Editors’ Note: The following excerpts from works by Bob Avakian (which are available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org or revcom.us) are relevant to the article Bob Avakian On Fascist Lunacy and “Woke Folk” Insanity: A New “Two Outmodeds” and generally to the phenomena of “identity politics,” “wokeness,” individualism, parasitism and American chauvinism.
From Breakthroughs, The Historic Breakthrough by Marx, and the Further Breakthrough with the New Communism, A Basic Summary (ebook edition, 2021).
And then there’s BAsics 4:10:
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.1
This is extremely important as well—the relation between relativism and “might makes right.” Say, for example, that you are part of an oppressed group. You have a narrative about your oppression. But if the very righteous and just struggle against this oppression—against the police murder of Black and Brown and Native American people, for example—is reduced to a matter of narrative, to a matter of what amounts to a subjective view of the world (“We know what this means, we know where it comes from and what to do about it because we experience it, as part of our particular group identity”)—if that’s the epistemology that you’re putting forward, well, then, what happens when you run into a group with more power than you? Like the police—they’ve got their epistemology and their narrative too: “You are all a bunch of animals, you have to be confined; and if you in any way provoke us, we have the right to kill you.” That’s their narrative. This racism is written right into the law of this society and its bourgeois dictatorship. What do I mean by that? Well, what does the law say in most states? If the police have “a reasonable fear” of either harm to themselves or someone else, they have a right to use force, including deadly force. Well, then, you’ve got racism written right into this, because almost all police regard Black people, particularly young Black males (not only them, but particularly young Black males) as a threat, as a danger. So the rationale for police killing Black people is built in, they’ve written racism into the law. That’s their narrative—and their narrative has the backing of the state, which is why they almost never get indicted, let alone convicted, of these murders, time after time after time.
And then there’s the military of this system. They’ve got a narrative, too, about how they’re a force for good in the world, and they need to wield this force to impose order because that is for the greater good. And they’ve got their military power to back up that narrative. So, if it’s all a bunch of narratives, then whoever’s got the most power behind their narrative is going to ultimately prevail.
This gets to a point from Mao that is important in its own right and also has important application here. Mao said that striking a pose to intimidate is a very common tactic among certain people. In confronting the enemy, he pointed out, it’s absolutely useless, and among the people it does great harm. Think about this: If you’re in these narrow circles where the currency is identity politics, maybe you can get over by insisting on your narrative over somebody else’s. But in the broader world, and in particular up against the enemy, the ruling class, they don’t give a damn about your narrative, they don’t give a damn about your identity. They’ve got their interests and they’ve got a lot of force behind their interests, and your posturing with your identity is absolutely useless, it’s worthless, up against that. And this is all the more the case with the fascist regime that is now [in 2019] in power. Of course, it is not the case that fascism arose and came to power because of identity politics and the corresponding epistemology. The point is that these fascists want to reinforce and intensify the oppressive relations that identity politics is seeking to address in a distorted and ill-founded way, and these identity politics disorient and disarm people ideologically and render them less able to deal with this. Such identity politics, and in particular the posturing that all too often accompanies it, is only “useful” among people who will be intimidated by this, and in fact such intimidation does a great deal of harm. That’s what Mao meant when he said this kind of thing does great harm among the people. Intimidating people rather than winning them to a scientific understanding of reality, and what needs to be done about it, can only do harm among the people, and it’s absolutely useless against those who have real power.
So, once again, there is a great deal that is concentrated in BAsics 4:10 in terms of the relation between epistemology and advancing beyond a state in which might makes right. To further illustrate the important questions of principle and method that are involved, let me cite the following from my “Discussion with Comrades on Epistemology” drawing from the historical experience of the communist movement:
One of the big questions is “are we really people who are trying to get to the truth, or is it really just a matter of ‘truth as an organizing principle’?” Lenin criticized this philosophically—“truth as an organizing principle”—and you can criticize it to reject religion and opportunism which you don’t find particularly useful, but you can end up doing this yourself in another form….
