Voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party,USA
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
On Tuesday, December 1, at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, President Barack Obama announced that he would send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. He also called for 10,000 more NATO troops, which pushes the total U.S.-led forces to nearly 150,000, and he announced plans to step up the war on a number of fronts including (without being specific) in Pakistan. Obama has now tripled the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since he took office.
These military forces will not be going to Afghanistan to set up vaccination programs or conduct literacy classes for Afghan girls. They are going there as part of the most destructive military machine on the planet, to wreak violence. The military machine that has bombed wedding parties, that has held thousands of young Afghan men in Bagram prison without charges, that kicks down doors in the middle of the night—this machine is being strengthened and further unleashed.
The West Point speech is being called the "defining moment" of Obama's presidency. Thus far into his term, at least, that is true. So it is important to look deeply at the questions Obama posed and the answers he gave—and in doing so to get into the real underlying causes of the military escalation now being put into effect.
Obama began his speech this way: "It is important to recall why America and our allies were compelled to fight a war in Afghanistan in the first place. We did not ask for this fight. On September 11, 2001, nineteen men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people. They struck at our military and economic nerve centers.... As we know, these men belonged to al Qaeda.... Al Qaeda's base of operations was in Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban—a ruthless, repressive and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war, and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere."
Obama later returned to his explanation of why the Taliban and al Qaeda had taken root in Afghanistan: "Now, the people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They've been confronted with occupation by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign al Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes."
Obama implies that the U.S. had nothing to do with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and that it bears no responsibility for the growth of the Taliban and al Qaeda there, or the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the region. According to Obama, the U.S. itself therefore played no role in the events that lead to the attacks of 9/11.
The facts are different. The U.S. actually helped prompt the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In July 1979, some five months before the Soviet invasion, the U.S. had initiated a covert campaign to destabilize Afghanistan's pro-Soviet government by arming and funding the Islamist opposition. The goal, according to Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, was "to induce a Soviet military intervention." When the Soviets did intervene in December, Brzezinski wrote Carter: "We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War."
The Carter administration undertook this operation because at the time the U.S. was locked in a bitter struggle for global supremacy with what was then the Soviet Union.* After helping trigger the Afghanistan invasion, the U.S. worked behind the scenes with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia throughout the 1980s to make the war much longer, more violent, and more destructive. These forces organized, funded, and armed the Mujahideen ("warriors for Islam"). While many other Afghans took up arms against the Soviet invaders, the U.S. and its partners worked to build up the reactionary Islamic fundamentalist fighters. Over the next decade, the U.S. government funneled more than $3 billion in arms and aid to these fundamentalist forces, and in so doing helped fuel a global Islamist movement. This is where Osama bin Laden got his start. This is where the seeds of al Qaeda and the Taliban were first sown.
During the 1980s there were some Afghans fighting against the Soviet occupation who opposed religious fundamentalism and both U.S. and Soviet imperialism. They stood for an entirely different future—a future free of imperialist domination, free of capitalist exploitation, and free of the backward, traditional feudal social relations and ideology that keep most of the Afghan people in shackles—especially women. These forces were led by Afghanistan's revolutionary Maoists. Yet these forces were targeted—viciously and murderously—by all the reactionary forces involved in the Afghan conflict—the U.S. imperialists, the Soviet imperialists, the Islamic Mujahideen, and the U.S.-backed warlords.
When the Soviets finally pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, more than a million Afghans (along with 15,000 Soviet soldiers) had been killed and one-third of the population—that's over 7 million people—driven into refugee camps. Just two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Its defeat in Afghanistan had played a major role.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan was left in a state of civil war between the existing pro-Soviet regime and different groups of Islamist religious fanatics and reactionary warlords who fought each other while repressing the people. Yet the U.S. rulers considered their Afghan gambit a tremendous success. When asked by the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998 (January 15) whether he regretted inducing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and "having supported the Islamic [fighters], having given arms and advice to future terrorists," Brzezinski replied: "Regret what?... What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?"
"What we see in contention here with Jihad on the one hand and McWorld/McCrusade on the other hand, are historically outmoded strata among colonized and oppressed humanity up against historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system. These two reactionary poles reinforce each other, even while opposing each other. If you side with either of these 'outmodeds,' you end up strengthening both."
It is easy, of course, to start the movie on September 11, 2001. But if you press the rewind button you find out that the U.S. government had not been innocently minding its business all these years only to find itself the victim of an utterly unprovoked attack. There is a whole history here of arming and utilizing Islamic fundamentalists, and of being party to destroying a million lives. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the level of horror and needless suffering that was visited on the Afghan people through this superpower dance of death. All of this was done in the interests of preserving and defending U.S. imperial domination. None of that justifies what was done on 911—but if we are to understand the actual causes of what is going on, we had best understand the full dimensions of the story.
Obama said that after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, "the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere."
So where was U.S. attention focused in the 1990s in this part of the world? Beginning with the first Bush administration (George H.W. Bush) and continuing through the Clinton administration, the U.S. moved on a number of fronts to consolidate the tremendous advantage it derived from the fall of the Soviet Union. It aimed in particular to deepen and extend its domination of the Middle East and Central Asia. This included the 1991 invasion and destruction of Iraq, which caused what a U.S. Census Bureau international analyst—Beth Osborne Daponte—estimated to be over 200,000 deaths (another 500,000 at least were killed by UN sanctions during the 1990s), and the basing of massive U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. It also included new overtures to, and increased working through, predominantly Hindu India, which aggravated the rivalry between India and Pakistan—a rivalry which the U.S. has attempted to manipulate and play for its own advantage. All this, along with the continued U.S. support for Israel in the face of the massive rebellion of the Palestinian people in the late '80s and early '90s, involved tremendous and often horrific levels of violence against Arab and Central Asian peoples and the assertion of open U.S. domination.
At the same time, deeper American economic and social penetration of the region modernized certain aspects of the societies there, while undercutting traditional relations. Taken together, all this led to the beginning of open conflict between the U.S. and Islamist forces. The same so-called "holy warriors" whom the U.S. had initially supported and often pulled together on the basis of reactionary opposition to "modernization" now began to oppose the U.S. and to carry out guerrilla operations against it in that region. Meanwhile, by 1996, the Pakistani government had helped install the Taliban in Afghanistan to both stabilize the country under extremely repressive Islamic rule, and to use it as a counterweight to Indian ambitions in Afghanistan and the region. All these developments led the U.S., by the late 1990s, to once again intensify its attention to Afghanistan, in the context of the region as a whole. During this period a consensus emerged (which was solidified by 9/11) among what would become the dominant political forces in the U.S. that Islamic fundamentalism was becoming a prime obstacle to U.S. objectives, that it would need to be defeated, and that a radical restructuring of the whole region was needed to undercut these forces and secure U.S. hegemony.
Much of this history is well-known—certainly to anyone in public office or in the mainstream press. Yet following Obama's speech there was no comment on his "omission" from either.
Obama defends the decision to invade Afghanistan and says it brought good results. He notes that Congress "authorized the use of force against al Qaeda and those who harbored them, an authorization that continues to this day"—98-0 in the Senate, 420-1 in the House of Representatives—and that NATO supported the U.S. and that the UN Security Council "endorsed the use of all necessary steps to respond to the 9/11 attacks. America, our allies, and the world were acting as one to destroy al Qaeda's terrorist network and to protect our common security."
"Under the banner of this domestic unity and international legitimacy—and only after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden—we sent our troops into Afghanistan."
Here we must go deeper into exactly what was done under "this banner of domestic unity and international legitimacy" and why.
The Bush regime had a number of objectives in invading Afghanistan in October 2001. First, to quickly and massively attack and conquer Afghanistan in order to demonstrate to the world that America's will had not been shaken by the September 11 attacks and that it was still willing and able to crush with overwhelming force any who dared challenge it. This is not just macho posturing, but essential to maintaining global "credibility"—i.e., fear—and dominance.
Second, the U.S. wanted to quickly overthrow the Taliban regime and install a loyal client state in Afghanistan as part of an overarching effort to deepen its military control of Central Asia (Afghanistan abuts two of the U.S.'s main potential rivals—Russia and China) and to gain greater access to and control of the region's energy. (During the 1990s the U.S. was attempting to build a pipeline across Afghanistan that would avoid going through Russia or Iran. The U.S. oil giant UNOCAL was the prime contractor—one of its consultants was Hamid Karzai, later installed by the U.S. as President of Afghanistan.) Doing so was also part of an effort to defeat anti-U.S. Islamist forces across the region.
Simply capturing or killing Osama bin Laden was never the central objective. (Obama's claim that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan "only after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden" is at least open to serious question. According to the Guardian UK (10/14/01), "President George Bush rejected as 'non-negotiable' an offer by the Taliban to discuss turning over Osama bin Laden if the United States ended the bombing in Afghanistan.")
Obama praises the results of the U.S. invasion: "Within a matter of months, al Qaeda was scattered and many of its operatives were killed. The Taliban was driven from power and pushed back on its heels. A place that had known decades of fear now had reason to hope," and points to the formation of a U.S.-created regime with Karzai at the head as a positive development "to help bring a lasting peace to a war-torn country."
It was nothing of the kind. The Karzai regime was a regime of U.S. lackeys, warlords, drug-dealers and war criminals—many as hated as the Taliban they replaced. Warlord Gen. Abdul Dostom, who has served as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief of the Afghan National Army under Karzai, is responsible for the 2001 Dasht-e-Leili massacre when some 2,000 prisoners of war were forced into boxcars, suffocated to death, and dumped in the desert. And, among other viciously anti-woman policies and laws, the US-installed Afghan government passed a law in February, 2009, which applies to Afghanistan's Shia population (10-15 percent of the Afghan people) that explicitly legalizes rape in marriage by banning women from refusing to have sex with their husbands. That law also prevents women from working, going to school, getting access to health care or other services, or even leaving her home without husband's permission. This replacement of one set of oppressors with another—not surprisingly—did nothing to end oppression there. Rather it reinforced the sources of oppression in Afghanistan—foreign domination, capitalism and feudalism, religious fundamentalism, and patriarchy.
(It is also important to briefly take note of what else was done under "the banner of domestic unity and international legitimacy." In the days directly after 9/11, the Bush Administration introduced the USA-PATRIOT Act, which tremendously heightened the reach and scope of the repressive apparatus in the U.S. Immigrants were rounded up and held for months without charges and often deported in the dead of night. Massive surveillance programs were begun, beyond even what had been authorized by the PATRIOT Act and without the knowledge of most of Congress. "State secrets" was made an excuse to deny all kinds of information that showed the U.S. in a bad light, even when this meant preventing people who had been detained and tortured "by mistake" from having their day in court. The U.S. arrogated to itself the right to kill and capture people anywhere in the world, without trial, if the U.S. suspected these people of being "terrorists." Most dramatically, it instituted a widespread regimen of torture—beginning at Guantánamo (where people were detained indefinitely, in violation of international law and of the U.S. Constitution) and then spreading throughout the military, into Iraq and Afghanistan; and over 100 people were killed as a result of this torture. None of this was even mentioned in Obama's speech—in large part because he has actually continued the great majority of these repressive measures!)
"It is a system of capitalism-imperialism...a system in which U.S. imperialism is the most monstrous, most oppressive superpower...a system driven by a relentless chase after profit, which brings horror upon horror, a nightmare seemingly without end, for the vast majority of humanity: poverty and squalor...torture and rape...the wholesale domination and degradation of women everywhere...wars, invasions and occupations...assassinations and massacres...planes, missiles, tanks and troops of the USA bombarding people in faraway lands while they sleep in their homes or go about their daily lives, blasting their little children to pieces, cutting down men and women in the prime of life, or in old age, kicking down their doors and dragging them away in the middle of the night...while here in the USA itself the police harass, brutalize and murder youth in the streets of the inner cities—over and over again—and then they spit out their maddening insults, insisting that this is 'justified,' as if these youth are not human beings, have no right to live, deserve no respect and no future."
From "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have: A Message, And A Call,
How did things get to the current point—with the Taliban resurgent and the U.S. occupiers in trouble and losing ground?
Obama claims that after starting out well things started going badly (i.e., for the U.S. occupiers) in Afghanistan for two reasons. First, "in early 2003, the decision was made to wage a second war in Iraq... for the next six years, the Iraq war drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy, and our national attention..." Second, while the Karzai regime is "a legitimate government ... elected by the Afghan people," according to Obama, "it's been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces."
What about this explanation? Yes, resources were diverted to the war in Iraq. But without getting into a full analysis of the trajectory of the Afghanistan war, it's important to note that this isn't the essential reason for the Taliban's resurgence and its ability to "control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan" as Obama put it. There are deeper reasons which have to do with what U.S. capitalism-imperialism brings to the world and countries like Afghanistan.
The first is the brutality of the U.S. occupation. U.S. forces—hailed as heroes by Obama—have committed countless atrocities in Afghanistan—from bombing wedding parties, to murdering civilians, to humiliating Afghans with house-to-house searches, to locking people up in U.S.-controlled dungeons, where torture, illegal detention, and rendition have been in effect.
Here's one example. On August 22, 2008, the people in Azizabad, a small village in western Afghanistan, were asleep when U.S. forces attacked—first with guns, then air strikes. By the next morning, according to UN investigators, over 90 people had been massacred, including 60 children and 15 women. There have been many such massacres during the course of the war—most recently on September 9 of this year when 100-200 were killed in one attack in Kunduz province. While there are no precise figures for the number of Afghan casualties (in part because the U.S. military refuses to release – and perhaps doesn't even count -- them), studies have been done that give a glimpse of the scope of the carnage. Prof. Marc Herold documented 3,000-3,400 civilian deaths, mainly as a result of U.S. bombing, during the first six months of the war alone. The Guardian UK (11/19/09) estimates that 6,584 civilians were killed (by both the U.S. coalition and the Taliban) between Jan. 2006-Oct. 2009. Womens' rights activist and former member of the Afghan Parliament Malalai Joya states that 8,000 civilians have been killed in the war. (Democracy Now!, 10/28/2009)
These crimes have strengthened the Taliban. The Taliban for its part has used a combination of strong-arming people combined with playing upon the nationalist sentiments of the masses (particularly the Pashtun nationality in Afghanistan), as well as the appeal of "traditional Islam" in a society that has been deeply shattered, to take advantage of this.
Second, the warlords, landlords, tribal chiefs and pro-U.S. power brokers in Afghanistan are widely hated for preying on, exploiting and brutalizing the Afghan people. A prime example is Karzai's own brother—Ahmad Wali Karzai, who was put in charge of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. He's a major warlord and drug trafficker—and also on the CIA payroll.
It was not until 2005 that the Taliban began to mount an offensive against the occupation in earnest; the U.S. occupation forces and their hand-picked lackeys had years to show they could improve life for the Afghan people. But they didn't do it. Why? Because the U.S. imperialists were not in Afghanistan to liberate the people or develop the country; they were in Afghanistan to achieve their global objectives: to defeat al Qaeda and to create a pro-U.S. regime that would not destabilize neighboring countries and would be amenable to U.S. regional objectives.
And there is a deeper reason here. You cannot "improve life" for the Afghan people without uprooting the traditional social relations, and the class forces that benefit from those relations, which have held the masses in subjugation and darkness for centuries. Imperialism introduces great instability into oppressed nations, driving peasants off land and into the cities, and often introducing education to a broader section of masses (in order to modernize some sectors of the society). This is a byproduct of, and a necessity for, the implantation of capitalist relations in predominantly feudal societies. In doing this, imperialism relies on the former ruling forces and new elites to keep a lid on the upheaval ("to manage the transition," in their words)—that is, to prevent masses from raising their heads and rebelling against the exploitation, the dispossession, and the backward relations and ideas that still hold the society and its people in their grip. Imperialism relies on, and must rely on, the very forces, in other words, that benefit from either the old traditional forms of oppression or the new "market-based" ones—and sometimes both.
The kind of revolution that would decisively move to uproot those relations—the kind of revolution that would rely on and unleash the masses to take destiny into their own hands -- would necessarily directly oppose structures of foreign (including U.S.) domination. That's why the U.S. must rely on and further entrench and reinforce very oppressive forces, which do in fact stand in the way of a better life for the people, as a bulwark against any such revolution. A force like the Taliban—which does not actually pose the possibility for a real rupture with those relations of domination and dependence and which represents, often very directly, some of the most backward feudal forces in the country—can "gain traction" in that situation; at least to the point where they win a following among a section of people, and can intimidate the rest into acquiescence.
