We Can't Know Everything -- So We Should Be Good at Learning

Grasp Revolution, Promote Production - Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1181, December 29, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

EDITORS NOTE: The is the fourth in a series of excerpts published in the RW from an important tape-recorded talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, in the first part of 2002: "GRASP REVOLUTION, PROMOTE PRODUCTION, Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation." These excerpts have been edited for publication in the RW . Footnotes have also been added.

The next point I want to speak to is something that was brought out in the anarchism series1 I wrote about five years ago (which appeared in the RW at that time). This was a critique of and a polemic in certain ways against the anarchist outlook and different political and programmatic expressions of anarchism. But one of the things that was stressed there was this: the fact that we are making a critique of anarchism and that we have very sharp differences with the anarchists does not at all mean that anarchists cannot play a positive role in the revolutionary struggle overall--some of them can and do, at least at various times and in various aspects. Again, this has to be determined concretely.

It was someone with essentially anarchist politics who, in the course of the Russian Revolution, shot Lenin in the head, which had a lot to do with his developing the strokes and disease that killed him, not that much later. So, obviously [BA laughs] out of anarchist motivation, people can do very bad things. But that doesn't mean that overall we should dismiss the anarchists as being inevitably (or in the final analysis even) in the camp of counterrevolution; we shouldn't think that, at any given time, they can't play a very positive role in many ways (and this applies especially now).

As opposed to that, we should recognize the need to have a relationship of unity-struggle-unity, not tailing but also not dismissing, or treating antagonistically, at least many of the various anarchist trends and people who are drawn to them. This is something that was emphasized in that series, and then it went on to make the point, not only in regard to anarchists specifically but more generally, that at any given time, both before and after the seizure of power, the vanguard party has to, by definition and as part of its role, focus on certain key areas or arenas or struggles in society, and it cannot be paying attention to everything, even every important thing that's going on in society and the world as a whole. We have to focus on certain key things in order to actually advance the class struggle and, by definition, our concentrating there means that we're not paying attention, or not as much attention, to other things, and specifically not paying as much attention to them as some other forces. So we may not know as much about a particular sphere at any given time as others in society, anarchists or other forces.

And once again, because we are the vanguard ideologically and politically and have that role and responsibility in an overall sense, we can't assume--again it's the "embraces but does not replace" principle 2--we can't assume this translates into our "automatically" knowing more about everything than everybody else--or, if not automatically, then with just a little effort, we will very quickly know more than everybody else about everything. That's completely wrong. And this is an error that's been made in the history of our movement, just as errors have been made in making a leap to saying that, because someone's outlook may be ultimately reactionary politically and ideologically, that means they're incapable of arriving at any important truth. It's also been assumed sometimes, on the other side of it, that because we're the political and ideological vanguard, this means that, even without turning our attention--or at least as soon as we turn our attention--to a sphere, we'll automatically know more than everybody else about this.

In thinking about this point, I was recalling when, way back in 1979, I did a speaking tour around the country and I went to a college campus (I don't remember exactly where) and I was interviewed by someone on the college radio station. We got to talking about the punk phenomenon, which was sort of a relatively new phenomenon at that time. And this person became very animated and angry and was saying, "Here you go again, you communists, you always want to take credit for everything and pretend that everything was your invention or your creation! You didn't create the punk phenomenon, but now you're coming around talking about this punk phenomenon as if it's this great thing and you're all behind it." And I said, "No, no, no, no. [BA laughs] You're missing the point. The point is not that we created it. The point is that there are many things in society, including this punk phenomenon, which are brought forward by many different people; we couldn't possibly bring everything new and positive into being. The punk phenomenon has some negative aspects, but it also has some very positive ones, and our role is not to try to create everything or to have everything tightly under our control, but to try to identify things that are positive and to unite with them while struggling and trying to help them advance even more and become even more fully positive."

But this was something sort of new to him. This person assumed that, if we were talking positively about something, we were trying to "take credit" for it and act as if it were our creation. And if, in fact, we were doing that, then the criticism would definitely be justified, because that's not the way reality works.

