Okay, so I confess that as a New Yorker, the fact that "Burningman" was an over-priced participatory arts orgy in the Nevada desert didn't quite register with my hard head. Every year, around this time, I get a surge of traffic from folks looking for information or reports on the Burningman festival. Haha! Bet you didn't see this one coming! I was just a man on fire... Adopting the Burningman pen name was only a play on the translation of my family name. In any case, I thought I'd post a link for ya'll burners to a scientific essay about the art of revolution. What does that mean?
Authoring Culture and Mastering Science in the Post-Mao Era
by Akil Bomani
As an undergrad at an art school, one of the main things that stuck with me was a portion of the mission statement at that school. It stated how they intended to produce individuals that would "author the culture of our times." And this statement really influenced the agency of my intellectual and artistic intents. Once that statement really sunk into my thoughts I made a declaration that everything I’d create, and every idea that I’d explore, would be framed under this intent to author culture. And in order to effectively and consciously author culture, I figured that one has to know and continually learn the dynamics and developments of material reality.
This point is one of the things that led me to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM). There was a certain thrill of actually applying scientific method to social affairs, to politics, to history, and using that in turn to affect social affairs, create politics, and change history. All this fell in line to authoring a culture. And of course, the culture I wanted to be a part of authoring was one in which people were freely associating human beings beyond the social and economic perimeters of race, class, and gender. The culture I wanted to author was one in which all individuals were able to understand and consciously transform the world around them—free from the chains of class relations. So, of course, the Communist Manifesto, Marx’s essay on "The German Ideology," Lenin’s State and Revolution, Mao’s Talks at Yenan Forum on Literature and Art —all of these works fed into this passion to author the culture.
Yet the more that the socialist/communist movement of the 20th century is genuinely examined, it is clear that there has been a tendency to negate this aspect of the agency of the masses to consciously author a culture. And this is very sad because at its essence, that is what a revolution aims to do—radically impact the way in which a society socially relates as another class rises to a ruling position. However, the fragility and complexity of the cultural arena has been greatly dismissed in the struggle toward a society free from all oppressive relations. Many of the Marxist trends, as well as the anti-Marxist trends, have historically reduced this science to simply a deterministic and reductionist economic continuum.
In that, the ultimate goal of communism is often assumed (by both bourgeoisie and communist alike) to be an earthly kingdom of harmony or a utopia of equal distribution of goods to humanity. No wonder it only sounds good on paper.
One of the most prominent forces historically, who, through his invaluable body of works, has consistently combated erroneous and incomplete notions of communism (who I very often refer to within my works) is Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. No one since Mao or Lenin has advanced the science of Marxism further. In light of the many ill lines regarding the course and intent of a communist revolution—coupled with the very dire times society is undergoing now—his presence as an irreplaceable individual and leader of a communist movement is priceless.
What he has offered, in particular within a summation of a synthesis that he has been forging for decades entitled Dictatorship and Democracy and the Socialist Transition to Communism, is a new light on the science of communist thought and the particularities involved in creating a society free from class relations and all oppressive relations in general. In this work, not only does he lay forth the necessity for and basic science of a socialist revolution, he also identifies the achievements and errors of past socialist societies in relationship to its critical need now. One of the best attributes of his work is that he does not offer "set formulas" to the creation of an unseen society, but raises deep questions — questions that have to be struggled with by broad masses of people.
For instance, he starts this synthesis with the question of working with ideas. This is one of the shortcomings of past socialist revolutions. Intellectuals in spheres of science, art, and philosophy were suppressed, denounced, or unjustly treated because their views did not align with the communist party in power. In Maoist China, there are many accounts, both exaggerated and true, of intellectuals and artists stifled and generally suppressed—especially during the Cultural Revolution. While this did not define the essential thrust and outcome of the movement—which was an unprecedented and liberatory "revolution within the socialist revolution" (including a flowering of mass movements in science and culture)—the quality of intellectual ferment and the view toward intellectual dissent during the GPCR requires further serious interrogation by the communist movement. This leads into the rudiments of erroneous socialist thought, that the validity of ideas should be weighed on how well it "supports the revolution." Much of the socialist realism in Russia took the character of this proclamation.
