Voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party,USA
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
"The children were inconsolable. Mute with shock and fighting back tears, they huddled beside their mother as friends and neighbors prepared their father's body for cremation on a blazing bonfire built on the cracked, barren fields near their home. As flames consumed the corpse, Ganjanan, 12, and Kalpana, 14, faced a grim future. While Shankara Mandaukar had hoped his son and daughter would have a better life under India's economic boom, they now face working as slave labor for a few pence a day. Landless and homeless, they will be the lowest of the low.
"Shankara, respected farmer, loving husband and father, had taken his own life. Less than 24 hours earlier, facing the loss of his land due to debt, he drank a cupful of chemical insecticide. Unable to pay back the equivalent of two years' earnings, he was in despair. He could see no way out."1
Shankara's story is not unique—or even unusual. Between 1995 and 2009, 241,679 farmers in India committed suicide, and by the end of 2010 the number had probably risen to 250,000—a quarter of a million people. In 2009 alone, 17,638 farmers committed suicide—an average of one every 30 minutes.
And it's even worse. These shocking figures "considerably underestimate the actual number of farmer suicides taking place," according to a new study by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University Law School, "Every Thirty Minutes: Farmer Suicides, Human Rights and the Agrarian Crisis in India."2 For instance, women are often excluded from suicide statistics because they don't have title to their land and therefore are not counted as "farmers."
This suicide epidemic is not a product of "human nature," or India's culture. Mass farmer suicides were unknown in India before the 1990s. Nor are they random and unexplainable: they follow a pattern. 86.5 percent of the farmers who commit suicide are in debt. Like Shankara, 40 percent had suffered a crop failure, the majority are small farmers (with less than five acres of land), and are growing cash crops for export. Cotton is one of India's main cash crops, and one of the highest concentrations of suicides is among cotton farmers like Shankara. Roughly half of all farmer suicides occur in the Vidarbha region of central India, where there are 3.2 million cotton farmers.3
What is the connection between crushing debt, failed harvests, small plots, and cash crops? Why have hundreds of thousands felt they had no way out but to take their own lives? What does this epidemic show about India, a country the U.S. lauds as "the world's largest democracy" and celebrates as a model for economic development? And what does it show about U.S. capitalism-imperialism and how it impacts millions upon millions around the world?
To answer these questions, we can't just look at India's cotton industry, or Indian agriculture overall, or even just India. You have to step back and look at what kind of system we live in, how it dominates and shapes the whole globe—especially oppressed countries like India.
We live in a capitalist system. That means that all production, including of basic necessities, is driven and shaped by the maximizing of profit. Today the tentacles of that capitalist system envelop the whole world—capitalism has become imperialism. A small handful of rich, capitalist-imperialist countries dominate the rest of the planet, with the United States at the top of this global system. These imperialist powers dominate the oppressed nations—where over 80 percent of the world's people live—economically, politically, and militarily. The imperialists set the terms for what will be produced in these countries—not to meet the needs of their peoples, but to further the interests of the imperialists, in particular their profitable accumulation of capital.
Imperialist investment is not—as we're told by the capitalist media—a "boon" or a "handout" for people in oppressed countries. As Raymond Lotta has written, "the economic structure of the oppressed nations (like India) is shaped mainly by forces external to them: what is produced, exported and imported, financed, etc., reflects first and foremost their subordination, and not principally the internal requirements and interrelations of different sectors. They answer to another's 'heartbeat.'"4
Globalization, including Third World countries becoming further integrated into and subordinated to imperialism, has intensified since the end of World War 2. Imperialism's need to further integrate and subordinate Third World countries like India took a leap following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union—which by the mid-1950s was an imperialist, not a socialist, country. Suddenly, the global political, economic, and military landscape was radically changed. The U.S. and Western imperialist powers had triumphed in the Cold War. The U.S. saw the need and the opportunity to accelerate capitalist "globalization": to break down barriers to global investment, exploitation, and trade, including opening up countries formerly allied with the Soviet Union or formerly closed to the West.
Poor countries around the world, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, have been subjected to Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These programs require that Third World governments meet strict conditions to get new loans or to obtain lower interest rates on existing loans. Both the IMF and World Bank are controlled by the imperialist powers, especially the United States. And this restructuring creates more favorable conditions for imperialist trade and investment.5
Imperialist restructuring has led to enormous changes in agricultural production in the oppressed countries. They have been more deeply integrated into the workings of an imperialist‑dominated global food system. Agriculture has been further "industrialized" and reshaped to better serve the imperialists. Traditional subsistence farming (based on producing staples like corn, beans, etc.) has more and more been overrun and swallowed up by imperialist‑controlled agribusiness.
India, the world's second most populous country, was one of the U.S.'s prime targets and has been ground zero for this agricultural restructuring. India was a longtime ally of the Soviet Union, and most of its economy was controlled and directed by the Indian state, which represented the interests of Indian capitalism and landed property, including semi-feudal landlordism.
India remains a predominantly agrarian society, with over 800 million people (of the 1.2 billion total population)—nearly 70 percent of the population—living in rural areas. Over half of India's workforce of nearly 500 million works in agriculture.6
The world's capitalist powers say that poor countries being integrated into the world imperialist system will lead to rapid economic growth and development and rising standards of living for all. When President Obama addressed India's Parliament in November 2010, he praised India for not "resisting the global economy," instead becoming "one of its engines." He claimed this had unleashed "an economic marvel that has lifted tens of millions from poverty and created one of the world's largest middle classes," and that advanced technology was now "empowering farmers and women" in India.7
But what globalization has actually meant for the masses of people in India is intensified exploitation, sweatshops, and growing disparity between the rich and poor. After 25 years of market reform, the average calorie intake in India has declined! And globalization has meant the ruin of many farmers, driving them into desperation. Let's look, for example, at how imperialist globalization has affected cotton farmers in India, who are a lot of the farmers committing suicide.
Beginning in the 1990s, the U.S., the World Bank, and the IMF pressured India to privatize many of its state-owned enterprises, slash regulations on business, cut spending on social services and subsidies to small farmers, tear down barriers to foreign investment and trade, and integrate its economy, including agriculture, more closely into the imperialist-dominated global capitalist order.
Under this "neo-liberal" program, the Indian government reduced subsidies and access to credit for farmers, who had mainly been raising food crops for domestic consumption. It pushed farmers to switch from foodstuffs to cash crops for sale on the global market. And as part of this, the Indian state has promoted the expansion of cotton growing. Today there are 4 million cotton farmers in India, which is now the world's second largest cotton producer.8
However, to sell their cotton, Indian farmers now faced the volatile ups and downs of the global market, and competition with giant multi-national corporations based in the imperialist countries, which had enormous advantages in technology, marketing, and financial resources.
The report, "Every 30 Minutes" says, "In order to compete on the global market, then, Indian cotton farmers desperately turned to using new, higher-priced inputs," and "the cotton market has become increasingly commercialized, and is dominated by a small group of multinational corporations that exert increasing control over the cost, quality, and availability of agricultural inputs."
In India, giant imperialist monopolies exerted this control and extracted huge profits through the sale of genetically modified cottonseed, especially Bollgard Bt cottonseed, made by the U.S. chemical giant Monsanto, the world's largest seed producer.
When Bt cottonseed was approved by the Indian state in 2002, Monsanto launched an aggressive sales program in India with salesmen going from village to village promising these seeds would yield higher outputs—and income—including because they're resistant to some pests, so less can be spent on pesticides. By 2009, a majority of India's cotton farmers invested in the seed, and 85 percent of cotton produced in India was Bt cotton.9
Farmer Shende shouldered at least four debts at the time of his death: one from a bank, two procured on his behalf by his sisters and one from a local moneylender. The night before his suicide, he borrowed one last time. From a fellow villager, he took the equivalent of $9, roughly the cost of a one-liter bottle of pesticide, which he used to take his life.10
Bt cottonseeds cost from two to 10 times as much as regular cottonseed, and can end up accounting for 50 percent of farming costs. Making matters worse, farmers are often prevented from reusing these genetically modified Bt seeds without paying a fee each year to Monsanto—which owns the "intellectual property rights" to the seed.11
Of the 89.35 million farmer households in India, small and marginal farmers make up 84 percent of all agricultural land holdings. These small farmers on average earn less than $2 per day, according to a 2003 study.12
And the workings of imperialism have increasingly forced these kinds of farmers into debt, squeezing them from two sides. On the one hand, these farmers have to pay more for seed, fertilizers, etc., so their costs have gone up. On the other hand, in the name of neo-liberal reform, the government has cut back in providing low-cost credit to small farmers while credit is channeled towards the largest, most profitable agricultural enterprises. This has meant that farmers have had to seek out sources of credit from local, predatory money lenders. And they end up going ever deeper into debt and desperation.
While growing Bt cotton for the global capitalist market can produce high returns, it is also highly precarious and unpredictable. Prices can swing sharply on the world market. Today the price of cotton in real terms is one-twelfth what it was 30 years ago. Also, Bt cotton requires a larger and steadier flow of water than traditional seed, yet 65 percent of cotton farmers have no access to irrigation and depend on monsoon rains. (Only 37 percent of rural households in India have electricity, and 80,000 villages are not even connected to the grid.13) Less than an average rainfall can wipe out their crop, and India's rainfall and weather patterns have become increasingly irregular, with annual monsoons failing three times in the last 10 years and drought impacting some provinces. These changes may be connected to global warming.14
Meanwhile, competition from cotton imported from the U.S. and other major capitalist countries—where farmers and agricultural corporations have much greater access to capital and advanced technology—is driving down cotton prices and ruining tens of thousands of Indian farmers.
Between 1997 and 2004, India imported some eight million bales of American cotton. This cotton was being sold at a price 50 to 65 percent lower than the cost of production because it was being subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which spent $245.2 billion to subsidize U.S. cotton farmers from 1995 to 2009, as part of promoting the interests of U.S. capital around the world.15
Smita Narula, co-author of "Every Thirty Minutes," sums up the impact of all this on tens of thousands of India's farmers: "So they've gone into insurmountable debt to purchase the inputs. They don't have the yields. They repeat this cycle for a couple of seasons. And by the end of it, they're simply trapped in a cycle that they can't get out of, and they consume the very pesticide that they purchased, in order to kill themselves."16
The plight of Indian cotton farmers is part of a broader crisis in Indian agriculture, and most farmers facing ruin have no place to turn. India's much-talked about information technology and business processing industries—the so‑called new economy—employ only 1.3 million out of India's working population of nearly 500 million.17
Oppressive traditional feudal and patriarchal relations also weigh heavily on Indian farmers. Those with daughters have to pay dowries to a prospective husband's family in order for them to be married:
"Farmers who pay these dowries fall further into debt—or face the social stigma of being unable to pay—and may commit suicide as a result. Even more startlingly, in Andhra Pradesh, unmarried daughters, wracked with guilt over their fathers' deaths, have committed suicide themselves. Finally, when husbands commit suicide, they not only leave their wives with their debt but also with the responsibility to marry off their daughters. As farmer-activist Sunanda Jayaram has noted, 'There are debts hanging on [women's] heads which they did not incur. There are daughters whose marriages are pending. The pressure is unending.'"18
Indian farmers can no longer count on their own food production to stave off hunger and are increasingly subject to the global food crisis created by imperialism. The Revolution article, "The Global Food Crisis...and the Ravenous System of Capitalism" points out:
"Third World countries have been forced to shift much of their food production away from subsistence crops to high value exports. They have been pressured to open up their markets to cheap food imports. As a result, local food production for domestic consumption has been undercut. Now these countries are caught in a vise: The price of imported food has gone way up at the same time that the ability to produce food for local consumption has been eroded."19
In an article about the food crisis in India, Utsa Patnaik wrote, "The colonized Indian peasant starved while exporting wheat to England, and the modern Indian peasant is eating less while growing gherkins and roses for rich consumers abroad." Today, one quarter of India's population—some 300 million people—does not have enough money to eat adequately.20
Imperialism has everything to do with the epidemic of farmer suicides in India. And the United States, in particular, plays a major role in shaping India's murderous agricultural system. During her visit to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in July 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that agriculture would be the "strongest and most important pillar" of the strategic partnership between the U.S. and India.
What's taken place in India over the past 16 years represents, in the words of one Indian researcher, "the largest wave of recorded suicides in human history."21
What makes this such a towering crime is that it's totally unnecessary. There is no reason that agriculture and food and other needed goods can only be produced if a profit is turned and the interests of a handful of imperialist powers are served. The basis exists, in human knowledge, technology, and resources, to solve the needs—including for food and clothing—of humanity. But what stands in the way of this is a world economic system of capitalism driven by profit.
Unless and until this system is abolished through revolution, and is replaced by a new socialist system, there will continue to be massive hunger, starvation, dislocation—and yes, farmers will be driven to drink pesticide out of horrific desperation. Under socialism, making sure people have enough food will be the first priority in agricultural production and part of building a whole world of shared abundance for everybody.
India's epidemic of farmer suicides, and understanding that it has been spawned by the workings of the capitalist-imperialist system, speaks powerfully—and achingly—to the urgent need for the revolutions that can bring that better world into being.
The Bay Area Revolution Writers Group assisted with research for this article.
1. Andrew Malone, "The GM genocide: Thousands of Indian farmers are committing suicide after using genetically modified crops," Eurasia Critic, October 2008 (eurasiacritic.com/articles/gm-genocide-thousands-indian-farmers-are-committing-suicide-after-using-genetically). [back]
2. Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, "Every Thirty Minutes: Farmer Suicides, Human Rights, and the Agrarian Crisis in India," New York: NYU School of Law, 2011 (chrgj.org/publications/docs/every30min.pdf). [back]
3. Somini Sengupta, "On India's Farms, a Plague of Suicide," New York Times, September 19, 2006 (nytimes.com/2006/09/19/world/asia/19india.html); Alex Renton, "India's hidden climate change catastrophe," The Independent, January 2, 2011 (independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/indias-hidden-climate-change-catastrophe- 2173995.html). [back]
4. Raymond Lotta, America in Decline, p. 107; cited in "The Collapse of Argentina's Economy: Free Market Madness," Revolutionary Worker #1152, May 26, 2002, revcom.us/a/v24/1151-1160/1152/argentina.htm) [back]
5. "The Global Food Crisis...and the Ravenous System of Capitalism," Revolution #128, May 1, 2008 (revcom.us/a/128/hunger-en.html). [back]
6. CIA, The World Factbook, 2011 (cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/in.html). [back]
7. "Remarks by the President to the Joint Session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, India Parliament House, New Delhi, India," White House, November 8, 2010 (whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/11/08/remarks-president-joint-session-indian-parliament-new-delhi-india). [back]
8. PBS, "The Dying Fields," August 28, 2007 (pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/episodes/the-dying-fields/introduction/967/); Emeka Osakwe, "Cotton Fact Sheet: India," International Cotton Advisory Committee, May 19, 2009 (icac.org/econ_stats/country_facts/e_india.pdf). [back]
9. "Every Thirty Minutes." [back]
10. Sengupta, September 19, 2006. [back]
11. "Every Thirty Minutes"; PBS, "The Dying Fields," August 28, 2007. [back]
12. "Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers (SAS)", conducted in India in the year 2003 by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), cited in Rajiv Mehta, "Situation Assessment Survey for Farm Sector Policy Formulation," September 2009 (fao.org/fileadmin/templates/ess/documents/meetings_and_workshops/RAP2009/STAT-EMPOWER-6.pdf). [back]
13. Renton, January 2, 2011; "Every Thirty Minutes"; "Briefing Book—India," Stanford University, Social Entrepreneurship Startup; Winter 2003 (cee45q.stanford.edu/2003/briefing_book/india.html#s3.1). [back]
14. Renton, January 2, 2011. [back]
15. Srijit Mishra, "Suicide of Farmers in Maharashtra," Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, 26 January 2006 (www.igidr.ac.in/suicide/FinalReport_SFM_IGIDR_26Jan06.pdf); PBS, "The Dying Fields." [back]
16. "'Every 30 Minutes': Crushed by Debt and Neoliberal Reforms, Indian Farmers Commit Suicide at Staggering Rate," Democracy Now!, May 11, 2011 (democracynow.org/2011/5/11/every_30_minutes_crushed_by_debt). [back]
17. Sengupta, September. 19, 2006. [back]
18. "Every Thirty Minutes," p. 9. [back]
19. "The Global Food Crisis...and the Ravenous System of Capitalism," Revolution #128, May 1, 2008. [back]
20. Utsa Patnaik, "Origins of the Food Crisis in India and Developing Countries," Monthly Review, July-August (monthlyreview.org/2009/07/01/origins-of-the-food-crisis-in-india-and-developing-countries). [back]
21. P. Sainath, "Neo-Liberal Terrorism in India: The Largest Wave of Suicides in History," Counterpunch, February 12, 2009, (www.counterpunch.org/sainath02122009.html), cited in "Every Thirty Minutes." [back]
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
A farmer in India swallows a bottle of pesticide and falls dead. And the tragedy of this suicide is compounded. His wife and children now have to pay the debts he owed that drove him into such desperation. They may not have a way to farm the land. They may be forced to work another farmer's field for 45 cents a day.