Third, Obama mentioned that al Qaeda and the Taliban had been able to establish havens in Pakistan. What he did not mention is that the Pakistani state, long backed and funded by the U.S., has actively promoted Islamic fundamentalism as a pillar of its legitimacy, and funded, supported and probably helps direct Jihadist fighters in Afghanistan and in Kashmir as part of its rivalry with India. This has included tolerating, even supporting, the Taliban and al Qaeda. And many in Pakistan are turning to the fundamentalists out of hatred for the dictatorial rule of the military, and the domination of Pakistan by U.S. imperialism, in league with big landlords and capitalists—a domination that has left the vast majority of the population in deep poverty and deprivation.
(While Obama did not spell out his precise plans for Pakistan, a subject we'll be covering in future issues of Revolution, there are widespread reports that he will be escalating the war there too, including through stepped up attacks by drone or unmanned aircraft. The stability of the Pakistani state is of major concern to the imperialists and one of their main reasons for escalating in Afghanistan.)
Again, these are the kinds of relations and regimes the U.S. promotes around the world. And Obama is not breaking from this practice—he's escalating it, as we'll discuss below.
While Obama spoke out against the war in Iraq in 2002, and rode to the White House based in large part on the credibility among the disaffected with which that endowed him, at West Point he hailed this war as a success and job well done: "Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end ... we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future, and we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people." And his "surge" in Afghanistan is being justified by, and modeled in important ways on, Bush's "successful" surge in Iraq.
Let's take a closer look at what Obama calls "success." The war in Iraq—a war based on lies—cost the lives of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqis; over 4 million have been driven from their homes; the Sunni population—some 20 percent of Iraq's population—has been decimated by the U.S. occupation and a sectarian war of ethnic cleansing unleashed by the reactionary Shi'a forces the U.S. helped empower—an ethnic cleansing with tacit U.S. support. That slaughter, along with cash payments to the defeated Sunni fighters, is at the heart of the "successful" surge in Iraq. Yet Obama did not utter a word about the Iraqi victims of this U.S. aggression. Apparently the only civilians worth talking about in his view are the almost 3,000 killed in the U.S. on September 11.
Obama's treatment of Iraq is typical of his approach throughout his speech. He repeatedly refers to Americans who have lost their lives, but not to those America has killed in its "war on terror," whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or other countries. By doing this, he is rendering totally invisible the enormous toll of people killed by the U.S. In sheer numbers, the U.S. has so far killed something like 200 to 300 people for every American killed in the attacks of 9/11! By rendering these victims invisible and not even worth mentioning, he is training people in this country to see the world as if only American lives count. He is training them, in other words, in the mindset of imperialism.
And what of this new Iraq? The U.S. has brought to power an alliance of reactionary, pro-U.S. Kurdish warlords with reactionary Shi'ite religious parties. Iraq's military and police are dominated by sectarian death squads. Religious fundamentalism has been strengthened and the abuse and subjugation of women—including enforced veiling and legal discrimination -- has intensified and is actually worse than it was under Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, Iraq is being gradually opened up to foreign exploitation– including its vast oil sector. And Iraq's ethnic and religious faultlines have not been healed—and remain volatile and potentially explosive.
The strategy Obama laid out at West Point is not less violent or imperial, nor is it more truthful or humane than Bush's strategy.
The core of Obama's argument for why people should support an escalating and ongoing war in Afghanistan is the same as Bush's: I'm doing it to protect you and your loved ones:
"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.... I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here we were attacked on 9/11 and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak."
"This is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards and al Qaeda can operate with impunity."
Here's the truth. The system Barack Obama is leading cares nothing for human life—whether those living within its borders or those living outside. It has demonstrated this for the 200-plus years of its existence by its actions in every corner of the globe. Its workings have savaged millions upon millions of lives, whether through outright killing or condemning people to lives of exploitation and destitution. The rulers care about people's safety only to the degree that it impacts on their power, legitimacy, and grip on the population.
"Our security" and "way of life" is based on global exploitation and plunder in the interests of a relative handful of imperialists. Crumbs from this plunder are used to pacify and/or retain the loyalty of a large section of the "home" population. The privileges accorded to a large section of Americans are based on the parasitical exploitation of billions. And this parasitical exploitation, in turn, rests on highly repressive, and widely hated, political structures in oppressed or Third World countries—like the Karzai regime in Afghanistan—imposed by the U.S. to enforce its strategic interests and meet the needs of global capital.
Our "security" and "way of life" also rests on the grinding exploitation of tens of millions of people within the U.S. itself, with millions of immigrants denied any rights whatsoever and declared outlaws and millions of others living in desperate circumstances, seeking jobs and a way to live and often consigned to a life of crime and punishment. This too is reinforced by both raw force carried out by the repressive institutions of the police, prisons and army—the instruments of dictatorship, to be scientific—and by the ideas promoted through the schools, media, religious institutions, etc. So Obama's talk of "we"—as if everyone living within the borders of the U.S. shares common interests and a common cause, as if "we're all in this together"—covers over the real divisions in the world and within the U.S. It's a framework and way of looking at the world that hides the most fundamental facts about society and how it operates, and instead aims to win people to go against their own most basic interests—which actually consist of a world without one nation dominating another, a world without exploitation, and a world without all the relations and poisonous ideas that flow out of and reinforce those relations-- in short, a communist world.
This "we-have-to-protect-our-way-of-life" outlook is poison—and promoting this outlook among both the most oppressed and more enlightened sectors of society—is Obama's special role, and special talent, for the rulers. If this speech does nothing else, it must serve as a way for those who do know better to break those who should know better out of this outlook.
So people shouldn't join the imperialists in "threat assessments" to their system, much less rally to its defense. But even if you take this selfish and ultimately complicitous standard—the "safety of the American people"—as your own, Obama's strategy—which will greatly increase the violence brought to bear against the people of Afghanistan—will further stoke hatred of the U.S. and support for Islamic fundamentalism.
Toward the end of his speech, summing things up, Obama said: "We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation's resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours." This is double-talk aimed at obscuring how the system operates. First of all, when it suits their needs and interests, the imperialists will massively occupy countries for years, even decades—as they're doing right now with 100,000 troops in Iraq and perhaps even more in Afghanistan! At the same time, modern empires have many other tools for shaping the destinies of countries and entire regions without direct occupations.
And though the U.S. doesn't try to "claim resources" due to differences in "faith and ethnicity"—it does seek to control key resources (and indeed whole economies!) to further its strategic contention with other rivals and to maintain the functioning of U.S. capitalism—no matter the faith or ethnicity of its victims. And imperialism does enforce national oppression—against oppressed peoples (what Obama refers to as "ethnic" groups) right within its borders, and overall by forcibly perpetuating the national oppression and subordination of most countries in the world to imperialism. The history of the U.S. empire—from its genocide against the native peoples, the use of Africa as a hunting ground for the slaves who built its wealth, the theft of huge sections of Mexico, and its numerous invasions of other countries, clearly illustrates this—and clearly contradicts Obama's assertion. And a key element of the entire "war on terror" has been to seize greater access to crucial energy resources: in Afghanistan to further U.S. contention with Russia in particular over oil and gas pipelines; in Iraq to open up the country's vast oil resources to international capital.
Obama ended his speech with a stark assessment of the difficulties confronting the empire, and a call for the kind of support the rulers had following 9/11:
"[W]e as a country cannot sustain our leadership nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse. It's easy to forget that, when this war began, we were united, bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear. I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again."
Unity like we had after 9/11? If you recall, that was a time of a lynch-mob atmosphere of chauvinist hysteria, fear-mongering, and the suppression of any critical thinking about why the 9/11 attacks happened and what should be done about them, and any critical resistance to the crimes the U.S. empire was preparing before our eyes. Wars were launched on the basis of lies. Basic freedoms were severely truncated, and in some cases eliminated. Now, eight years later, after the horrors of what that "unity" and support for America brought to the world—over a million dead in Iraq, legalized torture, and the devastation of Afghanistan—why would anyone with a shred of concern for humanity want to repeat THAT chapter in U.S. history?
But that's precisely what Obama has called on people to do—to blindly get behind the empire as it violently forges ahead in Afghanistan and globally. Obama's course is a criminal course; to fall blindly behind this, or to merely express trepidation or opposition and then impotently shrug your shoulders... especially for those who knew better when Bush did the same... is nothing less than complicity.
People need to do just the opposite. We have pointed to the fundamentally antagonistic interests, worldwide and within this country, concealed and obscured by talk of "we the people," and by the chauvinist notion that American lives are more valuable than those of other people. The imperialists are pursuing their interests, and we've had eight years to see where that all leads—whoever the President is. It is time and past time to see that these interests are directly opposed to those of humanity as a whole ... and to take up and fight for those larger interests.
Obama spoke the truth when he said America was "passing through a time of great trial," and in the midst of "storms." These storms are due to the workings of imperialism and the whole cauldron of contradictions the U.S. "war on terror" has set roiling in the Middle East and Central Asia in particular, as well as to the most profound financial crisis since the 1930s.
If anything positive for humanity is going to come out of this "time of trial" it will happen because millions of people refuse to heed Obama's call and refuse to choose between supporting either imperialism or Islamic fundamentalism. It will happen—and it will only happen—if people instead can be led to break out of the entire framework set by this current clash. Humanity does need another way, in the interests of the people. This means revolution and it requires the broadest and most determined possible resistance to this criminal escalation.
With the whole world watching, Obama and the U.S. rulers have been openly debating just how much force and violence they should bring to bear against the people of Afghanistan. Now the whole world is going to be watching what the people in the U.S. do when it's decided to escalate and continue this war of conquest and empire. Will they resist? Or will they passively go along? Will they shed their delusions about Obama, face reality and judge him by what he's actually doing, not his false narratives, his empty promises, and his double-talk?
* The Soviet Union had actually been born through a revolution in 1917, and had embarked on building a socialist society and working toward a communist world. But, through a complex series of struggles, new bourgeois forces within the communist party there seized power and capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union by the mid-1950s. By the time we are referring to, it had become a capitalist-imperialist power and leader of its own bloc, which was clashing very sharply with the U.S. for global predominance during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. For more on this see Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, February 2009, available online at revcom.us. [back]
From Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda on the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (documentation and endnotes can be found in the book)
On U.S. National Security Strategy
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF A TALK BY BOB AVAKIAN, CHAIRMAN OF THE REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST PARTY, USA, FALL 2009
[Editors' note: The following is the second in a series of excerpts from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian in Fall 2009, which is being serialized in Revolution. The first excerpt appeared in Revolution #184, November 29, 2009. The entire talk can be found online at revcom.us/avakian/driving.]
This "pyramid analysis" was first put forward more than five years ago now, in the question-and-answer session of the "Revolution" talk (Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About).1 To briefly summarize this, the point is that you can conceive of the political structures and the way that they relate to the larger society in the U.S. as something of a pyramid: At the top you have the ruling class forces, which, speaking in broad strokes and for general purposes, are divided on the one hand into the Republican Party and on the other hand the Democratic Party, and what these parties represent in terms of "conservatism" and "liberalism" (about which I'll have more to say a little bit later); and then, continuing the metaphor of the pyramid, you have lines extending (or angling) from the top of the pyramid, where the ruling class sits with its two basic wings, down to the social bases that these different wings of the bourgeoisie at the top of the pyramid seek to appeal to—on the one side the "right," and on the other side the "left," in the terms that are utilized commonly in the framework of bourgeois politics. These two ruling class forces, and the political parties that generally represent them, appeal to people on the two sides of this pyramid, in terms of seeking their votes; and they also, at times at least, appeal to them to become politically active—but always within the framework of the dominant capitalist system, and on terms conforming to the interests of the ruling capitalist class, of which both of these political parties are representatives.
What has been further pointed out in regard to this pyramid is not only that you can roughly conceive of the dominant or "mainstream" politics in terms of this kind of division, but also that on one side of the pyramid—that is, the openly right-wing side—the politicians of the ruling class who sit on top of that side of the pyramid are perfectly willing to, and often do, mobilize a social base "on their side of the pyramid"—right-wing and in fact fascist forces—which we see happening today in the context of what's going on with the Obama presidency in particular. These right-wing politicians (generally grouped within the Republican Party) can, will, and do actively mobilize this essentially fascist social base (and, even while they keep it on something of a leash, it's a long leash) yet, on the other side, the sections of the ruling class that are more generally represented by the Democratic Party are very reluctant to, and in fact resistant to, mobilizing their social base, if you want to put it that way—the base of people whose votes and support in the bourgeois political arena the Democrats seek to gain. This (Democratic Party) side of the ruling class generally is not desirous of—and in fact recoils at the idea of—calling that base into the streets, mobilizing them either to take on the opposing forces in the ruling class and their social base, or in general to struggle for the programs that the Democratic Party itself claims to represent and actually in some measure does seek to implement.
So you have on the one side (the "left" side, to use that term) a significant amount of paralysis, whereby the objective of the ruling class politicians is in fact to pacify and demobilize the people whom they appeal to to vote for them (their "social base" in that sense), whereas on the other side there is a very active orientation toward unleashing, revving up and mobilizing, in a very passionate and active way, the fascist social base that the Republican, right-wing part of the ruling class sees as its social base, or sees as a force it relies on among the population. This is not to say that the people down the sides and at the base of the pyramid, so to speak (the people in the middle strata, let alone those held down at the bottom of society) play any kind of decisive role in determining what the policies and actions of those at the top of society will be; but they are forces which in the one case—in the case of the right-wing politicians, the Republican Party—they're very anxious to mobilize; while, in the case of the other side, the people at the top of the pyramid are anxious to not mobilize into the streets the people they appeal to for support in elections. They are concerned to have this "social base" demobilized and paralyzed politically, other than to act, and very passively at that, within the dominant political framework, and always on the basis of seeking conciliation and compromise with the openly right-wing forces in the ruling class and the fascist base that they appeal to.
As an amplification of the basic point here, it is important to recognize this: Within the framework of the capitalist-imperialist system, and with the underlying dynamics of this system, which fundamentally set the terms, and the confines, of "official" and "acceptable" politics, fascism—that is, the imposition of a form of dictatorship which openly relies on violence and terror to maintain the rule and the imperatives of the capitalist-imperialist system—is one possible resolution of the contradictions that this system is facing—a resolution that could, at a certain point, more or less correspond to the compelling needs of this system and its ruling class—while revolution and real socialism, aiming toward the final goal of communism, throughout the world, is also a possible resolution of these contradictions, but one that would most definitely not be acceptable to the capitalist-imperialist ruling class nor compatible with the imperatives of this system!
All this is the fundamental reason why—as noted by the progressive observer and critic of the mainstream media, Jeff Cohen—it is not only conceivable but in fact very common these days to have "respected" commentators in the mainstream media whose position was captured by the recently deceased Robert Novak, who at one point expressed to Cohen that in the 1950s he (Novak) was an Eisenhower Republican, and every day since then he has gone further to the right; while, Cohen emphasized, it is inconceivable that there could be a regular commentator, treated as a reasonable and respected voice, who, from the other side of the political spectrum, could say: In the early 1960s I was a Kennedy Democrat, and every day since then I have gone further to the left!
To further illustrate what is captured in the "pyramid analysis," let's take an example from contemporary politics, the politics of the last couple of presidencies. Everyone recalls, or should recall, that in 2000 the presidential election was the most contested election at least in recent or modern history in the U.S. The conflict was not resolved on the day the voting took place (or early the next morning), but stretched out and became quite intense for weeks after that, with court cases and battles back and forth about whether Bush or Gore was the legitimate winner in Florida and therefore in the country—with all this finally being decided by a 5 to 4 decision of the Supreme Court.