However, Avakian combats this "know it all" tendency and stresses the "importance of actually getting deeply into the realm of ideas in its own right, really wrangling with ideas, and having an open mind about what you’re dealing with, and then ultimately taking your ideas into the real world, into the realm of practice and testing them out there."
"This is a very important approach generally from people in the sciences, or people generally who work in the realm of ideas. And it is something that people who seek to apply the outlook and methodology of communism should be the very best at. But that takes work. It isn’t an automatic thing. Just because you take up the most scientific, the most comprehensive and systematic world outlook and method doesn’t mean that you are therefore automatically good at working with ideas, or that you automatically arrive at the truth about something. And conversely, as we have also emphasized, there are people who not only don’t apply this outlook and method, but who disagree with it—or even detest it—who nevertheless discover important truths. And understanding that is also a very important part of really grasping and applying the world outlook and methodology of communism. That’s the contradictory nature of it."
What Is a Vanguard?
This point he makes leads into the deeper question of the actual role of a communist vanguard. Is a vanguard simply a group of politicians trying to achieve certain political objectives? How should mass criticism, even dissent, be dealt with by such a party when it is in power? What about the intellectuals who are completely against the party in power? Does the bourgeoisie have "its truth," and the proletariat "its truth"? These are some of the questions that the communist movement has struggled over since its birth.
Avakian is grappling with these issues and puts forth the idea that at its essence, truth, and the infinite forms it entails, is what the science of communism strives to continually attain. And this is the principle pursuit of a communist party based on MLM. There is no "political truth" or "class truth" — only objective reality. Even if that truth of objective reality reveals the most repulsive sides of what the party is about or serious mistakes the communists have made, it will still serve to advance the movement, to advance humanity. However, the tendency has been to see this method of MLM as an end in itself; simply because one is an MLM- ist, one is an authority on all areas of knowledge. And this plays out logically in roles of power.
This leads to ideas being suppressed based on their allegiance to the authority and its method. Further, what this points to is the evaluation of ideas based on how much they contribute to the socialist revolution. In that, very valuable truths (whether they seem valuable or not at the time) that weren’t arrived through an MLM method, or even ideas presented by those who disagree with the method and the party in general, are dismissed. And this can cause great damage on many levels.
One of the ways Avakian characterizes this is "instrumentalist" thinking, or "to try and make your ideas an instrument of your desires and aims." He gives a vivid example using the Trofim Lysenko experience in the Soviet Union. Lysenko, a botanist, claimed to have made a scientific breakthrough in agriculture that would have greatly contributed to the yield of crops. At the time the Soviet Union was struggling with agriculture and feeding the population in general. However, his claims were scientifically incorrect; yet he was supported by the communist regime in power because pragmatically it would have been a way to solve huge food problems. And Avakian points to the damage this caused, both on the material level of misdirected resources to an erroneous project, and on the level of ideas. He states that:
"...this did a lot of damage. Not only in the short run and in a more narrow sense—it didn’t lead to the results they were hoping for—but it also did a lot of damage in the broader sense in terms of how people were being trained to think, and how they were being trained to handle the relationship between theory and practice, and reality and understanding and transforming reality. There’s a way in which this has had long-term negative consequences. First of all, it did in the Soviet Union. And it did in the international communist movement, because it trained people to think in an erroneous way... political expediency dictated what was done there, and the people who were critical [experts in the field who were reactionaries that pointed to the error of this hypothesis] were actually suppressed."
