EDITORS’ NOTE: The following is an excerpt from a wide-ranging interview with Ardea Skybreak. A scientist with professional training in ecology and evolutionary biology, and an advocate of the new synthesis of communism brought forward by Bob Avakian, Skybreak is the author of The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters, and Of Primeval Steps and Future Leaps: An Essay on the Emergence of Human Beings, the Source of Women’s Oppression, and the Road to Emancipation. In this part of the interview she speaks to the experience of attending the November 15, 2014 Dialogue between Bob Avakian and Cornel West at Riverside Church in New York City. The full text of this interview has been published as SCIENCE AND REVOLUTION, On the Importance of Science and the Application of Science to Society, the New Synthesis of Communism and the Leadership of Bob Avakian, An Interview with Ardea Skybreak.
Ardea Skybreak: Oh god (!), it was really great to be at this Dialogue. I’m so glad I was able to be there in person, and I’m also so glad that the livestream is available for anybody who wasn’t able to be there. I would encourage people to go to the revcom.us website, and you can access it right there and experience the whole thing. And I am really excited that a high-quality film is being made of the Dialogue, which will soon be available as well.
I don’t even know where to start. It was like there was magic in the air. It was one of the most hopeful things that I’ve seen in a very long time. I think it was historic in many different dimensions: in terms of the topic that was approached; the people who were involved in it, the two speakers; the moment in time. I felt like I was able to see a great demonstration of morality and conscience applied to dealing with the problems of humanity—that both speakers stood out this way.
I am sick to death of the culture that prevails so much in this society today that is all about self-involvement and self, individualism, and so on. In contrast to this prevailing culture of basically small-mindedness, self-centeredness, selfishness, whatever you wanna call it, here were two people, Bob Avakian and Cornel West, who have different views on many important questions, but they came together to speak to the people together in a way that was projecting tremendous morality and conscience, a tremendous amount of social responsibility. And I thought, yes, please, promote this, let’s have more of this. I thought it was a wonderful example of how you could have principled differences—you could have differences and debate and discuss some of those differences in a principled manner, but draw out the points of unity. They were both so generous in spirit, and part of why is because they’re not focused on self, neither one of them; they’re different people, but one of the things they have in common is that they are both trying to think about the conditions of the oppressed and all the horrors that are visited upon so many people on a daily basis in this country and throughout the world…and what could be done about that.
And, in Bob Avakian’s case, he’s been spending his whole life, decades and decades, developing work that is deepening our understanding of why these problems are not just accidental, or periodic anomalies–how they actually stem from, originate in, the deeper structures of the system, and why it’s the system itself, the system of capitalism-imperialism, that has to go, and be replaced with a completely different system, before we could really emancipate humanity. He brings that to life, and he’s dedicated his whole life to studying and bringing out to people, in a very scientific way, in a very rich and developed way, why that is the case, what is actually needed, what kind of revolution is needed, what is the strategy to actually be able to get to revolution, how can we actually have a serious strategy for seizing power, for dismantling the existing state apparatus of capitalism-imperialism, and replacing it with a new state apparatus of socialism, socialist institutions that move in the direction of a communist world that would be a genuinely emancipatory journey for the majority of people. He’s done a lot of very serious scientific work on this over decades. Has he ever made mistakes? Of course. Will he make more mistakes? I’m quite sure—everyone does, you know. The point is that he’s willing to examine his own mistakes and the mistakes of others throughout history, throughout the communist movement, and in what’s been done by other forces in society—constantly being like a good scientist who is actually willing to do critical examination of all of this to try to figure out what’s right and can move things forward in a good way for the majority of people, and what’s wrong and can actually take things in very bad directions. And even when the mistakes come from the historical forces of the revolutionaries or communists in this country or around the world, he’s willing to examine that. And so, because of that, you feel like you’re in the presence of a real scientist who’s actually going to work and has been working for decades. It’s like a very advanced scientist who is at the top of his field in terms of analyzing empire, in terms of analyzing the sources of problems and the alternatives and how to get there, and what pitfalls to avoid, what are the dangers, what are the wrong kinds of thinking that people can fall into and do fall into. You don’t have to agree with everything, but you can really feel like you’re grappling with a scientist who’s being serious about this, and whose heart is with the people.