Significant, and revealing, in terms of what I'm speaking to here—and, as so often happens in American politics, many people have no doubt forgotten this by now—is that in 2000 the conventional wisdom coming from the TV commentators and pundits and so on was uniformly, or at least overwhelmingly, that given the fact that this election was so contested and that it ended up in a highly controversial ruling by a sharply divided Supreme Court; and given, in addition, that Bush didn't even win the popular vote but in fact Gore did; Bush would have to "rule by consensus" and move "toward the center" in how he governed. Noooo. Exactly the opposite was the case. Bush took a very hard line, mobilized a hard core force of his followers in the ruling class and appealed, when he felt that he needed to, to a hard core right-wing, basically fascist, social base to back him up. And the whole notion of compromising with the other forces among the powers-that-be, and in particular those grouped in the Democratic Party ("reaching across the aisle," as they like to say) was not at all the way that Bush approached things, even before the 2004 election when he was "re"-elected and claimed that he had won substantial "political capital" through this election. But for all that time, up to that 2004 election, it was not at all the case, contrary to what was the conventional wisdom, voiced over and over again, that Bush would after all have to rule by consensus and move toward the center.
Now let's contrast that with the present situation. Obama did not become president as a result of a highly contested election, in terms of people calling into question the outcome. The outcome was clear, and by the standards of mainstream bourgeois electoral politics in the U.S., his victory was a decisive one. The result was not in doubt—by late on election night Obama's electoral victory was clear—and there was no controversy about who'd won the vote. On top of that, Obama has a clear majority with him from his party in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. In other words, in the Congress, the Democrats have a clear majority to go along with Obama's decisive victory in the presidential election.2 And yet, over and over again, it's insisted that Obama will have to seek consensus, "reach across the aisle," not become isolated from those who didn't support him, not alienate the Republican Party, and so on and so forth—and Obama acts in accordance with that, over and over again. In fact, whenever Obama carries out the actions that his role as chief executive of U.S. imperialism and commander-in-chief of the imperialist armed forces of the U.S. requires him to carry out, the rationalization that's frequently if not always given, particularly to those who voted for him but are disappointed by these actions, is that Obama, after all, has to compromise, he has to "reach across the aisle," he has to rule by consensus, et cetera, et cetera.
Why is it that, if you look at these two very sharply contrasting examples, logic would seem to indicate that Obama should be able to rule with a clear hand and come out fighting and not have to compromise with the opposition forces within the ruling structures but, in fact, he does constantly compromise with them, and it is repeatedly insisted that he must; whereas Bush, according to "conventional wisdom," should have been compromising and "seeking consensus" yet refused to do so and, in fact, had a more or less free hand in acting in such a way as not to seek compromise and consensus?
To get at this further, and from another important angle, it is necessary to look at some particular characteristics of these social bases, these class forces who tend spontaneously to support the one or the other of the mainstream ruling class political parties. I'll come back later to the divisions within the ruling class itself, and how this influences things in a larger sense, but here I want to return to a famous statement by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, on the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper—and how this relates to repolarization for revolution. It is important to examine carefully what Marx said about this. Not because we're religious types engaging in "hermeneutics" (detailed interpretation of scripture), but because Marx was intentionally precise, and there is profound meaning concentrated in the various things he said in this statement.
There are two essential points—which form a kind of "unity of opposites"—in what Marx said about this in The Eighteenth Brumaire that I want to focus on here. On the one hand, he made the point—the very important point, which we have, for very good reason, repeatedly stressed—that the democratic intellectual in the realm of his or her thinking does not escape the limits and the confines that the shopkeeper cannot escape in practical life. In other words, the democratic intellectuals, in their thinking and philosophy, are still trapped and confined within the framework of commodity relations and capitalism. Even when they conceive of how the world ought to be, and when they conceive of what the rights of people ought to be, when they conceive of the need to redress and correct injustices (or however they would formulate that), they do so within the same delimited framework of commodity relations and capitalist conditions. And in that sense, these democratic intellectuals can't get beyond the framework within which the shopkeeper is confined and entrapped in practical activity, namely, the dynamics of commodity production and exchange and more specifically capitalist economic relations.3
But Marx also makes a point which stands in contradiction to this, because he is being very dialectical: he is looking at the overall picture and the contradictory relations of these things and how they interact. He emphasizes how, although in the final analysis, the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper both are bound within the same confines, in their education and in their way of thinking they may be as far apart as heaven and earth. It is this latter aspect that can be overlooked in the emphasis on the very important conclusion Marx reaches: that they are trapped within the same confines, ultimately—the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper respectively, the one in the case of philosophy and the other in the case of practical life. But it is very important to recognize that the difference—which Marx emphasized as being as far apart as heaven and earth—has real import and ramifications also. It has real political meaning and implications.
The democratic intellectuals, in their political tendencies and political "impulses" (so to speak), are very different from the shopkeeper. And going back to the "pyramid analysis," what we often see, or a general trend that we see, is that these intellectuals, insofar as they are still confined within the dominant bourgeois political framework, tend to line up "on the left" of that framework; in terms of U.S. electoral and bourgeois politics, they tend to be in the camp of the Democratic Party. Not exclusively, but to a very large degree. On the other hand, again not exclusively but to a very large degree, the actual shopkeepers—and using "shopkeepers" more broadly as a metaphor for other small proprietors and small property owners—tend, spontaneously at least, to be in the camp of the other side, to be on the right-wing side of the social division. Especially when they feel their interests are being acutely threatened or called into question, they tend toward the fascist position, toward becoming a social base for fascism.
And this has real importance, in terms of understanding the actual political alignments in the U.S. at any given time, including now, and the challenges this poses in terms of repolarization for revolution. It won't do, just because Marx says that in the final analysis they are confined within the same framework, to ignore the very real differences between the democratic intellectuals and the "shopkeepers," in terms of how they act within that framework politically. Our task, the task viewed from the strategic standpoint of revolution toward the final aim of communism, is on the one hand working and struggling to break the democratic intellectuals out of the bourgeois-democratic framework, even while uniting with them where their democratic sentiments impel, or at least incline, them toward opposing crimes and outrages perpetrated by this system—crimes which, in many instances are, or at least seem to be, in conflict with the proclaimed democratic principles of this system. At the same time, however, it would be wrong and harmful to allow the shopkeepers (again, using that as a metaphor for broader groupings in the middle strata, small proprietors and petty property owners and others in a similar situation, with similar spontaneous sentiments) to simply remain in the camp of reaction, and to gravitate more and more toward fascism. It is necessary, even while recognizing the very real difficulties in this, to maintain a strategic orientation of also seeking to politically win over, or at least politically neutralize, as much as possible, the shopkeepers, understanding that as emblematic of broader petit bourgeois strata.
1. In addition to what is discussed in this talk on the "pyramid analysis," and in part 4 of the DVD Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About, where this "pyramid analysis" was first put forward, see "The Right Wing Populist Eruption: Yes, It Actually IS Racism," in Revolution #178, October 4, 2009; also available online at revcom.us. [back]
2. At times it is said that, although the Democrats have a clear majority in both houses of Congress, they do not have a "filibuster-proof" 60 (out of 100) votes in the Senate. Without going here into all the "fine points" of bourgeois politics in the U.S. (and in particular the mechanics of Congressional procedures and related phenomena) the fact is that during the presidency of George W. Bush the Republicans did not have a "filibuster-proof" majority in the Senate either, and yet Bush and the Republicans were not, on this account, passive or conciliatory in their approach, and on the contrary were very aggressive in pushing their programs and policies and in countering any talk of "filibuster" by the Democrats. The fact that Obama and the Democrats are not now taking the same kind of aggressive stance, but instead are seeking compromise and conciliation with the Republicans, flows from what is discussed here, in regard to the "pyramid analysis."
It is also sometimes argued that Obama does not have a "free hand" to implement the policies he would like to implement because there are "conservative Democrats" in his own party with whom he must compromise on a number of issues. But this is another argument based on bourgeois logic—on the logic of bourgeois politics and the dynamics of capitalist economics which set the terms and determine the limits of those politics. And the fact is that the heads of the Democratic Party itself chose to throw their weight, and finances, behind those "conservative Democrats" in order to get them elected. If it is argued that they had to do so in order to have a majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress, well that is another expression of the same kind of bourgeois logic, and it is, on a deeper level, a circular argument: the Democrats never really tried to best the Republicans by going aggressively after the Republicans on issues around which they are potentially quite vulnerable, but instead, for the reasons touched on here, have conciliated and compromised with them, ceding more and more ground—and then claiming that they cannot beat the Republicans except by ceding yet more ground to them. The crucial question of abortion—where the Democrats have consistently yielded ground to the Republicans politically and ceded the "moral initiative" to them, allowing them to define the issue as one of "the right to life," or even more crudely "baby killing," rather than what is really and essentially at issue: the fundamental right of women to reproductive freedom—sharply illustrates this. And then there is the question of evolution, and more broadly the scientific method and approach to reality, as opposed to the denial of the reality of evolution and generally the flagrant irrationality that to a very significant degree characterizes the thinking and approach of the Republican Party: Instead of vigorously going after the Republicans around this—instead of emphasizing the very basic point that anyone who is so ill-informed and/or so irrational as to deny something as basic as evolution, and everything that is bound up with this in terms of a rational approach to reality (or anyone who would encourage, or cater to, people with such a mentality, rather than struggling to enlighten them about such decisive matters) should not be allowed anywhere near the levers of power, especially in a nuclear-armed country like the U.S.—instead of that kind of approach, the Democrats have sought to avoid confrontations, or even real controversy, around questions like this. Or there is the undeniable, and often overt, racism that is clearly a hallmark of the Republican Party and the mobilization of its base. Why does the Democratic Party and its leadership, including Obama, not call this out for what it is, without equivocation, and wage uncompromising struggle against it? Once more, the reasons for this have to do with what is concentrated in the "pyramid analysis." [back]
3. The following is the quote from Marx, speaking of the relation between the democratic intellectual and the shopkeeper, which is being paraphrased and discussed in the text above: "According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petite bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions...."
As cited in "Ruminations and Wranglings" and in "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That," which is also included as an appendix in the book Phony Communism Is Dead... Long Live Real Communism!, RCP Publications, second (2004) edition. [back]
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
In mid-November, student protests raged at University of California (UC) in response to a drastic increase in student tuition. There were building occupations at UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz. Students took to the streets around campuses, stopping traffic, and in some cases there were skirmishes with the police. Over 120 UC students were arrested in the protests. The protesters were met with police brutality on many campuses. UC students went face-to-face with police in riot gear and there were reports of students being hit with batons, tasered, pepper-sprayed and shot with rubber bullets. There was a spirit of defiance among students in the UC system that was like a breath of fresh air. And big questions got thrown up for debate: What kind of society and what kind of system distorts education in this way? Why did the police attack in this way? What direction should the struggle take?
Tuition for the more than 220,000 UC students will be increased to more than $10,000 per year, a 32 percent fee hike. This does not include books, food and housing which can total up to an additional $30,000. This new tuition is three times what it was 10 years ago and many students will be forced to leave school. It will disproportionately affect Blacks, Latinos and all students with families of lower income. Many of these students are already struggling to stay in school. One student said, "I work two jobs already and I help support my family and I am barely making it now. I will have to leave school by next year...." Another student said, "I can only afford to swipe my card for one meal a day as it is. I will not be able to afford a meal plan next quarter." At UCLA it is an open secret that there are already homeless students living in their cars.
As we go to press, actions continue. On November 24, 200 students occupied Mrak Hall, the administration building at UC Davis to demand no criminal charges against 52 students arrested in a prior occupation of Mrak. These charges were later dropped against all but one student, who had been seriously brutalized by the police. At UC Santa Barbara students, staff and faculty organized Fasting and Fighting Against Tuition Increases from December 2-3 with a vigil, music and poetry, and 27 hours of fasting. An Associated Students/UC Police forum in Berkeley on December 1 was shut down by students who read a statement saying: "Behind every fee increase, a line of riot cops... The privatization of the UC System and the impoverishment of student life... these can be maintained only by the police batons, tasers, barricades and pepper spray. These are two faces of the same thing..." On December 3, protesters interrupted a celebration of the 45th Anniversary of the Free Speech Movement UC Berkeley—one student said, "There are serious issues with the university administration repressing free speech. They didn't support it years ago and they're not supporting it now—that hypocrisy, we don't accept."
The continuing student resistance is important, and deserves broad support. The following is edited from correspondence that Revolution received following the initial wave of protest. It describes much of what happened and the mood and thinking of the students involved.
On November 18, 500 angry students confronted Regents as they met to decide on the fee hikes and budget cuts. The UC Board of Regents (headed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the group that makes policy decisions for the entire UC system. Inside the meeting the Regents cut off public comments and brought in police who arrested at gunpoint students attending the meeting. They then declared their own meeting an unlawful assembly and brought in police to arrest students attending the meeting at gunpoint. Outside the building the university police (UCPD) declared the protest an illegal assembly and charged at protesters with clubs swinging. Fourteen were arrested. At least three students were tasered; some were pepper-sprayed; others were beaten with clubs. Legal observers and others said the police attack was unprovoked.
For many students on all the campuses, this was their first demonstration. And people were angry at the police beatings and their intimidating show of force. There was shock at seeing the police deliberately hurt students who were protesting peacefully. Some said it looked like a police state. At UCLA, there was a lot of anger at the police and at the administration when they initially denied that students were tasered. The students responded by posting cell phone video footage on YouTube. They made enlarged placards showing the UCPD tasering and beating students which said: IS THIS NECESSARY?
The protesters had the support of many campus workers including custodians and service workers. Some Spanish-speaking workers eagerly bought copies of Revolution/Revolución newspaper and wanted to know what was going on at other campuses. They condemned the police attack.
Buses arrived with students fresh from protests on their own campuses (UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, and UC San Diego) on November 18. There was an all-night event called Crisis Fest 2009 held that night and a tent city set up for students from other campuses which also served as a base for the protests.
The students who organized this event saw the fee hikes linked to broader issues. Crisis Fest produced a video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=tI_X-DRvMYc) which included Mario Savio's famous speech at the beginning of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the '60s urging students "to throw their bodies on the gears of the machine." It also showed video of UC President Mark Yudof stating: "In the 1980s, 17 percent of the state budget went to higher education, the UC system, Cal state system and community colleges. Three percent went to prisons. Today 7 percent goes to higher education and 9% goes to prisons."
Organizers of Crisis Fest issued a list of demands in the spirit of the French student protests in 1968, saying: "Our demands are not impossible for us to realize, but they are impossible for this university to realize without collapsing."
Some of the demands were:
"And, despite the good intentions of many teachers, the educational system is a bitter insult for many youth and a means of regimentation and indoctrination overall. While, particularly in some 'elite' schools, there is some encouragement for students to think in 'non-conformist' ways—so long as, in the end, this still conforms to the fundamental needs and interests of the system—on the whole, instead of really enabling people to learn about the world and to pursue the truth wherever it leads, with a spirit of critical thinking and scientific curiosity, education is crafted and twisted to serve the commandments of capital, to justify and perpetuate the oppressive relations in society and the world as a whole, and to reinforce the dominating position of the already powerful. And despite the creative impulses and efforts of many, the dominant culture too is corrupted and molded to lower, not raise, people's sights, to extol and promote the ways of thinking, and of acting, that keep this system going and keep people believing that nothing better is possible."
From "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have: A Message, And A Call,
At 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning, a group of students from UCLA and other campuses occupied Campbell Hall, the first building takeover at UCLA in decades. They chained and barricaded doors and renamed the building Carter-Huggins Hall after two Black Panthers, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, who were murdered there in 1969 by members of the US organization.2
A handwritten statement from the occupiers of Carter-Huggins Hall said:
"We know the crisis is systematic—it reaches beyond the Regents, the criminal budget cuts in Sacramento, beyond the economic crisis, to the very foundations of our society. But we also know that the enormity of the problem is just as often an excuse for doing nothing. We choose to fight back, to resist where we find ourselves, the place where we live and work, our university."
The occupation was controversial, as students discussed and debated the purpose of the occupation and why actions like these are needed.
Campbell Hall is the home of the Academic Advancement Program which assists students from lower economic backgrounds, including many students of color, with tutoring, mentoring and other support services. The Asian Studies and Native American Studies programs are also located there. While some students supported the occupation others opposed the occupation because it interfered with tutoring and scheduled activities that were helping students. Others said they supported the occupation, but thought the target was wrong because the students are all on the same side, and it would have been more effective if it had targeted the administration building.
