by Bob Avakian
Revolutionary Worker #911, June 15, 1997
As I pointed out in some recent essays on morality*, these days we always hear this stuff about "personal responsibility," how people have to take responsibility for the choices they make. We get this over and over, especially from the "conservatives" but more generally from the bourgeoisie, "liberal" as well as "conservative." Well, there's a certain sense in which, yes, we do have to struggle with people about what choices they make, and what they decide to do, because people can exercise some choice, some freedom. But more to the point, they can exercise some freedom once they grasp what the necessity is that they're up against--what are the actual conditions they are confronted with. This is the correct understanding of the dialectical relation between freedom and necessity. Freedom is exercised through the recognition, and the transformation, of necessity. And this is a continual process.
But, in the more fundamental sense, it's not true that people can just choose to do whatever they want. As long as the system and its economic and social relations and its superstructure are in place and in effect--and the superstructure is not only the ideological domination by the ruling class but also its state power--this sets certain very definite conditions and limits on what people can do, until they rise up against and ultimately overthrow and uproot that system and all of its underlying economic and social relations and its superstructure. If people want to "all get along with each other," they can't all get along with each other, not in this kind of society, because under the present system people are thrown into various forms of competition and antagonism with each other in order to try to live, and the whole operation of the system--of its economic base and its political-ideological superstructure--works against people being able to "all get along."
In those Morality essays--and specifically in criticizing The Book of Virtues, by William Bennett--I raised this very important question: Why is it that the ruling class and its "blame the masses, punish the masses" Greek chorus (with William Bennett a "lead voice" in that chorus) want to talk all day long about "personal responsibility" and people taking responsibility for the choices they make, but they don't want to really go beneath the surface of this? They don't really want to look at why it is, for example, that for the ruling class the decisions they make, the choices that they choose among, are things like whether to bomb Iraq now or later, whether to invade Panama now or later, or whether to close down this or that particular factory or even a whole branch of industry in a particular country and completely revamp things--throwing millions of people out of work and into starvation and causing people to leave their homes and go thousands of miles in a desperate search for work and livelihood--why are those the kind of choices the imperialists make? And they make these choices not just "for themselves." These "choices" involve thousands, or perhaps millions or even tens and hundreds of millions, of people. They result in great numbers of people having to go from one continent to another, or having to uproot themselves and travel great distances within the same continent to try to find some way to live--for the reason that all of a sudden the agriculture has changed because of the actions of banks and agribusiness, all of a sudden peasants can't even scratch out a meager living in Mexico, so one after another the members of the family have to go to El Norte.
Why are these the choices that the imperialists make--the choices they impose on masses of people--while the peasants on the other end of that equation have to choose whether to leave and try to go to El Norte or to stay and try to eke out a meager existence in Mexico or somewhere else in Latin America when, for example, the whole way coffee is grown and marketed has changed and they can no longer make a living?
Or why is it that in a country like Thailand the choice for let's say a young girl, maybe a nine-, ten-year-old girl, and her family, will be whether the family is going to starve because of some of these same forces that are making their traditional form of agriculture no longer viable, no longer capable of providing them even with a meager existence. Why is it that they can choose to starve because of that? Or they can sell this nine- or ten-year-old girl into virtual slavery, (and by "virtual slavery" I don't mean something imaginary in a video game--I mean brutal, life-stealing exploitation that is all too real), working in some sweatshop for 12 to 16 hours a day, every day of the week, and sleeping underneath the machine, making toys and clothes to be sold and consumed in the imperialist countries? Or they can sell her into a brothel where she can be a sexual toy and slave for traveling businessmen and American soldiers.
Now why for that family in Thailand--why are their choices shaped and formed in that way, so that those become the choices they can take "personal responsibility" for?! But a William Bennett--or the people who make up the class Bennett represents--can take "personal responsibility" for whether or not to cast millions of people into starvation or to wage war and force people to fight and die in those wars.
What sets the terms for why different forces in society make these very different choices? It is the underlying material reality, that is, the underlying production and social relations of imperialism and the prevailing bourgeois mode of production in the world, that shapes these choices for these different classes. What choices you have is determined ultimately and decisively by what place you have in the prevailing system, what role you play in the process of production and accumulation. Today, this is a process dominated by imperialist capital on a world scale.
But the masses of people don't spontaneously see it that way. If you go to them and say, a chair or some other "everyday object" is not real, they may hit you over the head with the chair to make the point that it is very real indeed! But if you go to them and say, the reason that we're in this situation is because the system is f***ed up, very often their first response will be to say: "No, it's because we're all f***ed up." But this is wrong, it's upside-down and inside-out: fundamentally the problem is not us, although as Marx pointed out we do have to fit ourselves to rule through carrying out the revolutionary struggle--we do have to transform ourselves in the process of transforming the world, in order to be able rule and remake society and abolish all relations of exploitation and oppression. But fundamentally, the reason we are in the situation we're in is not because of something in our make-up that is messed up, or some ideas that we have that are screwed up--and it's certainly not "because god has a plan."
This is something we've got to get down on, over and over again--things that, in the form of religious preaching or some other way, blame the masses for the situation that the system has put us in. Now, in a basic way, politically, with strategic goals in mind, we have to have an orientation of unity-struggle-unity with many forces who are religious but do stand up and fight against the system in various ways. But on an ideological level and in terms of our orientation ideologically, we can't put up with this poison of blaming the masses and preaching to them that they are the problem--and we shouldn't actually put up with this. While we're carrying on that overall process of unity-struggle-unity--uniting with people, including people who hold religious views, to fight the system and its many ways of oppressing and exploiting the people--we also have to be struggling ideologically over what is the right way to view, and to change, the world. In fact, this ideological struggle is an important part of that overall process of unity-struggle-unity.
To get right down on the ground, I always have to shake my head, when there's some sort of terrible disaster and then, when the authorities don't jump up and claim it's "terrorism," you hear that it's "god's will." A plane crashes and 363 people die and 4 people survive, and then they'll interview one of the 4 people and they'll say "Well, god must have been with me today." And I have to say to myself: what kind of god does this person believe in, that they believe this god sent 363 people to die but saved this one person or maybe 3 or 4 others?! This is some kind of plan that god has, to do something like that. And what cruelty this actually is, if you think about it--cruelty toward the families and loved ones of the other 363 people--to get up and say this was god's will; because the logic of what you're saying is that it was god's will that those other people all died, and somehow there was something so special about you that god spared you.
Or, to take something less tragic but no less ridiculous, here comes Gail Devers winning the 100 meters in the Olympics, and afterwards she says, "I wanna thank god." I don't think any god--if there were a god--would give a damn who wins the 100 meters in the Olympics! What kind of god can you imagine would actually care that Gail Devers won the 100 meters in the Olympics? I just can't deal with it. This is the kind of ridiculous thing that people will say--it's straight-up nonsense, it's rampant philosophical idealism. People who say this kind of thing, they don't believe that chairs aren't real, but they believe something that's even more ridiculous--that there's a god up there who actually cares about the 100 meters and wants Gail Devers to beat Merlene Ottey in a photo finish!
I'm making this point in kind of an extreme way, and I'm using ridicule here, but the point is that this kind of nonsense people get caught up in--it's funny and it's not funny. It is funny in some cases, but on a deeper level it's not funny because the bourgeoisie distorts reality very consciously and the "normal workings of the capitalist system" and the bourgeois mode of production and all its social relations and superstructure also work, "normally and spontaneously," to obscure reality.
All this works to obscure the correct method for understanding, and changing, reality--it works to keep people from grasping this. It is our responsibility to bring this to people through many different ways. So when I put this very strongly, when I use ridicule in talking about these backward ideas, I'm not forgetting who is responsible and what the problem is--I'm not blaming the masses--but we do have to recognize that these things pose themselves very sharply. We have to wage some sharp ideological struggle around all this, to help the masses see what the real deal is, what are the real forces operating in nature and in society; to enable the masses to, at long last, cast off the chains that the system and the ruling class have imposed on them--mental chains as well as material chains--in the form of religion as well as in other forms.
*"Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting and End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)." Excerpts from these essays--including a series on "What Is Communist Morality"--appeared in the RW from January 28, 1996 through May 12, 1996.
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