Revolution Online, February 21, 2010
An Historic Contradiction: Fundamentally Changing The World Without "Turning Out the Lights"
Comments on "The world must not stay as it is and yet... Here come the communists, turn out the lights, the party's over"
This contradiction has been circulating in my mind ever since it was first presented in this somewhat stark form. It is very much to the heart of what we need to be wrangling with now—as we fight to establish the beginning of a new stage of communism—and projecting into the future. There is a lot that is involved in this. It is easy to say that we don't want it to be true that what we are about will result in "turning out the lights, let's get down to business, the party's over." We don't want to be, and should not want to be, those kind of people, or that kind of political party, but all too often this has been a definite feature of the communist movement, even the very best. It cannot be merely a matter of bad intentions, but more a matter of conception and method that frame how the problems of making the radical rupture from thousands of years of class society to one that is based on completely different relations among people have been viewed. Of course, this really goes to the heart of the new synthesis of Bob Avakian, and the re-envisioned socialism and communism, and is something that Avakian has been working on and addressing for many years in different ways.
It is one thing, and very important, to sum up that there have been problems of economism and reification in the experience of the first stage of communist revolution. But there is a great deal involved in bringing a different approach to addressing these problems, which the new synthesis is the essential foundation for. Making revolution, making proletarian revolution, must usher in a whole new stage of human experience and relations that rest on a whole different foundation: economically, socially, ideologically, etc. It is not just a matter of making revolution and bringing new people into power, and setting up a new kind of government and institutions that are free from exploitation. Emancipators of humanity is not just a nice slogan but a basic orientation and goal. Getting beyond the "Four Alls" is a complex process, that involves transforming people and institutions, and ideas. As discussed in "Views on Socialism and Communism" and "Making Revolution, Emancipating Humanity," human needs and wants are socially determined and what seems normal, necessary and desirable today will change as society changes. Conceptions of freedom and what human beings are capable of have to be transformed, new ideas and conceptions have to come to the fore and all of this has to be led, but not straitjacketed. Thinking about this has provoked me to read once again Dictatorship and Democracy and the Socialist Transition to Communism, and the talk to comrades on Epistemology in Observations, as well as more recent talks by Avakian.
Why does "Dictatorship and Democracy..." begin by discussing the importance of working with ideas, and the struggle in the realm of ideas? What is the importance of this realm in its own right and the work that is required to be good at this? This is a theme that is repeatedly returned to for good reason. It does seem that there is a very strong trend in the previous and existing communist movement, as part of the concept of class truth, to regard the sphere of working with ideas, and those who engage in this, with suspicion and to want to shut out any ideas that are not deemed "beneficial" to the working masses, to the downtrodden, or to the socialist agenda at any given moment. The question is raised, "Can you actually work with ideas in a critical and creative way and be a member of a vanguard communist party?" This also poses the questions of how such critical and creative thinking can be part of a society led by communists.
I believe this is also related to the point on (not having) an official ideology in socialist society even as the leadership of the revolution is guided by communist ideology. I am thinking of an experience a few years ago when I read the book Reading Lolita in Teheran, which describes the underground circle of women who gather to read novels from Western culture in the living room of a professor who was once part of the general movement to overthrow the rule of the Shah, and returned to teach at university in Iran, only to be forced out because of her views that were opposed to the official ideology of the current regime. Without discussing the merits one way or another of the particular books they were reading, all of which I frankly do not remember—Lolita was one, Great Gatsby was another—what stood out to me in that book was the contrast between the intellectual grappling that was going on clandestinely in the living room, against the law, and what was not allowed in official society. The ruling ideology of Islam did not allow for any exploration of literature and themes that fell outside their closed system of thought. It made me think about what happens, and what kind of society you have, when people have to sneak around to be able to talk about books they want to read. What are the larger implications of this for innovations, for individuals having ease of mind, for social interaction and engagement over ideas, and for ultimately being able to transform society to achieve a communist society? This was but one small example, but it provoked me to think about this.
And yet how different is this from the views in socialist China toward "Western" films, music, etc. Besides the obvious nationalism that was involved in this, there was clearly a view that there were, in both form and content, those things that corresponded to the working class outlook and other things that did not, and the latter should be kept away from the masses. There is a lot more involved in this, which I will return to later, but it is striking that even with entirely different ideologies between the Islamic theocracy in Iran and revolutionary China, there is something to poke at.
But with regard to Reading Lolita... shortly after I read this book, I had a discussion with someone whose take on this book was very different. Their approach was to focus on the bourgeois character of the books that were being discussed in that book, and how much of a problem the influence of those ideas are in Iran today. What struck me about this was that instead of being challenged, as I was, by the contradiction that reading this book provoked in me, this person wanted to put their efforts to countering the influence of "alien" ideology that might be spread by this author. I don't know what kind of influence this particular author was having, but it seems that communists should want to learn from the negative experience of the reactionary "official ideology" of Islam practiced in the Islamic Republic of Iran today, in thinking about what kind of liberatory society we are trying to lead in bringing into being.
How do we envision experimentation and probing in the realms of literature and art, including those things which will inevitably represent and even argue for worldviews that go against a dialectical materialist understanding of the world? Is there actual value to society in having this be fostered, as opposed to just being tolerated? Does everything have to be evaluated and categorized according to "proletarian criteria"? Clearly in the experience of the first wave of proletarian revolutions there were periods when there was a lot of flowering and experimentation that was part of revolutionizing society, but then the lights did go out to a certain extent, both in the Soviet Union and in China (even if in different ways), to my understanding.