And what you see with Cornel West—and BA pointed that out in his part of the Dialogue—you see someone who is a very wide-ranging intellectual who’s studied many different questions, and who is very concerned about the history of oppression, but who also recognizes that it is not enough to just be an intellectual behind closed doors who thinks about these things…it is important to play a role as a public intellectual and to actually help develop understanding and consciousness about these issues. He understands, in short, the social responsibility of a progressive intellectual. And he, also, is not concerned with self. He also is willing to take some risks and to stand up to slanders and be demeaned for some of this. He refuses to go along—and he doesn’t. I think one of the things that both these people show is a willingness to stand up under fire of a certain kind. We can talk about this later, but there are all sorts of people who wanna tear down people who are trying to change things in a positive direction.
So, not to go into that right now so much, but I just wanna say that there was something—I’m trying to find the words to describe the magical atmosphere. Here’s the thing: I think there were some people who were in attendance…I heard that they said afterwards, I wish every day could be like today. And I felt that myself. It felt like you were in the presence of…that there was leadership in the room, that there was a diversity of people in the audience, that there was a shared concern about a lot of the outrages and injustices in society and a shared lively determination to do something about it, rather than just accept it as the way of the world. So it was very encouraging.
And there were many other things. I mean, even the venue. Okay, look, I’m an atheist, I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in supernatural forces of any kind. I’m a scientist who is deeply steeped in historical materialism, and I don’t get wowed or awed by the sanctity of religious places or religious venues. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the beauty of the religious art. This church, Riverside Church, is a beautiful venue, and it has all sorts of interesting and beautiful carvings in wood and in stone, and so on. It’s just a beautiful place, and you’d have to be stone cold not to be able to appreciate the art, even if you’re not a believer. And this was a wonderful setting for this historic event. It is a church that historically has hosted many controversial subjects and topics over the years and has provided a platform for the contestation of ideas. And I thought that, once again, this happened in this period in a way that hasn’t been seen in a long time, has never been seen actually. I can’t think of another example of exactly this kind of event in history, where a revolutionary communist leader of the revolution is meeting together with a revolutionary Christian so that they can bring forward what they have in common and explore the differences and put it before the people and encourage hundreds, thousands and ultimately millions of people to engage these very important questions that have to do with morality and conscience and with the future of humanity.
And the topic itself is so important, the topic about religion and revolution. Look, I’ve been arguing, and I know this is definitely BA’s framework, that you have to have a scientific materialist approach to analyzing the patterns of society—past, present and future—in order to figure out what to do about the problems of the world. Other people think that you have to apply a religious spiritual framework. That’s a different approach to trying to deal with some of the same problems. It’s a different approach to some of the solutions. It’s a different approach, but it doesn’t have to be in all cases an antagonistic difference. In this case, one of the things that I saw, and was inspired by, was that I thought there was a strategic alliance being modeled between a revolutionary communist… the revolutionary communist project, and progressive moral religious people, as embodied by Cornel West. Many religious people are not so generous of spirit, so moral, so solid in terms of their conscience. But this is an example of how two people can walk together and two actual sections of society can walk together in a strategic alliance. I thought that was very inspiring and should give hope to people.
And there was a lot that was modeled methodologically by BA in this Dialogue, in how he dealt with a lot of these questions. Many people are afraid to criticize religion—they think the people need it and you shouldn’t say anything. One of the things I really like about BA is that he’s never afraid to tell people what’s what, even if he knows it will make them uncomfortable, even if he knows that it’ll be controversial, that it’s not the popular way of thinking, that he will be attacked or even slandered or reviled for doing so. He’s just gonna tell people the way he sees things, on the basis of a scientific examination over decades of some of the key underlying phenomena. And, okay, religion, as Cornel expressed it very clearly, especially for Black people in this country, this is where many people live, this is very close to their heart, this is very intertwined with the history of resistance of Black people to oppression since the days of slavery, it’s very intimately tied in with people’s loved ones, and their feeling of who has led them in the past to fight against oppression. So it’s all very intertwined. And BA is very clearly expressing to people that he understands all of that, but that you have to let a lot of this go, you have to let it go because it doesn’t correspond to reality and it will actually take you off course and make it harder for you to actually transform the world in the direction that would benefit the majority of humanity. So there’s a difference there, but it is a difference that can be wrangled with and analyzed and subjected to critical analysis and thinking. And the audience was into it. The vast majority of the audience was really into this—BA’s presentation, Cornel’s shorter but substantial remarks, and then the dialogue between them where they went back and forth. So there’s a tremendous amount there. I think it’s worth re-watching and reviewing the livestream, and the upcoming film, because there’s a lot to learn from what was being modeled there, and by the whole event.
So the speakers were great, the topic was great—and then I have to say about the audience: There was also a magical element, something that was greater than the sum of the parts, that came out of the connection, the presence of the audience with the speakers. That was something that I may be having trouble putting into words exactly, but I felt it very strongly at the time. There were 2,000 people or so filling this historic venue. And many came from the area, from New York, but many came from far away. There were people there from Chicago, from Ferguson, from Boston, from Hawaii, and so on. People actually traveled there, people raised money for some of their friends to be able to go and represent for them and for the ones who couldn’t all go and travel such distances. So you had people arriving, you had buses arriving, there was an excitement in the air, you got the definite sense that people felt this is an important day, a day where we’re going to talk about the things that are really wrong in the world, all the outrages and injustices, and, in particular, at that moment, there was a lot of focus on these police murders and brutality. And we’re gonna talk about: do we have to take it, or can we put a stop to this, and how are we going to go forward from here? And partly it is taking a moral stand, but it’s more than that. There was a lot of discussion with both speakers encouraging the people to stand up and fight this stuff. Both speakers were very good about doing that. And there was a certain electricity in the air when, for instance, the buses came and there were people from Ferguson who arrived, and they came in chanting, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” and the entire audience…this was before the start of the program…the audience stood up and joined in: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot! I’m getting goose bumps even thinking about that. And everybody felt it.
And part of what was really, really special about this was the mix of people. And this is something I give great credit to the Revolutionary Communist Party and the leadership of Bob Avakian for, historically, going way back to the ’70s and since then. I don’t know any other organization that brings people together in the way that BA’s leadership and the Revolutionary Communist Party does, in terms of being able to bring together people from what are often referred to as basic masses, in other words, the people from the inner cities, the people who might not have much education, who are poor and the most oppressed of the oppressed, and for whom daily life is a constant struggle under the boot of the oppressors…bringing them together with students, college students and others, including older people, from the middle strata, from the intellectual strata, from the artists and the scientists, and so on. So you have a Ph.D. professor, or a prominent person in the arts, who is sitting with somebody who is from one of the hardest inner city ghettos in the country—and they’re together! They’re not looking at each other with suspicion. They’re not looking at each other with fear or disdain. They’re together in this because they are being brought together by this project and by this whole determination to put an end to this degrading and dehumanizing oppression, and to make a better world. And whenever I’ve seen glimpses of that, going way back even to the ’70s, even in how I, myself came forward, that was one of the things that has inspired me.
BA talked at the Dialogue, very movingly, about Wayne Webb, also known as Clyde Young, and what a hard life he came out of, and how he developed and emerged as a leader who became a member of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and what his whole life trajectory was about, coming from the hard streets and from the prisons. You have someone like that, and you have people who’ve gotten Ph.D.s in science or who are prominent artists or prominent members of society who can be in the same party and in the same movement for revolution. That tells you something. It doesn’t tell you everything, but it tells you something important about the nature and characteristics, the type of movement that this is. And this bringing together—the great diversity of the audience being brought together, at this moment in time when people are waking up and standing up against some of these egregious police murders and other abuses in society, and becoming, once again, more determined to figure out if there’s any real way we can change things for the better—and coming together with these two speakers who, in their own different ways, were speaking to the people. One was a speaker of conscience who describes himself as a revolutionary Christian who was encouraging intellectuals to have principle and integrity and to stand with the oppressed. There are not many people from the intellectual strata these days who are doing that, and I salute Cornel West for taking that position and promoting it and serving as an example of that.
And then you have Bob Avakian standing there, on the basis of decades of hard work developing a whole body of work—theory to advance the science of communism, to advance the science of revolution, to more deeply explain where the problems come from, what the strategy is for getting out of this mess, what the methods and approaches should be to stay on track and actually build a better world, to build a society that most human beings would want to live in. That’s a hallmark of Bob Avakian’s work, working on building a society that most human beings would want to live in. But, to do that, you have to understand the need to sweep away the system of capitalism-imperialism and to build a completely different society on a different foundation—economically, politically, culturally. He was bringing that to life. And he was also bringing to bear the strategy for today. You know, it was brief [laughs]. Some idiots were complaining that he spoke too long. Actually, a lot of people were glued to their seats and wanted to hear even more, if there’d only been more time. But luckily, we have his whole body of work and the website at revcom.us is full of books, articles, speeches. There’s the film Revolution—Nothing Less! which is six hours of exposition from Bob Avakian’s work, which people should really get into. There’s BAsics, which is a really good book to start with, which also points people to the major works that things are taken from. So there’s no shortage of materials to go to.
