Bob Avakian: The Making of a Revolutionary

The Berkeley Mix

Revolutionary Worker #1212, September 14, 2003, posted at

In response to interest among our readers about the background of RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, this week we are publishing three excerpts on early influences and experiences in Chairman Avakian's life.

This is an excerpt from an interview with Chairman Bob Avakian, on how he developed such a sharp style. This was originally printed in "Questions for These Times," Revolution Magazine (Winter/Spring 1986).

Q : I hope you don't find this next question too personal, but I'd like to try to get a little more insight into some of your own particularities, into the basis for what could be considered a rather intriguing persona. I'm not quite sure how to formulate this. You've demonstrated through your work that you're a very developed theoretician, certainly one of the most developed theoreticians of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought*, today. But, how shall I put this? You're certainly not a stuffed-shirt! One would have to say that you've got style! In fact you're known for that, for a certain outlandish and unorthodox style, which comes through in your writings as well as in other ways. And you've also got a reputation in some circles for having a sharp and biting sense of humor. Are there particular life experiences which you draw on to maintain your "style," to keep from getting stale and so forth?

I know a little about your history and I know that before the RCP and before the RU you were involved in the Free Speech Movement and the antiwar movement, that you were a leading figure within SDS in its most radical period, and that you were closely associated with the Black Panther Party from its very earliest days. But looking back even further I know that you came out of a white middle-class intellectual family, but that when you were at school at Berkeley High your social ties were mainly with the Black youth with whom you played sports, sang, socialized, and so on. This must have been somewhat unusual in the '50s, even in Berkeley! Did this affect you a lot?

Bob Avakian :I would say that in a very real and important sense I am a product of Berkeley. And more than that a product of the U.S. and the world and what was going on with it and the changes that it was going through in the '60s in particular. This is what largely has shaped and molded me the way I am in many different ways.

What I mean though, in particular, by saying I think I'm a product of Berkeley, is that Berkeley, particularly in the time I was growing up there, was characterized by a sort of unusual combination: on the one hand being a university city with an intellectual community and an intellectual environment, which I was part of; and on the other hand, having a significant Black population and a ghetto, and the strong influence of that also on the life of the city and the life of the area. This was reflected in the high school that I went to, because Berkeley at that time in housing and in education up through the junior high school level was very segregated, so that the area that I lived in, coming from a middle-class white family, was all white or almost all white, and the schools I went to in grammar school and junior high school were virtually all white as well. And then when you went to high school there was only one public high school in the whole city, so it was a dramatic change. All of a sudden you were thrown into a situation where the school was half white and half Black, more or less.

And this introduced me to all kinds of new things at a time when all kinds of things were being shaken up in this society--the late '50s and going into the early '60s when the protests and rebellions of Black people were beginning to really take off and when this was finding expression in many different arenas, including the cultural arena. And I was drawn to this and drawn into it. I remember one time someone asking me, when I was in high school, someone who was a liberal at the time, saying to me, "I can see why you like some Black athletes and some Black music and things like this, but why do you like only Black athletes and Black music and so on?" Now, this was a little bit of an exaggeration on his part, but it spoke to something real about my basic orientation. These were the things I was drawn to. And so in a certain way, the people that mainly --not exclusively but mainly--were my friends in high school were the Black people that I played sports with, and I did, it's true, form a singing group together with a number of Black guys. We (laughs) never had a million-seller, we never even recorded a record, but we had a lot of fun and it introduced me, obviously, to a lot of experiences I wouldn't have had otherwise.

All this had a very profound impact on me and it was a kind of time when a lot of things were being shaken up, you were being confronted with new things and you were being confronted with challenges, and a big question was where you were going to stand on things--lines were being drawn very sharply. I found all this not only something that was sharply confronting me, but I found it all very liberating--something was being shaken loose. And I found that a great source of inspiration and joy and I readily joined in with it. But at the same time there was still a gulf that separated me from the Black people that I was friends with and hanging around with. I mean, we went to each other's houses, we stayed at each other's house, all those sorts of things, we sang together in different places; we were genuinely friends. But at the same time, I lived in one kind of neighborhood and they lived in another, and that wasn't eliminated by the friendship and the closeness that we had. So this had a profound impact on me, but there was still a gulf. And I know when I went on to the university I felt this contradiction within me, sort of the contradiction of what Berkeley is, to continue that metaphor: on the one hand, the intellectual atmosphere of Berkeley, and particularly the protest movements that were beginning to develop and some of the cultural expressions of that, which I found exciting and exhilarating; on the other hand, it also left me with a certain amount of emptiness and there were some aspects of it that weren't fulfilling to me, and I kept finding myself drawn to Black cultural expressions, including in sports. I was drawn back to my old high school and back to the playgrounds that I played basketball in as a high school student. I was much more interested in that than I was in sports at the university, which was frankly just too white and too bland for me. And that was true of a lot of the culture there generally.

So, again, this was an acute contradiction and once again, as things further developed, I was confronted with choices. For example, when I first met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who were the co-founders of the Black Panther Party, I didn't meet them in a directly political context. I met them before they actually founded the Black Panther Party, and I met them not as a representative of a political group or something, and I wasn't talking to them as representative of another political group, but I met them through indirect means. One night I went to a rec center and was playing basketball and afterward I hung out with a couple of Black guys I knew and ended up going home with one of them and staying up till two in the morning talking about the Congo and a number of other questions, both in the U.S. and internationally, that were hot, important issues at that time. And then a few weeks later one of these guys introduced me to Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, and then the next time I saw them was when I was driving a car late in the night (or early in the morning) with another Black friend of mine with whom I hung out a lot, and we gave them a ride somewhere. And I got into talking with them about some of their political views. So later, when they had formed the Black Panther Party and I came into a more directly political relationship with them, there was already something there, previous to that. It wasn't just purely a political relationship, if you understand what I'm trying to say.

But again, new choices and new questions kept posing themselves. I was still a product of Berkeley and of its two aspects, and these were still coexisting in me at that time--sort of the white intellectual, academic side and the side of the expression of Black people and everything that that represents. At one point, after I started working for Ramparts magazine, I ran for Berkeley City Council back in, I think, 1967, on sort of a radical reform slate. We actually got about, or I at least got about, 30 percent of the vote. We weren't elected, but we got about 30 percent of the vote. And I remember something very interesting happening after that. Eldridge Cleaver was working at Ramparts, and at that time he was a revolutionary and was doing a number of good things. And one good thing that I'll always remember that he did was we were going out to lunch or something, in San Francisco, we were both working at Ramparts, and he said to me, well, you know, you were involved in all that reform stuff running for City Council in Berkeley and I don't remember the exact words but basically (laughs): That's all over with now and you got that all out of your system and now you can do something serious like get into revolution with both feet. I sort of did have one foot in the revolutionary camp, because I was already a supporter of the Black Panther Party at that stage, even while I had another foot still in the Berkeley reform thing, which has reached full expression with its reformed city councils and so on. And I remember him saying that to me, well now you can put all that sort of stuff behind you and get into revolution with both feet. Which is what I did.

So this gulf or this gap was, through a series of events and through some leaps and struggles, being bridged, and what was being achieved, I think, was a synthesis of these two trends. In other words a synthesis to something that was different than either of them but integrated elements of both the intellectual aspect on the one hand and, on the other hand and even more importantly, everything I had learned and everything that had attracted and drawn me forward from out of the whole experience of Black people, which I'd been introduced to and been able to come in contact with in a personal and deep kind of way. More than anything else, it was this experience of Black people and how it influenced me that determined how I viewed the uprisings and revolutionary struggles of oppressed people, not just in the U.S. but internationally as well, and how I viewed political and world events generally, especially in the period when I was first beginning to form solid political views. And more broadly, in turn, it has been the influence on me of the oppressed masses, and especially of their revolutionary uprisings and struggles, that has set the terms of, the framework for the way in which I have developed--including in how I developed as an intellectual and in what ways, toward what ends, I have applied the intellectual training I have got.

So if you want to talk about what formed me, it was all that. All this had a very profound influence on me, and then again my political formation, if you want to put it that way, was occurring in the context of the Vietnam War, the upsurges of national liberation struggles all around the world, and the Cultural Revolution in China and everything that that represented. So all this is what made its imprint on me and has left its imprint on me in a very profound way and has sort of shaped me politically and in an all-around sense in terms of what I am.

And I think this has a lot to do with shaping or being sort of the basic elements or ingredients of what you referred to as my "style." I've heard our party described --and I think it was made in a complimentary sense--I've heard it described as "intelligent hoodlums." Certainly I've taken that in a complimentary sense, and in the spirit in which I believe it was intended, I believe it's a very apt and good description of our party; and I think, frankly, it's what attracts people of different kinds to our party.

But at the same time, as I said, there's always new questions, new challenges, new crossroads that you come to, and it's interesting in looking back over my own experience--I think in some ways a lot of my views on things, including on cultural matters for example, also carried some of the weaknesses that spontaneously some of the masses, in particular, in this case, some of the Black masses, have. Let me give a concrete example. At the time that he became a phenomenon, to put it that way, I had a very negative view of Jimi Hendrix. And I think my view was very similar to--I know it was similar to the Black people that I knew--and I think it was similar to a lot of Black people's view that Hendrix was, to put it sort of crudely, a Black guy playing for a bunch of white people; and what was he doing hanging around with these hippies, playing this tripped-out psychedelic hippie music! It's actually kind of ironic, because the music that really touched me where I feel, the music that I really related to, was rhythm and blues music, which came to be called soul music; and in fact Hendrix had a strong background in this--he incorporated at least aspects of it into what became identified as the Jimi Hendrix thing, musically, in the late '60s--but I didn't see that then. I only saw the fact that he had gone off in a different direction, that he was doing stuff I just took as tripped out--like I said, psychedelic hippie music for acid-head white people. Now, I listened to other music besides rhythm and blues or soul music, I was influenced by and I liked a lot of Bob Dylan and other things like that, but I just couldn't relate to the kinds of things Hendrix was getting into. You know, it's funny, I've talked to people about this before, sometimes when we were kind of goofing, thinking back on the past, on our roots, if you want to put it that way: If you say "Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco," and ask what it calls to mind, for me it's not the kinds of music Bill Graham was promoting there in the `60s (and into the '70s); for me it's the place, back before that, where people like Hank Ballard and the Midnighters played, and where James Brown and the Famous Flames and the Drifters performed before they got more of a white audience and made it big.

And I had this kind of negative, sort of narrow nationalist, if you will, reaction to something like Jimi Hendrix. It's only been more recently that I've gone back and looked at that question anew and started reading up on and listening to Hendrix and trying to understand, because obviously there was something that was radical and there was a very positive thrust about that. I've done this partly to understand what there was about Hendrix that was a break with and a challenge to convention and established norms and the powers-that-be and the status quo, and what there was that was new and fresh about it, and what can be learned from that. It's partly to appreciate that better, but even more generally it's to not make that same kind of mistake again or minimize that kind of mistake--of not recognizing new and fresh things that come up, no doubt in different forms, in the future. To sharpen my ability to recognize those things when they arise in the future--it's for that, as well as to learn more about Hendrix, that I've gone back and gone into this. But since other people hipped me to what Hendrix was about, I've been struck by the fact that at the time I had what could be called a kind of narrow-nationalist response to what he was doing.

But I think that's a secondary thing, very definitely--a negative but a secondary thing to the positive influences that were brought to bear on me. These formative experiences in high school and continuing after that had everything to do with making me a revolutionary and propelling me in the direction of communism --although there's a leap to becoming a communist, which involves taking up a scientific understanding of the world and grasping the theory to go along with the revolutionary impulse that one feels from drawing on and being influenced and shaped by the kind of sources and influences I've discussed.

So in a real sense it's the combination, or the synthesis, of these different elements and influences that has made me the kind of person that I am and shaped my outlook and views and feelings about things.


This story on how Chairman Bob Avakian discovered Mao Tsetung was originally published in the pamphlet "Summing up The Black Panther Party."

It was Eldridge Cleaver who turned me on to Mao Tsetung. One day, I went over to Eldridge Cleaver's apartment, I was working with the Black Panther Party--this was 1967--and I was for revolution and I respected the Black Panther Party and the militant stand it took, and I respected the work they were doing. And I saw the need to work as closely with them as possible and to build for a common party that wouldn't just be Black, or another one that would just be white, but would unite people of all races and nationalities who were serious about revolution. And as I walked into his apartment, here on the wall was a great big poster of Mao Tsetung, made in China. And I was like many of you, probably, the first time when you ran into something like this. I was torn up. I was scared. I didn't know what to make out of it, and I didn't say anything at the time. It took me two weeks to work up my nerve to finally ask Eldridge Cleaver why he had that poster in his house, and then I did it over the telephone at the end of a conversation. I cleared my throat, and I said, "Listen, by the way, why have you got that great big poster of Mao Tsetung up there on your wall?" I'll never forget what he said; if he never said or did another good thing in his life, this was a very good one. It came back over the telephone--he said, "We've got that picture of Mao Tsetung up on the wall because Mao Tsetung is the baddest motherfucker on the planet Earth!"

Now I said to myself, "Hey, I've got to check this out!" 'Cause I respected the Black Panther Party and I saw how serious they were, I thought they were pretty heavy, and if Eldridge Cleaver was saying this was the baddest motherfucker on the planet Earth, I better go look into it! And I did. I read the Red Book; many of you did, but I went further, too. I read Mao's other writings. And I saw that it was true, that Mao Tsetung was the baddest motherfucker around. But not because he was larger than life or whatever you want to say--superman or the idealized Bruce Lee. Not that he knew kung fu, karate and all this other stuff--which don't stop no bullets anyway. It wasn't that he personally could whip up on the heads of a whole bunch of imperialists and oppressors and get rid of them all by himself. The reason that he was so heavy and so bad was because he understood what was the way out of this madness. He, like many others of us, searched for a way out of this--a way out of the living hell that not only the Chinese people were subjected to but people around the world, as he began to see the world more broadly. He looked for a way out of it, and he tested and tried out many different things, and he came to see that the only theory, the only understanding that could lead not just the Chinese people but the people of the whole world to completely uproot and finally abolish every form of degradation, oppression, exploitation, the only understanding that really could do that was the Marxist -Leninist theory. And any other theory that claimed to be revolution might take you part of the way but not all the way, might take you to a certain stage and then simply find one group of exploiters or oppressors replacing another, and the whole thing turned back.

And this is what it was that enabled Mao Tsetung to make such a contribution and play such a role, not only in China but in the whole world. Because he took that science, of Marxism-Leninism and concretely applied it to the revolution in China over decades, and he played a tremendous role inspiring and leading and providing an example for people throughout the world for half a century. Because what that theory, that understanding enabled him to see was that it wasn't a handful of heroes that determined the shape of society and the development of history, but it was the struggle of classes going back to the first primitive forms of society and the first development of classes out of those primitive forms. That throughout history it had been the struggle of one class rising up, overthrowing another and replacing one system by a higher one, that had brought society to the threshold of communism, where, through the unprecedented revolution of the working class--not a class of exploiters and oppressors, but a class of exploited and oppressed rising up--that finally all forms and any basis for exploitation and oppression could be abolished once and for all. And this is what I found by reading Mao, and by taking up the Marxist-Leninist theory that he based himself on and further developed and enriched.


This story was originally published in the book A Horrible End or An End to the Horror?by Bob Avakian, RCP Publications, 1984.

I would like to end the second part of this book on a personal note--which, however, is not merely personal but has much larger political implications: Billy, I'm still not drinking Coke (in the largest sense).

Here I'm referring to an old friend of mine, Billy Carr, whom I knew from high school and kept contact with until he was shot dead ten years ago, a victim of the system even though he died in a dispute with petty criminals over who cares what. Growing up in the ghetto in Berkeley (yes, there is a ghetto in Berkeley!), he was forced into a situation of bouncing back and forth between the bottom layers of the proletariat and the criminal life of the lumpen proletariat, yet he never lost a largeness of mind and a searching for some other way, some other kind of world. Whenever I could I sought him out to talk with--both to learn and to discuss with him the things I was learning as I got involved in political movements, began to see more clearly the nature of the beast we are up against and got turned on to revolution. Many years ago, in discussing South Africa and the role of the U.S. in relation to it, I pointed specifically to the major role of Coca-Cola in South Africa and told him I had decided not to drink Coke as a personal protest. After that, every time we talked, one of the first things he would ask is: "Are you still not drinking Coke?" Though I eventually gave up this particular form of protest as ineffective, and he understood that, his question still had a much larger meaning, and we both knew that. And, in that spirit, this has remained a question I continue to ask myself, to make sure I can continue to say: No, I'm still not drinking Coke--in the largest sense.

In its larger implications, this is another illustration of the importance of a vanguard party, which is especially crucial in this period--of the fact that, through the whole upsurge of the '60s not just in the U.S. but internationally, and persevering and becoming tempered and steeled through the '70s and into the '80s, there is a leadership actually capable of being the guiding center in preparing for and carrying out the overthrow of U.S. imperialism. There is a party that is not only the vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat in the U.S. but is a part of an international force fighting for the world proletarian revolution, the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement.


* This interview was published in 1986. We now refer to our revolutionary science as "Marxism-Leninism- Maoism."

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