Revolution Online, February 21, 2010

An Historic Contradiction: Fundamentally Changing The World Without "Turning Out the Lights"


...on why the world must not stay as it is but it also must not be, "Here come the communists, turn off the lights, party is over."

Of course! Why would anyone want to turn off the lights and end the party? It seems so obvious that we would want to keep the lights on, keep the beauty and the joy and the curiosity and humor. That we would not only want to retain, but give greater expression to, experimentation and imagination and love! I mean, there are the crude economists—the ones who think that anything that doesn't exalt the worker is bourgeois rubbish. And, there are those who have become so embittered with the truly horrible ways the world has treated them and those around them that their minds do not extend past the desire for revenge. And, it’s not that these sorts of tendencies haven't at times been pronounced in the history of the revolutionary and the communist movements.

But, really, can't we see now with hindsight how undesirable all that is? Can't we see how stultifying things can become and don't we see that it is much better to have a society that people would actually want to live in? A society with art and ferment and great contestation and tremendous experimentation. A society that values people speaking their minds and mixing it up with each other. A society where people don't fear bringing forward new ideas, where there is no "one form" or "one way" to make or perceive beauty or to make or perceive love. A society in which the state never suppresses individual expression or experimentation.


How quickly and how easily one can lose the whole thing. And, if you miss the chance to make revolution, or if you lose state power once you have it, there are no "do-overs." In thinking about this question—of why the world must not be allowed to stay as it is, but at the same time, it must not be the case that "here come the communists, turn off the lights, the party is over"—I have been brought back to Issue #4 of Revolution newspaper repeatedly.1 I have also been brought back to the summation of one of the grad students who told us that there should be even less toleration of the intellectuals than in Maoist China the next time around. He himself was a big supporter of the Chinese revolution and his opinion on the intellectuals was actually formed from having seen how horrible China has become since the loss of state power and the role that many intellectuals played in restoration and legitimating that restoration. He felt that too much was at stake, state power is just too important, to allow even as much elasticity as there was in China under Mao.

The only way to even begin to grapple with this contradiction in a way that doesn't end up in either of those alternatives, or the one of flipping back and forth between the two, is to really come at everything from both "up on the mountaintop" and "down on the ground." Both grabbing a hold of the key links at any given time that must be held onto or advanced around, without which nothing could move forward towards communism, AND meeting that necessity in a way that is consistent with and actually advances things towards the final aim. And, there is a real importance, actually a necessity, to grasping the nature of reality in a much more multi-layered, multi-textured way, really taking up an even more deeply dialectical and materialist understanding of the world.

I think a lot of the pull towards turning off the lights comes in because there are real and pressing needs that must be met at any given time, and there is a finiteness to resources, leading attention, time, etc. But there has also been a real tendency towards viewing things too statically—or in too isolated a way. A work of art comes out and a verdict is drawn on it too quickly and too narrowly. It is a fact that everything has a principal aspect and it is a fact that everything ultimately conforms to one set of production and social relations or another, but there is also the fact that the particular exists within a larger context and is interacting with and being influenced by many other contradictions. And whether something ultimately conforms to outmoded relations and whether it directly and acutely challenges the ability to be moving beyond outmoded relations, are often two very different things. Whether something is relatively harmful, relatively helpful, or "neutral" has to be evaluated not only by isolating it and examining it and reaching a verdict on it—but by evaluating it in the context of a whole society and world situation, what dynamics are at play and what can be made the dynamics with the role of a solid core actively contending. And this must not be done only from the standpoint of immediate objectives—no matter how critical they actually are.

It is not that the necessity faced by Mao going into the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) was any less serious—the stakes for losing state power and the forces aligned against the maintenance and advance of the revolution were not any "lighter" than what confronted Stalin. But, how he understood and how he met that necessity, how he went about transforming it, was different. Rather than confronting less necessity, Mao, in many ways, was grasping more deeply and confronting and seeking to transform more deeply greater and deeper necessity. When he said the object of the Cultural Revolution is to overthrow the capitalist-roaders in power, but that its deeper aim was to transform world outlook—he didn't add the part about transforming world outlook because he had "more freedom" than Stalin, but because he recognized the deeper necessity that had to be transformed at the same time that the immediate objective had to be met if any of it were to actually contribute to getting to communism. But, not only did he see more necessity—he also, flowing from the same deeper grasp of dialectical materialism, saw more freedom, or perhaps better put, different freedom.

