Revolution #195, March 14, 2010



[Editors' note: The following is the twelfth in a series of excerpts from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian in Fall 2009, which is being serialized in Revolution. The first eleven excerpts appeared in Revolution #184-194. The entire talk can be found online at]

Phony science and bankrupt theories rationalizing oppression

To get into this more deeply, let's step back a little bit. Let's recall, for example, the official characterization of Black people that prevailed in mainstream and respected institutions well into the 20th century. To cite one really horrendous example, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, a very prestigious institution, well into the 20th century "the Negro" was characterized as being highly emotional, intellectually inferior, childlike and yet "subject to sudden fits of emotion and passion during which he is capable of performing acts of singular atrocity" (this is drawn from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, under the definition of "Negro"). This, again, in the prestigious Encyclopedia Britannica—portraying "Negroes" as in essence an inferior subspecies among human beings.

Let's compare that to the "official" characterization of women during that same general time period. Let's look, for example, at the medical profession. In For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English catalog some of the prevailing views about women in this profession and cite particularly sharp examples of it: the way in which women were associated with "flights of hysteria"; the supposed "child-like ignorance" that they exhibited toward the larger, male-dominated world; the whole attitude that prevailed toward menstruation, pregnancy and menopause—treating these as illnesses and/or defects; and even the alleged negative effect on the uterus if a woman were to use her brain too much! As Ehrenreich and English point out, with the appropriate caustic irony, "The great uterine manifesto of the 19th century, Dr. Edward H. Clarke's 'Sex and Education, or a Fair Chance for the Girls,' concluded with startling but unassailable logic that higher education would cause women's uteruses to atrophy." (Ehrenreich and English, Second Anchor Books Edition, January 2005, p. 140) Things like this were actually written by respected scientific experts late in the 19th century.

Ehrenreich and English call attention to the fact that there was a highly influential trend in natural history in the 19th century which held the view that "the existing human races represent different evolutionary stages"—and this was applied to the sexes (p. 128). Ehrenreich and English point out, for example, that with regard to the supposed hierarchy of human types, Karl Vogt, a leading European professor of natural history in the second half of the 19th century, categorized the Negro male as follows: "[T]he grown up Negro partakes, as regards his intellectual faculties, of the nature of the child, the female and the senile White." As Ehrenreich and English go on to comment: "Where this left the Negro female one shudders to think, not to mention the 'senile' female of either race." (p. 129)

And there was no prospect for the status of women improving with further societal development, according to Vogt, for as Ehrenreich and English quote him further: "'The inequality of the sexes increases with the progress of civilization.'" (p. 130)

Attitudes and notions akin to those cited here not only were prevalent in the 19th century but continued well into the 20th—and, in fact, are far from having lost all currency, even in "modern-day" imperialist society. They are at times voiced by powerful and influential figures in countries like the U.S. For example, the following statement, made by E.O. Wilson, only a few decades ago:

"In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home. This strong bias persists in most agricultural and industrial societies and, on that basis alone, appears to have a genetic origin.... My own guess is that the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor in even the most free and most egalitarian of future societies.... Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science." (Cited in Ardea Skybreak, Of Primeval Steps & Future Leaps: An Essay on the Emergence of Human Beings, the Source of Women's Oppression and the Road to Emancipation, Banner Press, 1984. E.O. Wilson is known as a prominent proponent of sociobiology. As can be seen in the statement by Wilson cited here, this approach involves erroneous attempts to attribute the development of human behavioral characteristics and social relations in a linear and mechanical way to biological factors and causes, significantly underestimating the role of social factors in the development of—and changes in—human relations, behavior, traditions and ways of thinking. "Steps and Leaps" contains an important critique and refutation of the viewpoint and methods of Wilson and other sociobiologists.)

And more recently views of this kind were expressed by Lawrence Summers, insisting that women were naturally inferior in things like math and science. This at a time when he was the President of Harvard University—and, we should note, he is now an official in the Obama administration.

In this connection, also—and this is something referred to by Ehrenreich and English—the role of Freud and his theories and the whole psychoanalytic tradition, with the great harm this has done to women, as well as overall, is something which needs to be dug into and criticized much more thoroughly. Some important criticism of this has been raised by various feminists and some others. But, again, there remains a need for a much more thorough and radical exposure, critique and refutation of this, particularly through the application of dialectical materialism/historical materialism and the consistently and systematically scientific outlook and approach this embodies.

I recall myself that back in the 1960s, many of us were influenced, to varying degrees, by Freud's theories, and there were many attempts by radical theorists—particularly male ones, but not only them—to somehow link and commingle the theories of Freud with the theories of Marx. In reality, these theories are in profound opposition to each other, and the influence of Freud not only has had a negative influence in society overall, but did so within the radical movements of that time. More thoroughly critiquing Freud's theories and their influence can play an important part in the further development of the truly radical, and scientific, theory of communism, as applied to the oppression and the liberation of women, and overall.

It would have been far better then... and doing even better now

Returning to the point made earlier about Red Papers 3—in terms of economist and related influences within the RU (Revolutionary Union) and more broadly within what was called the "new communist movement" at that time, and how this interfered with moving toward a correct synthesis with regard to what was being raised by the women's movement in that period, particularly its more radical sections—I want to refer to a comment that was made about 40 years ago now, at a meeting of what was then called the Revolutionary Youth Movement.

This was at a time when within SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) there were splits into different tendencies: there was the "Weatherpeople" phenomenon, which is well known; there was also Progressive Labor Party and its decidedly economist line (I mean, after all, what does it say when "communists" choose to call themselves the Progressive... Labor... Party—you only have to look at the name to know that such an organization is not going to lead to any kind of a radical new society!); and then there was this trend which identified itself at that time under the heading of the Revolutionary Youth Movement.

At the time of this split in SDS, there was a conference of the Revolutionary Youth Movement trend which some of us took part in as representatives of the RU. At one point in that meeting the question of sexuality, and more broadly the woman question, was being discussed, and one guy made an impassioned speech in which he very pointedly and emotionally said: "If you are a male and you want to be radical, you have to learn what it feels like to be a woman."

Now, while this statement itself was pointing to something very important, it was made in the context of, and was in fact a part of, a trend that was increasingly giving up on the possibility of effecting truly radical change on a societal, and even global, level. It was part of an emerging trend of "identity politics"—of lowered and narrowed sights—a view that each "identity group" must concentrate on its particular situation and demands, which objectively would remain within the confines of the existing system. This was a retreat from the whole orientation of building a movement to go up against, and overturn and uproot, imperialism and bring a radically different world into being. Even then you could recognize that this was part of taking steps in that direction. And we were right to reject the road of "identity politics" and reformism and, in a basic sense, to insist on continuing on the communist road, even while that was marred then to a significant degree by economism. But, at the same time, and especially looking back on it now, it is clear that there was something very important being raised which was too easily dismissed.

It was too easy to recognize and seize on the obvious "identity politics," reformist and petit bourgeois orientation that was coming through in this statement. But it would have been far better to have united with what was correct and important in this statement. It would have been much better if those of us who were serious in considering ourselves communists had taken that kind of approach and on that basis had striven to achieve a further synthesis, through the application of the scientific communist viewpoint and not one marred significantly by economism. And now there is all the more need—and, yes, there is more of a basis—to do precisely that. This is the challenge we face and the important task we have to take up urgently.

Stepping back to look at this with a broader sweep, it is important—without negating or downplaying the very positive character overall, and the very real contributions, of the 1960s movement—to recognize that there were, within this movement, and even on the part of its most advanced forces, real weaknesses with regard to the woman question, including a significant element that involved the assertion of "manhood." Now, especially as applied to Black people, this is a complicated question, because one of the main and most humiliating forms of the oppression of Black people in the history of this country has been the way in which Black men have been subjected to being treated as subordinate beings, as though they were at one and the same time child-like and extremely dangerous, forced—with the real prospect of death as the price for not doing so—to act in a manner subservient to white people, and in particular white men, as reflected, among other things, in the way that white people, including young white males who themselves had not yet reached adulthood, would consistently address grown Black men with the demeaning term "boy." But the answer to all this—if the goal is to finally and fully uproot the oppression of Black people, women as well as men, and to abolish all forms of oppression—is not to strive to establish the "rightful place" of Black men in having, equally with white men, a dominant position over women—in asserting traditional relations between men and women which fasten tradition's chains on women, as a key link in keeping humanity as a whole in an enslaved condition.

In a world marked by exploitative and oppressive divisions—where one of the most profound, and most oppressive, of these divisions involves the subjugation and degradation of the female half of humanity—the assertion of "manhood," whatever the intent might be in doing so, can objectively only mean, and find expression as, active participation in that subjugation and degradation. And in a world where oppressive and exploitative divisions, including those in which men dominate women, would have been abolished and surpassed, the word—and the very concept—"manhood" would not have, and could not have, any real meaning, and certainly not a positive one.

