Revolution #172, August 9, 2009

From Ike to Mao:

A Layman’s Assessment of Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Odyssey

Revolution received the following review of From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, A Memoir by Bob Avakian from a reader:

What do you want to be when you grow up? Such is the perennial question posed to each generation. In a child’s world the answers are usually simple and predictable: fireman, bus driver, movie star, doctor, sports hero, revolutionary communist. Huh?!? Well, it is unlikely that being a revolutionary when he grew up was the first thing that sprang to Marx’s mind. And it certainly did not for Bob Avakian, Chair of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Avakian’s fascinating autobiography From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist reveals the complexity of a human being seeking to change the world while interpreting life’s deepest meanings and contradictions in revolutionary terms.

If you want to understand the most important questions from a radical perspective about how humans might live, there are many books within the socialist canon to which students must devote time and energy. Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao are obvious primary sources, but they can pose significant challenges to those not versed in philosophical thought or in the spirit of the times in which their ideas emerged. Marx’s style can be especially abstruse without interpretation and annotation regarding the surrounding currents. Avakian’s work is accessible to moderns because he has studied and synthesized much revolutionary thought, and his experience is attuned to contemporary generations. What’s more, he is a communist practitioner continuing to call forth a strong revolutionary movement and not just an armchair theorist.

If you want to understand revolutionary communist thinking and specifically Avakian’s thought, or you are a regular reader of Revolution newspaper, Ike to Mao is the book you must read. If you’re just learning about revolution, this book serves as a good point of embarkation. Here is the development of modern revolutionary thought leading to a new synthesis. How did it all start and where did it all come from? Why did it come about? Why is the hope of revolution still present and desired in these extremely bleak, neo-conservative times? How does revolution make sense in a world dominated by global, neoliberal, free-market capitalism? Is it even possible or is it just a fantasy, a pipe dream? These are all hard hitting questions this book attempts to answer.

Without trying to romanticize the author or the movement, Ike to Mao is a dense work, and it contains contradictions Avakian and his sympathizers must wrestle with. Dispelling all the unfortunate myths many hold about communism and its adherents, it may be assuredly said that communists are passionate people with a firm sense of justice and fair play. They are hardly the wild-eyed monsters resistant to ideas, fun, pleasure and life’s myriad possibilities that popular media has portrayed them to be. Nor are they the utopian romantic ideologues steeped in dreamy reverie of a past that has never existed or is hardly possible.

Communism does not equate to or advocate totalitarian dictatorship, nor is it an inevitable metamorphosis with eternal recurrence. Communists desire a world emancipated from suffering and oppressive slave/master relations without the necessity of being dour or ascetic. Their dictatorship is that of the proletariat, not the ruling elite. The approach is from the bottom, not the top. Interestingly, Avakian exudes a pronounced American quality in his love for sports, specifically basketball, as well his admiration for doo-wop and the music of Black Americans. He’s really a neighborhood kid, the boy next door, but with wide-reaching and humane ideals that are never compromised throughout his life.

We all are well familiar with stories of so-called radicals and revolutionaries from the romanticized ’60s who ultimately ‘sold out’ to new age remedies, bourgeois roads to reform and mutual fund portfolios. We read the writings of former lefties and even Marxists, only to shake our heads at how they fell into the slimy pit of ’90s greed-is-good capitalism and the now euphoric Obamamania with all its nonsense about America taking the ‘socialist’ road. It’s easy to slide into comfortable patterns and clichés and to surrender to the path of least resistance. Changing the world is not an easy thing. One cannot help admire Avakian and his steadfastness to what revolution might do to change the world. Theologian Cornel West calls him communism’s ‘long-distance runner,’ never succumbing to the seduction of McWorld with its neoliberal commodification of virtually every aspect of life. So far, at least, and unlike Che Guevara, Benetton has not decaled Avakian’s silhouette on its t-shirts.

To be sure, there are many setbacks and disillusionments along the way, including failed marriages and relationships. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to live in another country cut off from family, friends and loved ones or not to be able to be at the bedside of your ailing sister or dying parents. Yet Avakian’s book is testimony to a lonely life of scaling the mountaintop of human freedom. This is the price one pays for immersing oneself in revolution and for believing in ideals that one would be willing to live and die for. Perhaps many would ask why anyone would choose such an onerous path. I would venture to say that for someone who would tread the high and arduous road of emancipating society and bringing about sweeping social change, such a person must be unable and unwilling to imagine living any other type of life. There are easier, though not necessarily better ways to live. To me, Avakian’s life represents a higher calling; certainly much higher than serving an ethereal god.

I don’t think I could personally endure all the disillusionments, not just with society at large who may not understand or wish to adopt the revolutionary line, but with fellow communists and revolutionaries who copped out or gave in to the status quo or some sort of mealy-mouthed, liberal reformism. But it is this stubborn and steadfast belief in the party and its accomplishments that has forged Bob Avakian’s New Synthesis as well as the recent Ruminations and Wranglings,which explicitly spell out how the party should act and what it must do to further the cause of human emancipation and an entirely different world based on a new set of societal and economic relations. For me, at least, I don’t think I could understand these complex points very well without having a general sense of the thought and the person behind all this. Ike to Mao is the primer to understanding what the party can and must do to move forward to bring about a better world.

Read Ike to Mao, not only to better understand Bob Avakian and the Revolutionary Communist Party, but to laugh and cry with the hopes and struggles of an individual who never gave up his ideals no matter how tough the times became. Critics may call Avakian and others like him fools, but what good would the world be without more fools like him? The last chapter and its final words cementing his beliefs are especially moving. While reading them I happened to be listening to a recording of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, The Inextinguishable. In the words of the composer, the work was written to express the ‘elemental will of life,’ even in the face of mass destruction that occurred during WW I, the time the symphony was completed. I would encourage anyone to listen to the final moments of this amazing musical composition while reading the last chapter of Avakian. All that is felt and thought about life in the most fundamental sense of the word, combined with the forces of aspiration and yearning, which are ‘inextinguishable,’ are what both the composer and the author have tried to present.

M. B. H.
June–July 2009

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What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond