Revolution #164, May 17, 2009
RUMINATIONS AND WRANGLINGS
On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science,
Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning
Life With a Purpose: Different Experiences, Different Spontaneous Views, and Fundamentally Different World Outlooks
Going further, there are two things that are relevant to all this, things which do bear very significantly on human life, human relations and human thinking: one, all human beings die; and two, human beings are not only conscious of this but in many ways acutely aware of it. Now the point is not to "wax existential," or to lapse into existentialism as a philosophical outlook, but there is a value, if you will, to exploring this, at least a little bit. Why do I raise this? Well, often, for example, in existentialist literature, but more generally in a lot of literature which seeks to deal with "profound ironies and tragedies of life," this contradiction—that human beings are living beings but all human beings die, and that human beings are conscious of this—forms a significant theme, a significant phenomenon with which people wrestle. This is true in philosophy but also in the arts. Especially in a society which places so much emphasis on "the individual," in an ideological sense, even while it grounds down individuals in material reality—and this is particularly true of U.S. society and U.S. imperialism—it is not surprising that this phenomenon, that human beings die and they are conscious of this, has a prominent place in the culture.
This is also one of the main elements that factors into religion, and in the way people understand and explain the phenomenon of—and, as many portray it, the need for—religion. Some people even argue that you will always have religion because people will need a way to deal with death—not only their own death, but perhaps even more the death of loved ones. It is interesting, I was recently reading one of these pulp novels, by these two sisters, the O'Shaughnessy sisters (they write these legal thrillers—"page turners"—fun to read for a little diversion), and they actually made an interesting comment in passing in this book about how American society is so litigious these days (one of the two sisters is a former lawyer). They were speaking specifically of all the litigation that goes on around wrongful death, which of course is a big phenomenon in the U.S.: somebody dies, well very often there is going to be a lawsuit for wrongful death—unless it's one of the basic masses, and then generally nobody in a position of authority or prominence cares and, while there are some prominent cases of people suing when a loved one is murdered by police, the death of one of the basic masses is not the kind of thing that usually ends up in litigation. But, in any case, in this book the point was made that in countries like the U.S., where there is a certain decline in religious belief (at least of the more "traditional" kind), there has been an increase—I don't even know if this is actually true, but it's an interesting point to think about—there has been an increase in wrongful death suits because people have to find somebody to blame. And especially if you can't get the false consolation that religion offers—"they're in a better place, god had a plan for them," and all these other outrageous things that are said when someone dies—then somebody's got to be held accountable, so you sue somebody for wrongful death. Now I thought that was an interesting and provocative point. I'm not sure this is capturing an essential aspect of reality, but it's a little bit interesting as a side point.
The main point I'm exploring here, briefly, is that the fact that human beings die is often used to justify religion, or in any case to argue that human beings will always need religion: in order to deal with death, the argument goes, human beings will always need some sort of consolation in the form of religion of one kind or another.
This is something worth exploring a bit—precisely from a materialist standpoint and in relation to our communist outlook and communist objectives. First of all, it is necessary to recognize that while death is universal for human beings—all human beings die, sooner or later—there is not one common viewpoint about death: people in different social conditions have different experiences with and different viewpoints on all kinds of phenomena, including death.
In this connection, I was thinking of a statement attributed to Mao near the end of his life—I believe it was in a letter that he was reported to have written to Chiang Ching in which he talked about what he had tried to achieve through the revolution in China, and as part of the world revolution, and the ways in which he'd run up against obstacles in this. His statement was something to the effect that "human life is finite, but revolution is infinite." Now (assuming he said this) I don't think Mao meant this literally—that revolution is literally infinite—because Mao was materialist enough to know that human existence as such, the existence of human beings as a species, is not going to be infinite. Or, perhaps, as another leading comrade has suggested, Mao was actually thinking more broadly—beyond just human existence—to reality overall, and the fact that all of reality proceeds not just in a gradual and linear way but is marked by profound leaps and ruptures, involving qualitative changes from one state of matter in motion to another. In any case, and in the dimension in which Mao was speaking about human beings and human society, he was pointing to the contradiction that individuals can play a certain role—and specifically if they become conscious of the need for revolution, and more especially if they take up the outlook and method of communism, they can contribute a great deal to radically transforming human society—but, in all cases, their role and their contributions will still be limited, not only by their particular abilities (and shortcomings) and by their circumstances, but also by the fact that human life is finite, that people live only a few decades. But revolution—that is, not only the overthrow of exploiting classes but, even far into the future in communist society, the need for the continual transformation of society, the need to recognize and transform necessity into freedom—will constantly pose itself and human beings will constantly, and with varying degrees of consciousness, act in relation to that. So, with regard to human society, that is the essential meaning of the statement (attributed to Mao) that human life is finite, but revolution is infinite.