Since 1995, about a quarter of a million farmers in India have committed suicide. Most are small farmers, more than 85 percent were deeply in debt. In 2009, 17,638 farmers killed themselves—an average of one every 30 minutes.
In a country the U.S. upholds as a model of capitalist democracy, tens of thousands of farmers are driven to kill themselves because they have gone deep into debt to feed their families.
India's agricultural system has increasingly become tied into the global imperialist market. And as a result, many farmers have been pushed to switch from food to cash crops, like cotton, to sell on the global market.
The system of capitalism-imperialism envelops the whole world—where the production of everything is driven and shaped by the drive to maximize profit. A small handful of rich, imperialist countries, with the U.S. at the top, dominate the poor countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—where over 80 percent of the world's people live. Imperialism sets the terms for what will be produced in these countries—not to meet the needs of the people, but in the interests of profit.
Countries dominated by imperialism are subjected to Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank—which are controlled by the imperialist powers, especially the U.S. To get loans and lower interest rates, Third World governments have to meet strict conditions and carry out certain "reforms" aimed at creating more favorable conditions for imperialist trade and investment.
What do these workings of capitalism have to do with farmers committing suicide in India?
In 1998, the World Bank's structural adjustment policies forced India to open up its seed sector to global corporations like Monsanto. Regular seed used by farmers was quickly replaced by genetically modified seeds—which cost more, require more costly fertilizers, and have to be bought every planting season (with regular seeds, farmers can use seeds from the previous year's crop). With some of these new seeds there is a greater risk of crop failure. And a farmer can end up getting very little for his crop because of the ups and downs of the global market.
The farmers are squeezed into debt from two sides. They take out loans to pay for the more expensive seed and fertilizers. And under SAP reforms the Indian government cuts back social services and low-cost credit to farmers. So the farmers seek local money lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates. And they go deeper into debt if the weather is bad and the crop fails... if someone in the family gets sick or dies... if the children go to school.
Some farmers who commit suicide owe multiple loans—from a bank, a relative, a local money lender. One farmer, the night before he killed himself, borrowed one last time. He got a loan from someone in the village for about $9—the cost of a one-liter bottle of pesticide, which he used to take his life.
In India, the much-worshipped "market economy"—capitalism—has produced the largest recorded wave of suicides in human history. And the desperate situation faced by ruined farmers in India can be seen around the world. In Ethiopia, a country historically wracked by famine, farmers are pushed to grow coffee for export, subjected to the mercies of the global coffee market. In the impoverished Ivory Coast, people grow cocoa for chocolate bars. In Taiwan and Malaysia, people raise orchids for European and American flower shops. All this, across the planet, is dictated by the drive for profit and the geopolitical needs of capitalism-imperialism.
The world does not have to be this way! The basis exists, in human knowledge, technology, and resources, to solve the needs—including for food and clothing—of humanity. Under socialism making sure people have enough food will be the first priority in agricultural production and part of building a whole world of shared abundance for everybody.
India's epidemic of farmer suicides, and the fact that this horror is a result of the very workings of the capitalist-imperialist system, speaks powerfully to the urgent need for revolution.
Send us your comments.
Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
On April 11 of this year, an amazing cultural event took place: "On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World." As Revolution newspaper put it: "Hundreds of people of diverse ages, backgrounds, and political perspectives came together in one place for an evening of jazz, funk, soul, rock, theater, dance, poetry, visual arts, commentary and film. All of it aching for, giving voice to, and infused with the possibility of a radically different world than the maddening planet we live on now. All of it unleashed by—and cohered around—the occasion of the publication of BAsics, a comprehensive yet succinct new book of quotations and short essays by Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, with much of the evening's performances flowing from and a large portion of it explicitly inspired by the life and the work of Avakian."
This was an extraordinary night—a space where there was a palpable and living sense of the potential for a new world, and a feeling among people they were part of it. Our imaginations took flight and we created a space with different ways of relating. People who came were inspired and provoked to learn further... about Bob Avakian; about the times that Avakian, and other speakers that night, came out of; and about the need for revolution, argued for from different perspectives.
There was also a great deal learned in the process of organizing and curating the night, lessons that tell us a lot about the broader movement for revolution we are building and even what it means to lead in socialist society—the significance of BAsics and what can be broken open when Avakian's work is directly engaged, the importance and richness of the method of solid core with a lot of elasticity, the material basis for this and the creativity and initiative that was developed in relation to this.
I want to share some of this with the readers of Revolution.
The idea for the event itself came out of things we'd learned more deeply through the Revolutionary Communist Party's campaign, "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have." This especially included the attractiveness of Bob Avakian and his work to people seriously trying to figure out if another world is possible.
We've seen this in a lot of ways, including some experience I had taking out to people an early cut of Avakian's "All Played Out." This is a 12-minute spoken word piece from Avakian where he artfully and unapologetically critiques all that is "all played out!" I shared an early version with a number of artists, including many I didn't know. People gave their thinking on the piece politically and artistically, and ideas on who else we should reach out to, how it should be released, etc.
The responses to "All Played Out" itself were in the main very, very positive. It resonated powerfully with people who want to hear someone speaking the sharp truth, in particular in relation to the basic masses and youth—speaking to them, with a challenge to "get up out of that and into this." Not tailing and not blaming... struggling with a strategic confidence... and also challenging directly those listening.
One person said he knew he was being criticized, in particular in relation to his previous support for Obama, but appreciated what was being said. One hip-hop artist said he thought about his brother (an ex-con), and that this piece spoke directly to him. "No one speaks to them or tries to reach out. All this shit about the way the world is is hidden, and if you're not on the Internet, it's like forget you, you have no way in. But this ['All Played Out'] is really speaking to this section of people." Another woman said this made her think about the "sections of Black people who have been 'abandoned' by the system," and that while she sees the disproportionate impact on the poor and the young, she was also concerned about "how the Black middle class has both been guilty of abandoning the lower sections of Black people but also how the middle class itself is also a victim of abandonment by the system."
A number of people expressed a real sentiment of gratitude for Avakian stepping out in this way, an appreciation for his "earnestness" in this piece, and overall. And since then, William Parker—a significant jazz bassist, poet and theorist—wrote and performed a musical accompaniment that adds a great deal of power to this. You can listen to it, and read what he wrote, at soundcloud.com/allplayedout.
There were also things we'd learned from dialogues that took place between Cornel West and Carl Dix. Very broadly among those who attended there was a disgust with the current culture, an increased sense of betrayal around Obama, deep concern about the future for our youth and an excitement to hear about revolution... And there was a powerful initial response to the Revolutionary Communist Party's Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal).
The concept for the event on April 11 pulled all these threads together, comprehending the shoots that had been brought forward combined with an overall analysis of the terrain. But it wasn't just a "linear progression"—it "ran ahead" of things, and took them to another level. This event provided a form where people themselves could make their sentiments manifest—with BA's own words at the heart of a future-oriented cultural night, a celebration of revolution and the vision of a new world. There was a sense—from a very broad analysis of the whole situation—that an event on this theme would strike a chord with a whole broad spectrum of people... and it did!
Early on, a couple of us went with this very basic concept to a number of people who value the work that BA is doing and his overall stance. They had different perspectives, but pretty much all of them were people who feel BA and this new book, BAsics, should become much more broadly known, and should become a major point of reference in the discourse among people who are disturbed about the state of the world and seeking another, better world, or seriously engaging the question of whether that's possible. We talked with a range of these kinds of people about what we thought could be accomplished with an event like this, learning their thoughts and ideas... and a host committee and core of performers for this event came together. There were also broader forces who maybe didn't have as much unity, but wanted to be part of something that was seeking to break open the atmosphere with revolution, and thought BAsics provided an opportunity for that. All this was captured, and concentrated, in the theme and title of the program itself, On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World.
We were reaching out very broadly with this so there were also a lot of people who declined to participate for a range of reasons—and with some of these people, we got a chance to break open important political and ideological discussion. Still, some people who didn't want to participate themselves were open to assisting in different ways—opening doors to others or suggesting ideas for promotion and outreach. And for everyone we approached, we gave them a chance to find out about BA, to read quotes from BAsics, and to find out about this event... and now all this is circulating in their minds. And we've gotten back to a lot of these people to let them know how it went, in the hopes we can begin, or continue, a fuller engagement.
For those who were participating—they were engaging BA's work, the theoretical framework he's brought forward for the further advance of communism, getting into what he's saying about a strategic approach to revolution and getting into what his leadership has to do with making revolution... and they were finding their own relationship to it. For some people, this was brand new—having just been introduced to quotes from BAsics. Others had been into it for a while. But for everyone, this spoke to very high aspirations and they were inspired to contribute in a variety of ways. And through this process, we brought forward a "we" that was bigger than the communists alone, and it was different than something "the communists were doing" that others were helping with.
