The following is an edited text of the questions and discussion that followed the talk by Chairman Avakian, "Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism." This discussion involved a group of supporters of the RCP who are studying the historical experience of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and preparing to take up the challenge of popularizing this experience and engaging in discussion and struggle with others about it, particularly on campuses but also more broadly.The discussion was moderated by Maoist political economist Raymond Lotta.
BA:We just want to open it up for discussion -- whatever people want to raise in a general way at this point -- and then we'll see if there are certain particular focuses that might emerge. But if people just want to start things off -- raise anything, whatever.
A: I'll start the ball rolling. It seems to me that this kind of attitude of having -- of not having had the reins on the intellectual discussion, or the intellectual life of the nation under socialism, of the country -- there is this distinction: there are times when you do want to have the reins held tightly, and carefully, and keep an eye on what the discourse is, and other things, not just the intellectual discourse, but stuff in the superstructure, of culture, whatever -- and then there are other times when you don't want to have a tight rein on it, and that's the preferable state of things. With our understanding of how class struggle is really the key link to push through -- it's the driving and dynamic part of what's moving socialism towards communism -- it really does seem like that's one of those key contradictions, or key things in terms of really developing an understanding of how you are going to handle that contradiction, between having your hands tightly on the reins, and kind of easing up and letting things out in the open. And I think there have been beginning steps to that in the historical experience of our movement, and that also seems to be something that has applicability to now, in terms of trying to bust open at a time when there isn't really a revolutionary movement like there was in the '60s, but there is a need for carving out space for radical discourse. We want to encourage and give strength to intellectuals that have points of view that can help open up more space for our proletarian point of view too. Just in general, in applying it under socialism, you have got to carefully identify who the people and the enemy are, you have got to have a real handle on these united front kinds of questions. It's just a very striking kind of contradiction. I think you brought it out with a lot of fullness and richness.
BA: One of the things I was thinking of -- one day I was going through a library and I was thinking about this -- kind of as a metaphor, that under socialism you would want to have the library stacks full and open. But that's another one of those things that involves some acute contradictions, because there's a lot of garbage that has been written throughout history. I don't know if other people have experienced this, but I used to be a student at Cal, and I had access to the stacks -- if you had a certain gradepoint average, you could have access to the stacks. And one of my favorite things was just to go down into these -- it was like these catacombs -- you could go down into the stacks and you could walk around and just look at all the books; you could just pull something off the shelf and read it and then you say, oh there's another one, and then pull that one off the shelf. That experience is something that people, who have been able to and like to grapple in the realm of ideas, really enjoy. Not having, so to speak, the menu of what you can read very restricted. So that kind of encapsulates, or captures a real contradiction.
Then I was reading something which has to do with this official ideology point -- I was reading an internal Party report about somebody in one area who was trying to get people to read some of the things I had written, and then this woman responded, "You know, I'm really getting to hate Bob Avakian, because all the time you are talking about reading this and reading that." [laughs] I mean, this person doesn't even know me, and they don't really have a basis to hate me. But I was just thinking that there is this kind of acute contradiction that people like to find their own way to things, sometimes, and discover things somewhat on their own. They don't mind being introduced to things, or things being made available to them. But, especially, I think, they don't like the idea that they can only read this or that. Even if they like it. They don't like the idea that this is all you can read.
Now, frankly we haven't done nearly enough to promote our own things, and in particular my writings and talks. But, on the other hand, there is the other side to it, that especially when you are running a society, when you are the leaders of a society, you have to take this into account -- there is something there to be understood about how people don't like only having one kind of thing available to them, even if they like that thing. And how you handle that is another expression of this same kind of thing I've been talking about. Because you do need certain things to be a bedrock, but then there are a lot of other things people want to experiment with, so to speak.
B: I'm among various strata of different people -- daily exposed to them. Pretty much my background and present family organization -- well we struggled, we struggled then and we struggle now. And one of the problems that I really see is how in the world do you bring MLM to those who definitely need it the most. What types of methods would you employ to do that? I mean, real methods. At least getting that into the conversation. Because a lot of the people, they don't even know who Marx is, you know what I'm saying, especially the ones who are at the heart of and in the midst of the struggle. They don't know what the fuck Marx is, they don't know none of that. Actually engaging them in one way or another, through what modes?
BA: What experience have you had in trying to do that? Or, are you just at the point of trying to figure out how to do it?
B: Well, my experiences in the past -- I've kind of been locked out from trying to do it as with my family, because they are staunch, or at least deeply rooted into Pentecostal religion. To them, I just got a bunch of demons that need to be cast out. I've found some of the most useful processes would be when I'm like in a specific social field, like a classroom or some other discussion, and it comes up. And that's one of the main areas where it really can come up. Because we are in an area that is designated for discussion and education. And it doesn't of course ever go in a straight line, the conversations, and what-not. But when it does get onto Marx and political economy, I try to run with it as best as possible, and try to get some points across. I've been trying to figure out a way to be able to create those conditions, specifically what you would call a social arena, that is specifically for that particular agenda. Especially in the Black community the only social field where the people come together generally is the church. I'm thinking in my head some alternative than that, because that's been seen as -- so much is desperate, let's stick with this. But if there was, like, some other grounds that was designated for specific discussion, contradiction and discourse on the specific agenda of MLM and issues definitely in society. I'm thinking: what are some of the methods to bring that about?
BA: What are some of the other forms and ways or circumstances in which people talk about things, other than the church?
B: Like, it's real interesting, on Saturdays I'll go donate blood because they give money for it. And when I go there, there's waiting and there's different people, all different. But you know they all got one thing in common, that they had to give blood to get this money. That they really need some money, you know what I'm saying. And a lot of the conversations that come up -- of course, it's loose, like I said, it's never linear -- among issues that do come up are issues of politics. Not just ways to make money, but issues, you know what I'm saying, issues that could definitely lead into some sort of critical discussion, not necessarily in those particular fields that it starts in.
BA: Well, it seems like a lot of what's involved is that you have to divert discussions that do arise away from the spontaneous direction they often take. Like, I remember one time, shortly after I moved to the Chicago area, I used to play basketball right around where I lived, in Maywood, but there was one Saturday when, for whatever reason, nobody was out. I went to three or four different playgrounds and nobody was at any of them. So I asked somebody, where's another place to play, and they sent me down to this area on the West Side. So I went, and we were playing -- you know how it goes, you win a few games and then you get run off the court, so we had to wait for our turn to play again. And then we started talking. And we got into this whole discussion about Kennedy and everything, I don't even remember how. This was in the early '70s. And then it turned into an argument between me and this other guy about whether Kennedy had been any good for Black people or not. We went back and forth and back and forth. Then finally he says -- it was all friendly, but he said, "Well I guess you just have to be Black to see it, but I know that after Kennedy came in things were different." So I finally just said, "Look, I'm not saying things weren't different." Because we weren't connecting. The point I was trying to make was going by him, you know what I mean. So, I said, "I'm not saying things didn't change. I'm just saying it wasn't out of the goodness of Kennedy's heart. I'm saying there was a whole upsurge of struggle, and Kennedy had to respond to that and make some concessions, and it was really the struggle of the people that changed things. Kennedy just adopted certain cosmetic things in order to try to keep it from getting out of hand." So that was one example, in that situation, where we were waiting to get back on the court, and then you have to try to take your opportunities. Because I kept trying to get my point in, and I couldn't get it across. He just kept thinking that I was saying there was absolutely no difference, and I think he had certain assumptions about where I was coming from. So it took quite a while for me to be able, eventually, to get across what I was actually saying -- because people come to these discussions with all kinds of assumptions, too, so you have to somehow break through that.
But, I think there are arenas where there -- I don't know, sometimes people playing dominoes or chess in the park, or whatever it might be, where people do end up hanging around and getting into discussions. I'm not as directly familiar with things as I was, you know, a number of years ago. But I think there must still be those kinds of scenes. And a lot of times conversation just breaks out among people about all kinds of things, and then you have to know how to get into it, and then, like I said, divert it from where it would normally go.
And sometimes, you'll say something -- I remember running riffs sometimes and people would say "well that's too deep for me" [laughs] -- they didn't want to go there. So then you know you kind of missed. But sometimes -- especially for me, because I used to love to play basketball, so a lot of stuff would spin off of that -- you would be just hanging around, even when almost everybody else would go home you would be in a conversation with somebody else, and you would just continue it. And after you got to know people and you had had repeated conversations, then sometimes you could really get off into something in a genuinely deep way.
So, I don't know, but I think you do have to get into it, and then divert it. And then you have to be prepared for the fact that people think you are coming off the moon. [others: "yeah, yep"] I mean, sometime -- this is probably not the occasion, but sometime I would be fascinated to know more about this whole thing you were talking about with your family, where they are all into the Pentecostal religion. I am really interested in understanding more deeply how people get into that and what it is that draws them to it, what's the hold of it on people. That's a whole other long discussion,
B: Yeah that's a whole other...
BA: But it's something I would like to understand more deeply. Because there are a lot of the masses of people who are -- it doesn't have to be Pentecostal necessarily...
B: Just into religion...
BA: But they are deeply into the religious thing and it's a big stumbling block for a lot of people. I remember one time I was on a speaking tour and I was with someone -- and he had family that lived in East St. Louis, so we went to visit them and we started talking about religion, and I could just see them [laughter] -- you know, you were talking about possessed by demons, I'm sure when we left the house they exorcised the house. [laughter] I mean, one woman was over there mumbling in the corner. [laughter] So, I just know. So that's a big stumbling block. You can be talking along and finding a lot of areas of agreement...
B: But then once you hit that...
BA: And get to that and BOOM. [laughter] So, that's something we do need to figure how to break through on and break people out of. But I guess it's more -- like that -- you have got to try to figure how to get inside of these things, where people are discussing things, and then try to divert it-- but also I think one of the ways is that people do know that they are lied to all the time on various things. I was reading about some discussion group that someone in the party was leading with people. It got into this whole thing of communism and people started raising stuff, and the person says, "Well, you I hate to tell you, but weapons of mass destruction is not the only thing they lied to you about." [laughter] If you could connect up with people -- when you start talking about communism -- the fact that they know they are lied to about a lot of things, then maybe that can help you break through, then you can sort of open them up a little bit to maybe they lied to you about this too. But, I don't know. There are no easy answers.
B: No, there's not. It's something that definitely has to be approached. I mean, it's like you hear so many opportunities, you see so many different areas where thoughts are stimulated, where you see the roots for some sort of critical discussions, especially in light of how the whole way the society is going now is denouncing critical thinking. But you do find, among various sectors, the roots of critical discussion and being able to grasp hold of those particular areas, and feed that, you know what I'm saying -- feed into that. One of the main things that it is up against is the whole -- the church is like a real strong area. And [for a lot of Black people] that is the only area that is a political area, very political, and that's where the strength or unity right there is actually gathered around that -- like being able to divert that towards MLM.
BA: Yeah, I think that's historically been a phenomenon with the Black church. And in different periods it's taken different forms. But going back to slavery it was the one institution that was allowed, and there was contradiction and struggle because there was a certain tendency to take the Moses mythology and all that and use it as an expression of anti-slavery sentiment and struggle. But then, on the other hand, religion was used as a pacifying thing, also. So it has been sharply contradictory.
And I think it is interesting that, one of the things people will talk about, especially older people, is how in the inner city communities a lot of institutions have broken down. There used to be -- it's sort of an ironic side effect, if you want, of the changes that were brought through the 60s, that there was more development of a middle class, and those who could get out moved to other neighborhoods. A lot of them moved to the suburbs, and then those suburbs have been re-segregated. But they have left the real hard-core neighborhoods. So all of the small businesses have also gone -- or been plowed under by McDonald's and everything else. So the one thing that has been left, and I don't think it's entirely just by chance, is the church. [others: "yeah"] And I think it's partly that it's played a certain role historically, and it's partly also I think that there is some effort by the powers- that-be to keep the church alive, at least on a certain level.
D: This is not so much to answer that, but I thought it was kind of interesting what you [B.] were saying in terms of the role of students and classrooms -- I mean, at least I noticed that even in terms of students there is some difference in terms of people just starting their first or second year, and then when they start moving toward graduation they are more uptight about exploring and experimenting. But in terms of this question of MLM and the dictatorship of the proletariat, there actually is a lot of discussion going on, I think, on the campuses in different ways. Not the way we would present it obviously. But there's a lot of negative, like, bad = Stalin, Mao!All that stuff. In a certain sense, in terms of what you are saying, there is kind of an opening in terms of critical thinking. I mean, there's a reason they are trying to pass these laws against academic freedom, too much leftism, the whole David Horowitz thing, too much academic freedom and stuff like that -- "the left is running the campuses."
I know some of that goes on in the high schools, but there is not as much freedom as you would find in the junior colleges and the universities in terms of developing intellectuals. And then, there's the progressive professors -- professors who are trying to introduce different things, from their perspective, but I think there are different aspects of this discourse that go on that's not, maybe, presented all wrapped up -- and so the question is: how to connect that.
I think even in terms of the point about weapons of mass destruction, it's not the only thing that people have been lied to about -- there are also those kinds of examples daily of things that people are lied to about -- and when they find out they've been lied to, how to actually bring up then what's the truth of what's going on, what's gone on in terms of history?
BA: We are also trying to -- this group is trying to develop the basis to start making more forays onto the campuses and start raising this banner, knowing that it is going to be very controversial, trying to generate a lot of debate about it, and wrangling and struggle. So, that's kind of like a straight-up-blasting-in-there way of trying to change the terms, as she [D.] was just talking about. To try to begin changing the terms, or at least challenging the existing terms, where communism is put in the same category as the holocaust.
B: I think we are pretty much aware of the strength of the ruling class as it is expressed daily, all the forces of the army, the ideological media being able to present that. But what do you think our strengths are, in being able to grasp hold of sectors of the people?
