Essay — From the February 2016 issue

Left of Bernie

You say you want a revolution

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In the fall of 2014, I attended a public dialogue on “Revolution and Religion” between Bob Avakian, chairman and cofounder of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and Cornel West, professor of philosophy and activist, billed on this occasion as a “Revolutionary Christian.” The event was held at Riverside Church in New York City and supported by a host committee of professors, theologians, and artists, as well as two parents whose children were killed by New York police. Alice Walker provided an endorsement, as did Ed Asner, whose depiction of the event as “a consummation to be wished for” appeared in a full-page ad in the New York Times. A contingent of protesters from Ferguson, Missouri, attended as well, their travel expenses offset by a bake sale. Organizers promised a rare opportunity to hear Avakian, who has led the R.C.P. from self-imposed exile in France since 1981, but the real rush would come from hearing the words “capitalism” and “revolution” — and “Marxism” too — spoken in the same resonant space where Martin Luther King Jr. once stood to denounce the Vietnam War.

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Although some were calling Avakian an opportunist for latching on to West, his was an opportunism stunningly contemptuous of opportunity. The majority of Avakian’s remarks on “revolution and religion” consisted of a critique of the kind of bibliolatry I cannot imagine more than five members of the audience subscribed to. The people of the Bible practiced slavery and lived in a patriarchal culture, he explained, one in which wives were lumped with cows and donkeys among the chattels that a devout man was commanded not to covet. Jesus, by virtue of being addressed as “rabbi,” belonged to the power structure of this same benighted culture.

Given the topic and the setting, I would have expected Avakian to at least have spent some time critically discussing the role religion might play, and has played, in abetting what he and his party have so far failed to abet, which is a successful mass movement. Instead, and as he has done repeatedly in his writings, Avakian stressed the “scientific” nature of true socialism, an emphasis he takes from Marx and Engels, pickled in the formaldehyde of nineteenth-century progressivism, with all the nasty bits of Eurocentric arrogance and ecological recklessness floating in the same jar. To his lasting credit, Avakian has never claimed that neuroscience explains the Paris Commune. Then again, if you want to forgo all faith in favor of the fossil evidence, the most plausible theory going is Calvin’s doctrine of innate depravity, with Chairman Mao and his cohort having contributed no small portion of the lab work.1

1 The R.C.P. regards the Chinese Cultural Revolution as “the furthest advance of human emancipation yet” and any assertion to the contrary as “bourgeois slander.”

Since my own revolutionary sentiments derive mainly from my religious convictions, I was naturally happier with the presentation from Cornel West, whose rhetorical power alone was “evidence of things not seen.” I could gladly have shouted “Amen” when he exhorted his coreligionists to be “crossbearers instead of flag-wavers,” though I couldn’t help but recall Orwell’s observation that “it is exactly the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes.” Not that West came off as a flincher. He warned of the possibility that America might slide into fascism, but when someone in the crowd called out that it already had, he wryly observed that if such were the case, the Revolutionary Communist Party would not exist.

West’s opening remarks took about twenty minutes. Avakian, who spoke first, talked in excess of two hours. Possibly an hour passed before someone called out from the rear of the nave: “You’re not talking about revolution and religion!” Other protests followed intermittently — shouts of “Equal time!” — but without effect. A reporter sitting in the pew behind me muttered, “We may get to see the revolution right now.” It was almost as if Avakian, bored with mere description, had decided to give us a vision of capitalism personified: hoarding the goods, hawking the brand, appropriating cultural spaces with no regard for their history and traditions, stupendously oblivious not only to protests against its excesses but also to its own penchant for self-sabotage.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent essay for the magazine, as well as the book that followed, was entitled “Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher” (September 2011).

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