A presentation by Andy Zee, spokesperson for Revolution Books, NY on behalf of The Bob Avakian Institute
Why Knowing What’s True Has Everything to Do With Getting Beyond a World of Horrors: The Breakthrough of the New Communism Developed by Bob Avakian
I want to thank the co-sponsors of this event: the Bunche Center, AAP, The American Indian Studies Center, Prof. Macías and discussants Professors Andrew Apter and Juan Gómez-Quiñones; I thank all of you in the audience for joining us this afternoon.
And, a special appreciation to The Bob Avakian Institute for hosting this event. I want to begin by drawing your attention to why this Institute matters.
As we meet this afternoon, masses of people—billions in actual fact—suffer horribly, the planet is in extreme peril, and the potential for humanity to move beyond a world of mass starvation, disease, wars without end, degradation, oppression and exploitation is thwarted and stifled by the workings of the system of capitalism-imperialism that prevails everywhere throughout the world.
There is the basis in the productive capacity, the technology, and the creativity and knowledge of people to transform the world to move beyond the economic, political and social formations that today so brutally destroy lives and crush spirits. Unlocking that potential requires understanding it—comprehending the complex reality of the world as it actually is so as to discover the pathways to fundamental change through a strategic approach to an actual revolution and for a radically new society on the road to human emancipation. This is the breakthrough and ongoing work and leadership of Bob Avakian.
For over 40 years Bob Avakian has been digging into the reality humanity faces, grappling with the theory and the practice to break out of the long dark night of millennia of oppression. He critically examined the liberatory first communist revolutions of the 20th Century, first in the Soviet Union and then the People’s Republic of China—how they began blazing a path to a world where slaves would be slaves no more; and he critically delved into their defeats, fearlessly excavating and interrogating their shortcomings in method and approach and how they went at the problems encountered in forging a world where exploitation is not the engine that drives the world, undergirding all the other forms of oppression that people suffer.
Drawing from this experience and ranging widely from scholars, scientists, and artists and as well as from sports and music, Avakian has made a qualitative breakthrough in putting revolution and communism on a thoroughly and consistently scientific footing—stripping away those previous aspects of communist theory that were not scientific. With this as the foundational method and approach of the new synthesis of communism, Bob Avakian has made breakthroughs in the strategy for actual revolution. He has developed a radically new conception of socialism, authoring the Constitution for the future socialist state as both a far more liberatory society and one that is on the road to communism. And he has made a breakthrough in internationalism—in the understanding of why in order to free humanity from the chains of imperialism the whole world must come first.
Bob Avakian developed the New Communism while leading the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA to be a vanguard force for an actual revolution in a period where revolution was regarded by most as a thing of the past. Yet, today we face a moment in history where more than ever the world cries out for an emancipatory revolution and there is a new framework for revolution in the new synthesis, yet this breakthrough in revolutionary theory, so necessary for an emancipatory revolution, is not known, and the forces for that revolution need to be brought forward.
I encourage you to find out more about and to support the work of the BA Institute whose mission is the preserving, projecting, and promoting of the works and vision of Bob Avakian with the aim of reaching the broadest possible audience. Today’s program furthers that mission and my talk is rooted in Bob Avakian’s leadership and the new synthesis of communism. I look forward to an exchange of views based on this. And I hope each of you will be provoked and inspired to get more deeply into BA’s work and support and join in the work of the Institute. So let’s get into our topic, Why Knowing What’s True Has Everything to Do With Getting Beyond a World of Horrors.
Bob Avakian has written:
The struggle in the realm of epistemology—the theory of knowledge and how it is acquired by people, the theory of what is true and how people come to know the truth—is a crucial arena in the overall battle for the emancipation of the oppressed and exploited majority of humanity, and ultimately of humanity as a whole. Grasping the defining characteristics and the importance of the scientific method—and, most of all, the most consistent, systematic and comprehensive scientific approach to reality, the communist world outlook and method, which can embrace without replacing or suffocating the many fields of human knowledge and endeavor and can give expression to the richest process of learning about reality and transforming it in the interests of humanity—is of vital importance for this emancipatory struggle.1
Humanity is locked into a world of deprivation, wars, environmental devastation, brutal oppression of minority nationalities in different countries around the world. Black people in the U.S. are subjected to unending discrimination and a slow genocide with 2.3 million locked away in hellhole prisons while police brutality and murder continue unabated and unpunished. Women here and around the world are degraded and oppressed in ways that are unspeakable for those with eyes willing to confront the brutal reality that half of humanity faces. Bob Avakian has sharply pointed out that today people can say, depict, and do to women what you could not do to any other group of people. That’s true, and that’s one reason why the liberation of women is a cornerstone of the New Communism and the revolution to achieve it.