I’m talking about a new synthesis—a more thoroughly materialist epistemology. Lenin wrote Materialism and Empirio-Criticism where he argued against these things [like “political truth,” or “truth as an organizing principle”] but sometimes the practical Lenin got in the way of the philosophical Lenin. The political exigencies that were imposed contributed to a situation where some of the way Lenin dealt with contradictions had an aspect of Stalin.* There are many examples of this in The Furies [a book on the French and Russian revolutions by Arno Mayer]. In some instances, the Bolsheviks had a kind of “Mafia” approach in some areas, especially during the civil war that followed the October 1917 Revolution. In some cases, when people would be organized by reactionaries to fight against the Bolsheviks, the Bolsheviks would retaliate broadly and without mercy. Or they would kill people not only for deserting the Red Army but even for dragging their feet in fighting the civil war. While sometimes in the midst of war, extreme measures may be necessary, overall this is not the way to deal with these contradictions….I read Lenin on this and thought, “this is not right.” There’s epistemological stuff bound up with all this as well. [Bob Avakian, “Bob Avakian in a Discussion with Comrades on Epistemology: On Knowing and Changing the World,” in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy. p. 56, p. 55]
*Note added by the author: The reference here to “an aspect of Stalin” is a shorthand way of speaking to the negative side of Stalin—in particular his tendency, in dealing with what were very real and often acute contradictions, to rely on state repression, including capital punishment, instead of ideological struggle (combined with an insistence on adherence to discipline, and lesser punishment for violation of discipline, in situations where that was required).
And here we see the close interconnection between epistemology and morality. The orientation and principle that “Everything that is actually true is good for the proletariat, all truths can help us get to communism” is not only extremely important itself but is also closely related to the fact that the new communism thoroughly repudiates and is determined to root out of the communist movement the poisonous notion, and practice, that “the ends justifies the means.” It is a bedrock principle of the new communism that the “means” of this movement must flow from and be consistent with the fundamental “ends” of abolishing all exploitation and oppression through revolution led on a scientific basis.
1. BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, RCP Publications, 2011. An ebook version can be downloaded for free with a link at revcom.us/avakian/ba-important-works-en.html. [back]
* * *
The goal of this revolution is not revenge and the reversal of the positions of oppressed and oppressor (“the last shall be first, and the first shall be last”). Here it is very relevant to refer to a statement by Lenin who said that all those who approach revolution with the orientation, “They had their chance, now it’s my turn to have a go at it”—all those who approach revolution in that way do so from the point of view of the petite bourgeoisie. And it hardly needs saying that the approach of the petite bourgeoisie is not going to lead to the achievement of the “4 Alls”2 and the emancipation of humanity. Even though at times the practical/political Lenin got in the way of the philosophical Lenin, in the sense discussed earlier, this is a very important statement by Lenin, because what he refers to as the point of view of the petite bourgeoisie is a powerful spontaneous pull, even on people who are not in the petite bourgeoisie. You see it over and over again—the goal becomes revenge, it becomes something short of transforming all of society. It becomes, “get mine if I can, or if I can’t, at least I can tear somebody else down.” That’s very pronounced in this society, particularly at this time, and even struggles which are dealing with very real and profound contradictions and relations of oppression can be turned toward that kind of outlook and approach by the powerful pull of spontaneity and the prevailing relations in this society. [Emphasis— boldface—added here]
This goes back to the point that even movements which start out highlighting very important outrages and injustices, and carrying out struggle against them, can only continue to go in the direction they need to go in, ultimately—and all these different forces in society that are opposing various forms of oppression can only be united in a lasting and forward moving way—on the basis of a scientific communist approach and what it reveals to be the solution to the profound problems that the present society embodies and enforces. With the outlook of the petite bourgeoisie you’re never going to get there. What is needed is—in a non‑reified sense, in the communist sense—the outlook of the proletariat, the outlook and approach that corresponds to the fundamental interests of the proletariat, which involves the recognition that only by emancipating all of humanity can any one section of the exploited and oppressed be emancipated.
In contrast to narrow and petty motivations and aspirations for things such as revenge and “my turn to have a go at it,” the goal of the communist revolution is, as emphasized in THE NEW COMMUNISM,3 “getting to a different world where all these horrors for the masses of people don’t go on any longer.” The goal is the emancipation of humanity—the abolition of all exploitation and oppression, and the corresponding antagonisms among human beings, and the uprooting of the soil out of which they arise, with the achievement of communism, throughout the world.
2. The “4 Alls” refers to the statement by Marx that the communist revolution aims for the abolition of all class distinctions, all the production relations on which those class distinctions rest, all the social relations that correspond to those production relations, and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that correspond to those social relations. [back]
3. Bob Avakian, THE NEW COMMUNISM, The science, the strategy, the leadership for an actual revolution, and a radically new society on the road to real emancipation, Insight Press, 2016 [back]
* * *
The ruling class repeatedly seeks to pit different sections of the people against each other and, contrary to the illusions of “intersectionality,” the ruling class has many powerful ways to do that if you’re not proceeding from the point of view of the emancipation of humanity as a whole.