This leads back to what the role of a vanguard party is, and further the ultimate goal of a communist society. For if it is like the narrow and utopian visions pointed to above, espoused by bourgeoisie and revolutionary alike, then production and distribution of resources are the ends. And if this is the ends, then it will dictate political action, and all ideas, correct and incorrect, that don’t align to this, are likely to be dismissed.
The Dreaded "D" Word
Avakian goes into the many contradictions of bringing about a communist society. Within this is the question of what a dictatorship of the proletariat is, something which is at the basis of a socialist transition to communism. Now, this issue of dictatorship has been controversial throughout the 150 years plus since the communist manifesto where Marx boldly declared the bourgeoisie as producing its own gravediggers (the proletariat). This question of a dictatorship has been denigrated by the bourgeoisie, feared by the masses (the proletariat themselves even), and ever contrasted with the so-called "freedom" of democracy. Conventional wisdom often associates dictatorship with a single person that has absolute rule over a sovereignty (i.e., Hitler or Saddam). But in reality a dictatorship is not the rule of a person, but a class of people. Avakian clarifies this distortion with a concise definition that is validated by historical evidence as he says:
"A dictatorship is the rule of one class or another over society, backed and enforced by political structures and institutions and ultimately armed force, a monopoly of armed force and of legitimate armed force."
Because of the so-called "democratic" process in America, most would never imagine the term "dictatorship" to describe the political system. There are "free elections," "checks and balances," "Bills of Rights." However, if there is in fact a ruling class in this society, which there is, then essentially, democracy, the concepts of freedom and equality and consent of the governed that follow it, ultimately reinforce their position as a ruling class. At its very basis, the laws and processes, and elected officials, undeniably represent the interests of a minority class of people who to one degree or another hold a stake in maintaining prosperous ownership of the means of production, a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Avakian presents the question as such:
"How can you have a democracy in which everybody takes part on an equal basis, when some people have all kinds of leisure time and sit at the top of this whole process—a process that doesn’t just involve one country but is worldwide—people who, to use a certain metaphor, are sitting at the top of the food chain eating what is produced by everybody else along the way? How can the other people take part equally with them? It’s impossible. So naturally these people are going to dominate political affairs and the decision making over the direction of society and they are going to enforce that rule in order to perpetuate the system that has put them in that position in the first place."
His point in speaking to this, however, is not simply to unveil democracy’s "dirty little secret," so to speak, but to point to the essential necessity of a proletarian dictatorship in order to reach a classless society. This proletarian dictatorship would actually answer to the need of masses of individuals from all sectors to participate in determining the direction of society, a need that must be answered in order to reach that society. Yet it is unattainable as long as the class that objectively reflects the interest of humanity (those in whom the sustaining resources of this planet would be unavailable if not for their labor) does not have state power, and all that that entails. For instance he states how:
"...even democracy that develops for the masses of people under socialism—and we have to learn how to give this even better and more full expression—but even the democracy that develops for the masses of people under socialism is part of and could not exist without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the rule by the proletariat over society. Without that state power, without that political rule, the masses of people would have the same rights they have now... essentially nothing when it comes down to the fundamental issues."
But this point of dictatorship is far from exhausted. It is not a simple concept to swallow, especially the idea of needing a special kind of dictatorship (proletarian) in order to abolish all class relations that necessarily entail to dictatorships. And even in his extensive analysis of it, he, once again, does not give a formulaic solution, but a body of thought, based on veritable grounds, that necessitates the active inquiry, cognitive struggle and conscious input of the broad masses of individuals from all sectors of society. This is because of the fact that the way a dictatorship of the proletariat actually functions, as well the reason and ultimate goal of its functioning, requires the engagement, criticism, and especially dissent of the masses. And this gets back to the point of what a socialist transition aims to do and how a dictatorship of the proletariat is qualitatively different from the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Avakian sums it up as such:
"...the dictatorship of the proletariat, the rule that represents the interests of the proletariat, has to involve the broad masses of people in all the different aspects of ruling and transforming society, which is not a short-term thing but a long and very wrenching process of overcoming inequalities—which even as they exist are working to undermine your advancing toward a new form of society."
