“What is ethical thinking in a time of social fragmentation and imperialist globalization? Bob Avakian convincingly argues that moriality has to be tied to a vision of a good society, a society free of exploitation and every form of domination. Even more does morality have to do with the struggle to create such a society. Avakian points the way toward what some doubt is possible, a materialist ethics. Like Mao’s, this is a Marxism that aims at a social analysis that is clear and systematic but not ‘cold’—a Marxism with heart.”– Bill Martin, Associate Professor of Philosophy, DePaul University, Chicago
“For this clergyman who has struggled with the relevance of the Biblical faith in the face of the crises in our society, the critique of Bob Avakian comes as an urgent challenge. His thoughtful analysis underlines the urgency of recognizing how shallow has been our understanding and how futile has been much of our effort to work for a just society. There is insight and truth-speaking in this vital book which those of us of religious faith need to hear and to which we need to respond.”– Reverend George W. Webber, Professor of Urban Ministry and President Emeritus
Statement from a professor about using Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones by Bob Avakian in his course
We teachers are always looking for new material that will challenge assumptions and bring students to think about the world in creative and unaccustomed ways. I am suggesting to you that Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones: We Need Morality but not Traditional Morality by Bob Avakian is one such text. My experience with the book over a number of years has been very positive, opening students to avenues of thought about contentious subjects of great importance and immediacy.
I use the text in a communications course that aims to develop interpersonal, writing and speaking skills. The course fulfills a speech requirement at Columbia College Chicago and attracts a politically and culturally diverse cross section of students. The course calls upon students to develop their skills by communicating over non trivial matters. The Avakian book both anchors that claim upon their attention and provides an opening to other authors with very different perspectives than Avakian’s.
The book steps into this burning question, the moral crisis in the U.S., a crisis tearing at the fabric of society and threatening to convulse it, from Avakian’s own revolutionary communist perspective. From there, he gives a nuanced identification of the terms of this crisis and situates it in contemporary history—the unresolved conflicts of the 60s, the new demographics, accelerated globalization… the book traces the dynamics that have brought the country to this polarized, tense, uncertain place, and moving in a disastrous direction. Students consistently express appreciation for having been drawn into a careful and focused consideration of moral and political issues, personal and important to them, but which, for different reasons, have remained in many ways unexamined, especially from a perspective unfamiliar to them.
There are four staging areas in the book. The first is the perspective of the right wing Christian conservatives represented by William Bennett of The Book of Virtues (and gambling) notoriety, and their traditional morality drawn from a literal interpretation of the Bible. The second is the liberal, progressive terrain represented by Jim Wallis, whose recent offering God’s Politics develops his call for a new conservative/liberal moral consensus based mainly on the prophetic tradition of the Scripture. Third, there is Karen Armstrong, whose new book, The Great Transformation, The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, further explores her contention that there is in human beings a natural religious impulse that must be taken into account in expressing any viable morality. Finally, Avakian goes against the tide even among many Marxists to elaborate a communist morality, its historical basis, and its implications for the possibilities of the future. It is from this perspective that he gives a blistering expose of Bennett’s “virtues,” and finds much to agree with in the orientation of Wallis and Armstrong even as he criticizes their views on human nature and where they find a morality for the future.
Students are challenged to make decisive theoretical distinctions, to do materialist historical analysis, and from there, to draw practical conclusions. Avakian surprises them with the assertion that the problem of morality is not a loss of spiritual moorings, as with Wallis, but in the capitalist system itself. These kinds of conflicts in position represented by Wallis and Avakian encourage the students to think through, formulate and express their own positions, including doubts, misgivings, uncertainties. Where do moral norms come from, anyway? Who says we are at a turning point in history? How can you know anything with any certitude?
Students like the way Avakian extends the discussion, as he argues his position. They make comments to the class like, “The Avakian reading was very thought provoking.” And, “Reading Avakian’s views on revolution along with reading the NY Times coverage on North Korea has made me think a lot about the role of government and the people who own these nuclear weapons.”
One student wrote recently, “Bob Avakian leads us through a seemingly complex maze of thoughts, facts, and projections as a way to make room for growth within society. Taking a second glance through, his message is simple…”
The book is a pedagogical assist to combat the double cultural plague of on the one hand, dumbing down content, and on the other, lowering sights about possibilities. The injunction given to them to not even think about the possibility of a different world. But there is another, contradictory mood that is afoot, expressed by a student this way, as she reflected upon Pulpit: “Everyone I talk to can feel it in the air. Something big is on the horizon, and a lot of people want to be a part of it.” The conversations in the classroom, their speeches and writings, based upon different and conflicting readings, elevate the level of discourse.
Avakian moves into sensitive areas like where people find meaning, how they make sense out of life, and how cultural norms affect needs and wants. He provides substance to lively discussions and debates over very personal convictions, as well as over things students never knew about or thought about in any systematic way.
Another angle on Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones is that it takes head on the accusations of propagandizing outside the subject matter leveled at progressive professors by David Horowitz, the author of The Professor: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, who is on a mission to crush critical thinking on campuses and beyond. The book represents opposing positions and welcomes and encourages a careful reading of those positions, especially challenging students to read the Bible. In my course, I require reading from the Bible, from Bennett, Pat Robertson, and Clarence Thomas, as well as from Avakian, Wallis, and Armstrong.
Students conclude the course with many different thoughts about Avakian and what he has to say, some very positive, some very negative, and some mixed. But they leave with a broader and more critical perspective, and a clearer idea of where they stand on the issue of morality, and why and what remains unsettled in their thoughts. As one student who is continuing to explore his works put it, “I have a love/hate relationship with Avakian.”
This is a thin book but packed, and stylistically innovative in the way in which the author deploys contradictory movements even in sentence structure. It is a multilayered text, worth your examination. Many current and controversial themes work their way through the book, including a refutation of Wallis’s assertion that communism has proven itself a failure. These themes intersect with the book’s central crucial consideration for the people of the world: the moral crisis in the U.S. today and how it will be resolved.
The author, Bob Avakian, is a Marxist at the theoretical tip of current social theory.
Professor, Columbia College, Chicago