BA: Well, strategically, it's the fact that what we are saying is much more in line with reality than anything else. That doesn't mean we have a perfect understanding of it, but it's much more in line with reality. And reality does assert itself. For example, look at the Iraq thing. For a while everything looked like it was going right the way they had drawn it up on the drawing board, and they had their little spectacles they put on, with the pulling down of Saddam statues [laughter] -- I heard a great thing about a demonstration, when Bush came to England a couple of months ago, where they erected this gigantic statue of Bush and then pulled it down. [laughter] Well, anyway, reality does assert itself. And the way in which they expected everything to go smoothly is not working out. And that does cause people to -- it kind of jolts people into thinking about things, in a way that they might not have. And also it creates -- it brings to the forefront the contradiction in an important arena between what people are told is true and reality, what actually is. Everybody has gone through that. I certainly did when I was younger. You go through this process -- for me one of the big things was the Cuban missile crisis, when I remember Kennedy gave this speech and he said that it was a violation of the U.N. Charter for the Soviet Union to have missiles in Cuba. At that time, literally, we all expected the world to come to an end. That's literally what you felt like, because it was, like, hours away from a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and nuclear weapons were going to fly, and that was going to be it.
So, with something that important I said, well okay, I have to look into this. So I went to the university library and I dug out the U.N. Charter. And I read through it -- see, I was naive. I literally thought it was going to say "It shall be a violation of this charter for the Soviet Union to ship missiles to Cuba." [laughter] And of course there was nothing like that remotely in there. There was nothing remotely like that. And so, then I said, well maybe it just means it [the U.N. Charter] says it's a violation for one country to put missiles in another country. So then I read through the whole thing -- because I wanted to believe Kennedy -- and I was hoping I would find "It shall be a violation for one country..." Well, nothing like that. So I read it through three or four times -- and I realized he was just lying! [laughter] So then you realize -- I mean, that didn't change my view of everything all at once, or make me a communist or something. But it did kind of open my mind up. The next day if somebody had told me Kennedy was lying about something else, I would have been much more open to believing it than I had been the day before. And this kind of thing constantly happens, because in order for them to do what they have to do -- it's not just that they are inveterate liars who can't help themselves -- in order for them to do what they have to do, they do have to lie to people.
You can look at this whole Iraq thing. They couldn't say: "Look, we've got a grand strategy for recasting the whole Middle East and your daughter or son has to go and die for that." People would say, "Well fuck it -- I don't want to have them die for that!" So they had to portray it as if there is some sort of threat, you know. This could materialize as a mushroom cloud, as Condoleeza Rice said, and all this stuff. So that sticks with people. Maybe right away it doesn't cause them to become totally alienated from the whole system, or something, but it's working in there. There are the effects of these things. And this provides openings to get in there and do some work with people about some of the bigger things that they have been lied to about.
I think these are some of the things that we have going for us, and fundamentally that what we are talking about does correspond much more closely to reality, and to the real interests of the great majority of people in the world; and, on the other side of it, with all the propaganda they put out and all the mass media they have at their disposal and the ways in which they can threaten people into falling in line, reality does assert itself -- and reality is not as they say it is. So that objective fact constantly throws up things that you can work with. Besides just the fundamental and strategic thing that they don't represent the truth and in a fundamental sense we do (not in some sort of metaphysical sense, but in terms of much more closely approximating reality).
There's also the fact that this contradiction between the way they portray the world and the way it really is, is constantly finding new ways in which it makes itself felt among people. And that provides lots of opportunities to carry on political work with people.
And then there is the fact that there is an accumulation of abuses -- not to sound like the Declaration of Independence -- there is an accumulation of abuses that finally people just can't take anymore. That was the whole thing with the L.A. Rebellion, for example. For a year after -- if you remember how it unfolded, for a year there was a videotape of the Rodney King beating, and there were a lot of the masses of people that would just jump out and taunt the police: "Why don't you beat me, so we can videotape it? We've got the videotape. We've got you this time." So this was going on for, like, a year. And then you had the verdict in the case -- it wasn't just the outrage of what they had done to Rodney King, because that happens a lot, and people know it happens a lot, but it was like "we caught you this time." And then it was "even when we caught you, it still didn't make any difference." And that's when everything just erupted.
So, things find expression in different ways like that, and, after a while, things get to the point where the abuses become intolerable -- which doesn't mean that you make a revolution right away necessarily, but it does mean that a lot of things open up.
Or, I remember Seattle when they had the demonstration there in 1999 -- there were these youth that were interviewed, and they had experienced the whole thing with the police and the media, and how the police had attacked them and they weren't doing anything and the media had totally misrepresented what had happened. And I remember this one person saying, "I'll just never see things the same way again, after having been through that kind of an experience." And a lot of people, probably everybody here, at one point or another, has had an experience like that. Or numerous experiences like that.
So this provides a lot of fertile ground also when people are conditioned to see the world one way, but then life asserts itself, including in things that you just finally find intolerable. I remember during this Iraq thing, someone telling about this woman they knew who was an aerobics instructor. She went to her first demonstration during this period, and she said, "You know, we elect these politicians, and they are supposed to take care of these things so I don't have to." [laughter] This was sort of her view. "But now, here comes this war that nobody wants, and these politicians, in particular the Democrats, are not doing anything about it, so I guess I'm going to have to do something." [laughter]
There is that kind of thing too, where in this society you sort of settle into a division of labor and you leave the driving to other people when it comes to politics, but then what you find acceptable, or unacceptable, clashes against what's being done.
So I think a lot of these kinds of things are the things we have going for us -- which doesn't make it all easy, by any means, but it continually throws up ways and occasions in which we can do work.
B: You were referring to the Rodney King thing and the riots and whatnot that occurred after that. Through all of that chaos that did erupt through the contradiction of them actually seeing the bullshit and whatnot -- how would you handle that in a way that concentrates -- like if we got into a situation like that say here in this city, or somewhere, some sort of riot or something came off, and it definitely had fertile grounds for mobilizing people, how would you politically handle that?
BA: Well, I think the most important thing you have to bring forward in that is you have to help people see the larger picture and see how it relates to the whole system, and to the fact that life doesn't have to be this way. In other words, people will spontaneously rebel all the time. And, in an overall strategic sense -- in terms of what the approach of our party is -- you can't stand to the side of people's rebellion, but the most important thing you bring to it is an understanding of where this injustice that people find intolerable comes from. And the fact that there is a different way that the whole world could be, and why we need to move in that direction. In other words, when people are in motion you have to be in motion with them, but mainly you have to be bringing that to them. Because they will accomplish a lot on their own.
I mean, if you take the example of LA: on their own, people had a tremendous impact on the whole world. But what spontaneously they weren't able to accomplish was to see where this all came from and where it all needed to go. But a thing like that is going to spend itself in a certain sense, it's going to run its limit, no matter how powerful it might be, the other side is going to amass force against it and the energy of the masses gets spent after a while. That's sort of inevitable -- unless it comes together with a bunch of other things in society that mean that all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, the whole society is up for grabs. Let's say there had been a lot of things -- if that rebellion had taken place in the context of something like this Iraq War. And let's say they sent army units to LA, and instead of suppressing the people a bunch of them had defected, and refused to shoot down their people, and had gone over to the side of the people, or something. And then they sent another unit in and the same thing happened. And it set in motion a certain dynamic. Well, then you might be able to take things all the way to a revolution, if that were occurring in the context where large sections of society were already disaffected from the way things were going, and from the forces running society, and they had lost confidence in the people running the society, and no longer believed very much in their ability or their right to be running society. Then, maybe you could go all the way to a revolution -- with a tremendous amount of work.
And you never know exactly where something's going to lead when it starts. But, short of something like that -- all the different factors like that coming together -- there is a real need to bring what people can't get on their own to something like that, and to come out of it with more revolutionary organization than was there before. So that it's not just that these things are happening but then they spend themselves, and then things just go back to the way they were. There is going to be an element in which, short of a revolutionary situation, that will happen. But you should come out of it in terms of people being won to, or more partisan toward, or having more interest in (or however you want to put it) the revolutionary road, than the thing started out with.
So there is a certain element of what Lenin called diverting the spontaneous struggle toward revolutionary goals that really lies at the heart of what you have to do. Because frankly, in that kind of a spontaneous thing, what you can practically add to what the masses are already doing is not going to be that much. But what you can add politically and ideologically can be a tremendous amount, because that's what they can't do on their own.
F: You were speaking a little bit about reality and how that leads people to questioning and more of an openness. I think that's really true on the campuses today. Since September 11, people are kind of questioning what kind of a role does the U.S. even play in this world, and why do so many people hate Americans, and these kinds of things. But then when the question of communism comes up, a lot of them want to just totally write it off. And it's just a really spontaneous acceptance of a lot of lies that have been told them -- still accepting lies about communism when they are questioning other things really strongly. And then there is also a sense of apathy, and a sense that communism, you know, can never work. And lately, I've actually run into a lot of questions that have been coming up on Tibet, and the historical experience with Tibet with China, and I wonder if you could speak on that a little.
BA: Have you seen the RW series that was done on that?
BA: If you go on the web, there was a four-part series that was done on Tibet that goes into that in a lot of depth. It starts from the period before the revolution, then after 1949, then goes up through what happened after Deng Xiaoping and the rest came to power and how their policies have been different than what they were during the time when Mao was leading China and so on. It's actually very comprehensive and also very concrete, and it also has some sources that you can look into further for some of these things. So probably the best thing I could do about that is just direct you to that. I found it very helpful. I haven't read it in about a year now, but I read it a couple of times, because this is a big question that keeps coming up.
There is a lot of exposure in that series, which people just don't know about -- what life was like for the masses of people in Tibet under the rule of the lamas -- and this Dalai Lama in particular. They have repackaged the Dalai Lama as some sort of cosmopolitan renaissance Ghandi-ite or something. New Age, you know. But the fact is that under the rule of the lamas for centuries, and this Dalai Lama included, the life of the Tibetan people was just a nightmare. They were not allowed -- not only was there no education provided for the masses of people, who lived as serfs, but they were literally not allowed to have any education. People would be punished severely for learning to read, or for trying to get medical care, and things like that. There's a whole long exposure in those articles about what the life of the masses of Tibetan people was like -- which most people have no inkling of. They think that this was some sort of Buddhist paradise before the revolution, and it was all ruined by the communists, when actually the reverse is the truth. It was a nightmare.
In fact that series points out that the system of rule of the lamas in Tibet is exactly as old as the feudal system in Tibet. In other words, it was a religion that was brought in as part of the institution of feudal rule in that area. Sometimes you use words like "feudal" and "serf" and so on, and they don't really convey -- they become almost dead metaphors, or dead language, but those mean real things when you are talking about people being exploited as serfs. People were forced to give their children to the monasteries -- one of their children to the monasteries -- that was part of the deal, whether you wanted to or not. The punishments for people - - I mean, flaying of skin and all kinds of stuff. You know, I watched a program extolling the Dalai Lama which was the typical thing, going on and on about the palaces that used to exist and all the gold inlay and everything. And you wonder -- where did that gold come from? [laughter] Where was the wealth that went into all this stuff? Those questions are almost never even addressed.
This series goes very deeply into what life was like -- and forget about it for women in the old Tibet. The idea is this is some sort of timeless culture without a social content that was somehow just destroyed by the Chinese. Actually, mainly what happened was the Chinese sent the PLA into Tibet in 1949, and they mainly stayed in their barracks. And the main thing they did was offer medical care to people who had never had it before. And people were severely punished for coming to these PLA health centers, basically. And the Dalai Lama was also working with the CIA. That's another fact that is not always spoken about. And basically, they fomented a rebellion after things had gotten to a certain point -- the Dalai Lama and the CIA -- because they were losing their grip over the masses of people, because people were seeking out some of these things. And that's when there was a violent confrontation.
But anyway, this series goes into this a lot more fully than I can right now. So I would recommend that -- you can get it off the website, right?
RL: Yeah. I think that speaks to a big challenge before us. Because we talk about this "truth squad" work, and there is just a surfeit of emotion and a paucity of facts. A surfeit of emotion and a paucity of facts -- that's how I define a lot of the challenge of this truth squad work. That you go out there and people have these preconceptions, misconceptions, of what communism is and of what happened. And then you kind of call them out, okay, so what are you pointing to, what are you referring to? What are you referencing? What are you sourcing? And that's what I'm saying, it sort of falls flat at that point. People don't have much to say about it.
That's part of the problem that we face. There isn't a big wealth of knowledge that you can debate out or compare and contrast. There is just a lot of this sort of visceral rejection. So we have to go up against that.
But in each and every one of these main lines of attack on communism, there is an historical context which we have to fill in, and there is an actual recitation of the facts of the events and why and what they led to. Once you actually get into this -- I mean the Tibet one is a good example. He was talking about some of the aspects of this -- but it's really remarkable. Tibet is not one of these things that we have to explain in terms of "well, sometimes there are excesses." It's really not that at all. This is really one of the most inspiring chapters of proletarian revolution in China. Because Tibet was a society that was literally living in another era of humanity. And when the Chinese revolution took place, as opposed to the totalitarian construct, they went in there, and the first thing they did -- there were some basic changes that had to take place. There was a slogan, "When serfs stand up" -- it was the title of the book by Anna Louise Strong -- there was really a question of people standing up for the first time. And, when the revolutionaries went in there, they united with and sought out the people who were themselves hemmed in but wanting to go up against this thing. And they really relied on the people -- they sent a force within there, but it wasn't the imposition of this alien order on people. It was land reform, education, health care. And if you look at the numbers, Tibet, in terms of resources and rates of growth -- it was still very backward, but it had one of the highest rates of growth of any of the provincial areas in China, relative to its past. It was not a rapidly industrializing place, it was not a newly industrializing country, but it was undergoing balanced growth, and they were actually allocating resources from the center to that area, and they were building these institutions, and they were bringing forth people from within the society, young people -- and there was a Red Guard movement there that was indigenous to Tibet. They developed these forms of political power.
It was really interesting, in his speech "On the 10 Major Relationships," Mao says that one of the most important relations in a socialist society is applying policies in the concrete in different areas -- you know, we don't impose a uniform code of land reform everywhere, because there are differences. And actually the pace of land reform had to be modulated according to those conditions there, in Tibet, to bring forth an advanced force within -- that was a lot of the emphasis, to bring forth an advanced force within Tibet. And it's really interesting, because now there is a program of Sinification of Tibet. There is a program to turn it into big tourist dollars. And now they are sending in the Han people, the population ratios are changing. And then you go back and you see how Mao -- in that speech "On the 10 Major Relationships," Mao says, we have to go at a pace that enables people to unleash the real radical sentiments for change, but at the same time recognize that this has its own tempo, and that you have to give assistance. You had to have economic assistance, and you had to bring cadre in there that could help train people to wage the political and social struggles.
