Interview with a Former Prisoner, Part 2:
Science, Revolutionary Theory, and Getting into Bob Avakian
September 8, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
EDITORS' NOTE: This is Part 2 of an interview with a former prisoner, who, through contact with Revolution newspaper, the writings of Bob Avakian and literature of the Revolutionary Communist Party, decided that being an emancipator of humanity was what his life is going to be about. It has been edited for publication. We are posting the interview in three segments. Part 1 (Breaking with the Gang Life, Getting with the REAL Revolution) was published on September 1, 2014 and Part 3 (Don't Risk Your Life Over Stupid Shit—Be Down for Revolution) on September 15.
Revolution: You've told me about other ruptures, both political and ideological, that you had to make, as well. You mentioned all the questions you had. But there were also things like nationalism, how you viewed the oppression of women... there were different ruptures along the way and questions you had. Can you talk more about that?
X: I kept changing my thinking and making those ruptures the more that I saw the things that I hated flowing from a common source. I had the nationalism thing about "my people" are getting fucked over, "my people" went through this. But then I also said, damn, what did Black people go through? And what's being done to Black people? And Native people, what they're going through and what's being done to them? And women. I saw a lot in myself that I had to rupture with in regards to the way I treated women and the way I viewed women. When you start thinking about oppression and discrimination, you have to confront, are you against oppression or are you OK with oppression in some cases? Is it OK for my people not to get fucked with, but it's OK for other people to get fucked with by that same system? And if so, what do I want? Do I want to be part of that system? Is all I want to do is just be at the top of that system and fuck everybody else?
I was like, "No, that's not what I want. I want to end oppression." But how? The more I thought about that, I had to look at it more broadly. It can't just be so narrow as to think about my people and what I go through. I started to really hate oppression. Before I was full of hate for people that I shouldn't hate. But then I found my humanity, I regained my humanity as I raised my sights.
Before I even got into revolution, I started going through that process. But when I started getting into revolution, I took a leap. Not that big a leap, because there's still a lot of things that I hadn't ruptured with. And even now there are things that I need to rupture with, but I'm more conscious of it now. And it's still a struggle. It's still a process. But there was a real leap when I got into some of the things that came through in BAsics, "You can't break all the chains except one." What I went through and the questions I had to pose to myself about whether I was gonna be OK with all this shit.
In prison, for example, there's a lot of homophobia. It's an insult or a joke if you call somebody gay. I thought about that and came to realize that's some really fucked up shit. And you struggle with prisoners over there and it's like, "Whoa, what the hell is this dude doing speaking up for gay people? [laughs] What's up with you?" I would answer, "I don't like oppression, I don't like discrimination, I don't like fucking with people just because they're different."
The marriage thing used to come up, "Aw, yeah, let them do their thing, but getting married?" And I was like, "Are they trying to marry you? You don't have to marry nobody if you don't want to." [laughs] So sometimes when I would say that. Other prisoners would laugh and they would be like, "I see your point." I would say to people, "What are they doing to you? Why do you feel so offended by what somebody else does? Why does it hurt you so much? It shouldn't affect you so much."
Revolution: You said you had to fight to regain your humanity and when you got into revolution that took a leap. What do you mean by that?
X: I started caring about people. It's these connections that you start to make. And you start thinking about the reality behind it, not just words. I remember even as a kid, seeing things like those commercials on TV, "donate money to feed these children." I would look at that and I was like, man, that's some fucked up shit. So I would start thinking about that, cuz I grew up having that questioning taken out of me. When I was a child, I was like, "There's so many rich people and so many poor people, why don't they just take the wealth from the rich people and feed these poor people?" I was a kid. I was in elementary school when I thought that. But the system takes all that questioning out of you. You start thinking there's a permanent necessity—that the way things are is just the way it is. But when I started getting more into revolution and people would talk about all the suffering that's going on around the world, I would think back to those images: children starving, children with their bellies blown up because of malnutrition, not because they ate a lot of food, kids dying of diarrhea and all this horrible shit that happens to people.
