Revolution #156, February 15, 2009
ON THE ROLE OF COMMUNIST LEADERSHIP
AND SOME BASIC QUESTIONS
APPROACH AND METHOD
Editors’ Note: The following is the first in a series of excerpts from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian, “Out Into the World—As a Vanguard of the Future,” to a group of Party members in the first part of 2008. This has been edited and a footnote added for publication here.
To begin with a basic point of orientation and approach in this talk: What will be discussed here is not meant to “supplant” or substitute for “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity” (and the pamphlet, Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation, containing “Making and Emancipating” and “On the Possibility of Revolution,” as well as “Some Crucial Points of Revolutionary Orientation—In Opposition to Infantile Posturing and Distortions of Revolution”).*
“Making and Emancipating”: There I go again being “self-referential”! [Laughter]
In light of certain accusations that my “habit” of citing and quoting previous works of mine is somehow “strange”—and that allegedly this reflects that I am proceeding within a “self-contained world” in which my own thinking is the only point of reference—let me begin with some observations on this, since it does provide an opportunity to speak to some important questions of method and approach.
In essential terms, this “accusation” itself reflects an incorrect understanding of the relation between theory and practice, and more specifically a lack of comprehension (or a distorted view) of the basis and purpose with which communists should apply dialectical materialism to learn about—to analyze and synthesize—reality, and the particular role of communist leaders in this regard. The following points speak to at least much of the heart of the matter.
First, the purpose of my writings and talks, and indeed of everything I do as a communist leader, is to apply the outlook and method of dialectical materialism to continue developing a scientific understanding of the world and to provide leadership in radically transforming it toward the goal of revolution and the final aim of communism.
In this connection, while I should, and do, hold myself to a very high standard in terms of intellectual integrity and rigor, and while I respect those who apply the same standards in the realm of academic work, my purpose and approach is not the same as academic scholars who do not play the role of communist leaders. My responsibility, in my particular leadership role, involves (although it is not limited to) addressing the most fundamental contradictions and the most pressing problems in relation to actually making revolution and advancing toward the final goal of communism, and giving leadership to others in doing so. One aspect of this is to continually make, and popularize, an analysis and assessment of the ever changing “political terrain”—the objective conditions and the role of different political and social forces in relation to those objective conditions. Another key dimension of this is to speak to the questions on the minds of proletarians and other basic masses, as well as people of other strata, particularly with regard to things that may weigh on them and pose obstacles in relation to their seeing both the necessity and the possibility of communist revolution, and acting on that understanding—questions which most academics largely ignore and which many are frankly ignorant of. In a larger sense with regard to theory and intellectual work, my particular role is not only to strive myself to meet the pressing and profound needs in the realm of developing theory, line and strategic orientation, to serve the goal of revolution and the ultimate aim of communism, but also to inspire—and, yes, to provoke—others in this regard and more generally in terms of taking initiative in working with ideas and wrangling in the realm of theory, broadly speaking; to help provide a continually deepening foundation and developing framework for those seeking to apply the outlook and method of communism to engage in theoretical and analytical work, covering a broad range of fields; and to challenge others, beyond the ranks of communists, to seriously engage with such a communist method and approach and the theory and analysis that results from the application of that method and approach.
In accordance with the orientation and objectives with which I approach working with ideas, particularly in the case of talks I give I often do not adopt an “academic format”—in which citations and sources would be more extensively and systematically indicated for references I make (to statements, facts, etc.), especially where the conclusions I am drawing might well be contentious—although, especially when things are done in written form, I generally do include such citations and sources. But, in any case, the arguments I make and the conclusions I point to are the result of serious study and reflection, and they carry with them an invitation—and, again, often a conscious provocation—to dig into what I am arguing, to verify (or perhaps to disprove) what I have put forward, and to engage more fully the important questions bound up with this.
Second, it is obvious in reading my works (or at least obvious to anyone who reads them without a jaundiced eye) that I frequently cite and explore the insights of many others, who are coming at things from many different viewpoints, and that I continually interrogate my own thinking along with seeking to learn what I can from the insights and analysis of others, including in those cases where I disagree, even perhaps strongly disagree, with them.
Third, in those situations where I “quote myself,” it is generally the case that, with regard to a point that I see as relevant, no one else is saying these things or coming at these problems in the same way. If my thinking on a particular point has not changed, and the point is germane to what is being discussed at the time, it just makes no sense, after I have struggled previously to synthesize something in as precise a formulation as I can achieve, to then turn around and restate it in perhaps less precise ways (rather than simply citing what I have said previously on this point, and still believe to be true).
Fourth, and as a point of summation, this is not at all a matter of being “linear” and “self-contained,” but it is a matter of proceeding from and building on what has previously been synthesized, while assimilating into the ongoing synthesis things that have been learned, from others as well as from reality more broadly, including but not limited to summation of the practice of our Party in carrying out our line.
To put this another way: While there is not a “linear” character to the ongoing development of my work and my role as a communist leader, there is a certain continuity, even as there are also breaks and ruptures—from some of the thinking of previous communists, and from some of my own previous thinking.
At any given point, my citing of my own previous works—or those of anyone else—is in the service of this ongoing process. And, while I learn from and make reference to many different people and works, coming from many different viewpoints, in those situations where the most relevant reference is in fact to one of my own works or statements, I am not going to pretend otherwise, in some masquerade of misplaced modesty or acting out of misguided obeisance to “academic niceties.”
An additional brief aside here, to elaborate further on some important aspects of method and approach: In addition to the rather extensive reading I did, out of a general thirst for knowledge (and for aesthetic reasons) before I became a communist—delving into works in many different fields, by a diversity of writers with many different viewpoints, although overwhelmingly non-Marxist—from the time, 40 years ago, that I became a communist, and specifically in relation to my responsibilities as a communist leader, and while in a fundamental sense actively leading this Party (and the Revolutionary Union before it), I have read a large part of the writings of Marx and Engels—including all 3 volumes of Marx’s Capital and most of Theories of Surplus Value, as well as the Grundrisse, works by Engels such as Anti-Duhring, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, and Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State—and, yes, Marx’ and Engels’ writings on religion, along with almost all of the 40 or so volumes of Lenin published in English, 13 volumes of Stalin published in English (and Stalin’s speeches during World War 2—or, as he referred to it, “the Great Patriotic War”) as well as his writings after World War 2 (including such works as “Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR”), and all of the officially-published works of Mao in English, as well as all the “unofficial” works of Mao that I could find in English, and in addition a great number of theoretical works by the Chinese Communist Party when it was led by Mao, including the polemics against the Soviet revisionists and numerous articles in the Peking Review (as it was called at the time) and other publications during the general period of the Cultural Revolution. I have also read hundreds and hundreds of other books, as well as any number of essays, articles, etc., on a wide range of subjects (philosophy, religion, poetry, music, sports and other cultural arenas, and science—both the natural and social sciences—and so on), expressing a broad diversity of views (communist, pseudo and phony communist, non-communist, and explicitly anti-communist), including analysis and criticisms of the international communist movement and specifically of the Soviet Union and China (as well as analyses and commentaries in regard to Cuba, Vietnam and other revolutionary struggles); and I have read literally thousands and thousands (probably many tens of thousands) of pages of reports on the work of our own Party, in all the different dimensions of that work, as well as carrying out discussions and very extensive correspondence with others on different levels in our Party about all these things (both our own practice, as well as the practice of others in the communist movement, and a much broader range of human experience and thinking), and no small amount of exchange of views with others outside the Party. In addition, in the last few years, I have read again the whole of the Bible and of the Qur’an, as well as The Book of Mormon and some other religious scriptures as well as engaging writings and talks on religion by a number of scholars, coming from various perspectives.
As should be clear from my reference here to works of religious scripture and mythology, I am not saying that there is any kind of one-to-one relation between reading things and having a correct understanding of reality! I am not arguing that the fact that I have done all this reading, and so on, means that my ideas (or any particular idea of mine) is bound to be correct. There is the continual need to keep on learning, from many different sources, and the need to constantly put one’s ideas not only to the test of others’ interrogation but also, and more fundamentally, to the test of reality—to determine, yes, if these ideas actually do correspond to reality. And, much more important than the quantity of what one has read, is the outlook and method that one applies in reading, in engaging ideas and engaging reality overall (we should not forget Mao’s pungent remark that people like Kautsky had read many, many books, but with revisionists like that, the more they read the stupider they get!). But the point is that all of what I have referred to here—the study of Marxist “classics,” and other works with a generally Marxist viewpoint, of the works of others with non-Marxist and anti-Marxist and anti-communist viewpoints, in many different fields, the study of reports of the work of our Party in all different arenas, the exchange of views with people inside and outside the Party, and so on—all this, and the continuation of this as an ongoing process (yes, including what I have previously said and written, on the basis of the same process) is what I draw on, in my particular role as a communist leader, with regard to ideological and political line, program, policy, and practical guidance; and all this underlies and feeds into my talks and writings.
Now, it would be rather cumbersome, to say the least, to try to refer to—let alone to recite or “read into the record”—all of that, every time I give a talk or write something!
But it is all there, as background and as part of a—continuously developing—foundation.
And I am firmly convinced that this (yes, including reference to my own work where that is indeed relevant) is the correct way to proceed if in fact one’s goal is not simply to read, and write and talk, for its own sake—or to conform to the dictates of academic abstraction, in the bad sense, divorcing knowledge from the struggle to change the world and in effect turning it into commodity and capital (to establish oneself as “very well read, it’s well known,” as Bob Dylan put it in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” ridiculing the infamous “Mr. Jones”), but instead the purpose and goal is to continue acquiring a fuller, deeper, and more all-sided understanding of reality, in dialectical relation with radically transforming it, and leading others to radically transform it, toward the goal of communism—in accordance with the principle that Marx emphasized in his “Theses on Feuerbach” (to paraphrase): The various philosophers have merely tried to interpret the world—the fundamental point, however, is to change it.
* “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity,” “On the Possibility of Revolution” and “Some Crucial Points of Revolutionary Orientation—In Opposition to Infantile Posturing and Distortions of Revolution” are all available online at revcom.us as well as being included in Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation, A Revolution pamphlet, May 1, 2008. [back]