And then the situation of women changed so radically there. I thought what he was saying about the bound feet, in such a short period of time in Chinese society as a whole we see these incredible changes -- the change in the status of women is one of the most profound changes that were affected by this revolution in Tibet and throughout China, and also in the Bolshevik revolution.
But I do feel that on this, we have to break through on the facts and the emotions and the distortions, but it's also true I think -- I'd like to hear from other people -- but I think that while people repeat this litany of lies and distortion, a lot of it is pretty skin deep. My experience is that it's not like this emotional 1950s anti-communism. It's deeply embedded in the discourse, in other words, everybody pretty much accepts these summations. But, you can crack this, through the facts and linking this up with what is going on in the world.
And we also said that one of the tasks before us is to actually explain to people what the truth of the concepts is. In other words, people don't know what communism is -- if you ask someone for a definition of communism: okay you say it is this, can you please tell me what Karl Marx said communism is, just so we are on the same page? And people can't tell you that. And it's also the case that there hasn't been a communist society yet. There have been socialist societies. But there is a communist revolution, there is a road to communism in his speech.
So, it seems as though we have to deal with a lot of these different elements of it. On the one hand, there are openings in terms of what is going on in the world and how people are being lied to, and then on the other hand there is our methods of work -- we want to boldly get out there and sort of shake some things up. We are not simply passively waiting for the world to change in our favor. You know what I mean? There are real developments in the world that are providing openings. But it is the case that with something like this, we can really bust things open by putting this out there in a very unapologetic, non-defensive and very forward-looking way -- like this is the way the world has to be.
I just was reading an article about the dot.com boom -- when the bubble burst. There are a hundred thousand miles of unused fiber optic cable. [Others: "No shit!" -- laughter] This is the free market. This is the overshooting of investment. This is the contradiction, There is great technological capability. And the funny thing is that, with the dot.com boom, part of the idea was that it was this very sector of the economy -- this I think is one of the great ironies of contemporary economic history -- that capitalism was going to overcome the business cycle because the information revolution was underway. That is, you now have the internet and these new firms and the cutting edge of the new technology, instant information, just-in-time production, tight cost of inventory, all of these kinds of things, and then the information, right?
Well, it turns out that the heart of the collapse was within the information sector. The very sectors that were going to prevent a bust in the economy became the center of this thing. And all of the phenomena of capitalism played themselves out there in spades. Overproduction, overshooting investment, misreporting -- that the market was not correctly signalling where things were at. And then on top of that you have all this speculative activity. And then you have this phenomena, this huge amount of fiber optic cable, and all -- and this explodes and reverberates through the whole economy. You say, "Well, what does that have to do with a rational economy? How would you rationally organize things? Does this economic system really tap into the potential to solve basic social problems, and to put technology in the hands of people and in the hands of humanity so that we can get past a situation of two billion people living on less than two dollars a day?" This kind of thing.
We have to ratchet up the level of discussion around this. But knowing what we are going up against, and some of these openings, and then I think this spirit of going into this thing very aggressively -- W hat? You are here to defend communism? -- I think that's part of the beauty of this project. "Yeah! We are! And let's give it a listen, and what do you actually know?"
BA: I think the essential point there is that we do have a lot of truth on our side. Even on this Tibet thing which is supposed to be one of their big bugaboos. It is not at all the way it is portrayed. And the reason I'm recommending that series is because it really does go into it in much more depth than we can here. It's just not at all the way it is portrayed.
I was reading this book by this physicist, this guy Weinberg. I was reading it because he promotes atheism. That's what attracted to me to this book. And I got a little ways into it and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he makes these snide comments about China and the Cultural Revolution and communism -- out of nowhere. He's a theoretical physicist. How did that get in there? So I wanted to write him a letter and say: "Dear Dr. Weinberg. I know as much about theoretical physics as you do about communism. [laughter] Which is to say, next to nothing." [laughter]
That's in the same spirit of what you are talking about: There is a lot of stuff out there which has no depth to it. It's just what people have internalized. Communism is put into the box with the great disasters and crimes of the 20th century. End of discussion.
I had another experience where I picked up a book by this guy -- what's his name, Kaplan -- who wrote this book The Ends of the Earth . He wrote another book, and in the first page he has this bald statement that Mao killed thirty million people. I went to the end of the book and looked at the footnote, and it referred to an article in The Economist , an English magazine. So I went and got that issue of The Economist,and it had this assertion in there, but there was no reference to what this was based on. And you find this so many times. It just kind of goes around in a circle. One thing quotes another quotes another, but there's never really any - - I wouldn't say never -- but there's most often not even an attempt to substantiate this, but it gets into the popular consciousness and people accept it. So a large part of what has to be done -- and actually it can be very effective -- is just sort of jolting people awake with the fact that you don't accept this. That you see it completely differently. Right there, it can be a jolting thing and it can open up some discussion, because people are just so used to the notion that everybody thinks this way, and this is just so well established that only a crazy person would think differently. And yet it is not founded on anything.
G: On this simple/complex question, and what this team is charged with doing, I think it's pretty easy to see that we have to get into things on a very complex level, but the way we are kind of approaching it is to approach things from the simple point, which is turning out to be not so simple. We're trying to do a fact sheet, of myth and facts. Now, what he [B.] was saying about -- you know, you want to be able to connect with people, right -- but on the other hand, it's simple to say that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a million times better than capitalism. But, on the one hand, we can't just assert these things. And then, on the other hand, part of what we are going up against is, like, what you were saying: people don't know, people can't really define socialism as a transition, sometimes they even mix up communism and socialism and then, the dictatorship of the proletariat they mix up with totalitarianism.
What I'm saying is that there are a lot of these misconceptions about whole societies, whole systems we are dealing with. And that's all very complex. And I think it's easier in one respect to answer that on the more complex level. But then on the simple side -- if you just go to the simple aspect, it just seems like an assertion, unless you get more particular and say, in Tibet they say this, and then you get particular around the historical fact or something. But when you are taking on the question of whole systems, or whole beliefs, freedom, you know, that kind of thing -- dictatorship, what is the essence to bust a hole through this anti-communist offensive? I have an easier time seeing how we have to go at it very deeply, but I have a hard time seeing how there's a form that you could go at it simply. The simple form -- I mean, I know that's not what we are just doing. But when you said that there's the simple and there's the complex, I guess that's what I've found that's difficult -- whether the simple can connect and not just the complex.
BA: I think that sometimes you are able to set off "cognitive dissonance" in people. In other words, if you are able to take something that people just accepted as sort of bedrock truth, and show that a particular aspect of that is just not true at all, you don't have to necessarily answer immediately everything that is said. For example, most people would be surprised to know -- we were talking about this not long ago -- the statistics on life expectancy in China. What was it, at the time of the revolution, it was something like 29 years, average life expectancy? And then within a couple of decades it was 65, which was one of the highest life expectancies in the world at that time --
RL: In the Third World --
BA: Even more generally. I mean, in the U.S. the life expectancy was only in the early 70s at that point. That was very advanced in China. And that happened within a couple of decades. There are different things that you can cite that run directly counter to what people assume is the truth about things. And by doing a couple of hard hitting things like that -- if you are doing a fact sheet or something, you don't have to answer every slander and distortion. When you are trying to get to the sort of simple, basic level, you don't want to try to answer every charge that is made. That's a more long-term task. You pick out a few things that sort of break a hole into the wall of misinformation and misunderstanding that exists, and then you can work from there. You've got to first shake people up, and make them realize that they don't really know much about this, frankly -- two things: that they don't really know much about it, and they should. And I think RL's point -- we can turn the fact that nobody would defend communism into a good thing, because here are some people defending communism. Well, right away, it's sort of like, wow, what's that about. And it provokes interest, because nobody expects that.
And then I think if you combine that with a few selected things that really would challenge the prevailing assumptions and make questions out of things that people assume are closed discussions, in other words raise something that hits hard at what people have -- as he was saying -- on a very superficial basis, have just accepted as what everybody knows.
Then it's a longer process of getting into the greater complexities and the strengths and weaknesses of it, and answering in more depth a lot of the things that are -- you know, the overall assault. I mean there are whole books written, a continual stream of them coming out attacking communism. And you are not going to answer all that with a few short sentences, or pages, but if you can try to set up that kind of a contradiction, and punch a few holes, then that's the way people begin to rethink things. They don't begin to rethink them by waiting for something to come out that thoroughly refutes everything they thought. It's a few things that really capture some important phenomena, and challenge people -- in a way it's a little bit like the role of art. It often causes you, and confronts you with the need, to look at reality in a different way than you usually do, and in so doing causes you to rethink some things. And I think there is a kind of an analogy here to what we have to do, given that this is so widely held -- but as you [RL] also pointed out, it doesn't have really a deep foundation. It's just deeply into the culture, and it's broadly into the culture. But it is actually a thin thing in another sense.
And to cause people to feel the need to look at it from a different angle than they have accepted, is the start of a whole process. That doesn't end the process, but it can get it started in a way, so that people are sort of jolted into looking at this a different way. I think that's the purpose of something like a fact sheet. Because you are not going to answer all the things that are in people's heads about communism in a fact sheet, no matter how well done it is, but you can --
D: I don't think that kind of thing should be underestimated in terms of this thing of jolting people. This thing of even the simple exposures that really make people think-- especially the point about how at times people are thinking about different things, and maybe on communism it's more that they have been trained to think something else. I think this point about reality asserts itself is very important. I just got my transcripts from Berkeley. And it was kind of interesting. One of the first classes I took was "economics of communist theory", and actually I took the class to go argue against it -- because I was raised really anti-communist, since my family came out of China. Maybe your family is Pentecostal, my family is really anti-communist. That's what we argue about. The irony is that I got kicked out of school before I was able to go argue with that professor, because I was protesting against the Vietnam War, but anyway, you stand up and say "This is bullshit, this is true" and then it opens things up -- people start saying, "What the hell are they saying?" I think one important thing we have to do is playing that role of really enabling people to actually find the answers. I was thinking in terms of the presentation [by BA], which obviously was very rich, and some of what it was about, even in terms of the positive and the negative experiences of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Obviously, we're living in a different time than the '60s, and one of the things that's different is that there are all these Vietnamese here, all these Chinese, people who are kind of a material force against communism. And they try to pretend like nobody differs from this script. You know, I find even a relevance of this book that's come out on women growing up in Mao's China, you know ( Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era ) -- they have a different opinion, and of course even though it's more like feminist, nationalist, and not really communist -- still sometimes these things are challenging people.
And this kind of thing where we're bringing communism to people and being bold about it -- I think that does have an effect. Because maybe we can all remember a time when people say something that's really challenging to what you think is true, and maybe you don't understand all of it at that point, but you go, "Damn, they really think that shit is true!" It's like why do they think that? And so you go look into it. I think that's part of this point of jolting, but then we do want to open things up where we get into deep discussions. And I do think the classroom is an important avenue, as well as maybe informal things on the campuses. Not to discount other avenues or something, where people are having discussions, but I do think that among students there is a certain thing of searching for answers, and that there's a way we can enter into that.
G: I was just thinking about this too, one thing on Tibet is that a lot of people who are into that are kind of thing, there's a lot of illusions in their thinking. But there are also a lot of people who are actually looking for some alternative way to view the world. And I heard about an experience where people went out to one of these big Dalai Lama rallies in Central Park or someplace and took the Nepal series from the newspaper [a series of articles by Li Onesto, an RW writer who traveled, as a reporter, with the Maoist revolutionaries in Nepal to investigate first-hand what is going on with the people's war they are waging]. People gobbled them up because they're interested in oppressed people in that part of the world and what they're into and what they're...
H: Call communism "indigenous" and we'll win. [laughter]
G: It was interesting and then I was thinking about what he [BA] was talking about in his speech about the charge of totalitarianism in relation to what he was just saying and how we should say to people who are into that: "If you want to talk about totalitarianism, talk about the experience of the people of Tibet under the Dalai Lama." There are a lot of different ways to go at it I think. It was shocking -- I remember when I was a kid and there was some guy in the neighborhood who had gone to jail for resisting going to Vietnam, and I was in high school, but we all sort of looked up to this guy. And then we went to him about something that we thought was a real progressive thing, I think we were raising money for kids in Biafra or something, I can't remember exactly. But we went to him and he said, "No I won't do that because will you raise money for the children in North Vietnam?" And this just had a profound effect on my entire life, that was the entire extent of the conversation, but it challenged me so deeply. It just made you reexamine things that you held -- how deep are you, anyway?
I: I wanted to change to something, a different avenue here which relates to what you were talking about in terms of "the marketplace of ideas." I wanted to get into that a little more deeply. There are a number of questions. I'm trying to think about how to approach it. Certain forms of post-modernist theory have put a lot more emphasis on ideas as aspects of material reality and aspects of material interests and so forth. In a lot of ways it's much more complicated too because, one, you have that sort of relativism that goes with that, but it's also my experience that the people who are putting that forward in essence sort of except themselves from that; in other words, they don't see themselves as an aspect of any material interests. There's this whole thing, a kind of link of ideas and practice, in terms of social practice and whose interests are being expressed, and what overall are they part of in terms of the class interests at base -- which I think it's hard for people to see, among the intellectuals, among people who're dealing with ideas. I used to try to handle that by saying that within this society this phenomenon of ideas as an expression of interests and so forth is actually covert -- there is a covered up aspect. A lot of times they are literally commercial interests and so forth, but also class interests more generally -- but this is not admitted; whereas in socialist society and with communists this is explicit and overt. Now I don't think that explanation is entirely adequate. I'm just going around with different aspects of it. But I'd just like to talk about that a little bit more.
BA: You mean the changes in how this is viewed? Or do you mean the point about ideas expressing an interest, a bigger interest? Which is it that you wanted to talk more about?
I: Well, I mean the changes in conception that have gone on. But I guess there are different questions involved here. One is this question of how to bring this out among intellectuals, that's one question.
BA: What's the "this"? The fact that ideas represent...
I: Material interests -- in fact that the very ideas that they're involved with represent material interests. In one sense, you are asking them to bring into question their own legitimacy of professional occupation and how they see themselves. So that's a hard question in that sense among people who are committed professionally, and even among students. But then the other aspect of this I think is the deeper theoretical question has to do with the ideology of seeing ideas -- of intellectual work under socialism (I'm feeling my way on this), but...
One thing I think is the traditional aspect, the formal aspect of things, so that when people talk about freedom of expression, freedom of ideas, and so forth, they are seeing this kind of circulation of ideas without seeing its material basis. That's part of what leads to the inability to see the ways in which ideas can be posed within a certain framework -- the sort of things that we're talking about, that ideas can be freed up, but also it's an illusion to actually think in any society that there can be an ideal free process.
BA: Well, one of the things that makes it difficult is that in a society like this, which really does dominate the world and plunders it, and has a tremendous accumulation of wealth, to a significant degree much of the time the ruling class feels relatively secure in its position, so with regard to the intellectuals they are actually able to give them a lot of freedom. I mean if you go beyond certain bounds, or start to call certain things into question, and especially if you get a hearing in doing so, then you can get into trouble. But there is a certain perception -- which is not without any reality -- that, in the realm of intellectual life, you can be given a lot of latitude to do a lot of things in this society. You may or may not get funding, or whatever -- there's a battle for funding -- but in a certain way you'll be left alone "to pursue the ideas you want to pursue." I think this also reinforces people's view that there is no suppression of ideas in this society, that there is freedom of expression . Whereas for certain sections of the people, who live much more under the gun, the idea that you can freely express your ideas...
I : Or get to the grocery store from your house!
BA: ...yeah, you know, it's a whole different story, there's a whole different content to that. So that's one thing. But I also think that, even among the intellectuals, there are some things that are sharpening up now, because for example there's this whole thing around creationism and evolution, where the political leader of the ruling class -- or of the society, as people see it -- won't even acknowledge that evolution is a well-established scientific fact, and lends himself to the idea that it's not. There is a lot of discontent growing around things like that, and there was that recent statement by intellectuals about how the Bush White House has distorted a lot of things and has forced people to misrepresent scientific findings in order to serve its political agenda.
So there are ways in which this current core of ruling class power, in the way they're operating, is calling a lot of things into question. I mean, that's kind of rare that you have a statement by scientists like that. And it was interesting, there was a parallel statement by French intellectuals about the French government of a little different nature, but of the same general kind, basically at the same time. But it's very rare in this society that you have a group of prominent people in the sciences and so on issuing a fairly strongly worded statement, and accusing the president and his regime or administration of consciously forcing distortions of scientific finding and fact in order to serve their political agenda. So I think this is something that ripens the ability to get into these things more deeply with people who are concerned about this.
And then there are basic questions about the actual pursuit of the truth that are important to get into with people, and in particular intellectuals. Because there's a lot of work you can do. There are two important questions: How much, beyond a certain point, are you actually able to get at the truth of things? And how much are you able to actually act on that, and what obstacles and obstructions are there to that? I think people are more aware that there are sharp contradictions in that, more aware than maybe they would have been awhile ago. But this is going to be a real struggle, because -- if you want to put it crudely -- we can't promise the intellectuals some of the same things that the bourgeoisie is able to afford them now. In socialist China they put a lot of emphasis on linking the intellectuals with the masses, in theory and practice, which is also very important.
But there is also the whole point about working with ideas in its own right, which we also have to stress with people. And part of the problem is breaking through the appearance that this whole "invisible hand" thing involves. In other words, there is the appearance in bourgeois society of freedom, the illusion of freedom in a way that it doesn't really exist. It appears that, unlike in a socialist society, in a capitalist society like this one there is no force directly saying what can and cannot happen, or what is true and untrue. The appearance can be maintained that you're just pursuing the truth without any dictatorship entering into the picture, in other words, without any group deciding these things. Whereas in reality, just as in terms of what gets promoted in popular music or whatever, there are decisions made all the time about what things in the scientific field get funded, what things get more promotion, and which don't. And the interesting thing about the Bush administration is that, because they are more aggressively pursuing a certain agenda, things are more out in the open -- like the whole thing around...
I: World war?
BA: Well, that's one thing, but I was thinking of the whole thing with embryos.
J: Stem cell research.
BA: Yeah, stem cell research, the whole thing there, where decisions about federal funding on that make a big difference, and clearly Bush's decisions were made on an ideological basis. And a lot of people are suffering as a result of that. Even fucking Nancy Reagan I think would disagree with Bush on that issue. [Laughter] So people are actually suffering because this research is not being funded -- if you don't get federal funding, that has multiple effects. So I think that affords more opportunity to expose the real relations in things, including in the realm of science, and working with ideas more generally, because some of this is being forced out into the open as opposed to it staying more hidden, where it just appears that everything is decided on the basis of merit or whatever, rather than there being class interests and "political agendas" that are very much influencing what ideas get promoted and what ideas don't.
I remember that guy Jeff Greenfield who's on CNN, you ever seen him? He's one of their commentators and [laughs] I don't remember when it was, a few years ago, the question came up: Why don't you have people like Noam Chomsky on these shows? And he made some comment "Oh, we don't have Noam Chomsky because Noam Chomsky is from the planet Saturn!"
In other words, here is a prominent intellectual, Noam Chomsky, who especially in Europe is highly respected, and yet he is considered beyond the pale of discourse.
K: The most-cited intellectual.
BA: Yeah, right, he's beyond the pale of discourse in the popular media in the U.S. because he challenges some of the underlying assumptions that all this discourse is based on, and the framework in which it all takes place. He definitely has his weaknesses and limitations, but he also does some very good exposure. Half an hour of Chomsky on the TV will completely undermine a lot of the [laughter] usual stuff that goes on. Because it's like, "wait a minute, excuse me" -- it just disrupts the whole thing even on that level [laughs].
So I think in a certain way there is a positive side to what these Bushites are doing, even though it's very deadly serious and dangerous, in that it's forcing into the open some of the reality of this stuff -- that there are class interests at play, and that this is not some sort of abstract pursuit of the truth which is not influenced by any social interests -- it's forcing out into the open some of the ways in which that's clearly and fundamentally not true. So I think some of that can be seized on and gone into with people.
And here's a tricky thing about MLM. You know, we say that it's both partisan and true. Or partisan and scientific. And we really have to bring that alive, what that means. It involves the "embraces, but does not replace principle." Now, people get scared off, especially these days, by the word "truth" too. [laughter]. No, it's true -- it's because they have these visions of someone who thinks that they have absolute knowledge and are the sole possessors of absolute truth and thereby and therefore can enforce whatever they believe on everyone and crush anyone who disagrees or resists. So we have to work our way through that contradiction.
For a minute here, to get at this another way, I'll do like they do with evolution. In a lot of these states now the educational system -- this is incredible -- they don't use the word "evolution" because of this whole creationist offensive. So they'll find euphemisms or ways of essentially describing the phenomenon, without using the word evolution. So I'm going to do the same thing with "truth". How do you actually pursue an understanding of reality: See, that's another way of saying "truth." [Laughter]. How do you actually pursue an understanding of reality? And what importance is there to that? I think some of these questions -- we need to go into some of these basic questions with intellectuals in particular: What really is the way that you pursue a deeper understanding of reality, and what's the importance of that?
In other words, sure there should be lots of wrangling over ideas. And we should be careful not to jump to conclusions or to draw firm assumptions too quickly. But isn't there a point of arriving at an actual understanding of reality through this process? While keeping open the understanding that you always have to deepen that appreciation of reality, that there's always more to learn. You know, there is something I point out about MLM, which disturbs me. In every field of science people are always reversing themselves and discovering new things -- and that doesn't mean they are bad scientists! It means that reality is complex and they keep learning. And we should certainly be no less doing that. Why should we, who try to be much more comprehensively and fundamentally scientific, be less involved in doing that? Why do you have to stick to something that you thought was true if you discover that it isn't? Of course, that's where you get this sort of instrumentalist approach also, where it's all bound up with political interests and with class struggle. To have to admit you were wrong about something when you're the underdog anyway, and everything is going against you, makes it harder. But ultimately what is this about? And why should we be more reluctant to admit that some aspects of what we thought to be true are not true, and why should we be less scientific than people who don't have a thoroughgoingly scientific outlook and method?
We need to think about that and sum that up, and we need to talk with people about the importance of and the means for actually coming to a deeper appreciation, a deeper understanding, of reality, and to discuss the whole "embraces, but does not replace" principle. A lot of people would be surprised, very surprised, to find out that comes from Mao. You know, this whole image they have. But what is the importance of applying that principle, and what is the importance, after all, of arriving at an understanding of reality? Yes, there's a value to an exchange and wrangling over ideas in itself, there's a lot of vitality to that; and if that isn't going on, you don't have a good society. I made this comment in a discussion I had with someone that it's never good when there is not intellectual ferment. I believe that's always true, including in socialist society. But, after all, there is a means for, and there is an importance to, getting at the truth with no apologies. So I think we need to discuss these questions with people, particularly people in the intellectual fields.
But one of the questions that I have is: to what degree do people in these fields actually think that's what they're doing, or should be doing?
L: Getting at truth?
BA: Yeah [laughter]. And to what degree have they bought into the idea -- the sort of post- modernist relativist notion that there is no truth -- or at least the notion that you should be very, very reluctant to say that you've arrived at the truth?
I: I think it's very contradictory. I think they have that idea of the quest for truth that keeps them going, but then on the other hand, in terms of the relativist theory, it's hard to put that forward in a consistent way and I think it's very contradictory, there's a lot of strong contradictions.
N: It's kind of interesting, because I think some of that post-modernist stuff gets posed up in taking on some stuff that was rigid and dogmatic in bourgeois academia or whatever. And then, on the other hand, you could say it's the easy road. It kind of lets you off the hook from really having to come up with solid answers too. You know, it can be a comfort zone of some sort, or like a bubble where you don't have confront certain things. Like you were just talking about, the truth with no apologies, right? You have to be willing to give up some of your denial. Like shit isn't as free as it appears to intellectuals in the top-dog imperialist country. And other things you might not be willing to confront because of where it will take you, if you have that post-modernist point of view, and that relativism, then you don't have to necessarily go there. So once you start heading on that course, there is a thing of we're going to take it as far as it will go! We don't have anything tying us to subjectivity or relativism and these other things. And these other people, I think personally they could find it challenging to break out of that framework. Let alone being concerned about what other people think. That's the social pressure of that, but you got to be intellectually courageous to some extent to be willing to do that.
O: A lot of the post-modernism is a result of what they consider a disappointment in communism. If you read through any of the post-modernists, they continue to make reference to Marxism...
BA: All the time...
O: I mean, all throughout it. Some of them, even if they disagree with a great deal of it, they are still influenced by a lot of Marxist ideology, it's like they can't separate that from their studies. I think a lot of this is a result of what they perceived as the failure of what communism was, the grand -- what they would call a "metadiscourse." Because they felt like, "Man okay, I'm tired of discourse, I'm tired of this, I'm just going to say everything is everything, and whatever fuck it, you know." [laughter]
BA: Yeah, I think there's a lot of truth to that -- this has been given impetus by the reality of the stage that has ended. In fact, the Soviet Union was not on that road of socialism for a long time. But with the crash of the Soviet Union, pretty much everybody had to recognize that, whereas before that the great majority of people did not understand that. And China doesn't inspire anybody, but people don't really understand what's going on there. Yet nobody can think that's got much of anything to do with changing the world, making a whole new world. So I think all that has really given a lot of impetus to this relativism and people withdrawing into their own niche. Stalin talked about how in the Russian revolution, after the defeat of the 1905 uprising, talking about the different nationalities, everybody kind of retired to their own national tent. When there was a big upsurge, everybody had hopes of uniting the people broadly and overthrowing the Czar and all that; but then, when that was defeated, everybody withdrew into their own narrow concerns. And I think there's an analogous phenomenon that's happened in the last couple of decades. And it's taken an intellectual expression as well as a political expression as identity politics. Corresponding to that intellectually, or philosophically, there's a lot of relativism and agnosticism, and as you were saying, the notion that grand or metadiscourses have proven to be bankrupt.
RL: And totalitarian!
BA: Yeah. You see, the point -- an important point, not the whole point, but an important point -- is that precisely the strength and the real essence of communism is that it does provide a unified way of understanding reality, without simplifying and vulgarizing that. That's the point of Mao's "embraces, but does not replace." It doesn't mean that Marxism equals an understanding of all of reality. It means it provides an outlook and a method for understanding reality, sifting through what many other people bring forward and, in an overall sense, getting a deeper appreciation and a more all-sided appreciation of reality -- if you actually approach it correctly.
And yet, there is this great currency of thinking that says, exactly as you have pointed out, that the mere attempt to do that is totalizing in a negative sense, is totalitarian. So there is a very sharp point of ideological struggle that needs to be waged precisely over that question, in opposition to the notion that it is not only impossible but very harmful to try to get a comprehensive understanding of reality and have a comprehensive way of approaching and engaging reality -- that the mere idea that you can do that is not only wrong, but very harmful. That's one of the very important ideological confrontations that we have to have with these various post-modernists and similar schools of thought.
It does scare people when you postulate that you can have such an approach to reality. And I think one of the things we do have to recognize is that, if you're just an intellectual, detached from any kind of organized political formation, people will accept a lot from you. [laughter] In other words, they don't regard you as particularly dangerous -- you could argue as a lone intellectual. Like physicists who want to tie together a whole understanding of all reality -- nobody says they're totalitarian [laughter].
RL: Or even arrogant! [laughter]
BA: You know, it's a daunting, but worthy quest!
RL: The theory of everything!
BA: Yeah, right. People talk about the theory of everything; they want to tie together all of reality. Where the rub comes in is if you say you want to do something like that and you're part of an organized political formation. Because then people associate that with the idea that you're going to enforce "your truth." And here's where the rub really comes in. If you are part of an organized, disciplined democratic- centralist party or a movement led by that party, where you "follow and carry out its line," that can be, and needs to be in a certain sense, a very powerful machinery. In other words, it is different to have people who in a disciplined way, all united around a single line and in the most effective way they can, work to carry out that line -- that is different than a hundred individuals who maybe vaguely share the same view but aren't carrying out things in that organized kind of way. So it's not as if people are perceiving nothing.