The goal of the New Communism is a total revolution—the most radical revolution in human history that aims at nothing less than overcoming all forms of oppression and exploitation all over the world, a society where humanity could truly flourish. To make such a revolution requires understanding reality as it actually is, a method and approach to discover what’s true and then to transform the world on the basis of the actual underlying material conditions and the contradictions in those conditions.
We meet today as a full out fascist regime is in power here in the world’s most powerful nation. Matters of epistemology are thrown into sharp relief as is everything else in society. “Fake News,” “alternative facts,” conspiracy theories— to say these false narratives are mobilizing people in harmful ways is understatement. Going deeper, they obscure and divert people from understanding the essence of what is happening and acting in ways commensurate.
The Trump/Pence regime is furiously battling to consolidate fascism here. Their enraged social base is moving on campuses and holding KKK/Nazi style rallies around the country. Their rabid followers attack immigrants as the enemy. Two courageous heroes in Portland were murdered and one seriously wounded for standing up to this. These men are models of acting on your moral conviction based on what is right and true. The Trump/Pence regime has not yet succeeded in consolidating fascism in law and society, but they are moving rapidly. And even with the significant opposition expressed in several mass demonstrations and many smaller protests over the last five months, there is not, as yet, the level of unrelenting political struggle from below, from the people, aimed at driving this regime out of power, which is the only way to stop them.
This cabal of fascists headed by Trump and Pence came to power under the signboard of a mythology of Make America Great Again, a narrative that, if you will excuse the pun, trumped and encompassed two other reactionary narrative myths:  that this country is the biblical shining city on a hill whose future requires defeating the elite demons running the world, banishing all “others” who are not white men (and “their” submissive wives), ostracizing all who are not fundamentalist Christians, thereby returning America to, as they would have it in their myth, a theocratic Christian state; and the second myth: that the greatness of America rests on the ingenuity of the self-made man, that the greatest good, and even virtue, comes from a society where naked self interest is unfettered, in short, Gordon Gekko ideology—“greed is good.” The Trump/Pence regime, as with all fascist regimes, is built on promoting and enforcing a worldview of lies, of alternative facts—a narrative—of the victimized, that tells of an aggrieved class of the “entitled,” anointed by God or by virtue of what they believe is their innate superiority and entitlement that is being kept down by alien forces—foreigners, non-Christians, elites, people of color, “losers” in the lexicon favored by Trump; all of whom are peoples to be vanquished in order to return the country and the aggrieved white men to their rightful place.
This fascist mythology, the America First and Make American Great Again narratives clash with what has been the more dominant narrative promoted by the Democrats, liberals and progressives, media talking heads and mainstream press of America as the land of liberty and equality, of freedom for all, of “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free”; a country always progressing towards a more perfect union; where what’s good for business is good for all, and if there is still inequality, there can be some regulation of capitalism to placate the middle class; and as for the poor, the benevolence of the rich can offer some alms through NGO charity, while poverty and punishment is the real deal, with mass deportations and incarceration, yes under Democrats Bill Clinton and Obama, because this system has no future for millions locked on society’s bottom. If the more “awake” followers of this liberal myth point out the actual misery that is everywhere in this the richest country in history, the pathetic bottom line answer is: “Well, this may not be the perfect system, but it’s better than any other.”
