Editors' Note: The following is the text of the answer by Bob Avakian to Question 14 in the "Questions and Answers" Section of the DVD: Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About. This has been slightly edited for publication, and a footnote has been added.
Now, finally, as far as written questions—because we wanted to allow time for people to ask questions from the floor, so to speak—the question is: "Given how crucial the revolutionary upsurge of the '60s was in forging the leadership of the RCP, how can a new generation of revolutionary leadership be brought into being in the absence of such a revolutionary upsurge?"
Well, those were favorable times. There was a revolutionary upsurge generally in the world, in many different forms and many different levels and with many different kinds of programs and ideologies. But there was a general revolutionary ferment in the world, and this did find very broad expression even within the U.S. itself. I mean this even penetrated into some of the mainstream silly popular culture. Like some of you might remember the movie Car Wash—it was made in the '70s. There's a scene in there where the son of the owner of the car wash brings in the Red Book [Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung] and is trying to propagandize the other people working in the car wash about how great the Red Book is. Well, this was kind of silly, on one level, but it reflected something about what was going on in the culture. There was another movie made with Peter Sellers called I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. This was all about how... Alice B. Toklas was this woman who developed this recipe for making cookies with marijuana, I think. And it involved this guy [played by the actor] Peter Sellers who was a mainstream, really straight-by-the-book lawyer who's supposed to have one of these marriages that's sort of, you know, almost like a merger. And at the last minute he drops out and goes and joins his brother in kind of a hippie life, and he keeps going back and forth between these two lives. And at one point his brother takes him to a bookstore and says, "Oh, the Red Book—you really gotta get one of these." So this is a kind of reflection, even reaching into the mainstream culture, of what was going in the society at that time, especially among the youth of different nationalities, but not only them.
And of course this provided very favorable terms and conditions for people to develop into revolutionaries and into communists. Now, naturally, it didn't happen automatically. Just because there was all this stuff around, just because there was a Red Book there, you didn't have to read it. And just because you read it didn't mean you understood it. And just because you read it and understood it didn't mean you really went deeper and understood something more fundamental than that. I mean the Red Book is a condensed version of a lot of things. It's very good, obviously, but to really understand these things and really develop as a communist you have to go a lot deeper and a lot broader than that. You have to get into a lot of the underlying principles that are being spoken of and concentrated there. And you have to get into all the complexities of this.
But this general kind of atmosphere created very favorable conditions for that, it's true. This is a situation in which I myself and others in the RCP—or what became the RCP—this is the context in which many of us developed. But, of course, we shouldn't romanticize that. There were lots of people who developed in that time, became very radicalized, even became revolutionary-minded, who did not become Maoists, who did not become communists. They went in other directions. Or they proclaimed themselves Maoists and communists but it wasn't really that. And when some real twists and turns and some real tests came, like when the revisionists seized power in China [in 1976], they just fell all apart. So it wasn't some kind of automatic or easy thing to be..."oh, you know, everybody was being a communist then, man, all you had to do was fall into it." It wasn't like that. And a lot of people got killed in that period of time, especially members of the Black Panther Party, who might have also developed into revolutionary leaders in a more developed way but never got the chance. This is the way it goes. Some of this is accident—who emerges and who doesn't as a revolutionary leader and what emerges as a vanguard party.
One of the questions we didn't get into here—we didn't have time—is somebody asked the question of did I think that as a white male I could actually lead the revolution. Well, the answer is no, not as a white male—but I think I could play a leading role in it as a communist [applause]. This is the challenge: what you follow is not people based on what nationality they are, or what gender they are, and so on, but whether they really represent the way forward out of all this and whether they have a plan and a program for actually leading people in that way, and developing in that kind of a way. Like I said, there's a lot of accident that goes into that. A lot of other people who might have emerged as leaders in forming the new vanguard party reached a turn in the road and couldn't keep going forward on the right road for a lot of different reasons—or maybe they got killed or thrown in jail and didn't have the opportunity to do it.
