Revolution #189, January 17, 2010

A Thought on Intellectual Courage

We live in a time of extraordinarily high stakes. There is a howling gap between the world that is and the world that humanity could, and badly needs to, bring into being. Sometimes this gap strikes you with an intensity that is little short of agonizing. And there are times, in the dead of a long night, when the odds of achieving what so urgently needs to be done can seem very long indeed.

In wrestling with this recently, I found myself thinking about intellectual courage. It occurred to me that there are at least three kinds of this all too rare quality.

There is the courage to insist on and fight for what you know to be true in the face of conventional wisdom and overwhelming social pressure. You might be surprised at how difficult this can be and how uncommon it is—but people are social animals, conditioned to seek social approval, living in a class society where the critical spirit is determinedly domesticated and kept within the narrowest of constraints. Yet without this courage, nothing of value can be, or ever has been, accomplished.

There is a second kind of intellectual courage: the courage to maintain your convictions in the face of severe repression and threats. In the past few years, I have met a revolutionary woman who had been in the torture chambers of the ayatollahs and refused to say she believed in Allah; and I have heard Dr. Susan Wicklund speak, who takes her life in her hands to provide abortion to women in small towns and, moreover, stands up to speak and write about this with eloquence and honesty. To say the least, I have been moved and inspired by these encounters. Revolutions require that many, many people come to take up this kind of bravery.

And then there is another kind of intellectual courage: the courage to steadfastly look full in the face at a daunting problem or difficult situation—precisely those kinds of situations where the way forward is far from clear and the odds seem forbidding—and to not only refuse to flinch or retreat, but to set yourself to plumbing its full depth and examining its every tortuous complication. The courage, in one sense, to refuse the easy answer.

This courage stands in sharp contrast with the mentality that finally turns away from the depth of the challenge because of the huge and possibly discomforting implications of its possible solutions, choosing instead to either ignore or to effectively re-define and paper over the problem. It stands in opposition to the mentality that, once facing the abyss, reaches instead for a comforting but narcotic and ultimately killing fiction. This mentality, today, is pervasive; unchallenged, it will not only keep humanity in chains but strangle any hope for the future. Given that, one could say that this third type of intellectual courage is the most uncommon and precious of all.

There is nobody that I know of who combines all three types of intellectual courage—and especially that crucial last kind—like Bob Avakian does. There is a tremendous amount—a monumental amount, really—that Avakian has accomplished in creating a body of work, and forging a method and approach, that has rescued and re-fashioned communist thought and communist revolution, which is in fact the only viable answer that humanity actually has to today’s excruciating situation. But, as a key part of that approach, there is also an orientation—again, a courage—that has restlessly spurred forward that body of work. His latest talk, “Unresolved Contradictions, Driving Forces for Revolution,” addresses a multitude of difficult questions and problems grouped around three crucial and, well, unresolved contradictions: the extremely difficult political polarization that revolutionaries and progressive-minded people face in the world today, including within the U.S. itself; the defeats suffered in the international communist movement in recent decades and the false (and deadly) explanations that are now being put forward in the face of that; and the true depth of the horrific oppression of women, one-half of humanity, along with the painful-but-necessary-to-examine shortcomings of our own movement in rising to the challenges in that arena.

The way that Avakian goes at these constellations of questions provides an example of what I’m getting at. No prettifying, no false reassurances... but a relentless analysis of the depth and texture and motion of these agonizing contradictions, and through that process, painstakingly locating the hidden sources of change and possible pathways forward within these unresolved questions, drawing out the ways in which they are in their essence driving forces for revolution, and posing the challenge to us to fully face reality and help forge those pathways in the realms of both theory and practice and thereby undertake, as effectively as possible, the hard but urgently necessary work of making revolution, of transforming the world.

There is a fearlessness there, and a hunger for the truth. But it is not something mysterious; it is something to think about and draw on, something to learn from and apply, no matter how dark the night or bright the day.

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