And the fact we have to face up to is that, as I told a group of people one time, if you are part of such a formation, or especially if you are leading it, you can accomplish truly great things if you use the right methodology and you apply the right outlook, including all the kinds of things we're talking about. But, if you use the wrong outlook and methodology you can also create horrors. That's a real fact that has to be faced up to. You can, if you mobilize the whole weight of something and get people in a disciplined and organized way to all get behind something, and you fall into the wrong -- I don't mean in a superficial way, I mean in a fundamental way you get off into the wrong outlook and method -- you can cause great harm, just as you can do incredible, unprecedented good if you do use the right outlook and methodology. I'm not talking about whether you have the right position on this or that particular thing at any given time -- anybody can be mistaken on something like that, or correct on something like that. What I am talking about is whether you really are proceeding from an understanding of the complexity of reality, and of the different levels of reality, and of the fact that even while you have a comprehensive, systematic way of approach reality, that's not the same thing as having all the truth in your hands. If you have that methodology and you keep that in mind, you can do a tremendous amount of good, you can accomplish unprecedented positive things. And you can mobilize people, ultimately in their millions and millions, to do that. But if you lose your grip on that and you begin to identify the fact that in general you have the correct outlook and method for approaching reality -- if you begin to identify that with the idea that you hold the truth about everything in your hands, or about any particular thing -- if you confuse those things, and then you mobilize people on that basis, you can do a great deal of harm. And that's something we have to not dodge. It is an awesome -- when you recognize that, it's an awesome responsibility to embark on trying to handle it correctly.
Because you can easily do what many people do, and say let's just throw up our hands and not try to have an organized revolutionary force, because there's always a danger of doing great harm in the world. The problem is that great harm is already being done in the world, and will continue to be done until the world is changed radically. So the challenge is how do you do it the right way. How do you learn from experience and how do you actually go about having the right approach to all this? You need to have a disciplined, organized approach, but even that disciplined organization, as I was trying to say earlier, should have different levels to it. And different degrees of cohesion.
At the core it needs to be very cohesive. But a lot of things don't need to be so tightly coherent. And that leaves more air and room for mistakes to be recognized, for an approach of learning from other people, and for ferment of a positive kind to be generated both inside the ranks of that organization, as well as more broadly in society, especially where you're leading society. So the challenge is to learn how to do a great deal of good and minimize any harm that you do. And when you recognize that -- I know that, personally, the more I've recognized this, the more it seems like a really daunting and kind of ominous challenge, because to recognize that you could do a great deal of harm is a very sobering thing. And the question is what do you do about that? How do you go about doing good, how do you go about actually changing the world the way it needs to be changed, but doing that in a way that actually brings forward people to consciously take that up, and that leaves room for ferment, for growth, for change, even within your own project, so to speak.
These are questions we should discuss honestly with people, including with intellectuals. That we recognize that, we do believe you can, and should, have a "totalizing" approach to reality, but we don't believe in a totalitarian notion of that. And we do believe that you need an organized vanguard, but that you have to learn your own limitations, too. Just because you're a political and ideological vanguard doesn't mean you know much about a lot of things. There's been confusion about that. I don't know shit about physics, to be honest; but the important thing -- at least the beginning important thing -- is that I know I don't know anything about it [laughter]. So, then, I don't try to act like I know something about it. My first attitude toward it is to try to learn from people who do know something about it, before I have anything much to say about it.
But you know if you get confused and you think that because you are playing a role of a political and ideological vanguard, therefore you know about things that you really don't know anything about, [laughter] by mere dint and virtue of being a political and ideological vanguard, that's where you really can get into a lot of trouble and do a lot of harm.
I think we should discuss these things with people. We're summing up a lot of this experience. It would be vulgarizing to say that these kinds of errors are essentially what the experience in the Soviet Union or China was about. But it would not be wrong to say there have been tendencies in that direction. Especially when people are under pressure. Everybody's better when they don't have a gun to their head. [laughter]. And these socialist societies have literally had guns to their heads almost the entire time that they've existed, virtually the entire time.
So the challenge is, even under pressure, to apply the right outlook and methods and to keep on learning -- and, most of all, to leave room to learn, without lapsing into relativism. That's what's really hard. To handle that contradiction in a way that you keep things moving where they need to go, but you leave room to learn at every point. That's what we have to learn how to do better, and I think we should openly discuss with people, intellectuals and others, that these are things we're grappling with. We don't accept the idea that these societies where our class has ruled are disasters. We don't accept it -- if it were true, we'd have to accept it! [laughter] No, I mean that -- and then we'd have to figure out: Is there something inherent in these societies that makes them always end up in disaster, or is it just the way things have been mishandled?
But it's not actually true that they've been disasters. And we need to bring that out to people, too. They've been far from disasters. But there have been real problems. There have been aspects in which things have led to bad results and harmful results. And we have to not only learn more about the particulars of that, but we have to, as I've said, adopt a method of leaving room to learn at every point.
A: I read this kind of cursory introduction to post-modernism that ended up, because of this whole attack on this idea of these metadiscourses saying, "Well, the only thing that can really answer any of this is romanticism." This is what the author of this book put forward--the only thing that can take on all this cynicism and the idea that things are kind of hopeless, and directionless, blah blah. In the same week that I was rereading Phony Communism is Dead, Long Live Real Communism!,in one of your works you quoted Mao from Chairman Mao Talks to the People,the Schram book, where he had said to be a revolutionary leader without being a poet or knowing some poetry is dangerous. This point about you can do great good or great harm. I think something that the Party has a great strength in, in this country, is this question of really putting forward a vision. You have really led in that in all of your work. The historical record is something that the things you are doing stand on the shoulders of, yet there is the development.the further development of that vision, and I think in terms of being in a different stage...the world has changed, and things have moved forward. Some of the correct aspects of what people criticize--some of the mistakes that were made, the woodenness, the misunderstanding of the revisionist coup in the Soviet Union, the turning Marxism into a state religion, those kinds of things -- the main thing that is missing out of that is a class analysis, or understanding of socialism as a dynamic process, or what kind of society it is and its contradictoriness; but most of these criticisms are hitting on some stuff that is true, without seeing the complete picture. We are trying to give people a fuller picture than they are operating on. But that romanticism point, I think it was really good how you posed that contradiction about great harm or great good. It's a deeper answer than the author of that book had.
BA: Well, I don't know if it's an answer. I think it's just a beginning of an answer. It's a method for going after it. Because it's very difficult to deal with these contradictions in reality when you are confronting, or confronted by, the real pressures that you are under. You know, it's not imaginary -- in the Soviet Union they lost over 20 million people in World War 2. Imagine if this country -- extrapolate from September 11 and what the bourgeoisie did in the aftermath of that, and imagine if this country were invaded with a large part of its land mass occupied, and millions of people being killed, and the capital city under siege for a year, including through the deadly winter, like the Russian winter -- people are eating wallpaper off the walls to survive. Imagine what the ruling class here would do. How long would it take for all these vaunted constitutional rights to go up in a puff of smoke?
So this is what they were dealing with. And even from the early 1930s -- especially in the mid '30s -- a big change happened in the international communist movement. It came about around 1934. Because they had always been oriented toward the crucial role of a revolution in Germany. Like Lenin, who gambled a lot of the Bolshevik Revolution on trying to help provoke, if you want to put it that way, a proletarian revolution in Germany. Even the way they tried to take Poland was related to trying to spring things open in Germany. And they ended up over- extending themselves and paying dearly for trying to take Poland. And then there was a certain way in which they had to realize there wasn't going to be a revolution in Germany right away, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution.
And the same thing happened in the '30s. They still had held out hopes -- there was a very large Communist Party in Germany. In that famous statement we've been popularizing by Pastor Niemoeller, about "First they came for...and then they came...," well nearly everybody forgets who was first in that list; it is "First they came for the communists ." That was a big, vast Communist Party in Germany, which entered into the elections and got several million votes and had a large influence over trade unions and other mass organizations, it could mobilize hundreds of thousands of people in demonstrations, etc.; and they were just crushed and wiped out.
And that, I think, had a profound effect also on Stalin and the Soviet Union. I know that Hannah Arendt and these people like to talk about how all these things are the product of the mad schemings and machinations of the totalitarian mind. But what really happened was that it made a profound impression in Stalin's thinking and in the leadership of the Soviet Union when the German party, on which they were still pinning a lot of hopes, was just crushed, and the Nazis had clearly consolidated their grip on that society, and there wasn't going to be any revolution in Germany, for some time. And from that point on the Soviets began to maneuver a lot to try to deal with the fact that they could see that it was likely that there would be an attack from Germany -- not only was there not going to be a revolution in Germany, but there would probably be an attack on the Soviet Union from NAZI Germany. Arno Mayer, he wrote that book -- was it called Why Did the Heavens ...?
RL: Not Darken.
BA: Not Darken -- Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?It's about the Nazis and World War 2 and the genocide against the Jews, and he makes the point that the policies that were carried out by the NAZIs in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were much more draconian and vicious than they were in the West, in western Europe.
In other words, they occupied Paris. They had a view that France, and Paris in particular, were part of the civilization of Europe with which they identified. So they crushed resistance, but they did not -- I mean, there was the thing about burning Paris -- they were willing to burn it to the ground to crush the resistance, but once they conquered it, they did not institute mass executions and things like that in France. They brutally crushed resistance and made the general population pay for resistance. But they had a very different approach in France than they did in the East. The NAZIs regarded the people in the East, in the Soviet Union and so on, as an inferior breed of animal, essentially, and not part of the civilization of Europe with which they identified; and they applied much more vicious policies against the Soviet Union. All this could be seen to be coming from the mid-'30s on.
So, a lot of what the purges -- which, to be honest, I don't fully understand what they were about, there are a lot of different theories about why these purges were carried out, and why they were directed against the different people that they were directed against. Mostly they were directed against people in the Party. But I know one factor was that there was some question of, a certain concern about, parts of the officer corps of the Soviet military, who had long-standing ties with the Germany army. Because one of the things that happened is that, after the Bolshevik revolution and World War 1, Germany was prevented from having an army in essence, beyond just a minimal thing, and the Soviet Union was then trying to build up an army. So they actually had arrangements between the German army command and the Soviet army command where they did some training and exchanged information, and so on. The Germans were trying to get around the Versailles Treaty, which imposed severe limitations on them in many ways, including their military, and the Soviets were trying to learn how to build an army. And they were learning from the German bourgeoisie a little too much, actually.
But you can understand, once again, that they knew they needed an army to defend themselves, and they had no army when they made their revolution, although they built one, on a basic level, through the civil war that followed the initial insurrections. But, as a result of this experience of cooperation with the German military command, there was a concern, even in the mid '30s and late '30s, about the fact that a lot of the officer corps of the Soviet army had been trained together with and had very close ties with a lot of the German army, and there was a fear that that would get expressed in there being a kind of fifth column inside the Soviet Union for Germany, or at least be an unreliable force. Now I don't know, frankly, to what degree that figured into the equation. It may have been a factor. But in any case, there is more work to be done to understand all this. I really would like to understand what these purges were about and what was on their mind, what were they trying to do, and why were they doing it this way. But, even without understanding a lot of the ins and outs of that, you can definitely situate it in a certain objective context, where they could see these attacks were coming, and they had to desperately try to prepare. And they were only, at that time, less than 20 years from having consolidated the rule of the proletariat and socialist society in the Soviet Union, and so they were still weak in a lot of ways. They embarked, as an attempted solution to this, on a breakneck path of industrialization.
There are a lot of things that can be summed up out of that, but you can't really get at the truth of it if you don't situate it in these objective developments, and the real concerns that they had to deal with on the basis of what was happening.
You know, people in this country, many of them, especially in the middle strata, are so used to a privileged existence, that the idea of really having to -- you can tell that by the reaction to September 11, which was on one level a major development, but let's face it, on a world scale was not that big of a deal. I mean, frankly, there have been many much worse things happen to people regularly in many parts of the world. Yes, it was a traumatic event, and a lot of innocent people were killed, and you can understand that people would react to that. But the way in which people reacted to it also reflects the fact that many people have been living in a kind of privileged cocoon. Somebody made a really good analogy: they said it's a little bit like living in the house of Tony Soprano, when you live in the US. You sort of know that some of the goodies that you have come from something that Tony Soprano [laughter] is doing out there, but you don't want to think about it too deeply [laughter]; you don't really want to know where this is all coming from, even while you might sometimes agonize about it. You don't want to know too deeply.
My point here is that people are so used to living with a certain lifestyle and certain standard of living, especially in the more privileged strata, that they really can't conceive of what it would be like to be in a really desperate situation. In the case of the Soviet Union, a whole society that, once the invasion began from Germany, was desperately clinging to its existence for a couple of years. I mean, in the Battle of Stalingrad hundreds of thousands of people died. And people were fighting out of and amidst rubble. Those were a lot of the fighting conditions for months: the rubble of the buildings that had all been knocked to the ground was where the fighters on both sides were positioning themselves.
So when you make criticisms of what Stalin did -- and we do need to do that -- it's important to keep coming back to, okay, what was the material reality people had to deal with? And how well did they do, and what methodology and outlook did they apply in dealing with this very imposing, powerfully imposing material reality? That's the way we have to approach these things, and struggle with other people to approach them.
When they had the Civil War in the U.S., what's his name, Sherman, just went through the South and burned everything to the ground. And there was a lot of resentment about that. How do you look at that?
When there was the Nat Turner rebellion, the slaves who rebelled killed all the white children in all but one of the households that they stormed. Should they have done that? Probably not. But what's your evaluation of what's the essence of what was happening there -- that they were just slaughtering a bunch of children, or that this was a case of people rising up against their oppression and, in the course of that, perhaps committing some excesses? I remember after the LA Rebellion, one of these reporters from the LA Times asked Clark Kissinger, "Well, what do you think would have happened to you if you'd been at the corner of Florence and Normandy when this riot broke out?" And he said, "I probably would have gotten a cement block over my head -- so fucking what?" [laughter]
There's a question of how you look at and evaluate these things. What context do you situation them in? Do you isolate out the fact that there were certain excesses? Even Reginald Denny, who was far from a communist, came around to a better stand on that. How do you look at the essence of these things, whether it's the experience of the Soviet Union, or whether it's the Nat Turner rebellion, or the rebellion in LA of '92, or the Chinese revolution? What do you understand about the essence of what was going on there? One of the things someone pointed out was, first of all we need to talk to people about why these revolutions were necessary in the first place -- that's part of my point about people living in privileged conditions, they can't even understand what it is that drove people to need to make a revolution in the first place.