So we shouldn't idealize that period of time. There were very favorable conditions. But, first of all, on the one side it's not automatic that you're going to develop into a communist out of conditions like that, or that you can forge the leadership necessary to form a vanguard party out of all that. See, that's something else I want to say—just a little detour here. Leadership is not a matter of ego, it's not a matter—at least proletarian leadership, communist leadership—it's not a matter of asserting that you know better than everybody else, you're smarter than everybody else and everybody should follow you blindly without questioning what you say. Leadership is essentially a matter of responsibility. It's a matter of being willing to be ruthlessly scientific, caring enough about this revolution—having a deep enough grounding and understanding that this revolution is necessary and possible—to be willing and on that basis to develop the ability to apply yourself to actually lead this revolution and to take up all the daunting and heavy responsibilities that go into actually providing that leadership, learning but also leading and not shirking the responsibility. Yes, I'll say it straight up: I'm ready and I'm willing to take the responsibility of leading this revolution all the way. And our party is willing and ready to do the same thing. [applause]
But this is a matter of responsibility. It's a matter of taking this seriously. It's a matter of saying: this is where this needs to go, this is where this is tending to go, these are the forces that are resisting and pulling back away from it, this is what has to be overcome, this is what has to be overthrown, this is how people have to be led, this is how we have to go out and work among people and learn from them while we're giving them leadership, this is the process of the mass line that has to be applied, these are the problems that have to be studied. This is what it means to lead—it means you're willing and you're ready to take that responsibility and you're prepared, not just as an individual but collectively—collectively in the party and together with the masses of people who come forward to join the revolution—you're ready to carry that all the way through and to take up every challenge, both in theory and in practice, that has to be confronted and dealt with in order to make that revolution and contribute to it in the whole world. That's what it means to develop and to take the responsibility as a vanguard and to develop revolutionary leadership.
Now, while there were particular circumstances that were favorable to develop people like that out of the '60s, there are also plenty of favorable conditions to do that now. That's why you see many young people coming forward as communists right now, a number of whom are sitting right in this room. Where do they come from? They came out of the upsurges of this time. They came out of a different way, not the same way as the '60s, a different way that things are posing themselves now. They came out of recognizing, as we recognized then, that all these things stem from the same system. As they were introduced to this idea, they embraced it and took it up, and that's how they began to develop and are continuing to develop as communists.
Now, in order to bring forward new leaders in any kind of period...there's lots of upsurge going on now—look around you. Even [with the war] in Vietnam we didn't have a million or more people demonstrating against the war at that time.1 Overall, things then were more advanced than they've gotten to be now, but there are plenty of elements of upsurge and resistance now that hold great potential.
And it's a very tricky and complicated issue how you develop new leaders when you already have leaders. Because there's a tendency when you have long years of experience...well, first of all there's a tendency to get stuck in your ways. That's one thing you have to struggle against all the time, constantly trying to not get stuck in your ways and to recognize new things that emerge that might look to you like nothing significant but then you look deeper and you dig deeper and you see that they are, and that they do represent something that's shaking things loose. So there's not getting stuck in your ways and stuck in a rut.
There are positives and negatives to being a veteran, to having been around in the struggle for a long time. The positives are obvious—you gain a lot of experience, you learn a lot. One of the things you develop is a certain subtlety about things, you don't see things in oversimplified terms. You understand the complexities of things, at the same time as you see the simplicity within the complexity. What do I mean by that? Like, for example, to actually make a revolution is very complex, but it's also very simple that we need this revolution and that's what we have to do. And you have to not lose sight of either part of that. Then there's a question of not getting stuck in a rut or stuck in your ways, but there's also a question of not getting in the way of new people sometimes. Because you can look at what people are doing who are new and you have years of experience and you say, "I've seen this movie before, I know where this is going." Well, sometimes you do, and sometimes you don't because nothing is ever exactly the same as the way it was before. But even when it is in its main lines the same, there's still always new things to learn, and there's still always much to learn from people who are newly encountering these things and maybe coming up with new ways of confronting it that you didn't think of before.
