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.

You can tell that the capitalist system is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism.” Or when people on budgets even tighter than mine are ready to shell out the hardcover price for books such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century or Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right, from which the quote above is taken. You can tell that the capitalist system is in trouble when people who could say with Leon Trotsky that by “natural inclination” they are “rather conservative” in their “habits” and “cannot endure disorder or destruction” — people of my temperament, in other words — begin to throw around a word like “revolution.”

The word was very much in evidence, proclaimed on T-shirts and bumper stickers, when I attended a New Hampshire rally for self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders last summer. Sanders remains steadfast in his belief that the march to plutocracy can be halted by an electoral process in which his average donation, as reported and loudly cheered at the rally, is $31.20. Which is not to say his call for a “political revolution” is a mere figure of speech. At the New Hampshire rally, he flatly stated that his arrival in the Oval Office would change nothing unless “millions of people stand together and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ” One could hear this as the prescription for a mass movement.

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

To the R.C.P., of course, Sanders’s long-standing commitment to what any self-respecting Communist would dismiss as “bourgeois democracy” makes real revolution impossible. It was on the basis of that dismissal that Bob Avakian, then twenty-five, and three fellow radicals founded the Bay Area Revolutionary Union, soon shortened to Revolutionary Union, in 1968. The R.U. was an early formation within what came to be called the New Communist Movement, though the latter was never a coordinated group. As chronicled in Max Elbaum’s 2002 Revolution in the Air, the N.C.M. groups found common ground in their opposition to the old Communist Party U.S.A., which they saw as having betrayed the cause of revolution in order to follow the “revisionist” line of Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. “No united action with revisionism,” Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party had declared, and many of the N.C.M. groups, including the Revolutionary Union, followed the Maoist lead.

Disillusioned with what they saw as the motley radicalism of groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.), they took for their model the orthodox Leninist idea of a vanguard party. At first the Revolutionary Union modestly insisted that it was merely a pre-party experiment; the true vanguard party, like the revolution it would help to guide, was yet to come. As Elbaum’s title suggests, the idea that a second American revolution was possible, even imminent, was very much “in the air” — and very much on the radar of the FBI, which took extraordinary steps to infiltrate the R.U. and other groups like it.

Several schisms later, the organization changed its name in 1975 to the Revolutionary Communist Party, a move that implied its assumption of vanguard status. By 1980 no fewer than six “anti-revisionist groups,” one of them roughly a hundred members strong, had declared themselves the vanguard party of the proletariat. To this day the R.C.P. maintains its vanguardist pretensions, along with staunch opposition to any “reformist” gains that might be accomplished through the electoral process. While acknowledging a sympathy with its nominal comrades in North Vietnam, the old R.U. decided not to support George McGovern’s antiwar presidential campaign of 1972. Nor did the R.C.P. support Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, or the Equal Rights Amendment. The R.C.P. would, however, eventually abandon its stand on homosexuality (as a disorder arising out of capitalism), in which the party was hardly alone among other leftist groups, and its opposition to court-ordered busing to integrate Boston’s public schools, in which it had few allies beyond the angrier whites in Boston. The party’s position was that busing sidestepped rather than addressed the root causes of racism and class inequality, and that the Equal Rights Amendment was “a ruling-class trick.”

The last major split in the party occurred after the death of Mao. Some R.C.P. cadres were willing to support the new Chinese regime, but Avakian insisted that the disgraced Gang of Four represented Mao’s authentic legacy against reactionary forces determined to lead China toward capitalism. He was more prescient than prudent. In 1979 he and a handful of his followers were arrested in Washington, D.C., at an unruly protest against the visiting Deng Xiaoping. Given what we now know about FBI infiltration, it’s possible government provocateurs were at work; given what the R.C.P. was becoming, it’s also possible the provocations were entirely its own. Facing criminal charges (including felony assault on a police officer), which were eventually dropped, Avakian fled to France.

Over the years he has churned out a number of books and theoretical treatises, and advanced a New Synthesis of Communism, which purports to take the Marxist-Leninist tradition beyond its previous mistakes. Yes, Communist regimes have made grievous errors, his argument goes, but if Thomas Jefferson’s slave quarters do not disqualify him for veneration as a founder of American democracy, then does the gulag preclude a qualified veneration of Stalin?

2 A little Lenin would go a long way here. “I find it difficult to read the papers,” the lionized Bolshevik complained to a visitor shortly before his death. “Wherever you look, they write about me. I consider this completely un-Marxist emphasis on an individual extremely harmful. It is bad, entirely inadmissible, and unnecessary. And these portraits? Everywhere! What is the purpose of all this?”

What the R.C.P. has come to be best known for, however, is its unqualified veneration of Bob Avakian. He contends that the creation of a personality cult around his leadership was both deliberate and strategically desirable. The party newspaper and website refer to him as “a rare and precious leader,” a “best friend to the masses.” One of the party’s recent projects is a promotional campaign called BA Everywhere, which includes the streets of Ferguson, where R.C.P. cadres marched in Tshirts emblazoned with the words ba speaks.2

In the days following the West–Avakian event, Riverside Church issued a formal statement regretting that “the event organizers did not hold to the original dialogue format they had proposed.” An organization called Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (E.M.A.J.), with which several members of the host committee are affiliated, posted a response to the event on its website that criticized “what we witnessed at Riverside: one white revolutionary lecturing for more than two hours while a Black revolutionary sat on the stage. This is not what revolution looks like in the U.S.”

One certainly hopes not, though it’s fair to say that this typifies what revolution has looked like almost every time it’s happened, and that in the light of “what we witnessed at Riverside,” the revolutionary educators might want to rethink their vocabulary. I was certainly rethinking mine. Of what do revolutions consist if not a seizing of the chance and a hogging of the microphone? They are not about who holds the gavel; they are about who holds the gun. The R.C.P. may not be the vanguard of the proletariat, but it was definitely the vanguard of the masses gathered at Riverside Church that night, the party whose auxiliaries had drawn up the program, put out the word, lined up the signatories, screened the guests for weapons, and then, at the appointed signal, taken total charge of the show.

My running joke with Annie Day, the self-described “R.C.P. supporter” who had invited me to the Riverside Church event, is that I’m the sort of unregenerate petty-bourgeois type that her comrades, should they ever seize power, would have no choice but to shoot. She laughs, but says my sarcasm is based on stereotypes that do not apply. And indeed, in his New Synthesis of Communism, Bob Avakian insists that the Communist society he envisions would have a cherished place for dissent. “A solid core with a lot of elasticity” is how he likes to put it, the solid core provided by the party and its leadership — though a typographically emphatic statement in the party newspaper calls for “not giving a millimeter of space to those who slander and personally attack BA,” which doesn’t sound like a whole lot of elasticity to me.

Annie and I meet for breakfast the day after the event. Like others from her crew I later talked to, she is focused, upbeat, and kind. One can choose to see this as the congeniality common to people in proselytizing mode, though I prefer to see it as the serenity common to people so radically committed that they no longer need an attitude to convince themselves they’re real.

Now in her thirties, Annie aligned herself with the R.C.P. at the age of nineteen. Although she says she grew up knowing Revolution Books, the party’s bookstore in New York, and the people who hung out there, I don’t get the sense that she was groomed for the party. During high school she led a student protest against the first Gulf War, but after graduation she waited tables, got into photography, took a trip abroad — she could have been any of a million young women in America. One evening she heard a woman speak at Revolution Books about going to Shanghai “when China was socialist” and walking the streets at night without fear. The remark was an epiphany for Annie. “So much of my life had been about walking home.”

Then she read Avakian’s work. “It was mind-blowing for me,” she says. “I’ve always been an atheist. And I remember thinking, I’ve only got one life on this planet. It better have meaning.” She began to involve herself in various activist campaigns, for abortion rights and Mumia Abu-Jamal. She was pondering a second trip abroad when someone halted her with a question: At whose expense? “And I had to re-confront what life to lead. Am I going to put my toe into some radical shit or am I really going to follow through?”

Annie will not tell me about her first meeting with Avakian, but it’s clear that she considers him on the same level of importance as Marx and Engels. She does tell me that one of the things that impresses her most about her mentor is his lack of “world-weary cynicism. Avakian doesn’t have any of that.”

I do, I’m afraid, and some of it comes from having met more than a few Pied Pipers in my time. Avakian may be a “rare and precious leader,” but his style of leadership is hardly unique.3 I ask Annie what will happen when the seventy-two-year-old Avakian dies. She says the party constitution will guide the choosing of a successor, but it’s clear to me that my question is painful to her. And why shouldn’t it be? Wanting to avoid another in the same vein, I resist asking why, in a forum on Communist revolution, there was virtually no discussion of organized labor. The absence of any union leader on the host committee seemed a screaming omission. Finally, I blurt out that in more than four hours of discussion, the word “union” was used only once.

3 In her 2004 book, Bounded Choice, Janja Lalich compares the inner workings of the Heaven’s Gate cult with those of a New Communist group called the Democratic Workers Party, on whose central committee she herself served. D.W.P. founder Marlene Dixon was also viewed by her followers as one of the greats of the Communist pantheon. Like Avakian, Dixon was an elusive figure whom some in the party never met and few ever saw. Faced with Dixon’s worsening alcoholism and increasingly bizarre behaviors, the D.W.P.’s central committee voted in 1985 to expel her from the party and then to dissolve it.

“That was probably Dr. West,” Annie says.

The certainty with which she supposes that the word “union” did not escape Avakian’s lips betrays none of the party’s principles, though it does obscure a significant part of its past. In its formative days, the Revolutionary Union was determined to make inroads among the industrial proletariat. Cadres took jobs and joined unions in key industries, including telecommunications, railroads, and mining. Their efforts to identify with the working class went so far as taking up country music and drinking large amounts of beer. One is reminded of the Jesuit missionaries in eighteenth-century China who were censured because in the eyes of the Vatican they had been acting more like Confucian scholars than Catholic priests, which to the Jesuits was the only authentic way, at least in China, of being Catholic priests. Something like the same principle held for the R.U. and for other groups within the New Communist Movement.

Eventually Avakian came to see his party’s “workerism” as a “wrong turn.” It smacked of “economism,” of seeking to improve conditions on the factory floor to the neglect of a more radical agenda. He found his corrective in Lenin, who noted that capitalists in imperialist countries are often able to bribe the labor “aristocracy” with reformist measures. The “ideal” revolutionary, Lenin said, “should not be the trade-union secretary but the tribune of the people,” which is what Avakian set out to be.4

4 Like their biblical counterparts, Leninist proof texts depend a great deal on who’s doing the proving. Lenin also said: “The party’s task is not to concoct some fashionable means of helping the workers, but to join up with the workers’ movement, to bring light into it, to assist the workers in the struggle they themselves have already begun to wage.”

It might be said he was merely following the curve. In 1953, when Avakian was ten years old, 34 percent of the American labor force was unionized. By the end of the Reagan–Bush years, the figure was less than half that. At present it hovers somewhere around 11 percent. In today’s high-tech global economy, the designation “worker” can sound almost as obsolete as many of the jobs workers used to do — as obsolete as Marxism, some would add.

Never mind that the working class is now estimated at 3.3 billion people worldwide. Never mind that even in Marx’s day and adoptive country (England), there were more workers in agriculture and domestic service than on the factory floor. Never mind that white-collar workers are now experiencing conditions usually associated with the proletariat. Never mind that capitalism has always been “global.” The slave trade was not a mom-and-pop operation.

“There’s been much wringing of hands about the ‘death of the labor movement,’ ” says Peter Olney, a labor organizer for forty-two years and a past organizing director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, historically one of the most left-leaning unions in the nation. “It’s important to recognize that the labor movement is still fourteen to fifteen million members, still the largest progressive force in this country that’s funded by its membership and run by working-class people who are elected by their fellow workers.” Olney points to a group like U.S. Labor Against the War, an affiliation of 186 labor organizations comprising several million members, as an example of a renewed internationalism within the labor movement.

5 For example, USLAW opposed Saddam Hussein’s 1987 law denying union rights to all public-sector workers, a provision Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, left intact, notwithstanding his abolition of many of the former regime’s other decrees.

Since its founding in 2003, at the start of the second Iraq War, USLAW has acted in solidarity with Iraqi trade unions,5 opposed militaristic policies abroad, and sought to reduce military spending at home. At the 2005 AFL-CIO convention, USLAW pushed for a resolution opposing the war. It passed, the first time in history that the AFL-CIO had taken a position against the deployment of U.S. troops anywhere in the world.

Michael Eisenscher, formerly USLAW’s national coordinator, gives part of the credit to “the American people changing how they look at the world. This economy does not work for the majority of people. The promise has been broken. And for some people it never worked. For most of the African-American community, it’s never worked.”

No stranger to leftist political movements, Eisenscher does not hold the Revolutionary Communist Party in much esteem. He sees it primarily as “a cult around Avakian.” But what about revolution? I ask him. Is it an option? He answers like a worker, or like the workers I grew up with, anyway. “Read the Constitution. When the majority of people no longer have confidence in the government, they have the right to create an alternative.” And might we come to a point where that needs to happen? “We’re long past the point where that needs to happen. But need is only one half of the question. You also need capacity, commitment, and majority support. We’re nowhere near to that.”

I ask Eisenscher whether organized labor will play a part in creating those requirements. “The labor movement is not a revolutionary movement,” he says. “It’s a reform movement. It’s a movement that throughout its existence has always sought to reform the conditions it’s working under. But in any radical transformation of society, working people are going to be at the point of the spear.”

It takes faith to think of spears when all one sees are splinters. “The U.S. left has always lacked unity,” says Carl Davidson, once the vice president and national secretary of S.D.S., later a leading figure in a New Communist group called the October League, and more recently in the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism as well as Progressive Democrats of America. After a lifetime of left activism, Davidson continues to see the formation of a classless society as “the North Star,” an achievement we’re not likely to see “for a couple hundred years.” For now, he says, very few of the people who identify with the left belong to some group, and as for organizing the left as a whole, “it’s like trying to organize a wheelbarrow full of frogs.”

A new generation of activists is willing to try. One of these is NTanya Lee, who after twenty years as a community organizer helped to found an organization called LeftRoots as “a space for people who have the same experiences of organizing everyday people” to meet with the aim of “making social change from below.” About two years old as of this writing, LeftRoots has more than fifty members in the San Francisco Bay Area chapter and claims a thousand “multi-tendency” affiliates around the country. Most members are in their twenties, thirties, and forties, though older members, some of them veterans of the New Communist Movement, have also found a place on the rolls.

“Reaganomics radicalized me,” says Lee, now forty-six. “I was a thirteen-year-old black free-lunch kid at the moment when Reagan said ketchup was a vegetable.” She came out as a “young dyke” when the right was first beginning to organize its antigay campaigns. Lee sees “radicalization on a personal level” as an essential part of her group’s ethos. “We like to root our analyses in the experiences of people in this country,” as opposed to the sorts of ideological “line struggles” that preoccupied and often split many of the New Communist groups. If you held a meeting to struggle over party line today, Lee tells me, most of those who showed up would be white, male, and over fifty. “And most of us are not at the place where we have the left literacy to engage in those struggles.”

As stated on its website, LeftRoots rejects “vanguardism and the associated practices of operating secretly within mass organizations while trying to control them; creating front groups; or being opportunist and leaching onto authentic mass struggles to avoid doing the hard work of building a real base.” Lee refuses to speak pejoratively of any left group currently in operation, though the list of “associated practices” comes pretty close to how others have described the recent activities of the R.C.P.

Notwithstanding Lee’s commitment to “the more democratic vision of twenty-first-century socialism,” to “a left that’s vibrant, relevant, and broad” — to something new, in other words — she speaks with reverence of her political forebears, especially “the black Communists who played really critical roles in addressing the suffering of black people. They weren’t in the university somewhere. They were on the streets with people. They were from the people. They were often not even literate. People my age and younger don’t have those traditions.” Even among the community organizers she has surveyed, three quarters of whom identify themselves as “anticapitalist,” many do not believe that there’s an alternative to capitalism. “You can’t start an explicitly left organization in our country and ignore that reality.”

It was difficult for me to converse with Lee and other young activists without the imaginary voice of Bob Avakian weighing in. These supposedly new approaches are nothing more than the warmed-over loosey-goosey power-to-the-people New Leftism that we Communists walked away from fifty years ago. If you want to succeed in any struggle against capitalism, you need a vanguard party, you need a correct party line, and you need a visionary leader at the helm.

These may be valid objections, but they prompt a retort at least as valid: Is the revolutionary rhetoric of far-left parties basically an expression of the fear of winning? For Yotam Marom, a former Occupy protester who now directs an activist-training initiative called the Wildfire Project, the question of winning is hardly academic. “If we don’t get powerful, we’re going to die. There’s no other way around it. If black communities in this country don’t get powerful, they’re going to die. If people under danger of foreclosure don’t get powerful, they’re going to be homeless. The climate crisis makes this a relevant question for nearly everyone. If the Movement isn’t capable of thinking about becoming its most powerful self, then it’s over.”

Unlike NTanya Lee and her scattered comrades in what Yotam Marom still calls “the Movement,” I have no story to tell about how I was radicalized. The right to tell such a story costs dues I simply haven’t paid. The best I have is the story of how I came to be interested in other people’s stories of radicalization.

When I was eighteen years old, the summer before I started college, I worked in a glue factory. I did not go there to help make a revolution; I went there to make money for gas. It’s possible I also went to prove that I was tough enough to do the job. The glue was scalding when hot and hard to cut when cold. It was an easy place to get hurt.

The workers watched out for me as best they could, especially the de facto foreman. It was he who wrapped a tourniquet around my leg when my knife slipped, he who put out the word that whoever took the bag with “the youngblood’s street clothes” from the men’s room had better bring it back. I wore them home the next day.

Easygoing most of the time and quick to smile in spite of his missing front teeth, the foreman was intent to the point of obsession with “getting out my batches,” which he measured, mixed, and hefted with the arms of a god. Michelangelo would have loved to sculpt those arms. It took only seconds for one of them to turn from jet-black to oozing pink as he rushed to close the spout on a glue vat that had begun spewing one of his precious batches. He advanced holding up a piece of cardboard like a shield. I believe the factory owner paid for his visit to the emergency room. He had no health insurance. It goes without saying that he had no union.

This was in 1971. Several years earlier, a young Bob Avakian, ten years my senior and already older than I’m ever likely to be, had moved from Berkeley to the working-class town of Richmond, California, where he would soon become involved in a strike against Standard Oil. His disenchantment with “workerism” was some years away.

I didn’t stay at the glue factory long enough to be disenchanted. When September came, I said my goodbyes and my thanks. Probably I said too much. “You’ll forget us, man,” one of the workers said, as another nodded in assent. Obviously, I did not forget them, but the question on my mind these days is how effectively I’ve remembered.

As one veteran leftist told me, meaning to deprecate no one but himself, to say that you’re a socialist and be in no party is something of a contradiction in terms. His remark made me queasy, as the word “party” always does. The problem with socialism is not, as Oscar Wilde reportedly said, that it takes up too many evenings but rather that it attracts too many people who don’t know what to do with their evenings. They scare me to death. But if I’m truly serious in my anticapitalism, I need to affiliate myself with some group. I see no way around it. Even a Sanders victory, much as I hope for one, will not let me off the hook. I need to find my own battalion, an outfit I can stomach that can also stomach me. It won’t be the Revolutionary Communist Party, I can tell you that much. But I can tell you this too, that I owe a debt to the Revolutionary Communist Party and, yes, to Bob Avakian, for moving me one paltry millimeter closer to the point of the spear.

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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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