You can talk about people starving during the Great Leap Forward in China. Yes, some people did, more than a few. Well, that was not a new phenomenon in China. People in the millions starved every decade. What was different was, after they recognized errors and adjusted, very quickly they put an end to that.
O: And for the first time China solved its food problem.
BA: Yeah. And that's never discussed in all the attacks on China. For the first time they got a situation where people weren't starving, where people were actually fed, and not just the most meager imaginable diet. I mean, it was a modest diet, but it was a diet that solved the basic problem of nutrition for the people. These things are never put into context. They would never have made a revolution if there were this great society there, which Mao then went in and wrecked [laughter]. Why would millions of people have given up their lives, which they did, for a revolution to get rid of a society that was basically fine? Can you imagine anyone doing that? Sure, you'd get a few crazy people to do something like that, but can you imagine tens of millions of people going into motion and hundreds of millions supporting it, and millions giving up their lives for a trivial reason? "There was basically a great society there, and if the communists hadn't come in, everything would have been fine!" Well, that's ridiculous! Why would people make a revolution and follow the communists in the first place?
So we need to bring out some basic reality to people. What were they dealing with? I heard someone give an explanation of this: people used to always talk about the gray ants (or the blue ants) in China. Because, for the first ten years or so after the revolution they produced basic cotton clothes that was in one or two colors, often gray or blue. And I heard someone give an explanation of this: Look, the first problem they had was that most people in China were wearing clothes that were more rags and holes than they were fabric. And the winters in China are also very difficult. So the first thing they had to do was make sure everybody was clothed. When you produce dyes and then run clothes through a dyeing process, that takes a whole other level of labor to do that. And once again, you're not exploiting other people to do it, or plundering the world. And all these things take the labor of people, to make dyes out of plants takes labor. And you have to build machinery to do that, and that takes labor. So first they provided for the basic necessities of people, and then by the time I was in China in 1971, especially the children, because they did it for the children first, had all kinds of variety and beautifully colored clothes. Especially in the cities, but even in the countryside, and the adults increasingly were able to have a variety of clothing. But for people who have never had clothing that really protected them from the elements, it was a great leap forward to have that. And then people want more. They don't want just the same color. But you have to proceed in stages with these things.
But for the average person in the U.S. who goes to the mall and for whom shopping is a way of life, it's very hard for them to comprehend what it might be like. I mean, there are sections of the people in this society, among whom we have to most fundamentally base the revolution, for whom things are very different; but there are broad strata of people for whom the idea that you could only have a few pairs of clothing and maybe one pair of shoes, seems really outrageous. People who organize their lives around shopping. So you have to break through this ignorance and misunderstanding. And we don't give up on those people, either -- even people that like find themselves in demonstrations protesting the war in Iraq. It's not to condemn those people. But we have to explain to them what the reality was in China. And what were they trying to change, and how did they go about doing that? And then we talk about what errors were made and how the methods they used weren't consistently and fundamentally enough the methods we need to use, or where were there shortcomings in that.
P: Can I ask a question on a totally different subject?
P: As you were talking you were bringing up in different ways that you try to do stuff in the superstructure that runs beyond what is really possible it will create chaos, or like in the Shanghai Commune trying to come up with an organizational form that outstretched what was possible and would take things back. And I'm not sure exactly if this is a question, but how do you know what is corresponding to what is there -- you're trying -- everything is always moving and then also everything is not just moving but it is changing. And then you're also trying to push that to its furthest possible point; it's not just what you can see that could be done at any given moment, but what you could struggle to make happen at any given moment. And so how does all of that fit into the picture of either these organization forms, like the Shanghai Commune, or the 3-in-1 committees, or even the policies of making food free, or how does this apply before socialism in terms of what kind of things can we do now? It's not like there's a precise answer, or a kind of formula for this, but how do you know, or how do you actually look at something in a way that can actually take into consideration where you are in the game, but then also strain where you can get to at any given moment? You know what I mean?
BA: Yeah, well, I think it is a combination of studying, studying reality and studying theory and of trying to have a dynamic -- an approach that appreciates the dynamic character of this process. When the peasants rose up in Hunan Province in China in the late 1920s, Mao went and did an investigation of it and wrote up his findings, a report on his investigation into the peasant rebellion in Hunan Province. And one of the points he made there, which really speaks to the same point I was making about the Nat Turner rebellion or the LA rebellion, or whatever, is he said: In righting a wrong, it is necessary that things exceed proper limits, or else the wrong cannot be righted.
Now right there, that's full of a lot of meaning, and a lot of contradiction. Because what he was saying is if you try to draw in the reins or restrain things too quickly and too forcefully so they won't go too far, then they won't go far enough. But, on the other hand, when they start going too far, you have to know how to draw in the reins. And there's no magic formula for doing that. You just have to study hard, work hard, and be immersed in this so that you can draw the lessons -- that was what Mao was doing. And later, during the Cultural Revolution, he didn't immediately say, "this Shanghai Commune is no good," but after a certain period he summed it up and popularized another form. You do have to push against the limits, but sometimes it's necessary for a certain amount of experience to accumulate before you can draw the lessons and the conclusions. And sometimes, inevitably and unavoidably, people suffer during that process because you're trying to push beyond the limits, and when you actually get beyond the limits it starts causing hardship.
Let's take that example of free food: It's a great idea to provide food without having to have it be part of a commodity exchange, and people don't have to pay money for it. But if you do that, you have to have the ability to produce the food in enough abundance to be able to do that; and if you're allocating labor to doing that and people are devoting labor to doing that, then they're not doing other things that are also necessary for the all-around development of the economy. And it may be that that's a form that at a given time goes beyond what you're capable of sustaining.
At one point, a number of years ago, we tried to up the circulation of the RW to a hundred thousand on a weekly basis. We went around, and we called on masses of people to take up the paper and sell it, and we'd leave bundles around on the corners and tried to get people to do it. Well, some good things came out of that. But the problem was that people couldn't sustain that. And so we had to fall back from that. Because there wasn't the basis, we didn't have the political ties and the political strength of a network that could actually sustain that on that level. So, we had to pull back because otherwise a lot of things were going to suffer if we tried to maintain something at a level beyond our capacity and beyond the depth and extent of our ties among masses at that point. There will come a time when we will surpass that circulation of the paper. But it has to be on the basis of the development of an overall movement and of your strength within that, and the actual ties that you develop, to be able to sustain that. If you want masses to distribute the paper, you have to win them over politically and organize them in ways to do that. You can't just rely on their sentiments. There's not enough material reality to those sentiments. They may be there, they may like the paper, they may like what you're doing, but that's not the same thing as being able to sustain an effort like that.
So, similarly, with a socialist economy, in order to break out of the sort of backward conditions of agriculture in China, where everything was highly individualized and people were working very small plots, the first thing they did was to pool labor. Then they started developing cooperatives, and then they collectivized the land on a larger scale. But really, in order to go beyond that, you had the necessity for carrying out more large-scale projects. For example, you needed to be able to have irrigation on a larger scale. So they did things like divert rivers so that it wouldn't be just one village right by the river that would get the advantage of the irrigation, but scores of villages. But, in order to do that, sometimes they had to blast through mountains to divert the river, and you have to organize people to devote labor to doing that.
Well if you organize people to devote labor into doing that, guess what they're not doing? They're not doing agriculture during the time they're doing that. And if you mobilize people to build roads and to build dams and other things, well then that labor's going to that, and during the time they're doing that, they're not engaging in food production directly. Indirectly and over the long-term, this will raise the level of food production; but, in the short-term, it takes away from food production to that extent -- to the extent that people are doing these "public works" projects, if you want to put it that way. And if you don't have the basis among the people to be able to sustain people carrying out these large-scale public works projects, then your whole thing will get undermined eventually.
For example, if you can't feed the people who are supposed to be doing the public works projects, how long can they carry on doing those projects? So you have to balance, you have to find the right synthesis between doing things that will advance the overall level of things while being able to sustain people at the level that you're at. You have to have one foot in the future and one foot planted firmly in the reality of the present.
Or, let's take another aspect of this. They did a lot of stuff in China to develop small-scale industry, spread out in the countryside, which would provide means of production, like tractors and other things for agriculture. Because if you want to work agriculture on a larger scale, you have to have mechanization to do that beyond a certain point. Look at the South in the U.S, after the second world war -- even under the bourgeois system of production there were tremendous transformations where they started mass producing a lot more tractors and introducing them into southern agriculture, and one of the things that did is it did away with much of the sharecropping system. Because the sharecropping system was based on labor on a smaller scale, often with much more primitive technology, including even sometimes mules and things like that, instead of mechanized plowing. And if you bring in tractors, you have to work on a bigger scale. Otherwise they're not efficient, just [laughs] driving around on little small plots. You can imagine what would happen with a tractor if you tried to do it on one acre. It's a big waste.
Now, of course, when they did this under the bourgeois system of production, millions of people got thrown off the land; and in the anarchy of capitalism, it isn't like jobs were waiting for them. They could go enter into the labor pool and compete for jobs in the cities, but if they were Black people coming from the South they were going to be discriminated against, and they had no seniority, and they're stuck in the ghettos -- and there you are. And they are given an inferior education, so they don't have the qualifications or experience or training for the better- paying jobs, and then you get what we've got now. Plus the industry moves out, and that compounds it.
But if you have a socialist system in the conditions that existed in China, you build up this small-scale industry, spread it throughout the countryside, so that people in the rural areas can be more self-sufficient and don't have to rely just on big industry in the cities. But if you put manpower and woman-power into working in these industries, the people are not working in agriculture. And here's the contradiction. What they're doing will eventually benefit agriculture and enable it to mechanize more and develop collectivization on a bigger scale. Because in terms of the underlying material conditions, it will make more sense, and people will be able to see that it makes more sense, for them to work together collectively. So that will strengthen your economy and also the socialist relations that you're building will be strengthened, and it will provide you with a basis to strengthen the ideology of advancing toward communism, because it's strengthening the material basis for doing so. But you have to handle that balance, because if labor power from the countryside is going to work in small industry, then it's not working directly on agriculture. Yet by working in industry, it's going to enable agriculture to leap ahead. That's the contradiction you have to handle.
So here again you can see the question comes up: how do you know when you've reached the limits and you can't go farther? Well, you don't have [laughs] a measuring stick you can put down and say, "Okay, here it is" -- when you get there you know you have to stop. It's a dynamic thing full of tension and struggle, and the enemy is getting in and trying to fuck it up -- they don't want these things to succeed. So you're going to have to determine that in the course of tumultuous struggle a lot of the time. And then Mao's point comes in: If you don't go a little too far, you haven't gone far enough. But once you start going too far, you better know to rein it in.
Once again, this is why I keep emphasizing outlook and methodology. Because that's the only thing that enables you to get this right -- in a relative sense. Never in an absolute sense, but in a relative sense, to be able to struggle through and come to the right synthesis, and then to do it again when conditions change. And yes, you have to always push against the limits, but you have to know when to consolidate what you can gain, and not try to go for more right then.
And that's true in the political struggle, too. Look at the resistance to the Iraq War. The first day the war actually broke out, especially in the Bay Area and in San Francisco in particular, there were several thousand people arrested. Remember, there was that whole thing where people actually tried to stop the traffic, and to some degree they brought bridges and other things to a standstill for a certain period. And people kept trying to do that. But you reach the point where people were not prepared to go farther. That's just the reality you ran up against. The level at which they understood the stakes involved and felt they had to do something to stop this, reached a certain limit. Most the people who got arrested there were not willing to be arrested every day -- you know, get bailed out and get arrested again -- although some were for a little while. People weren't ready to go beyond that. People weren't ready to risk dying to stop the war. Well, that's the reality of it. You can wish that things were more advanced -- not that we want to see people die, but you wish people were willing to put more on the line. But if you reach the limit, you reach the limit. And then you have to try to consolidate and draw the most out of what you have achieved. And then you have a whole battle for summation of all this, where the spontaneous tendency, reinforced in a thousand ways by all the instruments of the ruling class, is that after all this was worthless and didn't do any good, because "we didn't stop the war."
And there's a big struggle about how to understand what was actually accomplished by what people were willing to do and did take initiative to do. And were led to do. And yes, to recognize what the limitations were. But people have illusions that if they just make their anger about what's happening really known and expressed powerfully, that'll be enough to stop these things. And they went up against the reality that there is a ruling class here pursuing its interests, that fundamentally doesn't care about and is certainly not acting on the basis of what people feel is right and just.
So you have to go through that with people and sum it up with them -- that a tremendous amount was accomplished. One thing is that, largely because of the struggle of people throughout the world, and secondarily but significantly because other imperialists had their own conflicts with the U.S., they were denied a U.N. mandate for that war, which was a big deal. I mean, here you had Asnar of Spain, and Blair and Bush, sitting on an island somewhere, declaring war. And they didn't have anybody else with them, essentially. I mean they did have a few, but...
And that was due in large measure to the tremendous struggle that people put up; it was also because of conflicts between French imperialism and U.S. imperialism and all these other countries not wanting the U.S. to single-handedly run the world and run roughshod over them as well as everybody else. But the big element of that was the struggle that people put up. And that reacted back and forth with the interests of these other governments and ruling classes. The governments were pushed to go farther than they probably would have gone on their own because of the struggle of people -- millions of people in their countries were coming into the streets. And while they don't base themselves on that, they can't totally ignore it either.
And not only were they stripped of a U.N. mandate, but they were stripped of really any kind of "high moral ground." They went to war, all right, but they went to war without the mantle of really having the support of the people, even though they pretended they did. There was a tremendous division in U.S. society and great uniformity in much of the rest of the world against this war. So they were denied a lot of that political legitimacy, if you want to put it that way -- not entirely, but to a significant degree. That makes a big difference. And it's not unrelated to the problems they've had there, either. So people have to understand these things, and that's a struggle for people to shed illusions and come to a more materialist understanding and dialectical understanding of how these things play out.