Yes, there's a temptation to say, "Well, look, we know how to do this." I like this new generation, but let's face it, you know, they make a lot of fucking mistakes. [laughter] And it's very tempting to say, well we just can't let them take this initiative here because these are not times when we can make a lot of mistakes. This is a serious situation we're dealing with. These people that we're up against, the core of this ruling class—they're not playing. The shit that I was talking about is not some kind of thing I made up. The dangers that are represented are very real, and mistakes can cost a lot in this situation. So, it's very difficult to handle this contradiction of saying: "OK, let's let people take initiative even if they make some mistakes—some that I might have made too and some that are all their own." Because if we don't let that happen, first of all we're not going to learn as much as we might learn, including from how they handle it that might be different and even better in some ways—to our surprise—than the way we might have handled it. And second of all, if we don't do that they're never going to learn in this whole furnace of the struggle and, even if making mistakes, how to advance to the next level so that they can develop more as leaders and come forward.
So, part of it is actually leading people to develop as leaders, but part of that is knowing when to assist and when to get the fuck out of the way. And that's not easy to determine. One of the hardest things and one of the most important things in life in general, and especially in the revolutionary movement and socialist society, is knowing what are the things and when are the circumstances in which you really have to pay a lot of focused and very concrete and detailed and calibrated attention to everything, and what are the situations and what are the circumstances in which you should really step back and let things develop. This comes up all the time: You're working with other people, you want them to take initiative. Well, what are the times when you really have to kind of walk together with them step by step to help them do it, until they can do it more on their own? And what are the times and circumstances when you just have to have a general discussion and then let them go, and get out of the way?
So bringing forward new leaders is also a matter of handling that kind of contradiction, and there is a strategic importance to this. One of the principles we stress—whether you're talking about youth or people with more experience, whether you're talking about people of different genders or different nationalities—leadership is not a joke, and leadership is not a matter of tokenism. Leadership is responsible to the masses of people, here and all over the world. Leadership is something that has to be brought forward on the basis of people developing the ability, and being helped to develop the ability, to actually lead for real, to actually apply the revolutionary ideology and scientific methods to solve the real contradictions you're up against.
Otherwise, what we're doing is playing around so that we can feel good among ourselves and forgetting about the larger world and the masses of people out there, not just here but all over the world. You can feel good setting up arrangements that look good to other people—but what about the real contradictions that the masses of people are up against and the ways in which they're suffering every day? Are you really doing something to change that? Or are you just playing around? Developing leadership has to be done in line with and in mind of actually changing the world—that's what I'm trying to say. You have to change the world out here! It doesn't do any good if we don't change the world! I don't care whether we look young or old, what nationality or gender we are, if we don't change the world the masses of people are going to be fucked again! And that's not what we're about, that's not what this is about.
Yes, we have to bring forward the youth, we have to bring people forward from among the oppressed nationalities and from among the proletariat, and we have to develop them not only as communists but as communist leaders, and we are doing that and we have to do more. But it's gotta be on the basis of applying this ideology to change the world and to mobilize the masses of people and lead them to emancipate themselves, or else it doesn't mean anything. And that's what we're about. That's the standard we apply. That's what we're aiming for, and that's what we're thinking about and keeping uppermost in our minds when we're working to bring forward leaders from among the youth and from among the proletariat and oppressed masses. And there's plenty of circumstances and conditions to do that—there's plenty of work to be done and plenty of people to be brought forward. And I say: Let's get busy with it. [applause]
1. This talk, and the question and answer session that followed, from which this text is drawn, was given in the summer of 2003, a few months after there were massive protests against the impending war in Iraq; this is what Bob Avakian is referring to here, in speaking of "a million or more people demonstrating against the war." [back]