One of the questions posed by renaming the building after the Black Panthers was how you look at revolution and serving the people versus trying to make it to the top inside the system. One student told Revolution: "A lot of people go to college to make money and to enter into the lifestyle that has been set up for them. These are pathways in life that we have been expected or pressured to follow.... For us this (occupation) represents a break from an underlying philosophy of education and a way to live your life and see the world. A lot of us see huge problems with capitalism.... I think capitalism in general takes the wonder out of life by placing everything in a utilitarian frame where everything has a practical use. It has to have a practical use like a commodity. Everything is put into terms of a commodity that is worth a certain amount on a scale of value. For a lot of us it takes away what is wondrous and joyful in this world and what provides mystery in this world. In an artistic sense it [the occupation] was a beautiful thing.... This was everybody's first time doing an occupation and there were logistical considerations to choosing this building.... There was some political significance which some people really missed. Two Black Panthers were killed here. We had a huge banner naming the building after the Black Panthers. It was extremely artistic."
On Thursday November 19, the Regents announced their decision to approve the fee increase to an angry crowd of over 2,000 students from the all over the state. There was a spirit of resistance, and students who definitely did not want business as usual at UCLA. A defiant march took off into the city around the campus and students sat in at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood (one of the busiest intersections in the country) completely halting traffic as UCPD threatened them with arrest.
In a tense stand-off with police that lasted several hours, the building where the Regents were meeting, was surrounded by students chanting, "No Hikes, No Fees, Education should be Free!" On the other side of the building there was a "block-in" as protesters sat in the street and blocked vans transporting regents. When they finally brought UC president Yudof out of the building they tasered students to clear the way.
In this mix of all this there was debate and struggle over the message and call from the Revolutionary Communist Party: "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have." The sentiment expressed in the banner "The Capitalist System is a Disaster, A Better World is Possible, Revolution is the Solution" resonated with some students. Broadly, there were many students who were trying to think outside of the framework of the current system, questioning the viability of capitalism, and relating the fee hikes and education to broader issues like prisons and the war. And there was a certain openness to radical change and revolution.
Together with this, there was debate among the students over the role and need for leadership. Some of the students, including those who were involved in the most determined actions, believe in leaderless movements. Another student said he saw the need for leadership to make the revolution, but raised that leaders go bad and it was the communist party structure that seemed to be the downfall of communist countries because it gave too much power to a small group.
Others felt like one young Latina who said: "If we all just project our anger and you overthrow someone and you do not have an effective system of government after the revolution we would end up in chaos. We would end up where we came from, if not worse. We have to have leaders who are not going to be in it for the purpose of themselves but for the benefit of the people as a whole, the benefit of humanity as a whole not just a Black person, a white person , a Latino person but for humanity as a whole because we are all human. These races are things that have been socially constructed. So if we could organize and have a plan that would overthrow the true oppressor, I do think it would change things and I think it would be a solution . I am always telling my friends 'Que viva la Revolución' Let the revolution live!"
Wednesday, the first day of the strike, there was a rally of over 2,000 students, followed by a march through the city of Berkeley. Then, early Friday morning, 40 students took over Wheeler Hall, one of the largest and well-known class room buildings. They demanded the university rescind its decision to raise fees 32 percent and reinstate 38 custodians who had been laid off due to budget problems.
When word got out that students had taken over a building, supporters gathered outside. By evening over 2,000 supporters were outside the building. As negotiations were going on with those students inside the building, the UCPD joined by Berkeley police and the Alameda County Sheriff TAC squad began to mass. Barricades were put up to keep supporters away from the building. Then the police attacked with batons, pepper spray, and in one instance a rubber bullet. All of this was filmed by local TV stations that have continued to play this footage of the attack over and over.
One woman said the police struck her with a baton and broke her hand as she was holding onto a barricade. Another woman was hit in the face by a baton. The TV news interviewed a student with a large red welt on his stomach; he had been shot by a rubber bullet after being punched by a baton. One student described seeing a woman get hit on the head causing a big gash and another got trampled by police pushing the metal barricades into students.
The university police stormed Wheeler Hall and cleared out the occupiers; they released the 40 students after citing them for misdemeanor trespass. By Saturday, there began to be some public outcry against the level of attack on the students. Monday, the UCB administration called for an "investigation" into whether or not excessive force had been used against the students.
There is a history of the UCB administration responding in this way to any kind of disruption. The students step out even a little, and there is a disproportionate response. The administration seems to want to be sure that a student movement that has any teeth is crushed before it can get off the ground. But the first response on the part of the students has not been to back off, but to continue the fight.
Many students sense the struggle around education is connected to much deeper issues. Some spoke to the similarities between the violence of the baton-wielding cops at Cal and the photos in Revolution #170 of police beating up a Black man and the victims of American warplanes in Iraq. "Yeah, for a long time I really didn't think democracy was real in this country but I never really considered it a dictatorship based on rule by force. But when you really think about it, it is a dictatorship."
Another said, "It's so weird how you see thousands of students, workers, and faculty demonstrating against the cuts and fee increases while a tiny handful of guys protected by hundreds of cops have the power to make the decisions that count." Someone else agreed the fee increases were connected to much bigger issues: people losing their homes and jobs from the economic meltdown and even the war. "Obama is talking about sending in thousands of troops to kill more people in Afghanistan. He's not talking about cuts. It's fucked."
An announcement of the anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz by Native Americans also highlighted some of these connections. One student said that it was so refreshing to hear someone call the U.S. "monstrous." While there was an openness in the charged atmosphere and a sense among many that it would take some kind of revolution to really change things, a number of people commented that it was hard to imagine that revolution was possible. Several thought communism has been tried and failed, though a number of students pointed out that they definitely thought it would be a good idea if people could live cooperatively in a society that took care of people's needs. One student said as he took the paper and flyers: "I'm so glad you're raising this. I never thought people were talking seriously about this in this country. We do need a revolution."
Throughout this past week, the revolutionaries have been out among the students with "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have." Questions came up about whether revolution is possible since this system has existed for many years and it seems too difficult to change it. Others had questions about the socialist experience and whether some group would come to power and then rule in the same way as the system that was overthrown.
One student said, "Yes, I do agree that the media lies about almost everything, but then why did communism fail where it was tried?" He said that he had never before heard that socialist revolution was truly liberating and was intrigued that Bob Avakian, a former student at Cal himself, had gone deeply into the achievements, but also the shortcomings of socialism and how much this had to do with both making and continuing the revolution to communism.
Over the weekend, the faculty began circulating a letter condemning the violence on the part of the police and demanding an investigation.
On Monday about 60 people marched from Oakland downtown to the courthouse where three people arrested during Friday's occupation were to be arraigned on felony burglary charges. More people gathered in the next hour. Someone came out and announced that charges had been dropped, but perhaps new charges could be filed. Then they marched through downtown Oakland to the police station where the 40 occupiers were being arraigned. As they marched, the Black masses wanted to know what this was about and were shocked to learn that the police had attacked these people. And they showed their support for the students and hatred for the police (www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbeboETl2UY).
While at the courthouse, a group of students got to talking. One freshman who had been in the occupation said his parents disapprove of him getting arrested and that he was looking forward to an interesting Thanksgiving dinner. Another student said he has been involved in the protests and wants to step up his activity but is really conflicted because his parents oppose his being involved and they are immigrants who have sacrificed for him to attend college. At the same time he says he wants to participate for the future of all students because it is the right thing to do. A Chicano student said he felt that whatever happened to them was worth it; they were involved in something really important. The students have a sense that something big has begun. And now that the normalcy of the everyday has been broken, they are really interested in talking about big societal questions. And they are outraged at the police brutality. One woman said she would take a thousand baton strikes for the cause. This is the spirit of the students, a lot of anger and defiance.
1. The mainstream media has given prominent play to Yudof's claims that promised small increases in financial aid will cover tuition for students with family incomes of up to $70,000 a year, and that financial aid will cover as much as half of the tuition for students from families earning between $70,000 and $120,000 a year, with some minimal financial aid for students from families earning up to $180,000 a year. Yudof claims that the increases are "really more of an upper-middle class issue." These claims are both false and ideologically reactionary. They have been refuted by students who have spoken out widely about how the tuition increases will drive them out of school. An article at the website of the American Federation of Teachers at UC Berkeley itemized the actual costs of a UC education and concluded that the tuition increases will "price attendance at a UC out of the reach of not only low-income students and their families, but beyond the reach of the vast majority of working families, including even many upper-middle income families." ("Why We Must Stop the Fee Increases," by Mike Rotkin). On an ideological level, Yudof's (false) claim that the tuition increases are "an upper-middle class issue" has been taken up and amplified with a vengeance by reactionary populist forces who are filling their blogosphere with rants of outrage at the idea that education is a right, and attack the protesting students as "spoiled brats [who] want the beleaguered taxpayers of California to continue to over subsidize their education." In the context of all this, the demand and spirit of "free education for all" is important and most welcome. [back]
2. Los Angeles Black Panther Party (BPP) leader Bunchy Carter, and John Huggins – another Black Panther Party member – were assassinated at a Black Student Union meeting at Campbell Hall on January 17, 1969 in the midst of a confrontation with a group called the US organization. These murders were orchestrated by the FBI. In 1976, in the context of seeking to assuage public outrage at FBI repression during the '60s, and in the midst of conflict within the ruling class over the role of the FBI, a U.S. Senate investigation (the "Church Commission Report") officially acknowledged a "covert FBI program to destroy the Black Panther Party." The Church Report documented that "high officials of the FBI desired to promote violent confrontations between BPP members and members of other groups." And that the FBI forged and sent "anonymous letters and caricatures to BPP members ridiculing the local and national BPP leadership" for the purpose of setting up violent attacks on the Panthers. The Church Report officially revealed that this operation "resulted in the killing of four BPP members [including Carter and Huggins] by members of US and in numerous beatings and shootings." (Source: "Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports On Intelligence Activities and the Rights Of Americans, Book III, Final Report Of the Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations With Respect To Intelligence Activities," April 23, 1976, Section: "The FBI's Covert Action Program To Destroy The Black Panther Party"). [back]
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
World government leaders are meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark from December 7-18, 2009 to discuss global warming. This has raised the hopes of many throughout the world. But the dominant players in Copenhagen are more concerned with preserving the capitalist system and gaining competitive advantage—than saving the planet. And what's not on the summit's agenda are the real dimensions of the environmental crisis, the underlying causes, and what's needed to actually solve this problem.
Planet Earth is facing an extreme and urgent emergency. An impending catastrophe looms. The very things life on this planet depend on—the ecosystems of plants, animals, water, soil, and air—are being destroyed, compromised and changed forever.
The atmosphere and oceans are heating up because of the burning of coal, oil and gas, and the destruction of rainforests. Glaciers and polar ice are melting at an accelerating rate. Increased global warming will mean more powerful hurricanes, and shifts in weather patterns. In Africa where huge sections of humanity already suffer from war, poverty, and lack of food—this will mean even more devastating droughts.
The very fate of the planet is at stake. It is a scientific fact: there will be even bigger, dramatic and irreversible destruction of the planet's ecosystems, unless there are huge and global changes in the way humanity interacts with the environment.
Today 50% of the world's forests are gone. The remaining rainforests contain the richest diversity of species on earth (related organisms that can interbreed). But they are being wiped out at an astonishing rate. The current loss of species is estimated to be 1,000 times the natural or normal rate that species go extinct. Water, air and soil all over the world are severely polluted. Virtually every person on the planet has detectable levels of toxic substances such as pesticides that are known to cause cancer, birth defects and other harmful health effects. In the world's vast oceans, 75% of fisheries are being fished to capacity or over-fished. The oceans themselves are warming and becoming more acidic from absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air. This threatens coral reefs which are home to some of the earth's richest ocean life. Dead zones where life no longer exists are expanding in the oceans.
The U.S. accounts for 5% of the world's population, but 25% of global carbon emissions. The rich capitalist countries of the world are responsible for the great bulk of environmental destruction. But those who suffer the greatest consequences of this are poor people in the Third World.
The planet is being destroyed not because of some "natural process" or "greedy human nature," but because of the nature and workings of a capitalist-imperialist system that treats nature as just one more resource to be exploited and poured into production for profit.
Capitalism cannot deal with the environment in a sustainable or rational way and plan for future generations. Its logic is "profit above all," "expand or die." Its economy is driven by ruthless competition between capitalists constantly trying to gain advantage over other competitors. This is why the capitalist "answer" to the problem of 20% of humanity having no access to clean water is to privatize water and sell it for profit.
The very nature of capitalist production is private and the economy is made up of many competing "capitals," each only concerned with its own expansion. When capitalist interests cut down rainforests for timber and to make palm oil, neither the massive amounts of carbon released into the environment or the destruction of the habitat of the orangutan and Sumatran tiger (and many other species) are even part of the calculations.
Tremendous productive forces and technology already exist that could be used to address the environmental crisis. And most importantly, there are billions of people all over the world, with their vast knowledge and potential creativity, who could be mobilized, led and unleashed to figure out how to put a stop to the way the earth is being destroyed.
To save the very fate of the planet we need revolution—to bring into being socialist societies aimed at a communist world. Under socialism, humanity can interact with the environment in a rational and sustainable way, consciously regulate production, and reverse and transform environmental devastation. In a socialist society ownership and control of production is socialized and there is a planned economy aimed at serving the needs of the people, not profit. The preservation of ecosystems would be integrated as a central priority in economic planning and development. And people will be educated and imbued with a sense of appreciation and responsibility for the protection of the environment.
Under socialism, the masses of people are the single greatest resource. And with all of their creative energy, knowledge and concern, the people can be mobilized to struggle out, discuss, argue and debate, and work together to figure out how to build a society that truly safeguards humanity and the very life of the planet itself. In this way, human society can appreciate the wild, wondrous beauty and complexity of nature and consciously act as guardians of the planet.
Socialist societies have made advances in developing the economy in a rational and ecologically more sound way—but much more is needed and also possible. Bob Avakian, the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, has been developing a re-envisioned socialism and communism—a more vibrant and scientific communism that provides a solid basis to go much further and do much better in building a truly emancipating society, including on the environmental front.
If you want a world where people live and flourish...where we act together as caretakers of the globe...where we preserve and enhance the wild and natural world...get with this revolution, and spread it right now. The very fate of the planet and humanity is at stake...and we have a whole world to win.
The environment and human destiny itself is being taken to the brink of disaster.
One of the world's leading climatologists has spoken out about the upcoming Copenhagen climate summit, saying it would be better for the planet and future generations if the summit collapsed.
James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the UK Guardian newspaper that the climate negotiations are so deeply flawed that it would be better to start over. Hansen said, "I would rather it not happen if people accept that as being the right track because it's a disaster track." He also said, "We don't have a leader who is able to grasp [the issue] and say what is really needed. Instead we are trying to continue business as usual." Hansen is highly critical of Barack Obama—and even Al Gore—who is promoted as a big savior of the environment.
Keep in mind that Hansen was one of the first scientists to sound the alarm about the danger of global warming in the late 1970s, and has done groundbreaking scientific research on the subject. He has been an outspoken voice, telling people the truth about what is happening to the Earth's climate and the dangers posed by the energy practices of the world's largest economies, not least the U.S. He has stood firm despite attacks from powerful forces. The Bush administration repeatedly tried to suppress Hansen's views and to prevent his findings and recommendations from reaching the broader public.
Hansen's characterization of the looming danger of global warming is very important for people to hear:
About the Copenhagen Summit's stated goal of reaching some kind of compromise agreement in dealing with global warming caused by the energy practices of the world's economies, Hansen said this:
The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press 2008
The End of the Wild, Stephen Meyer, the MIT Press 2006
The Empty Ocean, Richard Ellis, Island Press 2003
"G8 to Earth: Drop Dead," Revolution #171, August 2, 2009
"Capitalism, the Environment and Ecology Under Socialism," Raymond Lotta, Revolution #52, June 26, 2006
"How the Palm Oil Industry is Cooking the Climate," Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org), November 2007
Reflections, Sketches, and Provocations, Bob Avakian, page 46, Text 9, "The Land Question in the Final Analysis Is a Global Question, or What a Look at a World Map Is Good For"
"Global Warming: the Earth Cries Out for Revolution," Revolution #108, Nov. 11, 2007
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
From a Former Prisoner:
We greatly appreciate receiving these letters from prisoners and encourage prisoners to keep sending us correspondence. The viewpoints expressed here are those of the writers and not Revolution newspaper.
