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Materialism and Romanticism: Can We Do Without Myth?

An excerpt from an unpublished work, "Getting over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World."

This article is excerpted from a work by Bob Avakian called "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World." This work deals with strategic problems of the world revolution—getting over the hump of seizing power in different countries and getting over the hump in terms of defeating the imperialist system on a world scale. 

To get into this subject, I want to quote the following, from Scottish romantic poet Thomas Campbell's "To a Rainbow":

"When science from Creation's face
Enchantment's veil withdraws
What lovely visions yield their place
To cold material laws."

Well, what about this?

First, let's pose and speak to the question: Can we do without myth? Yes — and no. We can and must do without myth which presents itself as reality, which is another way of saying religion. This relates to what is said at the end of Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones* on what there is in common and what is different between science and religion and art, and in particular the difference between art and religion. Art presents things which are not true, and it tries to draw the audience in to respond to them as if they are true, but at the same time on a more fundamental and larger level, both the people who are making the art and the audience know that what's being presented is not true. (Unless it's documentary films, or "based on a true story," or something like that.)

Most art, particularly art which presents itself as fictional, even if it draws from real events, on the one hand tries to draw the audience into a certain level of accepting it or responding to it as if it is true, while at the same time, on a deeper level and stepping back from it, knowing it's not true. So art presents many fantastic things, and should present many fantastic things, or else it really wouldn't be art. Art couldn't be art if it didn't do that. But, in an ultimate sense, it doesn't pretend that these fantastic things are true. It doesn't try to get its audience to believe, in most cases at least, that these fantastic things are actually real things or events.

On the other hand, as Preaching points out, religion presents all kinds of fantastic things but insists that these things are not only true but the essence of truth, and the operative and defining and determining principles of reality. So, in response to the question, "can we do without myth?" the answer is that we have to do without myth in the religious sense, or myth that presents itself as true, myth that presents itself as embodying the defining and organizing principles of reality.

But we can't do without—humanity never could do without and we don't want to do without — myth in another sense. To put it another way, we can't and don't want to do without metaphor — in art, and in life more broadly. Which is another way of saying that we can't, and don't want to, do without the imagination. Certainly in art, there is a need for metaphor: there is a need for presenting things which are not the same as reality — in particular, reality in any "instant moment" or any immediate aspect of reality—but are larger than life, and more concentrated, as Mao said. There is a need for fiction, there is a need for metaphor—in art and, more broadly speaking, in life.

In this connection, I remember a number of years ago I had a discussion with someone who was really into science fiction. We were talking about this, and I said, I think when we get to future society there won't be a role for science fiction. He said why not? and I answered, because what you would be doing is making predictions about the future based on what you know now and your predictions would almost certainly be wrong. Since then, I have thought about this a number of times and have come to the realization that what I was doing was obliterating the role of art and the role of the imagination. Fortunately, I recognized that before too long. I think this is a useful example, though, of the difference between science and art.

If, in the realm of politics and science, you were to say, "This is what will happen in the future," you would be acting in an irresponsible way if you were not just making certain broad-based predictions, drawing from trends that were already apparent but instead were attempting to paint a whole scenario of what will happen in the future and moreover you were insisting that this be accepted, in all its essential details, as how things will actually develop. In other words, if you had no scientific basis to do so, but you presented your predictions not as science fiction but as scientific fact (or scientifically grounded and completely accurate predictions), then you would be misleading people and you would be irresponsible. But if you write science fiction and present it as science fiction and pose possibilities about the future and create scenarios in that sense, there is definitely a role for that in any society and certainly there will be in communist society. This is one form, among many, of giving expression and giving flight to the imagination, which will not only be necessary but very important in terms of the overall character of the society we want and are striving to bring into being.

So there will definitely be a role for metaphor, for the imagination, for myth in that sense — for myth that doesn't present itself as reality. That kind of myth, understood in that sense, we cannot do without, and do not want to do without, and should not try to do without. Myth that presents itself as reality, however— myth that takes on, in one form or another, the character of religion—we can and must do without. But, to return to the lines from the poem I cited above, when science withdraws the veil from creation's face —when we can give scientific explanations for natural phenomena and we adopt a scientific method for approaching natural phenomena—are we then left only with "cold material laws"? No.

No in two senses. First of all, material laws are not so "cold," as we have discovered. If you are a dialectical materialist, you know that laws represent tendencies, tendential phenomena, not something iron and monolithic and without contradiction. They represent tendencies that are contradicted by other tendencies, or come into contradiction with other tendencies, and they themselves are the expression of contradiction, motion and struggle. Laws are not "cold"; even real material laws are not "cold" material laws.

Real science is not "cold". It is different than art, and the role of imagination in science (as I will speak to in a second) is different than it is in art. But as many scientists, particularly the better ones, have pointed out (I believe Einstein made this point too), there is no good science without the imagination. There is definitely a role for the imagination in science, even though science is, in its essence, an explanation of reality and of the motive forces in reality. But that should not be, in its best and highest expression, "cold," stiff, rigid and undialectical.

"Material laws" or materialism should be dialectical and full of life and vitality. So, even on that level, there is nothing that should be "cold" about materialism. Understanding the real world and the driving forces in it is an ongoing process and ongoing struggle, overcoming the contradiction between ignorance and knowledge, between the new and the old, and so on. It is a lively, vigorous process in which there is a great role for the imagination. There is nothing "cold" or dead or rigid or "grey" about it whatsoever, if it is understood in the most scientific sense.

This harks back to the error in our polemic against the Mensheviks concerning the Chinese mathematician who was studying the Goldbach conjecture. In a previous talk I made the point that the way we dealt with this in our answer to the Mensheviks** involved a tendency toward philistinism and what could be characterized as vulgar materialism.

Now, this was a minor aspect of our struggle against the Mensheviks. I don't want to blow it out of proportion, and I'm certainly not trying to reverse verdicts on our struggle against the Mensheviks and the revisionist coup in China. But there is a lesson I'm trying to draw from this relatively minor error. The lesson is that there is an importance to "pure research," to "pure science"; and there is a way in which that is analogous to the need for myth, as I have spoken to it—to the need for the imagination, the need for metaphor, the need for poetry.

Again, even in the scientific realm itself, while its essence is bringing to light reality and the motive forces in reality, there is a need for philosophy in science, along with imagination. There is a need for people to pursue the philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the motive forces of reality. There is a need for them to research things, including particular aspects of reality, particular aspects of the motive forces in reality, that don't have immediate bearing on practical needs and concerns of the time, whether economic or social or political.

Of course, among the intellectuals there will be a tendency, and at times a very strong tendency, to want to run wild with that, and to divorce theory in an overall way from practice. But the fact that in our epistemological understanding, in our theory of knowledge, we recognize that practice is decisive, not only in changing the world but also in knowing it, shouldn't cause us to reduce materialism to "cold" mechanical materialism, where there must always be a one-to-one relation, where theory must always be, in the most narrow and immediate sense, directly linked to and in the service of practice. In the overall dialectical relation between practice and theory, in that overall dynamic, practice is the decisive link, even for knowing as well as for changing the world. But again, that doesn't obliterate the need for aspects of theory that are not related, in the most narrow and immediate sense, to practical concerns or to practice itself in a general sense. There is a need for exploration, investigation, research in its own right, as well as there is a need in an overall and fundamental sense for theory to be linked with, to be grounded in, to be returned to, and to be in the service of practice—of not simply knowing but transforming the world.

The Importance of Poetry and a Poetic Spirit

All this is related to some statements by Mao that were cited and commented on in "End/Beginning."*** There it quotes Mao saying: "Whenever the mind becomes rigid, it is very dangerous." That's a very pithy statement, and I think it's worth pondering long and deeply: "Whenever the mind becomes rigid, it is very dangerous." Then Mao goes on to say: "Unless you have a conquering spirit it is very dangerous to study Marxism-Leninism" (see p. 16). This is another of those pithy and provocative statements by Mao.

And "End/Beginning" quotes Mao further: "If you are too realistic you can't write poetry." Here Mao is expressing the dialectical relation between realism and romanticism. He says if you are too realistic you can't write poetry. He's not calling for idealism in place of materialism. But his statement is emphasizing from another angle the importance of the imagination and giving flight to the imagination, as well as the importance of poetry, and all that poetry symbolizes or represents. In other words, why is he saying this—if poetry is unimportant who cares if you can't write it? Obviously, he is saying that poetry is an important part of life. It's an important part of the kind of movement we are building. It's an important part of the kind of society we are struggling to bring into being.

And then, after citing these statements from Mao in "End/Beginning," it goes on to add: "in keeping with the thrust of what Mao is saying here, if you don't have a poetic spirit—or at least a poetic side—it is very dangerous for you to lead a Marxist movement or be the leader of a socialist state." This goes along with Mao's points that if a mind is rigid it is very dangerous, unless you have a conquering spirit it is very dangerous to study MLM, and if you are too realistic you can't write poetry. A Marxist movement, a revolutionary struggle and its MLM vanguard, a socialist state and its leadership, must have a poetic side and a poetic spirit at the same time as they are thoroughly grounded in a scientific appreciation of reality and its motion and development.

So, do we want everything reduced to "cold material laws"? No. Even with regard to "material laws," we have to recognize this is a vibrant, vital, living matter of dialectical materialism.

This relates to the way Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones ends with a reference to a statement by "The Amazing Randi," who has made it his life's work to take on and debunk all these various charlatans—people who are promoting ESP and spoon-benders and other kinds of people like that. He makes the point—he isn't speaking directly to religion per se , but it's clear that this includes religion, or certainly we can legitimately interpret what he says to apply to all religion (as well as to things like parapsychology, ESP, astrology, and other stuff like that)—that just because you give up belief in all these kinds of superstition, doesn't mean that life becomes dull, lifeless, and boring. There is plenty of excitement to be had in trying to "take in" and comprehend and reflect about the real world and all the things that happen in reality as it actually is. There is a tremendous role for the imagination, there is a tremendous excitement to be had from contemplating and wrestling with reality in (as we would say) all its complexity and contradictory motion and development. You don't have to resort to inventing things and pretending that they're real in order for there to be a tremendous role for awe and wonder.

This is an important point Randi was making, and that's why Preaching ends with that point. This speaks to the argument that this Scottish romantic poet Campbell was making: if we give up belief in supernatural things, things beyond the realm of reality, everything is going to become cold and lifeless— we're going to be giving up something vital about the human condition, about the essence of human beings, that we want to hang onto. But that is not true.

It's going to be a challenge, going back to what Mao said about the importance of having a poetic spirit—the fact that if you are too realistic you can't write poetry and the implied fact that poetry is important in life, in the society that we are striving for and in the movement that is struggling to bring that society into being—there is going to be a challenge of how to handle this poetic aspect in dialectical relation, first of all, to the material base of society:

How to handle the need to allow for and to encourage a certain amount of pure research in the scientific realm in relation to the material-economic base of society and the need for development and transformation of that economic-material base, and for meeting the needs of the people, including their material needs at any given time.

How to handle scientific inquiry, and the allotment of material resources and people to that inquiry, in dialectical relation not only to the material base of society and the material needs of the masses of people but also to the realities of the class struggle, both within the country and internationally.

These are difficult and complex contradictions. It's going to be a real challenge to correctly handle this dialectical relation and to meet the material and political requirements of the proletarian state and the proletarian revolution while giving expression and encouragement to the poetic aspect, understood broadly to encompass the imagination and metaphor and all the things that can be emblematic of this whole aspect of things. This is something that we will have to continually come back to, and learn more deeply how to handle. It's going to be profoundly and at times intensely posed all along the way in the struggle to advance to the epoch of communism.

Now, obviously, what I've been talking about here involves the question of religion and "spirituality" (or "soul," as it is sometimes referred to) and its relation to dialectical materialism, which represents a comprehensively and systematically scientific approach to reality and the motive forces in reality. Here we can refer to the statement that is frequently cited, taken from the Christian Bible, that man (or people) "cannot live by bread alone." Communism recognizes and embraces this. This harks back to what was said in response to the Scottish romantic poet Campbell. Communism and its dialectical materialist outlook and method do not leave us with nothing but "cold material laws."

It is ironic—and an outrageous irony—that the bourgeoisie and its apologists, who are really the coldest "materialists" of all, often and generally accuse communists of being the ones who don't recognize, or refuse to allow for, the fact that people cannot live by bread alone. This was expressed, for example, by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his critique of communism—his "explanation" for the "demise of communism" with the break-up of the Soviet Union and its bloc—which was answered in Phony Communism is Dead...**** (Despite the fact that I believe there is a certain shortcoming in that answer to Brzezinski in Phony , I'm certainly not saying that Brzezinski was right after all, or that our answer wasn't very much to the point and very thorough in refuting him. There is just a minor aspect of that answer that perhaps should have been approached somewhat differently, in line with the need to be thoroughly dialectical as well as thoroughly materialist.) People like Brzezinski and similar types, as well as religious leaders—and not only the most reactionary ones but even generally progressive religious people like Jim Wallis who wrote the book The Soul of Politics which is spoken to in Preaching —make this fundamental criticism of communism: it doesn't recognize that "people cannot live by bread alone." It doesn't recognize that there is an essential and necessary quality of human existence and of human nature, as they would describe it, which involves a striving for spirituality, a striving for something greater than "cold material reality." Communism, they say, cannot recognize, embrace, and fulfill this.

Of course, everyone from the Pope to "popular commentators" generally misuses the concept of materialism to identify it essentially with two things: one, some sort of crass consumerism and "consumptionism," and, two, a mechanical materialist approach to reality, the kind that is criticized in the lines cited from the poem by the Scottish romantic poet Campbell. This was, to a significant degree, one of the driving forces of the romantic poets generally: their reaction against the industrial revolution and even a rejection of some of the scientific aspects of the Enlightenment. These Romantics were a very complicated and mixed bag, because they joined in important struggles against oppression at the time, but they had this critique of the industrial revolution, and even of a scientific approach to reality, such as it was at that time (limited as it was by the bourgeois world outlook). This is a complex phenomenon, and I don't want to back into a whole discussion of that. But a common characteristic of the critique of "materialism" that is brought forward by everyone from the Pope to poets and others with a "romantic" and "mystical" approach, is to reduce materialism to the phenomenon of crass consumerism (or consumptionism) and the method of mechanical materialism. And often in such critiques these things are mixed together, so that materialism in general is identified with both consumerism and "cold" mechanical materialism. And this latter aspect in particular is frequently emphasized in the critique of Marxist materialism.

The "Spiritual" in a Cold and Heartless World

Here, again, is the question of "spirit" and "spirituality" and how this relates to a scientific view of reality. When today people use the word "spiritual," they are not necessarily intending this in a religious sense—or at least a more conventional religious sense— although some are. More generally, this refers to a longing for something with "heart" in a world that seems increasingly heartless. For a positive connection with other people, in opposition to the increasing atomization and competitiveness that is promoted by the workings of the prevailing order. For a link, a bond, with something beyond one's self, beyond the selfish and narrow interests and the dog-eat-dog mentality and relations which are assuming such pronounced form in contemporary capitalist society. For a belief in something greater than the petty and paltry concerns and mean-spirited motivations that are promoted in this society.

In The Demon-Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark , Carl Sagan speaks to this question of spirit and its relation to matter:

" `Spirit' comes from the Latin word `to breathe.' What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word `spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both." (pp. 29-30)

Here we can recognize that even such concepts as "beauty" and acts of "exemplary selfless courage" have a social content and are seen differently by people with different class outlooks: class-conscious proletarians would choose examples other than Gandhi and King, who never represented and in fact opposed the need for thoroughgoing radical transformation and the revolutionary movement and ideology necessary to bring that about. But, despite the fact that Sagan's outlook is not that of the proletariat, his comments on spirituality and matter/materialism contain much that we can agree with, much that is insightful and important.

At the same time, in applying the most thoroughly and comprehensively scientific outlook and method—dialectical and historical materialism—representing the viewpoint of the proletariat, when we talk about the quest for "spirituality," the first thing we have to say is that this can't be understood or approached in abstraction from, or by ignoring, the social relations in which this is actually situated. There is this yearning of many people which seems to be acutely and broadly felt these days—a yearning for some sort of firm moral principles to deal with a lot of the madness that is out there. There is also a certain feeling of emptiness and of a spiritual void (this is often how people express it) and a need to fill this void. But we can't divorce this from, first of all, the prevailing social relations and their foundation in the economic-production relations in society (and the world as a whole), which shape people's individual life conditions as well as their larger social interactions. And, more particularly, we can't divorce this from the parasitism of imperialism as well as the upheavals that it is creating—upheavals and struggles that the domination of imperialism and the operation of the imperialist process of accumulation are creating in Third World countries as well as in imperialist countries. Particularly in talking about the middle strata, and more especially the privileged strata in the imperialist countries, this feeling of alienation that many people experience can in no way be divorced from all this and in particular from the whole deepening phenomenon of parasitism.

I remember years ago riding on an airplane next to some guy who was a lower level executive in some corporation. He got in my ear and started telling me all about his life experiences—he was going to give me "the word," because he had turned to religion, to fundamentalist Christianity. I let him go on for awhile, and I learned some things from what he was talking about, but then I made it clear I wasn't really interested in being proselytized for his religion. But it was interesting to learn why he had been pulled toward this. He had been relatively successful, financially and in terms of status, in his work; he had the home in the suburbs, the cars, and all that. He was working long hours, staying late on the job— and, he admitted, he was cheating on his wife. But "at the end of the day" it was all empty. He felt an emptiness, and he was increasingly turning to drinking and this and that. Religion—fundamentalist Christian religion in this case—gave him a certain renewed moral sense—it brought him back to a more "traditional morality," because a contradiction had developed in his life between the traditional morality in which he had been indoctrinated and to which he still adhered on one level, and his actual practice, his personal behavior, which was in conflict with that on many different levels. This religion brought him back to "traditional morality" and was, in a short-term and narrow sense, a way of resolving that contradiction. It filled a certain void that he was feeling—this life he was leading, with all its so-called "success," as measured by the prevailing standards of society, left a void, an emptiness.

What was striking to me then and is striking about this phenomenon more broadly, especially now, in the U.S. as well as in other countries, is how this is very much related to the parasitism of imperialism, which of course is deepening in this period and is very much bound up with the "high-tech revolution." As it was put in "Strategic Questions"***** (and this formulation was also used by Clark Kissinger independently of SQ) the position of significant strata in the imperialist countries today is fairly "high up" on the "world food chain"—this is another way of giving expression to their parasitic position.

The alienation that broad numbers of people in contemporary society feel is not reducible to being an expression of parasitism, for all strata and for all people, because a feeling of alienation also exists among people who are among the proletariat and the exploited of the world. But certainly among the middle class, and especially the more privileged strata, there is a very strong relationship between this feeling of alienation and spiritual malaise and the parasitism of their social position, especially in the imperialist countries. And it is important to recognize how religion rationalizes and provides a "salve" for this. It eases the pain and the feeling of alienation without calling upon and requiring people to give up parasitism and privilege and to struggle against the system that is so deeply rooted in this parasitism (as Lenin said, imperialism puts the seal of parasitism broadly and deeply on the whole of imperialist society). Religion, especially in the form which most appeals to the privileged strata, provides a certain salve for that without really requiring people to make any transformation, even in their individual lives, in terms of giving up this parasitic position, let alone struggling to overturn the exploitative and oppressive relations in society as a whole, of which this parasitism is an integral part.

That's one of the key roles that religion plays for people in that particular position. It rationalizes their parasitism. It gives them a rationalization and speaks to their malaise, without actually requiring them to strike at the cause of the malaise.

At the same time, there is among the basic masses tremendous and increasing suffering and upheaval and a feeling of being uprooted, both materially and ideologically-morally, in societies such as the U.S. and in the world as a whole. For the great majority of people in the world, there is tremendous suffering. The massive upheaval and dislocations of the peasantry and the migration to the cities in the Third World—or within the imperialist countries, all the chaos and madness, the uncertainty and the volatility of life conditions and modes of existence for significant sections of the people, and in a particularly pronounced way among the youth—all this too can give rise to the feeling of a need for some kind of spirituality. A need for something that can create some meaning out of all this madness, that can give some sense of purpose in the midst of all this chaos. That can also give some feeling of relief amidst all the desperation and misery.

Religion As A Narcotic—An "Opiate of the People"

This speaks very directly to the role of religion as an "opiate," as Marx originally said. In this regard, as I was reading Lenin's writings during the first few, desperate years of the Soviet republic, focusing on his comments about the open, unblemished, and unrestricted exercise of dictatorship, I came across something that struck me as very interesting in regard to this question of religion and "spirituality." Lenin speaks to how Feuerbach had given a very good answer to those who said that the masses need religion to ease their suffering. As Lenin characterized it, Feuerbach made the point that slaves don't need consolation for their suffering—they need to rise up against their enslavement and torment— and giving them "consolation" in the way religion does works against their rising up to cast off their enslavement. And, after all, if you think about it, that's what an "opiate" is. Even if some who "push" this "opiate" are well- intentioned and see their role more as providing "morphine" to help people get through the pain (or hallucinogenic "inspiration" to see beyond the pain) ultimately it still comes down to the fact that, in giving this kind of "relief" and "diversion," you are actually working against the slave rising up to cast off the conditions which give rise to the feeling of the need for some kind of consolation.

This was really Marx's point. Marx spoke to this in a very dialectical and all-sided way. He goes on, after saying that religion is an "opiate," to say that it is the "heart of a heartless world." So there you see he is speaking to the fact that this kind of cold bourgeois society is a society without real heart—or without "soul," using that in a broad, and not a narrow, religious, sense. People are searching for something beyond the cold material exploitation and oppression that characterizes bourgeois society and the mentality that goes along with and is promoted by that—the reducing of everything to the cash nexus, the treating of everything, including people, as something to be merely possessed and used to advance yourself at the expense of others. This gives rise to its opposite, both in the material sphere but also ideologically. It gives rise to a striving for something beyond that kind of actual cold material exploitation and oppression and "commodification" of everything. Religion, however, provides not a real cure for this, but an opiate for it. That's the point. It doesn't provide a cure because it doesn't lead people to actually rise up and overthrow the conditions that give rise to the feeling of a need for consolation and for some sort of heart in a heartless world. Religion instead reinforces the acceptance of these conditions. That's what Marx was saying by speaking to its narcotic role.

Check out people who become "born-again," in the religious sense. They come off very much like people who have become addicted to narcotics. It has the same kind of effect on people, including people from different strata who have come to religion from differing places, for differing reasons.

A Back-Handed Tribute to Communism

This relates to the whole "resurgence" of religion in the U.S. But also very much related to this "resurgence of religion," in countries such as the U.S., as well as more generally, is in fact the so-called "demise of communism." And in this light, once again, we can see how much capitalism needs religion. We see that, for example, once the mask of socialism was thrown off in the Soviet Union and its empire, religion came flourishing out and is now openly promoted by the bourgeoisie there, including former "communists." The resurgence of religion, especially with the declared "demise of communism," is not only an expression of how much capitalism needs religion but, in a significant aspect (as also pointed out in Preaching ), it is also a kind of "back-handed tribute" to communism. It represents a recognition that the world of capitalism is in fact a miserable world and that communism holds out the only hope for a much better world, in this real world, not only materially but ideologically (or spiritually, using that word in the sense that has been discussed here). It is a recognition of this objectively—and, on the part of many people who have retreated into religion from a more progressive, or more radical, or even a more revolutionary and optimistic viewpoint, it is also, in an important aspect, subjectively a recognition—that only communism represents the road to a radically different and better world than the "cold" and heartless world of capitalism. If and to the degree that people have, in the short run at least, been convinced to give up on communism as such a radical alternative, then the attractiveness of religion grows, as an illusory means of seeking an alternative to, and/or relief from, the heartlessness and coldness of this capitalist-dominated world.

We should recognize the important aspect in which this is actually a back-handed tribute to communism—a reflection of the fact that revolution and communism represents the only way there can actually be a better world, both in terms of the relations among people and in terms of the guiding principles and morality of people. We should turn that into a very positive thing; we should grasp and act on the understanding that it underlines the need to very boldly put forward and popularize what communism actually represents and how it holds out the prospect of overcoming, in the real world , all material relations of exploitation, oppression, inequality, parasitism, and all the violence and brutality that inevitably is bound up with these material relations, as well as their reflection in the mind (and "spirit").

Awe and Wonder...The Need To Be Amazed

Communism is not about doing away with "spirit"—in the materialist sense. It is not about doing away with the imagination, and with awe and wonder. These are essential qualities of human existence. Without descending and degenerating into bourgeois theories of "human nature," we can say that there are certain qualities that define human beings in a broad sense. Understood with dialectical materialism, there are certain qualities about human beings that flow from their character, from the character of the species and its intellectual abilities as well as its material conditions. One of these qualities is what could be characterized as "the need to be amazed." In something I read that one of our comrades had written, it talked about "the need to be amazed"- -that this is an important part, an essential part, of the qualities of human beings that we have to recognize. Communism can more fully give expression to this than any other ideology and social system. This is really what's being spoken to at the end of Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones,in particular with the reference to (with the citing of) the statement by "The Amazing Randi": there is plenty to amaze us in reality.

In art we do need things presented which are other than reality. In general, in art, in science, and in life overall, we need to unleash and give much fuller flight to the imagination. We need to recognize and give expression to the need of people to be amazed.

People look at what religion calls "the heavens." They look at the stars, the galaxies. They can see a small part of the vastness of the universe, and they can imagine the greater vastness of the universe. Or they can look on a small scale, look with a microscope and see a small microbe or whatever, and be amazed by what goes on internally within that. They can ponder the relation between what you can see with a microscope and what you can see with a telescope. This is an essential quality of human beings. Human beings will always strive for this. Far from trying to suppress this, or failing to recognize it, we can and should and will give much fuller expression to it.

Communism will not put an end to—nor somehow involve the suppression of—awe and wonder, the imagination, and "the need to be amazed." On the contrary, it will give much greater, and increasing, scope to this. It will give flight on a much grander scale to the imagination, in dialectical relation with—and in an overall sense as a part of—a systematic and comprehensive scientific outlook and method for comprehending and transforming reality.

We have to understand that there is a unity there. Yes, it is a unity of opposites, but overall there is a unity between a systematic and comprehensive scientific outlook and method for comprehending and transforming reality, and giving flight to the imagination and giving expression to the "need to be amazed." Communism can achieve and continually re-achieve a much higher synthesis on this than anything previously in human experience.

There is an opposition—but, again, it is a dialectical opposition, involving identity as well as difference—between science and the imagination, so that each can and should inspire and strengthen the other; and there is, in fact, each within the other. There is imagination within science, and there is science within the imagination. Even the most unscientific imagination can't avoid having some science within it, and even the "driest" science cannot be literally devoid of all imagination. This certainly should be, and will be, all the more the case with the most thoroughly scientific outlook, communism, the more fully its critical and revolutionary essence is unleashed and applied, even now and in a qualitatively greater way in communist society itself.

* Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones, We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality, (Chicago, Banner Press, 1999).

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** This refers to an argument, in a polemic against those formerly in the RCP (dubbed "Mensheviks" because of their opportunist position and methods) who supported the reactionary coup and restoration of capitalism in China, led by Deng Xiaoping, after the death of Mao. This argument vulgarized what is involved in the Goldbach conjecture and essentially said that trying to solve this mathematical problem is a complete waste of time and resources.

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*** "The End of a Stage—the Beginning of a New Stage," by Bob Avakian, dated late 1989, appeared in Revolution,Issue 60, Fall 1990.

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**** Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1992).

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***** "Strategic Questions" is another talk given by Bob Avakian. Excerpts from "Strategic Questions" appeared in RW Nos. 881 and 884-893 (November 1996 through February 1997), available online at in the works of Bob Avakian, titled "Uniting All Who Can Be United."

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