Now, in doing this, we didn't try to "tone down" BA—we forthrightly put out who BA is, let them engage his work... and on that basis, we opened our arms very wide to let people into the process, and learned from their wide range of contributions.
It's worth reading and reflecting on the statements from people on the host committee and others, and the interviews with participants before and after the event (go to revcom.us). There are a range of very substantive perspectives as to why people threw in to make this event happen. There are different angles and viewpoints and a richness to why people appreciate BA's work and who BA is, why they want to see it more broadly engaged in society, and why they saw the release of BAsics as an opportunity for this kind of celebration. These were a big part of bringing people into this event in different ways and, along with BAsics itself, enabled people broadly to see there is a place for them in this.
This whole process is based on the understanding and method of "solid core with a lot of elasticity."
Here's a part of BAsics that explains this further: "...you have to have a solid core that firmly grasps and is committed to the strategic objectives and aims and process of the struggle for communism. If you let go of that you are just giving everything back to the capitalists in one form or another, with all the horrors that means. At the same time, if you don't allow for a lot of diversity and people running in all kinds of directions with things, then not only are people going to be building tremendous resentment against you, but you are also not going to have the rich kind of process out of which the greatest truth and ability to transform reality will emerge." (This is quote 2:26—meaning that it can be found in the second chapter, and it's the 26th quote.)
Another part of this whole effort that concentrated "solid core with a lot of elasticity" was the process of strategizing with everyone we could about who we should be reaching out to, how to build for the event and the character of the event itself.
To begin any of this, we had to develop enough of a vision for people to respond to. An important example in this was our experience in developing the script for the event. First, a couple of us drafted a basic vision—a few paragraphs that talked about what the night should feel like, how it should leave people, the role for quotes from BAsics and Avakian's voice overall and the range of voices from the stage including different perspectives and different art forms. We got this vision out to a number of people to get their feedback, including the host committee and several of the performers.
In response to this, one of the artists played a key role in coming up with what the shape of the night should be. He took the fact that we were having a number of jazz musicians play and that we wanted the night to have an overall coherence (vs. the feeling of a "variety show" with disconnected parts) and said the night should be in four acts like four bars in a piece of music. And each act should have a series of vignettes connected in some way by theme, each in their own way commenting on BAsics, or the theme of the night, but that also stand alone. He called it a "non-linear concept musical."
We developed the script for the night around this concept and it made the whole night itself into an artistic piece where each performance contributed to something that was greater than the sum of its parts—both because it was all connected to the theme, and because the night as a whole had shape and coherence. And on that foundation, we were able to solicit and learn from the ideas of many others with more experience in this sphere, whose contributions were also very valuable.
Sometimes, people's contributions didn't "fit" with anything we might have pre-conceived but it was important to really think through what people were saying and not just step over it because it may not have come presented in the form that we thought was best ahead of time... including because sometimes what we thought ahead of time turned out to be wrong. As communists, we need to apply our methodology to learning—and that includes learning from other people who are not communists but who may have more knowledge or insights into particular fields than we do.
Also, the different ways people come at things reflects the fact that reality does proceed through "many channels," as Avakian has expressed it. And appreciating this, and all the different ways people can contribute, enriches the whole process, deepens our fuller understanding of reality and contributes to others getting on board. For example, many people commented that they could see themselves reflected in the different perspectives spoken to in the host statements and this enabled them to see the role they could play. The whole night cohered around Avakian's work and the publication of BAsics—that was clear from the beginning. But there was space for people to find their relationship to that. This, too, was an example of elasticity... on the basis of the solid core.
We also applied this approach in how we involved people. Early on, we envisioned concentric circles of people we wanted to involve... and developed an "echeloned" approach where people we knew more closely not only got involved themselves, in various ways, but also suggested others to contact. Sometimes they would reach out directly, other times they would let us use their names... and then in a few cases, we were able to involve those people in a number of ways, including that they in turn suggested others who they might help win to become involved... and so on.
This was an important part of forging the "we" that I've been speaking to. We didn't limit ourselves to people we already knew, but worked with them to help us reach out. This in turn opened doors to people we didn't know or couldn't reach as easily. And at the same time, we did go directly to a whole lot of new people, asking them to be part of this, thinking big and reaching out broadly.
This was a complicated political and artistic endeavor... there were a range of artists participating, a broad host committee, a director to forge this into a coherent and artful piece, staging decisions, a lighting designer, sound designer, a film crew, film editors, a stage manager, a designer for the print program... and an array of other artistic and technical needs.
But we also weren't just trying to "fill tasks" narrowly. This event was part of a bigger mission to make a leap in making Bob Avakian a household name, as a part of an overall movement for revolution. So every need spoken to here was an actual opportunity to reach out, spread the word of the event, and involve people in making it happen. Every necessity was an opportunity to engage people around BA, and why the release of BAsics provided an occasion to celebrate revolution and the vision of a new world... and why all this is something the world needs. We put the needs out clearly and to everyone we could, casting the net very widely.
In Avakian's book, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, he says, "You trust the masses that if you put the problems to them you can struggle with them, learn from them, lead them and win a big section of the masses as you do this." (From the essay, "Bob Avakian in a Discussion with Comrades on Epistemology: On Knowing and Changing the World.")
The book is dealing with things on a more societal level, but the method is really important to grab hold of—the needs we were seeking to fill with this event were objective needs that people could, from their perspective, recognize (both what this event was overall seeking to accomplish in the world, and whatever particular need we were setting out to fill to accomplish that including production and logistical needs). This point from BA captures the motion involved, that you're entering into a process with people where you're leading and learning, and they're learning and changing... at least "a big section" of them, through this.
An important example of this overall approach was in filling one of the more key artistic roles for the event. I'd begun to put out the word to all kinds of people I knew about this need, one of the performers gave me a bunch of names who I was reaching out to, and while people were interested, we hadn't found anyone and the search hadn't gone out broadly enough. I went to a showcase where I knew I'd find progressive-minded people who could fill this role and approached people there.
Through this, I met someone who agreed to take this on. We worked together for a couple weeks, and she was very into the event—doing a lot of research into all the participants, into BA and contributing her thinking on the shape of the night. The morning after the U.S. invaded Libya, we had a discussion about this and I showed her the powerful and righteous statement from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). We discussed this further, but she really couldn't get with the statement that "No good can come from U.S. imperialist intervention of any kind." She wrote me later that night that she didn't feel comfortable going forward with the project, that she felt too strongly about the need for "humanitarian intervention" and didn't feel comfortable with how firm the RCP's statement was against this.
This left us in a crunch but we knew this wasn't going to be without twists and turns! We wanted to, and made space to, involve people from a range of perspectives. But we also had to do that without going against our basic principles. I argued for this woman to continue to be part of this event and why it mattered, but I also got more deeply into the truth behind that statement about the U.S. (and Revolution newspaper provided a great many materials on this brutal reality). I didn't win the struggle, but it was essential not to compromise principle regardless of the short- term difficulty this created.
At that point, I went back to everyone I had spoken to before explaining what happened and I reached out again to all the performers. But less than three weeks away from the event, we still weren't finding someone. I called a number of theater companies, left messages for the artistic directors and talked to the people who answered the phone. At one place, the receptionist sent my email out to the staff. If people couldn't be part of this, I picked their brains about who might be able to or how to find someone who could. Most people I spoke with were interested and excited by what this event was, and what it was aiming to accomplish. Most people hadn't heard of Avakian, but upon reading a selection of quotes from BAsics, and reading who else was involved in the program... a number of people were sorry they couldn't help on such short notice. We understood that this was an important contribution for someone to make, and approached it that way, but it was also an important opportunity we were giving to someone with these skills, to be part of making this historic event happen well... and people wanted to help.
In one day, I got about two dozen names. And finally, through reaching out with several degrees of separation, we found someone who was honored and able to be part of this... and over a two-and-a-half-week period... she threw in her all!
This same basic approach was used in finding a lighting director, a film crew, animator, and editor for the film clips. Even making these specific technical needs known was important to enable others to help find people who could fill them.
As I've been saying, we learned a lot through the course of this event—not just about how to put on something like this but, even more important, what people think about the biggest questions of the revolution, and how they see that in relation to what they're trying to do in the world. And those participating also went through changes in their thinking, throwing in more to make this event what it needed to be, putting their thinking, their time and creativity into making this happen. This is in part because we consciously applied a method of "grasp revolution, promote production."
This is a very important understanding from Mao that Avakian has developed into an overall strategic approach. Grasping and engaging the largest questions of the revolution, and what any particular initiative has to do with that... and on that basis, working with others to fill those needs through a moving and non-linear back-and-forth process between theory and practice.
In my communication with everyone, I would return to the importance of what we were doing, and how their contribution was appreciated and having an impact... even if briefly in an email or phone call. We're working with, learning from and struggling with people, not things... and their thinking is rich and can be a dynamic factor. It's also the case that often people don't recognize the significance of their own contributions, or of what they're contributing to. This was returned to, and deepened throughout.
Also, in my discussions with people, especially in person... we talked about the event and Avakian's work, but also the world overall, who they are, what they do and why, what they think about the need for revolution, what they know about communism... We are forging multidimensional relationships with people in the process of meeting whatever specific, concrete task is before us. And if we're serious about building a movement for revolution that can bring into being this radically re-envisioned socialist transition to communism, we can't be too busy for that.
Often, we have to do the work to weave this kind of discussion in. A lot of times, people themselves want to get "down to business," and you have to come back to these questions after walking through specifics. There isn't a formula for this, but that's my point... sometimes you have to get into the concretes with people, and then come back to the more overall discussion, drawing them out and saying why we think this kind of discussion even matters. This is opposed to a more mechanical or even dogmatic approach of talking at people and then enlisting them narrowly. With this wrong approach, we lose people, or have a hard time drawing them out and learning what they think, both about this movement for revolution but also more broadly, who they are, and learning why they're responding to this need in the context of who they are and how this fits in to what they're trying to do in the world, including as all that may be changing through the discussion and engagement. That kind of approach does not go with the kind of world we're fighting for, and we'll never get there if that's what we use.
This whole process came to powerful fruition on April 11. People brought their highest aspirations and radical defiance, their creativity and their voices to the stage that night. A number of people commented on the atmosphere among the artists—where everyone was there for something bigger than themselves and yet, the whole thing was teeming with diversity. It was a living example of what Avakian has discussed on the need for a flourishing of individuality, not individualism.
|This appeared in the printed program at the April 11 event:
Thank you to the April 11 Host Committee, including Revolution Books, who made this event possible; to the artists and performers who made it provocative and joyful; to the Harlem Stage staff for all their assistance; to the numerous volunteers whose hard work and creativity brightened our present by making this program happen and provided a vision of the future world that could be; and most of all thank you to Bob Avakian, the author of BAsics, whose words provided the occasion for this night and whose compassion, commitment to humanity, and critical spirit has never wavered in the course of 45 years.
The combination of the openness of the audibly responsive audience, the artistry and heart of the performers, speakers and visual artists, and Avakian's powerful words, passion and commitment came together in a way that made people feel what a new world could be.
This has to further be made a real part of the culture in society... and we want the relationships we've begun with people to continue, with all the many dimensions they began with. We want to learn more what people felt off the event, through working on the event, as they got deeper into BAsics, what is provoked in their thinking and what they think is needed more overall in society... and their ideas on where all this should go and how they want to contribute. And in all this—and in everything we're doing—these essential points of communist method developed by Avakian should guide our approach.
Coverage of the April 11 event itself—including a reporter's notebook, interviews with artists and others who participated, and photo slideshow—are available online at revcom.us/avakian/About-Basics2-en.html.
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
From a Prisoner:
May 16, 2011
To Whom this may concern:
The other day someone asked me what was my most favorite book, and if I still had it, could they check it out. As simple as a question like that was, it stumped me for a second. I realized that I didn't actually have just ONE favorite book—as if one book could provide all the answers one could ever wish to find answers to (although I'm sure most religious fundamentalists would strongly disagree with me unscientifically; and I emphasize unscientifically.)
After pondering his question for awhile though, it made me think about a quote by Bob Avakian in his latest book BAsics in which he said, "I've taken up a principle that Mao brought forward: Marxism, as he put it, embraces but does not replace the arts and sciences and all the different fields of human endeavor. It is necessary to learn from many different people with many diverse viewpoints in all these different fields." (p. 127) That's a principle I've always attempted to apply consistently even before becoming a communist myself.
For that reason, I could've easily mentioned to this individual, that The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy was hands down my favorite book in the category of religion (despite their metaphysical conclusions still), since it was the best book I ever read which comprehensively showed how all of these monotheistic religions (particularly Christianity) were actually human inventions and had evolved like everything else. Or I could've mentioned that Ardea Skybreak's The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism was my favorite book, since it had opened my eyes up to the fact that evolution was a scientific fact for the first time in my life and that the belief in any Creator of any kind was absurd in the face of those undeniable facts. Or I could've mentioned the significance of how Viktor E. Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning had provided me with an existentialist approach to finding meaning in one's life (which in many ways is consistent with a materialist analysis). As Frankl would say: "Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible." I would add: in a consistently materialist and dialectical way.
What was common amongst all those favorite books of mine, which I could've mentioned to him though, wasn't that they were the only ones one would have to read to understand this experience we call life, but because they provided one with the most BASIC foundation in order for them to come to understand it more deeply and more concretely. I've noticed that every time I've come across another book that's capable of doing that, they've always assumed an elevated status and could be classified as being amongst my most favorite ones—at least in regards to that particular subject matter.
That's why when I read Bob Avakian's latest book called BAsics recently, it put a wide smile on my face because the title of it couldn't have been more appropriate. As BAsic as it may be for those with a longer history and background in studying the subject of communism, that's what makes this book so profound and significant to me. There's no question in my mind, that its simplicity will be the start of many people coming to see the world as it actually is for the first time in their life and proactively taking up a communist world outlook and methodology, with the intent on changing the world for the better. And to me that's what it's all about anyways.
By the way...did I mention that the book that I ended up giving that individual to read, in the end, was Bob Avakian's BAsics? My rationale was quite simple. As the back of that book states, "You can't change the world if you don't know the BAsics," I couldn't agree more. That'll always apply to all fields of human inquiry, no less than it will in relation to our scientific approach to changing the material conditions of human civilization itself.
P.S. Could you send me a book on Dialectical Materialism whenever you find yourself in the position to? The one I have now has an idealistic tendency of "inevitablism" attached to it which Chairman Avakian has rightly condemned historically in the proletarian movement. Thanks again for sending me BAsics, and all the other ones you have in the past several months.
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF) has received a generous donation of $1,000, and is calling on you to dig deeply and encourage your friends to do the same. Donate as generously as you can, including to match this contribution, and help PRLF raise $6,000 by June 23. Your contributions will allow prisoners to receive BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, and Revolution newspaper.
Also download and share the two PRLF brochures at revcom.us/30-30-100-e/.
"I did in fact receive it [BAsics] and have read and reread it...I found it both enlightening and inspiring and very useful in lacing newcomers up to the principles of your movement. A lot of people have a hard time getting around difficult concepts, or we have a hard time grasping their attention concerning political realities. This book of short quotes and sayings is easily read and understood. It contains a lot of wisdom in short brief paragraphs. It's easy to read a small amount and meditate on the concept all day long."
Prisoner in Texas
"First, I want to thank you for the copy of BAsics... Please thank the donors who made it possible for me to receive BAsics and Revolution. These publications have had a great impact on my political thinking. I have been a radical from a very young age, but Bob Avakian's writings have solidified my beliefs and given me a solid foundation. Thank you once again for all you do for me and for all the prisoners you help."
Prisoner in Midwest
Non-tax deductible online donations can be made at prlf.org.
Send tax-deductible checks, payable to IHCenter/PRLF, to:
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Send other checks or money orders, payable to PRLF, to:
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PRLF is a project of the International Humanities Center, a non‑profit public charity, exempt from federal income tax under section 501 (c) (3) of the IRS code.
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies and Hooterville Junction
will no longer be so damned relevant
and women will no longer care if Dick finally got down with Jane
on Search for Tomorrow
because Black people will be in the streets looking for
A Brighter Day
The revolution will not be televised.
From—The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Every now and then when the news drops it makes the world's heart skip a beat. On May 27 Gil Scott-Heron, a poet, musician and storyteller whose art changed the world, died sadly and quietly in a New York City hospital. Over the course of his life Gil Scott-Heron produced music and poetry that became one of the voices of rebellion in the U.S. and spread that vibe around the world as well.
Born in 1949, Gil's life was shaped by—and in turn, helped shape—the upheaval of the times. He aimed to speak truth to power—and to the powerless as well. In songs like the Bicentennial Blues and H2OGate Blues, Gil used his remarkable wit, sense of irony and poetic spirit to skewer the system and the rulers, hold them up for ridicule and lay bare their ugliness to the world. He could have you laughing your ass off and then twist things up just a bit to make you step back and recognize some truth.
Take a listen to a little piece like No Knock (referring to the law that allows police to kick down the doors of people's homes without a warrant or warning): "'No Knock!' The Man will say, 'to keep that man from beatin' his wife!'/ 'No Knock!' The Man will say, 'to keep people from hurtin' themselves!'/ No-knockin', head rockin', enter shockin', shootin', cussin'/ killin', cryin', lyin' and bein' white!/ No knocked on my brother, Fred Hampton,/ bullet holes all over the place!/ No knocked on my brother, Michael Harris,/ and jammed a shotgun against his skull!/ For my protection?/ Who's gonna protect me from you?"
When he spoke of the oppressed it was with a different voice—one filled with love, and sometimes impatience, but always with a solid hatred for the hell people are forced to live under. Songs like Pieces of a Man, The Bottle, Paint It Black, and Whitey on the Moon painted the stories of Black people in America the same way Romare Bearden told the stories on canvas and August Wilson told them on stage.
In the notes he wrote to the 1975 album he made with the Midnight Band and Brian Jackson, The First Minute of a New Day, Gil spoke about living in a time of shattered dreams and shocked citizens and wrote, "...mid winter/ there is a revolution going on in America/the World; a shifting in the winds/vibrations, as disruptive as an actual earth-tremor, but it is happening in our hearts. There is a revolution going on in America/the World; a change as swift as blackening skies when the rains come, as fresh and clear as the air after the rain. We need change. The seeds of this revolution were planted hundreds of years ago; in slave ships, in cotton fields, in tepees, in the souls of brave men. The seeds were watered, nurtured and bloom now in our hands as we rock our babies."
At some point Gil began to target capitalism to a degree and used razor sharp poetry to savagely expose the roots of America in slavery and genocide in songs like Bicentennial Blues.
In Winter in America, Gil wrestles with the ebb of the struggle of the 1960s and what the future might hold. In the notes from Winter in America Gil wrote, "Winter is a metaphor; a term not only used to describe the season of ice, but the period of our lives through which we are travelling. In our hearts we feel that spring is just around the corner; a spring of brotherhood and united spirits among people of color. Everyone is moving, searching. There is a restlessness within our souls that keeps us questioning, discovering and struggling against a system that will not allow us space and time for fresh expression." In the song Must Be Something Gil speaks to the changing times in 1975 and especially the ebb in the struggle beginning to emerge, beginning the song with "Must be somethin'/Must be somethin' we can do/Must be somethin'/Must be somethin' we can do/We didn't come all this way just to give up/We didn't struggle all this time to say we've had enough/Had enough." And answers at the end of the song with, "Tell you somethin'/ Tell you somethin' you can do/Keep on movin'/Keep on movin' for what's true!"
Gil made no bones about how he felt about sellout "leaders" of Black people. In songs like Push Comes to Shove and The New Deal he calls them: "Which brings me back to my convictions/ and being convicted for my beliefs/ 'cause I believe these smiles/ in three piece suits/ with gracious, liberal demeanor/ took our movement off the streets/ and took us to the cleaners."
Gil was a revolutionary rooted in the politics of Black Nationalism with conflicting understandings of the roots of oppression, and a mixed record on the oppression of women—but with an embrace that took in the oppressed all over the world. Alien (Hold on to Your Dream) from his great—but terribly underpublicized—album 1980 is one of the most moving songs about the hellish life of the undocumented immigrants forced to seek work in El Norte there is—and it's a song that should be played loud and often in the face of all the current attempts to pit Black people in the U.S. against undocumented immigrants. When Jose Campos Torres, a Chicano man in Houston, Texas, was murdered by the police—who received a $1 fine for their crime—and Chicano people in Houston rebelled, Gil wrote one of the most powerful songs against police brutality ever. And two years later when the Iranian people overthrew the Shah of Iran, Gil celebrated with the song Shah Mot (The Shah is Dead/Checkmate), again from his album 1980.
In Johannesburg, Gil brought home the struggle of the people in South Africa against the racist system of official segregation known as apartheid—a system that held the black people in South Africa to be no more than beasts of burden for the white, settler-colonialist regime. Many people in the U.S. at the time had no idea what was going on in South Africa but would find themselves leaving his concert with the refrain "What's the word? Johannesburg!" etched into their brain. In 2010 Gil was scheduled to perform in Israel and when activists asked him to cancel the tour because playing in Israel was the same as playing in South Africa under the apartheid regime, Gil canceled to stand with the Palestinian people.
He sang about the dangers of nuclear power in a world like this, including at a major "No Nukes" concert at Madison Square Garden held by Musicians United for Safe Energy shortly after the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.
Gil Scott-Heron refused to be boxed in, he had a broadness of mind that thrived in the complexity, irony, humor, tragedy, oppression and revolution of human life on earth. He drew the inspiration for his music and poetry from many wells. He saw his art as part of a great musical river flowing through the world. Gil called himself a "Bluesologist" and among the scores of people he often cited as his influences were Richie Havens, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, the Last Poets, Oscar Brown Jr., Jose Feliciano, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Nina Simone and Brian Jackson, the pianist/keyboardist/flutist and producer who teamed up with Gil in college and worked with him for more than a decade.
One element of jazz that Gil incorporated into his music and poetry was improvisation—he could take off on a verbal riff that rivaled any mind-bending improvisational solo found in jazz or freestyle rhyming cipher in hip-hop. His music has been sampled by many hip-hop artists over the years, and Gil felt a certain responsibility to counsel rappers, speaking to a new generation of youth. In 1994's Message to the Messengers, Gil put his arm around the shoulders of the rappers who came behind him and wrestled with them about the content and outlook of their art, challenging them to rise up against the system and the culture it produced rather than go along with it.
There was a private tragic aspect to Gil's life, a decades-long addiction problem that paralleled the long winter that did weigh heavily on the people of the U.S. over the last few decades. And at a certain point that addiction also became a way to deal with the pain he suffered from health problems including being HIV positive. Gil also spent much of the first decade of the 21st century in and out of jail on drug-related charges. In 2010 Gil released his first album in 16 years, I'm New Here, a deeply personal look at how he's lived his life and the possibility of change.
Gil once explained that his poetry came out of music and he then made his music sound like words. And in that context he brought to life the lives of Black people in America and the oppressed everywhere. When he sang/spoke his art, it bent the air, found its way to your ears and wove itself through the folds in your brain, eventually dropping down to embrace your heart. And in the end it caused us all to look at things differently and for many to join in the quest for revolution and an end to the madness. He will be sorely missed.
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
This is a transcript of the speech by Richard Brown at the April 11 event in Harlem, "On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a Whole New World." Brown is one of the San Francisco 8—a group of eight former Black Panther Party members and supporters who in recent years have been viciously railroaded by the government.
All power to the people. I wanna thank the people of N.Y. for having me here, it's been a pleasure. You've done everything you could in the last few days to make my visit very, very pleasurable and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
It's also an honor to be here tonight because I'm here to celebrate revolution and to pay my respects to a bad-ass white boy. I want you to understand what it is to be in the trenches for decades. Longevity and consistency. This brother is somebody that I truly admire because he has been there, he has done that. And he's still there just like I am. I've been fighting for a long time. In fact, I've been fighting in the streets and in the trenches for over 50 years. I didn't say that I'm 50 years old and I've been fighting all my life, I've been fighting over 50 years.
Started out fighting and actually before that as a young man growing up in racist America, fighting in the racist school system in order to get an education. Fighting the police as a teenager in order to keep them from murdering me like they did my brothers and my sisters in the community. And when I joined the Black Panther Party, the fight really started. I had to fight the local police and the FBI. I had to fight COINTELPRO. They murdered many of my comrades, framed my comrades and framed me. And sent us to prison and decimated the Black Panther Party.
And today, to this very day, I am still fighting for my freedom and for the freedom of people everywhere all round the world and I'm fighting Homeland Security which is just COINTELPRO on steroids. It's the new modern day COINTELPRO.
And I haven't been doing this by myself all these years. Bob Avakian has been doing it also. He came out with a book called BAsics, I got it the other day. I'm reading it. I'm not all the way through it because I don't read like that. I know there's some people who get the book and the next day they tell you, "oh yeah, I read that." I don't read like that, I study, I read, I analyze, I study. And I really don't... I'm trying to get into the book and everything about it. I'm halfway through it and I can tell you that everything I've read so far, I agree with and I appreciate him doing this.
One thing I want to say to the young people, please get this book. Get it. Young people, you have to get it. You have to start reading and you definitely have to start reading material like this.
When I was in the Black Panther Party, we used the Red Book as a means of uniting a whole community, and uniting each other. We read that book every night in the Black Panther office, we took it to the street corners and some nights we would go into the communities to people in our community, we'd go in their living room, and we'd have block parties to bring the community together and read from the Red Book. It united us, it gave us principles, it taught us how to work together and we did everything we could in order to bring about a revolution. That's what this country needs and that's what we have to do. We have to have a revolution.
Young people, let me tell you. I'm 70 years old but I ain't tired, I ain't gave up, I'm not sick... well, I am sick, I have COPD, but anyway, I'm still here. And I'm not discouraged. I'm getting pretty damn impatient, though. What the hell are we waiting on?!
Young people, come on now, it's your turn now. I ain't going to leave you by yourself, but you have to step forward and take this... get this book, read it, organize and bring about a revolution. We have to have a revolution in this country in order to save us and people all around the world.
I promised myself that when I spoke, I would mention three things.
Number one, the comrades who have passed, who fought and gave their own, to bring about a revolution.
Number two, the comrades who are languishing in the belly of the beast, men and women of all ethnic groups who have been trying to bring about a revolution.
And number three, the sisters in the Black Panther Party, I appreciate you so much. You didn't get the recognition that you deserve and honestly, there would never have been a Black Panther Party if it hadn't been for you. You were the backbone, you were the spirit... you did everything. You not only worked at the office and fed the children, you fought side by side with me in the streets, we fought those damn pigs. So thank you from the bottom of my heart.
And I want to say again, let's bring about a revolution...
All power to the people. (resounding applause)
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
The following statement from Lynne Stewart, radical human rights attorney, was sent from prison and read at the April 11 event in Harlem on the occasion of the publication of BAsics. Stewart was jailed in November 2009 on charges stemming from her defense in the 1990s of an Islamic cleric accused of plots to attack New York landmarks.
4/10/11; 9:01 am
It has been nine years since that April day when I thought the FBI had come to the house to arrest Ralph... only to discover they had come for me!!!
Since that day we have all been called upon as Progressive Leftists to protest and support more causes than even we could have imagined—now, the U.S. has three wars on far-flung battlefields and those are only the ostensible ones; torturing our "enemies" has been confronted but is largely ignored and our Iscariot president has perpetrated his lies over the non-closing of Guantánamo but not ending the practice of torture.
Through all of this, and there is more to come, the Revolutionary Communist Party has been in the vanguard. I am sure, given the new impetus of the book BAsics, that movement will gather strength. I am looking forward to reading it!
A few days after my arrest, now so many years ago, representatives of Not in My Name (an inspired naming) and others met with Ralph and I to strategize. That close alliance is still in full force and will continue until and after I walk out these Prison Doors!! Venceremos! Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!!
FMC Carswell, Fort Worth, Texas
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
New Developments in Targeting of Activists
There have been significant new developments in the targeting of antiwar and international solidarity activists by Obama's Justice Department. On May 17 the LA County Sheriff's SWAT team and members of the FBI raided the home of Chicano activist Carlos Montes. In Minneapolis, the next day, FBI documents were brought to light that further expose the escalation of political repression of political organizations that began last September.
From a statement by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, at 5 a.m. on May 17:
"The SWAT Team smashed the front door and rushed in with automatic weapons as Carlos slept. The team of Sheriffs and FBI proceeded to ransack his house, taking his computer, cell phones and hundreds of documents, photos, diskettes and mementos of his current political activities in the pro-immigrant rights and Chicano civil rights movement. Also taken were hundreds of historical documents related to Carlos Montes' involvement in the Chicano movement for the past 44 years."
The statement continues:
"Carlos was arrested on one charge dealing with a firearm code and released on bail the following morning. His first court appearance is set for June 16, 2011.
"This attack on Carlos Montes is part of the campaign of FBI harassment taking place against the 23 peace and justice activists which has until now been centered in the Midwest. Carlos Montes' name was listed on the subpoena left in the office of the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee last September 24. When Carlos Montes was placed in the LA County Sheriff's car, an FBI agent approached and asked him questions about the Freedom Road Socialist Organization."
On September 24 of last year, the FBI carried out coordinated raids of seven houses in Chicago and Minneapolis and the Anti-War Committee office in Minneapolis. The raids were aimed at activists, including in the antiwar movement; the Colombian and Palestinian solidarity movements; and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO). The warrants authorizing the raid claimed that the Joint Terrorism Task Force (which includes the FBI) was seeking evidence in an ongoing investigation into "material support of terrorism." Fourteen people were served with subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury. All signed letters from their lawyers refusing to testify and the subpoenas were temporarily suspended, with three later being reissued. In December a new round of subpoenas was served on nine additional people, mainly Palestinian solidarity activists. These nine also signed a statement refusing to appear before the grand jury. All those with active subpoenas face the possibility of being granted limited immunity and jailed if they continue to refuse to testify.
The documents released by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression on May 18 are FBI documents that the FBI left behind in one of the September raids. The documents include a list of "interview questions" prepared by the FBI that is seeking to gain information about these political organizations with questions like: who are the leaders, who are the members, how is the organization structured, what does it do, what is discussed at the meetings, etc.?
The Committee to Stop FBI Repression said in its May 18 statement:
"While we have no way of knowing if it was speaking tours or educational events on Colombia that got them so riled up, there is something we can state with certainty: There is nothing illegal about traveling to Colombia, or visiting the areas where the FARC is in charge. This is something that journalists, including U.S. journalists, do, and we have yet to hear of their doors being broken down. Upon returning from Colombia, [Meredith] Aby and [Jess] Sundin spoke at many public events about their experiences."
After the raids last September, people rallied in emergency protests across the country. Statements of support have been written, and people have signed pledges to respond to any indictments that come down. There have also been letters written by some legislators and mention of these raids in the Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the section of Freedom of Expression. There is a need for all kinds of people who support the right to organize in opposition to U.S. policies to politically and legally oppose this repression and defend those who have come under attack. An emergency response in Los Angeles to the raid on Carlos Montes' house drew a hundred people on May 20 and another protest is called for June 16, the day of his arraignment in Alhambra.
As Revolution wrote last October, "The cold truth is this: The ruling class, and Obama, do not let rights supposedly guaranteed by law get in the way of what they perceive to be the interests of imperialism. But this does NOT mean that people should not fight for those rights. Far from it. What it does show is that we must struggle all the harder and without illusions against this repression, exposing both the cruel nature of the policies these raids are enforcing (and the interests behind those policies), and the ways in which these raids are totally illegitimate—a violation not only of the fundamental rights and of the fundamental beliefs of many, many people as to what is just, but of the actual laws as written." ("In The Age Of Obama, Criminalizing Political Opposition To U.S. Aggression and the FBI Raids on Antiwar Activists," Revolution, October 31, 2010)
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
From a reader
On the third Friday of every month, Revolution Books in New York City hosts "Pieces for Revolution," an open mic night produced by Revolution Books and Price Tags Entertainment. These events feature a unique mix of poets, rappers, spoken-word and visual artists—including revolutionaries—who broadly speaking and from various angles, wrestle with the world as it is and might be. Artists are encouraged to share their most controversial and daring poems at the bookstore, which is the intellectual center of the movement for revolution, in a unique format that includes questions and discussion between the audience and artist after each piece.
I wanted to share some experiences and thoughts off of attending the April edition of "Pieces for Revolution." This open mic happened four days after a spectacular event in Harlem, On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World (see article "Learning from 'On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World'" in this issue of Revolution).
Some people who attended the open mic had first met the movement for revolution a few nights earlier at the celebration in Harlem, where people had been presented with a strong and living sense of BAsics, and of Bob Avakian, his work and leadership more generally. And this was at the core of a broader artistic expression that took different forms and engaged different key societal questions and phenomena; and there was a powerful interplay between the solid core of BAsics and Avakian's leadership and the elasticity of this broader artistic expression. All this made the open mic an extremely rich and lively night with a lot of important questions in the mix and a true revolutionary spirit on display.
The program began with an emcee reading two quotes from BAsics—2:8 (Chapter 2, quote 8) ["Let's imagine if we had a whole different art and culture..."] and 1:19 ["The bourgeoisie (capitalist class) presides over a system in which people are compelled by necessity—by the fundamental workings and dynamics of that system of capitalism—to compete with each other in a thousand ways, and this system too in a thousand ways promotes and rewards selfishness and surviving, and if possible thriving, at the expense of others...]
The evening's featured performer was a young poet from Nigeria who grew up in the U.S. He did several pieces dealing with a variety of different subjects, including the impact of slavery and colonization on Africa, the devastating impact of Shell Oil and other multinational corporations on Nigeria, the destruction of the environment and the stereotypes and misconceptions he faced as an African immigrant in a U.S. high school. His poems also addressed the oppression of women. Besides speaking very powerfully to the lasting legacy of slavery and imperialism in Africa, his poems also had a lot of wit and swagger. A sample line from one of the poems was something like: "This poem isn't about racism/but what if it is?"
After this, a young Black woman came up to perform. First, she did a poem entitled "Struggling" about the hardships people face struggling from paycheck to paycheck. Next, she said that she wanted to read a new poem she wrote that evening at Revolution Books. She said that the poem had originally started as a love poem and then turned into something else. The poem ended up speaking to the question of complicity—to people's reluctance to deal with reality and their tendency to instead stick their heads in the sand.
Another highlight of the evening was when a youth read a letter written to Revolution newspaper by a prisoner. He read the letter with a tremendous amount of feeling, really bringing alive the prisoner's voice for everyone in the room. After this reading, a young woman very proudly announced that she had taken up the call on April 11 to buy two BAsics books; one for herself and one for a prisoner.
The reading of this letter also started a very heavy and deep conversation about the conditions that prisoners face and about who is to blame for the situation they are in. After the reading, a young woman in the audience who has come to previous "Pieces..." open mic nights said that her sister was currently in jail. She said that her sister had agreed to undergo a "boot camp" type program in the prison in order to be released early. The young woman was clearly very distraught over the conditions that her sister was facing and said that she didn't think it was right for anyone to put people into conditions where they are "treated like animals." She also made some comments about how her sister would be able to be strong and survive, and that maybe she would be able to learn from her mistakes after the experience. At the same time, this woman suggested during the back-and-forth that perhaps people—including her sister—are responsible for the choices they make and the situations they are in. A couple of people replied that there is a system at work that is responsible for people being in prison—a system that leaves people with few if any choices in their lives.
Next, a young woman who had asked in the beginning whether all the pieces performed needed to be about revolution decided to get up to read a poem she had written that dealt with her parents' interracial marriage and the racism they had to deal with.
One of the emcees read a poem she had written that explored what love and relationships could look like in a new society. She used the metaphor of skateboarding to examine the idea of soaring to new heights in the realm of romantic love. It was a great poem and drew out a lot of conversation including what it meant for people to have romantic love in their life, but not having that be the only thing their lives are about. The last line of the poem spoke to this, saying that love was just "one move in our repertoire."
After this a young woman who was not originally planning to take the mic chose an excerpt on the spot from Bob Avakian's memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey From Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist. She explained that she hadn't originally planned to read but felt inspired and compelled to do so after listening to the conversation and the other pieces that night. She read from page 66 of the memoir, from the "High School" chapter, where BA talks about attending a New Year's Eve dance with a Black girl and how the two of them gave each other a really big kiss at midnight—both because they really liked each other and also in order to make the racists who didn't like that they were together "eat it." The young woman who read this excerpt from the memoir said she felt inspired to read this section because it served as a powerful example of what it looks like when people come together in romantic relationships in a way that defies the traditional, backward and dominant relations of society and exudes the joy that comes from finding a partner in your life who also finds the conditions of this society intolerable and stands together with you on that basis, making others "eat it" together.
This was the final reading of the night and got a very enthusiastic response from the room. The woman who had earlier read the poem about her parents' own interracial relationships was very struck by the fact that BA took such an uncompromising and principled stand in the early 1960s against white supremacist hatred for interracial relationships; having just been introduced recently to Avakian's work, she first assumed that this high school dance had happened much more recently.
The reading of the Memoir excerpt, and the reaction of others to this, was one good example of the spirit and morality of the evening and the way that a lot of different conversations were opened up and new ideas were explored, with people coming together around a basic sentiment—even if not always fully conscious or explicitly stated—that the conditions of this society are intolerable and a new culture must be created that stands against that.
All in all, the April "Pieces for Revolution" was a very inspiring and invigorating evening. The night was informed by the energy, liveliness, content and form of April 11. People were really given a powerful sense of BAsics, of BA and his leadership—including as it relates to the question of a whole new art and culture. And the night drove home the powerful impact that BAsics—and readings of quotes from BAsics—can and already is having, as well as the significant potential of things like "Pieces for Revolution" as a means of drawing people forward and introducing them to this movement for revolution and this leader, as part of—and in concert with—a broader artistic ferment.
It seems there is much to consider and learn from all this, in an ongoing way.
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
June 1, 2011
From a reader
I want to share with you one person's response to BAsics who is donating $100 to the current fund drive.
This is someone who used to be a professional fundraiser. I have talked to him on and off, gotten him the paper and he usually just gave a cynical old laugh, even though he is a pretty young guy (30's or early 40's). He is aghast at how bad things are, but more aghast at what people fall for like "be real, you can't really do anything to change things." But I saw him at a dinner recently and he said, "We have to talk; I have come to an important conclusion about my life and my relation to the universe and I am ready to hear what you have to say." I said, "Well, that's good. I want to hear all about it, and I will ask you for a hefty donation."
So today was the first chance we were able to sit down and chat. He said that several things have brought him to the conclusion that he can't just watch things from the sidelines anymore. He has to be a part of finding some answers and doing something to bring about a better world. He doesn't think, at least at this point, that it is with communism — but he does want to begin the discussion. He was familiar with BA and liked what he heard.
I asked for $1K. He laughed, said he didn't have it. I asked for $500 and went through the brochure with him and showed him what we were doing and why each was important. I asked him to sustain the paper for $50 a month. He said he would give $100 to "this" and pointed to BAsics and said, "This is what I want to contribute because I have heard him speak on the radio and he does not mince words and I think people need to hear this." He said he had the book on his Amazon wish list. I said that was great, get that one for a friend and get one now, which he did.
He is an intellectual, reads a lot, is very concerned with the environment, the rise of the Tea Party movement and wants to know who can take that on. I linked his question up to what we are doing in this fund drive, bringing forward a revolutionary movement, an advanced section of society around a scientific understanding of the problem and solution. He said, yeah, but communism, come on. Here I used the quotes and the bibliography at end of BAsics which wowed him. I showed him the Revolution talk website revolutiontalk.net (Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About) which is listed first in the bibliography and asked him if he would want to be part of a discussion on BAsics with people who are also very new to reading it. He thought about it and said, yes, he would.
At the end he said, "I'll contribute the $100 and if I read this, like it, there will be more." And then he said, "You know, I may disagree when we talk, but I may also fight with my friends using what I am learning and taking your side. At the same time, I will fight you every step of the way on this." I laughed and said we wouldn't have it any other way.
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Revolution #236, June 19, 2011
From readers in Atlanta
Cheers to the legendary rock guitarist Carlos Santana, who, while being honored May 15 with a "Beacon of Change" award at the Major League Baseball Civil Rights Game at Turner Field in Atlanta, spoke out against Georgia's new anti-immigration law HB87.
The following was reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the headline "Santana knocks Georgia over immigration law."
"Santana took his turn at the podium in the pre-game ceremony before the Braves-Phillies game to criticize the immigration bill just signed into law by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. 'I represent the human race. The people of Arizona, the people of Atlanta, Georgia, you should be ashamed of yourselves.' Shortly after the game started he met with the media in an impromptu gathering in the Turner Field press box after word of his comments began to break on the Internet and through social media. He said the law is based on racism and economic anxiety. 'This is about fear, that people are going to steal my job,' Santana said of the law. 'No we ain't. You don't clean toilets and clean sheets; stop shucking and jiving.' Santana said he is a 1960's-era artist unafraid to speak out. 'It's an anti-American law. It's a cruel law, actually,' Santana said. 'If you all remember what it was like here with Martin Luther King and the dogs and the hoses, it's the same thing, only it's high tech. So let's change it.'"
Georgia HB 87 is an Arizona copy-cat bill known as the "show me your papers" law. Signed by the governor on May 13, it is scheduled to go into effect on July 1. It establishes new law enforcement powers to allow police to check immigration status if they "suspect" a person is undocumented. It requires potential employers to verify the immigration status of new hires, it makes it a serious crime to use false information to find work, and makes it a criminal offense to harbor or transport an undocumented person.
The bill was passed and signed into law under the pretext of "protecting Georgia's economy" against the supposed drain on resources for services provided to undocumented immigrants. However, the real impact of immigrants on the Georgia economy is now blaring through headlines about an acute shortage of farm laborers during harvest time, because migrant farmworkers are avoiding Georgia for fear of a crackdown. Growers in south Georgia are in an uproar, saying they could lose $300 million due to crops rotting in the fields.
A lawsuit was filed by a number of civil rights groups on June 2 to block implementation of the bill. Immigrant rights activists have called for a boycott of Georgia and are planning resistance mobilizations leading up to and on July 1.
Cheers to Carlos Santana for taking the opportunity of his civil rights award to speak out against this vicious law.
For more on the battle around Georgia HB87, see Revolution #231, "Georgia: Thousands Protest Ugly Anti-Immigrant Law."
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