Partly this came from a wrong conception that because society was being led by communists that everyone in the society had to and was going to ascribe to communist ideology. That was going to set the standards, and therefore everything had to conform to that ideology. The parachute analogy helps to provide a more correct understanding of the actual process that goes on, and the contradictions that those who are trying to lead society to a communist world are confronted with. Things are going to be more contradictory, and there are different channels that are going to contribute via different tributaries to the larger stream of social transformation. Communist leadership has to involve advocating and struggling for those things that it knows to be true— like a scientific understanding of evolution—and countering views and programs that contribute to the further exploitation and oppression of people, but doing so without creating a suffocating atmosphere. Moreover, there are going to be important ways that communists are going to need to be challenged by the thinking and wrangling in the realm of ideas coming from many sources.
But beyond this, there is the contradiction that communists have a fully worked out worldview that embraces but does not replace other spheres, while those who are not communists do not–and there can be a way that the communist comprehensive worldview can be "brought to bear" in ways that shut down views that are less fully formed, or contradictory, creating a stifling atmosphere. Besides the important fact that any given communist, or even a genuinely revolutionary communist party, is not going to be correct all the time, there is the point that people need air to breathe or there will be no vitality in society, no freedom to think, feel and experiment, and new things will not be able to arise and flourish. This is a real contradiction that has to be understood, not shined on, and then worked with—how can this provide a positive dynamic that propels further advance, but not in a linear and reductionist way.
What is the necessity that imposes itself once having embarked on making revolution and then taking up the task, once having won the revolutionary war, of rebuilding society in such a way that does not go back to the past? What are the actual contradictions that are confronted and how does this tend to pull away from a situation where there is liveliness and intellectual ferment? This has been discussed quite a bit in terms of what was faced by the Soviet Union at its inception, and then in the face of very real war directed toward it by Germany and others. And China also faced tremendous necessity at the beginning and throughout. It would be easy to let 100 flowers bloom, to let 100 schools of thought contend and see where it all leads, if there were no necessity to deal with actual enemies of the revolution of all kinds who are working to destroy the new society, if there were no needs to put the resources of the society toward solving the very real problems of changing the conditions of people's lives, if there were no forces external to the society that had to be contended with via wars and in other ways. So to act like there is no necessity doesn't help resolve this. But Mao Tsetung did try to experiment with this in different ways, including the unleashing of the GPCR (Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution). Still, despite the ways in which things were opened up, the right solution in relation to the intellectuals was not found. And even beyond that strata, there still was a constricted, and frankly reified, conception of what kind of ferment was encouraged or allowed. The fact that there is necessity does not free us from the need to transform that necessity into freedom in ways that actually open things up to get at truth and advance society.
Why did Mao abandon the idea of relying on a section of the intellectuals, as discussed in “Unresolved Contradictions, Driving Forces for Revolution”? It is not hard to imagine that many of those who had been part of the initial revolutionary struggle–who were attracted to the ideals of communism, even— were not entirely reliable spontaneously when it came to facing the difficulties of actually transforming society. But what was involved and what was the effect of giving up on this, and reaching for a more reified conception of successors? It seems to me that besides the idea that was carried forward from the Soviet Union's experience of bringing forward intellectuals from the oppressed masses as the solution to this, there was a downplaying or narrowing in conception of the importance of wrangling in the realm of ideas, of really letting 100 flowers bloom and then knowing what to do with that.
There is another angle of this that has been brought to mind in thinking about this. How does actual initiative get unleashed in the fullest sense on the basis of a solid core? How do you foster the ideas of cooperation, and serving the larger interests of society without negating individuality and the different ways that human beings are going to want to relate to each other and the whole society? How do you embrace diversity and not impose everyone has to have the same opinions and like to do the same things in the same way, while struggling for a different conception of freedom that is not just everyone should be left alone to do their own thing? How will people be encouraged to play and love, to experiment without being "clocked into" the socialist agenda. Even having these questions brought forward to be considered is only possible from the framework of the new synthesis, where previously these kinds of things have been ruled off the agenda. Very importantly, the necessity that will be imposed to "get things done" should not be allowed to trump the need to do things that are not always on the official agenda. What role does initiative at the local level play in contributing to new things and innovation? The need for centralization and overall planning of the economy, and structure of society, as well as coordination of objectives and necessary leaps is clear but how does this not contribute to a stagnant and lockstep society? Clearly this has been a problem in previous socialist societies.
Recently, in thinking about the movie Avatar, I was provoked to think about how under a socialist society we would regard the kind of creative innovation of technology that was developed in that movie. Of course, the problem of the kind of resources to produce such a movie immediately arises, especially in a world that is not relying on imperialist exploitation of the rest of the world. But beyond that, there is scientific and artistic innovation that will be developed if there is the freedom to do so, that will not have any immediate narrowly conceived social value in terms of either particular political objectives or the improvement of life of the people. These kinds of things do have social value on a number of different levels, including in unanticipated ways, affecting the vibrancy of life, of work. But in relation to dire necessity and other pressing social needs, will these be viewed and disallowed because they are deemed frivolous or socially unnecessary? How does society decide this and how does the leadership lead in creating the right atmosphere and environment that fosters creativity and new things coming to the fore?
A lot has been written by way of overall orientation toward these problems, and learning more deeply about the experience–and conceptions guiding–the previous socialists societies will help flesh out both the problems but also the ruptures that need to be made in the framework of the new synthesis. This is not just something that will arise sometime in the future, but also has everything to do with how we conceive of our work and relation to society, with different strata of masses and in bringing forward the forces for revolution.
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