The following is from a reader of Revolution newspaper who spent many years in prison:
Revolution newspaper is very important to those locked up. When you read the letters from prisoners you can see how this paper is a catalyst that is opening up minds and these people are thinking about things you don't normally be thinking about in prison. That is what is so good about it. Reading this paper, especially the articles by Bob Avakian, make things clear and it will change you. That's what's happening with me. This is very good.
These cats (prisoners) are individuals, very different in ways, but when they start reading that paper and spreading it to other inmates, they are in a process that can build up a revolutionary movement and change their lives. You can see it in their letters. The paper has an awakening effect on people. They start struggling against the old ideas they use to have and they start seeing the world in a different way. The newspaper gives you the idea that the world can be changed and you can change...
When I first tried to understand what Bob Avakian was talking about with the two outmoded ideologies and systems, Islamic Fundamentalism and Imperialism, I said "Damn!" this is something. And Islamic Fundamentalism, I really didn't understand what that was until I started reading Revolution. The oppression of women, backward ideas, fighting to go back not forward, reading what was in the paper really helped me. This is not a national liberation struggle or something good. It's not part of any solution for humanity. And, imperialism is not only no better, it's even worse. We need to put communism and real revolution on the map. This is something way different from Imperialism and Islamic Fundamentalism. Where are you going to find out about this, not in the Daily News or the New York Times, or these other movement newspapers. People, and not just people locked up, need Revolution and Avakian's leadership. I felt I can explain it to people. It's clearer now...
People think about all kinds of mad crazy shit in prison. Believe me. The newspaper gives people humanity to think about, it helps you understand what's going on, and gives you something to grab hold to. Is this system really doing this shit to people and it doesn't have to keep going like this? If yes, then we should stop it. One person is saying (in his letter) that he has learned that everything is interconnected. That is in the letter by the cat who likes science. Well that is science what he's saying. Everything is interconnected. In prison they give you nothing good to think about. But this brother is reading Bob Avakian and Stephen Hawking, in prison! This is real hope for the future...
I read a few books on Mao. I read all this crap, "Mao killed 50 million, 70 million," it was confusing. It kind of made me lose my faith in a way, my belief that communism could work. I don't mean faith in a religious way. I mean hope that we could change things. I came into contact with people outside of prison who call themselves socialists and they didn't have answers. They did not see that we need a new wave of communist revolution. I don't think they think real revolution can be made. I was thinking about how do you argue against people who say that socialism can't work—it failed in the Soviet Union—it failed in China. You hear this and you start questioning yourself. Is this true? It made you feel like throwing your hands up sometimes. I was influenced by this stuff. I guess my Marxism was eclectic.
Not too long ago, in the last year, there were these articles about China and Mao in Revolution and that helped me a lot. I learned that revolution did not fail, it was defeated, and there is a big difference between the two, but if you are not reading this paper, you won't know this. You will get pulled backward. I started reading Conquer the World?, and From Ike to Mao, Ruminations, and the new Manifesto. I've learned a lot. Now I feel like I can answer some of the shit people have been brainwashed to believe...
I used to always have trouble with leadership and I was influenced by other lines there too. One of the most important things I've learned from Revolution is that you need leadership. I heard people say there was a cult of personality around Bob Avakian. I'm thinking, that's not good. I mean that is what some people say. But I started reading the paper and talking to people with the RCP, and looking at the world, and watching the DVD, and reading BA, and looking at what other political lines have to say, and I came to the conclusion myself. This dude Bob Avakian is more knowledgeable than the average cat on the streets, or the average leader. He really is on a different level. No bullshit. He's into it, he learned from the BPP, he was digging into all about Mao and past revolutions, and how communism can go even higher this time. He's in a better position than me and anybody I know to lead a real revolution. He went from Ike to Mao and he stayed with this shit. One of the key points to putting Bob Avakian on the map is that people have to see that there is leadership. And we are not talking about that "slave feet" leadership that marches people in circles to let off steam and then go home. Avakian is about trying to figure this shit out. There is no denying that this brother's got a handle on what's going on and he can make it clear to you.
If communism is hanging on by a string in the world right now, if it is that serious and I believe it is, it's the RCP and Bob Avakian that can get us in a stronger position so we can have more revolution. I can see that...
I used to think revolution and communism was inevitable. It's gonna happen someday. All I got to do is lay back for the right time... But if you are reading From Ike to Mao, Ruminations, and the newspaper, you can see that this ain't a waiting around kind of party. You have to fight for revolution. You can't sit back. You got to wait like a crouching tiger. The RCP got a group of dedicated people, really, really working hard for this. I think that is part of the scaffolding for revolution too. More people got to join this or it could be lost. That's scary.
I spent a lot of time reading, studying, and thinking about all this. It has been a long journey from the first political book somebody handed me in prison, Soledad Brother, to now and I have to go further...
I want to say to all prisoners as somebody who has spent a good portion of his life behind bars, and as somebody who reads this newspaper every week, study this newspaper, spread it, be around revolutionary minded people while you are inside. Get even more into revolution when you get out. I know for a fact if you don't get more into revolution this system can pull you back into the very shit you don't want to do or be. Get with the organization that is providing real leadership when you get out. Get with the Party. And for humanity's sake, let's make revolution as soon as we can.
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
A Roundtable with Revolution newspaper about the new film, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, with Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler (filmmakers and two youngest daughters of Bill Kunstler); Margaret Ratner Kunstler, progressive lawyer and Sarah and Emily's mom; Michael Ratner, president of Center for Constitutional Rights, an important legal advocacy organization cofounded by Bill Kunstler; and Yusef Salaam, exonerated in a rape case known as "the Central Park jogger case1"—Yusef spent years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Bill Kunstler was his lawyer.
The Revolution Interview is a special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.
Revolution newspaper had the opportunity to sit down with the filmmakers of and key participants in an important and moving new documentary about William Kunstler, a radical lawyer who stood out for his courage and daring, and whose legacy people need to learn from and carry forward. It opens in select theatres across the country Friday, November 20. This film needs to be seen and supported.
Here's the synopsis: "In William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe filmmakers Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler explore the life of their father, the late radical civil rights lawyer. In the 1960s and 70s, Kunstler fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. and represented the famed 'Chicago 8' activists who protested the Vietnam War. When the inmates took over Attica prison, or when the American Indian Movement stood up to the federal government at Wounded Knee, they asked Kunstler to be their lawyer.
"To his daughters, it seemed that he was at the center of everything important that had happened. But when they were growing up, Kunstler represented some of the most reviled members of society, including rapists and assassins. This powerful film not only recounts the historic causes that Kunstler fought for; it also reveals a man that even his own daughters did not always understand, a man who risked public outrage and the safety of his family so that justice could serve all."
Revolution: Could you begin with what made you want to make this film?
Emily Kunstler: Sarah and I were having a lot of conversations around the 10th anniversary of our father's death. We had been making advocacy films for people in prison for about 7 years. And we were seeing some impact. But, we came into filmmaking through our activism. So we were thinking about our role, and whether that was the place for us to make the greatest impact. Thinking about our influences. We were thinking about history, and the way people learn from history. And the way that, as a culture, we don't seem to be learning from history today. So we began for the first time really, in our lives, to think about the work we were doing in respect to the work that our father had done. We thought about recording the voices of people that he worked with, of sharing these stories, and talking about issues we felt were so important to us today and were being ignored. The civil rights movement at that time, and currently, is being looked on as sort of a bygone chapter. And we reward ourselves as a culture for accomplishing things without thinking about the work that is still left to be done. And our father would always talk about all these monuments erected and these streets being named after people that used to be on the FBI's most wanted list, and it frustrated him to no end, because at the same time, all of the rights that he and so many other people worked for, were being taken away. So we really wanted to make a movie that would remind people of their personal responsibility in maintaining those rights, and trying to get more civil rights and a more balanced society.
Sarah Kunstler: When we were making this film, we didn't know what the political climate would be when we finished the film. And, for a while, that was a source of anxiety for us because we worried: will this film still be relevant in a post-Bush world? If there is a Democratic president, are we still going to have the same concerns? And when Obama was elected, a lot of the rhetoric we started hearing is that we have now moved post-race. And that having a Black president means, in a kind of coded way, that we don't have to talk about race anymore, that Black people in America have reached the ultimate pinnacle so there is no more racism. And what we realized was that this notion that there aren't still these unhealed wounds and inequalities in this country, just because there is a Black man in the White House, and we don't have to talk about race anymore, was so potentially dangerous and that making a film that dealt with race and racism in the criminal justice system, was all the more important.
Revolution: When you, Yusef, Michael, or Margie, heard that they were going to do this film, and what the initial conception was, how did you guys see what impact it could have? What did you all think of that?
Michael Ratner: I was very excited. Partly, having lost my father when I was young, I was glad to see Sarah and Emily dealing with the loss of their dad when they were young also.
But Bill was, for young lawyers growing up in the sixties, the most important lawyer in the United States. And the most influential. The one that made a whole generation of lawyers think it might be worthwhile engaging in social struggles in the courts and outside of the courts. One lesson was that you had to be outside the courts as well as inside the courts. And that is certainly a critical lesson that has been taken forward, still with great struggle, with many lawyers who say, "Well we don't want to offend the court, we want to agree to this and that," and the lesson for me and other lawyers is that's not what you do. You take your struggles outside the courts. I remember one of the things is you don't call the judge "Your Honor," so even today, I would never call a judge "Your Honor," I would say "judge." And when I hear people say "Your Honor," it just makes my skin crawl.
The other part of the film that I thought was going to be important... Bill to the last day of his life, felt that the racial divide in this country was the critical divide... And he lived that through his life. And I think that is a lesson that just because we have a Black president doesn't mean that it's over.
And I guess, the third is, to be incredibly bold in what you do. To take on the hardest issues. To use the press. To take on social movement issues. If you look at the Attica prison struggle, at Wounded Knee, Chicago, each of those are really people's struggles, and Bill wound up defending people that were really trying to change things. And that is, unfortunately, a lesson that is lost on most of us today, on most lawyers. That is really the role of a political lawyer, a radical lawyer, to defend movements that are trying to make social change. So that is what I was hopeful this film would bring out.
Yusef Salaam: In being a part of [this film], it caused me to gain a deeper understanding of where I fit in, in the whole scheme of things. I wasn't just some type of strange occurrence. My case was part of a larger dynamic going on, and, when I look back now, I'm actually happy. One, to be able to have been a part of this, and two, and this is going to sound probably strange, but I don't think I would give my experience back, you know. That experience made me who I am, and it also made me think differently about everything.
Revolution: What do you want people to get out of it? The film works on different levels, and you were talking about your personal journeys, but also there is a challenge that you are posing through it, can you talk about that some?
Emily Kunstler: I think that in large part it is a film about transformation. It's about our father's transformation, it's about our transformation, it's about Yusef's transformation. It is about Jean Fritz,2 you know, this juror in Chicago's transformation. It's about Michael Smith's transformation, the prison guard at Attica.3 And everybody, and that we are all capable of changing our perspective. Exposed to the right set of circumstances, and to the right information, we can go into something feeling one way, and come out a different way. And for my father that is sort of the fundamental theory of the jury system. That you can bring that kind of information to 12 people in a room, and they can come out of it feeling differently, or put their feelings aside, and actually make a choice based on what they are hearing. So that's humanity for you. We hoped for people to see this film and realize they can make changes in their own lives, and that they can effect change in the world. Our father was fifty years old when he had his second transformation, and so, we can all live a thousand lives, and should strive to, and should have the courage to be open to change everyday.
Sarah Kunstler: He was an interesting person, because he was the principal architect and embellisher of his own myth. He had his own creation myth of how he came to be, and how he became a fighter for justice, and a fighter against racism, and he told the story to everyone who would listen. So when you go around making a film about him, you end up hearing the same story from 50 or 100 different mouths. Which is the story of a man who lived in Mamaroneck, NY, and commuted to the city, who had a fairly ordinary law practice with his brother, who one day, out of the blue, received this phone call that transformed his life. It was a call from the director of the ACLU, asking him to go South to tell a lawyer who was representing the Freedom Riders in Jackson, Mississippi that the ACLU stood behind him. And that going there, seeing the struggle first hand, and watching as five determined young people got off a bus and walked into an onslaught of police, watching that kind of passion, that dedication, and that courage was what utterly changed him. That is the first of several transformations he goes through in our film. And the first of several mythologies he shared with Emily and I, and anyone that got within two feet of him.
It is an interesting thing making a film about a person who has such an established mythology. It's a little bit intimidating, 'cause what do you do with a myth? And what are you looking for? Are you trying to preserve the myth? Are you trying to attack the myth? What happens when you meet the real people? Do you lose the myth? That is part of the interesting thing for Emily and I in telling our own story and making this film our story. And it is ultimately our story about our father's life.
Revolution: This brings me to the question of the big contradiction you are wrangling with in the film. I'm wondering if you guys could talk more about the transformation you all went through, and how Yusef's story impacted you guys in particular.
Emily Kunstler: What is the basic question of the film? What is the exploration? We're at a very different place today, than we were when we started. The film doesn't start at our perspective today. It starts at our perspective when we were teenagers, when he was still alive at the end of his life. It never represented our adult perspective and that doesn't represent our perspective at the end of the film.
Sarah Kunstler: It is interesting 'cause a film captures a certain point of your life, and a certain place in your thinking. These are conversations about legacy, and about how to lead your life, and about personal responsibility, and what choices to make. These are conversations you have every single day, and that you are constantly evolving with. So it's an interesting thing, to make a film, or I guess write a book, or to do anything where you explore those notions, because it becomes this fixed sense of what you were thinking at that moment.
Michael Ratner: When Bill takes Yusef's case, right, I think you have a reaction in the film, right? Where you say, "What is our daddy doing? What is Bill doing?" And then after Bill dies, Yusef is exonerated. So I would ask you – what does that make you think, not only about the legacy of your dad, and what you think about your dad today, now that you know that; what does it make you think of what kind of cases people ought to take, or what does it make you think of the state, or any of that.
Emily Kunstler: Well, I think it is an important life lesson. I think it is one a lot of people can learn from. There is this rush to judgment. And we oversimplify things. We see things from a child's perspective. In black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. This is the way the criminal justice system is digested for public consumption. People are kept very removed from that part of society. We don't have cameras in most courtrooms, eyes inside the prison, people are very removed from that part of society. And the small bits that come out are through this media filter, that tells you Yusef is terrible. Him and his friends are a wolf pack wilding in the park—and you have no other information. And what's there left to think? The media hype around that case was so intense, during the trial and the conviction. And there are people today that still don't know that he was exonerated. Because the media attention around his release and his exoneration was so minimal.
So that's the information that you have to go on. In a sense we are all guilty of that, and we should all be very conscious of that, and make sure we question the information we are getting. And you know, try to find the best source, because it is too easy to make those snap judgments. And anything that is that easy is never right.
Yusef Salaam: I was thinking about the media filter... If people watch TV, some part of their day is watching the news. And the news is telling people—probably 75% of these terrible things that have happened in the world, since this morning or since this evening or something like that. And... some of it is very biased. And some of it is given to you, in such a way, where they are making you have their opinion. You know, you're not coming into it with a level head saying well, is this, "is this real?" Like "are they telling me the truth?" Or you know, you're looking at it as this is a real story, this is the reality of what happened. What really goes on!
Revolution: At a certain point in the film, you said Bill's struggles became your struggles. Can you talk about that in relation to what impact you want the film to have?
Yusef Salaam: The part in the film, where I say his struggles became my struggles was talking about being an activist. Being a part of the solution, as opposed to part of the problem. And being part of the problem could just be, "I don't wanna do anything, I don't want to, you know, leave me alone," it could be something very, very subtle... but trying to actually effectuate change, trying to be out there, wanting to be in a better world, and unfortunately, a lot of times it's revolutionary acts that cause that. "Power concedes nothing without a demand." You have to at some point in life make a choice as to where you want to be in life. What role you wanna play. When I think about Bill Kunstler, the role that he played was such an important role, because he could have just sat back and lived a normal life, but that wasn't him. He had a burning, a desire... something in him that made him be a freedom fighter, be a revolutionary person, be an activist, be a person who is active in the struggle.
And that part caused me to look at my whole case from a different perspective, and then realize that I have a role to play now. I can't just sit back and do nothing.
Sarah Kunstler: We have to talk about the David story here... One of the stories that Bill told that was most important to Emily and I was the story of when he first saw Michelangelo's statue of David. He was a teenager traveling in Italy. And he was standing there looking at it. And an old man comes up to him... and he says, "Do you know why this statue of David is important?" It's a statue of David with the rock in one hand, and the sling over his shoulder; and, according to this man, it is the only depiction of David before he throws the stone at the giant Goliath. So he is standing there in this moment where he is deciding whether or not to stand up and take action, or to quietly walk away. And it's the idea of the insurgent, the disempowered who is about to decide whether or not to challenge the big power. And to Bill that story was really resonant cause it was this moment that he felt everybody faced. This moment of choice, whether or not to stand up and take action or to quietly blend into the crowd and do nothing.
Particularly when he spoke to young people, he would talk about this moment. Because he wanted young people to be ready for those moments in their life that were going to demand that kind of courage, and for them to be able to summon the courage to do what was needed when the time came. That story is one of the main reasons why Emily and I made this film, because to us it was so powerful and so empowering that we could have these moments and that anyone could have these moments, and that all of us had this agency to stand up and do something important. We wanted to make a film that would make people feel that way, and make people feel like they wanted to do something. And, you don't have to be Bill Kunstler to have that kind of moment.
These moments don't always come when people are looking, sometimes they come when nobody's looking. And it's about having that strength of character, and strength of belief, in small moments in your life—and in big moments of your life. And to always be realizing that you are making that choice, and that you are choosing to stand up or not to stand up.
Emily Kunstler: I think we started this film feeling like when Dad told us the story of David, he was talking about himself. That he was David, and that he had those moments of choice in his life. But through the process of making this film, I don't think that he necessarily saw himself as David. I think he found Davids in the world to associate himself with. And it was the Davids that he found, like Yusef, and others that gave him strength to continue the work that he did. Towards the end of the film he became our David, but it really wasn't about him. It was about protecting those Davids, and allowing those Davids to continue to struggle. And to be empowered and to be out of prison.
Revolution: Michael, you talked about learning from Bill's taking a stand, and then actually going out and fighting using his example, particularly at CCR.
Emily Kunstler: This brings us to Michael's transformation.
Michael Ratner: Not just mine... I get comments about what I said in the film when Bill took [El Sayyid] Nosair's case,4 or the '93 World Trade Center cases, or some of those cases involving, you know, alleged terrorist acts, and they were no longer in the tradition of Center for Constitutional Rights, of which Bill was a founder, or in the tradition of what we thought was the political kind of law that we were doing, whether it was representing Attica, or the civil rights movement, or indigenous Indian movements. We wondered about it. And we were critical. Why is Bill putting his talents to that?
But in that perspective, myself and scores of other attorneys in the Center, Bill's institution, are representing a tremendous number of Guantánamo detainees, alleged terrorists post-9/11. And so, it gave me a different perspective on what Bill was doing then. It really helped me to understand Bill's incredible, more than skepticism about the state. And what the state represented, and what it represented particularly against people... who the state put up as pariahs, and everybody tried to get the state to focus on those people, and their anger on those people.
We've certainly seen that post-9/11 completely. Almost every one of our clients has turned out to be a "pariah" client, that is completely innocent of anything. If Bill were around today, he would be taking those cases, he would be in the forefront. He would be representing probably the heaviest guys in Guantánamo, right now.
In relation to Yusef's case, Bill brought Yusef's case to the Center. Bill wasn't Yusef's trial lawyer, but he came in at the sentencing for Yusef, and he said to the Center, I want the Center to come in here and represent Yusef. And the Center turned it down. Partly the film explains a little bit, the atmosphere in the city, which is always the atmosphere that you're going to get in these cases. Full-page ads asking for death penalty for the Central Park people. Assuming they're dead guilty. From the mayor to everyone else. And I think part of that infiltrated into the Center. And it didn't have Bill's sense of the injustice of the state at that point. Part of it had to do with the feminist movement at that point, about representing people accused of rape, although considering that Bill came out of a Southern experience, where a rape charge was the classic thing you did against a Black man, that is pretty shocking when I go back and think about that. And it led directly to turning down Yusef's case, and Bill even got held in contempt in those cases, and even then the Center didn't take the contempt cases. Morty Stavis, the cofounder with Bill, took that. But he took them just separately and eventually went to the court of appeals on Bill's contempt. I forgot, what the language he used in the courtroom was a disgrace to the bench. Bill was making some argument about Yusef's sentence, and the judge tried to shut him up. And Bill just says "You're a disgrace to the bench!" And the judge held him in contempt when Bill said that.
...When the post-9/11 cases, and Rumsfeld said "we're going to pick up the worst of the worst, and we're not going to give them any rights, and we're going to take them to an offshore penal colony." We're sitting at the Center, well, I saw that and I said I think we're going to represent the first people that go, that are picked up. Because this is just beyond anything that is acceptable in any society that calls itself, at all civilized. And there was some debate in the Center. And at that point, I took the pages out of Bill's biography, and he has two or three pages about when the Center turned down Yusef's case, and I circulated them to everybody, and I said, this was our founder, this is what we have to learn... as Bill said, on more than one occasion, "All states are bad, some are worse than others." And I think we were, for Bill, we were living in the "worse than others." ...That is the lesson, and we still get that throughout. I think it is a lesson that is particularly post-9/11, but it was certainly, in the South, you knew all the time. But since 9/11 that is everywhere. It is everywhere around us.
Revolution: This brings me to a question, for you guys as lawyers. Part of what Bill talks about at different parts of the film, and it goes on all the way through, actually from the civil rights, to what he learned from Daniel Berrigan, and came all the way through, was the lawyering and the fight in the court, as well as, how it relates to the fight in the streets. In the section on the civil rights movement, you make the point that he respected people who were breaking the law to change the law. And then in the Catonsville 9 section, he talks about the moral fight in the courtroom and then in Chicago, bringing the sixties into the courtroom.5 This was part of a larger movement in society, but Michael made the point earlier, Bill was at the forefront of that. Could you guys talk about, as lawyers, how that changed, your overall perspective?
Margaret Ratner: We were very lucky, when there was a domestic movement in this country. I mean, as lawyers, and as activists, and as human beings. When that was happening, whether it was the civil rights movement, or the multiple movements going on in this country, we were really lucky to be able to represent people participating in those movements. And it changed and maybe we got older, but the whole protest movement changed, and there wasn't enough room for the kind of social protest that there was, earlier on. Now it's much more complicated, and much more difficult. The students who participate now in the protest movements, I have the utmost respect for because it seems to me it's much more difficult because the alliances are much more difficult, the issues are not as clear, and the whole situation is more complicated. It's not as easy as it was in the '80s and the '90s. It's much more difficult because you have this whole kind of assertion of post-racial society, which is so ridiculous, so it's just much more complicated and much more difficult to draw the lines and to participate directly. I just think we were really lucky as attorneys and as activists. Luckier than people are now, cause it's harder, it's really harder. And that is why I think this film is important because, given how hard it is now, people have to be encouraged in a different way to participate, and they have to be reminded of our history and how we were able to do things, and how we were able to organize, and encouraged to do their own thing in a new way.
Sarah Kunstler: If what happens inside the courtroom is allowed to stay inside the confines of the courtroom wall, then it will never be justice. And if court decisions are allowed to happen in a vacuum, we will almost always certainly have the wrong result. And that at any moment in time it's important to have a street movement. It's important to have press. It's important for these issues to feel like issues that matter to all of us. For us to feel like the rights of the accused, the rights of people on trial and how they're diminished impacts all of our rights. If we lose that perspective and we say there is an us and a them and we don't care about the criminal defendants because these are the other, then we all are losing something and we're getting to a very dangerous place.
Yes, these are different times, but I think that whatever time we're in, the link between the street and the courtroom is crucial. And that the link between the courtroom and our everyday lives is crucial. And if we stop caring and feeling like these things are connected, then we're going down a very dangerous road.
Michael Ratner: When Marge and I were young lawyers, it was just everywhere in the streets, and the idea that someone would sit in their office and think the courtroom was the place you could make social change... it would be laughable for most progressive lawyers. Today, what I think has changed is there's a lot of lawyers who don't go to the G20, or the RNC, or the Democratic Convention and represent people and do that work, and they think they can be in a courtroom or in an office and actually make change, and I think that's not the case. What this film really is good at saying is you have to be out in the streets with your clients and representing people making social change. And that's a lesson that every law student and every person ought to hear. It's really critical.
Revolution: Emily and Sarah, you talk about growing up with the fear of repression from very early on. And it's something Margie talks about in the film. As kids, you experienced it on a very visceral level. As you grew up to understand more what that's a part of and you take a stand at a certain point later in the film and you talk about how it's not just about us.
Emily Kunstler: It's a hard question because for kids, the most important thing is to create a safe space. And it was impossible for my father to do that. Were it not for our mother and the role that she played in our lives, we wouldn't be the people we are today. She really made it her mission to keep us out of the public eye, to make sure we had a normal childhood and a protected childhood, and always felt loved and safe, in an environment where it was almost impossible to do that. But through the process of making this film and meeting Yusef and seeing the commitment that our father had and the choices that he made and the lives that he impacted, it makes mine and Sarah's sacrifice seem really inconsequential in terms of the sacrifice that our father's clients made, that Yusef made, and the work that he did to help other people's children that we really feel today was definitely worthwhile. I also have to add that I think that a healthy degree of fear and distress of the government is not a bad thing, and I'm actually grateful for that education that I had. You know, maybe it was something I couldn't understand when I was 8, but I'm glad I'm still a person that asks those questions today.
WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE was released in theaters on November 13 at Cinema Village in New York City and is opening on November 20 in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Berkeley, D.C. and Seattle with more cities to follow. The film will be broadcast on PBS on the award-winning documentary series P.O.V. in the Spring/Summer of 2010.
For more information on the film, including screenings and show times in your area, please visit www.disturbingtheuniverse.com
1. The "Central Park Jogger Case" arose from an incident in 1989 when a 28-year-old white woman, an investment banker, was raped and beaten while jogging in Central Park in New York. Five Black and Latino youth were arrested, charged, and wrongfully convicted of the crime, serving between 7 and 13 years in jail before they were exonerated in 2002. [back]
2. Jean Fritz was a Republican juror in the Chicago Conspiracy trial, one of four who held out for acquittal on all charges. She is interviewed in the film. [back]
3. Michael Smith, 21 years old at the time of the 1971 Attica prison rebellion, was on of the guards held hostage by the prisoners. He was shot five times by the state police when they stormed the prison and massacred and brutalized the prisoners. He is interviewed in the film. [back]
4. El Sayyid Nosair is an Egyptian-born American citizen, convicted of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990. [back]
5. Daniel Berrigan is a Jesuit priest who was active in protests against the Vietnam war and with 7 others started the Plowshares Movement, an anti-nuclear weapons movement that became well known during the 1980s for militant actions in which they were accused of damaging government property (nuclear weapons). Berrigan was one of the Catonsville Nine, Catholic activists who went to the Draft Board in Catonsville, Maryland, in May 1968, took 378 files of people drafted into the U.S. military, poured homemade napalm over them, and set them on fire. Kunstler was the lead defense lawyer in their trial. [back]
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
The process of discovery and rediscovery of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), took an important step November 6-8 at UC Berkeley, as scholars and participants in the Cultural Revolution gathered to tell their stories and share their analyses. Panelists came from diverse backgrounds and fields—the arts, history, gender and cultural studies, political economy, and revolutionary practice—and had different perspectives on the Cultural Revolution itself. But all brought out from many angles that this was a liberating chapter in human history.
The rich mix of a poster art show, presentations and discussion challenged the master narrative demonizing the Cultural Revolution. This in the face of an atmosphere in which professors have been shouted down in academic meetings for even daring to uphold aspects of the Cultural Revolution; in which few students (outside of those with family ties to China) know anything at all about it except that it was bad—and not at all relevant to the concerns of today. The symposium served to open up intellectual space for real discussion and debate about this pathbreaking revolution within the socialist revolution in China; it furthered a process of rediscovery and reexamination. And the symposium began to get all of this out into society more broadly.
The symposium was a rare chance in particular for these different voices, including those who lived through the Cultural Revolution or parts of it, to engage in an academic setting—upholding and criticizing, sorting out and bringing to life what has been buried, suppressed, and vilified. It was significant that this event was held at a major university where China studies are promoted and well-funded.
The symposium was part of providing a framework for understanding the actual goals and objectives of the Cultural Revolution—and more fundamentally the whole communist project. This involves helping to set different terms for arriving at the truth of the rich historical experience—positive and negative—and what the implications of that are for the present, and the future. What was truly liberatory about the Cultural Revolution is now finding air to breathe—and those who have important things to say on this subject are finding greater freedom to do so.
An important part of this has been a coming together of a group of scholars—who feel some backing and are now starting to think about how to take this further. And through all of this people are being introduced to the important work of Bob Avakian. The work that Bob Avakian has been doing is very vital to understanding what happened, positive and negative, in the first stage of communist revolution—and looking forward to a whole new stage of communist revolution in the world.
This symposium had significant reach. Over the course of the three days, about 250 different people attended, including at least 12 professors, and a number of Chinese and Chinese-Americans. Many thousands more heard about it, throughout the Bay Area (at Stanford and all over UC Berkeley) and even in China via the internet and coverage in the Chinese press. There was local media coverage on KPFA in Berkeley and reportage in the Berkeley Daily Planet. And more should hear about it soon when Book TV broadcasts the book event with Dongping Han (author of The Unknown Cultural Revolution). Leading up to the symposium, significant controversy and excitement was created among certain groups of Chinese students as well as among scholars at the UC Berkeley Center for Chinese Studies, an academic department which has generally helped to spread lies and distortions about Mao and the Cultural Revolution.
What follows aims to give a sense of what was presented and discussed at the symposium.
The symposium kicked off Friday with a guided tour by Lincoln Cushing (co-author of Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) of a beautiful exhibit of poster art from the Cultural Revolution. Lincoln was joined by Ann Tompkins, who collected the posters during her years in China, and Bai Di (Director of Chinese and Asian Studies at Drew University and co-editor of Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up During the Mao Era), who grew up with this art. Lincoln pointed out that these posters were not the stereotype of a dull uniform communist art imposed from the top down. They were tremendously colorful and creative works produced all over the country by individual artists, and collectives, including some by worker and peasant artists, and were the means by which any art at all, let alone revolutionary art, had entered the homes of workers and peasants for the first time ever in China's history. They were a radical departure from the traditional feudal Confucian themes that came before, with titles like "Don't depend on the heavens," "Resolutely support the anti-imperialist struggle of the Asian, African and Latin American people," and "Lofty aspirations touch the clouds" depicting a female electrical worker high on a wire. A number of UC Berkeley students came, notebooks in hand, just to see the art opening.
Later that evening, Dongping Han discussed his new book, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village. He offered a gripping description of a society in which people worked together, looked out for each other, and were encouraged to "serve the people," instead of the selfishness, atomization, and alienation fostered by capitalism. He said the Cultural Revolution showed that people aren't inherently selfish: people in his village worked hard, not for personal gain but to build a new world—each contributing what they could. Countering the official storyline that Mao and the Cultural Revolution were "anti-education," Dongping Han noted that during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution the government empowered the people of his region to build their own schools—the number of high schools in his county grew from one to 89—and to take part in determining what kind of education should be taught. He also noted that these schools providing free high education for all are now gone, and today in the countryside education is once again restricted to those with family connections and money. A youth from a suburban high school commented that he really liked the point about the revolutionary transformation of education, in particular the way that tests were conducted—with an open book and students freely helping each other, instead of the intense competition that goes on in this society.
Saturday there was an exciting panel called "Art and Politics of the Cultural Revolution." Panelists were Bai Di, Lincoln Cushing, and Ban Wang.