It's what made me think more and I started regaining my humanity. I started having love for people. It was love for the people and hate for the system, because I started recognizing where all that suffering came from. Just because some rich motherfucker can't make money, this kid has to starve, he has to go without medicine, he has to go without a sanitation system. And it was all because somebody couldn't make money off of it, nobody could profit off of it, and it's not gonna get done. It was just thinking about it, the reality of it. I tried to think about it as much as I could—what people were actually suffering. I remember reading once about children sniffing paint to get rid of hunger. I remember sniffing paint myself, glue or paint, not because I was hungry, but just to get high.
The more conscious I became that it's a system, the more I hated the system and the more love I had for people. I was changing because I thought I was heartless, but I wasn't really. I wanted to make myself heartless so I wouldn't feel all this shit... I don't know how to describe it. I guess I was trying to escape from something by trying to be that way, by trying to be heartless, trying to be this tough guy, like "I don't give a fuck." So I would pretend I didn't care or I would try not to care.
But then I learned to care. I started relearning to care for people and started to hate oppression. And that's when I started making connections. of wherever I could identify oppression, I had to break with it. What the fuck? What am I thinking? I shouldn't hate gay people for being gay. I shouldn't hate women just for being female. I started recognizing women as human beings, I was thinking, man, that's a human being.
The more radicalized I became, the more I hated the system and tried to identify oppression and discrimination wherever I saw it. I started hating it. And then the more I had to question myself and the way I thought and the more I started seeing the need to rupture with the way I thought. It's a hard thing to look at yourself and see all these things that you have to change about yourself. Because a lot of people have the tendency to think the way they are now is fine—"I don't want to question, I'm gonna defend whatever view I have now without really understanding it and try to find justification for the ways we are." It's a difficult thing to recognize that you've been wrong about something. Not just wrong, but horribly wrong, and then having to change, but recognizing the need to change.
Revolution: That's what I was gonna ask, what was the need? You weren't changing because you were gonna better yourself for its own sake. So what was the need?
X: The need was revolution. I saw the need for revolution. What kind of change was I gonna uphold if I was still holding on to all this other shit? So there was a need for me to change myself if I really wanted to change the world. I couldn't be like, "We'll change this, but keep fuckin' these people over." Morally, it wasn't right to think that way. It wasn't just that this won't work for revolution, but there was that context to it—if you want a revolution you can't be this way, you can't hold on to this way of thinking or these old habits, you have to change them.
And the more serious I got about revolution, the more willing I was to make sacrifices and change myself, because it had to be more than just feeling good about myself. Breaking the law made me feel real good about myself. I felt good fuckin' up, I'm not gonna lie. It was exhilarating to just fuckin' break the law and do all the stupid shit I was doing. But I had to let go of that because that's not gonna help revolution. It will be playing into the hands of my enemy. So I started to recognize all this and I had to start being less selfish, recognizing and seeing everything I had to change about myself, and ask the question: how does that contribute to revolution? That might make me feel good, but it doesn't help revolution, it enforces a lot of old ways of thinking.
Revolution: At the same time, as you talked about earlier, that "feeling good" went hand in hand with "feeling not good" when you looked at the content of it, right?
X: Yeah, like what was I doing? What role was I playing in reinforcing all that shit and perpetuating it? So it was something that I had to give up. And that's hard. Because like I said, all my life, all the purpose I had was in gangbanging. That was all I cared about. That's what I loved to do. The only thing that made me feel good about myself was doing all this crazy shit and I had to give that up. I couldn't be about that anymore. It was my whole being. It was something I was willing to fight and die for. And then you have all your friends who did die for it. Before it was, "hell no, they didn't die for nothing, they died for the 'hood and I'm not gonna let them down."
But the fucked up thing is that they did die for nothing. When you look at the larger world, they died for something very, very, very petty. People don't see them as petty because there's people dying, but when you step back and look at, it was something very petty... it was something very petty that they died for. When you raise your sights to what this whole world could be about, how it could really change, and you see that, and it's like "fuck, they died for nothing."
The more I saw why people act this way and what they are emulating or copying when they act this way—these are things that are shaped by the system. You start seeing that this is the system making people act in these ways. That's why I started making the connections more and I blamed the system for all this. I blamed the system for all my friends who died. And I would think about it like, "It's this fuckin' system that's doing it."