This poses an important challenge morally and, if you will, psychologically—or in terms of one's basic orientation. It is true, everybody is going to live a relatively short life—certainly compared to the life of the cosmos. Even though, over millennia, we've prolonged human life for several decades, it still involves a relatively brief period of time. But the fact remains that your life, whether shorter or longer (within this overall finite framework), is going to be devoted to one kind of objective or another. It is going to be shaped by larger forces that are independent of your will, but then there is the question of how, yes, each individual—as well as in a different, larger dimension, social classes—respond to the way in which the contradictions that are shaping things confront and impinge on them. And there is conscious volition and conscious decision in terms of what people do with their lives, in relation to what they see as necessary, possible, and desirable. After all, it is not as if revolution is something outside of human experience, nor certainly is it outside of material existence; in other words, it's not as if revolution is not made by people. It is not as if "revolution is infinite" means that there is something called Revolution, with a capital R, that's some sort of metaphysical force, like nature with a consciousness, or history with a consciousness, that is marching on, in accordance with some sort of teleological notion.
No, people make revolution. They do so on a certain foundation. That is Marx's point, which I have repeatedly referred to, and for good reason: People make history, but they don't do so any way they wish—they do so on the basis of certain definite material conditions which are inherited from previous generations and are independent of the wills of individuals. But, within that framework, people have a great deal of initiative, and a great deal of scope for conscious decision about what they're going to do with their lives; and the more they become conscious of the way that the world and the contradictions driving the world actually are and actually move and change, the more conscious their decision can be about what they're going to do with their lives.
I was further provoked to think about this whole question, in watching a film about the P-Stone Nation gang in Chicago. As part of this film there were interviews with some "O.G.s"—veteran or former members of the gang, who are now in their 50s and 60s—people who were in the P-Stone Nation way back when, and who remained in for several decades, but now have gotten out of it, let's say. One of these guys was being interviewed about the situation with the gangs and the youth who are drawn into the gangs now, and it's kind of funny, but very often when you hear one generation of people who have gotten a little bit older than the teenagers and people in their early 20s who make up the "soldiers" of these gangs, they make the comment about these younger guys: "Well, things were crazy when I was doing this, but these younger guys nowadays, they're really crazy, much crazier than we were." But what stood out to me in what this guy was saying was his comment that these young guys don't expect to live to be 21—and they just don't care. And then he went on to acknowledge: That's the way I was when I got into this—I didn't expect to live to be 21, and I just didn't care.
This is a contradiction that was pinpointed and focused on by George Jackson in talking about the question of revolution, emphasizing that gradualism can never appeal to youth like this—that, as he put it, the idea of revolution as something in the far-off distant future has no meaning to a slave who doesn't expect to live beyond tomorrow. This is a very difficult and very important contradiction that we have to continue to grapple with. But here what I want to emphasize is that this viewpoint (not expecting to live past 21, and just not caring) flows from a certain social experience—it is a more or less spontaneous response to that social experience. It's not that, somehow, mysteriously and magically, an existential philosopher and a gang member are likely to have very different views of life and death. This flows out of different social experience (again without reifying things—without ignoring or pounding down into an undifferentiated whole the actual differences among different individuals within the same social grouping, having the same social experience, broadly speaking).
But there is something very thought-provoking in that statement: these youth don't expect to live to be 21, and they just don't care. That's a different view towards life and death than that of a middle class person who, nice person though they may be, is doing everything possible to prolong her or his life by another two years, three months, six days, seven hours and twenty-seven seconds, or whatever: doing all the right exercising, the right diet, et cetera, et cetera. I'm not arguing that people should be careless of the considerations of health and fitness and living as long as they can—the quantity of life is not irrelevant. But the point is that it's not nearly as significant as the quality of life—that is, what someone's life is all about, and what it is dedicated to, no matter how long or short one's life is. But there is also the point that different social classes, different groups in society, with different social experiences, have different views on this—views which, without being reductionist and mechanical, do correspond, broadly speaking, to different social experiences.
Or we can think of youth and others giving their lives in struggles and wars—doing so willingly, many times, especially today, for what are ultimately dead-ends or bad ends. But, on the other hand, there has been historical experience—and, yes, even today, there is experience—where this is done for truly liberating ends, for emancipating goals and objectives. Or, in a more "personal" dimension, you see parents who will say, "You have to protect your children no matter what," and who give up their lives for their children. Sometimes this is in a more lofty way, sometimes in a not so lofty way. But, overall, there is the significant phenomenon of people consciously making the decision—which, again, is "intertwined" with social experience, but still involves a process of consciously making the decision—to devote and dedicate their lives, and even to give their lives, for one purpose or another—sometimes very negative, but also sometimes very positive.
So, the fact that all human beings die, and that they're conscious of this, is not the beginning and end of the story. There is a much greater reality that this is situated within, and people have different views of this, which largely reflect their differing social experiences, as well as their own individual experiences, secondarily but importantly.
It is not the case that the great existential drama—and, as this is often presented, the great unavoidable tragedy—of human beings is that, do what they may and try as they will, they cannot escape death. That is a material reality. But being a material reality, it is also something that people do come to terms with in various ways, and that people do act consciously in relation to, under differing circumstances and out of differing social experiences.