A very important point to note here is the phrase "a long and very wrenching process of overcoming inequalities." One of the possible reasons why the catchphrase "good idea, but doesn’t work in practice" in bourgeois society is always associated with communism may be because this "wrenching process" is ever overlooked. In reality, this process of overcoming inequalities, abolishing class relations and all relations of oppression that even as they still exist under socialism work to undermine the advancement to communism, is neither a smooth nor terse process. Getting to a point where there is no place for a state or the classes that dictate its power, involves not only radically changing the distribution and production patterns of resources and value, but leading the masses to be masters of society and masters of the science of material reality.
Overcoming the Differences between Mental and Manual Work
For instance, Avakian goes into the contradiction of mental and manual labor, the minority of people who do intellectual work and the broad mass of people who do manual labor, and how essential it is to overcome this is in the process of a socialist revolution. It is a fact that today there are huge masses of people excluded from the domain of intellectual work, and working with complex ideas in general. And of course this is not because of some predetermined and natural caste system that says some people are just meant to do manual labor, and the intellectual sphere is reserved for only those with cognitive prominence. But this division has a material basis in the way in which production and distribution is organized in society, and further, has social ramifications in how much people are actually able to know about how the world works. And in order for the broad masses of people to be able to engage in the ruling and transforming of society, the masses must not only have the opportunity to do so, but they need to be able to grapple with the issues of how the world works in its motion and development. Avakian states:
"Not only is there a question of extending formal rights and equality to the masses of people in a way that can never happen under any form of exploitative rule, but there is the question of the masses of people actually having the right to concern themselves with and to influence and to play a decisive role in affairs of state and the direction of society, as well as to organize themselves to carry out all kinds of political activity—even political activity independent of, and in some ways even opposed to, the state."
In order for the masses to be able to utilize this right to the fullest and most effectual way, they need the freedom and ability to work with ideas; moreover, in order for them to have this freedom and ability, this contradiction of mental and manual labor must be worked through. To illustrate this contradiction, Avakian further states how:
"This cannot be overcome all at once. Not only is this a question of what’s left over from the old society, there is also a question of where you are at in the process of building the new society and transforming it. Because, in order for everybody to be able to engage in all these different spheres of society, you have to be able to produce the material requirements of life with a small amount of the total labor that would go into all the activity in society."
This points to the reality that labor power and labor-time are finite at any given moment. Amidst the necessity to bring the broad masses into working with ideas and consciously directing society, material needs must be met, and this takes manual labor, and a significant portion of a day for people to engage in this. It takes time to understand ideas and theory and, at the same time, it takes time to produce material resources for society. All the while, this production won’t be taking place in the context of profit being in command. So here the contradiction is sharp and real, and that "long and wrenching process" of a socialist transition entails overcoming this.
Avakian points out many more real contradictions that have to be confronted and resolved throughout the tortuous process of abolishing class relations. But once again, we have to step back and ask: what is the basic purpose and intent of reaching a genuine communist society, even beyond Marx’s "4 alls"?1
Why are Chairman Avakian and those who follow him struggling so vigorously over these ideas, relentlessly criticizing past socialist movements and, while upholding their unprecedented achievements, insisting that simply repeating them would be nowhere near enough? I believe the answer points to being able to find and understand the truth about reality. Even beyond a classless society, there will be, there must be, broad debate, critique of ideas, and ferment over the infinite questions of reality. And from that future back to now, the goal is to invite the broad masses of people into the discussion of what is really true, and how to use that truth to change the world.
1. The "Four Alls" are a concentration of communist aims. They are drawn from a summary by Marx of what the communist revolution aims for and leads to: the abolition of all class distinctions (or "class distinctions generally"); the abolition of all the relations of production on which these class distinctions rest; the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production; and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.