But at least, in that short period of time, you were able to get a feel for the strategy for an actual revolution, what it means to work towards that, what it means to provide leadership, what is the nature of leadership, what is the role of new people in relation to that, why everybody needs to come into this process, and there’s a place for you no matter where you come from, there’s a place for you in this process, in this revolutionary process, and there was a lot of modeling of the kind of culture in society that we would want to bring into being. And then there were some very serious discussions of the connection between the very necessary fights of today—the protests, for instance, around Ferguson, and so on—and the actual struggle for revolutionary power, the seizure of power. What is the connection, how does one help build the other?
And there was at least preliminary discussion of some of the work that’s been done to bring out the real possibilities for how to actually win. That working on revolution isn’t just a good moral thing to be doing—you actually have to do it in a way that you have a chance of winning and not being crushed. BA spoke about that some, and he pointed people to some key documents that are available on that revcom.us website: the documents “On the Strategy for Revolution”; and “On the Possibility of Revolution,” which is a document that talks about the strategy for the actual seizure of power, and how you might have a chance of winning instead of being crushed by the forces of the other side. And then he was also pointing to the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America—and…I have to say it just for a second here…that’s an incredible document that I don’t think enough people have actually looked at, or even leafed through briefly, to get a sense of it. There is actually a Constitution, for a new society, that has been developed based on the work brought forward by Bob Avakian, his whole new synthesis of communism. So if you wanna know what kind of society Bob Avakian’s work is trying to bring into being and lead people towards, you have something very concrete that you can dig into, that talks about the rule of law under socialism and what kind of freedoms there would be, how you would organize the economy, education…I mean, every imaginable question.
So, there was a lot presented there at the Dialogue, in a short period of time. There was enough, I think, to whet a lot of people’s appetite to actually go and dig further into this and join in, both in the struggles of today that are very necessary: again, things like the police murders, and on a number of other fronts, including what is happening in terms of women and the attacks on abortion—this is basically a way to enslave women, to deny them the right to their own reproduction, to control their own reproduction—and other abuses, and the wars, and the environment, and so on. There was an outlining of a lot of that, and then there was a pointing to where people could go to learn a lot more and to get into a lot more.
And something else I want to say about the Dialogue is that there was this wonderful affectionate, warm, rapport between the two speakers, which was also a model. These are two people who, with their differences, care about each other greatly, and appreciate each other deeply. There was a lot of warmth, and both people just came off as really warm, generous-minded individuals, and there was just a wonderful comradely atmosphere between them that I thought also was in sharp contrast to the kind of culture that prevails today. It was a good model of how you could have differences—and neither one of them was going to throw away their principles, you know, they had their differences and they were going to make those differences clear—but not only did they also bring out all the points that they agreed on, and the need to fight injustice and oppression, but they served as a model of how to handle differences. This is very important: They were modeling how people should relate to each other when they have differences. Because they were more concerned with the conditions of the oppressed and what to do about it than about themselves and their own egos. Because both people were much more focused on that, they found it in themselves to interact in a principled way, and with generosity of spirit and comradeliness. Nobody was—to be crude, nobody was kissing ass to anybody else. When there were differences, there were differences. But they were very respectful and principled and willing to dig into things. And that was a model that a lot of other people in society should actually be inspired by and try to emulate. This is what the people should do. When you have differences, you should struggle over substance and not…look, there’s generally way too much of a culture in current society of nasty attacks and gossip and snarkiness and petty complaints and petty criticism. When people dedicate their whole lives, and this is certainly the case…you want to talk about Bob Avakian, he has spent his entire life dedicating himself to trying to serve the people, to trying to bring into being a better world, to fighting for that…he could have feathered his own nest, he could have just made out his own life to be better for himself. But this is not what he’s done. He’s dedicated his whole life to working on the problems of why there are so many outrages and oppression and so on, and what to do about it. That deserves respect, that deserves appreciation, and it deserves being looked into critically but deeply, to really try to grapple with what it is that he’s bringing forward that is new and different and should be learned from.