Revolution #163, May 1, 2009
RUMINATIONS AND WRANGLINGS
On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science,
Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning
Editors’ note: The following is an excerpt from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian, earlier this year. The excerpts are being serialized in Revolution, beginning with this issue. The text of the talk has been edited and footnotes have been added for publication. The entire talk can be found online at /revcom.us/avakian/ruminations/BA-ruminations-en.html
I want to begin by returning to the question of individuals, classes, and the abolition of classes—themes that were explored in various dimensions in "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity" and a talk last year (2008), "Out Into the World—As A Vanguard of the Future." What I am going to speak to here is also, in certain aspects, following up on themes that are discussed in Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy.1 These are questions that require further discussion, in particular by way of contrasting the communist with the bourgeois understanding and approach.
There are a number of contradictions that are bound up with the fact that on the one hand people exist as individuals, while on the other hand their existence is a social existence. Individual existence is part of material reality—it's not something people invent as a bourgeois individualistic device—people do actually exist as individuals, that's a material reality which we should understand; and yet at the same time their lives are shaped essentially by social and, most fundamentally, production relations.
In "Out Into the World—As a Vanguard of the Future," I began this discussion by citing what's in America In Decline about how the historical basis for capitalism was the violent separation of the producers from the means of production, and I went on to discuss the implications of this, including the fact that this has a determining influence, if you will, on the whole question of individuals pursuing their own particular interests—and even how they perceive their own individual interests. I stressed that, beyond their existence as individuals, more fundamentally their social existence as members of a social group—or in class society, as members of a class—shapes even the way in which they perceive and then the way in which they pursue their individual interests. I pointed out that this is in fact a refutation of the notions of Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant: the categorical moral imperative of Kant (which tries to make an absolute out of the idea that each individual should be treated only as an end in himself or herself and never as a means to an end) and the Smithian and generally the capitalist theoretical notion that if each individual pursues her/his own individual interest, the greater societal good will be served. These ideas are fundamentally in conflict with and are contradicted by the greater reality, the more profound and fundamental reality, that people's existence, even their individual existence, is always a social existence.
This is a point that Marx emphasized strongly: people's individual existence—even their individuality—always, and can only, take shape as a social existence. Outside of society, of social interaction and social relations, individuals' lives are very different and, in fact, they are very circumscribed, compared to what they are when they are in a social context and carrying out (to use that expression) social intercourse. This is a very fundamental point, which the bourgeoisie with its apotheosization of (its making a god-like quality out of) individuality and even individualism, seeks to deny—or which, in fact, it objectively ignores and doesn't take account of, even without this necessarily being conscious in the case of every advocate of this system.
The whole idea that the individual, for example, is the essential category of bourgeois society (or of "democratic society," as they like to characterize capitalist society, particularly in its bourgeois-democratic form), the idea that the individual is the highest representation and the highest point of reference of the best possible society, is in fact in fundamental conflict with, and is refuted by, the reality of capitalist society and, in a more general and broader sense, all of human society. It is refuted by the reality that people find their existence within the framework of definite social relations—most essentially and fundamentally, production relations—that are independent of the wills of individuals, and that this is most determining even of their individual inclinations, ideas, aspirations, and so on.
So, while the bourgeois theoreticians and moralists and ethicists, and so on, might argue—and this is another way of stating the Kantian categorical moral imperative—that, in the best and most just society, the individual should always be a subject and never an object, and that even laws and constitutions have as their highest principles and concepts, and their deepest grounding, the protection of the rights of individuals, in reality this is in violent conflict with the actual operation of any society divided into classes, or more particularly any society that is grounded on and proceeds in accordance with relations of exploitation.
This is a point that was emphasized in "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity," where (toward the end of Part 1) it refers to all the great and grand talk from proponents and apologists of the capitalist system about the rights of individuals, and yet this system functions, and can only function, by—quite literally and with no exaggeration or hyperbole—grinding into the dirt the lives of millions and even billions of individuals, including hundreds of millions of children, people whose individuality, whose individual aspirations, are counted as nothing in the actual operation of this system.