Many different new things, positive and negative, are going to be brought into being not only by us but by other people, and it's a question of how do we view and relate to them, how do we unite with them but also struggle with them, how do we sift through and help others sift through and synthesize what's correct and progressive and even revolutionary within them and cast off those things that are the opposite, that are backward or are incorrect. This is in essence another application, or another aspect of applying, the mass line. And that's what we're about. We couldn't possibly think that everything that's new and positive is going to be brought into being by us, or that we're going to understand more about everything in society and the world and nature and history than everybody else.


And sometimes, even with things that we do "specialize" in--that we are focusing our attention on--other people standing outside of what we're doing, who don't have the same focussed attention on it, may be able to see things about this that we don't see, may be able to understand things about that sphere in general, or about our work in that sphere and what conclusions we're drawing, that may be very important. We should always listen to that and learn from that, even when it's raised in the absolutely worst spirit (and, of course, it's more welcome and easier to listen to when it's raised in a good spirit). Mao said we should toughen our skin: we should learn to take criticism; we should learn to look for what's true and to sift through and come to a synthesis about things that are even raised in the most nasty way. I mean, you can struggle with people about their methods and how they raise things, but not by way of dismissing what they're raising or confusing the two different questions. What they raise is one question, one particularity; the way they raise it is another question, another particularity. While they're obviously interrelated, they're also separate. And we have to always have an open mind.

In fact, we should always be interrogating ourselves as well as listening to "interrogation" from others. There's a saying that defeated armies learn well. Well, one of the things we're going to have to learn to apply is the principle that victorious armies (of course I'm speaking metaphorically here and not just literally) should also learn well. In other words, in many ways it's easier to listen when you're having trouble, easier to accept criticism when you're not doing very well. It's harder to be open to criticism when you're doing well. Triumphalism sets in. You don't want to hear it: "What do you know?" There was a whole thing in the course of the Cultural Revolution in China where they talked about bourgeois democrats in the Chinese party leadership--long-time veterans--who turned into capitalist roaders. These people would scoff and say to the red guards and other new comrades, "Capitalist roader, what do you know, you punk? I was marching over snow-capped mountains before you were born, and sloshing through the marshes--we lost 90% of our army, we fought a battle or more every day, we covered over 5,000 miles in the Long March. What were you doing then? [BA laughs] You weren't even alive. You have it soft--you were born in the new society. What do you know about revolutionary struggle and going up against odds?"

Well, that's incorrect. I mean, it's true that they did all those things, but that doesn't make you immune from making errors or even going revisionist, and it doesn't mean that you have a right to reject-- or should adopt the attitude of rejecting--criticism out of hand or creating an atmosphere in which people don't feel easy about raising criticism, no matter how many contributions you've made and no matter how much success you've been a part of. In fact, it's especially important when you're being (or have been) successful to listen to others who have criticisms and even to interrogate yourself, constantly. Marx talked about how the proletarian revolution has to constantly pick itself up and shake off the dust and go forward again, after we suffer setbacks and defeats. Well, we also have to learn when we're making advances--we have to not become arrogant, not become triumphal. We have to remember at all times, positive or negative, advances or setbacks, that even though we have the most profoundly scientific world outlook and methodology, we don't hold all the truth in our hands, and we never will.

So this is an important point that was emphasized in that series on anarchism, an important point we should recognize, not only before the seizure of power but after the seizure of power when we have a different responsibility as the vanguard of the proletariat and masses exercising state power and transforming society toward the eventual abolition of the state. We have to recognize there, too, that this is going to be true--that there are going to be people in different spheres of society or people who don't agree with the Party (or maybe are supporters but are not ready to make the leap to being communists fully) who have much of the truth "in their hands" or who are raising important questions that we need to be paying attention to.

If we're going to achieve our objectives in the most fundamental sense, if we're going to win in both senses--that is, if we're actually going to seize power and be able to carry out transformations and if we're going to do that guided by what our objectives are, to get to a whole different kind of world-- winning in both those senses requires this kind of outlook and methodology, this kind of openness to the ideas, to the efforts, of others--and to their criticisms. Which doesn't mean we should tail people and doesn't mean we should agree with what we don't agree with. In other words, you can criticize me all day long, but if your criticism isn't valid to me, I'm not going to agree with it--and I shouldn't. Now, I may be wrong. Your criticism may be valid, but I'm like everybody else (everybody is this way, or should be): you have to be convinced. And it is true for everybody that, if you're not convinced, then eventually that's going to show up. You can be intimidated, or you can be overwhelmed, or you can be cajoled, but if you're not really won over, eventually the negative consequences of that are going to show up. So we shouldn't agree with people just because we want to be open. It's not a game we're playing; it's not a tactic; it's not a gimmick; it's not diplomacy. It's a question of fundamental methodology.


We should always struggle for what we understand to be true. We shouldn't be liberal and we shouldn't be relativist. Who knows, maybe tomorrow we'll discover that what we believe firmly today to be true is not true. That's true. [BA laughs] It is true that maybe tomorrow we'll discover that things we regard to be very foundational, as they say, are not completely true. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't put them forward as true now, if we understand them to be true now; because, if you don't do that, you disrupt the actual spiral or cycle of knowledge by which you learn more. You have to take those truths that you understand (or those things you understand to be true) at a given time and apply them--take them out into the world and put them into practice and see what they call forth, both in terms of what happens in reality and also in terms of what criticism is generated in relation to them- -and then keep on learning, keep on carrying forward the practice-theory-practice dialectic. So we shouldn't be liberal and we shouldn't be relativist. We shouldn't agree with what we don't agree with just to get along with people, because that doesn't serve the very profound and world-historic objectives we have. We shouldn't tail people and we shouldn't concede to the idea, in our own thinking or in our dealings with other people, that there is no objective truth--it's only a few quirky MLMers who think there's objective reality or something. We're going to have to handle this contradiction correctly too.

Now, by way of negative example, to get at some of the points I'm trying to emphasize, we can look again at something that's pointed to in "GO&GS"3: the example of Lysenko, who was an agronomist, a scientist in the Soviet Union in the '30s, and whose ideas, profoundly incorrect ideas, were promoted by Stalin, even to the point of suppressing people who opposed his ideas. Without going into the whole thing here (it's been spoken to other places), basically Lysenko came up with theories that amounted to applying the principle of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which is scientifically incorrect. They were in a situation in the '30s where they needed to make some leaps in production overall- -not just in general but also specifically staring in the face of what they could see was going to be a massive attack, or very likely a massive attack, from one of the most powerful military machines in the world at that time, namely German imperialism and its Nazi embodiment. They were very anxious, and Stalin was very concerned, to develop production. And here again things divide sharply into two in a number of ways, which are worth examining briefly.

On the one hand, it was necessary for them to prepare for that war. They could see from the early (or certainly from the mid) 1930s on--and especially from 1934 on, when the communist movement in Germany was decisively defeated and the Nazis were clearly consolidating power--that there was a very real and growing likelihood that they would be attacked by the Germans. And they had to prepare for that attack. So that was real. On the other hand--as may not surprise us, having looked into many of these things--Stalin had a lot of mechanical materialist tendencies with regard to this, too; and in a linear, one-to- one way, he equated, even expressly equated, production with being able to wage warfare (whoever can produce the most tanks, planes, etc., is going to win in modern warfare was pretty much the outlook that he was guided by). Now, they did produce a lot of tanks and planes, and they did ultimately win the warfare. Once again, short-term pragmatic logic might tell you: "Well, then, what's to criticize?" But there were problems in the way they went about this, which had longer-term consequences and ultimately strengthened the hand of the revisionists and in general the enemies of the Soviet Revolution. So while it would be wrong, as an overall verdict, to say that their victory in World War 2 was a pyrrhic victory--a victory that really amounted to a defeat or that brought them to the threshold of defeat--it is, on the other hand, important to recognize that there were, in the way that they prepared for and carried out that war, significant aspects which were undermining the things that they were fighting for. And this is very important to learn from.

Now, I've always been very impatient with criticisms that are raised in a very facile manner about Stalin and "Stalinism" and the Soviet Union under Stalin's leadership without reckoning with the actual necessity that they were confronting. It's one thing to approach this, as we've tried to approach it, by seriously looking into all the complexity of what they were dealing with--the necessity they were confronted with, which was very profound and very stark--and then to wrestle with the question: how could they have done things better, and what can we learn by negative example as well as by positive example? But it's another thing to just sort of, in a very flippant way, dismiss that necessity--dismiss the fact that, for example, in Moscow, in the conditions of German invasion and occupation of a significant part of the country, for the better part of a year people were eating wallpaper, and the same in Leningrad, in order to hold out when they were under siege by the Germans. That's what they were reduced to. When you think about that, and you think of how Stalin saw that they were going to be confronted with tremendous necessity, it's another matter when you begin to discuss the errors that were made methodologically. They were made, and they were serious, but in order to correctly assess this, you have to situate it in the context of material, objective reality, of the actual necessity they were confronted with, and then look at how did they go about trying to deal with these contradictions, again sifting through what was correct and incorrect about this.

But, anyway, back to the Lysenko example. A number of scientists, including people who are sort of progressive scientists (not communists, but progressive scientists), have pointed out that to a large degree as a result of promoting Lysenko--and suppressing people who, more or less correctly from a scientific standpoint, opposed Lysenko's theories--biology (and in a larger sense, the sciences in general) in the Soviet Union suffered tremendously and science there has not really fully recovered, or is still confronting the question of recovering from the devastating effects of this--not just in a narrow and a pragmatic sense, but methodologically. So that's on the one hand. I think there's a lot of truth to that, and it's something very sobering to learn from. On the other hand, one of the things that has been pointed out is that a lot of the scientists who opposed Lysenko were counterrevolutionaries, or at least tended in that direction, politically and ideologically, and many of them had been the authorities in science, or at least in biology, in the Soviet Union up to that time. So here again is a sharp contradiction. But, in this Soviet experience and in the leadership of the Soviet Union, along with powerful pragmatic tendencies there was a certain assumption that since these people were counterrevolutionaries politically and ideologically, they must be wrong about this scientific question. Again, mechanical materialism, reductionism, not dealing correctly with the relation between the particular and the universal and between different levels of matter in motion, not understanding the discrete particularity of matter in motion while also correctly understanding the relation of the particular to the universal.


And another dimension of this: I read an interesting article in the New York Times about an art exhibit in the U.S., I guess in New York itself. The headline of the article was "Change the World and Tweak the Bourgeoisie," and it was about this sort of avant- garde art in Russia in the period before and after the October Revolution and up till 1934. A lot of the art they described seems along the lines of surrealism, but these were expressly artists who were trying to, as they say, "tweak the bourgeoisie"--or trying to be subversive by being very outrageous in their art and sort of challenging every convention. I'm not very familiar with all the ins and outs of the art they talk about, but one thing that's interesting in the article that I did want to comment on is that, even after the October Revolution, a lot of these strains of art which we would not identify as being guided by a communist line were not suppressed and in fact in certain ways were continued and encouraged.

But then the article says that, after the death of Lenin in 1924, things began to change. The Communist Party called for an art "comprehensible to the millions." Well, let's take that statement. Is it important to have art that's comprehensible to the masses? Yes it is. Should art generally be incomprehensible to the masses? No. But here again you get into the complexities. We also don't want to feed the masses pablum in the artistic sphere, or anywhere else. In other words, it's correct--this was also argued for in those Ardea Skybreak articles in the RW on the social role of art4--it's correct to encourage the audience to struggle a bit in these spheres and not just to feed them pablum. You shouldn't deliberately make it impossible for them to comprehend what you're doing or create obstacles just for the sake of creating them, so to speak. But, on the other hand, people should be encouraged to struggle, and we shouldn't encourage philistinism among the masses--if something isn't immediately understandable, then it must not be any good. People should struggle for deeper meaning and to understand what people are doing with art, or in the sciences, etc. At the same time, we do need art that's more readily accessible to, more immediately comprehensible for, the millions. The question is, do we only need that? And the answer to that is no. Just as, in the scientific sphere, we don't only need things that have more immediate use or are more "technologically-related," so in the sphere of art, while we do need art that's comprehensible to the millions, we don't only need that.

This is related to the principle that was discussed in "GO&GS" and was also incorporated into the Draft Programme as follows: "Our proletarian ideology leads us to appreciate the importance of science and other intellectual and artistic work that more directly serves the ongoing struggle of the proletariat, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, to appreciate scientific inquiry and intellectual engagement and artistic expression which is not tied in such a direct way--and certainly not in a pragmatic, `instrumentalist' way--to the policy and more immediate aims of the proletarian party at any given time." I think this applies to the questions: do we need art that is comprehensible to the masses, on the one hand, and should we allow for some abstract art and art that's not so immediately comprehensible, on the other hand?

The New York Times article goes on to say that, in the mid-'30s--or, interestingly, 1934 in particular, which is where the art in this exhibit ends--"Stalin decreed that socialist realist painting was the only acceptable aesthetic style." We know that there are a lot of problems associated with only "socialist realism." This is why Mao spoke about needing to combine revolutionary realism with revolutionary romanticism. It's also why this is in that statement in For a Harvest of Dragons 5 where it talks about how we need our firmness of principle, but also flexibility...we need realism, but also romanticism. We need it in the sphere of art, but we need it everywhere; we need people to be using their imagination and striking out in new directions, even in terms of political questions, in terms of solving problems in any sphere, or even just investigating them without an eye to an immediate solution. We need that, even while we also need things that do more immediately relate to our objectives and things that are more immediately comprehensible to the masses.

So this is another way in which we have to correctly handle contradictions. This not only relates to our more immediate objectives--not only to winning in the sense of advancing the class struggle and getting over the hump of seizing power and beginning to carry out the socialist transformation--but it applies in the largest sense. This has to do with what we're all about. We are not about a narrow and pragmatic way of approaching reality--and certainly not an instrumentalist way, which in essence means that, in place of what should be the search for the truth, you undertake a process of seeking desired ends, you pervert the process that should be the search for the truth into an attempt to tautologically verify assumptions that you've already drawn a priori : you make an assumption and set out to prove it, rather than to really engage reality. We don't want that in terms of developing the struggle, and we don't want it in the broadest sense of what we're all about. The kind of world we're trying to bring into being is not a world which is guided by instrumentalist and narrow and pragmatic thinking, or the notion that only that which is already accepted can be done. Lenin criticized revisionism politically for saying--or he pointed out that revisionism amounts to saying--that what is desirable is whatever's possible, and what's possible is what is already being done. That's not a "recipe"--not that we really want recipes, but that's not a method--for making revolution, and it's also not an outlook and methodology that's going to lead to or is in accord with everything we're setting out to do, with what our ultimate and highest objectives are.



1The five-part series, "MLM vs. Anarchism," appeared in RW 919-923, August 17 through September 14, 1997 and is available on line at rwor.org

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2 This principle was the subject of much of the previous excerpt in this series, "Marxism `Embraces But Does Not Replace' " in RW 1180.

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3"Great Objectives and Grand Strategy" is an unpublished work by Bob Avakian; excerpts from it have been published in RW 1127 through 1142, November 18, 2001 through March 10, 2002. They are available on line at rwor.org

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4 The four-part series, "Some Ideas on the Social Role of Art," appeared in RW #1114-1117, August 12-September 7, 2001.

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5 For a Harvest of Dragons: On the "Crisis of Marxism" and the Power of Marxism--Now More Than Ever is a book written by Bob Avakian and published by RCP Publications in 1983.

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