Revolution #98, August 19, 2007
Editors' Note: The following are excerpts from an edited version of a talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, to a group of Party supporters, in the fall of last year (2006). This is the 15th in a series of excerpts we will be running in Revolution. Subheads and footnotes have been added for publication here. The entire talk is available online at revcom.us/avakian/anotherway.
Never Underestimate the Great Importance of Ideology
In the context of what I have been discussing here, and as a point of basic and overarching importance, I want to emphasize something we could capture with the phrase: "Never underestimate the great importance of ideology."
We have a very negative example of this with the Islamic fundamentalists. The way in which they are proceeding to do what they're doing has a very powerful ideological component to it.
How do people respond to the conditions that they find themselves in? What course or road do they take, and what do they respond to, in the face of those conditions? This is not predetermined. There is not just one way that people respond, automatically and regardless of influences on them. And even the level on which people sacrifice depends on their ideological orientation to a very significant degree.
Lenin pointed out, for example, in What Is To Be Done?, that, in the course of the Russian revolutionary movement, Iskra, the newspaper of the Bolsheviks, trained a whole generation in how to live and how to die. And that's what these Islamic fundamentalists are doing, from a very different and fundamentally reactionary standpoint. We can see the very negative effects of this. And, yes, in the short run they have certain things going for them because they can promote metaphysics and idealism, with the notion of another world and how you'll get your reward there. And, of course, it's too late, once you're dead, to find out there's nothing there—including you! But are there things worth living and dying for? This is a profound ideological question. Besides things like these Islamic fundamentalist movements, look at what many people are living and dying for these days, especially the youth, being drawn to crime and gangs, and so on. Where is that going to lead? And what is that going to contribute to and reinforce? But, with all this, it would be a very serious error to underestimate the great importance of ideology, of one kind or another, and how it leads people to act, and be willing to sacrifice—how it trains them, in short, to know how to live and how to die.
And from another angle—talking about the other "historically outmoded"1 —we shouldn't underestimate the degree to which Bush and company are also attaching great importance to ideology. Bush, in his recent speeches, and others, like Rumsfeld, have continually emphasized that the battle against what they call "Islamic extremist totalitarianism" is not only a major military battle but also the great ideological battle of our time. This is how they're presenting it. And, yes, we can make our jokes about "W," who doesn't know how to pronounce "nuke-u-lar," and so on and so forth, but there are people surrounding him and there is a core there that thinks, that is very deeply ideologically committed and understands the importance of the battle in the ideological realm. That's why they're bringing forward all these World War 2 analogies and all their talk about totalitarianism and extremism, and so on. In other words, they are bringing forward their solid core—with very little elasticity and a lot of absolutism, these days especially. And what can stand up to and really oppose that? In the final analysis, and in fundamental terms, only our solid core— with a lot of elasticity, on the correct basis of the necessary solid core.
The relativism and ideological flabbiness so common among the liberals—both those within the ruling class, but also more broadly in society, including the liberals and progressives among the middle strata—this is not capable of and is not going to stand up to the reactionary solid core in the ruling class—nor, for that matter, to the reactionary solid core of the Islamic fundamentalist phenomenon.
And here I want to return to Michelle Goldberg. Despite, or in some ways actually because of, her own worldview, including the influence of Hannah Arendt's notions of totalitarianism, the following from "our old friend" Michelle Goldberg provides a valuable window into the thinking of many liberals and progressives these days. She says: "Ideologies that answer deep existential needs are hugely powerful." That's a profoundly important point.2 Then, after making this very crucial basic point—"Ideologies that answer deep existential needs are hugely powerful"—Goldberg goes on:
"The Christian nationalists [or what we would call Christian fascists—BA] have one. And their opponents largely do not. Today's liberalism has many ideas and policy prescriptions, but given the carnage born of utopian dreams in the 20th century, it is understandably distrustful of radical, all-encompassing political theories. It is cautious and skeptical. Liberals don't want to remake the world; they just want to make it a little better." (Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming, pp. 191-92)
Well, there's a lot packed into that statement. This is why it's worth reading people like this, even after they've slandered us (which Goldberg did a few years ago, in connection with the original "Not In Our Name" statement and the political movement which that statement helped to inspire). Here is a classic example of someone who is highly disturbed by developments in U.S. society, in particular the growing influence of Christian fascism. From reading this book it is clear that she would like to keep things, including opposition to this fascist trend, within certain bounds, but she has a sense that this may not be possible. This is very profound in its implications, in a number of ways. So, in a certain sense, "there you have it" in those few sentences—a lot is actually captured there—including a window into the highly distorted way that people like Goldberg are viewing the experience of communist-led revolution and socialist society in the 20th century (a major part, if not the heart, of what she is referring to with the phrase: "the carnage born of utopian dreams in the 20th century"). And this is why, in a general and overall sense, it is worth it and necessary to investigate what people from all different strata are thinking, both when they systematize it like this and through broader investigation to find out about, and make a synthesis from, more scattered and unsystematic ideas and sentiments among people in different parts of society.
But, with all this, it is extremely important to keep in mind a profound point from Marx. To paraphrase (and somewhat expand upon) what he says: what matters fundamentally is not what anyone or any group of people might want subjectively, or might be thinking at any given point, but what the underlying and driving contradictions and dynamics will confront people with. Among other things, this underscores the great importance of our solid core, ideologically as well as politically—a solid core which is dialectically related to, and in an essential way encompasses, elasticity and which can lead the way to in fact radically remaking the world to bring into being something far better.
1. This refers to Bob Avakian's concentrated formulation about the “two historically outmodeds,” which is cited earlier in this talk: “What we see in contention here with Jihad on the one hand and McWorld/McCrusade on the other hand, are historically outmoded strata among colonized and oppressed humanity up against historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system. These two reactionary poles reinforce each other, even while opposing each other. If you side with either of these ‘outmodeds,’ you end up strengthening both.” Bob Avakian points out, “As matter of general principle, and specifically sitting in this imperialist country, we have a particular responsibility to oppose U.S. imperialism, our ‘own’ ruling class, and what it is doing in the world. But, at the same time, that doesn't make these Islamic fundamentalist forces not historically outmoded and not reactionary. It doesn’t change the character of their opposition to imperialism and what it leads to and the dynamic that it’s part of—the fact that these two ‘historically outmodeds’ do reinforce each other, even while opposing each other. And it is very important to understand, and to struggle for others to understand, that if you end up supporting either one of these two ‘historically outmodeds,’ you contribute to strengthening both. It is crucial to break out of that dynamic—to bring forward another way.” [back]
2. [FOOTNOTE BY THE AUTHOR] In the context of this statement by Goldberg, as well as for more general and fundamental reasons, it is important to keep in mind that, contrary to the way in which it is often, even generally, presented in this society, ideology does not necessarily mean an instrumentalist approach to "organizing reality" in pursuit of desired ends, which bears little or no relation to how reality actually is. Communist ideology is definitely a worldview and set of principles to live by, on the one hand; and at the same time it is, in fundamental terms, in accordance with reality and its motion and development, and is a means for scientifically engaging reality. This is why we say that communist ideology is both partisan —it stands with and for a definite side among the contending social forces in the world, the side of proletarian revolution and the advance to communism—and it is objective : it seeks an objective, scientific understanding of reality, in order to transform it in accordance with the advance to communism, and since that advance is objectively possible and its possibility is expressed in the way the fundamental contradictions in human society are tending, on a world scale, there is no need for communists to distort reality, or contort it, to make it fit their aims and objectives—and, on the contrary, any such distortion and contortion will actually work against the advance to communism. Of course, it has not always been the case that communists have acted in accordance with this fundamental truth—there have been marked tendencies in the history of the communist movement to fall into adopting various forms of “political truths”—in other words, stating as truths things which are in reality not true but which seem convenient at the time (an approach Lenin identified philosophically and criticized as “Truth as an organizing principle” or “organizing experience”). But the fact remains that, as a matter of basic principle, communism as a worldview and method rejects such instrumentalist approaches and recognizes the fundamental epistemological principle that, as I have put it in another discussion: “Everything that is actually true is good for the proletariat, all truths can help us get to communism.” (See "Bob Avakian in a Discussion with Comrades on Epistemology: On Knowing and Changing the World," in Bob Avakian, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, Insight Press, 2005.) [back]