But you run up against the limits. Also, some of these questions, we should understand, that get battled out now politically, not only have immediate great relevance, or a great relevance in immediate terms, but also strategic relevance. For example, "Support the Troops." Now, that line within the resistance -- whether that line is struggled against or not, how effectively it's taken on, is very important in terms of how much people are unleashed to really oppose the war now, but it also has to do with strategic considerations. When it comes down to it, whatever time you really get a revolutionary situation, one of the big questions is actually going to be politically denying the ruling class legitimacy for seeking to suppress a revolution by force -- which you can never completely do, but to the degree that you can it is a big political factor. And also, in terms of what that army does, whether it acts uniformly to crush the revolutionary uprising or whether it splits in the face of that also has major implications. And, if you want to put it that way, the degree to which the cohering and legitimizing ethos of that military is affected and defeated, or undermined politically, by the rank-and-file of an army questioning fundamentally the purposes for which they're being called to kill and to die, has a lot to do with what happens with the outcome of a revolutionary struggle. It doesn't mean you can just rely on politically winning over the other side's armed forces, but that question will be a big component -- whether that army is sort of a monolithic force, or a force that coheres entirely and crushes the revolution, or moves to try to crush it; or whether there is a lot of centrifugal things pulling at that force, with parts of it flying loose and staying out of the battle or even coming over to the side of the people. A lot of these questions that get fought out over political programs and lines even now will have bearing on those strategic things, even though those struggles become much more magnified and concentrated in those revolutionary circumstances.
We have to understand this, and we have to bring more and more people to an understanding of that kind of dynamism that goes into things. Lenin once made the statement: "propaganda is never wasted." And what he meant was that it becomes part of what circulates in people's thinking, even while it may not be the dominant thing there for quite a while until circumstances change radically and political work is done on a different level.
All this struggle that's going on now, because it doesn't stop a war, is not meaningless or without any impact. But that depends especially on what the communists do with it. It can become totally squandered if those who understand that this all has to go to a revolutionary resolution are not acting on that understanding, or losing their own grip on it. But if they do act on it, this stuff has effect not only in the short term, but a cumulative effect toward the final resolution of all this.
So again, in the political struggle, as well as in the economics of socialism, you come up against these things. How far can you go? You come up against this in everything. You come up against it in the realm of theory. You try to explain reality, and if you're honest -- which you should be if you have a scientific method -- you run up against the point where you really can't explain reality any more. So you try a little harder to explain more of it, but at some point you're just gonna have to say, "That's as much as I know right now, so this is what I'm gonna say." I was telling some people that, when I wrote that Phony Communism book, there's some discussion toward the end of it about the advance to communism through socialism and the question of what's called relative abundance. And how do you move from one stage of relative abundance to another stage of greater abundance -- but still relative abundance in the sense that you don't have absolutely everything, and also relative in the sense that it's unequally distributed among people? How do you move from one stage to another, where it's less and less unequal while never completely equal? (This goes back to our earlier discussion about equality and inequality.) How do you keep advancing from one level of abundance to a greater level of abundance?
Well, I didn't have all those ideas that are in that book in my mind in advance of writing the book. I sat down to write it and I got to that part of the discussion, and I said "Oh, shit, here are some new problems that I haven't thought about really in this way before"; so I did my best to come up with some formulations that expressed what I understood about the reality of this, and then after a certain point I stopped and said to myself, "If I try to say more, I'm going to just be saying bullshit. I don't know any more than this right now." And we have to go on learning. But right then, that was as much as I could say. And sometimes you try to say more than you can, and then you realize later, "Oh, man, I didn't really have that." [he laughs, laughter from the others] You know what I mean? I thought I knew what I was talking about, but now I realize that I slipped into the realm of bullshit without even intending to [laughter]. You thought you were saying something, but when you looked at it with more perspective, as you develop more, as life goes on and as you learn more, you can look back at certain things and say, "Well I really didn't understand that as well as I thought I did."
And that's just part of the process. You can't avoid that, you try not to do that deliberately, but there is always going to be an element of where you overstep a little bit -- in any realm. But, if you're good at applying this outlook and methodology, you can keep that to a relative minimum and adjust from the dislocations and hardships that result from doing it, and then try to accumulate and consolidate the maximum positive gains out of all that.
I: This relates to the solid core with elasticity. You were talking about the Christian Fascist element of the ruling class having a solid core, and the liberal representatives not being able to effectively oppose that because of not having a solid ideological core that they could pose in opposition to that. And the thing I'm wondering about is to what extent is this Christian Fascist group, or element, or core representative of the basic interests and direction now of the ruling class, and to what extent is there some contention while on the other hand they have the upper hand? How to understand that in terms of the interests and position of U.S. imperialism?
BA: I think it's some of both. In other words, I don't think it's a "perfect fit" between the more Christian Fascist section of the ruling class and the objective interests of the ruling class. I think that would be mechanical. I think it's much more contradictory than that. Let's go back to the example of Germany in the '30s. One thing that everybody in the military command and even in the political structure of Germany summed up off of World War 1 is: don't fucking fight a two-front war again. They got themselves in a position of fighting on two major fronts in World War 1, and they did all right for awhile when Czarist Russia collapsed and then the Bolshevik revolution followed and they pulled Russia out of the war. But eventually it caught up with them anyway -- they were fighting a two front war in a major way, at the same time. And yet Hitler ended up dragging Germany, even against his own inclinations and plans, into a two-front war. And the outcome was not inevitably what it was, but there were real reasons why it turned out that way -- there were real reasons why they didn't want to do that again.
It wasn't all preordained or scripted out that way. Hitler tried to avoid a two-front war, he wanted to conquer the whole west, including Britain, and then deal with the east, but that didn't quite work out, and then the U.S. entered the war -- which was a calculation that could have been made. The U.S. as it did in World War 1 and did again in World War 2, has this thing, as Mao said, of sitting on the mountaintop watching the tigers fight, and then intervening when its interests dictate, and when the opportunity presents itself.
But Hitler ended up, regardless of anybody's intentions, dragging the German ruling class, if you will, into a two-front war. And I don't think it's because the NAZI program was the program that perfectly fit, in every aspect, the needs of the German ruling class. But it's because Hitler had cohered a program, organized forces around it, developed a whole movement around it, and sort of bludgeoned his way into power. And the rest of the ruling class was kind of paralyzed, in terms of coming up with a means of opposing him, and ended up handing the reins of power over to him. And then he ran with his program until it ran to its limits. I think it's much more like -- not that these analogies are exact with Germany, that's not my point, but I think it's something more of that nature that's going on in the internal struggles in the ruling class of the U.S. now. And I wouldn't even say that some other program couldn't come forward to oppose this right-wing program. I only say that, at this point, none is posing a coherent, powerful opposition to it. That doesn't mean that things might not coalesce in a different way -- that could happen. But I think that these right-wing forces are sort of driving things right now, because there are certain factors that favor their program, in terms of what's going on in the world and the nature of U.S. society -- everything from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the changes in the world economy, favor some of their program. But, on the other hand, there are factors working against it, and I think it's much more that they've built up their forces, they have a powerful force in society. They have captured the Republican Party, for all intents and purposes -- I think there's some reality to that -- and that group sort of sets the terms within the Republican Party, and it has a lot of initiative at this point. And, at this point at least, there's no other section of the ruling class that has a coherent program with which to combat that.
It's not that they're entirely setting the terms within the ruling class or within society -- it is very hotly contested. I mean, you have the Christian Fascists on one hand and gay marriage at the same time, and then the Christian Fascists use the gay marriage thing to build up their forces. Or when there is somebody else in the White House, like Clinton, they used Clinton as a foil to build up their own forces and their own program, while paralyzing most of what he was trying to do. And they're more in a position to do that than vice versa -- more in a position to do that to the opposing forces in the ruling class than anyone is in a position to do that to them.
But that could change, and it isn't like it is a perfect fit between what they represent and what the larger interests of the ruling class are. I don't think things always work out that way. I don't think the larger interests are always able to prevail. For example, it wasn't inevitable that you got a Roosevelt in there who did what he did during the 1930s Great Depression. That's the way things turned out, there were factors favoring that, but it could have gone another way. And I think the same thing is true now. Life is much more dynamic and complex than boom! you get a certain situation and you'll automatically get a certain resolution of that situation, even on the terms of the ruling class.
But the right-wing forces, and the Christian Fascists in particular, are a coherent and driving force that is increasingly setting the terms of things, and it is a very dangerous phenomenon. There is the rule of the imperialists in general, but also these people are trying to qualitatively change the character of bourgeois society. Now, that doesn't mean we should fall into the errors that the Comintern made after the defeat of the revolution in Germany, and basically start allying with a section of the bourgeoisie -- the so-called "liberal" or "democratic" section -- because that section of the bourgeoisie is going to continue to operate according to the interests of the bourgeoisie, and it's going to conciliate in a major way with this other program and these other forces. But it does mean we do have to recognize that making revolution in this country does have, as one important component of it, the defeat of this basically fascistic program -- not as a thing unto itself, but as part of the overall struggle to overthrow the whole system, and not as a separate stage unto itself. Nevertheless, an important component of the overall struggle to overthrow this system is to politically defeat or at least strike major counter-blows to this whole fascistic kind of program that's developing, while doing that as part of, and in the context of, the overall struggle against the system.
Which is a complicated thing to do. Because it means that you have to align with forces who are not part of the ruling class themselves but who support sections of the ruling class. And how to do that without paralyzing the larger revolutionary struggle and revolutionary objectives is something that is also difficult to handle. It can be done, but it's a difficult thing to handle correctly.
I don't know, did I speak to what you were raising?
I: Yeah, I had another point that kind of follows this in a sense, because there is this question in the ideological realm of their program is on one hand coherent, and on the other hand in a certain sense is unworkable as the basic structure of an advanced imperialist country. For instance, take the question of evolution: If they were able to completely ban the teaching of evolution in American schools, would they do that? That causes contradictions with the whole question of the development of science and technology in the United States. And you could go down a lot of the program along the same lines. It's not only that there are contradictions with major social forces in the United States, but also it seems that it's problematic in terms of a lot of the basic workings of an advanced imperialist country, the anti-intellectualism, and when you're talking about science, it's not actually possible to put that into effect. Or take another key part of this: women are a major force, part of the American workforce. So I'm wondering also to what extent is there a serious program, and to what extent there is an ideological bludgeon as part of a two-handed approach. It serves as that kind of a bludgeon, but on the other hand it's hard to see how it is something that could actually be put into practice.
BA: Well, I think there are aspects in which that may be true and -- let me put it this way. I think it's ultimately unworkable. But these people are not totally without any sophistication. For example, in science: they're perfectly capable of operating on two tracks, where for the masses of people they deny them an understanding of evolution, but for a certain section of people that they want to train in sciences and so on, they allow them to learn something about the actual workings of reality, so they can train a certain core of people. They can easily have, for a certain period of time at least, a "tiered" educational system where for political and ideological reasons the masses of people are actually trained in this know-nothingism. And there are forces, driving forces, who are very serious about implementing this program. I mean some of these people [laughs] -- you know, I had to shake my head when some of the people around the gay marriage thing started saying, "Well if you want to protect the sanctity of the family, why don't you just outlaw divorce?" They think that they're saying something clever. But these people, these Christian Fascists, intend to outlaw divorce. And that's something we should understand -- they intend to make marriages "inviolable" in the sense of making it very, very difficult, if not impossible, to get a divorce. And we know what the effect of that will be, especially on women. So, sure, in the long run that's an unworkable program in this kind of society; but that doesn't mean there aren't forces aggressively trying to implement that program, and there are ways in which, like I said, they can have tiers, different tiers, where different things apply.
I used to think that their putting so much money into the military was -- inadvertently, so to speak -- having the effect of bankrupting a lot of social services and programs and even education. But now I'm realizing, the more I've studied this, that this is actually part of a conscious program. This whole "compassionate conservative" thing has, as one of its key elements, that it is morally wrong and politically wrong for the government to provide a lot of these social services to people. That people should be self-reliant to get these things for themselves, and if they need help they should get it from people who will also give them the correct moral posture -- namely, faith-based agencies. If people want to get off of drugs, they should be forced to be religiously indoctrinated. If people want an education, they should be given vouchers; and the schools that will really get underwritten are ones that promote religious education.
This is actually much more of a coherent, worked-out program. There are obviously forces in the ruling class that oppose it, and it is true what you say about women working, but you know they can have women working and still be in these kinds of "stable marriage relationships" that they can't get out of. There's a definite tension there that will become much more pronounced, but that doesn't mean that there aren't forces who actually want to implement this.
O: An example is the welfare laws, where they're forcing women to get married and to take jobs. So that's actually an experiment in terror of that kind.
A: Forcing women out of some types of work -- just the mass impact of having the highest levels of government saying that this is an agenda item. There are 9 million people who've lost their jobs in this recession; if they can make women not go back to work, that's cutting into that too. If people are more willing to hire men for whatever reason, including ideological reasons....
BA: It's true that over the long term there are real conflicts between this program and the basic needs of an imperialist empire; but, as I said, things are dynamic and that doesn't mean these forces couldn't prevail in the shorter term and actually try to implement this program and make a big mess of things -- and then try to use the military to basically hold in place the things that are flying apart as a result of the implementation of their program. Think of this guy Boykin, this general -- he's way out there, but he is not a unique character in the military command structure when he says basically that our religion is true and Islam is a false religion, and Bush didn't win the popular vote but he's in the office because of the Almighty, and stuff that like. This is a guy they promoted in the military, who has a major command in the military. And he's not alone in the military command structure, by any means. And if it comes down to it, if the society is flying apart because of this program that they're ramming through and it causes all kinds of chaos and disruptions, then the next thing to do is to bring the military into it. That's their approach to the world anyway -- you bludgeon things into shape. So there are sections of people, like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell -- believe me, they will try to implement this, even though they will not now openly proclaim some of these things. But were they in a position to do so, or if they get into such a position, they will implement the program of executing homosexuals, believe me. And all this other stuff that's in the Bible that no one wants to defend right now...
A: Old Testament shit, yeah.
BA: ...and I'm sorry to say, but it's not just the Pentecostals. If you read about the miracles of Jesus in the New Testament, what do they consist of? Casting out demons. Which is kind of a contradiction if you think about it: here is supposed to be this emanation of god -- this is one of the three parts of the trinity, this Jesus, right? And thousands of people got killed over that point in the early days of Christianity: was god, the father, the original substance and Jesus and the holy ghost were emanations and lesser expressions of that; or was it all one substance from the beginning? -- which was the final resolution, but thousands of people got killed in slaughter-fests among Christians, fighting over that definition of the trinity. So Jesus, who is supposed to be of equal substance with god, the father, should know that epilepsy is a disease and not demons. And if he's just "casting out demons" because that's what people believed at the time, he should have told them. He says he's coming to bring them the truth -- he should have told them it's not demons [laughter], it's a matter of chemical and electrical problems in the brain, and so on. But he didn't, he "cast out demons."
