Revolution #260, February 19, 2012

Letter from a Reader

On studying Bob Avakian on the Cultural Revolution and the role of the artist in socialist society

February 12, 2012

To the editors:

I was very glad to hear that Revolution is publishing Michael Slate's interview with Bob Avakian on the Cultural Revolution in China, and the role of the artist in socialist society. I've recently used this interview in two different study sessions with people who from various viewpoints are getting into the RCP's Manifesto and BA's new synthesis of communism, and I want to share that experience and make a recommendation.

First off, I used the audio of the interview itself, which is available online. I didn't make a presentation with my own interpretation of what was said, and I didn't just ask people what they thought of the content; I played it. I would suggest doing the same. Even if people have read it, this interview is deep and layered, and stands repeated listening. In addition, for this generation the content of what's being discussed is very unfamiliar. So hearing it again will refresh people as to its content. (If you are leading discussion of this in prison or otherwise are unable to play an audio, perhaps someone could read the content out loud, and then stop at various points.)

When I led the classes, I began with an orientation that laid out the importance of BA and the work that he has done, including very importantly on the experience of the first stage of the communist revolution; that this first stage—the great achievements, as well as the setbacks—is critical for us to understand if we are going to truly initiate a new stage of this revolution; and that our approach has to be scientific and not religious—we are trying to deeply understand reality, not reassure ourselves as to the "tenets of the faith" or tell ourselves tales of a "golden age" to buck up our spirits or spend an evening discussing something interesting for the sake of discussion (though it is interesting!). This is about learning how to do better the next time. Of course, a program in a bookstore should draw a very broad audience, including people who are checking this out for the first time, and we should take care to be inclusive (to have "big arms," to put it that way); but this orientation should be the leading edge.

This orientation was relatively brief. Then the session proceeded like this: I would play a section of audio, and then stop and ask a few questions on the content. This wasn't random—to do this well, you have to listen to the audio a few times and figure out where the important points are to stop. For example, at one point BA discusses the "birthmarks" of capitalism in the new society—in one group we stopped there and discussed for a while what that actually refers to. In the course of this, people raised many questions and there was quite a bit of discussion and debate. In the other session, in discussing the part of the interview where BA compares Mao's approach to Stalin's, someone raised, "yeah, well you can say all that, but let's face it—Stalin had no choice." This too led to some really engaged discussion and debate. The point is this: by playing the audio and stopping it occasionally, the discussion stayed focused on the content of the material as the solid core—and the elasticity of the discussion (ranging over different concepts discussed by BA and experiences of the first stage of communist revolution) revolved around that. I won't and can't go into all of what we discussed, but we did dig deeply—and one of these discussions, which took place in the afternoon, went well over 4 hours before we finally had to leave to make way for another program. A few major themes: the need to be scientific (and we reviewed what that is), to learn from the content but also the approach of BA, and to do all this coming from understanding that the world really needs a new stage of communist revolution—and the responsibility to bring forward those initiators and be those initiators is before us.

Another way to go at this would be to play the whole interview all the way through, and then focus on key points for discussion. Leaders of the classes should decide which way will work best in their situation.

Second, these discussions actually did NOT go into the second part of the interview—they did not get to the criticisms of Mao and the role of the artist in socialist society. We will do this, but we just weren't able to in one session and I don't think we could have and really have done justice to the first part of the interview. So I would strongly recommend that if discussions of this are being planned—and I strongly feel that they should be—that these be conceived of as two sequential discussions.

Through the course of these discussions, you should be directing people to the RCP's Manifesto, Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage. This document captures the sweep of history and the juncture we're at now—it's really the essential grounding for anyone who wants to understand the historical context of this interview. I would also strongly recommend that people leading these discussions review and, frankly, steep themselves in other works by BA going into this, as well as the polemic against Alain Badiou, the Manifesto, and the appendix in the Party Constitution on the science of communism; there is a hunger among some people right now to learn more and go deeper—to take one example, someone at one point asked "Could you please explain what happened in the GPCR?" This led to interesting discussion where different people put forward their understanding of that, and it was very important to be able to draw on the polemic with Badiou, for instance, in sorting this out.

But again, above all, stay with the interview itself. It's packed! There's nothing more important than bringing forward initiators of a new stage, and this is a very valuable tool in doing that.

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