Revolution #47, May 21, 2006

An Evening of Philosophical Discussion: Engaging with Marxism and the Call of the Future

On May 3, a crowd of over 100 students, professors, and others, gathered at the Barnes & Noble DePaul Center in Chicago for a presentation and discussion of Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History and Politics, a book by Bob Avakian and Bill Martin. Many had heard about the program from an article in the DePaul school newspaper, which began: “What is it about Marxism that piques human curiosity? Perhaps, in this day and age, it is the thought of a collectivist spirit or the possibilities for social change. Maybe it is the widespread social upheaval the movement has influenced. Regardless, Marxism as a movement is alive and well…”

Raymond Lotta, Maoist political economist and the author of the book’s preface, started off the evening talking about how Conversations is both a provocation and an invitation, a broad-ranging discussion between Bob Avakian and Bill Martin that reaches into and explores the question of whether a whole other, liberating future of humanity is possible. Lotta pointed to the breadth and diversity of the questions dug into in the book, such as sustainable agriculture in today's world; the Bush regime and its plans for restructuring society and the world; history, historical materialism and contingency; the prospects for revolution; the question of Marxism and ethics, and more. And deep philosophical issues like: where do values and vision come from, are they transcendent, are they socially situated in the material development and social contradictions of society—are explored in Conversations where Avakian and Martin find points of common contact and divergence and are constantly listening to and learning from each other and pursuing discussion that goes in unexpected directions.

Lotta talked about Avakian’s pathbreaking contributions, in looking critically at the first wave of socialist revolutions (in the Soviet Union and China) and the need to uphold these great achievements while critically examining them, in order to go further and do better in the struggle for a communist world. And Avakian brings to Conversations, his radically new vision of socialist society which emphasizes the crucial and vital role of intellectual ferment, debate, and dissent in the struggle to understand nature and society, and in the struggle to transform the world.

Bill Martin brought out a personal dimension in his remarks, giving the audience some insight into what he described as a “heady” experience, spending several days of discussion with Bob Avakian. Martin talked about the different styles of the two authors and the excitement of the back-and-forth, give-and-take exchange that also contained much humor. He outlined some of the points of disagreement that came up, as well as areas that warrant ongoing and deeper dialogue. And true to the spirit of Conversations, Martin offered some further thinking on some key topics in the book such as the relationship of science and truth: How we understand this; how this should be applied to the poetic and the realms of culture; and what the difference is between what goes on in the culture realm and what goes on in natural and social sciences. Martin also emphasized the importance of the ethical and reiterated his concern that Marxism needs to pay more attention to this dimension.

These two philosophical questions are addressed very deeply in Conversations, and Lotta and Martin read from “Calculation, Classes and Categorical Imperatives”—a chapter which discusses the need and possibility of bringing into being a new society that addresses the profound social and material needs of humanity that are not met under this system, the relationship between that and people being motivated by a sense of justice and what’s right, and the importance of the ideological moral dimension in all this.

When things were opened up to the audience there was a very lively discussion, including a dialogue off of one person’s argument that socialism and communism are neither desirable nor viable. And there were many other points in Conversations that people in the audience wanted to discuss further, like the debate over animal rights and the question of whether or not there is directionality and inevitability in history. This discussion, and several more hours of informal conversations afterwards, was a living example of the need, desire, and excitement for taking up big philosophical questions—exactly because they are connected to the current state and future possibilities of society and humanity. And the whole evening demonstrated the power of Conversations to provoke and invite people into discussion and debate over the crucial philosophical questions that will literally determine the fate of the planet.

As the quote from Allen W. Wood says on the back cover of Conversations:

“At this dark time in the history of our country and of the world, we need some new conversations about Marx and the socialist tradition—conversations free of dogmatism, open to ideas from all sides, but oriented in a progressive direction and eager to learn from thinking critically within the Marxist tradition. This book provides us with one model of what those kinds of conversations can be like.”

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