Traveling with Chairman Avakian: A Determined Revolutionary Leader, and a Fired Man, for Decades

by Carl Dix

Revolutionary Worker #1240, May 16, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

Reading the article by Lenny Wolff about the approach Chairman Avakian takes to line struggle, how he takes on the best arguments of the opposing lines, breaks them down and shows where they will lead, and how he invites you in, calling on you to take up his approach and method, reminded me of my own first experience interacting with Bob Avakian. This occurred in the mid-1970s in a period when the communist movement was engulfed in sharp two line struggle. This was a time when those of us who viewed ourselves as communists were searching for what line could lead us in bringing about a communist revolution right here in the belly of the beast, as a lot of us put it back then.

I was living in Baltimore and active in the Black Workers Congress (BWC). Myself and a comrade from the Revolutionary Union (RU) were stuck needing somewhere to stay overnight in the New York area. This by itself was an unusual situation because at this time the RU & BWC were engaged in fierce polemics over what approach was needed to achieve the liberation of Black people. These polemics involved questions like how to correctly characterize the oppressed Black nation within the U.S., how central was the right to a separate Black state to achieving the liberation of Black people, questions around the leadership of the new communist party that was needed to lead the revolutionary struggle and what was the relation of the struggle to end the oppression of Black people and other oppressed nationalities to the overall proletarian revolutionary struggle.

The two organizations (RU & BWC) had gone from working together to forge a new communist party to lead the revolution here in the belly of the beast to being at odds on this, and just about every other major question involved in advancing the revolutionary struggle. Baltimore was the last area in the country where the two groups maintained any joint work.

To get back to my story, I didn't have any prospects to find us anywhere to stay in the NY area, but the RU comrade said he had somewhere he could try. He made a call and, after a long conversation, said he had a place we could stay.

When we got there, he went in the back while I waited in the front room. I assumed this, and the long phone call, were caused by the delicacy of someone from the BWC being brought to an RU person's house when the groups were engaged in bitter polemics. But there was quite a bit more involved. The comrade returned in a few minutes. After some preliminary small talk, he asked if I was willing to talk about the questions that were up between the two organizations. I said yes, and we each briefly sketched out our differing positions. The comrade then excused himself and went into the back room again. After a few minutes Bob Avakian came out.

He began by explaining they had been hesitant to bring me over to the place because it was where he was staying. As soon as he had come out, I had figured as much, and I told him so. Then he asked that we begin the discussion again from the top. I started by raising the disagreements our organizations had over the slogan Black Workers Take the Lead. (This was a slogan raised by the BWC as the way to advance both the overall class struggle and the struggle against the oppression of Black people.) I picked this as a starting point because I felt I could argue the BWC position well. (This was Bob Avakian I was going to be debating this with. I had heard him speak several times by then and knew he had a rep as being sharp and determined when it came to line struggle. But I felt ready to take on this challenge.) He responded by suggesting that we focus first on the overall class struggle because "That's pretty central to what we're about."

The BWC's argument for why this slogan was correct came down to a view that Black workers were the more advanced section of the working class and therefore should be the ones to lead the working class struggle. Avakian took this apart, first and foremost coming at it from the perspective of where we were trying to get to--a classless communist society. In this light, he showed that what was crucial was that the class conscious section of the working class had to be rallied to lead the proletariat to struggle for its interests as a class. And that even if Black workers were a relatively greater part of the class conscious section of the proletariat at that point, they needed to play a leading role as class conscious proletarians, not as Black workers. In response to something I had said about how the Black workers were the ones who responded best to our revolutionary agitation at factory gates and in proletarian communities, he pointed out that some of this was due to their understanding and hatred of the oppression of Black people. And that while communists had a responsibility to unite with this righteous hatred of national oppression, we shouldn't confuse that with class consciousness. If we did, we could end up failing to distinguish between internationalism and nationalism and in the final analysis, tailing nationalism. I didn't immediately get everything that he ran down here, but his arguments did leave me with a feeling that there was something wrong with putting forward this slogan as a correct one for advancing the overall class struggle.

*****

From there we went to whether "Black Workers Take the Lead" was a correct slogan for advancing the struggle to end the oppression of Black people. I thought I (and BWC) was taking a proletarian position on this. Who better to lead the struggle against the oppression of Black people than Black workers? After all, they're the ones whose interests as part of the working class would give them more basis to not get sucked into the halfway, reformist schemes and dreams the system pushes out there and carry the struggle through to the end. He pointed out that this struggle, like every other struggle, needed to be developed as part of the overall struggle for proletarian revolution, and in that light, it needed to be led by the multinational proletariat.

I thought he was mostly playing a word game here. Yes, the multinational proletariat had to lead the overall struggle, but what that would come down to in practice would almost always be Black workers playing the leading role if it was a struggle against the oppression of Black people. I cited a local struggle against a police murder where the BWC had played an important role in keeping it from being dragged into narrow reformism. And I raised that RU comrades had been involved, but they wouldn't have been able to play the role the BWC had.

He agreed that at times proletarian leadership in movements of oppressed people would have something of a division of labor, with Black proletarians giving leadership to struggles among Black people. But he added it wasn't just semantics to say it had to be the multinational proletariat that led the whole United Front (UF), including the struggle for the liberation of Black people. He disagreed that RU comrades, whether Black or white, couldn't have given leadership to that struggle, and he laid out something that I didn't fully understand about how the struggle to end the oppression of Black people in the U.S. wasn't a two-stage thing.

I went to the first point and got into how people involved in this struggle I had mentioned had been wary of having white people involved. In fact, some nationalists who attended the meetings had argued that all white people should be asked to leave the meetings. BWC comrades had joined with the RU comrades, who were white, to keep them from being thrown out of the meetings. His response was that it's not certain how this would've turned out if the RU comrades had been on their own--maybe they would've been thrown out, maybe not. But the key here was struggling for the interests of the proletariat, not the nationality of the communists who carried out that struggle. And even if the communists were all Black, they needed to put forth and fight for the interests of the multinational proletariat. The stress I was giving to the nationality of the communists who would be fighting for the interests of the proletariat would logically lead to a stance that Black proletarians had some interests apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

We went back and forth on this a bit, with things ending up that I felt like our difference on it was more semantical and him arguing it was more than that. Then he went back to his earlier point about the struggle against national oppression in the U.S. not having two stages. I was like, every communist knows Black liberation in the U.S. is part of the overall proletarian revolutionary struggle. He said he was glad we were united on this point, and then asked whether there was a separate UF for the struggle of Black people in the U.S. He pointed out that in an African country like Tanzania the revolutionary struggle would have two stages, a democratic one followed by a socialist one. These two stages could be linked if there was a communist vanguard leading the struggle there, but there would still be two distinct stages. And there would be a UF for the revolutionary struggle that was distinct from the UF in Great Britain, which was the imperialist country that dominated Tanzania. Then we got off into the errors of the French Communist Party on the struggles in Algeria and Vietnam, which I felt like I knew a lot about. In hindsight, he probably knew as much as I did about this, maybe even more, but he mostly listened to what I had to say.

*****

Then he went back to the question about a separate UF for the Black struggle. I had to agree that there wasn't a separate one from the perspective of trying to make communist revolution in the belly of the beast. He tied this back to the question of leadership for the Black national struggle. That if you were saying this was a sphere where only Black workers could exercise leadership, how did that square with aiming for a classless communist society. Is multinational leadership of this part of the UF only possible after the seizure of power? And is this because the masses will only be ready for it at that point, or is it something that some of the communists aren't yet ready for?

He also linked this to where self-determination for Black people fit into proletarian revolution. The RU's position was that as an oppressed nation within the borders of the U.S., Black people had the right to self- determination, up to and including the right to form a separate Black state, but that this wasn't at the heart of the struggle of Black people. This wasn't something I had thoroughly thought through. I was clear that this was a developed capitalist country where a single stage showdown for power was the form revolution needed to take. I knew enough about the situation in Russia before the revolution to know that there were separate nations with separate working classes. But in the U.S. there was a single, multinational working class. I thought there was a Black nation in the U.S. that had the right to self-determination, but I also thought that it would be a setback for proletarian revolution if nationalist forces rallied the Black masses to a separatist position in the aftermath of the revolution. And I didn't think self-determination was a goal that communists should fight for. I laid all that out.

He had clearly given all this a lot of thought. He united with what I had said about proletarian revolution in the U.S. needing to take the form of a single-stage showdown for power with the imperialist ruling class. He went further to point out that since Black people were in their majority part of the single multinational proletariat in this country, the struggle for their liberation as a people was tied by 1,001 threads to that single showdown. Again he put things in the perspective of how to get to communism and laid out that it was because of these objective factors, that the RU argued that self-determination wasn't at the heart of the struggle of Black people. This was an important point for me because I was somewhat looking at it pragmatically--that since not a lot of Black people were raising the demand for a separate black state, then maybe that's why self-determination wasn't at the heart of the Black struggle. Instead, he was looking at it from a communist perspective and laying out why that was the case. I felt like he had cleared up the confusion I had on this and had to admit that I agreed with everything he said on it. Then he went back to the separate UF for the Black national movement question and said he felt that our differences on that were linked to the relation between proletarian revolution and self-determination for Black people. I asked how so, and he broke that down for me.

I don't have as clear a recollection of all that he went into here, but the essence of it was to go back to the point about the existence of a single multinational proletariat that the majority of Black people were part of and how that tied the struggle to liberate Black people to the struggle for proletarian revolution. He said the UF we needed to carry out the revolution was an alignment of class forces, a bringing together of all the classes and strata in society that had an interest in seeing the imperialist system brought to an end. And he argued, if our goal is to overthrow imperialism and carry the revolution forward to achieve communism, then we shouldn't be aiming for a different alignment of class forces around the liberation of Black people. On the other hand, if your aim was to carve out a little more room for a few Black people to get a bigger slice of the pie in capitalist America or to fight to set up a separate Black version of this system of exploitation and oppression, then you would be aiming for a different alignment of forces than a United Front Against Imperialism.

*****

On one level, at this point I was feeling like, `how could we (BWC) be so off on such basic questions?' And he wasn't finished. He took this to the question of the struggle over leadership of the new communist party. I was torn over the BWC's argument that the leader of the new communist party had to be somebody who wasn't white. It seemed that we needed a revolutionary leader who was best able to lead the new party to be its chairman. But when BWC leaders (and others in the revolutionary movement) said the history of racism in the U.S. meant no one who was white could meet that qualification, it had a pull on me. Now I can see that this argument was fundamentally a nationalist one. It came down to saying that no revolutionary leader who was white could really represent the aspirations of oppressed people to get out from under their oppression as peoples. But clearly I wasn't immune to nationalist arguments. (Actually none of us ever gain any kind of immunity to these and other lines that represent the interests of other classes in society. In a society ruled by the bourgeoisie, lines representing their interests have the pull of spontaneity going for them. The only way we can defeat their influence, both inside and outside of the revolutionary ranks, is through ceaselessly struggling to firmly grasp the correct line in opposition to incorrect lines and ceaselessly struggling against the pull of spontaneity.)

We engaged this on one level, with me arguing why a party with a white leader would be viewed with suspicion by some Black people. He agreed but added that "we need to get a lot of people to get beyond this kind of narrowness if we're going to pull off a revolution." I came back with how Black people had good reason to be suspicious of whites.

Then he made a distinction between the Black masses in general being suspicious of whites and Black communists arguing that the leadership of the new party should be based on race. Again he argued for looking at this from the perspective of where we were going and what we were up against--how for communists of all nationalities this meant applying communist standards to this and all other questions. He said that if we chose leadership for the new party on any basis other than who could best lead it in taking up the challenges we faced we'd be weakening our chances at pulling off a revolution. I had to admit that was true. He added that looking to choose the leadership on the basis of representing all the diversity in the forces fighting against the imperialists wouldn't work anyway. If the leader was male, then he wouldn't be female, if he or she was Black, then they wouldn't be Latino or Asian, etc.

At this point, we had already been at this for a number of hours. I had earlier raised some criticisms of the practice of RU comrades around the national question, and he took the discussion back to that. My criticisms were mixed. Some were petty, like me raising that Baltimore RU comrades had done a fundraising dinner for a strike of mostly Black workers and served under-cooked greens. Virtually all the workers wanted their greens cooked more before they would eat them, but this didn't mean that these comrades had a bad line on fighting national oppression. Others were insightful, in terms of instances where RU comrades had incorrectly decided that Blacks who were hesitant to work with whites were backward overall. But all of these were secondary to the overall practice of the local RU in relation to the national struggle. They made mistakes at times, but their orientation was to develop the fight against the oppression of Black people as part of the overall proletariat's revolutionary struggle, and I admitted that.

He wanted to discuss them anyway. We went on for another good while over that, with me raising my arguments, him listening and responding to them from the perspective of how do we make revolution and get to a communist society. I don't remember all the back and forth on this, but I do remember a few general things. One was that he probably made the point about us needing to look at things from the perspective of getting to a classless, communist society about a dozen times or more. From one end, this was because I wasn't firmly looking at things from that kind of perspective, and this was a weakness that was widespread in the revolutionary movement of that time. From another, it reflects a hallmark of Bob Avakian's approach, one that he shares with leaders like Lenin and Mao. Not setting his sights on what steps we're trying to make in the short term and having that determine our lines and policies overall. But making his stepping off point where we're trying to get to and developing lines and strategic orientation from that high plane.

*****

Another thing that sticks out in my mind is the method he took in this line struggle we were having. I came at things clearly disagreeing with him and giving it my best shot, and he gave my arguments the best possible interpretation and took them apart and tried to show me that the things I was counterposing to the line he was putting forth wouldn't lead to where we were trying to get to. There were plenty of pigtails on the BWC polemic that he could've pulled, but he didn't go for that. Instead he brought out where the lines the BWC was arguing for would take things if they were followed out to their logical conclusion. He also didn't open up any other questions that were up between the two organizations but hadn't been publicly opened up. This is noteworthy because within a few weeks, the BWC was promoting a position that argued that self-determination was at the heart of the Black struggle. This was probably something he was aware of at the time we had our all-night discussion, but he didn't raise that to me. In this he was both being principled and showing a lot of faith in my ability to distinguish genuine Marxism from sham Marxism. Since I was saying that it wasn't Marxist to say that a separate state was at the heart of the Black struggle, he could've told me the tale that BWC's leaders were about to promote a position that it was. But he left it to BWC's leadership to raise this within its ranks, and he left it to me to remain firm in my position that this was an unMarxist position.

This was in marked contrast to how the BWC approached this in relation to the RU. In a few weeks, a former member of the RU came to Baltimore with copies of a paper arguing that self-determination was at the heart of the struggle for Black liberation. They had the support of the leadership of the BWC, and they wanted me to spread this paper among RU comrades in Baltimore, with the aim of creating dissension in their ranks. I was able to hold firm to my position that this was an incorrect stand on the relation between the struggle to liberate Black people and the overall proletarian revolutionary struggle in the U.S. And struggling for this position put me on the path that led to me quitting the BWC, joining with the RU and ultimately becoming a founding member of the RCP.

This discussion I had with Bob Avakian was a very important turning point in my life. It is no exaggeration to say that because of it I was able to stay on the revolutionary path. The leaders of the BWC who championed a line opposed to the one Bob Avakian fought for back then mostly ended up leading those who followed them off to the margins of the revolutionary struggle and most soon gave up the struggle altogether. But this line struggle was about more than where some individuals, or even whole organizations would end up. The polemics raging in the, communist movement at that time about the correct understanding of the relationship between the national and the class struggles were very significant. The forging of a correct line on this question played a crucial role in the formation of a vanguard for proletarian revolution here in the belly of the beast. The carrying forward of this line struggle is a testament to the correctness of the line that Bob Avakian has led the RCP in forging from the months leading to its formation down to the present. And it is a testament to the importance of us all learning from the approach and method he has brought to the revolutionary struggle for all of the more than three decades that I've known him.