Bai Di started off by talking about the lives of her two grandmothers before the 1949 Chinese revolution. They had bound feet, arranged marriages. They were completely illiterate and each had 14 children, so their role was basically to bear and raise children, especially boys. Their lives were so inconsequential they didn't even have names of their own—they were called by their husband's name with the pronoun "somebody" attached. After the revolution came to power in 1949, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, women were encouraged to participate in all aspects of society—"Women hold up half the sky" was their slogan, and this theme resounded in the theater and art of the period.
Bai Di commented that the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women, which was going to be shown later in the symposium, was a retelling and transformation of a 1960 movie, and that the changes made were very revealing of the art and culture that the Cultural Revolution brought forward: "I would say it is very interesting what is revised, what is cut out of that  play in order to be a model play, is really the sexual, the genderized role of women. So in all the model theaters, all the plays, and that is why I feel this is the greatest feminist intervention in creating revolutionary literature and art, for the images, in all these, to be a wife, to be a mother, those roles were totally eliminated in the model theater. Because womanhood in Chinese culture was so imbued with negative connotations. To be a mother you have to sacrifice for your family, to be a wife you have to follow your husband, so basically in the model theater they eliminated all these genderized roles, so basically all these girls, all these women, all these revolutionary daughters, they were going to be revolutionary successors precisely because they do not have a family burden to burden them."
Ban Wang (Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at Stanford and author of Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China) gave a fascinating presentation about film during the Cultural Revolution and the idea of internationalism.
He showed clips from On the Docks, a "model opera" in which Shanghai dockworkers struggle to export rice seeds to an African country, and talked about how they saw that as part of the global wave of anti-imperialist anti-colonial revolution. He drew laughter when he distinguished the internationalism of On the Docks from "globalization or cosmopolitanism"—it is not some kind of individual preference, driven by the market and transnational cultural industry "... like you go to a buffet dinner, you pick from all over the world, almost like an emperor, coming to take your pick. You can have sushi tonight, tomorrow you have Thai or Vietnamese, you listen to salsa or Peking opera, and have Japanese wife and Chinese mistress. Very cosmopolitan, very worldwide choice...this goes against the grain of what I am referring to as internationalism—it hijacks the essence of internationalism as a shared democratic aspiration for equality. For people's livelihood and for community among the disadvantaged people around the world."
The theme of internationalism, Ban Wang emphasized, was also expressed by the breadth and distribution of films during the Cultural Revolution. During the years 1971-1976, over 50 films were produced in China and over 60 foreign films were shown all over the country by projector teams. People, on average, saw eight foreign films a year—making people in China during that time far less isolated than most people in the U.S. are today. One high point of the art and politics panel was when Ban Wang and Bai Di, with encouragement from the audience, sang some of the songs that were popular throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. This was a society, as they explained, filled with singing and dancing.
The next panel—with Dongping Han, Raymond Lotta (Set the Record Straight project and Revolution newspaper), Ann Tompkins, and Robert Weil (Senior Fellow at the Oakland Institute and author of Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of "Market Socialism")—was about the international impact and historical significance of the Cultural Revolution.
Raymond Lotta focused on two themes—historical truth and human possibility. He gave a sweeping presentation of why the Cultural Revolution was needed, what happened, and what some of its shortcomings and limitations were. For just one example, drawing from the insights and new synthesis of Bob Avakian, he emphasized that intellectual work and ferment are vital to the kind of society that socialism must be and to how socialist society can get to communism—adding to the store of knowledge in society, to the ability of the masses of people to understand the world; that intellectual ferment is crucial to the critical and exploratory spirit that must permeate socialism and is critical to interrogating socialist society at all levels. He noted that while there are elitist attitudes and values among intellectuals stemming from their position, like looking down on workers, there are also tendencies among workers and peasants toward things like resenting intellectuals and engineers—or bowing down to them. "Bourgeois ideology affects everyone—everyone's ideas and thinking must be challenged and transformed as part of becoming emancipators of humanity." Lotta went on to point out that "there were tendencies on Mao's part to see intellectuals somewhat one-sidedly, or from the side of their ideological problems and privileges and not from the ways in which they can contribute to the atmosphere needed in socialist society and to the kind of society that people can live in and thrive in."
"As I said at the start, anyone who dreams of a liberating world needs to learn from the Cultural Revolution. There is a discussion to be had; a most important discussion to be had. A different world is possible. A communist world is possible and we need to open up that conversation."
Ann Tompkins lived in China from 1965-1970 and worked teaching English. She knew a revolution had begun when her Chinese students began to be late for class and not do their homework, because they had been staying up late discussing and debating politics. "I saw the posters going up. In our school when the classes stopped, we cleared the classrooms, we put straw on the floor, we put down mats over the straw as these young people who were arriving from all over China, having never traveled out of their villages before, their hometowns, and they were coming in to see Chairman Mao of course, but also to study all the things that were happening in Beijing, where the posters were going up, and the posters were going up pro and con. I mean anybody put up a poster, someone else could put up a poster opposing it. Or supporting it, or debating it."
Robert Weil talked about the international shockwaves that the Cultural Revolution created and the ideological influence it had throughout the world, including on the Black Panther Party and the Women's Movement in the U.S. He exposed the brutality of the capitalist regime which took power after Mao's death, and talked about effects that the reversal and repudiation of the Cultural Revolution has had on the people of China. According to Weil, some 800,000 revolutionaries were arrested when Deng Xiaoping came to power after Mao's death. Weil noted: "...there are something like100,000 significant protests in China every year—by workers, peasants, migrants, and including members of the middle class at times. This is an expression of the way in which the concepts of the Cultural Revolution, especially the idea that to rebel is justified, is still a living force within China despite the fact that we have had all these setbacks."
On Sunday, the symposium concluded with two films. The first was Red Detachment of Women, a model opera which tells the story—through incredibly choreographed ballet—of a young women who escapes from her enslavement to a vicious feudal landlord, hooks up with the communist Red Army and becomes politically conscious as they fight for liberation. The second, "The Barefoot Doctors of Rural China," is a documentary about the cutting edge public health system developed during the Cultural Revolution that was improving the lives of millions of people throughout China. Peasants were being trained to provide basic medical services, Western methods were being combined with traditional Chinese herbalism and acupuncture (the whole audience twinged when a young woman painlessly had a tooth pulled using acupressure anesthesia), health and sanitation problems were tackled with a collective and conquering spirit, and the people in the film exuded happiness and healthiness.
After the film there was a lively discussion. People compared the health care system in China to the health care "industry" here in the U.S. and talked about the possibilities that open up when you have a society geared toward meeting people's needs, not profit. At the same time, several people in the audience pointed out certain shortcomings when it came to providing birth control and abortion unconditionally and to all women, instead of just married women, and talked about how we can learn from this experience and do even better in the future.
One highlight of the symposium on Saturday was the lively exchange which followed the panel on the international impact and historical implications of the Cultural Revolution. The exchange centered on some crucial questions, including what represented the capitalist road in China during the Cultural Revolution and in particular, someone in the audience posited that by the time the Cultural Revolution came to an end, large sections of the peasants were breaking up the agricultural collectives in the countryside on their own because they were against them (before these communes were dismantled nationally from the top by Deng Xiaoping and the capitalist roaders who had seized power in China). Involved in this was an assessment that some of the ways the GPCR was carried out (including excesses) created the basis for people to support Deng and company. Raymond Lotta made the point that there really were two roads contending, a capitalist road and a socialist road, and that key forces high in the party like Liu Shao-chi did concentrate a path of expanding all of the differences in society and re-establishing profit-based norms that would lead back to capitalism. And a number of others joined in to this stimulating and important exchange.
This kind of vigorous exchange points to the potential to open up the questions and debate further—in future events like this symposium and in society. There were limits in the ability of this symposium to do this and to dig into things more deeply—even as it pointed to what can and needs to be done. So many important and fascinating questions were posed in the symposium in different ways that merit much further discovery, exploration and wrangling—including before broader and more diverse audiences.
For example, the poster show was a powerful example of revolutionary art in China—and most of the posters spoke very directly to pressing political and economic campaigns—but this does raise a question of the need for art under socialism with an even wider variety of form and content, some not so directly tied to practical concerns. Or, in relation to the empowerment of the peasants and workers under socialism, and the prevailing ethos of "serve the people," there is much to dig into about the need for the party to foster dissent even beyond what was done during the Cultural Revolution—and the important role of intellectuals in that.
This kind of discussion and debate is vital now, in relation to the struggle to rediscover the Cultural Revolution—in order to get the fullest airing of the social and scholarly controversies; to enable everyone involved (including those not directly in attendance who are part of the larger social process of rediscovery) to grapple deeply with how to understand what happened and what it really means; and to enable people to engage more fully with how all of this fits into getting to a radically different world. And this is the kind of process and struggle that has to characterize revolutionary socialism as well.
This was an important step in opening up the discourse, debate and engagement about this whole chapter of human experience and punching a hole in the verdicts that predominate in society and in academia about Mao, the Chinese Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, and the communist project more generally.
One UC Berkeley undergrad psychology major, whose parents are from China, commented at the end of Saturday's session on "The International Impact and Historical Significance of the Cultural Revolution": "I'm grateful for the opportunity to come to hear these really eye-opening experiences...Having read the communist manifesto and Noam Chomsky, I have come to realize a lot of my K through 12 education has basically been propaganda—an ideology that exists to prop up the American government..." Spending two days at the symposium, she said, was "definitely eye-opening for me, especially when in high school it was ingrained in my head that the United States was a superpower and that capitalism was definitely superior to communism. I think this experience today was eye-opening and I think I am starting to question basic assumptions."
Not only were people's assumptions challenged, but new horizons for what human society can be like were opened up. A Chinese physics major who attended every session of the symposium said, "I used to think that the Cultural Revolution was a waste of 10 years and a step backwards. Now I know that not only was it a step forward toward socialism and communism, but that communism was not a utopian idea—it actually worked."
Even those who know something about that time came away with a greatly enriched and deepened understanding. For example, a young woman from the Bay Area Revolution Club reflected on a story Dongping Han (Professor of History at Warren Wilson College) told Friday night about a friend who had a lot of trouble waking up in the morning for work. The solution they came up with was to have Dongping wake his friend up every morning. This worked, and his friend not only worked hard, but also contributed his artistic and musical talents. After capitalism was restored and the rural communes dismantled, no one went to wake this friend up any more and his life suffered because society no longer had a spirit of collective living and concern. The friend eventually killed himself. The Revolution Club member commented that she had understood that, under socialism, people will be motivated by an ethos of "serve the people" and the understanding that they are contributing to the liberation of humanity, but Dongping's story illuminated a whole other dimension of what will not only keep people going, but unleash them—an entire society working together, helping and caring for each other, a radically different way of living.
This was the second such symposium on the Cultural Revolution (the first took place last winter at New York University). They are happening at a time when social discontent and sympathy for Mao are rising in China; discussion of capitalism, socialism and communism are in the air; and interest in this chapter of Chinese history is growing—evidenced by last year's exhibit "Art and China's Revolution" at the Asian Society in New York City and a spate of new books—some revisiting the period, others deconstructing and debunking the attacks on Mao and the Cultural Revolution.
The overall quality of the symposium, the richness of the engagement that took place, the impact on the panelists and on many who were there—point to the need for going further with this process of rediscovery. And it also points to the importance of making many people aware of the promised Book TV film of the book event with Dongping Han, and to see the video of the main panels and discussions which will be available soon.
It means a great deal that these two symposiums have happened at a time when communism has been declared dead and buried, and every possibility of human society going beyond capitalism branded wrong and impossible. But another process is going on—people have come together who have lived through the Cultural Revolution, studied it, and can tell from the inside what it was like to live in a radically different, liberatory society—and this is in the mix with the theoretical work of Raymond Lotta, proceeding from Bob Avakian's new synthesis, drawing from historical summation to point to how we can do better next time.
Many more people, from many corners of society—people involved in the arts, scholars, 1960's generation folks who were influenced by the Cultural Revolution, immigrant communities, students—need to become part of this, to find ways to raise their questions and enter into the wrangling over what really happened and what this revolution within a revolution means for today, and for what human society can be.
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
On November 11, Raymond Lotta spoke at the University of Chicago as part of the nationwide campus tour, "Everything You've Been Told About Communism Is Wrong, Capitalism Is a Failure, Revolution Is the Solution." The November 18 issue of the Chicago Weekly, which describes itself as a "student-written alternative weekly at the University of Chicago," published a piece by Keith Jamieson titled "Everything You Know About Communism is Right: What Raymond Lotta got wrong." The following is the text of Jamieson's article, and the reply to that article from Raymond Lotta.
Reprinted by permission.
Across the street from the Lubyanka prison, in Moscow, there stood in 1937 a nondescript building with a specially sloped floor, for drainage, and a wooden wall to muffle the sound of bullets. It was here that the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, executed enemies of the Communist regime. Between 1937 and 1938 this amounted to the deaths of at least 700,000 people, according to the Russian Memorial society. Among the victims were Nikolai Bukharin, once one of the chief Soviet economists; Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a Marshal of the Soviet Union; Genrikh Yagoda, former head of the secret police; and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. Those who were not murdered outright were frequently deported to the Gulag prison camps, based on the katorga system that had existed under the tsars. These were scattered throughout Siberia and in 1939 housed over a million people, slowly freezing or being worked to death in some of the most hostile environments on earth.
Other crimes of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union include a terror famine in the Ukraine in 1933, the Holodomor, which killed well over a million people; a more general 1932–33 famine caused by Stalin's efforts to force farmers onto collectives; and various crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Russian Civil War, most prominently the use of chemical weapons and heavy artillery against peasants rebelling in protest of food requisition (the 1920-21 Tambov Rebellion). According to "The Black Book of Communism," a 1997 history of Communist atrocities that made use of recently opened state archives, by the time of its fall in 1991 the government of the Soviet Union had caused the deaths of some 15 to 20 million people. This does not include the deaths and misery suffered by the inhabitants of Soviet puppet states in Eastern Europe and the Third World, in which the names of the secret polices read like a nightmarish roll call: the Securitate, the AVH, the Stasi.
Now, if you've been on the University of Chicago's campus for the past two weeks or so, the above information may surprise you, because you're now aware that "everything you know about Communism is wrong." The statistics and figures that have been compiled over the decades by reputable historians working to ascertain the truth about Communist regimes must be incorrect (which makes sense, seeing as they're capitalists, and we all know that historians make the big captain of industry bucks). The true blazing light of historical verity can only be found in the agate lamp of the Revolutionary Communist Party, represented on our campus last week by Mr. Raymond Lotta, and the strange and glorious version of the past with which it sees fit to present us.
Thus we hear that the Soviet Union was "only country in the 1930s that stood against anti-Semitism," which is true insofar as Stalin cheerfully set aside swampland in far eastern Siberia as a homeland for Russia's Jews, cooperated with Nazi Germany, and after the war went about executing prominent Jewish leaders (including 23 poets and engineers on the single night of August 12, 1952). The Soviets also, we are assured, supported the ambitions of their country's non-Russian ethnic groups to an unprecedented degree, which explains why they were unwilling to let go of any of the oppressed territories of the former tsarist empire (and in fact re-annexed some of the few that got away, the three Baltic republics, in 1940) and systematically brutalized non-Russian peoples, including the murder of hundreds of thousands of anti-Communist Cossacks and the campaign of Russification in the Soviet Central Asian territories to the extent that, even today, a vast majority of Kazakhs speak Russian.
In fairness to Lotta, however, he is a Maoist scholar ("I'm pretty well-schooled in Mao's works," he says, "let me tell you"—and he does) and thus can't perhaps be expected to have a very solid grasp of things like Soviet policy at any point in the country's history. He did manage to discover that President Eisenhower in his "1952 inaugural address"—apparently delivered before Eisenhower's January 20, 1953, inauguration—"threatened to use atomic weapons against the People's Republic of China," something which cannot be found in the text itself but which is certainly in keeping with its spirit. (Sample sentences: "We stand ready to engage with any and all others in joint effort to remove the causes of mutual fear and distrust among nations..." and "We shall never use our strength to try to impress upon another people our own cherished political and economic institutions.")
Those of us in attendance at Lotta's presentation were also invited to explore the possibility that the 1966–76 Chinese Cultural Revolution represented "the high point of socialist revolution in the twentieth century," that it included "massive political and intellectual debate," and that "high-ranking capitalists," who somehow still existed in a country that had been racked by war for thirty years and which had long since done away with all of its industrial titans, "planned" most of the violence that occurred during this period. This world doesn't quite jive with the one in which those who lived through the period (and the current Chinese government) inform us that the Cultural Revolution forced thousands of teachers and students onto collective farms, burned enough books to power a fleet of coal-fired airships, and killed over a million people, but that's no doubt the result of capitalist lies. Lotta also somehow forgot to mention Western misconceptions of the Great Leap Forward, a collectivization policy pursued between 1958 and 1961 that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions via famine.
This is a highly entertaining and, in many ways, kinder and fuzzier version of history than that which we are accustomed to. Sadly, it's also a total mischaracterization of the nature of the Soviet Union, the early People's Republic of China, and other Communist states. I wish I could believe that our facts were indeed wrong, because a world in which, as Lotta asserted, "people were viewing their actions through the moral lens of serving others," wouldn't seem to me like such a bad place to live. Alas, the past doesn't go away when you don't look at it. For those of us who choose to examine it, there are two possibilities: either Communist governments in the twentieth century killed millions upon millions of people, or all those people disappeared as the result of alien abduction or relocation to a series of underground caves. This—not that you can't buy as much chocolate as you want, nor that there aren't as many channels on TV—is the real reason why "Communism is bad." There are a hundred million plots of turned earth in Siberia and the Yangtze plain that, when Lotta denies what happened to their inhabitants, protest the injustice with a great, silent howl.
Keith Jamieson's fevered account of my November 11 talk at the University of Chicago, "Everything You've Been Told About Communism Is Wrong," deserves a reply. Since the historical part of my talk focused on Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and since there is insufficient space to reply to each and every allegation from Jamieson, I want to make some points about the historical role of Stalin.
Jamieson cites statistics about deaths during the Stalin era. Leaving aside the bogus and easily refutable claim that the Soviet government "caused the death of some 15 to 20 million people," Jamieson provides no social or historical context. It's history by body count. It's as though one could understand the causes and significance of the French Revolution or of the U.S. Civil War by reciting numbers of the executed and killed (why not blame Abraham Lincoln, that obstinate defender of the Union, for the 700,000 deaths that resulted from that war?).
So how does one evaluate Stalin in larger historical perspective--with historical accuracy? Stalin's achievements as a revolutionary leader, his methodological shortcomings, and his errors, some of which had grievous consequences, are all part of the first wave of socialist revolution that opened new historical possibility for humanity in the first half of the 20th century. This historical experience is part of the "learning curve" of the communist project.
Following Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin stepped forward to lead a process of transforming, on a socialist basis, a backward and largely agrarian society (not that far out of its feudal past). Stalin articulated the need and basis for forging a socialist society that would contribute to the emancipation of the oppressed and exploited on this planet.
There was no blueprint, no previous historical experience, for how to develop socialist industry and agriculture. Nor did the Soviet leadership get to choose the circumstances in which it would undertake this bold experiment.
The Soviet Union faced unremitting imperialist encirclement and counterrevolution from within. In 1918-21, Western powers supported reactionary, ultra-nationalist forces in the Russian Civil War, and intervened with finance, arms, and troops (though by Jamieson's statistical reckoning, the Soviet government is responsible for all the deaths incurred both by the fighting and industrial-agricultural dislocation of that conflict).
But in the face of these challenges, and under Stalin's leadership, an extraordinary process of radical economic and social transformation took place in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
This had incredibly liberating effects for women breaking free of the oppressive bonds of religion and patriarchy, for people of the former oppressed nationalities (who enjoyed forms of regional autonomy and could carry on educational instruction in native languages), and for the creation of revolutionary culture. The working class was activated to remake industry and to change the relations of production.
By the mid-1930s, the international situation had grown perilous for the Soviet Union. In 1931, Japan had invaded Manchuria; not long after, Hitler consolidated power in Germany; conservative and pro-fascist forces had gained strength in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Rumania, and the Baltic countries, including Poland; in Spain, the Western powers stood idly as General Franco's 1936 uprising against the Spanish Republic was actively aided by Hitler and Mussolini; Germany and Japan had signed an Anti-Soviet Pact.
The growing danger of inter-imperialist war and the likelihood of massive imperialist assault on the Soviet Union (and some 26 million Soviets died as a result of the Nazi invasion of 1941) were an important part of what set the stage for the purges and executions of 1936-38.
The standard story line is that Stalin was a paranoid despot inventing conspiracies and fabricating enemies in order to consolidate absolute personal power and to exact total submission from the population. But the historical truth is that Stalin was fighting to defend the world's first and only socialist society against real threat.
As international tensions grew, Stalin and the revolutionary leadership had reason to be concerned about the state of the party and the armed forces.
Counterrevolution inside the Soviet Union was real: economic sabotage, assassination of party leaders and activists, diplomatic subversion, reactionary social movements in places like the Ukraine. Various political oppositions emerged within the high party leadership, and the reliability of regional party leaderships was also a source of worry. In the 1920s, Soviet and German military officers had collaborated as part of government-to-government agreements involving training and transfer of weaponry—and now, in the face of the war threat, there was growing concern about the reliability of the high-officer corps.
Stalin was not going to allow the socialist Soviet Union to go back to capitalism, or to cave in to imperialism. The problem was that Stalin sought to deal with danger of counterrevolution and imperialist onslaught with a kind of "fortress socialism" approach.
In society and economy, a premium was placed on order, discipline, and everything for production. Repression, which should only have been directed against enemies, was increasingly used against people who were merely expressing disagreements with policies or even with socialism--or making mistakes in their capacities as administrators and leaders.
In 1937-38, there was a wave of purges, arrests, and executions. Individual rights and due process were violated in an atmosphere of conspiracy and intrigue. Not only did innocent people suffer, but also the Soviet Union became an increasingly cold and conformist society--with people looking over their shoulders, "watching what they said."
But it was not some pathological hunger for power on Stalin's part that produced this outcome. Rather, it was a question of outlook, understanding, and method. Mao Tsetung pointed out that Stalin failed to distinguish between two types of contradictions under socialism: those among the people, and contradictions between the people and the enemy. Stalin did not differentiate between, on the one hand, active efforts to undermine and overthrow the socialist state, and dissent and opposition on the other.
It was Stalin's inability to correctly distinguish and utilize different methods in handling these two different types of contradictions--suppression and punishment for counter-revolution; and persuasion, debate, and ideological struggle in resolving contradictions among the people--that led to the harsh excesses of the late 1930s. The masses did not gain the ability to understand why new capitalist forces arose under socialism, nor of the forms of mass struggle needed to combat these forces.
Stalin had a mechanical approach to Marxism and towards socialism. He saw socialism as a society that would march forward, almost in lockstep, towards classless communist society. But as Bob Avakian has envisioned in a whole new way, socialism must be a society of great swirl, dissent, and experimentation. Stalin's mechanical view of socialism was also a factor that underlay the purges, arrests, and executions of 1936-38.
Here it is important to clarify that Stalin did not kill millions. Some 680,000 executions took place in 1937-38—but this total represented 87 percent of all death sentences carried out "for counterrevolutionary and state crimes" between 1930 and 1953.1 By 1939, this wave of arrests and executions was put a stop to by the Soviet leadership.
Mao's Cultural Revolution was a very different matter. Here is the "learning curve" of the communist project. Mao summed up Stalin's mistakes. The Cultural Revolution was a struggle against a new capitalist class and a struggle to keep the revolution on the socialist road. But rather than resorting to administrative and police measures from on high, Mao mobilized the masses from below to take up the burning political and ideological questions of the overall direction of society. The principal forms of struggle of the Cultural Revolution were mass debate, mass criticism, and mass political mobilization. Society was opened up rather than shuttered. Indeed, no modern society has ever seen this level of mass political debate and political transformation.
The purpose of my speaking tour is to stimulate discussion, debate, and critical thinking about the first wave of socialist revolutions and to help people learn about how Bob Avakian has been re-envisioning the communist project. Keith Jamieson is incredulous that historians would so pervasively misrepresent this historical experience.
But the fact is: people have been lied to about communism. The dominant and self-serving narrative in capitalist society prevents people from accurately understanding what the revolutions in the Soviet Union and China set out to do, the real obstacles they faced, the extraordinary things they accomplished, and their real problems and shortcomings. Why should this be any surprise? After all, the legitimacy of this system rests on the notion that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds, or the "end of history." And let's not forget that the American people were systematically lied to about the Vietnam War (that cost the lives of at least two million Vietnamese people) and fed a bill of goods as to why the U.S. had to invade Iraq in 2003. In the late 1960s and 1970s, there was huge ideological struggle and new research undertaken to expose America as an empire and its real origins in genocide against the Native Americans and the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans.
The world cries out for revolution, for emancipatory change. That's what's riding on the search for the truth about socialism and communism: we can create a radically different and better world.
One last factual point. In my University of Chicago talk, I mistakenly referred to newly elected U.S. President Eisenhower threatening socialist China with nuclear attack in his 1953 inaugural speech. I meant to refer to veiled threats in Eisenhower's 1953 State of the Union address—where Eisenhower asserted the "retaliatory power" of the U.S. and stated that the Seventh Fleet would "no longer be employed to shield Communist China." On May 20, 1953, at a National Security Council meeting, Eisenhower concluded that if the U.S. were to pursue more effective action vis-à-vis North Korea, the Korean War would need to be expanded beyond Korea and it would be necessary to use atomic bombs if the Chinese and North Koreans did not sign the Armistice Agreement (this message was to be relayed to the Chinese through third parties). As additional warning, missiles with nuclear warheads were transferred to Okinawa in early spring 1953. On November 6, 1953, NSC document 166/1 spelled out that in a conflict with China, U.S. power "employing all available weapons, could impose decisive damage on the Chinese Communist air force and its facilities."2
For more on the question of Stalin, listen to the segment "On Leadership" from Bob Avakian's radio interview series with Michael Slate, available online at bobavakian.net/audio4.html
1. This estimate of executions is based on archival data of the NKVD (the internal security organ of the Soviet state) and research by Russian and Western scholars in archives opened in the former Soviet Union after 1990. J. Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor N. Zemskov reach the conclusion that the number of executed "was more likely a question of hundreds of thousands than of millions" ("Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-war Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence," American Historical Review 98, no. 4, October 1993, p. 1022). Robert Thurston, Arno Mayer, and Lewis Siegelbaum are among other scholars whose work offers insights into the Stalin era who have cited this broad assessment of the numbers of executed under Stalin. This research counters the grossly inflated (in essence manufactured) claims circulating for years in the West that "Stalin executed millions." That the vast bulk of executions during the entire 1930-1953 period took place in the two years 1937-1938 (see Lewis Siegelbaum, chapter 11 in Gregory Freeze, ed., Russia: A History, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 311-315) and that regional and local political officials had a strong hand in who was targeted and put to death points to the particular—and, evidently at times, out-of-control--character of much of the repression of the late 1930s. Further research and analysis as to what was going on is required. [back]
2. On Eisenhower's nuclear threats and nuclear war planning against Maoist China in the early 1950s, see John Wilson Lewis and Xue Lita, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), chapters one and two; Rosemary J. Foot, "Nuclear Coercion and the Ending of the Korean Conflict," International Security, Winter 1988/89 (Vol. 13, No. 3); Mathew Jones, "Targeting China: U.S. Nuclear Planning and `Massive Retaliation' in East Asia, 1953-1955," Journal of Cold War Studies, Fall 2008 (Vol. 10, No. 4); and "For Eisenhower, 2 Goals if Bomb Was to Be Used," New York Times, June 8, 1984 and Bernard Gwertzman, "U.S. Papers Tell of '53 Policy to Use A-Bomb in Korea," New York Times, June 8, 1984. [back]
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
Texas Southern U, Houston:
Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. This was the second stop of his campus tour "From Buffalo Soldier to Revolutionary Communist."
We received the following correspondence from Houston:
On Wednesday, November 11, Carl Dix spoke at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. This was the second stop of his campus tour "From Buffalo Soldier to Revolutionary Communist." Around 85 people came out to the event, with the majority being students and professors from TSU. It was a very exciting evening and the audience really got into what Carl was saying and came back with very serious and thoughtful questions.
Building for the tour came in the midst of an escalation of repression and stifling of critical thinking on campus led by the new president of TSU. Under the guise of "security," president Rudley and his events committee have instituted bureaucratic polices that make it almost impossible for students to have access to radical ideas and non-campus groups. Professors were being hit with excessive fees and fines to bring speakers on campus. Any flyer passed out, poster put up, or student organization formed, has to be personally approved by this new president. Getting a venue for the event became a real battle. One of the professors who was key in organizing the event recounted what the president said to him in the midst of all this. Rudley told this law professor that it is a dangerous situation where professors are bringing in outside speakers who are trying to influence students to their points of view. So this professor had to remind Rudley that is in fact the responsibility of professors at an institution of higher learning to introduce students to points of view they normally would not have access to, is it not? The administration backed down and approved the event. But the policies still remain, and bringing this tour to TSU was both a nodal point and helped open up this battle for critical thinking and dissent on campus.
On the night of Carl's speech, people milled around the lobby of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in and out of engaging conversations. The entire event was quite exciting. It opened up with some heavy words about the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund and the special issue of Revolution on prisons and prisoners. This included speaking to how much it means to get the message of revolution and the leadership of Bob Avakian out to prisoners crushed under the weight of ideological and physical lockdown and how this enables them, in turn, to play an important role in the revolution. Following this introduction, Carl Dix came forward to share some real talk with people, on the oppression of Black people, the current wars for empire being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, and why people should not live and die in a way that keeps all of this madness going, but instead, should dedicate their lives to the emancipation of all humanity.
Carl's presentation elicited a wide range of lofty questions: how to reach out to the cynics and the youth, to let them know this system is wrong, and how do communist principles relate to revolution. What is the revolution going to do about the drug problem? How to develop relationships between parents and children that keep them out of "the life." What about getting inside the system in order to take it down, like in the book "The Spook Who Sat by the Door." Who do you think Obama has to answer to? What other solution do you have for students who want to go to college and want to be debt-free, seeing their only option as the military? One young Black man said, I'm harassed constantly by the police, how do I fight back against oppression and discrimination and how can I help young Black males so they don't have to go through this? Other questions included, how do we pull troops out of Afghanistan without making it a safe haven for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda? One person asked, "theoretically communism is perfect but how do we stop it from becoming corrupted?"
Unfortunately, no one responded to Carl's challenge for anyone to come out and argue for the position that Afghanistan is a good war. We had invited the people from the national Buffalo Soldier Museum which is here in Houston, to come, but they didn't show up. However, several people who were in, or are still in the military came out to the event and got challenged, including a young Black man in fatigues, who came up after the presentation and said that after hearing Carl speak, he doesn't want to be a Buffalo soldier, and he wanted to know what to do.
Overall, this was a successful leg of this sorely needed tour, which aims to unleash strategic sections of the youth and students to resist the crimes of this system and to join up with the revolution under the leadership of Bob Avakian to fight for a whole new world.
From a youth in Houston
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Revolution #185, December 13, 2009
Inaugural issue now online! demarcations-journal.org
Demarcations: A Journal of Communist Theory and Polemic seeks to set forth, defend, and further advance the theoretical framework for the beginning of a new stage of communist revolution in the contemporary world. This journal will promote the perspectives of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.
Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement. Without drawing sharp dividing lines between communism as a living, critical, and developing science serving the emancipation of humanity, on the one hand, and other perspectives, paths, and programs that cannot lead to emancipation, on the other—whether openly reformist or claiming the mantle or moniker of "communism"—without making such demarcations, it will not be possible to achieve the requisite understanding and clarity to radically change the world. Demarcations will contribute to achieving that clarity.
In the wrangling spirit of Marxism, Demarcations will also delve into questions and challenges posed by major changes in the world today. The last quarter-century has seen intensified globalization, growing urbanization and shantytown-ization in the Third World, the rise of religious fundamentalism, shifting alignments in the world imperialist system, and the acceleration of environmental degradation. Demarcations will examine such changes, the discourses that have grown up in connection with them, and the ideological, political, and strategic implications of such developments for communist revolution. Demarcations will also undertake theoretical explorations of issues of art, science, and culture.
The inaugural issue of Demarcations opens with an extensive original polemic against the political philosophy and thought of Alain Badiou.
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