There is a whole history of different sections of the people being pitted against each other. You have the egregious example of the Buffalo Soldiers after the Civil War—Black soldiers who fought to put down and kill off the Native Americans and steal their land—while in the Civil War, among the different Native American peoples, there were some who sided with the northern Union while others sided with the southern Confederacy, based on their narrow perception of their immediate interests. Only coming from the point of view of communism can you unify the masses of people to overcome every manifestation of oppression and achieve the “4 Alls.” [Emphasis—italics—added here.]
* * *
From Hope For Humanity On A Scientific Basis, Breaking with Individualism, Parasitism and American Chauvinism, 2019.
Virulent Individualism and Oblivious Individualism
These are two broad categories of individualism, which have some different particular characteristics but also have in common the basic focus on and preoccupation with the self. Virulent individualism is an extremely poisonous variation of this. It’s basically the view that “I’m out to get everything I can for myself and fuck everybody else. And if I have to trample on everybody else to get what I want, that’s just the way it is and I’m gonna do it the best I can, so I can get everything I want—I want it all and I want it now.”
Oblivious individualism is individualism that may not have those particular aggressive characteristics and may not even have a consciously hostile attitude toward other people in general, but involves going along pursuing one’s particular interests, aspirations, or “dreams,” without paying attention to the larger things that are going on in the world and the effect of this on masses of people throughout the world and indeed on the future of humanity.
So there are these different kinds, or two broad types, of individualism (with many gradations, obviously). But what is the unifying element in them? Self. The self. As I pointed out in the Dialogue with Cornel West in 2014,4 the “selfie” is a perfect iconic representation of this whole outlook and this whole culture. It’s not that every “selfie” is in and of itself bad, of course. But there is a whole culture around it, even to the point where people go to a beautiful place in nature and what are they preoccupied with? Taking a “selfie” of themself instead of taking in (and yes, taking photographs of) the vast beauty that’s stretched out before them. The important thing, with this outlook, is: “Here I am, look at me.” It’s the “look at me, look at me, look at me” ethos that is so predominant in both these forms of individualism, even in the one that’s not consciously virulent but is nevertheless strikingly oblivious.
Oblivious individualism may seem more benign (or, in simple terms, less “nasty”) but it is nonetheless marked by being inexcusably ignorant of, or consciously choosing to ignore, what is happening in the larger world, beyond the self (and the narrow circle around oneself), and the consequences of this for the masses of people in the world, and ultimately for all of humanity—or paying attention to this only as it affects oneself in immediate and narrow terms.
Now here let me be very clear: There are people in the world, masses of people in the world, whose lives are so chaotic and whose suffering is so terrible that it’s very difficult for them even to engage, let alone learn about, much of what’s going on in the world. I’m not talking about those people whom the operation of this system grinds down and subjects to so much horror that, on their own, they are really deprived of even the opportunity to learn about and to engage the larger world. I’m talking about people who have every opportunity to do so but, either with a malignant (or virulent) mentality, or in a more “benign” but nevertheless oblivious way, choose not to pay attention to these things. I’m not necessarily opposed to people watching some videos or YouTubes of cats playing the violin (and similar things on the internet), but if that kind of thing is your preoccupation—let alone if snark and tearing down other people on the internet is your preoccupation—then, obviously, this is something any decent person should be very concerned about and strongly oppose and struggle sharply against.
4. REVOLUTION AND RELIGION: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion; A Dialogue Between CORNEL WEST & BOB AVAKIAN (2015). The film of this dialogue is available at revcom.us/avakian/ba-important-works-en.html. [back]
* * *
From Hope for Humanity on a Scientific Basis
Parasitism, American Chauvinism, and Individualism
Interestingly, in an article about privacy and the problems that the internet poses for people in terms of having any privacy (“Just a Face in the Crowd? Not Anymore”),5 the authors of the article, Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger, refer to this as a “status‑obsessed culture,” and they particularly talk about how this is a problem in terms of people having any privacy because people want to use the internet to boost their status all the time: “Look at me doing this, look at me doing that,” and so on, and so forth. But this phrase, I think, is very apropos, is a very relevant and meaningful phrase: a “status‑obsessed culture.” This is what’s been continually encouraged through the major institutions of this society, and it is a particular variant, obviously, of the widespread individualism, both virulent and oblivious.
And this goes along with the coupling of individualism and commodification, a phenomenon whose essence is captured very well in the incessant promotion, the undisguised and unapologetic promotion, of the “brand.” Everywhere you turn you hear: “Oh, this is really gonna be good for developing her ‘brand’”; “Oh, they really have been very creative in how they’ve pumped up their ‘brand.’” You can’t turn around anywhere without hearing the word “brand” used in this kind of way. And this goes along, of course, with the glorification of entre‑manure‑ialism—which objectively amounts to the attempt to get in on the exploitation of people, becoming part of the overall process resting to a large degree on super‑exploitation of masses of people, including children, in the Third World.
All this is very much bound up with the parasitism of American society, which (as explained in Breakthroughs…) refers to the fact that an increasingly globalized capitalism:
…relies to a very great degree for production and for maintaining the rate of profit on a vast network of sweatshops, particularly in the Third World of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, while capitalist activity in the capitalist‑imperialist “home countries” is increasingly in the realm of finance and financial speculation, and the “high end” of (not the production of the basic physical materials for) high tech, as well as the service sector and the commercial sphere (including the growing role of online marketing). As Lenin phrased it, this puts “the seal of parasitism” on the whole of societies such as the U.S.
5. Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger, “Just a Face in the Crowd? Not Anymore,” New York Times, April 18, 2019. [back]
* * *
From Hope For Humanity On A Scientific Basis.
Identity Politics and Individualism
As pointed out in “All Played Out,”6 there is the “politics of ‘identity’ that really comes back down to me.” We see all the time that, even while this identity is associated with a group, in fundamental terms it’s really about “me” and “mine”; it is posed, at least objectively and often consciously, against other people, even other bitterly oppressed people, in a way that smacks of disgusting individualism and petty rivalry based on that outlook. Along with this, there is the whole phenomenon of “woke” parasitism and seeking “safe” privileged enclaves within, and on the basis of, the depredations and exploitation by this imperialist system of the masses of people of the world as well as the environment.
“Identity politics” distorts, corrupts, misdirects and undermines the exposure of and the needed struggle against what are, in fact, horrific forms of oppression. In this connection, let’s contrast experience in the 1960s vs. today’s phenomena of “triggering” and trauma.
Back in the 1960s, drawing from my own experience, I remember that, in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964, the culmination and the high point of that struggle was when there was a massive sit‑in, in the administration building on the Berkeley campus. Hundreds of people sat in and refused to leave until their demands were met. Ultimately, 800 were forcibly ejected from the building and arrested when the governor (the Democratic Party governor) of the state called out not only the local police, but the county sheriffs and the state police to come in and roust us out of the administration building. We were confronted with these police who were roughly arresting people—grabbing people, particularly women, by the hair and throwing them down the stairs as a way of evicting them from the administration building. Well, it strikes me now, in looking back on this, that the one thing we forgot to do, in the face of this, was to say: “Wait, you’re triggering us. You can’t do this. You’re causing us trauma.” I’m sure that would have worked to prevent the police from acting in that brutal manner.
Or, when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, together with others who made up the first members of the Black Panther Party, carried out their armed patrols against police brutality and murder, and they encountered police who threatened them and demanded that they put down their weapons (which the Panthers were legally carrying), well then, Huey and Bobby should have said to those pigs: “Stop—don’t you know you’re triggering and traumatizing us!” Yes, I’m sure that would have made the pigs back off.
Or, we can think about “Stop the Draft Week,” when thousands of people went to demonstrate at the Oakland induction center at the height of the struggle against the Vietnam war, in the effort to shut down the induction center (where people were conscripted—forced—into the U.S. military). People sat in, to block the doors. And the Oakland police, who are known for their racism and brutality going back generations, came in and brutally attacked people, and dragged them away in the most vicious manner. Well, it strikes me now that the real failing at that time was that, as those people were sitting in and the police were approaching, they should have said: “Stop! You’re triggering us.” I’m sure that would have stopped the police from brutally rousting people away from the doors.
And there are many other examples. Think about People’s Park in Berkeley, when, at its high point, there was a massive demonstration of tens of thousands in support of the seemingly modest demand to have a park in an area that the university wanted to turn into a parking lot. During the course of this struggle, people were shot by police and one of the demonstrators, James Rector, was killed as part of a police attack on a demonstration. And in addition to people being shot, the National Guard had been called out, and there were a number of us, hundreds, who went to the fence that the university and the authorities had put around the People’s Park area. The National Guard was stationed inside the fence, and many of us were at the fence, shaking it. Well, because the National Guard was armed and was being ordered to be prepared to shoot—that was very clear—the question for us was: Should we tear down this fence and face the fusillade of bullets coming at us for doing so? And people decided, in those circumstances, that this wasn’t the right thing to do. But obviously we were completely mis‑directed in those circumstances. We should have said to the commanders of the National Guard: “Not just pointing those guns at us, but just having those guns near us, is triggering us. You can’t do this. You have to stop this right now!”
Now, obviously, I’m being ironic here. But the point that comes through—and these examples are deliberately ludicrous to make the point—is that in any real struggle to deal with any real oppression, up against powerful enforcers of that oppression, you are going to have to face the prospect of real sacrifice, including the prospect of being physically attacked. And if you think that you can carve out little safe enclaves, and that this is somehow going to lead to any kind of significant change in society, you are full of illusions and delusions.
So, this is something important to understand. The trauma that results from directly suffering horrific forms of oppression and degradation is very real, and no one should deny or underestimate that—but, instead of an individual “turning inwards,” this needs to be transformed into anger and determination to be part of a collective struggle to put an end to all the atrocities, everywhere, whose fundamental source and cause is this system of capitalism‑imperialism. And, yes, this will require struggle and sacrifice. But it’s worth it, it’s what needs to happen.
6. “All Played Out,” a spoken word piece by Bob Avakian, with musical accompaniment by William Parker (Centeringmusic BMI, 2011) is available at revcom.us/avakian/ba-important-works-en.html and at soundcloud.com/allplayedout. [back]
* * *
From The Problem, the Solution, and the Challenges Before Us, 2017.
While it is right and necessary to unite with people broadly in opposing the injustices and outrages committed by those who rule this country, and while this has taken on heightened importance with the coming to power of the Trump/Pence fascist regime, it is a basic truth that without breaking with American chauvinism—without confronting the very real horror of what this country has been, and what it has done, here and all over the world, from its founding to the present—and without coming to deeply hate this, it is not possible, in the final analysis, to retain one’s own humanity and act in the highest interests of all humanity. [emphasis added here]
* * *
From The Truth About Right‑Wing Conspiracy…And Why Clinton and the Democrats Are No Answer, 1998.
[Bill] Clinton represents an attempt to deal with these acute and potentially explosive contradictions by giving a certain expression to “inclusiveness”—to “diversity” and “multi‑culturalism”—while retaining and fortifying the white supremacist and male supremacist relations that are an integral and indispensable part of the structure of U.S. capitalism‑imperialism. In line with this, Clinton has promoted a less absolutist version of the “traditional values” and the “Judeo‑Christian tradition” which has justified and reinforced the exploitative and oppressive relations on which this system is built.
But, in the view of Clinton’s conservative and particularly his fundamentalist opponents, Clinton’s program will not work and will only undermine the historically established girdings of the system, both in its economic base and in the superstructure of politics, culture and ideology—it will lead to the unraveling of the legitimating social “consensus” and social “cohesion” necessary to maintain this system. And the fact is that there are today in the U.S. broad numbers of people who, yes, participated in or were influenced by the movements of the ’60s and have a corresponding commitment to social justice and equality, and who are unwilling to go along with the notion that America has some inherent moral right and obligation to bully its way around the world and impose a world order under its domination. At the same time, there is the phenomenon that, in some important aspects, the “recovery” of the U.S. economy that has taken place during the Clinton administration, and the more highly “globalized” and “flexible” production that has been a marked feature of this “recovery,” has also contributed to “undermining the traditional family.” And it has fostered the florescence of an outlook, particularly (though not exclusively) among more highly paid professionals, that involves no small amount of self‑indulgence and, related to that, a weakening of some “traditional values,” including old‑style patriotism and the willingness to sacrifice for the officially defined and proclaimed “national interest.” [Emphasis—italics—added here]
In some significant ways, what was written 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto, concerning the consequences of unfettered bourgeois commodity relations, is assuming a pronounced expression among sections of the U.S. population in the context of today’s “post‑Cold War” world capitalism. The following phrases from the Manifesto have a particular and powerful resonance: “the bourgeoisie, wherever it has gotten the upper hand…has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self‑interest, than callous `cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value….In a word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” There is a great irony here: the very “triumph” and “triumphalism” of capitalism in today’s circumstances has produced effects and sentiments which tend to undermine, among significant sections of the U.S. population, the willingness to make personal sacrifices for “god and country”—that is, for the interests and requirements of the imperial ruling class, within the U.S. itself and in the world arena. In reaction to this, the “conservatives,” with the Christian Right playing a decisive role, are attempting to revive and impose precisely “the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism”—to resurrect a situation where worldwide exploitation that is unsurpassed in its brutality is at the same time “veiled by religious and political illusions.”