None of these narratives are true. All reflect the interests of different sections of the ruling classes. They overlap and obscure the reality of America founded on slavery and the genocide of the native peoples; the theft of 1/3 of the land of Mexico; the bloody history of the U.S. becoming the world’s dominant imperialist power, where for every year of its existence it has waged a war of conquest, meddled in the elections of other countries when not outright fomenting or directing coups d’état. They conceal that the U.S. is ruled by a dictatorship of a ruling class that enforces a system of exploitation; and that what we are experiencing now is an acute struggle at the top that is drawing in every other class and social force over what will be the cohering form of this bourgeois dictatorship: whether it will be fascism, which relies on open terror and violence in which civil and legal rights are effectively nil, or the normal oppressive workings of bourgeois-democracy.
This is not some other narrative, a radical communist narrative; this is historical fact and current reality. History that tells of enormous cost to humanity when people believe and act on stories that aren’t true. This underscores the tremendous stakes and the import of a scientific approach to reality.
What is science? And, can it and should it be applied to society?
Ardea Skybreak in the book 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 paraphrases Neil deGrasse Tyson and says “Science allows you to confront and identify problems, to recognize problems and figure out how to solve them, rather than run away from them.” She says, “It’s a tool–science–a very powerful tool. It’s a method and approach for being able to tell what’s true, what corresponds to reality as it really is…” And, “Science is an evidence-based process.” She goes on to make a very important point:
Without science, you can only say what you as an individual think reality is, or maybe you can say what a whole bunch of people think reality is, or maybe you can say what a government, or religious authority, or some other authority might tell you reality is like, but that doesn’t make any of it true. Without science you are at the mercy of being manipulated, of having your thinking manipulated and not being able to tell what’s right from what’s wrong, what’s true from what’s false.
Take a moment and think about the implications of that.
To know and change the world requires understanding the world as it actually is—looking beneath the surface to discover the social processes through which people provide for the needs of life and to rear new generations of people. Just as a microscope and a theoretical understanding of cells, of DNA, provide tools to discover the mechanisms of life and the pathways to curing disease, so too does the scientific theory of communism—dialectical materialism—reveal the roots of society and how it can be “cured.” What is the economic foundation of society? What is the character of the institutions that arise on this foundation? How are all the social relations—the forms of oppression that we are all too familiar with today shaped and constrained by this economic system? How do traditional ideas reinforce these economic, political, and social relations? And, decisive to changing all of this, what are the contradictions developing within all of this that we can go to work on to lead a total revolution?
We really can struggle to get to a “world where people work and struggle together for the common good… Where everyone contributes whatever they can to society and gets back what they need to live a life worthy of human beings… Where there are no more divisions among people in which some rule over and oppress others, robbing them not only of the means to a decent life but also of knowledge and a means for really understanding, and acting to change, the world.” This, a total revolution, is brought to life in Bob Avakian’s THE NEW COMMUNISM, The science, the strategy, the leadership for an actual revolution, and a radically new society on the road to real emancipation.
Making revolution to emancipate humanity throughout the world is complex. It is also real, and rooted in the real world contradictions we face.
Despite his surreal appearance Donald Trump is also real, “Make America Great” mobilizes a fascist base with a false narrative, but the Trump/Pence regime holds power and is backed by power, and thus their ideas and policies are being realized, and should the regime fully succeed, more and more people will come to see that they are “right.” Watch cable news and you see this normalization unfold. And, on the other side, despite its mythology, this land does not belong to you and me, America and capitalism-imperialism are not the land of opportunity and forces for good and the best that humanity can do. But, based on its power and control of all the institutions of society, this is what many if not most people in this country believe to be true.
Perhaps as a little kid a parent tried to teach you that “might doesn’t make right?” But, then life teaches you otherwise. Unless you take up a scientific approach to knowing and changing the world, you won’t understand why it is that what is wrong so often prevails, or, get the science that lies behind the insight of Karl Marx that: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” and how that can be worked on and transformed through revolution.
