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Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics, from Marxism and the Call of the Future

The Revolutionary Worker is proud to feature excerpts from the forthcoming book Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics by Bob Avakian and Bill Martin.

Published by Open Court—whose titles run the gamut from works on analytic philosophy to philosophical studies of The Sopranos and Buffy the VampireSlayer —this exciting new book will be available in March.

Marxism and the Call of the Future is a wide-ranging dialogue between two provocative thinkers: Bob Avakian and Bill Martin, a radical social theorist and professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. The two address the relevance and challenges before Marxism in the contemporary world; imperialism and the state of world humanity; secularism and religion; animal rights; the prospects for revolution; and much more. They discuss philosophers like Heidegger, Sartre, and Derrida—and along the way make contact with diverse figures like Tecumseh and Bob Dylan.

Marxism and the Call of the Future is a lively exchange that often goes in unexpected directions. In the two chapters we are printing, Avakian and Martin talk about the ethical dimension of the revolutionary process and the relationship between ethics and material reality. They also discuss the importance of envisioning and"dreaming" about a different future, and how this gets expressed in art.

We thank Open Court for their cooperation in making advance publication of these chapters possible.

Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics


Postinevitablist Marxism

MARTIN: To speak of Marx more positively, if we no longer say that what he shows us is that communism is inevitable, as has been thought, or that "iron laws" will take us there, in some sense whether we want to go or not... And, of course, you could still even say that there’s some sense in which either that’s true or humanity will destroy itself. And I continue to believe that, myself, just on the simple level of either, we’ll sort this stuff out or, it’ll sort us out in the worst kind of way. And it does that every day and I do believe that the underlying forces are at least very capable of sorting humanity out in the worst kind of way. So I have a fairly dire view of that. What that all means for the concrete workings of what we’d call crisis or crisis theory or whatever, that’s a question that has mostly empirical dimensions. But if we give up inevitability in the stronger sense that Marx was using it, then what we can talk about is his work as showing us possibility. And it goes to that point about, when something else that’s better becomes possible, we’re for that thing. And what Marx shows us is that the conditions have arisen where we can...and even in 1850 the conditions had arisen.

I like science fiction analogies. I always like to think of how they can help us, and I always find it interesting that in Star Trek , especially the second series, the Next Generation series, there’s this strong idea that in this twenty-fourth century—I think it’s a twenty- fourth-century society—basic social divisions have been healed. There’s no poverty. There’s no disease. There’s gender equality. There’s no racial subordination or any of that. There aren’t really classes so to speak. Of course, most of this is coming from a spaceship that’s organized according to military rank [ laughter ] and obviously it is that sort of utopian vision, but it’s marked by the present in which the vision is formed. And then you always think, okay that’s great, if truly that were a society that had overcome these divisions, great. And thank you for some images that are positive and helpful or at least the very idea that they’re valorizing the idea that that would be a good thing to have, apart from how they’re representing it necessarily.

But then you think that’s great, but how did things get from where we are now, where these divisions are as deep as they can be and in some places getting deeper all the time, to then? And generally the implication is that technology did it. Technology enabled it. Marx thought, I think quite rightly, to the extent that technology enabled it, it was already enabling it in 1850, at least in some parts of the world. And certainly everywhere now. And that’s maybe Lenin’s point, to give a more positive spin to it. I think we’ve mostly been critical about the whole "We’ll have the revolution then we’ll get the technology, then we’ll get the productive forces" line. But for instance, that’s the positive thing; these things exist—that’s no longer the problem.

The problem is the social relations, and we’ve got everything to do the technological aspect within that. So it’s not that. So it’s instead something that’s underdetermined by that. I think it’s more determined in Marx because I think that in Marx technology does play a stronger role in terms of what are the more efficient means of production, more productive forms of production that allow us to create the basis for shared abundance. And once we have that basis, in fact, it will be such a strong basis that nobody will need to fight over anything anymore and we can all eat, we can all have a place to live, we can all have our basic needs met and beyond. And in some sense, you could call that the calculative basis for the possibility of communism.

There’s also what you might call the ethical basis. Namely that if society collectively is producing that which would enable society, and through highly socialized forms of production, that which would enable us to have a community of shared flourishing, then that’s what we ought to have. The ethical imperative is that that’s what we ought to have. In this postinevitablist Marxism, that "ought" assumes, and I think it always should have assumed, a heightened role. But especially in our postinevitablist Marxism I think it absolutely has to assume a heightened role.