So if you take the Bible literally -- and you hear these fundamentalists insisting, "Well, if it comes down to a conflict between what the Bible says and what science says about evolution, or if the Bible says we should execute homosexuals, that's what the Bible says" --people are being trained in this. So it is a program which would heighten the conflicts and tensions within this society greatly, but that doesn't mean that under certain circumstances you couldn't get forces who come to the center of power who would actually try to implement that program, at least in large measure. Not without any subtlety and sophistication -- I mean these people are political operatives, the ones at the top of this. But sometimes you get driven to extremes beyond what even you planned. I mean, Hitler didn't go in saying "we're going to exterminate every Jew we can get our hands on." The original plan was to drive them beyond the territories of Germany, but in the reality of it they ended up doing something else. I'm not saying all this will happen, there's no basis to say that. But I'm also saying that we should take these people very seriously.
N: We can't subject it all to a "cost-efficient" calculus, the genocide against the Jews, the strategic dimension on the eastern front, and ideologically. It has its own momentum.
BA: Yeah. And people miscalculate. Hitler miscalculated all over the place with regard to the Soviet Union. But he came close to realizing his objectives, on the other side of it.
A: I was just reading this thing about ancient societies, and you realize that all this effort, like building the pyramids, or these other entombments of kings, these are societies where there was a great deal of scarcity. And burying people with a whole lot of stuff was a tremendously costly thing, right? But it was just that -- it was really codifying this ideology, like "Goddamn it, we're burying this like this because this is the way the world is set up. And not only are we honoring this person, but there really is this afterlife. This whole social structure built on this ideology is true and that's why we wasted all this labor doing this" -- however many decades it took to build the pyramids with slave labor. Like C.S. Lewis, who wrote his books, wrote these children's books, The Chronicles of Narnia , where he's talking about god and Jesus, but in these terms that are like these fantasy novels for kids. But he basically ends up talking about nuclear war like these dragons come out of these tunnels and breath fire on the earth and destroy it, right? Almost like nuclear war is this gift from god to bring us closer to the creator, you know. It's really sick, but it's really ideology -- trying to put this in the minds of kids. Everything you're saying about this being really serious, and life and death and that type of thing, I mean these ideas. That was about nuclear war, and he wrote that in the '50s when that was really on the agenda. So now they're talking about the apocalypse and the evil one being among us, like nuclear war might not be on the agenda in the same way it was in the '50s, but these people are looking at things in a fucked up way.
BA: I do think that one element, as you are saying, is to provide some ideologically coherent force, there is an element to that. I do think there is a conscious ideological element to some degree -- you put this out to get an ideologically coherent force -- but that doesn't settle the issue of whether it'll be implemented or not, on the other hand.
I think we're getting close to the end of the time we have, but if there are other things people want to raise....
N: I was just wondering if we could go back to some of the themes of the talk.
D: I have a question that's not real well formulated, but in terms of the dictatorship of the proletariat and one of the things that you were talking about in terms of working with ideas, what I remember is that this point was made in the Skybreak article ["Working With Ideas"] about the importance of knowing things that are true and things that you are still exploring and then things that you don't really know. And on the dictatorship of the proletariat, I feel there is a certain challenge, because when I was reading some of these books, like that guy Feigon -- some of the stuff you feel like you have to go back to the history, in terms of the context of what's being talked about, you have to go back and do homework. Some of the stuff, I'm trying to remember: "Is this what happened, or how it happened? Does he [Feigon] have a point, or is this bullshit?" So, this method that you're talking about, I feel like it's a real struggle and a challenge to apply it in terms of there are certain things we know went down -- like life expectancy, some of the things around the liberation of women, health care, some of those kind of things -- but then there's also other things that are more unclear. I was thinking: How did the Great Leap Forward play out? How do we understand all that? That wasn't the Cultural Revolution, it was an early experiment of trying to figure out some forms of developing things. So, like I said, it's not a well-formed question, but it has to do with really trying to think through and grasp this point, how to apply this method, and especially this thing of working with ideas and going and talking amongst the intellectuals and the students. There are things that we do know -- and we know that it was mainly a positive experience -- but then there are also things we need to learn more of, and there are things that we really don't know that much of. How to sort all that out, I feel, is kind of a challenge. As I'm reading these things I'm thinking about it -- you have to go back. Collectively, we'll have to go back and look at some of the China Reconstructs magazines and Peking Reviews , and so on, and some of the things we produced and some of your [BA's] writings, as far as what we have to bring to the table. But I also feel, in studying a lot of these things, there is the question: how to really get good at that method, to get good at that kind of approach, of learning and doing ...
R: When you talk about socialism it's very challenging because you throw out these things, and its's like "wait a minute, what did you just say?" You were talking about the "expanding you," broadly in terms of the masses, but then in terms of working with ideas and people needing dissenting ideas and even officially dissenting positions, that sort of thing. And then you talked about how there's not a complete barricade between the party and the masses, and how even within the party you have to expand the "you." There are differences within the party in terms of leadership and led and the different levels of the party, and strengths and weaknesses of different people, and all of that mental/manual contradiction inside the party, in terms of the leadership and the basic units of the party. But then the party as a whole also needs to raise its level in terms of working with ideas. I'm just sort of having thoughts, it's not a formulated question. I was just wondering if you could speak a little bit to how -- while not throwing out democratic centralism or something like that -- how do you have the party in the mix of all of these ideas? You went to China and you talked to these people around how China was opening up to the West and saying Marcos was a great leader and this, that and the other, and you were asking these people in the Chinese party and they didn't have the answers. And part of it is: did those people not have the answers, or did they have some questions on it, but they were more debating it internally and they couldn't talk to you about it? How can you have the mix of people being able to be in the midst of all the questions that are going on, intellectually -- political questions, but also in the ideological realm -- without breaking democratic centralism? How do you have people in the mix of that, being able to engage it and even in some ways go off in the wrong direction in order to eventually get to the right direction, but then not have that cause a splintering effect. You know?
BA: Yes, I do. As far as the specifics about China, I think it was some of both. I think that the people we were talking to were not in a position to just respond, because they would have been violating the principles of the party, the principles of democratic centralism; but they could have taken it up higher and come back and at least given us an answer, even if it were a restatement of official policy. They did give us a sort of general rap, but it was very general and frankly meaningless in that context. There was a question of democratic centralism inside the party, which we did recognize. But somewhere, on some level, somebody should have been able to engage the things we were raising and to give a reply to them. And that didn't happen.
But the more general point is -- look, this is one of the big problems of socialism. You're living in this fucking world of imperialists, and everything you do is used by the enemy. They pour over everything you say to look for vulnerabilities. And this makes it difficult to openly discuss a lot of things, in socialist society. To be honest, the decision to do the "opening to the West" was probably made by a tiny handful of people. It was not made through the process of having discussion among the masses broadly. And the reason for that is not because Mao, for example, didn't believe in that process. But this involves a lot of "state secrets." If you are worried about the Soviets attacking -- let's get down on the ground here -- if you're worried about the Soviets attacking you at any moment, and you let it be known that you're starting to negotiate with the U.S. to try to counterbalance that, maybe you would precipitate a Soviet attack quicker, before you can get anywhere with that, with those discussions and negotiations.
You're operating under a lot of constraints there. This was a very real threat, and to precipitate an attack, before they felt they were as prepared as they could be, would be a bad idea. On the other hand, the result of that is that this is a very restricted group of people that's discussing and debating and struggling over this -- and falling out over it, frankly. The split in the Chinese leadership with Lin Biao had a lot to do with this. And his line wasn't any good either -- it was sort of a pro-Soviet line in that context. Not that he thought the Soviet Union was so great, but that the way to deal with the Soviet Union was more to move in its direction rather than to "provoke" it. So this is the problem: Here you have a society that you want to be run by the masses of people, and yet one of the biggest decisions that's made is not made by the masses of people, it's made by a tiny handful -- because of the reasons that I've talked about, and not because you had leaders who didn't want the masses involved in this discussion. If they had had the freedom to do so, I can guarantee you that, given his overall approach to things, Mao would have had massive discussions for a few years before they resolved the question. But, in the real world, they might have been attacked in the meantime.
So that's the problem you're dealing with, that's one level of what you're raising, one level of contradiction. It's a really knotty problem. It's a really vexing problem, and you could stay up late at night -- I myself have agonized over this for 30 years, without exaggeration. [laughter] And I still am not at ease with it. It's easy to see some mistakes were made, that's not what I mean. But I'm not at ease about how you correctly handle this, because there's not an easy answer to it. I literally have been thinking about this and agonizing over it for 30 years, and I still don't feel that I'm that much closer to knowing the answer to it. To the degree they could, over every question and issue they could, under Mao's leadership they would involve the masses very broadly in these things. But there were some spheres where they did not, where they had not yet wrenched the freedom to do this. When we get down to the point where it's a question of how to finish off the few remaining enclaves of the imperialists in the world, we can probably afford a lot of debate about it. But we're a long way from that point, and it's very difficult at this stage, when you're fighting uphill all the time. And it's remarkable the things that were achieved under those circumstances, but we still have to do better. And you can't just say: "Well, what do you expect? That was the necessity, so that's all that could happen."
But it's not an easy answer. Not only have I agonized over this for 30 years, but other people have agonized over it, and we don't have an answer, a satisfactory answer yet. So we have to keep working on this problem. But it's a reflection of the fact that you are still where you are in the process. And, as I said, the masses being the masters of socialist society is relative and not absolute. This is one of the sharpest expressions of it. This is a case where representatives who hopefully act in the interests of the masses are, in their very small circles, debating and deciding this -- and then taking it down through the ranks of the party and the army, and in some form among the broader masses. So that's one point.
The other point has to do with this orientation about "a solid core with a lot of elasticity" and about being able to determine and distinguish those things around which you do really have to be very firm and pay very close attention, and those things around which you don't have to and shouldn't do that. Even within the life of the party, this is something that needs to be applied -- even in the political and ideological life of the party (I mean, there's life of the party in another sense, but we're not talking about that right now). [laughter] But in the ideological and political life of the party, you have to be able to make those distinctions. If you want ferment among those you are leading and influencing, or in the society as a whole if you're leading it, you can't have no ferment inside your leading core, your vanguard. So what can you have it over, and what can't you? In the midst of trying to deal with all the contradictions of socialist society, are we going to have the party undecided about whether we should have socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat? I don't think so! If that were the case, we wouldn't be able to do anything.
On the other hand, what does it mean to apply these principles in the sphere of art, or of health service, or the scientific sphere? We might be able to have a lot of ferment and debate -- including in the party -- over things like that.
But this will put tremendous strains on things, and particularly on the leading core, at times. In feudal society one of the ways they executed people was by drawing and quartering them, with horses pulling people in different directions and their bodies just flying apart. Well, you know, if you're in a position of trying to lead a process of the kind I'm talking about, you can feel sometimes like you might be drawn and quartered. Maintaining that solid core, while allowing and encouraging and fostering a lot of ferment, and wrangling and struggle -- a lot of the elasticity -- means that it's extremely difficult to keep that core together while you're doing that. But if you don't do that, if you're not willing to risk that, then you won't really involve the masses the way you need to --the "you" who is engaging and deciding these things doesn't expand, even inside the party, let alone more broadly, and you don't get the richness and diversity out of which much more can be learned.
But this takes work. That's why Mao said that dogmatists are lazybones, because all you have to do is just repeat a few rote formulas and chant a few slogans, and treat the science like -- pervert it into a religion, essentially -- and for awhile you can go along like that, until reality overwhelms you. But to do it the way I'm talking about, and emphasizing, requires a lot of work and it requires continually grappling with "what is this outlook and methodology and how do you apply it correctly under now this circumstance and now that circumstance -- with three or four things going on at once." I remember there was this ad with Martina Navratilova a number of years ago -- I don't remember what the product was but I remember the ad-- she was sitting there with all these tennis balls flying by her (or at least they were simulating that), and then at one point she reached up and grabbed one. The point was that you have to maintain your concentration in that kind of a circumstance -- keep your eye on the prize, so to speak -- while you let some things go. And that's what we have to do. A lot of things are flying by you, and you've got a lot of things going on that are intensely percolating in society -- and how do you keep ahold of the core but let a lot of this stuff fly all around you? That takes a lot of work and struggle and going back and forth between practice and theory and really knowing the masses of people more and more deeply and bringing them forward more so that you have the basis, when you go to apply this outlook and methodology, to really do it well. And then you have to learn quickly and well from your mistakes. And maybe once in a while a ball flies and hits you in the face, and then you have to deal with that.
But if you don't conceive of socialism, and even the life of a vanguard party, in that kind of way, then I don't think you're really going to be capable of rising to the challenges we're going to confront, and you won't be really involving the masses, both in the party and more broadly, in coming up with the answers to these questions.
There are elements of what I'm saying here that are drawing from historical experience; and there are elements that are new, in the sense of trying to take that experience and look at it in a new light and try to figure out what aspects, or different angles of coming at this, would be correct or should be attempted. And, although we don't have socialist societies and the dictatorship of the proletariat right now, we do have a party and there are parties in other countries -- we do have a movement, an international movement -- and a lot of the same questions, methodologically, pose themselves now. And the experience we accumulate in handling these things well and the way in which the masses learn to do this in growing numbers -- as Lenin said masses mean different things under different circumstances. When you don't have a revolutionary situation, masses might refer to a few hundred people or a few thousand people in a given area. When you get a real mass upsurge in society, masses becomes tens, hundreds of thousands, even millions. When you get a revolutionary situation, it becomes a great part of society that is called into political life. So, when we talk about "masses" now, we're not talking about millions and millions of people at this point; we're talking about relatively small numbers, we're talking about thousands of people who can be drawn into these processes. But that's very important preparation for when millions are called into motion.
So we have some things to learn about this, but I think the principle that it's never good when there's not ferment also applies to parties. Intellectual ferment, ideological ferment, is part of what we need to keep a party vigorous and keep it able to really deepen its ties with and bring forward masses without losing its bearings, and without losing its essential core.
RL: We wish to end on this note.
Part 1: Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism