Q: In the process of coming to see the need for revolution and communism, what were some of the key previous ways of thinking that you had to break with?
AS: Well, let me see. One thing—it didn’t last long, but when I was in high school, I briefly went through a little bit of a pacifist stage. I remember making little peace symbols out of copper wire. [laughs] Look, like most decent people, I’m not inclined to simply accept human suffering and death and destruction—if this could be avoided, I’d say so much the better. But I came to understand, even early on, the nature of the system that dominates this society and that causes so much exploitation and oppression, and I came to understand the tremendous violence of that system—violence that is perpetrated on the people on a daily basis. All you have to do is look at all the police brutality and murder that goes on, that everybody’s been talking about lately, and which has been going on for a long, long, time. That’s one example of it. But there is also what they do in the course of their imperialist wars—and they’re ruthless. I mean, these are very, very violent people and very, very violent institutions. And, yes, they’re very powerful. They have tremendously sophisticated and developed weaponry and military forces, and so on. So you’d have to be very non-materialist and very naive to think that you could just, at some point, politely say to them: “Excuse me, but could you please just step aside and let us run society in a more reasonable and rational manner that would benefit most of humanity? Oh, and by the way, you and your way of doing things? You’re out!” [laughs] To think that they wouldn’t come back at you with tremendous violence, with everything they could throw at you—you’d have to be very naive to think that. So, this became very clear to me. I don’t know any revolutionary communists who are thirsting for blood and carnage, or any such thing. You are talking about decent people, who are not cold to the reality, who don’t fail to understand what it means for people to suffer and die and to lose close friends and family. But yes, I broke with pacifism, even in high school. Like I said, it was a very brief phase, because in those days people were talking about what it was that imperialism was actually doing here and around the world, so you got to see and hear about their tremendous brutality, the tremendous violence they were routinely perpetrating. People were talking about it, and were willing to investigate it, and were willing to share that knowledge with each other. They were not just trying to cultivate their own gardens.
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So again, this was a time when there was a lot of mass discussion and debate around such things as the question of reform versus revolution. Would it be better to try to “work within the system,” or outside the system? This was a mass question in society at that time. Could you change things through elections? Could you just try to find more progressive candidates? Is that the way you should try to change things? Or did you need to recognize that the system itself was functioning on a basis that could not really accommodate to a new and more just and equitable way of life, and that could not deal with getting rid of all these injustices and outrages and violence, and that it would therefore have to be forcibly removed as a system in order to clear the way for a new kind of society?
Now, people in those days in the U.S. certainly didn’t know too much about how to go about making a revolution. At the time I personally certainly didn’t know anything about revolutionary organization or revolutionary strategy. When I was first being affected by these social movements and developments, I had never even heard of the concept of what’s known as a Leninist party, a vanguard party. I had no sense of why one would even need such a party in order to be able to carry out a revolution. And there were a lot of other things that even revolutionary-inclined people just didn’t know anything about, but that would be essential for making an actual revolution in a country like the U.S. For instance, how would you go about uniting people very broadly, but still manage to maintain strategic focus on preparing minds and organizing forces for an actual revolution aimed at dismantling the existing system and at setting up the basis for a socialist society? What forces should you involve? What forces should you rely on? There were many, many such questions. What kind of stages might this go through? And how would you even begin to set up a new society? Again, things were very primitive in some ways back then, and there were more questions than answers, but many people were actively searching for those answers. And what was impressive was how many people cared, how much they cared, and how many people were willing to sacrifice a lot of their own lives and a lot of their—frankly, a lot of their own happiness, or stability, or safety, or things like that. And that was inspiring, too. People in large numbers were willing not only to dream of a better world, but also to take steps and act in accordance with those dreams.
Personally, I would say that the other thing I had to break with was...look, I didn’t come from the hard streets. My family was always strapped for money when I was growing up but, for a number of reasons, I was able to get a very fancy education, and therefore I had a lot of entrée, or access, into a very privileged world of intellectuals. And that meant that there was a basis for me to end up having a pretty comfortable professional life, doing all the things that I really enjoyed doing, and making a living at it. I was lucky enough at a very young age to be able to have a lot of very positive experiences that way: to travel internationally, to conduct scientific experimentation, and basically to thoroughly enjoy myself. But at a certain point, I really had to confront the question of “self,” and how much was I going to remain on a track that encouraged and basically promoted and prioritized my own well-being, versus how much was I going to dedicate myself to trying to make a better world for humanity in general, and work on relegating “self” to a more secondary position, and no longer proceed from prioritizing just my own personal needs.
And look, I suspect there are quite a few people today who are like I was back then. People who have a lot of potential, who could make a lot of contributions to the revolution, but who still have some trouble with the notion of subordinating “self” to something larger than themselves and putting first things first, on the right basis. Especially given the prevailing “me, me, me” culture of today! But I guess, first of all, you have to care, right? That’s one thing that in my own experience I could never quite shake off: I actually did care a lot about the outrages, the injustices, the tremendous unnecessary suffering people were subjected to in both the United States and in the Third World. Now, caring, in itself, that’s a good start, but it’s not quite enough. The next question becomes: Are you going to do some work to get a deeper scientific understanding of why all these outrages keep happening? Why can’t we get past all this? Why do these same problems keep coming up over and over again? Why can’t we get to a better society, to a more reasonable and rational society, that would actually benefit the vast majority of people?
Then, once you start finding the scientific answers to those kinds of questions, a new set of moral questions comes up. OK, now you know enough: In at least a basic sense you know what the source of the problem is; you know that the system can’t be reformed; you know that it’s going to take a revolution, and that revolution is a complicated process; and you also know there aren’t enough people who have this understanding yet, that there aren’t enough people who are part of this process, and that a whole lot more people are going to need to get involved for there to be any chance at succeeding in making an actual revolution. So then that poses a moral dilemma, a dilemma of conscience. You get to that point, and you basically have two choices: you can either look at yourself in the mirror and say: I know too much to turn away, and I really have to become part of this; or you say: Well, you know, I kinda like my life, thank you very much, and I think I’ll just go on and do what I feel like doing as an individual, and turn my back on the people who are suffering under this system.
Once again we are at a time when a lot of people should be asking themselves these types of questions.
Q: I think this relates very much to what BA talks about in terms of the head and the heart. There is the scientific understanding that the world doesn’t have to be this way, and it could be radically different. And then it seems like—another thing your own experience points to, including for intellectuals in particular, is having to make the decision—at a certain point you made the decision to fully give your heart to humanity and to the revolution and to the masses of people. You could have had, I’m sure, a career as a natural scientist...
AS: Well, I did.
Q: Well, you did. But I mean you could have continued to focus on that career. Right? You could have kept going that way. And you made a decision at a certain point to give your heart to the revolution. So how did you make that decision to give your heart to the revolution?
AS: Well, I think it’s what I was just saying: realizing that I knew too much at that point to turn away from what I understood. What I understood on a scientific basis. Also, having gained some sense of the revolutionary possibilities. I never thought that the revolutionary process would be an easy process. I always expected that there would be sacrifices and risks. Like many people who came out of the ‘60s, you expected that you might be jailed, you might be killed—just for opposing U.S. imperialism. I mean, look at what happened to the people at Kent State and Jackson State, for instance. They were college students—but that didn’t save them. When you get to a certain point, if you have a heart and you care, and in addition to that you also have some scientific understanding of problems and solutions, then it becomes pretty difficult to live with yourself if you turn away from all that. Because then every single time you open a newspaper, or you turn on the TV or something, and there’s Trayvon Martin dead in the street, or Eric Garner, who can’t breathe, being choked by the police right on video, or Mike Brown gunned down so brutally—and all the Oscar Grants and all the Amadou Diallos and all the Sean Bells. And they stay with you, you don’t turn away, and you don’t forget them. There are so many outrages like that, and when I see those things, I feel like any one of them is enough for me to want to make a revolution. Any one of them is enough of a reason! Because I do understand: it’s not an accident, it’s not an anomaly, it’s not something that “just happened” because of some individual rogue cop or something. I understand how all this is systemic, it’s built into the very fabric of the capitalist-imperialist system. That’s why these things keep on happening. And it’s the same thing every time a woman or a young girl is cast out by her family for being pregnant, or a woman becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion but she can’t get one because there are no longer abortion clinics in her state, or she has to travel many miles away, and she ends up not being able to get an abortion and is forced, literally forced, to give birth to a child she never wanted or is simply not ready to raise and take care of because of her circumstances. I look at all that cruelty and I recognize it as a form of slavery. A woman who is denied the right to control her own reproduction is reduced to the status of a slave, and all women everywhere are objectively degraded by this. So again, all these outrages, any one of these outrages...that’s enough for me to want a revolution and to get serious about it.
Or every time this system uses the death penalty against people—you hear about people who’ve been convicted who were clearly innocent, and who’ve been thrown into the dungeons of the prison system for decades, or are executed; or people with obvious mental health problems who are executed. Any one of those kinds of things is enough.
Every time they turn away people at the border, or they deport people and break up families, or they gun down people on the border, and label people as “illegals”.... Any one of those examples is enough for me to want a revolution, and to want to work for it.
Every time I see a homeless person, trundling along, trying to find a place to sleep for the night, because they can’t...because in this incredibly wealthy society, there’s not even a place for them to get basic shelter! Or people are going hungry. BA sharply called this out: why isn’t there a right to eat?
Or when I hear about things like the U.S. sending its drones and its bomber planes to countries in the Middle East, dropping bombs on people, wiping out civilians, I don’t think about, Oh, what fancy technology they have, or how clever those drones are. I’m thinking about bodies exploding and brains splattered, and families broken up, and suffering horribly. Any one of those things is enough to want a revolution.
When I think of women throughout the world and the sex trade, and the promotion of pornography, where generations of boys and young men are being trained to think of sex basically in rape-culture terms, and they have no idea—nobody seems to have any idea any more—of what really good sex is, or feels like, or how to have decent relationships. And there’s this constant promotion of the degradation and dehumanization of women as mere sex objects and a widespread and worldwide trade in young girls and women as literal sex slaves. When is enough enough?
So any one of those stories, that you can find in any daily newspaper, or on the television news or on the internet, is enough of a reason for me. And multiply that by millions of times. But it wouldn’t be enough if I just thought, this is horrible, this is tragic, this is terrible. If that’s all I thought, or understood, then frankly I would probably get pretty discouraged and depressed about it all, and I would probably kind of turn away from it. Maybe I would just stop reading newspapers, or watching the news or checking things out on the internet, you know, because it would be so discouraging. But, I don’t turn away from it, and I don’t get numb to it. And the reason I don’t turn away is because I do understand what the scientific evidence tells us about what these problems are rooted in, in terms of the fundamental form of organization of a capitalist-imperialist society. I understand that these things are direct outgrowths of that particular form of societal organization. I understand that, in past times, human beings found very different ways of organizing their societies (not that they were any great shakes, or free of oppression because they weren’t), and this reminds me that human beings could once again re-organize their societies on a completely different basis: one such radical reorganization would be to replace the existing capitalist-imperialist form of society with a socialist society, that is in turn moving in the direction of an even more fully emancipatory communist society. And that would be, I am absolutely convinced, a far better world, not just for a handful of people here or there, but for the vast majority of human beings across the planet.
So that’s what keeps me going: the understanding of the problem, and the understanding that there is actually a material basis, in the existing relations of society, to transform things in that direction, toward revolution and socialism, and ultimately a communist world. It’s not gonna happen all by itself. It’s not like the system’s going to collapse by itself and then one fine day we’ll wake up and say, oooh, I guess capitalism collapsed, so now we can build up a new and better society. No. It is going to require conscious human intervention. It is going to require people banding together to consciously work on the problem, to work on those contradictions, to develop a process that creates new conditions that will ripen towards being able to have a revolution. It is going to require that. But it is possible.
And I’d much rather live in that kind of new society, and any sane person should want to do that, too.
Q: I think part of the point is that a lot more intellectuals and scientists need to do what you did, and give their heart to the revolution and to the masses of people.
AS: Well, obviously I agree with that, because you need more and more people to join in the revolutionary process. But I don’t want to make it sound as though it’s something that people have to do right when they are first learning about it. If people are newly checking this out, it would be pretty daunting to think like, Oh my god, I can’t even look into this, I can’t even learn about it, because these people are gonna put pressure on me and ask me to become part of everything right away, and to commit my life to this, or something. And I think it’s important to understand that people can be part of the process at different levels and to different degrees. Just make a start. There’s a place for everyone. There’s a place for people to come into things, and learn about it, to just check things out, and become informed. That’s the first step.
Educate yourself, become informed, and go regularly to that revcom.us website. Definitely check out BA’s works. Talk to people. Become part of the struggle around one or another issue of importance to you. Keep your ears open, study and learn, and evaluate things as you see what’s before you. You shouldn’t feel like you have to make a life commitment to things to just start getting into it. And the same thing in terms of being part of the process. There are many, many different ways that people can contribute to the process. Some people will devote their entire lives to it, and it will become the primary focus and priority of their lives. Other people will contribute to the extent they can in different ways: Some people will contribute money, some people will contribute support in different ways, some people will participate in helping to spread the word about one or another initiative, or they’ll contribute in other ways.
Once again, there is a real need for more and more people to join the revolutionary process, and a great need for growing numbers of people to actually dedicate their lives to this, in the fullest sense, but I’m trying to make the point that I don’t want people to feel like you have to go from zero to 60 right away. I’m a scientist in my approach. I don’t think anybody should jump to something just on the basis of, say, a few people talking about it. Come in and do the work, and check things out, and learn about things, and be part of the process. Ask your questions, learn more, ask more questions. Compare and contrast what you encounter with other viewpoints and approaches and methods. Above all, check it out in relation to reality, and see if it seems to correspond to reality as it actually is. And then act accordingly.