When I was in prison, my nephew was killed. I already had a sense of where it came from, but I still felt like I wanted my get-back. But I was also struggling with this being the system that was the cause of this. That's one of the things I had to wrangle with—who's really responsible?
I would identify the system and my fight against the system became something more personal, because it affected all these people that I loved, all my friends. I remember the hurt caused to their families behind these petty wars. And it made me hate the system even more, the more I thought about it, the more I thought about everything it caused. And the more I hated the system, the more I wanted to fight. Like when I gangbanged, I was willing to fight and die. I was willing to make sacrifices. Now I see the system and I want to make sacrifices to get rid of it that are actually significant sacrifices that mean something. I started seeing the need to sacrifice my own desires to what will contribute to revolution.
Revolution: You talked about the seriousness coming through when you read Revolution newspaper and BA—you could tell that what they're working on is to make a revolution. But there were other things that you wrote about while you were inside about BA's work. You were wrangling with big questions of revolutionary theory, of the new synthesis of communism. Can you talk more about what you were wrangling with?
X: That's one of the things about learning to be scientific and recognizing science. And it had to come through struggle by reading all this other shit. Like I said, comparing and contrasting and digging into what was true. I didn't want to take something up without questioning it. There was a lot I didn't understand, so I would question it—why is this true or not true?
For example, BA made a criticism of a philosophical concept put forward by Marx called "the negation of the negation." When I read that criticism, I was like, why is the negation of the negation no longer true? Marx was kind of hard to read. but very exciting to read because he was talking about a whole different way the world could be and identifying where the source for change was and identifying communism as a science, a way to understand society scientifically. So I liked Marx. And I was like, "Who the hell is gonna question Marx? Here's BA saying the negation of the negation isn't true, well why the hell not?" [laughs]
But then I started seeing how it wasn't always so. The Soviet Union and China demonstrated how that's not so linear. Socialism doesn't negate capitalism because there's still too much contradiction going on. There's still too much motion going on. It's not that easy.
Or when BA talks about objective reality and truth, what is truth? It doesn't matter who's speaking it. And if we're gonna be scientific and we're willing to go for revolution, we have to recognize that. That truth is not just gonna come from one sector of people, or people who have like-minded views. Like, I'm gonna agree with you because you're for communism, and I'm a disagree with him because he's for capitalism, even though he might hit on something that's true and something that we need to wrangle with. That was one of the things.
And then when BA talked about the world arena being decisive, and how all this shit going on in the world has an effect. It's not so isolated in one country and what you can do in this one country without taking the world as a whole into account and what you're gonna be facing. So when I thought about revolution, these are things you seriously take into account. You have to take up and incorporate them into your approach and into the theory that you're wielding.
I would read other things that weren't doing it. They weren't really being scientific, or they were ignoring a lot of this stuff. How the hell are we gonna make revolution that way?
I wasn't getting that from anywhere else but from BA and Revolution newspaper. so I would dig into that. I would try to understand it. I would try to see why is this true? Why is it not true? And the more I did, I'd be like, "OK, this is an undeniable fact." To the point where I couldn't argue with it anymore. And then I'd be like, "Damn let me find out what else I can argue with." [laughs]
But then I would have to recognize, "OK, why was I thinking this way? What was wrong with my approach? What was I proceeding from?"
I had read some anarchist literature and I was wary of leaders. I used to think like, "Man, who's this white guy?" I'd be like, "Why the hell is he so special?" Because Revolution would talk about BA and I was making judgments before I knew the content. The more I got into it, I'd be like, "Oh man, this is a really great white guy." [laughs]
So then I was questioning myself, "Why was I thinking this way? What was I proceeding from?" And I would recognize that narrowness, that nationalism, just errors in thinking of how we would actually make a revolution.
I did recognize the need for leaders. That's why anarchist literature didn't really appeal to me that much. I used to like some anarchists. Like I would read Emma Goldman and think, "Aw shit, she's cool." But I was like, "Fuck, we do need leaders because of all the unevenness in understanding of how we go forward, and somebody has to take responsibility for leading." So anarchist literature didn't really appeal to me. It was too unrealistic. Like BA said in that talk "The Material Basis and the Method for Making Revolution," "Have the humility to allow yourself to be led, without a hint of slavishness." That's a challenge.