AVAKIAN: I think there is a unity between interests and ideals, to put it that way. The two can and should go hand in hand. Taking interests in the broadest sense, in the case of proletarian principles and outlook, they should and do correspond to interests, and vice versa. In other words, looking at it in the broadest sense, I think there is a role for ideals. Just because we reject idealism in the philosophical sense—and don’t think that ideas are what creates matter or that ideas predate matter, or whatever—doesn’t mean that there is no role for ideals, in another sense: people having principles and a vision and a sense of what’s possible and what should be striven for, and motivation corresponding to and flowing from that. And self-sacrifice and lots of other things that go into realizing such a vision. So that’s the way I look at that: I see that they are mutually reinforcing.

On the question about post-inevitability, the problem for us, on one level, is that there’s the lopsidedness in the world exactly in a certain sense, or in large measure, because the world didn’t turn out the way Marx and Engels anticipated. And the lopsidedness has been even accentuated and taken some particularly grotesque forms—or accentuated grotesque forms—so that we have this funny situation where, in the world as a whole, taken as it is right now, there are plenty of productive forces to meet all the needs of the people and to provide a material foundation for advancing rapidly to communism, insofar as the element of material foundation is concerned. And if we could simply wake up one morning and communize—or socialize, as a beginning step—all the major means of production in the world, then we’d undoubtedly be a lot further ahead, and we could go rather rapidly. There would still need to be transformations in the social relations and ideology—the "four alls" of Marx—not just the production relations, but the social relations and the ideas, the superstructure as a whole, the political institutions, the structures of the society. [The "four alls" refers to Marx’s statement, in The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, that the communist revolution consists in the abolition of all class distinctions (or "of class distinctions generally"), the abolition of all the production relations on which those class distinctions rest, the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to those production relations, and the revolutionizing of all ideas that result from these social relations.] But we’d be way far ahead.

The problem is, given the nature of imperialism and the lopsidedness and uneven development, we don’t get to do it that way. So one big complication is that, first of all, revolution tends to happen country by country, or in a few countries at a time, and then you emerge into a world where most of the productive forces, as well as political power and military power, are still under the control of the bourgeoisie and allied reactionary forces. But there’s also the fact that, as opposed to how Marx saw it, revolution is coming from the other direction: without making an absolute out of this, the main revolutionary impulse and thrust in the world is coming from the countries where the productive forces are the least developed (or the technology, anyway, is least developed). And that’s another expression of the lopsidedness.

And then, even in countries like the U.S., if you conceive of what would actually have to go into making a revolution, to begin making possible all these things we’re talking about, there would be tremendous destruction of productive forces—including, unfortunately, the people. I could very easily see—not that I like it, but I can very easily see—the imperialists using nuclear weapons and other things which are then going to mean that there is going to be a big problem, in a certain sense, of production and even, in one sense, of efficiency, without making a fetish out of efficiency. Efficiency based on socialist principles will still remain a question, and a somewhat acute question, for quite a while, for all the new socialist states that come into being—even in the imperialist countries—especially if you add the point you were making earlier (with which I agree and we also spoke to in our Draft Programme ) that there is not just the internationalist dimension in general, but there is a question, first of all, of breaking all these exploitative international relations. Not just trade but outright export of capital and international exploitation in all these grotesque forms. And there’s the importance, even with all the destruction, of recognizing, as soon as you get back on your feet, a special obligation to use what will still be advanced scientific knowledge and technology to aid the world revolution, and not just narrowly turn inward. Even in the midst of tremendous destruction and sabotage by the old ruling class, you can’t turn inward and only pay attention—nor, in a fundamental sense, even pay primary attention—to just building socialism in that one country.