Another dimension of this is the parasitism of imperialism. It is most of all in the imperialist countries, and especially among the more privileged strata in those countries, that the notion of "the inviolability of the individual," and individual rights being the highest principle—approached in a way that divorces all this from fundamental social relations—can hold the most sway, precisely (and in a bitter irony) because all this is grounded in not only utter disregard for, but the utter pulverization of, individuals and of any individuality and individual aspirations of masses of people throughout the world. And were it not so, there would not be the privileged position that some hold from which they can pontificate about the rights of individuals. So all of that's on the one hand.
On the other hand, going back to the point I started off with, it is a part of material reality that people do exist as individuals. And any attempt to ignore this, or to negate individuality—which, as we have repeatedly stressed, is very different than individualism, which involves making a principle out of one's self as above all other things and as the thing that deserves the highest regard: individualism in that sense is very different than individuality—any attempt to negate or to somehow ground down the individuality of people, and to actually fall into the stereotype of communists as seeking to reduce the diverse masses of people to one undifferentiated whole, made up of parts all interchangeable with the other, and so on and so forth (I'm only slightly exaggerating, if in fact I am exaggerating, the vision of communism that's presented by people like Hannah Arendt), to actually fall into that kind of thinking and approach, which would conform to that kind of stereotype, would not only be morally wrong, but would be disastrous politically and disastrous in regard to any attempt at positive radical social transformation.
So we have to have a continually deepening understanding of this contradiction—this moving contradiction between the fact that on the one hand people exist as individuals and yet their lives are shaped essentially by social and most fundamentally production relations. And we have to give the proper weight to each aspect of this contradiction. As I've stressed before, the principal aspect involves the social relations, and most fundamentally the production relations, into which people enter, independently of their wills—relations which largely shape even their individuality, their individual wants, needs, aspirations and so on, as well as the means they have for pursuing those wants, needs, etc. But on the other hand, not only in the future communist society when classes will have been eliminated (but not production relations as well as other social relations, and not all social constraints), not only in that future society but all the way in the transition toward that—in the struggles for the first great leap to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and then during the whole transition through that socialist stage to a communist world—we have to correctly appreciate, understand and correctly handle this contradiction.
That people exist as part of, and that their lives are essentially shaped by, social and most fundamentally production relations—this is a very profound and principally determining material reality. But also an important part of material reality is the fact that people exist as individuals and that people think as individuals. There is not one common human brain: we have not reached the stage—and I myself am definitely not an advocate of ever trying to reach the stage—where there would be one common brain directing all of the human bodies, which would somehow be linked to that brain.
So there is a great diversity and richness to human society as a result not just of the fact that there are billions of different individuals, but as a result of this contradiction between the fact that people exist as individuals while at the same time their lives are shaped essentially by social and most fundamentally production relations. This, if you want to put it that way, is another expression of the "multi-layered and multi-colored map" metaphor—of understanding the rich texture and diversity and complexity of reality and seeing these things as fluid, and (to paraphrase The Communist Manifesto) not as fixed, fast, and frozen.
1. Bob Avakian’s talk "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity" appears in Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation, a Revolution pamphlet, May 1, 2008, and is also available online at revcom.us/avakian/makingrevolution (Part 1) and revcom.us/avakian/makingrevolution2 (Part 2); "Out into the World—As a Vanguard of the Future" is a talk given in the first part of 2008 that was serialized in Revolution in issues #156, #157, #159, #160, and #161 (February-April 2009); Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy is available as an audio file online at revcom.us/avakian and as online text at revcom.us/Comm-Jeff-Dem/Jeffersonian-Democracy, and a pamphlet based on the talk was published by RCP Publications, 2008. [back]
To be continued.