Chairman Bob Avakian：A Life of Revolution in a Country of Reaction
Chairman Bob Avakian：A Life of Revolution in a Country of Reaction
Chairman Bob Avakian：A Life of Revolution in a Country of Reaction
By RON JACOBS
Thirty-five years ago, the US left was involved in a transformation that ultimately resulted in its "balkanization" and (some would argue) disintegration. The phenomenon known as the New Left began this process during the years of 1968 and 1969. To this day, the 1969 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) national convention in Chicago stands not only as a metaphor for the Left's disintegration, it also marks a seminal event in the process. For those not familiar with the history of that meeting in Chicago, let me summarize. SDS met in June 1969 in Chicago. By this time, SDS had more than a hundred thousand members, making it the largest leftist organization in the United States. Its politics were anti-imperialist and somewhat Marxist, although anarchist currents existed in the organization, as well. During the convention, three ideological groupings became clear. One was led by the Progressive Labor faction and espoused a somewhat garbled Maoist philosophy, another was the Weatherman faction, also vaguely Maoist, but mostly a follower of third-world revolutionary nationalism, and the third dominant grouping was Marxist-Leninist. This latter grouping was originally known as Revolutionary Youth Movement 2 (RYM 2). As time progressed, RYM 2 splintered into smaller formations, with one of the largest organizations calling itself the Revolutionary Union (RU).
RU began in the San Francisco Bay Area under the leadership of Jane and Bruce Franklin and Bob Avakian. Of course, there were many other individuals who played important roles in the organization's founding and growth, but it was these three individuals who were arguably the most important. As Max Elbaum describes in his well-documented study of this period in the US Left, Revolution In the Air, there were a myriad of other groups involved in this new communist movement besides the RU and all of them were struggling with the problems associated with moving the revolutionary struggle forward in the United States. As we know, this struggle not only stumbled, it stumbled badly. To this day, there is no truly revolutionary organization (or combination of organizations) in any of the popular movements that could claim the numbers or the influence that the new communist movement exercised in the period from 1969 to 1977. In order to understand why this is so, interested folks need to examine the past.
So, into this breach comes an autobiography of Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party of the USA (RCP-USA). Yes, that RCP. The ones who show up at protests in most major US cities to sell their paper, The Revolutionary Worker, and make a hell of a lot of noise despite their small numbers. That RCP. The party organization that came out of the RU back in 1975, when its members finalized their original program and constitution after months of debate, arguments, individual departures, and group realignments. The RCP that anarchists satirize, Trotskyites stay away from, and liberals just don't comprehend.
Avakian's book, From Ike to Mao, is part autobiography, part left history, and part political dogma. Like the title suggests, Bob Avakian was just another US kid who came of age in the 1950s and turned to radical politics as he grew older and more appalled at the differences between what he had been told about his country as a child and its actual practices that he learned of as he grew older. Like Ron Kovics' story of radicalization, Born on the Fourth of July, Avakian's tale is about lies and murder, awareness and reaction, and ultimately commitment. Like Kovics, Avakian's first love as a kid was sports. Indeed, he muses that he probably would have become a basketball coach if the world had not called him to revolution. Like Kovics, Avakian came from an immigrant family trying desperately to become "American." Unlike Kovics (who grew up on Long Island), Avakian grew up in a geographical hotbed of radical activity and ferment. Is this why he came to a realization about the true nature of US policy before he was twenty-one? One reads his book and can see Avakian's tendencies towards revolutionary thought in his youthful desire to get to the root of things. One can also see his sense of certitude (that at times borders on self-righteousness)-a sense that is arguably necessary for a revolutionary to possess, yet also added to the sectarianism that helped splinter the left as the 1970s progressed.
I was an ally and eventual member of RU's youth organization from late 1973 through the fall of 1975. This group originally called the Attica Brigades and then known as the Revolutionary Student Brigades (RSB), was a leftist anti-imperialist organization. We worked for an NLF victory in Vietnam and against the Shah of Iran. Our numbers were probably never more than a couple thousand nationwide, but we made a hell of a lot of noise. Politically, we were a mixed bag of Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, anarchists, and others who leaned towards revolution but away from labels. In other words, we were a lot like the rest of the US Left at the time. RU was but one of many groups vying for our allegiance. We read their Red Papers publications and discussed them in meetings, study groups and bars. In addition, we discussed other groups' theoretical works like the Weather Underground's Prairie Fire statement, and the works of Mao, Lenin, Marx, and Stalin. Some of us went to national meetings and protests; others organized locally, and some did both. In between meetings called to organize against the war or faculty and staff cutbacks at state universities we also met to discuss the RU project that evolved into the RCP. These discussions seemed endless at times and quite purposeful at other times. I never joined the RCP for a couple of reasons, but continue to follow their thoughts and actions.
One of the most difficult decisions of the RU for me centered around the issue of busing in the city of Boston in 1974 and 1975. The newspapers showed pictures of racist attacks on Black kids who just wanted to go to school weekly. RU was opposed to school busing in Boston. This decision resulted in the RU aligning itself with some of the most racist individuals in Boston. Although RU's reasoning for their decision was quite different than the reasoning used by the racists, the result was that RU often found itself on the same side of the lines drawn in that city as the racist elements. Avakian addresses the decision, discusses his difficulty with it at the time, and calls it wrong. Like many radicals who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, opposing white supremacy was fundamental to Avakian's political development. The decision to oppose the Boston attempt to desegregate the city's schools failed to take into account the specific nature of US white supremacy and this made the decision flawed at its core. Like other early stances of the RCP, their stance on busing stemmed from the RU/RCP's perception of the US working class as white and male and acknowledges the mistakes made as a result of that perception. Some of those mistakes included their stance on homosexuality, youth culture, and unmarried couples living together-all of which they opposed as being ultimately bourgeois. The arguments made by Avakian throughout the book indicate the logic of following ideological doctrine. Acts can be rationalized that would otherwise appall the person doing the rationalization and, likewise, mistakes are made when the doctrine itself is based on an incorrect understanding of the situation.
From Ike to Mao takes the reader inside the RU and the RCP. Even if one has no love at all for the RCP and other vanguardist groupings, this book is an insider's view of what life is like inside a revolutionary organization in the world's most imperial nation. It is a fast-paced yet detailed description of radical organizing during one of the US's most rebellious periods. Sure, it is one man's view and remembrances that appear on these pages, but it is his story, after all. To Avakian's credit, this is not just a history book, nor is it mere rhetoric. It is a learning document that makes for a fascinating read. If you like political biography like me, it even makes for an enjoyable one. Rarely egotistical, Avakian's story is alternately fascinating and commonplace. In other words, it is a reasonably honest and plainspoken story of Bob Avakian's life and the organizations with which he is most closely identified.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs' essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch's new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at:
Posted: 2007-10-10 04:08 |
Berkeley: Memoir follows author's road to communism
Rick DelVecchio, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005
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Bob Avakian has devoted his life to the one ideology that he believes holds the promise of massively releasing human freedom and dignity. The ideology is communism.
Berkeley-bred Avakian's new memoir, "From Ike to Mao and Beyond," leaves a breathtaking impression. Having deepened and purified his convictions over 40 years of personal and political struggle, Avakian sounds a high, sustained cry for complete social transformation almost as if he were the trumpet of Lenin himself.
It's as if democratic capitalism's triumph in the 20th century was history's biggest mistake, a tragic wrong turn from the revolutionary road marked out by Lenin in the Russia of 1917 after the writings of Marx and by Mao in the China of the 1950s and 60s. Unswervingly, Avakian holds that road and is esteemed by fellow revolutionaries as the marathon man of the international anti-imperialist struggle.
Avakian, 62, a veteran of the Free Speech Movement and other upheavals of the Bay Area in the 1960s, makes an unqualified case for Marxism-Leninism as a fertile thought system that's as alive now as it was when the two revolutionary masterminds created it to answer what they saw as capitalism's fundamental inhumanity.
But although Avakian is a devotee of Marx and Lenin, he's also respected in revolutionary circles for his ground-breaking criticism of communist methods. More evolutionary than revolutionary, his nondogmatic communism tolerates contradiction, welcomes dissent and demands the participation of artists and intellectuals in creating a classless society.
"Marxism is not a scripture, it's not a religious dogma," Avakian writes. "It's a scientific approach to reality."
New York's Insight Press is debuting Avakian's paperback in Berkeley on May 6. A diverse host committee made up of people who welcome Avakian as an alternative voice will present the work. Although the author has elected not to appear, give press interviews or even disclose where he lives, his representatives say he wants the book to contribute to a renewed dialogue about Marxism and political theory in general.
"I think that Bob Avakian has taken the whole idea and conception of communism to another level -- he's revived the communist project, if you will, going beyond Marx, Lenin and Mao in some really important ways," said Lenny Wolff, who wrote the memoir's introduction.
"At the same time, there's a lot of other folks who are not communist but who are also trying to help him get heard because, from their own varied viewpoints, they think this is someone whose story and ideas and critical stance are extremely timely," he said.
Avakian's representatives said the author is eager to have his views more widely discussed but wants to stay out of sight because he fears government harassment. He fled America in 1981 amid what he describes in the book as a suffocating climate of intolerance.
"Events like this Berkeley program are one important means to get the news of this memoir out there and in that way introduce him, so to speak, to people," Wolff said. "However, we are also acutely aware of what this government does to revolutionary leaders once they begin to win a hearing."
The first half of the book traces Avakian's four-square upbringing and swift political development from pre-adolescence. The second half shows him reclaiming Leninism as he turns aside the conservatism of the old-line Communist Party, the pragmatism of trade unionism, the revolutionary exhaustion of the Black Panthers after their prime and the anti-leadership tendencies of the New Left.
Following what he is convinced is the correct line, he joins with two fellow Bay Area radicals to form the Revolutionary Union in the late 60s. He expands the organization nationally in 1970 in a bid to create a vanguard for a renewed communist movement.
But America in the '70s goes right instead of left. Ronald Reagan is elected president. Under surveillance for his political activities and grieving a fellow revolutionary's murder in Chicago, Avakian goes into exile in France and assumes the chairmanship of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, a Maoist group intent on radical social transformation in "the colossus of late imperial America."
Today, Avakian remains party chairman and is perhaps best known as a prolific, uncompromising contributor to The Revolutionary Worker newspaper. In one his latest articles, he says the polarized conditions in America today are similar to those in the 1840s and 1850s, and he predicts a new civil war.
"I have a very profound hatred, and I don't hesitate to say it, for this system," Avakian says on a CD that his publisher has distributed with the book.
The grandchild of Armenian immigrants who settled in Fresno to farm, Avakian enjoyed a warm and familial childhood. His mother taught him compassion and sacrifice. The late Alameda County Superior Court judge Spurgeon Avakian, who was changed by his experiences of discrimination as a person of Armenian descent, showed his son about fighting injustice.
Fresno at the time was split by a freeway, with blacks, Latinos and Asians segregated on one side. When the family moved to Berkeley, Avakian learned more about discrimination from African American friends.
Young Avakian's religious beliefs and patriotism were deeply felt. He tells of saying the Pledge of Allegiance as a 9- or 10-year-old and wanting to fall to his knees in gratitude for "not living in one of those awful countries that so many people seem to have had the misfortune of being born in." Sticking with Eisenhower even though his parents went over to Adlai Stevenson, he was absorbed in TV coverage of the 1952 Republican presidential convention.
In short, young Avakian was very much a child of what he calls the naively optimistic America of the '50s. His mainstream roots went deep, which is one of the critical ideas in a memoir that features a cover photo of the teen-aged Avakian in a Wally Cleaver moment as he spins a 45 on the hi-fi. Avakian loved the harmonies of doo-wop and sang with black friends in his own vocal group.
But devotion to mainstream values gave way to skepticism. A milestone on the way to Avakian's transformation to radicalism was discovering that President Kennedy lied when he used the U.N. Charter to justify a naval blockade in response to the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. Classmates at UC Berkeley wondered why he was so aloof the day the president was shot.
Other kids listened to The Beatles and Dylan. Avakian listened to the speeches of Malcolm X. When the sports-loving, doo-wop-singing kid started making Malcolm-esque pronouncements spiced with Richard Pryor-type humor, he had begun his life's quest.
"I always thought that if I hadn't ended up being a communist," Avakian writes, "I would have been a high school basketball coach -- but I was feeling that my life should be about something more than sports."
At first drawn to the Panthers and other radical groups at the time, Avakian turned to communism under the tutelage of a disaffected old-line Communist Party member. He took the revolution to Richmond, organizing workers and poor people -- the proletariat -- against the bourgeoisie. He read to them from a popular book about village life in China before Mao's revolution.
Meanwhile, disgusted with sectarianism and dogmatism in the ranks, Avakian pushed his fellow radicals to stop fighting each other, think big and stay the revolutionary course.
He went to China in 1971 and was awed by Mao's Cultural Revolution. "We saw truly wondrous things," he writes. He came home convinced that revolutionary change could take place in American society as a scientific process.
There were setbacks large and small. Avakian recounts an episode where his old radical mate Eldridge Cleaver of the Panthers lit up a joint and said, "Look brother, we've seen all the revolution we're gonna see." In China, Mao died and what replaced his revolution looked to Avakian like capitalism in disguise.
Fighting on after Mao, Avakian and his party rediscovered the writings of Lenin. Especially influential was "What Is To Be Done?'', which argues that class consciousness, not economic need, is at the heart of the worker revolution.
In the book, Avakian is at his most provocative when he assesses Stalin and Mao. He applauds Stalin for leading the first historical experience in building socialism, the Soviet Union, under difficult circumstances. Although he refers to Stalin's mistakes, he makes no mention of the millions who died under the Soviet dictatorship and insists upon a balanced view.
"If the bourgeoisie and its political representatives can uphold people like Madison and Jefferson," he writes, "then the proletariat and its vanguard forces can and should uphold Stalin, in an overall sense and with historical perspective."
Book release event
"From Ike to Mao and Beyond," a memoir by Bob Avakian, 7 p.m. May 6, King Middle School, 1781 Rose St. (at Grant), Berkeley. $5-10. (510) 848-1196. The book is available at independent bookstores and through the publisher, Insight Press, at
Contact Rick DelVecchio at
This article appeared on page F - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle
photo:Avakian speaks at a rally in Washington, DC, in May of 1979.
Posted: 2007-10-10 04:11 |
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