He saw new ways that the strengths of the masses, the unevenness of the masses, could be brought to bear. It was not that he didn't have to confront the necessity of overthrowing those who were restoring capitalism, or defending the socialist state, or bringing forward successors, or feeding the country, but he went about doing this in a different way—in a way that was also confronting some of the even greater and more challenging necessity of transforming things fully—including the thinking of and relations among the people—in a way that can get to the 4 alls. This is an application of meeting immediate necessity that was extremely acute and held world-historic implications and stakes—but not compressing everything down to meeting that need by any means necessary and at whatever cost.

Very few people have identified this statement of Mao's as particularly significant, as concentrating what he was trying to do with the GPCR—and even fewer have pursued the method involved in this and in some significant ways built upon but also gone beyond Mao in this regard. In struggling to go beyond a superficial "well of course, keep the lights on" approach, and to really identify where this contradiction resides and why it will be so acute all the way through, I have been repeatedly struck more deeply with the significance of the Chair highlighting and drawing out this comment from Mao. And, the fact that flowing from really grasping this, he has gone beyond Mao in significant ways.

There is a lot of stuff that needs to be let loose that isn't even just about meeting the most acute needs of the revolution in a different way, as important as that is. There's a lot of stuff that ought to just rip and get stirred up—intellectually, artistically, in terms of social relations and experimentation. Some of it will have to be weighed in relation to pressing necessity—but there is a shift in really grasping the importance of ferment overall, how this is a positive thing, how it creates an atmosphere for new things to emerge, for people to be awakened and aroused into political and cultural life, and how it actually provides a much greater sea and mix for the vanguard forces to be interacting with. It actually provides much more freedom and new avenues for learning and transforming the world.

I recently saw the play Twelve Angry Men, about a jury deliberating a trial. They begin almost unanimously declaring the suspect guilty, no one even feels they have to think twice about it, except for one guy. What's fascinating about the play is the whole process they all go through whereby they are forced to wrangle and really think critically about how they came to their conclusions and whether they hold up. By the end, everyone has changed their view. There was a tremendous amount in the play that was actually quite instructive about how unevenness and ferment can play a very positive role. Not just ideas that come forward that conform to the interests of the proletariat—but even the busting open of ferment and critical thought and yes, of course and very importantly, in that context the increasing influence of ideas that correspond to the interests of the emancipation of humanity.

By the end of the play every one of the "airtight" arguments of the prosecution had been ripped with holes. It wasn't that anyone was sure that the suspect was innocent, but they were all convinced that based on the case against him he hadn't been proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. But, this took a collective process. Different people poked holes in different aspects of the case—one had experience in knife fights, another wore glasses and knew what that was like, another was older and had some insights on how that might impact some of the witnesses’ testimony, etc. And, many of these holes only got poked after a question was posed by one person that was pondered by another and weighed in on by a third—and opposed by many as well. No one person had what it took to demolish the prosecution's argument—but, even if at the beginning, one person had been able to line up and refute every single argument that had been made, it wouldn't have been as compelling or convincing to the whole jury. The rest of the jury wasn't ready to hear it—they weren't yet thinking. They changed through the whole process. It is both that one person couldn't have come up with all the answers alone as well as the fact that there was a process going on.

And, there was tremendous unevenness to that process and a way that the unevenness worked, or got going in a positive direction, because of the steadfastness and persistence and, very importantly, critical method of one person.

You could also see that it was harder at the beginning for that guy to get a hearing because people weren't yet thinking critically. They just came to their conclusion and the fact that everyone else agreed with them, except for one guy, made them feel they didn't even have to defend their position. It was like, "duh." And the first one who came over to the side of the "not guilty" was not even convinced that the trial didn't merit a "guilty" verdict, but he really was won over on the basis of being inspired by the fact that the one guy had the courage to stand out on his own and the fact that he felt the argument should be answered on its merits. Taken in isolation, if this guy were boxed off and evaluated statically, he might not have seemed a very favorable element. But, in a greater mix—his partial strength (which wasn't at first at the forefront in his actions) became very critical in opening up a process. In a similar way, other people's particular strengths were brought to bear and a positive dynamism got going.

There was a lot to learn from the dynamics of the most backwards jurors, too. First, you could tell from the very beginning that some of them were deeply racist, but this kind of blended in with and was excused by the others because both of their own prejudices and their own beliefs that the suspect was guilty and so that racist prejudice wasn't really impacting any verdict (so they thought). But, as the critical thinking got going and people started having to defend the position of guilty, rather than being allowed to hold it just because their gut told them so, the ugliness of the racism actually stood out more and more. People divided out. Some followed their principle despite their gut. Others got more emboldened in trashing principle and lashing out in racist rants. This, again, if evaluated just on its own terms would be seen as extremely negative. "Oh no! Look at how the racism is getting more emboldened and pronounced. This process is going in a way that is very bad and needs to be reined in." Such an argument could certainly be made. But it would be wrong. Because there was a bigger process going on and things were being clarified and this position was actually lashing out because the ground beneath it was being dug up.

Overall, several things stood out in watching this play with the question (about turning out the lights, for short) in the back of my mind. First, the importance of unleashing a process, the way unevenness can be the source of growth or new things. Second, the great importance of critical thought and engagement, of actually having ferment and a context where people are THINKING (not just where the right thoughts get presented and united around). Third, the very big role that a very small minority with a good method and some key truth can play in this context. I guess with that, the importance of this small minority (here I mean US) grasping that they have to unleash ferment and thinking, that we are responsible for this as well. It both has value and import for how we are going to arrive at the 4 alls—the process we need to unleash and the ways that people learn, the ways that we will learn, etc—AND tremendous importance in terms of what communism actually is and must be.

This includes the fact that there are whole realms that really haven't been recognized as realms in their own right and handled correctly in the history of our movement. The realm of art, for instance. There is a quote attributed to Lenin in the book, Street Art of the Revolution: Festivals and Celebrations in Russia 1918-33 that a comrade pulled off the shelf and we were looking at. The book writes, "Under socialism, Lenin had insisted, art would no longer serve the elite of society, that 'upper ten thousand suffering from boredom and obesity; it will rather serve the millions and tens of millions of laboring people, the flower of the country, its strength and its future.'" [Lenin, Complete Collected Works, vol. 12, p. 104]

This is at the beginning of a whole book that documents the tremendous artistic flowering and festivals that made art available to the masses of workers and peasants for the first time. That involved tens of thousands of them in producing the art. That celebrated them taking center-stage in history and in emancipating themselves and humanity. I need to spend more time with this book and look further at the content of what was expressed in this art—but even right there in the beginning, there was a conception of the realm of art expressed by Lenin in this quote that while expressing something very important and unleashing an artistic movement that was truly unprecedented and much needed, still came at this realm too narrowly. It is right that ultimately art and culture will serve one set of production and corresponding social relations or another and that it is a great necessity to put art in the hands of the masses and to create works and culture that celebrates the new—but it is wrong to view art up until then as merely or mainly serving the boredom of the elite. Art is its own realm. There is much about art of the past that has to be divided into two. There are things—especially things bound up with the church—that have to be taken on rather directly and transformed, or new things brought up in their wake. But there are also things that can be appreciated even where they reflect outmoded outlooks because those relations are overall being transformed and they don't hold the same kind of threat or weight. Things that are beautiful or at least provocative and stirring and, even while they reflect outmoded relations and thinking (think of Shakespeare), are not reducible to those outmoded relations.

This gets tricky because you come right up against the problem that—most of what is considered "beautiful" in this world, or "funny," or "romantic" or "joyful," most of the things and arenas in which one would want to keep the lights on, the content of them is almost saturated with "the world as it is." I mean, it is almost impossible to turn on anything on tv and not be assaulted by derogatory and demeaning images of women. You can't get more than 4 seconds into most stand-up comedy routines on tv without at least experiencing the impulse to change the channel even if you don't always do it.

Still, you have to pull back the lens—to both more boldly struggle for a different pole and have more strategic confidence that if we get the ferment going, we can lead through it. We don't have to "answer" every wrong thing that emerges and attempting to do so will actually impair our ability to lead society towards the 4 alls.

In thinking about the content of much of the culture and art that we will need to be transforming, I have been brought back to how the Chair handles the impulse towards religion. Religion itself is gone at very sharply, in its content, in its roots and its ongoing role, in the method of thinking it trains people in—but the impulses towards religion are not all "doused in the icy waters of science." The need for meaning, for morality, for awe, wonder, etc. These impulses which are quite human and will be with us and give one expression or another—are recognized and embraced, but de-coupled from the religious or superstitious form and expression they are dominantly given today. And, a way where they can be given even greater expression, in a different context and with a different overall content, is shown.

In addition to the constricting of things down to immediate and even very key campaigns and needs of the proletarian revolution (seizing state power, holding onto it, etc.) and suppressing—or allowing to die of benign neglect—things which do not contribute to those objectives narrowly conceived, there is a way that the particularity, and the importance, of some of these realms in their own right has been not recognized and so they have been treated too narrowly.

Related to this, a tremendous amount of freedom has not been recognized either.

Not only are these human needs and will a society lacking artistic and intellectual ferment be stultifying—but, going back to 12 Angry Men and the nature of communism itself—the existence of ferment and debate and critical thinking and experimentation have value in their own right. Without them you cannot really get a process going where people can fully transform themselves and their outlook and their thinking and the world—and, without them your society is going to be a dreary place and any conception of communism (which you will never achieve) will be equally dreary.

One tricky thing that stood out as well, though, in contemplating 12 Angry Men is the way that those who hold positions that go with spontaneity, that have never been deeply challenged and never had to really defend their views with substance, can lash out when they are no longer allowed to just hold these views "just because." There was not only racism that was unleashed in an unvarnished form—but also real disgust and anger with the idea of having to defend their guilty verdict. They wanted to be able to continue—as everyone had allowed them to at the beginning—saying, "Well, I just believe this."

It seems this gets to some of what is so complex about leading a process that aims not just at immediate objectives but actually at transforming world outlook. Changing how people deeply feel and believe. You cannot just declare it or legislate it. This is one of the extremely important leaps beyond Mao that Avakian has made with the new synthesis and a rupture from official ideology. You cannot change people's thinking just by declaring that some things are correct and allowed and others are not.

You need to have space for people to deeply feel and believe about the world in different ways. And for people to not feel like they have to defend every single deeply held belief all the time. But, some of the most deeply held beliefs are some of the ones that MOST need to be critically examined and transformed.

I recently read a letter seeking advice on a relationship and the response from the feminist blogger. A young woman who has lived with her boyfriend for 2 years recently discovered that he was viewing porn on his computer and then that he is going away to a friend's bachelor party where there will be strippers, etc. She wanted to know if she could tell her boyfriend it was wrong, and specifically that getting a lap dance was cheating on her. The advice given back was infuriating. Everything was absolutely relativist (oxymoron which moronically applies)—"some people think porn is anti-feminist, some people think it’s fine, some feel lap dances cross the line of monogamy, others want to have open relationships, you have to decide what your personal boundaries are, etc." (Paraphrasing.) The advice went on, "You two should negotiate what both of your needs are and find a way to meet both of your needs." The part that was supposed to be "empowering" was telling this young woman that she should value her own needs more than the need to be in a relationship.

In thinking about how we would answer this letter—it was clear that some things would have to be said up front. First, that pornography and strip clubs concentrate the oppression of women—the reducing of women down to objects for the sexual pleasure or plunder of men, dehumanizing them, and quite often concentrating straight up hatred and brutality against women. The question can't be approached just on the level of the two individuals and how they both perceive their "needs" but in terms of broader social relations and what serves the liberation of women and all humanity and what pulls against it. But, after that there are a lot of things that might be really good advice for a friend to give another friend, or even more things that might be insisted upon for members of a communist vanguard, that would actually be harmful to insist upon in an advice column if it was from or tied to the Party. (Others could write things that we might even agree with, but which, coming from us would not be correct to insist upon.)

Part of the complexity of the woman question—as well as other deep ideological questions of world outlook—is that it interpenetrates with every other contradiction, from the most foundational economic to every aspect of culture and ideology and music and dance and art. And, almost everywhere it is saturated with the ideology and outlook of the current and past ruling classes. At the same time, much of the way the woman question plays out is on a very intimate, very private level of how people "authentically feel." All this is shaped by and influences larger social relations—but not all of it is immediately linked in that way and almost none of it is experienced by the individual as a "larger societal social relation." It is experienced as "just the way I feel" and often those feelings are very overpowering, very deep, very seemingly "innate."

These things don't change just because someone comes in and pronounces a correct way to experience love and intimacy. And, while there are things that are definitely harmful and that should not be allowed (pornography and battery, for instance), there are many things that ultimately conform to outmoded views, but which people themselves need to have the space to exist or at least be in the mix. And the need to have a lot of ferment and experimentation and room for debate and discussion without quickly coming to verdicts will be extremely important.

Compared to something like foreign policy, which is very complex but which most people can recognize rather quickly is tied into serving or endangering one form of state and production relations or another (even if they are not clear on how that is the case, they are clear that there is a relationship between foreign policy and the state), love and romance don't strike people in this way. These are spheres that are shaped by, do reflect and ultimately reinforce one set of production and social relations or another—but people don't see them that way. And even when they change their feelings—when societal movements are underway that recast what people find tolerable, what they are reaching for, what they are experiencing and struggling for—often and in their majority they still don't recognize how these things changed even in their own thinking.

You want a society that is increasingly taking up a scientific approach to everything—including the relationship between the individual and society and the woman question and the relationship between thinking and feeling (while they are not the same, thinking—even if not always conscious—does influence feelings, there is a framework that different experiences are being "processed" through in anyone's thinking that influence how they will feel about given experiences). But, part of getting people to change their outlook is bringing them right up against the fact that they have been thinking and feeling a certain way without ever having to interrogate it or defend it and then when they are forced to—they can't. This is what happened in 12 Angry Men—this is how I recall breaking with religion. I just couldn't defend it anymore—but there was someone arguing me into a corner on it and forcing me to defend it.

People do take offense too. "How dare you intrude or tell me what to think and feel?" It is very necessary that a lot of this kind of debate and ferment be unleashed among the people—but some of this is the kind of struggle that the state (and even the Party) cannot do very much of without turning out the lights on people. But, there are questions that can be posed, works of art that can open up new angles and provoke thought, that actually get a process going where people are wrangling and debating among themselves and each other.

Here's another element of the freedom and necessity posed on this to grasp more deeply. Back to the play—the most reactionary and racist guys do get "cornered" and forced to defend their views and this is very necessary. Everyone learns through the process and while the most backwards more seem to "give in" rather than fully transform, their backwards views are isolated and deprived of their social impact. And, in this process, the first guy who changed his verdict—the one who did so more on the basis of principle that things ought to be debated out—played a very positive overall role. Had, in the very beginning, some force of authority come down on the most backwards guy and told him he had to defend every one of his most deeply held positions, the very juror who first helped open up this process would most likely have been driven—from the very same principles—to oppose that voice of authority "intruding" on the backwards guy's deeply held beliefs. In other words, to simplify, I will call this first juror to switch his views Jerry. The very principle that drove Jerry to support the guy who voted "not guilty"—that someone who has deeply held views ought not just be ganged up on but given some space—would have likely driven Jerry to prevent a voice of authority to immediately probing and insisting that the most backwards juror defend his most deeply held (even if reactionary) beliefs. But, this very unevenness—in the context of a process—was able to be brought to bear in a much more positive way. There was more freedom there than would be apparent if a narrower, more constrained approach was taken.

I think this applies now—as well as in the future dictatorship of the proletariat (DOP)—to some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of many of the enlightened strata with bourgeois democratic illusions.

There are things that friends can say to each other that the Party can't and shouldn't say. And frankly, there are things around which it is important to have a lot of people talking and debating and thrashing things out—even more important in some ways than the content of everything that is being thrashed out at a given time. When you first really open up debate on sexual relations—there is a lot that is going to be very contradictory and outright backwards—not just on the part of men but also women. This does not get answered simply by saying, "But there will be a lot positive that gets unleashed as well," even though that is true. It is also important to get that there is the overall mix of surfacing these questions, getting them on the table where people are actually wrangling with them and thinking about them. Writing about them and debating them. Or just sitting back and contemplating and not saying much at all. It is this kind of mix out of which, even with a very small solid core, a whole process can be unleashed where it contributes in very uneven and non-linear way to a different dynamic around these social relations, including by making the greatest strength of what positive does get uncorked, even while none of this will be absolutely positive.

The point is not, "Oh, of course, let’s keep the lights on!" as if there are no contradictions in that. It is not Issue 4 where you just let everything rip and go wherever it may even as it devours, very quickly, the solid core. Nor is the point to instead hold onto the solid core at any cost, squashing down anything that threatens it. The point is to meet the necessity being confronted in a different way—to grasp even more fully both the freedom and the necessity posed and to lead in relation to all of this differently.

I believe the leap that Bob Avakian has made in philosophy, in coming to an even more dialectical understanding of materialism—reflected in the discussion of many channels or of a multi-layered/colored map and in other ways—and where a lot of unevenness is recast in relationship to a solid core and where a whole different dynamic and process gets going, this way of more deeply recognizing and then acting to transform necessity, is very key to keeping the lights on even as we change the whole world and approach this task urgently.

A big part of this is continuously stepping back from just the immediate aims—but also grasping the positive role of ferment and critical thinking and exploration and experimentation. Grasping that it both requires and enables us to lead in a different way—with more ideology and method and substance. And there is a real question of strategic confidence. Not being freaked out by every thing that pulls away from your immediate goals—seeing how it can be made a part of an overall mix that helps get to communism. Some things will need to be answered and some things will need to be suppressed, but many things can be made of an overall process where what is positive—even if just on the level of opening up space and ferment—is brought into a positive dynamism with other things going on and out of which people are learning and the Party is leading things forward.

I recognize that there is a bigger context in which all of this takes place and here I have not even touched the importance and dynamics of not just oppositional art or ideas, but cultural trends and whole new schools of thought and scenes, subcultures and counter-cultures. And, the way that there is a social base for just suppressing a lot of stuff and just meeting pressing immediate needs—and how these needs are real and this social base does need to both feel that the world really has changed and will not be allowed to return to the old way, but also that these sections of people need to be being transformed themselves to see the importance of coming at these contradictions in a different way. As emancipators of humanity. There is a LOT on really getting this question of unevenness—and a need to rupture more fully and continuously with mechanical materialism and positivism, in our movement and in my own thinking. And where strategic confidence really comes from—scientifically and with a fuller recognition of freedom and necessity and how to approach and transform the one into the other. I found this writing assignment actually quite a challenge—it forced me to stretch my thinking and gave rise to quite a lot of wrangling among some of us who were writing. What I have written is a beginning of really trying to get inside some of this—as could probably be expected, having finally worked through as much as I have been able to at this time, I am left with many more ideas just starting to really fire in my thinking. More than anything, I think this has forced us to begin to really grapple with the deeper contradictions and stakes involved in handling this contradiction well. This process really must not stop now.


1. Issue 4 of Revolution was criticized for, among other things, an absolutely uncritical line toward the arts; this took the form of repeating without comment certain bourgeois-democratic and even anti-communist statements by some artists, while one-sidedly exaggerating the positive aspects and effects of some progressive artists and works.[back]


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