Revolution: What do you mean?
X: There's work that you have to do. You have to take responsibility yourself, and if you're not correct, you have to recognize it. There's no place for arrogance in this, or selfishness, or egos. What the fuck are you fighting for then? You gotta throw that shit out the window. If you're proceeding from wanting to make revolution, then you have to ask yourself, "For whom and for what?"
Then it's not that big of a sacrifice to let that go or to recognize that's a rupture I need to make. So I'm glad somebody pointed that out. But there's still more that you have to do. You have to really get into why not? Like, why am I wrong? Dig into it. There's work to be done and you can't be just slavish about it. "OK, what's the line? OK, what's the line on this? Alright, I'll follow it." No. Why? Why is it correct? Why is it not correct?
Revolution: You were talking earlier about being driven to Marx, Lenin and Mao, and then there was a seriousness with which you wrestled with BA's work. What drove you to say, "If we're really gonna be about fundamental change, we gotta go to this theory?"
X: A few of us tried to have a study group once, but people got moved before it could really get going. But when we were talking about forming it, we talked about how we have to understand things more thoroughly in order to take it up, in order to really wield it and be able to explain to other people. I forget who says it, but there's a famous quote "If you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything." And I would look at history and be like, "Look at all these people who wanted to rise up against something, but there were these leaders leading them in the wrong way. And these people weren't grappling with line. They're not understanding where this will actually take them." They'd be like, "OK, these guys are the oppressors, let's go, let's rise up against them and that's good enough."
But it's not good enough. Because if the line is not correct, it could lead right back to the same situation and then people get demoralized. You look at a little bit of history and you see it happens over and over and over. And then people start to think "We can't change shit, that's just the way it is." And it's back to demoralization and things keep continuing the way it is. But that's wrong because it can change. It's just that you fucked up. You tried something that wasn't gonna work, something that was gonna leave the system intact. You didn't go for a fundamental change. You weren't trying to understand everything scientifically and why the world is the way it is. You thought it was just a few bad rulers, but you had a fucked up system. And then when you got the bad rulers out of power, you kept the system, and you realized shit kept being fucked up. You decided "Oh, you can't change anything anyway." So there has to be more wrestling with theory. You have to really understand it.
And then I started seeing the importance even more, when I started getting into Revolution and started learning more about how China got overturned. There were these capitalist roaders who were trying to take things back and there were different lines contending. Some of the lines these capitalists put forward sounded real logical to a lot of people who don't wrangle with this. "Ok, these are the more profitable industries, so let's focus on that." And it creates greater inequality, but it sounds good to a lot of people.
Or when people talk about the Middle East and they would recognize that the U.S. wants their oil. Some people would say, "Let those people get their oil and sell that oil and do whatever they want with it." But that just keeps the system intact and you're not gonna change shit. If they were to do that, you'd still see the misery there, with nothing having changed, And then you're like, "Aw, there's nothing we can do."
So you have to recognize that you have to break out of these relations. And the more you see that, the more you see the importance of theory if you're really gonna make revolution.
Sometimes it's hard, like "Mman, I don't want to wrestle with all that, that's too much." But you want to change the world and you're like, "Fuck, I have to. I have to do it. I have to get into this." I tried to wrestle with theory as much as I could. I remember being inspired by Mao. I started reading the footnotes on Volume 1 of Selected Works. And you see how much he's struggling to keep this on a revolutionary path and making sure it goes all the way to revolution, not settling for anything less than that. It's a constant struggle to keep a revolutionary line leading the whole thing. It could go away from that very easily.
So we need people wrangling with theory to keep things going on a revolutionary road, not lowering your sights to anything less than that, because it could be very easy to do. Cuz we're always facing difficulties and obstacles and people can get overwhelmed by that. But if you recognize that it could be a whole lot better, then like, "Fuck that, let's do everything we can to make sure we win and we take it all the way to communism.
This interview is posted in three segments. See also Part 1 (Breaking with the Gang Life Getting with the REAL Revolution) and Part 3 (Don't Risk Your Life Over Stupid Shit—Be Down for Revolution).
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