historically and internationally, but also the real prospect of decisive breakthroughs to be made. For our party, this is embodied and concentrated to a large extent now in the campaign in which this statement is the leading edge, and in the three objectives of that campaign: To spread revolution throughout society; to make the leader of our party, Bob Avakian, a household name; and to bring forward a core of new forces, grouped around the party and coming into the party, who are firmly convinced of, and dedicated and determined to fight for, this line and this goal of communism and to build a revolutionary movement toward that end.
What is brought into further and sharper focus is the great challenge of building the movement for revolution overall with a continually growing solid core of emancipators of humanity in the fullest sense, toward the time when a revolutionary situation is developed, a revolutionary crisis ripened and a revolutionary people in the millions and millions has been brought into being and, as the statement emphasizes, it will be possible to go all out for the seizure of power and to do so on the foundation of a firm scientifically based understanding of what the nature and goals of that revolution and revolutionary power are, and the largest vision of the final aim: the emancipation of all humanity from thousands of years of tradition's chains, the abolition of all relations of exploitation and oppression, and the thorough uprooting of the soil that gives rise to such relations throughout the world—the beginning of a radically new era in human history.
1. Here it is worthwhile taking note of the statement by Engels, cited in "Steps and Leaps" concerning, as Engels put it, "one of the most absurd notions taken over from eighteenth century enlightenment ... that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man." (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, cited in Skybreak, p. 111)
This is a very pungent observation by Engels, and it underlines once again the basic orientation that we have stressed: the Enlightenment, yes and no. There are definitely things from the Enlightenment that must be upheld and defended, and this has special importance today when the Enlightenment, and specifically its more positive aspects, are under attack by Neanderthal fundamentalist Christian Fascists, who are a major force in the U.S. and are in fact no less obscurant than the most backward Islamic fundamentalists.
But, at the same time, there needs to be a recasting of what is correct and what is valuable in the Enlightenment, and a radical rupture with what in the Enlightenment is not positive, as part of a radical rupture with all traditional ideas as well as all traditional property relations. (In this regard, see "Marxism and the Enlightenment," in Bob Avakian, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, Insight Press, 2005.) [back]
2. Earlier in the talk, Avakian describes the "4 Alls": "This is the goal around which people must be brought forward: the advance to communism, the achievement of what we refer to as the '4 Alls,' as they were popularized in China at the time of Mao: the abolition of all class distinctions, the abolition of all the production (or economic) relations on which these class distinctions rest, the abolition of all the social relations corresponding to those production relations, and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that correspond to those social relations." [back]