This has a lot to do with the point in "Out Into the World—As a Vanguard of the Future" about why, in initiating the People's War in China, Mao drew on what he called the brave elements. As he said, they were less afraid of dying, they were more willing to take a risk that could involve dying. It's like the line from the Bob Dylan song: "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose." Now let me emphasize that it is most emphatically not the case that communists count human life, or the lives of the masses of people, as cheap or as nothing. Quite the contrary. As Mao also powerfully articulated: Of all things in the world, people are most precious. But the reality is (a) no one is going to escape death and (b) people's lives, and even their deaths, are going to have one content or another, and count for one thing or another. It is a tragedy, to put it that way, if people's lives are given for what are ultimately dead-ends—or, still worse, bad ends. And it is never a light thing when anyone gives her/his life even for a truly liberating objective. To paraphrase another powerfully poetic statement by Mao: While dying in the service of the imperialists and reactionaries is lighter than a feather, to die for the people is as weighty as a mountain. (This basic orientation is also emphasized in the statement I made on the occasion of the murder of Damian Garcia.)1 The content of people's lives—the quality of those lives, what they are dedicated and devoted to, and ultimately what they've been lived about, whether their death comes sooner or later—is the most important thing and gives meaning, one way or another, to people's lives, short as they are in relation to the infinite existence of matter in motion.
This is a basic point of orientation which has to do with the question of whether we can actually confront, and should confront, reality as it actually is—in opposition to the notion that human beings (or at least some human beings) need some sort of consolation in the form of distortions of reality—and in particular inventions of gods and/or other supernatural beings and forces. This is a fundamental point of ideological orientation—and ideological struggle. Can we and should we face reality as it actually is? Can human beings actually have, and how can they most fully have, a life with meaning and purpose, and is that best done by actually confronting and, yes, striving to transform, reality on the basis of how reality actually is and the potential for change within that; or should we descend—and I use that word very consciously—into inventions, obfuscations and distortions of reality, in an ultimately failed attempt to provide consolation—consolation not only for the fact that people will die, but also for the fact that most people's lives, in the world as it is, under the domination of the imperialist system and relations of exploitation and oppression, are not lives that are richly lived (and I don't mean that in a monetary sense, I mean that in the sense of the fullness of their lives, the humanity of their lives, if you will)?
How should we deal with the glaring contradiction between the fact that most people's lives are ground down, and while they exist their lives are full of misery, and on the other hand that this could be radically different and the world as a whole could be radically different and better? What should be our orientation toward that contradiction? What should we seek to do about that? Should we, because lives are short and all human beings die and we know it, shrink from the sacrifices that are necessary in order to make human life radically different and better—or should we more and more consciously and willingly devote, dedicate and in an overall sense give our lives to the emancipating goals of the communist revolution?
We cannot change the fact that all human beings have finite lives. We cannot change the fact that human beings are aware of this (and if they were not aware of this, then their lives would be that much more impoverished, because obviously their consciousness of many things would be extremely curtailed and limited). What we can change, and what has a great deal of meaning, is what we do with the lives that we do have. This, once again, is the meaning of Mao's statement, or an important aspect of what Mao was getting at, when he said human life is finite, but revolution is infinite.
So perhaps having waxed more existential than I intended to, let me end this part of the discussion by citing the following passage from the evolution book (The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism—Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters2 ), which speaks very powerfully and sweepingly to fundamental questions of orientation:
"There is no particular special purpose to our existence in the grand scheme of things—except what we make of it. Whether we're even here or not doesn't really matter (at least not consciously) to anything on this planet except ourselves; and certainly (at least at this point) our existence or non-existence can't possibly have the slightest impact on anything in the greater cosmos, where objectively we are of no greater significance than a single grain of sand on a beach. But so what? Does that mean we don't matter? Does it mean that we might as well kill each other off because there's no god there to care what we do one way or the other? Does it mean that our lives have absolutely no purpose? Of course not! Our lives are precious and we do matter a great deal...to each other! We should decide to 'do the right thing'—and act with each other in ways that are 'moral and ethical'—not because we're afraid we'll get written up by some warden-like god if we don't, but because what we do directly affects the quality of human life. And, of course, our lives can and do have purpose (though different people will define that in different ways in accordance with their world outlooks) because we humans can choose to imbue our lives with purpose." (pp. 155-56, emphasis in original)
1. Comrade Damián García, a much-loved member of the RCP, was assassinated by police agents in Los Angeles on April 22, 1980. Two weeks earlier he had raised the red flag over the Alamo, in place of the Texas flag, as part of the campaign to bring forward a revolutionary outpouring for May Day 1980. Bob Avakian’s "Statement on the Death of Damián García" was published in Revolutionary Worker (now Revolution) #51, April 25, 1980. A portion of it is quoted in his memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, Insight Press, 2005, pp. 408-409. [back]
2. By Ardea Skybreak, Insight Press, Chicago, 2006. [back]