To put this another way—to draw the necessary line of demarcation sharply—the assertion of "manhood" is ultimately and fundamentally a form and a means of accommodating to and seeking to "find your place" within the oppressive system, with all of the horrific crimes it embodies and enforces. In this connection, the role of Booker T. Washington is instructive. In the latter part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century, after the reversal of Reconstruction, Washington became a prominent figure—and was promoted by the powers-that-be, including the openly segregationist and white supremacist powers-that-be in the South—in advocating that Black people not struggle against segregation and their overall oppression but instead strive to "better themselves" within the confines of their segregated and oppressed condition. An interesting insight in this regard is found in Jackson Lears' recently published book, Rebirth of a Nation—The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 (HarperCollins, 2009). In Rebirth of a Nation (whose title rather clearly invokes, critically and ironically, the overtly racist, and highly influential, early-20th-century epic film Birth of a Nation) one of the main themes Lears explores is how the assertion of "manliness" and "manly virtue" has, in the history of this country, been closely linked with militarism in the service of U.S. empire, with Theodore Roosevelt the most salient personification of this. Lears' focus is on the period marked by the advent of capitalist imperialism—at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century—but clearly, and very correctly, he has in mind, and frequently suggests, parallels with phenomena today, a century later. And, as part of this discussion, Lears makes the following observation about Booker T. Washington—citing his role in preaching subservience to the established oppressive order, and contrasting him, significantly, with the much more militant and non-accommodationist Ida Wells, who boldly stood up against and organized against segregation and lynching:

As resistance to the emerging Jim Crow regime seemed increasingly futile, the frankly accommodationist views of Booker T. Washington appeared to hold out more promise than the angry resistance of Ida Wells. Washington epitomized the marriage of manliness and black uplift. (Lears, p. 131).

While here Lears seems to be conceding too much to the notion that resistance, like that of Wells', was futile, there are important insights in his observations about Washington, in contrast with Wells, particularly in the linking of "manliness" and "uplift" with accommodation to the oppressive system.

Once again, the 1960s had a radically different and much more positive character and impact—with regard to the struggle of Black people in particular, and overall—than what was represented by Washington's "accommodationism" (or, to use a less elegant but no less accurate phrase, Washington's "Uncle Tom-ing") in the period after the defeat of Reconstruction. In fact, the struggle of Black people in the 1960s, in its main and overwhelming aspect, was in direct opposition to, and a powerful refutation of, the kind of stand taken and promoted by Booker T. Washington. But the link remains, and is all too real, between the assertion of "manhood" and the orientation of accepting, and even seeking to "get in on," at least some of the oppressive relations that are the lifeblood of this system. To repeat a statement of mine, which is cited in A Declaration: For Women's Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity:

In many ways, and particularly for men, the woman question and whether you seek to completely abolish or to preserve the existing property relations and corresponding ideology that enslave women (or maybe "just a little bit" of them) is a touchstone question among the oppressed themselves. It is a dividing line between "wanting in" and really "wanting out": between fighting to end all oppression and exploitation—and the very division of society into classes—and seeking in the final analysis to get your part in this. (emphasis in original)

And, as that Declaration also makes clear, quoting the special issue of Revolution, The Oppression of Black People, the Crimes of This System, and the Revolution We Need, the role models that are needed, by Black children and by people in general, are not "male role models" but

revolutionary role models, women no less than men. They need to see men and women who model the mutual respect and equality that reflects the world we are fighting for: a whole new liberated world where girls grow up strong and without fear of being raped, degraded or abused, where no child is ever deemed "illegitimate," and where men—like everyone else—find their worth in contributing to the betterment of all humanity through the revolutionary transformation of society rather than by getting in on even a little of the oppression of this nightmare world. (boldface and emphasis in original)

Again, as we look back on the movement of the 1960s overall, the point now is not to be determinist and teleological, as if it would have been impossible then to achieve the basic elements of the correct synthesis—with regard to the liberation of women, in its fullest dimensions, and the crucial relation between that and the emancipation of humanity as a whole—even though that would have been difficult to achieve given the overall weaknesses of the communist movement at that time; nor is the point that "it's all good," everything that has happened has led to the situation where such a synthesis is—only now—possible. Not only would it have been far better if a more correct approach had been taken back then, but the fact is that there is a great need now for that synthesis—and there is the basis, through focused and concentrated work and struggle, to make the leap and ruptures required to actually achieve that synthesis in theory and line, as a much firmer foundation for carrying forward struggle around this fundamental sphere of human social relations, as one of the most decisive elements of actually unleashing a new stage of communist revolution in the world at the crossroads we are now facing, and in order to really be a vanguard of the future.

To be continued

Send us your comments.