So, all that makes it extremely complicated. But it doesn’t in any way obviate or eliminate the questions of principle that we’re talking about. That’s not my point. I’m just trying to say it’s going to be very complicated to know how to apply these principles and to be able to apply them. We’re still going to have class differentiation within these socialist societies. And some classes are going to have more interest than others in seeing this revolution through. And there is the point that you have referred to, which I raised in "Conquer the World?" where workers have nothing to lose but their chains and then they make a revolution and they have a state, and they have some material gains that they make, and that has a conservatizing influence. There are other contradictions that come to the fore as well: the contradictions involved in the emancipation of women, for example, will assume even sharper expression in some ways. Not in a negative sense, but more in the sense of the potential for that to be realized, but that potential coming up against whatever the limitations are at any given time, and how to continue breaking through on that. There are a lot of these kinds of complicated contradictions. Yes, some of them are questions of material production, and a lot of them are political- ideological questions. So how to apply our principles to all that? I agree, there are ideals; there is a role for ideals and for the ethical and moral in that whole context.

How do you move through all that? And how do you change the "we" while you’re moving through it? In other words, there is the "we" who are the communists sitting here discussing this. And there is "we" the communists who lead the revolution. And there is the "we"—let’s be honest—the communists who, in the early stages of socialism, have a greatly disproportionate influence on everything that happens in the society. And that right there that is fraught with contradiction that can take the society backwards. How do you change the "we" so that the "we" is ever more collectively the masses of people, and the contradictions among the people—the social distinctions among the people—are being overcome as you continue to go forward? And it’s true that, in trying to do all that, if you’re not guided by something beyond immediate interests, you’ll never get there.

So in that sense, and I think it’s a very fundamental sense, the role of vision, the role of what’s possible—and therefore, and together with that, what’s desirable and what’s required in terms of principles to be upheld and applied to get from here to there—to me all that has a tremendously important role. But I think it has to be situated within all these objective contradictions that we’re dealing with. Not to say, "Well, we can’t have principles, we have too much necessity," but how do you apply the principles to transform necessity? Mao made this criticism of a Soviet economic textbook where it just contained the statement that "freedom is the recognition of necessity"; he emphasized that it’s the recognition and transformation of necessity—we have some work to do. Which I believe is in the same spirit of what you’re wrestling with and emphasizing.

Principles and the Real World: Vision and Viability

MARTIN: I like this phrase that Raymond Lotta gives us in his afterword to the Shanghai Textbook: "a visionary and viable socialism." Those two elements have to interrelate. If it’s just visionary, well then you can say that you’re just a philosopher in kind of the worst sense. You’re dreaming up stuff in your armchair and not even saying that’s bad necessarily, but if that’s all it is, so what. And that would be empty formalism, because, of course, even in your armchair you’re going to be thinking out things. And especially if you’re in the position to have an armchair in the first place and be sitting around dreaming up stuff, you’re going to be dreaming up stuff that is just going to reflect your social background and position.

Let me find these two other ways of coming into it. I think we’re really coming to something here that’s not the end of this theme among us by any means, but I think we’re reaching something here that...there are sort of two tracks for coming into it. You mentioned that things could reach a point—clearly they could—unfortunately we’re living in a time when there’s a certain preparation before it, where the capitalists could use nukes on whomever. And from an ethical standpoint the point is, they could use nukes, they could use whatever, they will use whatever. There’s no limit and there is certainly no ethical limit on what they would ever do. All there is, in a certain sense, is a calculated and strategic limit on what they might do, depending on how they think they can play their advantage. Maybe they’ll dress it up. Of course, they’ll dress it up in something that is supposed to look like a justification. We talked about that in terms of legitimating norms and whatnot.

But as for many of us of your generation and my sub-generation, or half a generation apart from you, let’s say you came out of the sixties and I came out of the aftermath of the sixties but at least very aware of the sixties and things like ’68 and some awareness of the Cultural Revolution and, of course, Vietnam shaped how I started to think about a lot of things. And for me, one crucial moment was the fact that this system would formulate such substances as napalm and Agent Orange and drop them on people. And napalm in particular, the heinousness of it, is just beyond description in the sense that it’s meant to kill a lot of people and to torture them in the process, and it’s also meant to torture people and leave them alive as grotesque reminders to what happens if you oppose this system. And thank whatever goodness there is in the world that this mostly doesn’t work. It mostly doesn’t cause people to say, "Oh they’re using something horrible against us, let’s give up." At least in that case it just made the struggle more determined and in some sense that’s the best that can be hoped for and that is the real world of what our principles have to deal with, ultimately. And the real world is one where we have to think about our principles in an ethical way and in a strategic way and a visionary way and a viable way. They don’t. They only have to think about "principles" in terms of what’s in it for them and their class—the bourgeois classes in the world—they only have to think about what they are doing in a way that’s viable for them. And to hell with anything ethical. And even beyond, then to bat ethical language around, to play with it, which is even sicker. So that is also the context in which this takes place.

To say it takes place in that context is also to say it takes place in the context where Marx tended to not speak that way, in part for the good reason that a lot of what made this sort of language circulate was just bourgeois moralizing either of a sort of milder sort or bourgeois moralizing of a very insidious sort, the type that we see today with people such as William Bennett, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy and even at one point said something about the justification for executing, I think drug dealers, he said something like, "I know I’m right because I was a philosophy professor." [ laughter ] Which, to put a little bit more positive spin on philosophy professors, I can assure you that everyone I know got a huge laugh out of that. No matter what their politics, the idea that "believe me because I’m a philosophy professor or I have a Ph.D."—I mean come on. So that’s sort of the positive side of where Marx did not want to really get into this kind of language. I recognize that, I think he’s right on that.

But, of course, there’s always that question of in a certain sense the ownership of terms, and who gets to define the terms and who gets to mess with the terms. After all, we live in a world where capitalism can be called "socialism," so, what a mess, what a mess. And yet, in some sense if we don’t go forward with principles, we’re not going to go forward. And that’s what I’m saying in a certain sense is the materiality. That’s just one way to answer the question of materialism, that if you can’t go forward without it then that tells you that it’s a real thing, it’s a material thing.

As to the question whether this is saying, Okay, Marx, we need to add Kant to you. We need to make sure you get back in conversation with Kant, whether you need to recognize that there’s something that was initiated there, and in Aristotle for that matter too—where Marx actually is, at least early on, fairly clear about the fact that he’s taking up something from Aristotle. Is that the most pressing question? Well methodologically it’s an important question. It goes to issues of monism and the integration of our ideas systematically, even if it might not be practically the most pressing issue, that we can’t go forward till we get this fixed.

To bring the ethical in, to say that now this assumes a heightened role, as I’m urging, is that something that we can argue out of the kinds of principles that we knew we held already? Which then has the sub-question, what are the ontological commitments of our language, as they say in analytic philosophy, what are we committed to once we recognize the fact that we also have to have this as part of our thinking? I don’t want to say that’s for the philosophers to sort out by any means—that’s for the masses to sort out. It’s for the masses to sort out what we need to know to go forward into the future. To use one of Derrida’s famous terms, is it a kind of "dangerous supplement," the thing you add in that looks as though it’s supplementing but it actually transforms the structure? I guess I think on some level that is what it is. And yet I’m happy to just think of it as historical materialism. We won’t go forward without it and so it’s part of our historical materialism. It’s part of our communism. To sort of make a formula out of it, in our postinevitablist world, certain things remain inevitable. Capitalism inevitably will continue to do horrible things. I don’t think we have any worries about that. But in our "post- " thinking that there’s just some trajectory that’s going to unfold in a kind of— not that Marx thought it was highly predictable—but in some way that has much more of a pattern to it than we’re really able to see at the moment. I think that’s where you might say that in addition to being economically and politically communists, we have to be ethically communists as well. These other sorts of more abstract philosophical questions, I don’t know how to resolve them myself. In some sense they’ll get resolved historically.

AVAKIAN: I agree that we should be ethically communists as well. I’ve tried to speak to that as best as I understand it. One thing that was occurring to me—I believe it was in a letter from Engels to Block about 1890, where he’s talking about the materialist understanding of history and he was saying, Marx and I had to spend so much of our life’s efforts in establishing the materialist understanding of history and then analyzing how it actually applied in particular to capitalism, that we were not able to pay as much attention as we would have liked to the superstructure (he may not have put it exactly that way—"the superstructure"—but that was the essence of it).

He talks about the question of wills, people’s wills. Not "will" in the Nazi sense, but people’s motivation and how that relates back to the material base. He said we weren’t able to pay as much attention to this as to the material side, because there was so much work to be done. So that may have been a factor, along with what you were saying about moralizing in the bourgeois sense, as opposed to the materialist concept and understanding of history. They were fighting for the latter. And, as Lenin said about "What Is to Be Done," sometimes you "bend the stick" when you’re in the course of a polemic or when you’re recognizing, as Engels was saying, the need to focus on a particular area of work because it really has to be fought for and has to be worked through to be established on a certain level.

But, in terms of the ethical dimension, I was thinking of how, in China, they popularized throughout the society Serve the People as the motivating principle. Once again, different classes interpret that differently. I remember reading somewhere about these party cadre in China a few years after the coup when, under Deng Xiaoping, they were starting to promote To Get Rich Is Glorious—one of his many perverse slogans—in place of Serve the People. There was a report of this conversation among party cadre, where one of them says: "Well, we used to say ‘Serve The People’ all the time, but aren’t I a people?" [ laughter ] So that was the new ethos: let’s take up this To Get Rich Is Glorious; let’s take up the bourgeois outlook with abandon, so in the name of the people we can just gorge ourselves on the people.

MARTIN: By the same token, this is an issue with any of these things that are stated as formulas. I think in some ways that’s the Kantian retort to Hegel’s empty formalism charge, is that as slogan, as formula, even as thesis, even as social form, any of it can be not only an empty formalism, but...Serve the People—you could see that as a banner at a training institute for McDonalds as well. [ laughter ] Serve the People! You can put other class content into any of these things. And I think one of Mao’s great achievements was to show, and obviously not to show as writing it up as theory, but shown in the course of the Chinese revolution itself, and especially after it came to power, that institutionalizing it, formulizing it, making a formula out of it, at the most that’s just the beginning of it. That’s just the beginning of the dynamic struggle that has to take place within those forms. Then none of the forms is permanent; they have to continually be re-forged. And there may be relatively longer periods of time where you could have stable forms, but nobody should think that they’re here forever because the formulas are what are doing the work for us, either. And in some sense that’s also sort of the ethical point. In other words, like you’ve kept saying, it’s got to be people. It’s not that you set up a structure and then the people will do it right, it’s that the people have to do it.

AVAKIAN: And that slogan Serve The People also has a different meaning in socialist society than it would in communist society. I don’t even know if that would be an appropriate slogan in communist society. Let’s say it would; then it would have a different meaning than in socialist society. Precisely in response to this degenerate—politically and ideologically degenerating—cadre, Serve the People doesn’t mean serve the bourgeoisie. There has to be differentiation not only in the sense that different classes look at that slogan differently, but also that in different contexts it means different things. The bourgeoisie is not part of the people that gets served. The workers, the peasants, the intellectuals, and other strata that are broadly the 90-plus percent which, even in class-divided society, are included among the people, even with the class differentiations among them—that "people" is what you’re supposed to be serving, the broad masses of people. When you get to communism, if you would still apply that slogan—or something equivalent, corresponding to those circumstances—you wouldn’t have those class distinctions. You wouldn’t say, there are some people who should not be served, whose interests should not be served—some people whose interests should be worked against. In socialist society, you have to work against the interests of the bourgeoisie in order to implement the slogan of Serve the People. So that’s as to the social and class content of it under different conditions—or lack of a class content in classless society.

But there is also Mao’s recognition that people have to be ideologically—and, in a real sense, ethically—given the foundation of it, have to be ideologically and ethically motivated. That was his criticism of "goulash communism" with Khrushchev. Sure, you have to meet the needs of the people but...I’ve visited some of those places in China where they dug the Red Flag Canal out of this mountainside. It took tremendous heroism and sacrifice. I forget if people actually died—I think some did—but anyway they had to risk their lives all over the place to do it. And, because they were diverting a river, some of the people who were more favorably situated, with regard to that river, actually lost out in terms of narrow self-interest. In order for the water to be spread over the larger area, to benefit the larger collectivity of people and ultimately the society as a whole, and through that the world revolution, some people who had a more favorable situation, as far as irrigation, had to sacrifice some of that. So there had to be an ideological struggle—which has a dimension, obviously, of principles and ethics—about what do you put first? Self-interest or the good of society as a whole? Which in turn is rooted in materialism, because if it weren’t true that by putting the interests and the needs of society as a whole first, people overall would be better served, then ultimately it would fall apart. And the motivation of individuals to go for their own personal gain or personal safety or personal protection would overwhelm the ideological line or ideological commitment to pursue the common good. This is something you were speaking to here, in terms of how ethics doesn’t in and of itself have the necessary purchase (I think that was the phrase you were using).

MARTIN: It doesn’t have the necessary purchase to itself be ethical. That’s the rub, so to speak. Ethics by itself can’t be ethical.

AVAKIAN: Part of the reason why it can’t is because ethics by itself also can’t be effected.

MARTIN: That’s what I mean.

AVAKIAN: Well, yeah, maybe we’re saying the same thing—if you can’t actually bring it into being, if you can’t transform it into a material force in reality, then it can only remain an idea, and then some other idea is going to actually be operative in reality, if you want to put it that way. But, given that there’s a material basis, then there’s the class struggle—or even in classless society there’s a struggle among people—about which world view, which principles, which ethics are they going to uphold and apply. In socialist society that’s a big question of struggle. What ideological outlook—Serve the People or To Get Rich Is Glorious—is going to motivate people. And that’s connected to where are you trying to go with society and how does the nature of the society you’re trying to bring into being relate to the needs and interests of individuals and, as you are formulating it, to their ability to increasingly mutually flourish.

I have no problem with the idea of a society of mutual flourishing, it’s just that what I’m trying to emphasize is that it has to be grounded in material reality. Not in the sense of being slaves to the present material reality, but you have to be constantly transforming material reality in order to create more and more of the basis for that and to give it more and more expression. That’s what I mean by the materialism of it. It gets to Mao’s point that ideas and matter can be transformed into each other. Certain material conditions give rise to certain ideas, and those ideas can become a powerful force—and that includes ideas of the right and the good, and so on. Obviously, our ideas are different than Aristotle’s. Aristotle thought that the concept of happiness didn’t apply to slaves, for example—it didn’t apply to slaves any more than to animals is what he said, if I remember correctly. Well, we don’t see it that way. But, at least in my understanding, that doesn’t mean that the question of the right and the good has no meaning at all, period.

MARTIN: Right. Another way to put it, in more philosophical-sounding language, is to say that ought implies can . That we’re talking about what is and what ought to be. That we don’t make some disconnect with what is, we aren’t just utopian. We have to deal with what is. That’s what ethics is about. That’s what the ethical is about. I myself am hesitant about the term ethics for reasons that are similar to Marx’s skepticism. As a discourse it circulates in certain areas and is mostly used in a not even necessarily insidious way but in a trivializing way, really. In a certain sense I mean trivializing, when you compare it to the idea that the most ethical things we can do are to fight imperialism, to be for internationalism, to fight for communism. To work in whatever ways we can to bring about a communist world. Those are the ethical tasks. And they are also the tasks that we would never get to if we didn’t do political economy, if we didn’t do scientific investigation, if we didn’t try to understand what is going on out there. If we didn’t try to understand that many many people experience exploitation and alienation and reification and commodification. That also systematically there are common sources to all of that. Most people in this world feel that something isn’t right. There’s no question about that. Even people who are conservative politically know that something isn’t right. But to then dig deep into what materially is causing that, we’ll never get there if we don’t do that, and if we don’t engage in the struggles where people are coming up against that and that’s where we mainly learn how this thing is working, and to put all of that together. I think in some sense we’re both saying, apart from whatever sort of differences we might have about the ontology of it or something, that we’re for putting all that together.

AVAKIAN: Let me ask you a question in that connection. There was this excerpt from something I wrote, "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy," that was published in our party’s newspaper, where I spoke to Lenin’s point about dreaming, and I was told that you thought that the way this was presented was too narrow or too limited. So I was interested, in light of the conversation we’re having here...

MARTIN: Well, I did...

AVAKIAN: What you meant by that?

MARTIN: The part of it that I had a problem with was (I think I’ll probably not get the exact words quite right) that dreaming is fine, dreaming is great, but it has to be done in a sense "in accord with reality." And I think it’s more that I think one has to be very careful with formulations like that. There’s some sense in which reality’s taking care of itself just fine, and in a certain sense what we want to unite with is the "to hell with this reality" trend. And I think you just have to be careful with that word, reality , because it just becomes so constraining. And that actually some of the dreams that go the furthest from that reality are great stuff. I guess I think of Adorno’s understanding of the art work. And obviously that would be another two week’s conversation if we really wanted to get into that, but his argument about avant-garde art, apart from every aspect of that, part of the core of his argument, is that through its formal properties experimental art jars the sensibilities away from that which can be immediately reappropriated to the commodity system. And it does even have sort of a bit of a—sorry, I shouldn’t even get into this, it loads it too much—but it almost seems to have a kind of, almost Zen moment aspect to it. But I think he thinks of it as has that aspect of pushing one toward a leap into imagining a world where the world is not subject to commodity relations. And that without that kind of vision, and Adorno had tremendous shortcomings in terms of—All right, great, but what do you do with that, how do you get somewhere out of this moment? There’s no question that there are shortcomings. But in some sense you could say, well that’s not a dream in accord with reality. In fact that is a dream absolutely against the reality. You might even unite with that, I don’t know. But it comes down to, let’s be careful when we talk... It sounds a little, what’s the word, paternalistic, even—"It’s great for you guys to dream, but just make sure you do it in accordance with reality." [ laughs ]

AVAKIAN: I actually didn’t mean that as a limiting statement. My intent was the opposite. What I was trying to say, and the reason I raised it here, is that it has to do with a lot of the themes we’re talking about. I was trying to say, as I think I put it there: it’s good to envision the way the world could be and then to strive to bring that into being. But the point of the reality criterion was what we’ve been stressing here—there has to be some sort of material foundation. You have to be in accord with reality—you can be anticipating where reality can go, but there has to be a basis for taking it there. That’s what I was trying to say. Certainly, it wasn’t meant to be a limiting statement particularly with regard to art—whether it’s science fiction or avant-garde art or surreal art or other things—that they should all be limited to holding a mirror to reality. That was not at all what I intended to say. Some art is more directly related to reality, and some of it is very "oddly" related to reality. Some of it’s very unrelated to immediate reality. And I think there’s a role for all of that. There’s a question of the content and what it points to, but there’s a role for all of that. I understand the point you’re making about "be careful with how you present reality," but my point was actually the opposite: to try to find the unity in having a vision but a vision that’s grounded in reality, ultimately. The same Lenin I was taking this from—about dreaming—said the essence of revisionism is that "what’s desirable is what’s possible, and what’s possible is whatever is being done at the moment."

MARTIN: Right, right.

AVAKIAN: So that’s along the lines of what you’re raising. In the same spirit, I certainly wouldn’t want what I was trying to get at there to be interpreted to mean that people’s dreaming should be limited to reflecting what already is—and that what already is, is all that is possible. I was trying to emphasize the opposite—that, as opposed to being mired too much in what is, it’s good and important to be looking at what could be. But then there’s the question of what actually can be, and how you actually get there. Can we realize the anarchist vision of immediately no state? No. Can we eventually get to no state? Yes.

MARTIN: So let me just provoke you on that. What about images of a future society where there are no states, no classes. That, of course, will be marked by the present in which an artist attempts to create these images. But be that as it may, and when we get there it may not be like that image. It seems to me, though, there’s a very positive role...

AVAKIAN: Like Marge Piercy or Ursula LeGuin—like that?

MARTIN: To me, those are just great examples.

AVAKIAN: Yeah, well, I agree.

MARTIN: So inspiring to me. When I read Woman on the Edge of Time I was like, man, that’s the future I want to go to. I have certain questions about it, but on the whole, that’s where I want to live.

AVAKIAN: That’s provocative to me, in the sense that those things provoke you to think, but not in the sense that I disagree with it. In other words, some aspects of the picture they paint you might agree or disagree with—and certainly there are aspects that won’t actually be the way it will turn out—but it is important that people, in science fiction and other means of art, other forms, be trying to envision the future, even beyond what we have imagined so far. I think we know some of the fundamental things that are going to go into the struggle to achieve communism, and some of the fundamental things that have to be transformed, but a lot of the particulars we don’t know right now, and a lot of them are going to change. So it’s a unity of opposites right there too. But even for people to "play around" with things where there is not really a basis to know whether they’re going to work out that way or not—this can also be positive, at a minimum in the same sense that we talked about earlier in terms of philosophy: coming at things from different angles and provoking us to think and to question and to broaden our horizons and turn the world upside down, or our image of it upside down, and shake it around a bit and see what falls out, so to speak. I think all that’s very important. So I certainly wouldn’t want my statement about dreaming, which had the opposite intent, to have the effect of suggesting that those things aren’t important and positive.


Marxism and the Call of the Future
Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics

By Bob Avakian and Bill Martin

ISBN 0-8126-9579-8 • $37.95 • 350 pages •paperback

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