If you don’t understand the underlying dynamics of society, you will be played. We run into this all the time: the politicians and pundits declare, and people follow suit and say: the problem is corruption, or money in politics, or greed, or human nature…. The list goes on. Without understanding how a society functions, getting under the hood of how it works, you can’t really know or solve the problem. Police brutality and murder disproportionally target Black and Latino youth, with pigs never held to account. No justice, only payouts to keep quiet. What you think needs to be done about this unconscionable outrage depends on whether you understand what the root of the problem is. Give the police “sensitivity” training? Have a community review board? Wear body cams? Not even close. The problem is that the job of the police is to serve and protect the capitalist system—their function is to protect the right of the ruling class to exploit and oppress the masses and if there is no way for the masses to survive, then they must be terrorized into submission, locked up or killed. The deep foundational structure of white supremacy in this country has and will continue to result in the most brutal repression and targeting of Black and Latino youth. You can’t reform that away. It’s too woven into the fabric of the system and its functioning. We must fight the power, and transform the people, for revolution. But to understand that, you need science.
If you go to the doctor because you have symptoms that could either indicate a sore back or cancer of the spine, or perhaps a chest discomfort that could be acid reflux or a heart condition, for sure you know that you want a doctor grounded in the latest scientific medical understanding to determine what is the specific disease causing your symptoms, followed by what are the tested treatments for the correctly diagnosed disease. You don’t want to take a TUMS for a heart attack… or, rub on some Ben Gay for cancer… nor should you want to be told the “cure” is for you to atone for your sins and pray.
The same is true for diagnosing and setting a course of treatment for the ills of society. But when it comes to human society, even many scientists say that you can’t apply scientific methodology. That it’s too complex, too subjective. This is nonsense. Ardea Skybreak makes the point that it is exactly the opposite—because of the complexity of human society, a scientific approach is all the more needed.
Materialism vs. Idealism
At the heart of the matter, is, well, matter. All of reality, even the processes of our consciousness take place through matter in motion. Our ideas are reflections of objective material reality and they can impact objective reality. And, that is one reason we can know that reality objectively exists.
Philosophically, this is reflected in two modes of thinking: Materialism vs. Idealism. Materialism—dialectical materialism—means your conception of the world flows from a fundamental understanding that everything exists as matter—matter that is constantly changing, that is always in motion, moving through contradiction. And, this stands in opposition to philosophical Idealism—the view that, as Avakian writes in The New Communism,
[R]eality is an extension of ideas—ideas in the mind of individuals. For example: “Maybe this doesn’t exist for you, but it exists for me.” We hear this kind of thing all the time, this relativism: “Well, that may be your truth, but my truth says something different. God may not exist for you, but God definitely exists for me.” No! If god exists at all, then god exists for everybody.
Avakian stresses that it matters not just “what people think, but, even more fundamentally, how they think—and how they ‘approach the world.’” And, that this is not only sharply contended in society and the world, but “also among many who claim to be seeking some kind of ‘progressive’ or radical change, and even among many who proclaim to be communists.” Unfortunately, such idealist approaches to social change, and revolution, result in a kind of religious approach that views the arc of history always bending towards progress, or what has too often prevailed among communists, that communism is inevitable. Such views disarm people from being able to confront, act on, and transform the reality they actually face.
Relativism vs. A Scientific Approach to Reality
Alternative facts, being guided by narratives, and not what is actually true, reaches both the absurd and the deadly dangerous with Trump and his whole regime: “I had the biggest inaugural crowd… Mexicans are criminals and rapists… Muslims all potential terrorists… climate change a hoax”—dangerous lies, but backed up by Fox Media and the power of the state.
How different is this methodologically from Obama saying that the problem Black youth face is that they don’t take personal responsibility and they should pull their pants up? Really? Is this the cause of the oppression of Black people? No, and believing it because Obama as the first Black president said it doesn’t make it true, it makes it all the more dangerous.
And, on the campuses this relativism is rampant in identity politics: a mode of thinking where who is speaking, and whether they are, or are not, the most oppressed person in the room, determines the validity of their ideas. Communists have also had a variant of this: that the workers or the most oppressed have a special purchase on the truth. Ok, it is sometimes the case that those who have lived a life under the most vicious boot of this system may more readily gravitate towards revolution, but their position in society does not in itself provide an understanding of how society works, or of the theory, strategy and programs to transform it. Another example, all too common on the campuses, is if an uncomfortable truth is spoken and this upsets someone, then a safe space must be created where this intrusion of the true brutality of the real world is prohibited.
Or, in the social movements of resistance this slogan is chanted in demonstrations: “The people united will never be defeated.” Is this true? No. Bob Avakian has pointed out that people have been united and been defeated—many times. Both for reasons that their adversaries were stronger, and sometimes because of shortcomings or mistakes in how the struggle was led. Yes, it is good and necessary to unite people around a correct understanding of reality and a strategy and plan that flows from that. But it is just a seemingly “useful” political truth that “the people united will never be defeated.” And, it misleads.
This is a reflection of what Avakian has critiqued as populist epistemology—that whatever most people think at any given time defines what’s true. Facebook reality, thumbs down.
The mode of thinking that denies that there is objective reality, that there is only subjective experience: “I have my truth and you have yours,” leaves people unequipped to deal with the momentous problems humanity faces; it leaves you blind to discover where there are sharp and profound contradictions brewing beneath the surface that could hold the potential for revolutionary struggle. You can’t act with conviction about anything other than yourself.
It is prevalent in academia that to even claim there is objective reality is totalizing —totalitarian—because it doesn’t leave room for my ideas. Some who are influenced by postmodernism claim that the insistence that there is objective reality and a scientific way to understand and transform that reality is what led to the problems of the 20th century revolutions.
This relativism—that there is no objective truth, that we can’t act with any certitude about what has been determined through scientific verification is true, is nonsense, but not just that. The relativist construct of competing narratives that must all be brought together is wrong and harmful. Does the history and present lived reality of oppressed and marginalized peoples need to be uncovered, told, paid attention to, and redressed? Yes. But, what is true about that history is true not just for that group, it is part of the history of humanity and its causes and solutions sought in the larger reality, with unity forged on that foundation. Relativism keeps everyone and the struggle “in their lane,” confined to thinking about and only acting on what concerns them; it cuts off the kind of process necessary to know and change the whole world.
Avakian makes the point in The New Communism that “everybody who’s a relativist is relativist until it really matters to them.” You wouldn’t let your kid run out in the street in front of a car because who’s to say if the traffic is real for him or her?
The relativism of Trump and his world of “useful” alternative facts, on the one hand, and the relativism that pervades and poisons the movements of opposition, on the other, are completely diametrically opposed in morality—one stands on the side of gloatingly enforcing oppression, and the other in fighting against oppression and wanting a more just world. But, methodologically the parallels of proceeding from “your truth,” or your group’s “reality,” from what’s useful to you and your cause, people, gender—in the immediate moment—will and can only lead away from understanding the root of the problem humanity faces, and to leaving the world the horror that it is.
Before concluding, since I just brought this question of epistemology back to Trump, I want to commend your attention to two works by BA: “The Truth About Right-Wing Conspiracy… And Why Clinton and the Democrats Are No Answer,” and The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution in the Present Era, which not only deeply reveal the roots of fascism in America, but are a stunning example of the scientific approach of Bob Avakian.
When you get into The New Communism, when you dig into the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, and other works, you will see that he not only advocates for a scientific approach to reality and to making revolution, but in what is a real game changer, Bob Avakian breaks ground in creating a new framework for how masses of people can wield and apply science to society, creating a movement today and a future society to unleash the maximum creativity, ferment, experimentation and dissent, on the basis of a solid core of understanding, as integral to carrying forward the aims and objectives of the revolution to emancipate humanity.
I am going to conclude with this quotation from the handbook for revolution, BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian that was reprinted on the promotional flyer. This both serves as a certain concentration of the qualitative breakthrough in the scientific epistemology of the new synthesis and brings home why it is so integral to humanity getting free. With all that the people of the world face, we are fortunate to have this work, leadership, and Institute at this moment. Hopefully this quotation will also serve as a provocation for our discussion.
For humanity to advance beyond a state in which “might makes right”—and where things ultimately come down to raw power relations—will require, as a fundamental element in this advance, an approach to understanding things (an epistemology) which recognizes that reality and truth are objective and do not vary in accordance with, nor depend on, different “narratives” and how much “authority” an idea (or “narrative”) may have behind it, or how much power and force can be wielded on behalf of any particular idea or “narrative,” at any given point.
- “A Leap of Faith” and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods“