Voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
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In early January, a video went viral on the Internet showing four U.S. Marines in Afghanistan urinating on the bodies of three killed Taliban. The video, which the Pentagon confirmed was authentic and was likely taken between March and September 2011 by another Marine on the scene, immediately drew worldwide condemnation.
This outrageous act is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, which require that the bodies of those killed in war be treated honorably. But it was not an aberration committed by a few rogue soldiers, a few "bad apples." Instead, it represents and exposes a military culture in which soldiers are taught and trained to become cold-blooded torturers and killers in service of the aims and needs of U.S. imperialism through wars of conquest in which enemies are to be treated as demons and sub-humans—as "gooks" and "ragheads" and "sand niggers"—who require and deserve the atrocities brought down on them. And this is true not only of enemy combatants but of whole civilian populations, including children and especially women who, as "trophies of war," are the victims of rape, mutilation, and gruesome deaths.
Following are just a few examples of the American Way of War. We encourage readers to look further into these, and the many others as well.
Genocide of Native Americans: This country was founded on the twin pillars of brutal chattel slavery and genocidal attacks against the native peoples. In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, the 3rd Colorado Cavalry attacked a Cheyenne and Arapahoe village at Sand Creek. An interpreter living in the village said the victims "were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their rifle butts ... mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word."1 Returning to the fort, soldiers wore on their hats or across their saddlebows the breasts they had sliced off and vaginas they had cut out.2 Such unspeakable crimes against the native peoples were by no means limited to the Sand Creek Massacre. For example, on this page is a photo of the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890, where the U.S. 7th Cavalry killed hundreds of Lakotas.
Invasion of the Philippines, 1899: At the turn of the 19th century, as the U.S. began to emerge as an imperialist power, it occupied several countries formerly under the domination of Spain, including the Philippines, where the people rose up against their new colonial masters. U.S. military attacks included scorched earth campaigns in which entire villages were burned and destroyed. The entire island of Samar was burned down, with Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith telling his men, "I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better it will please me."3 Among the torture techniques the U.S. used against the Filipinos: waterboarding.
The Atomic Bomb Attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: On August 6, 1945, as World War 2 was coming to an end and the Japanese imperialists had been defeated and were close to surrender, a U.S. Air Force plane dropped the world's first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140,000 people, almost all civilians. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing an estimated 74,000 people.
Vietnam, 1965-1975: On March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers entered the village of My Lai. One soldier later testified, "The order we were given was to kill and destroy everything that was in the village. It was clearly explained that there were to be no prisoners." Another later testified that it "was just like any other Vietnamese village—old papa-sans, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive." The soldiers started to kill everyone in sight. Some of the dead were mutilated, with ears and other body parts cut off as a war prize (a practice carried out throughout the 10-year invasion); others were disemboweled and women, some already dead, were raped. One soldier would later say: "You didn't have to look for people to kill, they were just there. I cut their throats, cut off their hands, cut out their tongues, and scalped them. I did it. A lot of people were doing it and I just followed."4
The second U.S. invasion of Iraq, beginning in 2003: Spring 2004, dozens of photos are leaked showing how U.S. soldiers and CIA interrogators have been torturing Iraqis inside Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad. Some photos show Iraqi men, usually naked, with suffocating hoods over their heads and being brutalized by laughing, posing, mocking U.S. Military Police (MPs). One photo shows a prisoner after he had been beaten to death; another photo shows a prisoner with electric wires attached to his genitals. Several show Iraqi prisoners forced into humiliating poses and forced to mimic sexual acts on each other. They are piled naked in large heaps, while MP prison guards pose over them like trophy hunters. When the photos surfaced, President George W. Bush claimed, "That's not the way we do things in America. I don't like it one bit."5
Also during the second U.S. invasion of Iraq: March 12, 2006, several soldiers burst into the home of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza, at whom the soldiers had been making sexual passes for some time. One soldier takes Abeer's mother, father, and five-year-old sister into the bedroom and kills them. Then he and another soldier take turns raping Abeer. When they are done, they shoot and kill her, then set fire to her body.6
* * *
The top U.S. military man in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, said the actions of the U.S. troops were "in direct opposition to everything the military stands for." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed, "It is absolutely inconsistent with American values and the standards we expect from our military personnel."
Just the opposite is true: This obscene incident, and the long and unbroken record of degrading, depraved acts by U.S. troops is absolutely consistent with the values of those who rule the U.S. and their capitalist-imperialist system. And it is a product and expression of the very nature of the U.S. military, whose role is to ruthlessly and violently enforce that worldwide system of exploitation and oppression.
1. The Sand Creek Massacre [back]
2. North American Indian Timeline (1492-1999) [back]
3. Revolutionary Worker #939 (former name of Revolution newspaper), “The Bells of Balangiga,” January 11, 1998 [back]
4. Revolution #027, “The Vietnam War: Destroying the Village in Order to Save It,” December 19, 2005 [back]
5. Revolutionary Worker #1239, “U.S. Torture in Abu Ghraib Prison,” May 9, 2004 [back]
6. Revolution #053, “Rape and Murder of Abeer Qassim Hamza: Bloody Reality of the U.S. Occupation," July 16, 2006 [back]
Send us your comments.
Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
|Partial List of Signatories:
Gbenga Akinnagbe, actor on the HBO series The Wire
Fr. Luis Barrios
Renate Bridenthal, Professor of History, Brooklyn College, CUNY, retired
Elaine Brower, World Can’t Wait & Military Families Speak Out
Cynthia Carlson, artist
Nina Felshin, independent curator
Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, NYC
Harmony Hammond, artist
Camille Hankins, Founder and Director: Win Animal Rights and No Kill, New York
Ray Hill, producer/host of Ray on the Raydio Internet radio show, Houston, TX
Lee Siu Hin, National Coordinator, National Immigrant Solidarity Network
Rev. Dr. James Karpen, Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, NYC
Chuck Kaufman, Executive Director, Alliance for Global Justice
Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Harlem, NYC
Jim Long, artist
Waqas Malik, artist
Lydia Matthews, Dean of Academic Programs, Associate Dean of Parsons/Professor
Ann Messner, artist
Dorinda Moreno, Fuerza Mundial/FM Global/Hitec Aztec, U.S. Liaison Secretariat, International Tribunal of Conscience of Peoples in Movement/TICPM
Nick Mottern, ConsumersforPeace.org & kNOwdrones.org
National Immigrant Solidarity Network
Bradley Olson, psychologist, activist
The Rt. Rev. George E. Packard, Retired Bishop of the Episcopal Church for the Armed Services and Federal Ministries
Craig Phipps, Ombudsman at Casa Esperanza
Suzanne Ross, PhD, clinical psychologist
David E. Rousline, PhD, Berkeley, CA
Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz, New Sanctuary Movement
Jayce Salloum, artist, Vancouver
Donna Schaper, Senior Minister, Judson Memorial Church
Theodora Skipitares, Associate Professor, Pratt Institute
Stephen Soldz, Director, Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis,* Past President, Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR)*
Rev. Max Surjadinata, Area Coordinator of Friends of Sabeel North America
David Swanson, warisacrime.org
Debra Sweet, Director, World Can’t Wait
Dennis Trainor, Jr, writer, producer & host of Acronym TV
Marina Urbach, independent curator, other projects, New York
Nancy Vining Van Ness, Director, American Creative Dance
Jim Vrettos, Adjunct Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice*
Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights*
Andy Zee, Spokesperson, Revolution Books, NYC
David Zeiger, Displaced Films
*For identification purposes only
DOWNLOAD PDF OF THIS CALL/SIGNATORIES
These past several months have witnessed something very different in the U.S. People from many different walks of life came together to occupy public space in nearly 1,000 cities in the U.S. They stood up to vicious police violence, they broke through the confines of “protest as usual,” and in the middle of all that, they built community. Even in the face of media attempts to ridicule, distort, and demonize these protests, their basic message began to get through. People throughout the U.S.—and even the world—took notice of and took heart from these brave and creative protesters.
The political terms of discourse began to shift; the iced-over thinking of people in the U.S. began to thaw. Standing up to the unjust brutality and arrests became a badge of honor. People began to listen to and read the stories of some of the victims of this economic crisis, and to share their own. And most of all, as the protests spread to city after city, the fact of people occupying public space forced open debate and raised big questions among millions as to what kind of society this is, and what it should be. Why does such poverty and need exist in the face of a relative handful of people amassing obscene amounts of wealth? Why do the political institutions of society seem only to serve that handful? Why do so many youth feel they face such a bleak future? Why does the insane destruction of the environment continue to accelerate? And what is needed to overcome all this?
Those who actually wield power in this country regarded these protests, and these questions, as dangerous, and reacted accordingly. Time and again those who wield power violated their own laws and ordered police to pepper spray, beat with clubs, and shoot tear gas canisters at the heads of people who were doing nothing more than non-violently expressing their dissent and seeking community. This reached a peak in the recent coordinated and systematic attacks of the past few weeks against all the major occupations. In fact, the mayor of Oakland admitted on BBC to being part of conference calls that coordinated national strategy against the occupiers. On top of all that, and in another blatant show of illegitimate force and power, they attempted to prevent journalists and photographers from covering these acts of repression—unless they were “embedded” with the police.
To put the matter bluntly, but truly: the state planned and unleashed naked and systematic violence and repression against people attempting to exercise rights that are supposed to be legally guaranteed. This response by those who wield power in this society is utterly shameful from a moral standpoint, and thoroughly illegitimate from a legal and political one.
Now this movement faces a true crossroads. Will it be dispersed, driven into the margins, or co-opted? Or will it come back stronger? This question now poses itself, extremely sharply.
One thing is clear already: if this illegitimate wave of repression is allowed to stand... if the powers-that-be succeed in suppressing or marginalizing this new movement... if people are once again “penned in”—both literally and symbolically—things will be much worse. THIS SUPPRESSION MUST BE MASSIVELY OPPOSED, AND DEFEATED.
On the other hand, this too is true: movements grow, and can only grow, by answering repression with even greater and more powerful mobilization.
The need to act is urgent.
As a first step in the necessary response, there must be a massive political mobilization on a day, or days, very soon to say NO! to this attempt to suppress thought and expression with brutality and violence. This mobilization should most of all be in New York, where this movement started... but it should at the same time be powerfully echoed all around the country and yes, around the world. This is a call for massive demonstrations—soon—carried out in public spaces where they can have maximum impact and exposure and where the authorities cannot pen in, suppress, and otherwise attempt to marginalize these demonstrations.
These demonstrations must be large enough to show clearly that people will not tolerate that which is intolerable... that people will not adjust to that which is so manifestly unjust. Such demonstrations, along with the efforts to reach out and build them, can draw many more people from passive sympathy into active support and can awaken and inspire even millions more who have not yet been reached. Such demonstrations can powerfully answer the attempt by “the 1%” to crush and/or derail this broad movement. Thousands and thousands in the streets, acting together, can seize new initiative and change the whole political equation. The urgent questions raised by Occupy—and other urgent questions that have yet to be raised in this movement—can once more reverberate, and more powerfully than before.
The repression of the Occupy movement must not stand. Act.
As put forward in its statement “On the Strategy for Revolution,” the RCP, USA stands for and struggles for a world “where human beings everywhere would be free of relations of exploitation and oppression and destructive antagonistic conflicts, and could be fit caretakers of the earth. But to make this a reality, we need revolution.”
That same statement emphasizes the importance of the way that crises in the system of imperialism can lead to “sudden jolts and breakdowns in the ‘normal functioning’ of society, which compel many people to question and to resist what they usually accept.” Such jolts “create situations in which many more people are searching for answers and open to considering radical change,” and pose important openings in the work of getting to revolution, and a whole new society.
The Occupy movement—both the unexpected and overwhelmingly positive nature of the protests and the brutal repression which the imperialist state has unleashed against it—has opened up just such a situation. From the standpoint of making revolution and carrying forward from there to communism—from the standpoint of building, and making leaps in building, the movement for revolution—it matters a great deal whether this broad Occupy movement will be able to surmount the repression that has been unleashed against it and go forward, or whether it will be shut down or derailed in one form or another. From that revolutionary communist standpoint, and with those stakes in mind, we are circulating this statement and call on people broadly to discuss, distribute, and post it.
Send us your comments.
Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
Sixteen people, representing a cross section of the many that have responded positively to the urgency of “A Call for Mass Action Against the Suppression of the Occupy Movement,” both within this movement and beyond, met in New York this past week to start planning. A beginning significant list of people, including prominent people in the arts, legal, and religious communities, have added their names as signatories.
The initial organizing group is calling on all those inspired by the spirit of the Occupy movement to widely circulate the Call next week, garnering hundreds of signatures including widely known people, a broad range of organizations including “Occupy” in many cities, as well as prominent voices of conscience. If you are in NY, join the organizing committee and come to the next meeting on Thursday, January 26. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
All who take heart from the emergence of the Occupy movement need to act to see that the vicious suppression of the Occupy movement does not stand.
See "A Call for Mass Action Against the Suppression of the Occupy Movement."
Send us your comments.
Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
Editors' Note: Revolution is serializing an important speech given by Raymond Lotta during his national campus speaking tour in 2009-10. This version of the speech, given at Harvard University in April 2010, has been slightly edited and footnotes have been added for publication. Part 1 was printed in Revolution #257, January 29, 2012; Part 2 in #258, February 5, 2012; Part 3 in #259, February 12, 2012; Part 4 in #261, February 26, 2012; Part 5 in #262, March 12, 2012, and Part 6 in #263, March 25, 2012. Below is the final installment.
I am very pleased to be at Harvard to speak with you about communism. My talk has five main themes:
I look forward to a vigorous and fruitful exchange in the question-and-answer. So let me start.
Imagine a situation in which the Christian fundamentalist creationists have seized power overall, and have proceeded to suppress knowledge of evolution. Imagine that they go so far as to execute and imprison the most prominent scientists and educators who had insisted on teaching evolution and bringing knowledge of this to the public. And they heap scorn and abuse on the well-established fact of evolution, denouncing and ridiculing it as a flawed and dangerous theory which runs counter to well-known "truth" of the biblical creation story and to religious notions of "natural law" and the "divinely ordained order."
To continue the analogy, imagine that in this situation many intellectual "authorities," along with others following in their wake, jump on the bandwagon, saying things like: "it was not only naïve but criminal to believe that evolution was a well-documented scientific theory, and we should not have been forcing that belief on people." And some intellectual authorities make statements like: "But now we can see that it is ‘common wisdom,' which no one questions—and we won't question it either; we can see that it is common wisdom that evolution embodies a worldview and leads to actions that are disastrous for human beings. We were taken in by the arrogant assurance of those who propagated this notion. We can see that everything that exists, or has existed, could not have come into being without the guiding hand of an ‘intelligent designer.'"
To keep with this "thought experiment." Suppose that in this situation, even many progressive and radical intellectuals become disoriented and demoralized. They are cowed into silence.1
Well, this is an analogy to the situation that exists in intellectual life and discourse when it comes to communism. It is now the accepted and unquestioned verdict that communism is a failure. Radical thinkers who at one time took on anti-communist lies and opened their eyes and the eyes of students to the actual and liberating experience of communist revolution—many such progressive scholars have unthinkingly bought into the verdict.
You see, back in the 1960s, the world was alive with revolution. The Chinese revolution inspired people around the world. The most revolutionary and far-reaching movements of the 1960s— whether we are talking about the Black Panthers or radical women's liberation—were influenced by the communist revolution, and especially the Cultural Revolution, in China. And this reacted back on the universities—including right here at Harvard—on how people looked at their lives and the meaning and purpose of intellectual work. But since the defeat of the revolution in China in 1976, for almost 35 years now there has been an unremitting ideological offensive against communist revolution. And this has real consequences.
I know there are people in this room who want to do something meaningful with their lives for the betterment of humanity. Maybe some of you want to devote your energies to solving the environmental emergency we face...or teaching in the inner cities...or going into the arts to explore in the realm of imagination and metaphor the way people are and might be, and the way the world is and might be.
But no matter your passions and convictions, this system has its own logic that shapes everything. I am talking about a system that operates on the basis of profit. I am talking about an economy that is the home base of an empire: a global system of exploitation in which the U.S. arrogates to itself the "right" to wage war and to invade and occupy countries. I am talking about an economic system safeguarded by governing institutions and a military machine of death and destruction. I am talking about the values and ideas that get promoted in this society.
You are someone who knows that radical measures must be taken to reverse looming environmental catastrophe. But what happens—really what doesn't happen in dealing with the environmental emergency, with the Copenhagen summit the most recent glaring example—is driven and circumscribed by the workings of the capitalist world market...by corporate bottom lines...and by the power relations and power struggles between the U.S. and other oppressive great powers.
You want to teach "uncomfortable truths" about America's actual history and role in the world? Well, you should, but you are going to be pressured, threatened, and likely find yourself without a job. You are a woman who wants to break free of convention and stereotype. But you will face a lifetime of menacing gaze, physical threat, and demeaning sexual images that reflect and reinforce enslaving tradition and subordination.
We need a different system. Humanity needs "total revolution": in economy, politics, culture, and morality. And the fact is: we can create a world without exploitation, in which humanity can flourish. But, and this is a cruel irony, exactly at a time when capitalism is in crisis, when all its irrationality and the suffering it inflicts are escalating exponentially—at this very moment, we're told "you can't go beyond capitalism; the best you can do is to tinker around its edges."
It is as though a warning label were affixed to the discourse on human possibility. Danger: anything that fundamentally challenges capitalism is at best a pipe dream and at worst an unworkable utopia imposed from above that will result in nightmare. Caution: the project of making revolution and building an economy and society that promote and serve the common good violates human nature, economic logic, and the very flow of history. Reminder: we have reached the end of history: Western society represents the high point and end point of human development.
At UCLA, NYU, and the University of Chicago, we distributed this multiple-choice "pop quiz" on basic facts about communism. These weren't obscure or arcane things. We asked questions like: what was the only country in Eastern Europe during the 1930s that stood against anti-semitism? The answer is the Soviet Union.2 We asked: what was the only country in the world in the 1960s where the government and leadership were calling on people to rise up against oppressive institutional authority? The answer was Maoist China.3 People did abysmally—the average test score was about 58. In other words, people failed.
This is shameful. Because in the 20th century, something world-historic happened and people don't know the first thing about it. The first socialist societies were forged out of monumental revolutions, the rising up of the wretched of the Earth: in the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1956, and in China from 1949 to 1976. These were the first attempts in modern history to create societies free from exploitation and oppression—socialism. And the experience of these revolutions...it changes everything. The world does not have to be this way, and we can go further and do better in a new wave of revolution.
So what is socialism? Let's clear away some confusion. Socialism is not just government ownership of some enterprises or some government regulation—all capitalist governments do that. And socialism is not something that Obama is doing—Obama is no socialist.
In fact, socialism is three things:
First, socialism is a new form of political power in which the formerly oppressed and exploited, in alliance with the middle classes and professionals and the great majority of society, rule over society with the leadership of a visionary, vanguard party. This new form of state power keeps old and new exploiters in check. It makes possible a democracy that a) unleashes the creativity and initiative of people in all kinds of directions and b) gives the masses of people the right and ability to change the world and to engage in meaningful decision-making, that promotes the most far-reaching debate, and that protects the rights of the individual. This new socialist state that I am talking about is a launching pad for revolution elsewhere in the world.
Second, socialism is a new economic system where the resources and productive capacities of society are socially owned through the coordination of the socialist state, where production is consciously organized and planned to meet social need, and to overcome the inequalities of capitalist class society—like the oppression of minority nationalities and the subordination of women. This is an economy that is organized to promote revolution in the world and protect the planet. No longer does exploitation and profit rule over society and people's lives. No longer are Big Pharma and financial-insurance conglomerates setting the terms for health care provision and research. They won't exist anymore. No longer is there a General Motors or Boeing—they too won't exist anymore, either—skewing transport development and energy production to the needs of profit.
Third, socialism is a historical period of transition, between capitalism and communism, a period of revolutionary struggle and experimentation to transform all the economic structures, all the social institutions and arrangements, and all the ideas and values that perpetuate the division of society into classes.
And what is communism? Here I want to read from a statement, "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have," from the Revolutionary Communist Party:
Communism [is] a world where people work and struggle for the common good.... Where everyone contributes whatever they can to society and gets back what they need to live a life worthy of human beings... Where there are no more divisions among people in which some rule over and oppress others, robbing them not only of the means to a decent life but also of knowledge and a means for really understanding, and acting to change, the world.4
Now the Russian and Chinese revolutions, in what amounted to a "nanosecond" of human history, accomplished amazing things in the direction I am describing. Not without problems and serious shortcomings...but these revolutions accomplished great things against great odds during their existence.
Why were the odds so great? For one thing, the imperialists worked overtime to crush these revolutions. The socialist revolutions of the 20th century posed a mortal (and, yes, a moral) threat to the established global order of exploitation, privilege, and inequality. They opened new possibilities for humanity and new roads for realizing these possibilities.
But the imperialists didn't say to Lenin or Mao: "Oh, you want to try to create a new society based on cooperation, you want to create a planned economy based on putting human needs first, you want to solve your health and education problems, and you are going to attempt to enable those on the bottom of society to increasingly administer it. Okay, why don't you try that for twenty years? Then come back and we'll compare notes? We'll see whose system does better."
No! The capitalist-imperialist powers encircled, pressured, and sought to strangle these revolutions. Within months of the victory of the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, France, England, Japan, the U.S., and thirteen other powers sent money, weapons, and troops to aid counterrevolutionary forces in Russia who were trying to restore the old order of exploitation, religious obscurantism.
How many of you know that the world's first oil embargo was applied against the Soviet revolution? How many of you know that during the entire time between 1917 and 1950, the new socialist society of the Soviet Union was either preparing for war, or having to fight war, or dressing the wounds of war?
Or consider the circumstances facing the Chinese revolution after it came to power in 1949. Within a year, U.S. troops were moving up the Korean peninsula and threatening to invade China itself. How many of you know that in the early 1950s, the U.S. imperialists issued veiled nuclear threats, and developed military plans for launching nuclear strikes, against the new People's Republic of China?5 This is real history.
It was in these historical circumstances that millions in the Soviet Union and China made revolution and brought about profound changes in their conditions and in their thinking. And another reason they faced great odds was the fact that these revolutions did not unfold in vacuums. They took place, as will future revolutions, in societies that still contained the scars and influences of the old social order, including class divisions along with the ideas and traditions of the past. This too is part of the reality and challenge of making revolution.
Is that what you have been learning about 20th century history? Did you learn that in the 1920s, when Black people were being lynched in the U.S., when the racist film extolling the KKK, Birth of a Nation, was one of the biggest things in American culture—did you learn that in the Soviet Union something utterly different was happening? At this very time in the Soviet Union, incredible efforts were being made to overcome inequality among nationalities.
The new socialist society was waging struggle against the historical chauvinism of the dominant Russian nationality. Economic and technical resources were being channeled to regions where minority nationalities were concentrated. The new Soviet state established autonomous forms of government in these regions, enabling people in these areas to take responsibility for administration. It promoted the equality of languages and even developed written scripts for languages that previously had none.6
This was an amazing sea change. You see, before the Bolshevik revolution Russia had been known as the "prison-house of nations," with infamous pogroms against Jews, and the domination of whole nations. It was a society where, before the revolution, people of certain minority nationalities were forbidden from using their native languages in schools.
Most of you don't know this because that knowledge has been ruled out of order in the academy and society. You are surrounded by and imbibing the master narrative that nothing good came of these revolutions—and that they failed and could only fail.
There is one small problem with this "conventional wisdom" about communism. It is built on the wholesale distortion of the actual history of socialist revolution; it is built on outright lies.
You know, I have to say it is amazing what passes as intellectual rigor when it comes to communism. And sadly, it's amazing what gets over on people who pride themselves on intellectual scrupulousness.
I want to deconstruct three typical high profile and highly charged examples of what I am talking about.
Let's start with the book Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. This has been hailed in the mainstream as the definitive biography of Mao Tsetung. It was on the New York Times bestseller list. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday want you to believe that Mao was a cynical hedonist who murdered ten times as many innocents as Hitler. They insist that Mao was a cold-blooded murderer—but since they can't substantiate that with facts, their book is strewn with lies and distortions.
Let's go to Chapter 40 of the book. It deals with the year 1958. It has this running head on each page: "The Great Leap: 'Half of China May Well Have to Die.'"7 You see, Chang and Halliday quote from a November 1958 speech by Mao in which he says: "half of China may well have to die."
They cite this as proof-positive that Mao had no concern for human life: let half of China die to fulfill a crazed vision of a new society. But if you read Mao's speech, he is actually saying the opposite:
"In the construction of irrigation works, between last winter and this spring we moved, nationwide, over 50 billion cubic meters of earth and stone, but from this winter to next spring we want to move 190 billion cubic meters nationwide, an increase of well over three times. Then we have to deal with all sorts of tasks: steel, copper, aluminum, coal, transport, the processing industries, the chemical industry—[they all] need hordes of people. In this kind of situation, I think if we do [all these things simultaneously] half of China's population unquestionably will die; and if it's not a half, it'll be a third or ten percent, a death toll of 50 million people.... Anhui wants to do so many things, it's quite all right to do a lot, but make it a principle to have no deaths."8
Mao is pointing out that the economic plan is trying to do too many major things at once, and if we stick to the plan, well..."half of China's population unquestionably will die"—and we don't want that! He's cautioning against overzealousness—that it could lead to overwork, exhaustion, and deaths—and he's doing this in a highly dramatic way.
So Chang and Halliday have totally ripped Mao's phrase out of context and inverted its meaning. They've lied. That would be bad enough. But this lie gets repeated in reviews, in newspapers, and in blogs. It spreads and becomes so frequently cited that it becomes an established fact. So no one has to prove anything. Case closed: Mao was worse than Hitler. This is incredibly dishonest and vicious. And yet it passes for scholarship.
Let me turn to a prestigious academic source with a veneer of scholarly rigor. I'm talking about the book Mao's Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquhar, the highly celebrated China scholar here at Harvard, and Michael Schoenhals. This book was published in 2006 and is widely considered to be the "definitive" account of the Cultural Revolution.
MacFarquhar sets the stage for Mao's launching of the Cultural Revolution. Here's how MacFarquhar does it: "Various remarks indicate that Mao craved a measure of catalytic terror to jump start the Cultural Revolution. He had no scruples about the taking of human life. In a conversation with trusties later in the Cultural Revolution, the Chairman went so far as to suggest that the sign of a true revolutionary was precisely his intense desire to kill." And then MacFarquhar presents this alleged statement from Mao: "This man Hitler was even more ferocious. The more ferocious the better, don't you think? The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are."9
Well, this is a pretty sordid declaration. So I went to the notes and sources at the end of the book, and let me tell you what the endnote says: "From a very reliable source seen by one of the authors."10 Can you believe this! Here you are supposedly citing evidence for the bloodlust that ostensibly drove Mao and the Cultural Revolution. And this is the documentation that MacFarquhar offers? Stop and think about this intellectual outrage. People are given proof that Mao was a monster based on totally unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable hearsay.
It's egregious. The classic "trust me, I can't give you the speech, conversation, or article... but trust me, it's reliable." Kind of reminiscent of George Bush going to war in Iraq: "Look, Sadaam Hussein is developing weapons of mass destruction. I can't share the evidence, but trust me, my sources are reliable." This hearsay masquerades as something solid and damning.
And then this statement, without any meaningful or provable attribution to Mao, or any meaningful context being specified, gets repeated in the mainstream media and by other lords of academia. Andrew Nathan, a well-known, liberal China scholar who teaches at Columbia includes the statement attributed to Mao in his review of the book in The New Republic.11 I tracked Nathan's review, and it got posted on different blogs and book review sites.
Now suppose one of you in the audience is trying to learn about the Cultural Revolution and you go to Wikipedia. Well, lo and behold, in the entry on the Cultural Revolution, you will find the following statement from Mao Tsetung, presented as part of Mao's guidance for the Cultural Revolution: "the more people you kill the more revolutionary you are." And what is the source? You guessed it, Roderick MacFarquhar, that grey eminence of China studies.12
My question is this: why didn't these other scholars scrutinize this footnote, instead of repeating this sensationalistic claim about Mao? Because they don't have to prove anything: the communist project is declared to be a disaster and horror. And many of these and other so-called scholars have been part of weaving together a narrative of the Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions built on similar distortions and misrepresentations of what these revolutions set out to do, what these socialist societies actually accomplished, and what real difficulties and challenges they faced.
I've issued a public challenge to Roderick MacFarquhar to debate me (my challenge mentions this footnote)—and organizers of my speaking tour turned this into a paid ad and submitted it to the Harvard Crimson last week.13 But guess what? The president of the Crimson refused to publish the ad, saying it was "too controversial." Duh!
Where are the progressive scholars? Why are they not calling this out? Because many of them have bought into these verdicts, in an atmosphere of unrelenting attack on the communist project—while others have been intimidated by the conventional wisdom and what have become the norms of intellectual discourse: before one can even speak of socialism, even positively, one has to disavow the experience of socialist revolution in the 20th century.
Indeed, these anticommunist distortions deeply permeate progressive political thought. Take the activist and social critic Naomi Klein. Here I am drawing on analysis by Bob Avakian that appeared in Revolution newspaper.14 In the early pages of her book The Shock Doctrine, Klein describes the situation in the U.S. after 9/11, and how the Bush administration exploited this.
Klein writes, "Suddenly we found ourselves living in a kind of Year Zero, in which everything we knew of the world before could now be dismissed as 'pre-911 thinking.'" And she is right about this. But then she draws this analogy: "Never strong in our knowledge of history, North Americans had become a blank slate—a 'clean sheet of paper' on which the 'newest and most beautiful words can be written,' as Mao said of his people."15 Klein is actually referencing a short essay by Mao from 1958 titled "Introducing a Cooperative." But she totally rips this passage out of context to make it appear that this was about mind control of the untutored masses by totalitarian leaders.
Let's look at what Mao actually said:
"Apart from their other characteristics, the outstanding thing about China's 600 million people is that they are 'poor and blank.' This may seem a bad thing, but reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for change, the desire for action and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and the most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted."16 And then Mao goes on to point out that the masses are in fact using big-character posters in the cities and rural areas to conduct mass debate and ideological struggle—and he says this is a great antidote to "dullness" in society.
In other words, Mao was not saying, "oh great, the peasants are just a bunch of putty and we leaders can shape them however we please." He is saying the opposite of what Klein suggests. He is saying that being "poor and blank" results in people not only wanting radical change but being capable of taking initiative to fight for that radical change. And it is clear, if you read this essay, that Mao is saying the "freshest and most beautiful characters" and "freshest and most beautiful pictures" are being written and painted by the peasants themselves—and, yes, this is happening with communist leadership.
At the start of the essay, Mao observes: "Never before have the masses of the people been so inspired, so militant, and so daring as at present." "Inspired," "militant," and "daring": not exactly the world that George Bush or Barack Obama wants us to live in! Nor the stereotype that Klein implies of communist leaders turning people into mindless robots.
So here we have three different examples of high-profile lies and distortions being spread that reinforce ignorance about communism: from the reactionaries who wrote Mao: The Unknown Story; the liberal anti-communist Roderick MacFarquhar's Mao's Last Revolution; and the progressive social critic Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine. As I have been emphasizing, the effects of this cannot be overestimated: the lowering of sights, a generation of young people being robbed of understanding.
In the rest of this talk, I will be drawing on Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party.17 This Manifesto sums up the history of communist revolution so far, its breakthroughs and lessons. It explains how communism has developed as a living, creative, open-ended science, beginning with Marx, through Lenin, to Mao, and Bob Avakian. This Manifesto provides a framework to initiate a new stage of communist revolution. And let me add that you cannot say that you are educated and up to date on emancipatory human thought if you have not yet read this Manifesto.
Now one of the things we hear so often in discussing communism with students is this: "well, it might be a good idea, but it doesn't work in practice." I want to answer this, precisely by returning to the Cultural Revolution and getting into what it was about and accomplished.
The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 was the high point of socialist revolution in the 20th century and the whole first stage of communist revolution, beginning with the Paris Commune. The Cultural Revolution was the most radical and far-reaching struggle in human history to uproot exploitation and oppression and to change society and bring about new values and new ways of thinking.18
But the bourgeois "master narrative" is that the Cultural Revolution was Mao's power-mad and vindictive purge of opponents: an orgy of senseless violence and mass persecution that plunged China into a decade of chaos. There is not a scintilla of truth to this narrative. But before I take it on directly, I want to set the stage for the Cultural Revolution by talking a bit about Chinese society before the revolution of 1949.
The vast majority of China's people were peasants who worked the land, but who had little or no land to call their own. They lived under the dominance of landlords who ruled the local economy and people's lives. Peasants desperately scratched out survival. In bad years, many had to eat leaves and bark, and it was not uncommon for peasant households to sell children to meet debt obligations. Agriculture was plagued by endless cycles of floods and droughts and famine. For women, life was a living hell: beatings by husbands, the painful binding of feet, arranged marriages, and young women forced into becoming concubines to landlords and warlords.
In China's largest city, Shanghai, an estimated 25,000 dead bodies were collected from the streets each year by municipal sanitation teams. Meanwhile, foreign-controlled districts of the city glittered. In a country of 500 million, there were only 12,000 doctors trained in modern medicine, and 4 million people died each year of epidemic and infectious diseases.19
This is why people make revolution. This is why millions in China consciously took part in the struggle led by Mao to seize state power and to create a new society.
Distortion One: So-called China experts like Roderick MacFarquhar talk about Mao's obsession with revolution, combating revisionism, and preventing counterrevolution, as though Mao were imagining or contriving enemies to suit his political whims.
The truth is that the revolution of 1949 overthrew foreign domination, big capitalism, and landlordism. But right from the start, there were leading forces in this revolution whose vision of society went no further than to turn China into a major industrial power that would take its place in the world economy and international nation-state system. These forces became a new capitalist class centered within the Chinese Communist Party and state, and by the mid-1960s, they were positioning to take power. Their leaders, like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, had coherent aims and a coherent program for China: to put an end to socialism, to reinstitute exploitation in the name of efficiency, and to open China up to foreign capital in the name of engaging with the modern world. This is why Mao was warning against revisionism, which is a capitalist program and world outlook expressed in Marxist terminology.
Distortion Two: Bourgeois accounts depict the Cultural Revolution as Mao's horrific attempt to whip people into mass frenzy.
The truth is that the Cultural Revolution was a mass revolutionary upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people in profound and intense struggle over the direction of society:
Would socialist China go forward along the socialist road to communism: to a world community of humanity without classes, where all forms of exploitation and social inequality have been overcome, where men no longer lord it over women, where there are no longer dominant nations and dominated nations and the world itself is no longer divided into nations, where the division of society into those who mainly work with their hands and those who mainly work in the realm of ideas is overcome, where there is no longer a need for a state to enforce the rule of one group of society over another?
Or would socialist China take the capitalist road back to sweatshops and exploitation, to the crowding of the cities with migrants desperately in search of work, to the subordination of women and the reemergence of prostitution and the objectification of women—in short, would China become...the China of today?
Distortion Three: The bourgeois narrative of the Cultural Revolution talks about Mao's "disastrous enactment of utopian fantasies."
The truth is that Mao and the revolutionaries who led the Cultural Revolution had coherent and visionary aims. What were these aims?
*To mobilize people in society to overthrow these new capitalist forces and to revolutionize the Communist Party itself.
*To reinvigorate the revolution by subjecting every level of authority and governance to mass criticism and questioning.
*To promote socialist values of "serve the people" and putting the interests of world humanity first and challenging the capitalist morality of maximizing self-gain and self-enrichment as well as the Confucian mind-set of bowing down to authority and convention.
*To reshape and revolutionize the institutions and fabric of society: a) to create an educational system that, instead of producing a privileged elite, was actually contributing to raising the knowledge and skills of society and overcoming the great divisions of society; b) to forge a new revolutionary culture, like the model revolutionary works in opera and ballet that put new emphasis on workers and peasants and their resistance to oppression (in place of the old imperial court dramas) and that conveyed powerful images of strong and independent revolutionary women; c) to create new base-level institutions within factories, schools, and hospitals that truly empowered people.
These were crucial goals of the Cultural Revolution; this was not "crazed utopianism."
Let's be clear, the Cultural Revolution was a real revolution. It was disruptive of the routine of normal life; it was full of invention and innovation; inspiring tens of millions but also shocking and disturbing tens of millions at its outset. The schools shut down; youth went to the countryside to link up with peasants, students from Beijing went to Shanghai to stir up protest in the factories, workers were encouraged to raise their heads and ask: "who's really in charge here?" This became very wild. There was massive political and intellectual debate: street rallies, protests, strikes, demonstrations, what were called "big character posters," which contained comments and critiques on policies and leaders. Paper and ink were provided free of charge, public facilities were made available for meetings and debates.20
This was about changing society and changing the world in an ever more conscious way. There has never, never in world history, been a revolutionary movement of this scale and consciousness. Mao looked to the youth as a catalytic force to awaken and arouse society. In Beijing, over 900 newspapers were circulating in 1966-67.
In Shanghai in the autumn of 1966, there were some 700 organizations in the factories. Eventually, the revolutionary workers, with Maoist leadership, were able to unite broad sections of the city's population to overthrow the capitalist-roaders who had been running the city. And what followed was extraordinary: people began to experiment with new institutions of citywide political governance; and the Maoist leadership was able to learn from and sum up this experience and these debates.21 In the countryside, peasants were debating how Confucian values and patriarchy still influenced people's lives.
Standard Western accounts charge that violent attacks on people and physical elimination of opponents had the official blessings of Mao—and that, policy or not, thuggish violence was the norm. Both of these claims are false.
Mao's orientation for the Cultural Revolution was clearly spelled out in official and widely publicized documents. In the Sixteen Point Decision that guided the Cultural Revolution, it was stated, "Where there is debate, it should be conducted by reasoning and not by force."22 Yes, there was violence during the Cultural Revolution. But: a) this was not the main character of the Cultural Revolution—its main forms of struggle were mass debate, mass political mobilization, and mass criticism; b) where young activist Red Guards and others resorted to violence, this was sharply condemned and struggled against by the Maoist revolutionary leadership—for instance, in Beijing, workers following Mao's guidance went into the universities to stop factional fighting among students and to help them sort out differences; and c) much of the violence that occurred during the Cultural Revolution was actually fanned by high-ranking capitalist-roaders seeking to defend their entrenched positions.
This Sixteen-Point Decision was not some narrowly circulated inner-party directive that has somehow escaped the notice of our brilliant academic scholars. It was, in fact, put out to all of China as guidance as to the aims, objectives, and methods of this revolution!
The Cultural Revolution accomplished amazing and unprecedented things.
*We're told that Mao was anti-education and anti-intellectual. It's a lie.
How many of you know that during the Cultural Revolution middle-school enrollment in the countryside rose from 14 to 58 million?23 Or that worker and peasant enrollment in the universities soared? The reason Mao is branded "anti-education" is that the Cultural Revolution challenged the bourgeois-elitist idea that education is a ladder for individuals to "get ahead," or a way to use skills and knowledge to gain advantageous position over others.
This was not anti-intellectualism, but rather a question of putting knowledge in the service of a society that was breaking down social inequalities. The old curriculum was overhauled in the universities. Study was combined with productive labor. The old teaching methods of viewing students as passive receptacles of knowledge and teachers and instructors as absolute authorities were criticized.
*We're told Mao did not care about human life. It's a lie.
China, a relatively backward country, achieved something that the richest country in the world, the U.S., has not been able to do: provide universal health care. As a result of the Cultural Revolution, a health system was established that reached and addressed the needs of China's peasants in the countryside who made up 80 percent of China's population.
In a little more than a decade after the seizure of power in 1949, the revolution was able to overcome epidemic diseases like small pox and cholera. Mass campaigns were launched to tackle opium addiction.24 And along with mass mobilization, there was mass education. This was a very important and defining feature of health care in socialist China: to maximize community participation and grass roots awareness and responsibility over health issues and concerns. There was both centralized allocation of needed health resources and a tremendous amount of decentralization.25
One of the most exciting developments of the Cultural Revolution was what was called the "barefoot doctor" movement. These were young peasants and urban youth sent to the countryside who were quickly trained in basic health care and medicine geared to meet local needs and who were capable of treating the most common illnesses. In 1975, there were 1.3 million of these "barefoot doctors."26
The results were astounding. Life expectancy under Mao doubled from 32 years in 1949 to 65 years in 1976.27 Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, made a calculation: if India had the same heath care system as China did under Mao, then 4 million fewer people would have died in India in a given sample year. That works out to a total of some 100 million needless deaths in India from the time of independence in 1947 to 1979.28
Tell me about which economic-social system values human life...and which doesn't.
Now people say that communism can’t work because it goes against human nature...that people are selfish and will only look out for themselves...that people won’t have any incentive to work if they’re not allowed to compete to get ahead of others. These are not scientific statements about an unchanging human nature. They are statements about human nature under capitalism, about how people are conditioned to think and act in THIS society.
Capitalism produces and requires a certain mind-set: me-first, winner-take-all, greed is good. And this outlook and these values stamp everything, every institution and every relation in society. People have to compete for jobs, for housing, for places in the educational system. They even have to compete and perfect themselves in the “marketplace” of human relationships. Is it any surprise, then, that people are indifferent, callous, and even cruel to each other in such a society?
This is what socialism, what socialist revolution, changes. It opens up a whole new realm of freedom for people to change their circumstances and their thinking. This is what happened during the Cultural Revolution.
In China during the Cultural Revolution, there was an economic system based on using resources for the benefit of society and the world revolution. There were new social relations and institutions that enabled people to cooperate with each other and to maximize the contributions that people can make towards a liberating society and the emancipation of humanity. The educational system promoted values of serving the people, using knowledge not for individual self-aggrandizement but for the betterment of society and humanity. During the Cultural Revolution, people were measuring their lives and the actions of others through the moral lens of “serve the people.”
You can read interviews and books by scholars like Dongping Han, Bai Di, and Mobo Gao. These authors grew up during the Cultural Revolution and took part in it—and they write about what it was like coming of age in the social environment of the Cultural Revolution, what it meant for there to be a social framework that valued cooperation and solidarity. They talk about how this affected their attitudes towards other people, their sense of social responsibility, and how the Cultural Revolution influenced what they felt was important and meaningful in life.29
Again, I am not talking about some kind of utopia, and I am not saying everything was done right in Maoist China. But people did change—because socialist society creates this new framework that makes it possible for people to consciously change themselves.
And when capitalism was restored in China in 1976, and the old dog-eat-dog economic relations brought back, people changed again: back towards the old “me against you,” “everyone for him- or herself” outlook. People changed not because a primordial human nature had somehow reasserted itself, but because society had changed back to capitalism.
The Cultural Revolution Mao initiated in 1966 was defeated in 1976. Following Mao's death, a core of capitalist-roaders launched a military coup. They arrested Mao's closest comrades and killed thousands. These counter-revolutionary forces instituted capitalism, while maintaining a certain socialist camouflage.
How could this happen? For one thing, the Cultural Revolution was bitterly opposed by powerful neo-capitalist forces who occupied leading positions in Chinese society: in the Communist Party, in the government, and in the military. These forces, Mao had pointed out, were part of a social-historical phenomenon of the Chinese revolution: they were "bourgeois democrats" who had evolved into "capitalist roaders." Let me explain.
China had been a nation subjugated by imperialism. It was a society kept backward and poor by feudalism. For many who had joined the Communist Party before the seizure of power in 1949, the Chinese revolution was in essence about breaking the grip of imperialism and turning China into a modern, industrialized society. And once the revolution succeeded in driving out imperialism, these forces, many now in leading positions, saw the task before the revolution as building up China's economic power—by whatever methods promised the most efficient results. These "bourgeois democrats" turned "capitalist roaders" were powerful and had a great deal of influence.
But that was not all. Revolutionary China faced enormous international pressures. The Soviet Union, which was no longer a socialist country in the 1960s and '70s, was threatening war, even nuclear strikes, against socialist China. This strengthened the conservative forces within the party. They claimed that the ferment and innovation of the Cultural Revolution were too risky, that it was time to put a stop to the Cultural Revolution—and that all must be focused on defense, stability, and rapid modernization. And they organized and mobilized social forces around this agenda.
Beyond these more immediate concrete factors—at a deeper level, there is the fact that socialist revolution is going up against thousands of years of master-slave relations, tradition, and the ideological force of habit, like people deferring to authority and convention.
It is these objective factors—the strength of counter-revolution and the monumental challenges of transforming class-divided society—that mainly account for the defeat of socialism in China in 1976. But the defeat was also conditioned, though secondarily, by some mistakes in orientation and conception on the part of Mao and the revolutionaries.
To get into this, we need to understand that an event of these world-historic proportions—the defeat of a truly transformative revolution that spanned 27 years in a country of almost a billion people—required a serious analysis. And the only person on this planet who analyzed what had happened in China from the standpoint of: why the revolution had been defeated, its implications, and how we have to not only build on the unprecedented, liberating experience of the Cultural Revolution but also learn from its problems and go beyond it in initiating a new stage of communist revolution... this was Bob Avakian.
This brings me to the last part of my talk: how Bob Avakian's new synthesis of communism enables humanity to go further and do better in making communist revolution in today's world.
Bob Avakian has argued that we not only have to uphold the great victories of the first wave of socialist revolution. We also have to air and get into their problems. We have to understand more deeply where these revolutions came up short, and how we can do better. We have to unsparingly interrogate the experience of proletarian revolution, not just the mistakes and negative features but also its high points and breakthroughs. Not just because we're not scared of the truth, but because we thirst for the truth.
In discussing all of this, I am applying insights from works of Avakian such as Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy and "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity."30
Bob Avakian has examined the Soviet experience and the experience of the Cultural Revolution deeply.
In the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, as danger of attack from Germany was growing and society was mobilizing for war, political and intellectual life grew increasingly restrictive and ossified.31
During the Cultural Revolution in China, many artists and intellectuals were not able to pursue their work. There were revolutionary model works, which were wonderful things. There was a flourishing of the arts among workers and peasants, who had previously been locked out of these spheres as they are in capitalist society. But there was a problem of a single-minded focus on developing model revolutionary works and enabling the masses to take up art—this to the exclusion of much else. There was too tight a hand.32
We have to do better.
Let's be clear: the achievement of socialist state power is a great thing. To allow counter-revolution to capture power would be a betrayal not just of the sacrifices of the masses who make revolution but of the hopes of the whole world.
The revolution must keep a firm grip on that power AND must also make sure that that power must be worth maintaining: it must be truly revolutionary and emancipatory. A new state power and the overall leadership of a vanguard party are indispensable to bringing a new world into being.
Avakian is saying that there must be a "solid core" in socialist society—a "solid core" rooted in the principle of achieving communism and emancipating all of humanity, and maintaining power on that basis. This is essential to really be on the road to getting to a society where there is no longer need for any institutionalized leadership.
On the basis of this solid core, there must also be "maximum elasticity": ferment and contestation, things churning, new and unexpected things "bubbling up" in society. Leadership must be learning from all of this while giving this overall direction, so that this elasticity can contribute to the rich process of getting to communism.
This is a breakthrough in understanding and vision. It requires that leadership be exercised in ways that are, in certain important and crucial respects, different from the understanding and practice of previous socialist societies.
Revolution must set the terms. But that cannot come at the cost of inhibiting dissent, or stifling the richness of individual expression, or putting a halter on the vast middle strata of society. We have learned that you cannot get to communism if society is not sprung into the air, if there is not a profound interplay of experience and discovery and insight, opening new pathways of change.
Bob Avakian has forged new understanding and new appreciation of the vital role of intellectual work and intellectual ferment in socialist society. This has to be happening on a scale that is unimaginable in capitalist society. At the same time that you are working to overcome a situation where only a relative handful of people can engage in the realm of “working with ideas” you must also be giving scope and space to intellectuals, artists, and scientists.
Now there are attitudes and values on the part of intellectuals—attitudes stemming from their relatively privileged position and relative separation from the masses in class society—that must be struggled with. But everyone in society, including those on the bottom, is influenced by bourgeois ideology, and this too must be struggled with. Everyone’s thinking, whether we are talking about workers who may be either deferential to or resentful of intellectuals, or intellectuals and professionals who may look down on the masses...everybody’s thinking must be transformed. This is part of becoming emancipators of humanity.
Handling all of this correctly is a great challenge. Because, again, the communist revolution is aiming to overcome the oppressive social division of labor of class society—but going at this with the understanding that intellectual and scientific ferment are essential to the search for the truth, to adding to the store of human knowledge, to enabling the masses of people to know the world more deeply so it can be transformed more profoundly.
There is something else. The probing and questing character of intellectual activity can contribute to the dynamism and to the critical and exploratory spirit that must permeate socialist society. This is all part of the process of uncovering and struggling over the problems and defects in society. Such ferment contributes to the atmosphere where the policies, structures, direction, and leadership of society are being debated and interrogated throughout society.
Now, socialist society will be promoting Marxism. But Marxism cannot be imposed as an “official ideology” that people have to agree with as part of becoming full members of society. This has been a problem in previous socialist societies. Marxism must be promoted in an atmosphere in which it is interacting and engaging with other intellectual currents and discourses, and actually being enriched through this. And people ultimately have to come to Marxism themselves.
This model of socialist society that Avakian is bringing forward attaches great importance to the need not just to allow but to foster dissent, protest, and contestation in socialist society. Socialism must be pulsing with discovery and upheaval. You can’t have that if you are tightly controlling things, if people are looking over their shoulders, or “watching what they say” for fear of being wrong.
People often ask, “You advocate protest today, but what about the universities under socialism, but will there be student movements and protests?” The answer is “yes, and then some!” The universities in socialist society must be seething with far-ranging intellectual debate and dissent, with protest and with contestation which will, yes, lead to disruption. We’re talking about a society that teems with debate and protest far beyond what exists in capitalist society.
You know, as part of this speaking tour, I issued an open letter and challenge to debate to Jeffrey Sachs. He teaches at Columbia and is an avid advocate of what he considers to be “socially conscious” capitalism. He vigorously opposes communism and sees markets as ensuring freedom. Well, people like Jeffrey Sachs, or social critics like Naomi Klein, and the Roderick MacFarquhars, must and will have the ability to articulate, disseminate, and defend their views widely in socialist society. There will be great debate in society about these views as part of the struggle to understand and change the world. We will not get to communism without this kind of ferment.
Let me move on to another aspect of this new synthesis. In summing up the experience of socialist revolution in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and in China under Mao, Avakian has pointed to a particular problem. Yes, it is crucial and necessary for socialist society to have real focuses—from waging struggle to liberate women from the bonds of patriarchy to dealing urgently with the environmental crisis. Yes, it is crucial and necessary for leadership to be developing policies and winning people to see the need to keep things going in an overall direction towards communism, and waging determined struggles to keep the revolution going forward.
But this too has to be understood in a new way. Yes, socialist society must be moving forward in an overall sense towards communism. But people also have to be able to pursue their own visions. They have to be able to strike out in all kinds of diverse and creative ways—whether we are talking about artists and scientists, or the masses of people.
This is not a detour from creating a new and liberating world. This “elasticity” is an essential part of the dynamic of getting to that world. People can only arrive at a truer understanding of society through the fullest possible debate to thrash out right and wrong, and to themselves experiment, discover new things, make mistakes, and be able to reflect and relax.
Now this is another great challenge that is full of risks. You have to be not only allowing but encouraging things to go in all kinds of wild and unexpected directions; but you also have to be doing so without losing your priorities, and without losing power. Make no mistake about it, the imperialists and counter-revolutionaries will try to restore the old order. There is the reality of counterrevolution, of active and organized attempts to sabotage and overthrow the new society. But there is also the reality that you are not going to get to communism unless society is pulsing with ferment and experimentation, dissent, and protest. The Constitution and legal framework of socialist society must reflect that understanding and make the necessary distinctions.
What this new synthesis is underscoring is that intellectual ferment and dissent not only contribute to new and deeper understanding of society, not only contribute to opening up those new pathways to a society without classes, but also, and critically, are vital to the process of enhancing the capacity of people to more consciously and more voluntarily change society and themselves.
I have spoken about the experience of communist revolution in the 20th century and about Bob Avakian's new synthesis of communism. The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA has been applying this new synthesis. It's been doing work on how a new socialist society, achieved on the basis of making a revolution that overturns this system, would tackle major social questions.
Let's take the crucial problem of racism and the oppression of Black, Latino, and other minority nationalities in this society.
The police forces that today degrade and brutalize young people and masses in the ghettos and barrios would be immediately dismantled. The new state would establish new security forces that both protect the rights and interests of the masses of people and that help the people to resolve contradictions and disputes non-antagonistically—without resorting to violence.
The new revolutionary state would take over the factories, land and mines, machinery and technology. A new socialist economy would utilize these means of production to develop an economy to meet the needs of the people, safeguard the ecosystems of the planet, and promote world revolution.
Right away, the revolutionary state would channel economic and social resources into the former ghettos and barrios. It would bring together people in the communities with specialists like architects, state planners, and environmental scientists. People would be debating and figuring out what kinds of housing, recreational facilities, and health clinics are needed.
The youth would not only have jobs, but meaningful jobs that would make a difference in the lives of the communities and in society overall. Society would be mobilizing middle-class professionals, who also have a desire to do something meaningful with their lives and who have skills to share. People would be learning from each other in the context of transforming society. People would be forging new cooperative relations, and carrying on debate and waging ideological struggle over the direction of society.
The new socialist state would immediately outlaw segregation in housing and the apartheid-like system of education in the U.S. and promote integration throughout society. The new society would foster exchanges of experiences and ideas among different sections of people—like Latinos and Blacks.
At the same time, the new socialist state would uphold the right of self-determination for African-Americans, that is, the right to form an independent state. The new society would also make possible forms of self-government and autonomy for African-Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, and other formerly oppressed nationalities—and provide the resources to make this real and vibrant. The educational system and media would be combating racist and white supremacist ideas and hurtful myths.
The revolutionary state would give initiative and support to people taking on the still-existing racist ideas and ways that influence how people relate to each other and that perpetuate inequality. The arts and the media and the educational system would be giving voice and expression to a rich cultural diversity—in an atmosphere that brings out human community.
Bob Avakian has pointed out that socialist society will be teeming with "unresolved contradictions." There are still tremendous social struggles and ideological battles to wage to overcome patriarchy and the legacy of the oppression of minority nationalities. There are the still-existing social differences between professionals and intellectuals and those who are mainly working with their hands...still the need to use money...still gaps in development between regions.
These still-existing differences and contradictions will call forth questioning and bring forward new ideas—but also engender dissatisfaction and criticism, and spark struggle and even upheavals. Is this a good or a bad thing? Avakian sees this as nothing less than a driving force for continuing the revolution.
The point is that the world does not have to be the way it is now, and Bob Avakian's new synthesis of communism opens incredibly exciting vistas for making revolution in today's world.
Think about how a socialist economy and a socialist society guided by the kinds of principles I have been talking about could in fact address the environmental emergency we face. Imagine a society that was unleashing creative energies and waging soul-stirring struggle to emancipate women and transform all relations between men and women, interrogating traditional notions of gender—and the very idea of what it means to be a man or woman. Think about how art could flourish throughout such a society, and how a new revolutionary culture, with profound liberatory content and rich formal innovation, could take root in society...while social imagination and artistic experimentation take flight.
The experience of communist revolution and the new synthesis of Bob Avakian are things you need to know about. These are not just interesting historical or philosophical questions. We are not talking about a "more balanced" discussion in the academy. What we are talking about is the fate of the planet and the future of humanity. What we are talking about is historical truth and human possibility.
You have been blocked from knowing about the vital history of communism, the real concepts and real development of communism. You have been prevented from debating these questions in any meaningful way. Everything you've been told about communism is wrong. The verdicts and "conventional wisdom" about communism are a profound obstacle to what is most needed: an emancipatory politics and an emancipatory discourse. But we're changing all of that.
You have now finally been told something about communism that is not wrong. So let's get into it.
1. This analogy is taken from Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2009), p. 18 (revcom.us/Manifesto/Manifesto.html) [back]
2. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had brought political and social emancipation to Jews in a country with a history of virulent anti-semitism and violent anti-Jewish pogroms. Equality of rights for Jews continued under Joseph Stalin during the 1930s and World War 2. By contrast, Jews in Hungary, Romania, and Poland faced organized fascist movements and institutional anti-semitism in the 1930s—and, later, death camps. See Arno Mayer, Why Did The Heavens Not Darken? (New York: Pantheon, 1988), pp. 55-89. [back]
3. At the start of the Cultural Revolution, Mao raised the slogan "it is right to rebel against reactionaries" and called on people to "bombard the headquarters" of capitalist roaders who were carrying out elitist and oppressive policies. Providing resources for posters and newspapers, free use of trains for students, and encouragement in the press were some key ways in which mass criticism and struggle were promoted. See "Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" (Adopted on August 8, 1966), in Important Documents on the Cultural Revolution in China (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1970); also at: www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1966/PR1966-33g.htm. [back]
4. revcom.us/a/170/Revolution_we_need-en.html. [back]
5. On nuclear threats and nuclear war planning against Maoist China in the early 1950s, see John Wilson Lewis and Xue Lita, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), chapters one and two; Rosemary J. Foot, "Nuclear Coercion and the Ending of the Korean Conflict," International Security, Winter 1988/89 (Vol. 13, No. 3); Matthew Jones, "Targeting China: U.S. Nuclear Planning and `Massive Retaliation' in East Asia, 1953-1955," Journal of Cold War Studies, Fall 2008 (Vol. 10, No. 4); and "For Eisenhower, 2 Goals if Bomb Was to Be Used," New York Times, June 8, 1984, and Bernard Gwertzman, "U.S. Papers Tell of '53 Policy to Use A-Bomb in Korea," New York Times, June 8, 1984. [back]
6. On the Bolshevik revolution's approach to and achievements in expanding education to minority nationalities, ensuring equality of languages, and promoting instruction in native languages, see, for example, Jeremy Smith, "The Education of National Minorities: The Early Soviet Experience," Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 75, No. 2 (April 1997). [back]
7. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), Chapter 40, pp. 426-439. [back]
8. Mao Tsetung, "Talks at the Wuchang Conference, 21-23 November 1958," in Roderick MacFarquhar, Timothy Cheek, and Eugene Wu, eds., The Secret Speeches of Mao Tsetung, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 494-495. Chang and Halliday use the same Chinese-language source but produce a slightly different translation. [back]
9. Roderick MacFarquhar, Michael Schoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 102. [back]
10. ibid., p. 515, endnote 2. [back]
11. Andrew J. Nathan, "The Bloody Enigma," The New Republic, November 30, 2006. The statement attributed to Mao by MacFarquhar is prominently invoked by another "reputable" China scholar in a more recent review-article in the New York Review of Books; see Jonathan Mirsky, "How Reds Smashed Reds," November 11, 2010. [back]
12. This alleged statement by Mao originating in Mao's Last Revolution has since been removed from the Wikipedia entry on the Cultural Revolution. [back]
13. "An Open Letter from Raymond Lotta to Roderick MacFarquhar," Revolution #198, April 11, 2010. [back]
14. Bob Avakian, "Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and its Anti-Communist Distortions—Unfortunately, No Shock There," Revolution #118, February 3, 2008. [back]
15. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 2008), p. 20. [back]
16. Mao Tsetung, "Introducing a Cooperative," in Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1971), pp. 499-501. [back]
17. Op. cit., and at revcom.us/Manifesto/Manifesto.html [back]
18. For a historical-theoretical overview of the Cultural Revolution, see Bob Avakian, Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1979), chapters 5-6; and Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, op. cit., II. [back]
19. Jonathan D. Spence and Annping Chin, The Chinese Century (New York: Random House, 1996), p. 84; Fredric M. Kaplan, Julian M. Sobin, Stephen Andors, Encyclopedia of China Today (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 233. [back]
20. On the early phases of the Cultural Revolution, see Jean Daubier, A History of the Cultural Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1974) and Han Suyin, Wind in the Tower (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), chapters 3-5. [back]
21. On the mass struggles in Shanghai, see Daubier and also Elizabeth J. Perry and Li Xun, Proletarian Power: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997). For how Mao was summing up mass experiences and giving leadership in the struggle to forge new institutions of power, see Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya, and K.J.A., "Alain Badiou's 'Politics of Emancipation': A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World," Demarcations, Summer-Fall 2009, chapter 6, II. [back]
22. From Point 6 of the "Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," op. cit., and at: www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1966/PR1966-33g.htm. [back]
23. Suzanne Pepper, "Chinese Education after Mao," China Quarterly, March 1980 (No. 81), pp. 6-7. For useful studies on the expansion of schooling in the countryside and educational transformation during the Cultural Revolution, see Dongping Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Educational Reforms and Their Impact on China's Rural Development (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000); and Ruth Gamberg, Red and Expert: Education in the People's Republic of China (New York: Schocken, 1977). [back]
24. See Kaplan, et. al., op. cit., p. 233, 242; and C. Clark Kissinger, "How Maoist Revolution Wiped Out Drug Addiction in China," Revolutionary Worker #734, December 5. 1993. [back]
25. Victor W. Sidel and Ruth Sidel, Serve the People: Observations on Medicine in the People's Republic of China (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), pp. 22-24. [back]
26. Teh-wei Hu, "Health Care Services in China's Economic Development," in Robert F. Dernberger, ed., China's Development Experience in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 234-238. [back]
27. Penny Kane, The Second Billion (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1987), p. 172. [back]
28. See Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 205, 214. Noam Chomsky uses Dreze and Sen's comparative mortality rates to reach this estimate of 100 million needless deaths in India (see "Millennial Visions and Selective Vision, Part One," Z Magazine, January 10, 2000). [back]
29. See, Bai Di, “Growing Up in Revolutionary China,” Interview, Revolution, April 12, 2009, revcom.us/a/161/Bai_Di_interview-en.html; Dongping Han, “The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village,” Interview, Revolution, September 6, 2009, revcom.us/a/175/dongping_han_full_QA-en.html; Mobo Gao, Gao Village (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999). [back]
30. Bob Avakian, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy (Chicago: Insight Press, 2005); "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity," in Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2008). [back]
31. "On Communism, Leadership, Stalin, and the Experience of Socialist Society," Revolution, June 21, 2009. Audio available at bobavakian.net. [back]
32. See Bob Avakian, "The Cultural Revolution in China...Art and Culture...Dissent and Ferment...and Carrying Forward the Revolution Toward Communism," Revolution, February 19, 2012. [back]
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
Imagine buses with eye-catching decorations touring the nation, spreading revolution and Bob Avakian’s voice to those hungry for it in outlying areas. People on a mission rolling through community centers, high schools, Ivy League and community colleges, from mountains to valleys, suburbs to rural areas. Showing the film of Bob Avakian’s talk Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About in classrooms and community centers. Getting Avakian’s memoir, and other key works, out all over the country. Reaching the youth, visiting the Occupy encampments that have sprung up all over, going to where there is outrageous oppression going down, taking a week in an inner city... and then another inner city... “The BA bus is coming to your town.”
These buses will have a grass-roots component, taking the message directly to the people, and the different forces interested in or working for change... and they would also aim to become a news story in the cities and towns they go to... “The Revolution caravan has come to town” with photos tweeted and interviews broadcast.
The bus tour part of the campaign to get BA’s Vision and Works Everywhere will be launched in February with a two-week pilot project in California, taking advantage of the warmer winter to make a real beginning and to gather experience for the full national tour to start later in the spring. This will be a great way to start off the new year, and proceeds from year-end parties and other contributions from people all over the country can help launch this important new project.
The BAsics Bus Tour, as the pilot project is titled, will start up with great fanfare in Los Angeles and tour key parts of the city and surrounding areas for a week. It will pass through and make stops in California’s Central Valley and then it will head up to the San Francisco Bay Area for a week.
With banners wrapped around the bus advertising BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian and the Revolution talk DVD,* the bus tour will sweep into inner city neighborhoods, into suburban communities and college campuses, reaching out to those most oppressed by this system, to inner city youth and suburban youth, to students and professors, and to farmworkers laboring in the agricultural areas of the state. BA’s works will be displayed and sold, the Revolution DVD will be shown, and people will be encouraged to become acquainted with Bob Avakian’s voice and vision, and to dig into how a radically different and much better world is possible.
$7,000 has been raised for the initial budget for the bus tour—but much more is needed.To support the bus tour and help get it off the ground send donations to:
5726 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Cash donations and proceeds from fundraising parties can be gathered together and sent in as a money order. Money orders and checks should be made out to Revolution Books. Please put “BAsics Bus Tour” in the subject line.
*The full talk, Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About, is available in English and Spanish on DVD and online at revolutiontalk.net. Clips from the film are also at youtube.com/RevolutionTalk. [back]
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
As an early part of the BA Everywhere Campaign, a one-minute ad for BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, was played repeatedly on the mega station Power 106 in Los Angeles in the days leading up to October 22nd, the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality. The ad, featuring a dramatic reading by the Reverend Richard “Meri Ka Ra” Byrd, KRST Center of African Spirituality, of the quote from Bob Avakian, “An Appeal to Those the System Has Cast Off,” BAsics 3:16, was played over 30 times during a 3½ day period. It was made possible by donations from contributors around the country.
This ad was being heard just as a new wind of resistance was coming to the fore—from the Occupy Wall Streets of cities throughout the country...in the deeply expressed anger everywhere over the execution of Troy Davis...from the prisons where over 12,000 courageously joined in hunger strikes throughout the California prison system...and on October 22nd when thousands took to the streets in cities around the country to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation.
Power 106 has over 2¾ million listeners to its largely dance-oriented hip-hop sound, attracting principally young Latino and Black people in the 18 to 34 age group. Airtime was also bought on the early morning Front Page program on KJLH, a station that attracts nearly 500,000 somewhat older, mainly Black listeners.
The reading of this quote was done with seriousness and compassion, capturing the spirit of Avakian’s call to those this system has cast off, forced to live “on the desperate edge,” whether in the prison dungeons or without work or even homes, to “become a part of the human saviors of humanity: the gravediggers of this system and the bearers of the future communist society.” It ended by letting people know the book was available at Amazon.com, as well as at Revolution online—revcom.us.
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
Prisoner from Texas
I saw another prisoner down the run receive a copy of BAsics and I had to smile in gratitude to my wonderful Revolutionary Family: That’s another prisoner who will learn the genuine history and dynamics of the American capitalist-imperialist system.
Most prisoners have little formal education, and what little they’ve received has been so steeped in bourgeois ideological bullshit, BAsics may be their only opportunity to have the record set straight.
The bourgeois philosophy is: The system works and is beyond reproach: if you’re not experiencing freedom and wealth in your life it’s because you’re fucked up. This argument blames the victim for their victimization while allowing the culprit—capitalism and the entire capitalist dynamics—to walk away scott-free. BAsics turns this argument on its head: Capitalism is on trial, BAsics is the People’s Evidence; and we, the jury, find the defendant guilty as charged!
Yours for the revolution,
From the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF): Donate to Send BAsics to Prisoners
The PRLF is asking you to donate generously to reach the total goal of $20,000 for BAsics for prisoners. $3,600 of that total remains to be raised. YOU CAN MAKE THE DIFFERENCE. GIVE THE GIFT THAT GIVES! $10 sends one copy of BAsics to a prisoner, including shipping.
HOW TO DONATE: Non-tax-deductible donations can be made online at prlf.org or by mailing check to: Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund, 1321 N. Milwaukee, #407, Chicago, IL 60622 PRLF: email@example.com, (773) 960-6952.
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
We are told that the genius of the American political system lies in the pendulum swing. Don't worry... things can't go too far in the wrong direction... because before too long, the pendulum will swing back.
"Don't worry about environmental catastrophe," they say, even as the present course seems, if anything, to be accelerating the horrifying momentum in that direction. "Don't worry about the endless wars," even as U.S. drones rain down terror on at least half a dozen countries, and threats are issued to others. "Don't worry about the evisceration of fundamental political rights," even as Obama signs bills and issues edicts that Bush couldn't even dream about [See the January 8, 2011 Revolution, for example, the National Defense Authorization Act signed by Obama]. "No, don't worry, for after all the pendulum will swing on back soon. And don't worry about the persecution of immigrants, either," even though Obama has deported many more people than Bush ever even tried to... "or the mass incarceration of Black and Latino people," which has ground on just as mercilessly under Obama as it did under Bush, Clinton and Reagan.
Leave aside for now the narrowness of this theory—how it leaves the people of the whole rest of the planet out of consideration. Leave aside its incredibly low sights—really, can we think no higher than the petty improvements offered by the best of what this notion supposedly offers people? Leave aside all that and just consider, right now, how even on its own pitiful terms this theory crashes into the hard rocks of the reality of the Obama presidency.
And yet there is one use of the pendulum metaphor that does strike a political chord. Here we refer to Edgar Allan Poe's classic story "The Pit and the Pendulum." The hero of this story is a victim of the Spanish Inquisition—a centuries-long reign of terror launched by the Catholic Church in Spain in which anyone who was suspected of harboring heretical thoughts (that is, thoughts that differed with Catholic doctrine) was hunted down, tortured, and often killed. The hero at one point lies in a cell, strapped to a board with only his left hand left free, and surrounded by hungry rats waiting to feast on his corpse. Meanwhile, a weighted pendulum descends toward him. As the pendulum swings to and fro and slowly lowers, he notices the gleam of a sharp steel blade at its end, inexorably moving to slice his chest to ribbons. He strains against the ropes, but death seems certain and he almost gives up hope. At the last minute, however, he hits upon a stratagem: he uses his left hand to rub the grease from a piece of meat onto the sash that bound him to the board. Attracted by the grease, the rats gnaw through the sash and the hero rolls free of the pendulum at the very last minute—and just before an invading army throws open the doors of his cell.
We won't belabor the point and we won't claim it fits every particular—and we certainly won't claim that Poe had this in mind when he wrote his classic story. But just think about the way in which the pendulum in Poe's story, though it swings back and forth, ultimately has but one destination; about the way in which the ropes that bind the hero keep him paralyzed as the blade hypnotically progresses toward his chest; and about how his freedom depended upon his ability to free himself from those constraints through daring and imagination. If there is anything to draw from the pendulum metaphor in the American political system, it is Poe who came closest.
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
Editors' Note: This article was originally published at sunsara.blogspot.com on September 27, 2011. Following it are some reader comments and responses by Sunsara Taylor. These are edited for length. The entire exchange can be read in full at sunsara.blogspot.com/2011/09/sasha-grey-on-tyra-banks.html
Recently, two college students (young women) insisted to me that it was wrong to oppose pornography because we should be "sex-positive." They also insisted that many women choose to go into pornography out of their own ambitions and that ought to be respected as a means of "empowerment."
This is bullshit on so many levels. First, the vast majority of women and girls in pornography and prostitution (and the lines do blur) would get out of it if they could. Second, even where women choose for themselves to be in porn despite the availability of other options, this does not mean that choice is a good one. For them, or even more significantly, for society and women as a whole. The view of women that is concentrated and perpetuated in porn hurts all women way beyond those who "choose" to take part in it. Every woman at every hour of every day—whether on the street, in her home, at her job, in school, or on a battlefield—is affected by, diminished by, and endangered by living in a world where millions upon millions of men get off on watching women reduced to objects to be tortured, humiliated and brutalized for their sexual arousal.
These young college students then mentioned Sasha Grey as their perfect example of a woman who entered into porn on "her terms" and to "her own benefit and empowerment."
I described, among other things, some of what Sasha describes about herself in the video below—how she invited a man to punch her in the stomach during oral sex as one of the ways that she won such favor in the porn industry, for instance. The young women hesitated for a moment, but then one of them insisted that if this was her choice we should respect it. "But, what of the content? What of the view of women and sex that is being promoted through this?" I asked them. At this point, they insisted they were out of time and had to go (interesting, as they had stopped on the street and talked at great length and with no seeming hurry for quite some time).
The fact is, most women do not like the acts they are forced to take part in as part of the porn industry. Many women comply with those acts out of fear, out of financial desperation, out of addiction, and other forms of extreme coercion. Often, women don't even consent to what is done to them in film but have no resources or rights to keep the film from being distributed anyway.
But for that fraction of women in the industry like Sasha Grey who choose to be demeaned, degraded, abused, and much more (including films that portray them as small girls, ass-to-mouth scenes, gang-bangs with up to fifteen guys on her at once, scenes where she licks a toilet bowl and worse), the critical question is NOT whether she chose to do those things or not. The key question is the social effect of those actions—and of broadcasting those actions to millions of viewers.
When someone kills someone else, we don't ask the question, "Did they really feel it in their hearts? Was their choice 'authentic' to them?" We ask first, "What was the social effect?" And, if there is not a very good reason for them to have killed (i.e., some situations of self-defense or in certain situations within the context of a just war) their behavior is condemned for its effect on society. Further, such behavior—wherever possible—is stopped.
This is an analogy. Killing someone is not the same as choosing to be in a porn film. But, the method involved must be the same. The effect of porn must be evaluated based on its societal effect—not based on the individual intentions of the people who made it. Judged from its societal impact, porn is extremely harmful to women—to the women involved in making it as well as to every woman walking the earth where there is an international demand for it. It trains men (and women themselves) to not regard women as human beings worthy of respect and equality; it sexualizes degradation and domination; it strips sex of the full range of human interaction, intimacy, vulnerability and caring it can potentially enable human beings to share; it concentrates some of the most unreconstructed racist bigotry and hatred; and it spreads this coarseness of being able to view other people as "things" into other dimensions of this heartless world (it is no coincidence that soldiers fighting in unjust wars often get "pumped up" watching porn before going out killing).
Having walked through all that, take a look at this clip from Tyra Banks when she had Sasha Grey on as a guest. Someone has put some extremely important information throughout the clip which I hope you will also take the time to consider: youtu.be/BxUq_zzvAaA or go to YouTube and search "Pt1 Porn Star Sasha Grey on Tyra. Anti-Porn.org comments (Nonprofit AntiPornography.org)"
Commenter 1 said...
Sasha Grey is obviously the wrong candidate for defending or representing the wide variety of pornography that exists. Generalizing the totality of porn through Sasha Grey is tantamount to a straw-man argument. It is difficult to take seriously.
Any serious person must first acknowledge that there is a sexual aesthetic and that women have just as much a right as do men to be liberated sexual beings and to express their sexuality in healthy ways. They must also acknowledge that not all porn involves women being "reduced to objects to be tortured, humiliated and brutalized..."
No doubt within the current capitalist system many women get into porn not because they want to but because, financially, they are left with few alternatives. Many of these women also find that they must do porn that they would otherwise rather not do. With pornography as a major expression and extension of market capitalism—driven only by profits and not by consideration of taste or art or free and healthy sexuality—the result is the "porn industry." I doubt that there is much to defend regarding the general industry, but it must be acknowledged that it is diverse. The Naked News is not equivalent to a simulated gang-bang rape, for instance.
There are various strands of feminist thought on these positions and Sunsara Taylor has taken the "hard-line" anti-porn position. The problem is that this position internalizes the Puritanical and sexist cultural attitudes that stifle women's sexuality ...
... In this sense Taylor is not taking the moral position of the Left, but rather the conservative moral position that finds its deepest roots in the Puritans.
The problem here is not that porn exists. The problem is that the capitalist system makes some women believe that they must participate in forms of pornography they otherwise wouldn't in order to be successful. The problem isn't that pornography objectifies women. The problem is that capitalism objectifies human beings as commodities. Without capitalism prostitution could not exist and neither could the porn industry. Without capitalism there would instead be the fully liberated male and female sexuality in truly freely chosen expression.
9/28/11 4:41 PM
Commenter 2 said...
Sunsara, the issue you bring up in your latest blog installment is an important issue not often addressed as it should be. As a ex-photographer who once did erotic art work (with two museum exhibitions and many collective and individual gallery shows) as well as fashion work (which uses mostly underage models), I can say that I have thought deep and carefully about sexual and sexist representation in the commodified consumer society that we live in.
Sex by and of itself is a pure concept (it has no meaning of its own). Therefore the significance and values we place on it are contingent upon a number of things, first and foremost are the signs and values ascribed to it by any human society.
As a pure concept the signs and values that we give to human sex will be purely a reflection of the society that produces them. To briefly illustrate this: the representation of two humans engaged in coitus carved in a temple complex from some ancient society will have had very different meanings to that ancient society than the same representation does today in western civilization. Therein lies the rub.
Porn as produced, distributed and consumed in western civilization is an extension of the brutal and often sexual rapaciousness of our modes of domination. These modes of domination are mainly military, economic and political violence. The destruction of historic communities and their cultures, languages and social forms of reproduction by the western civilizatory project is accomplished by, among other things, sexual violence.
When the Europeans invaded this continent (América—is a single continent), it was part of their policy to rape as many indigenous women as possible, this accomplished many strategic things which I won't get into here. But the point is that sex in western civilization has been and continues to be used as a barbaric weapon of exploitation, expoliation and domination.
Porn cannot be separated from this history in western society, even more, if we think that, as several contemporary philosophers have proposed, the human mind is the landscape being colonized right now and that human consciousness lies at the horizon and in the crosshairs of the post-modern, neo-liberal project of colonization of the human mind, then we must also see that porn is one of the most effective weapons through which such colonization is achieved. But it can only do so if the sexual representation available to people is degrading, brutal and inhuman.
As a sex-positive (the understanding that there is nothing wrong with sex between two consenting adults) person, and as a ex-cultural producer of eroticized imagery, I can affirm that porn as produced and reproduced in today's society cannot be about freedom of expression, or the empowerment of women, that as you point out is utter bullshit.
What can truthfully be said about porn, you say it well. And I would simply add to it that porn is a devastating weapon being deployed, under the guise of freedom, towards the colonization of the human mind with peculiarly powerful effects.
9/28/11 6:03 PM
Sunsara Taylor said...
Commenter 1, you write, in part:
"Any serious person must first acknowledge that there is a sexual aesthetic and that women have just as much a right as do men to be liberated sexual beings and to express their sexuality in healthy ways."
Women have a right to be fully human—this includes being sexual, enjoying sex, initiating sex, or refusing sex at any time and in any circumstance. But being fully human is different than being reduced to a thing which is used for sex. Porn reduces women to things—it does not express women's sexuality as part of their full humanity. (I challenge you to find me a porn film where the woman discusses questions of philosophy or literature or politics, is taken seriously, and says something like, "Tonight I'd just rather cuddle.")
No, I don't have to "acknowledge that there is a sexual aesthetic." There are very many different sexual aesthetics and meanings that can be given to sex in different circumstances, different times, different cultures and different individuals. Porn presents one kind of sex—many different positions, but one view of women: things to be fucked.
Capitalism is certainly a huge part of the problem, but that is only part of the problem with porn. The other part is PATRIARCHY and the oppression of women. Porn is patriarchy filtered through capitalist commodification of everything. But, what is being commodified in porn is not sex in general, or even women as part of people in general, but PATRIARCHY.
Porn reflects and deeply reinforces the overall patriarchal and male-supremacist relations that saturate society. It does incredible harm. To women, as well as to humanity as a whole.
As for your insistence that because I am against porn I must be driven by puritanism—that is not only bullshit, it reflects a poverty of imagination and an impoverished view of sex and sexuality.
If you can't imagine sex without porn, that is fucked.
Commenter 2—what you say is very deep and much appreciated.
9/28/11 10:35 PM
Commenter 3 said...
I believe that women are punished for being sexual and this is wrong and I have the right to have sex with a stranger, right now, on the telephone, via webcam, in the flesh, Herpes be damned. I once moonlighted as a dominatrix, went to underground sex clubs, freed my fetishes. But I can't deny the fact that Porn and prostitution are the most exploitative industries known. It is anti-sexual freedom. A sex laborer in porn does not choose or express her sexuality. You who look at chains and see freedom are fooling yourselves. It's not Capitalism binding a woman to her sexual service; this has been going on since there have been wars. I disagree that the damage is mostly to society; the damage is to the prostitute; don't believe me, look at the life expectancy of a prostituted woman. I do disagree with Sunsara on some aspects; I think a woman who freely does non-invasive types of soft porn, or chats on Second Life, don't necessarily have to answer to society. Some sex workers can be free, but that doesn't justify paying a cent for porn or respecting bigots like Larry Flynt.
9/28/11 11:30 PM
Commenter 1 said...
One of the obvious difficulties in discussing pornography is the problem of definition. It is near impossible to define pornography, and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) is a prime example of this. The Supreme Court has found it near impossible to define pornography, from stating that it is that which is "utterly without social redeeming value" to Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" statement. Who is the arbiter of what is of social redeeming value and how do they decide? If we follow Stewart then we are forced to agree that it is a merely subjective judgment and that there can be found no objective criteria...
The notion that there must be deep philosophical or political or social discussions in art, or in anything else for that matter, to be of aesthetic and artistic value is quite objectionable. The WSWS (World Socialist Web Site) covers world political developments well and in a general sense is correct—I obviously have personal, political differences with them, as I do [with] you—but their film reviews are constantly obtuse and strict [in] the most absurd sectarian ways. The WSWS is of the opinion that unless a near completely socialist ideology is infused into the storyline of every film then the film necessarily lacks artistic merit. Nothing could be more absurd. There is the position of art for art's sake. Film doesn't have to be sociopolitical. It can be driven by the purely emotional or even the pure aesthetic of cinema or both. In this sense pornography (whatever it is) does not have to dwell upon philosophy or politics or sociology. It's an absurd claim to argue otherwise. Although one could argue, as many have, that Bertolucci's The Dreamers or Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También are both exactly that: pornography with cinematic, sociopolitical discussions in the background. Who is to decide?
There is pornography where women are the only participants and there is a niche for "self-made" and "webcam" porn. When women decide to make sexual videos of themselves under their own direct control, no other considerations than their own is of any relevance. You cannot account for such nuance within your extreme generalization. That is the main point. A great deal of the "porn industry" is without question utterly nefarious and sexist, but one should be mindful to discriminate here. Instead of criticizing pornography in general (because no one even knows what that is) perhaps you could criticize the porn industry instead and the various specific ways in which women are exploited and abused therein.
9/29/11 2:00 AM
Commenter 4 said...
"Empowerment." Wow that's just crazy, and that is such bull shit. I was a prostitute for 18 years. And there is no such thing as getting "empowerment" from that. Even for males, there is no empowerment. It's straight exploitation pure and simple. And in that business women have it much worse. Everyone's getting exploited, but the women are at the bottom. It's sickening really. I've been there, in the same room where the filming is taking place. And it's nothing glamorous what so ever....
9/30/11 1:37 AM
Commenter 1 said...
The problem with your position is that it is an inaccurate representation of the entire picture. There exists exactly the inverse in porn of what you say is true about women for men (it's called "femdom," i.e., female domination). There is a domination niche and it goes both ways. I personally find either aspect distasteful and would have nothing to do with either, but I am not so naïve as to paint the entirety of pornography (whatever it really is) as either patriarchic because of strange niches or matriarchic because of femdom and I don't see why I should campaign against people who enjoy those niches or consensually take part in them. How do you account for femdom? ...
I dislike turning such discussions into personal commentaries but because of your ad hominem I suppose I should point out that I am more than capable of imagining sex without porn. For me, sexual relations are all about the conjoining of equal partners in sexual acts mutually desired. Although I strongly believe in personal freedom and liberty, even the freedom to engage in weird sexual fetishes (some people legitimately enjoy such things, perhaps Sasha Grey is an example, although, again, I don't know enough about her situation to know), I myself am fairly conventional. I am of the personal belief that sexual relations should be the tangible manifestations of love. I am more of a romantic really. That simply has nothing to do with the real arguments here...
9/30/11 2:26 PM
Sunsara Taylor said...
Commenter 3, you write, in part:
"I disagree that the damage is mostly to society; the damage is to the prostitute; don't believe me, look at the life expectancy of a prostituted woman. I do disagree with Sunsara on some aspects; I think a woman who freely does non-invasive types of soft porn, or chats on Second Life, don't necessarily have to answer to society."
First, I agree that the damage is also done to the prostituted woman. I was not arguing over where the harm is greater. I was making the point that for the vast majority of women in prostitution and in porn, they are in terrible and damaging circumstances they would get out of in a second if they had a viable option to do so. However, even for those who uphold what they are doing and choose to do so, that alone doesn't settle the question as to whether that is a good thing to choose to do. That is why I bring up the societal damage. The two, in fact, are linked.
As for your point on whether women who choose to be in porn "have to answer to society"—I don't think that the women in porn are the main ones who have to do the "answering." Most of these women—as you also point out—need support and resources to get out of what they are caught up in. I think the makers of porn, the buyers of porn, the whole perpetuation of the mainstreaming of porn—these folks and these institutions need to be challenged and stopped. I would say, however, that for those women who have decided to claim that they are being empowered and empowering other women by being in porn—that is total bullshit and should be challenged. The same way that women who protest abortion clinics (often, in the name of "saving women") should be challenged.
9/30/11 6:04 PM
Sunsara Taylor said...
Commenter 1—You ask about definitions. The word pornography has its roots in women who were enslaved for sex. Erotic, on the other hand, is rooted in eros, which means love.
Nowhere have I insisted that every film have a political message or political discussion. Your description of the narrowness towards art on the WSWS is rank economism, extremely harmful, and is totally different than the point I was making. Contrary to the insistence that EVERY film include politics, I was pointing to a problem with a genre that on principle NEVER includes women as full human beings, including their ideas and thinking on matters of philosophy, art, politics or whatever else.
Later, you write, "I am more than capable of imagining sex without porn. For me, sexual relations are all about the conjoining of equal partners in sexual acts mutually desired."
The fact that, in describing non-pornified sex, you describe equal partners and sexual acts that are mutually desired, says a lot about what porn is and why it's so harmful.
9/30/11 6:17 PM
Commenter 5 said...
Commenter 1 raises the question of femdom to assert that it defeats the criticism of porn as male supremacist. Femdom doesn't challenge male dominance. It merely reflects the obverse of the customary dominance of males over females. It doesn't refute but rather re-enacts the treating one person as an object to be dominated by the other.
To use an analogy: does the fact that a woman such as Margaret Thatcher was in charge of Britain prove that patriarchy no longer exists? Just because you change the gender or the race of the person now in charge doesn't change the underlying form of oppression.
11/11/11 1:03 PM
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
End Pornography and Patriarchy:
the Enslavement and Degradation of Women
We are told that "equality for women has been won" and that "there are no limits to what girls can achieve." BULLSHIT!
Every 15 seconds a woman is beaten. Every day three to four women are killed by their partners. One in four female college students will be raped or sexually assaulted while in college.
Pornography has become increasingly violent, cruel, degrading towards women even as it has become more mainstream. Millions of women are trafficked as literal chattel in the international sex industry.
This is NOT society becoming more comfortable with sex. This is society becoming saturated with the sexualized degradation of women. If you can't imagine sex without porn, you're fucked.
At the same time, the right to abortion and even birth control are under escalating assault. Being forced to bear a child against your will is a form of enslavement.
THIS MUST BE STOPPED!
Women are not objects. Women are not things to be used for the sexual pleasure of men NOR are they breeders of children. WOMEN ARE HUMAN BEINGS CAPABLE OF FULL EQUALITY IN EVERY REALM!
End the Culture of Rape and Pornography!
Abortion on Demand and Without Apology!
March for the Full Liberation of Women!
People who want to be part of building for these International Women's Day protests and marches should contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Join the ongoing conversation at sunsara.blogspot.com.
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
Carl Dix at STOP Stop & Frisk action, Harlem, October 2011.
Special to Revolution
On Saturday, February 18 at 4 pm, Carl Dix will give an important talk on mass incarceration, where it comes from, where it's taking things if the current trajectory of U.S. society isn't radically changed, what needs to be done about this, and what all this has to do with the revolution we need.
Carl Dix is a longtime revolutionary and a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. In 1970, he was part of the largest mass refusal of U.S. soldiers to go to Vietnam. In 1996, he cofounded the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality. In 2006, he coordinated the Katrina Hearings of the Bush Crimes Commission. In 2011, he co-issued a call for a campaign of civil disobedience to STOP “Stop & Frisk.” Recently he participated in the fourth in a series of dialogues with Cornel West under the theme: “In the Age of Obama: Police Terror; Incarceration; No Jobs; Mis-Education... What Future for Our Youth?”
For an update on the location of the talk, check online at revcom.us or at revolutionbooksnyc.org.
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
Once again there is a hunger strike in California’s barbaric prison system, with heroic prisoners putting their lives on the line to change the torturous conditions they are forced to endure. On December 28, prisoners in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) at Corcoran State Prison began the strike. This was a continuation of the resistance begun in 2011, when more than 12,000 prisoners across the state (with support in other states) participated in two major hunger strikes initiated by prisoners in the Pelican Bay Prison Security Housing Unit (SHU). Each strike lasted several weeks and exposed and rallied support against the torture of solitary confinement. (See “12,000 Prisoners Resume Hunger Strike in California,” Revolution #247, October 9, 2011.)
According to Terry Thornton, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), 59 prisoners housed in the Administrative Segregation Unit at Corcoran State Prison refused their state-issued meals on December 28. Thornton alleges that after December 31, no prisoners were on hunger strike. However, after saying for days that no prisoners were refusing food, the prison officials admitted on January 13 that at least two prisoners were still on a hunger strike. There have also been unconfirmed reports of actions at other prisons in recent weeks.
Prior to the strike, three Corcoran ASU prisoners of three different nationalities sent a list of 11 demands to the head of the CDCR and the warden at Corcoran documenting conditions in the ASU and demanding “redress and reform of current inhumane conditions we are subjected to which violate our constitutional rights.” The demands included TVs and/or radios; an adequate law library; not being placed in the ASU upon completion of their SHU terms; adequate and timely medical care; adequate laundry; due process at hearings; phone access; uncontaminated canteen food; educational and rehabilitative programs and/or opportunities; the same privileges as SHU inmates; and no reprisals for exercising their right to petition. (The full petition is available at sfbayview.com: “New hunger strike: Petition for improved conditions in Administrative Segregation Unit at Corcoran State Prison,” December 30, 2011.)
In the California prison system, all prisoners in Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg) and Administration Segregation Units are kept in solitary confinement similar to the SHU. Ad-Seg is labeled “temporary” yet many prisoners have been kept in ASU for years, often awaiting transfers to SHUs. Conditions in Ad-Seg are often even worse than those in the SHU. For example, prisoners in the Corcoran ASU are not allowed TVs although prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU are—if they can afford to purchase one with their own funds.
A recent article by Kendra Castañeda, a prison human rights activist with a loved one currently incarcerated at Calipatria State Prison ASU, located in the Mojave Desert near the Mexican border, exposed some of the conditions in these facilities. According to the article, “The food is moldy, spoiled and rotten. Many men are not fed at all.” And prisoners are forced to “wear dirty laundry; their boxers get changed approximately every three months. They are holey, dirty and gross.”
Castañeda writes that prisoners “are allowed outdoors three times a week to ‘exercise’ in dog cages, but that schedule is not kept... Some of the men have been sitting in a concrete cell and denied permission to go outside to any yard for a long time.” Prisoners are denied TVs and radios, so hundreds of men are forced to stare at a concrete wall all day. At other times, she writes, “The men are forced to go outside in the winter desert cold with no shoes on, with their bare feet and no clothing but boxer shorts.”
Since the hunger strike started at Corcoran, the CDCR story has changed many times. The CDCR refuses to let members of the press interview prisoners. A student at Hastings School of Law was notified that her previously scheduled visit to the Corcoran SHU had been cancelled, as were all SHU visits. Prisoners in the SHU or ASU are not allowed any phone calls and letters can take weeks to be delivered, so visits by family and legal representatives are often the only way for information to get out of the prison. Prison authorities have repeatedly lied about previous actions by the prisoners.
Because of the isolation of the prisoners and the previous actions of the CDCR, there is cause for concern that the prison authorities are retaliating against the prisoners. In particular, there has been no word from the prisoners who wrote the list of demands. It is important to demand that these prisoners be given immediate access to relatives, legal representatives, and the media.
Prior to the second of 2011’s hunger strikes, CDCR announced that the prison system would consider refusing food in a hunger strike as equivalent to participating in “a mass disturbance.” Prisoners who participated in that hunger strike received disciplinary reports, which could subject them to longer prison terms or increased time in the SHU or ASU, or a transfer to either the SHU or ASU if they were not already there. Leaders of the strike were transferred to freezing cells and subjected to other forms of retaliation. It was reported that in Corcoran prisoners who participated in the strike were denied access to water.
While the full extent of the resistance behind the prison walls (or retaliation by prison authorities) is not known, what is clear is that anyone who cares about justice needs to support these prisoners and their just demands.
For more on conditions in California prisons and the prisoner hunger strikes, see previous issues of Revolution at revcom.us and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity at prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com.
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
Revolution received the following correspondence:
Dear Readers of Revolution newspaper,
Happy New Year! The campaign to STOP "Stop & Frisk" is heading into the New Year strong, continuing its efforts to stop this outrageous policy. In New York, the Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy, what police sergeants call "owning the streets," means that police routinely stop people, mostly Black and Latino youth, for things like "furtive motion" (walking in a way that some cop says means you just committed or are about to commit a crime), wearing certain clothes, where you live, or (the second most common reason) "other." In 2010 the NYPD stopped 600,000 people, 85% of them Black or Latino, 93% of them were not even accused of violating any laws when they were stopped. Official figures for 2011 haven't been released yet, but they were on pace to stop more than 700,000 people! A black elected official reported being told by NYPD police commissioner Ray Kelly that he wanted every Black and Latino youth to feel like he's going to be stopped and frisked every time he leaves his house in the morning. Stop-and-frisk is part of the pipeline leading youth straight into the system of mass incarceration, which has more than 2.3 million people behind bars, and it must be stopped.
Back in October the campaign to STOP "Stop & Frisk" hit the ground; with the aim of unleashing determined mass resistance against the NYPD's policy of stop-and-frisk as part of taking the fight against mass incarceration to a higher level. It may be cold outside, but we've been keeping up the heat on this. And a busy January has seen the fight against stop-and-frisk taken into courtrooms where those arrested in civil disobedience actions declare to the court that fighting injustice is no crime; holding press conferences and rallies and marches; and making plans for more direct action. A couple of us who are part of building the movement for revolution, and have been actively part of this effort, want to share some of what's been up over the past couple of weeks.
On a Thursday, January 12, over 500 gathered at Abyssinian Baptist Church to hear Michelle Alexander speak on the occasion of the paperback release of her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The crowd was mostly Black people, ranging in age from high school, through college students, and all the way up to veterans of the 1960s. It was also mainly of middle class folks, including church members, and people who are active around mass incarceration. Many seemed to have familiarity with her work, and others (mainly the younger people) seemed to have been drawn out in part by the work she has done. The campaign to STOP "Stop & Frisk" put something of a stamp on the evening—100 STOP "Stop & Frisk" buttons were distributed that night and most people put them on right away.
During the question and answer period, following three women from a Brooklyn high school who nervously announced that they were trying to organize at their school to take these issues on, and asked her for advice, someone from the campaign to STOP "Stop & Frisk" announced the events planned for January including a march to follow immediately after that night's event, and asked Alexander about the relation between education and resistance. She responded that "advocacy" is one of the most important forms of education, and that people must not wait until everyone is educated before they begin advocacy. Her analogy: You can't wait to educate everyone before chaining yourself to lunch counters, and that act is a way people get educated.
Afterward, about 30 people including a dozen students met at the event gathered outside the church and marched to a nearby police precinct. The neighborhood was somewhere that the movement for revolution has influence, and also not far from where the first civil disobedience action to STOP "Stop & Frisk" was held back in October. In recent weeks revolutionaries, as well as people around the campaign to STOP "Stop & Frisk," have connected with people in the neighborhood who have come under attack by the police. The march was called to stand with those people and to call out the police on what they do.
We created a scene with a large banner that reads STOP "STOP + FRISK," and gathered people to march through the neighborhood. During the march you could see glimmers of hope emanating from the people as they yelled from their windows and chanted with us. Youth at the corner store stepped out and raised their fists and chanted. We marched to the police station, where people used the people's mic to tell the story of the youth who had been harassed and arrested there and speak bitterness about the role of the police. Visibly emotional, a middle-aged Black lawyer who has worked with the campaign to STOP "Stop & Frisk" and grew up in Harlem, described what it's like to live, grow up, and raise kids in the kind of society she had just heard Michelle Alexander describe so vividly, and expressed how she saw the STOP "Stop & Frisk" movement as the beginning of the end of mass incarceration.
On January 16, the National Action Network (NAN) hosted A Day of Remembrance in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., which focused on preventing gun violence by Black youth. Two hundred people turned out, overwhelmingly Black and consisting of NAN members, church folks, middle class professionals, and other movement people. Once again the stamp of STOP "Stop & Frisk" was made on the crowd with the iconic STOP "Stop & Frisk" button being taken by more than half the crowd and many more getting into the hands of people outside the event.
The program featured an array of local politicians, media personalities, and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Reverend Al Sharpton, the leader of NAN, spoke about gun violence and brought up a youth group that "puts their lives on the line to end gun violence by finding where youth are gathering at night and shouting people out as drug dealers and criminals, telling them to get off the corners and out of the parks." (For an important discussion on the question of violence among the people, see the Revolution article "The Plague of Violence Among the People—And the Real Solution," July 31, 2011.) Sharpton then introduced Mayor Bloomberg to the sound of jeers and boos from the crowd. Sharpton had to intervene saying, "I have differences with Bloomberg, but I am willing to work with anyone addressing gun violence." Bloomberg talked about how crime has gone down, implicitly defending and affirming current police practices in the face of the challenges that came from on and off the stage throughout the day. (Earlier in the event, a Manhattan elected official had criticized stop-and-frisk.) As Bloomberg concluded, people from the STOP "Stop & Frisk" campaign began shouting "Stop criminalizing our youth, STOP 'Stop & Frisk!'" For this we were asked to leave for "disrespecting an invited guest."
After being asked to leave, we mixed it up outside with people from the neighborhood. Many shared their own stories of encounters with the police and signed up to be in touch with the STOP "Stop & Frisk" campaign, with some wanting to know more about being involved with the movement for revolution which does work in that area. A few youth were very excited to hear about this fight against stop-and-frisk. One Black youth took fliers that had an image of a pig on it and went up to nearby police and told them, "Hey look! You're on a flier! No? It looks just like you." People thanked us for being there, expressing gratitude for standing out in the cold, and saying what we said. Over the afternoon, the buttons began to appear more and more around the block: young people wearing them on backwards caps, older people wearing them on jackets.
However, reception was not uniform, and there were some things we ran into worth mentioning.
An older Black woman, who was looking at the STOP "Stop & Frisk" banner, came up to a Latino revolutionary who was distributing STOP "Stop & Frisk" material, and asked, "Don't you think the problem is the kids and the way they dress like criminals... We didn't dress like that in my day, young men wore nice slacks," all while staring at his jeans and sneakers. She interrupted his answer to her, saying "Don't raise your voice at me," and walked away. Footsteps away, she glared over at him with disgust, throat full of phlegm and venom, and shouted, ''Thug! You're just a thug!"
Another interesting example comes from a young girl who is involved in the NAN youth organization mentioned earlier, that condemns gun violence by finding where youth are gathering at night and shouting people out as drug dealers and criminals. Her father recognized the STOP "Stop & Frisk" campaign because he had been in jail when people involved in it had done civil disobedience in Queens, New York, and had been held in jail overnight in November. He approached us—expressing gratitude for the way we conducted ourselves in the NAN meeting and introduced us to his daughter. She had also been following the STOP "Stop & Frisk" movement and got buttons and gave her contact information so we could be in touch.
There is something to reflect on here: This young girl seemed caught between the rock of crime in the 'hood, which is a real problem, and the hard place of pigs unleashed as part of criminalizing the youth. We were a little caught off guard by this; someone who is part of a group that views the youth as the problem—but who at the same time views us and our role in going up against the system and the way it comes down on youth as something to be respected. There's complexity and layers of reality to wrestle with here.
We hope to be developing ongoing correspondence which can help contribute to bringing out, and struggle through, the challenges involved in building a real fight against mass incarceration and stop-and-frisk, and coming at it all as part of building a movement for revolution.
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
The following is based on info at worldcantwait.net:
January 11, 2012 was the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Some prisoners have been detained with no charges for years, and the U.S. has with impunity denied legal and human rights and has committed war crimes of torture against many detainees.
Obama had campaigned on a promise to immediately close this prison, yet it remains open.
A broad coalition of groups called for a major demonstration in Washington, DC and solidarity actions elsewhere against torture, unlawful detention and other human rights violations committed by the U.S. and to demand the closure of Guantánamo; the end of torture and impunity for torture; the end of unlawful detention at Bagram and all U.S. facilities; the end of Islamophobia and discrimination; and that all detainees either be charged and fairly tried, or released to countries that will respect their human rights.
“About 800 of us marched from the White House, past the Department of Justice, and stood in front of the Supreme Court, opposite the Capitol. Amnesty International brought a lot of students,” reports Debra Sweet, director of The World Can’t Wait. 171 participants dressed in orange jumpsuits with black hoods to represent the 171 current Guantánamo detainees.
|Above: Two lawyers who represent detainees at Guantánamo were among many such attorneys who protested with signs that told about the prisoners. It was reported that many prisoners at Guantánamo were heartened when they learned about plans to protest the 10th year of the prison and some were reported to be planning protests inside Guantánamo itself.
Photo: Andrew Courtney
|Daniel J. Lakemacher, a former Guantánamo prison guard and now a conscientious objector, speaking at one of the rallies along the march route.
Photo: Andrew Courtney
|A protester at the January 11 demonstration in Chicago.
Photo: FJJ/World Can't Wait Chicago for Chicago
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
We received the following correspondence:
Over the holiday, I went to see the movie The Land of Blood and Honey. The movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, is about the “ethnic cleansing” that went on in Bosnia in the early 1990s—in particular, the war waged by the Serbian majority against the Muslim minority to drive them out of Bosnia. This war featured not only the massacre of thousands of civilians by the Serbs, but the mass rape of thousands and thousands of Bosnian Muslim women.
This movie does include some powerful scenes showing the way in which this war was played out against women. But I could not help feel as I was watching this —and the person I saw it with agreed—that without ever quite coming out and saying so, the film made an implicit argument that the only solution to this kind of horror would be for the so-called “international community” (that is, the imperialist powers headed by the U.S.) to have intervened militarily in Bosnia.
Sure enough, several days later, I came across a column by Nicholas D. Kristof in which he writes of an interview with Jolie. Jolie, he says, “wants viewers to meditate on humanitarian intervention and what can be done to prevent mass atrocities. ‘I hoped people would watch the film and think, “Why didn’t we stop it?” she said.’”
It’s not entirely clear from the context whom Jolie meant by “we,” but in this day and age a statement like this almost always means the U.S. military. Kristof is a journalist who does quite a bit of exposure of issues around the oppression of women internationally, but who always points away from the system with these exposures and pushes supposed solutions which are well within the framework of capitalism-imperialism and specifically U.S. domination. Kristof, for instance, was a major cheerleader for the U.S.-led military invasion of Libya this spring—an outrageous violation of another nation’s right to self-determination and a pure imperialist power play that was justified with the rhetoric of “humanitarian intervention.”
Angelina Jolie, have you thought about this? I mean, really thought about it? Who is this so-called international community?
France, which waged a war against the Algerian people to keep them as a colony in the 1950s and 1960s that resulted in the loss of one million lives.
Britain, which waged war against the people of Kenya in the 1950s in such a way that they detained and tortured almost every single member of the Kikuyu people, the main social base of the independence movement in Kenya, and murdered thousands. This was to maintain Kenya as a British possession—and the people of Kenya as British subjects with no rights. (“Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”—revcom.us/a/116/kenya-en.html)
And then there’s the United States, which not only has either directly murdered millions in its “interventions” (as it did in the countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the wars against Indochina in 1961-1975), but has through its clients and agents murdered millions more as well (Guatemala, for example, where 200,000 people were massacred by U.S.-backed regimes from the 1950s to 1980s, or Indonesia, where between 500,000 to one million were murdered in 1965, to take only two of myriad examples). And let’s not even mention the twin genocidal pillars of America: the wiping out of the native peoples of this continent and the theft of their land, and the kidnapping of millions of Africans and their enslavement to create the wealth that gave life to the U.S.
Indeed, at the very time that Jolie thinks that “we” should have “intervened” in Bosnia, the United States was enforcing sanctions on Iraq that were killing 5,000 children a month, according to UNICEF; and the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, Madeleine Albright, declared on the TV show 60 Minutes that the political effect of these sanctions on the Hussein regime were worth the horrendous cost in human life and suffering. And both France and the U.S., by the way, were waist-deep in the genocide going on at the same time in Rwanda, as they jockeyed for control over East Africa.
These are only a very small slice of the crimes that have been carried out in the centuries-long history of the genocidal vultures who have sat atop the powers that head up the “international community.” And each of these crimes was justified by talk of the suffering of the people that was happening or might happen if military action were not undertaken, and each of them was justified by whatever synonym for “humanitarian intervention” was being used at the time. The British, for instance, used to call their mass murder and naked plunder “taking up the white man’s burden of civilizing these primitive people.” The U.S. still likes to talk about “bringing democracy” as it kicks down doors and leaves bodies lying in the streets. But the real history says something else. The cold truth of the matter has been put by Bob Avakian: “The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures that enforce that capitalism-imperialism. What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism.” And if you wish to dismiss this as “rhetoric,” then show an instance where it has not proven true!
As it happens, the U.S. did finally militarily intervene in Bosnia, at a point where it thought it could use its military to dictate the terms of settlement—how the spoils would be divvied up. The imperialist powers always determine the use—or non-use—of their armies by what suits their imperialist interests.
This is not to say that people like Angelina Jolie are not motivated by real and decent concerns. But this view of the so-called international community as saviors—this notion that the biggest killers in the history of humanity are the only force that can be relied upon to bring peace and/or to save women—is utterly poisonous self-deception. It reflects nothing so much as the view of the person who is horrified by what goes on in the world, but refuses to look at what actually keeps that horror going, the kind of revolution that would have to happen in order to stop that horror, who must be mobilized to carry out that revolution, and what it would actually take to make that happen. People like Jolie have to come to understand that they cannot have both their humanitarianism and their imperialism... that if they are to live up to the ideals that makes them cry out against the outrages in the world, they have to keep both eyes open and follow things out to their conclusions.
Oh, and one more thing: Once the imperialists do decide that direct military intervention is in their interests, they will pimp you out and give you a platform to put humanitarian clothes on the monsters they are about to unleash. This was disgustingly true in Libya most recently, and it was certainly true in Afghanistan, when that war was launched. At that point, the betrayal—of the people you have convinced yourself you are supporting and of the ideals that may originally have led you to be concerned—is complete.
People always were and always will be the foolish victims of deceit and self-deceit in politics until they learn to discover the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. The supporters of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realize that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is maintained by the forces of some ruling classes.
Lenin, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism,”
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
From A World to Win News Service:
January 16, 2012. A World to Win News Service. Nigerians, whose country is one of the world's major oil exporters, woke up on January 1 to a brutal new year: Overnight, President Goodluck Jonathan more than doubled the price of fuel. The next two weeks saw the kind of ethnically united nationwide movement against the government seldom witnessed in recent years.
The price at the pump jumped from the equivalent of $1.75 a gallon to $3.50. This is a country where the minimum wage is$ 43 a month and 70 percent of the people make less than $2 a day—if they can find work at all (30 million unemployed out of 160 million inhabitants).
Not that many Nigerians are driving gas-hog limousines and petrol-hungry SUVs. Most fuel goes for buses and trucks, and the generators needed by homes and businesses because of the lack of a reliable power grid. The fuel price hike drove up the cost of food and other necessities, mainly because of increased cost in transporting goods to market. The price of staples like onions, dried crayfish, hot peppers and watermelon seeds (used for cooking oil) doubled.
The president apparently had no choice in the matter. The IMF head Christine Lagarde paid him a visit in December. The World Bank in Washington had just sent its executive director Ngozi Okonjko-Iweala to take over as Nigeria's finance minister. She was also made co-ordinating minister of the economy, a portfolio created especially for her. President Jonathan was told that government subsidies had to end immediately.
Why? Presumably so the government could increase its revenues and pay back its debts. And why did Nigeria, the world's fifth biggest oil producer, have to borrow money? Among other things, to build infrastructure for the oil industry that makes the country a major source of profit for British-Dutch Shell, the U.S.'s Chevron, the Italian company Agip and France's Total.
Shell, the leader in Nigeria's destruction, has left much of Ogoniland in the Niger River Delta a dead zone, where life of any kind is difficult to sustain. Now it has moved its operations offshore—from where it continues to devastate Nigeria (not to mention the damage to the world's ecosystem). Last month a tanker spilled more deadly oil onto Nigeria's coastal waters and wetlands than anything seen in more than a decade of continuous disasters that, taken as a whole, overshadow any oil spill the West has ever known.
Since the oil companies are moving towards more automated production facilities, it can't even be argued that they are providing jobs. They are simply killing the country.
Ever since Nigeria started down the road to oil dependency half a century ago, living and social conditions have worsened for many and perhaps most people. Rich fisheries and agricultural land have been coated with oil. The country has an enormous amount of arable land that under current market conditions lies unused.
And why, until now, did this oil-producing country—whose only reason for existence, as far as international finance is concerned, is its ability to produce cheap, easy to refine oil—subsidize oil prices?
Because the oil refineries in Nigeria do not provide enough oil for the domestic market. It's not clear how much this is due to chronic underinvestment in refineries, and how much is because, according to a former oil minister, it's more profitable to export cheap refined oil abroad and then re-import it at a higher price. (Anene Ejikeme, The New York Times, January 12, 2012)
This operation is carried out by middlemen who are by far the country's wealthiest people and a main pillar of support for the regime (and the military), aside from those who work directly for foreign companies in Nigeria. They are unfailing in their cooperation with the British (for whom Nigeria is a bigger source of wealth now than when it was a UK colony) and other foreign capital because that subservience is the source of their wealth and power. About 95 percent of the country's export earnings and 80 percent of its total revenue come from oil exports.
It could be argued that since the subsidies enriched the middlemen, then it made economic sense to eliminate them. But the market protected their wealth (by doubling fuel prices) while punishing the people who have to spend most of their money trying to eat.
But the IMF and World Bank are not the only weapons used to keep the world safe for capital investment and profitability. Nigeria is remarkable for the quarter of its 2012 budget allocated to security and the military. The money is to reinforce the presidential palace, the wealthy residential areas and of course the corporate headquarters and other foreign corporate facilities and embassies. That is many times more than the cost of subsidizing petrol.
When a movement demanding justice for the Ogoni people arose in the 1990s, the Nigerian military hanged the Ogoni leader and well-known playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other men. International lawyers brought charges against Shell in New York for complicity in that murder. Just before the trial opened in 2009, Shell reached an out of court financial arrangement with the families. The evidence never saw the light of day.
Some watchdogs for Western interests (such as the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations) like to claim that Nigeria's problem is its culture of corruption. But what is the difference between the fabulous incomes enjoyed by Western CEOs and politicians and their Nigerian counterparts, all of whom thrive on the exploitation of the world's people? The same logic applies to both: since they make so much money for investors they have to be paid accordingly or they'll hire themselves out to other investors. That's just how the market works.
WikiLeaks released cables from the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria revealing that Shell had bragged to the American ambassador that it had assigned its people to the country's main ministries so that it had access "to everything being done in those ministries." Shell worked with U.S. and British government officials to try and thwart a rival bid for Nigerian oil from the Russian oil company Gazprom. (Guardian, December 8, 2010)
President Jonathan recently signed a strategic security agreement with Obama's government. This is a significant step-up in American economic, political and military commitment to the Nigerian regime. U.S. oil investments in Nigeria are not only considered good business, they are also a way of diversifying the U.S.'s oil supplies and decreasing its vulnerability to Middle Eastern political developments. It's also strategically important for the U.S. to deny oil supplies to its rivals (especially China and Russia). Washington considers Jonathan the very model of a modern African president.
When protesters demanding a rollback of the price hike staged a sleep-in at a traffic roundabout in the northern city of Kano a week ago, police broke it up with tear gas and gunfire, arresting dozens of people who had been sleeping on borrowed mattresses in the open air. Five people were killed and more were beaten and hospitalized.
This protest marked the spread of the movement from the oil-producing south to the main city, Lagos; the capital, Abuja; and on to several cities in the more agricultural north. Nigerians also massed in front of the embassy in London to support the Occupy Nigeria movement.
Seldom have Nigerians been so united in recent years. Photos on the Occupy Nigeria Wikipedia page show Christians standing guard over Muslims while they bend over for prayers.
Although the Christian southern tribes have traditionally dominated the mainly Muslim north, and the Islamic group Boko Haram launched murderous attacks on Christian churches on Christmas, many Nigerians feel that this is not unrelated to the winner-take-all tribal politics the Western powers have always fostered in Africa. General Carter Ham, the head of the newly established U.S. Africa Command, used the Christmas incident to argue for more American military intervention. So far no African country has dared allow the Africa Command to set up shop on the continent.
A professor writing in The New York Times has argued that Boko Haram may be at least manipulated by southerners seeking to further clamp down on the north. "In Nigeria, religious terrorism is not always what it seems." (Jean Herskovits, NY Times, January 2, 2012) Citing the Christmas attacks, Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the north the day before he announced the oil price hike.
As protest marches by tens of thousands of people and a general strike brought the country to a standstill, this nationwide movement forced Jonathan to reduce fuel prices by 30 percent, to $2.75 a gallon, still considerably more than before.
Many people expressed disappointment that the trade union federation accepted this compromise and decided not to shut down the country's oil industry. People writing on the Occupy Nigeria Facebook page are saying that the movement needs to continue. Soldiers continue to man roadblocks and checkpoints on main streets in several cities.
If Nigerians want to take back their country, who occupies it now? The same criminal class and system that occupies and brutalizes the whole world.
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.
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Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
From A World to Win News Service
January 16, 2012. A World to Win News Service. You might think that imperialist capital has a special hatred for Africans in general and Nigerians in particular, but that's not necessarily the case. They value Nigerian lives as nothing just because they can.
Last August the Pfizer pharmaceutical company admitted responsibility for the deaths of four children in a clinical trial of an experimental meningitis drug in the northern Nigerian state of Kano [in 1996]. Like Shell in the case of its complicity in the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Pfizer settled out of court to avoid a trial. Eleven children died, five who took the Pfizer product Trovan and six given another product (the families contended that Pfizer deliberately gave those children a low dose of the medication to make Pfizer's look better by comparison). Others suffered blindness, deafness and brain damage.
Having "passed" these clinical trials, Trovan turned out to be a big money maker for Pfizer on the international market, but was later withdrawn in Europe and restricted in America because of cases of fatal liver damage.
A 2009 secret U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks last year revealed that Pfizer had hired private investigators to blackmail the Nigerian Attorney General and get him to drop the lawsuit. The Kano state government brokered an out of court agreement in which Pfizer turned over 35 million dollars for the authorities to use to compensate those families who could supply DNA evidence that they were related to children who died during the trials. As of two years later, four families had received a total of 700,000 dollars. (The New York Times, August 11, 2011)
This was the real life case that inspired the John le Carré book (and subsequent film) The Constant Gardner. In order to avoid a lawsuit, le Carré was forced to add words at the end denying that any reference was intended to any "actual person or outfit," but "as my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard."
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.
Send us your comments.
Revolution #257, January 29, 2012
From A World to Win News Service
January 9, 2012. A World to Win News Service. A breast implant scandal threatens some 300,000-400,000 women worldwide with the possibility of industrial-grade silicone gel leaking into their bodies like melted butter.
With zero remorse, Jean-Claude Mas, the owner of the Poly Implant Prothese (PIP) company located in southern France, formerly the world's number three implant manufacturer, readily admitted that it used this substandard material in 75 percent of its implants to maximize profit—after all, that is what companies have to do to stay competitive. He has accused his victims of being emotionally unstable women trying to make money from him.
Now it has been disclosed that to save money PIP also stopped including a inner protective layer around the implants. The industrial gel can leak into a women's body even if the implant doesn't actually rupture.
Equally hideous, the full extent of possible risks to women from the faulty gel is unknown because government health agencies in the countries concerned have not been keeping records of problem cases.
The implants were not pulled off the market after a decade of alarms. PIP had been making about 100,000 a year, for sale in 65 countries worldwide, mainly in Europe (France, Germany, Italy, UK, Portugal, Denmark, Poland, Holland, Bulgaria, Malta) and Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela), which is where the highest number of women with implants live.
Despite the increasing knowledge of leakage danger, the PIP implants were sold to a Dutch company called Rofil and marketed as "M-Implants" to escape the growing shadow on the PIP brand. They were sold under the new name in Eastern Europe and the U.S., where PIP implants had been banned.
When PIP started producing the silicone breast implants in 1991, they were approved by a German health agency. As early as 1993, seeking greater profits, the company secretly switched from the approved silicone and began producing its own formula containing fuel additives and material used for rubber tubing. Since regulatory agency inspections were made known in advance, PIP could hide any evidence of using substandard material. This was true also when France, after overturning a 10-year ban on silicone implants, inspected the company in the early 2000s, and subsequently also approved the PIP breast implants.
The technical director of PIP, Thierry Brinon, explained that in 2009, the industrial gel cost his company only $6.50 a liter, whereas the approved silicone cost $45. The changeover meant a million and a quarter dollars extra profit for every 100,000 implants. (Telegraph, January 6, 2012)
Clinics in various countries that performed the breast implant surgery also benefited from the cheap PIP product, which they bought without lowering prices to their patients.
Many warnings of danger surfaced throughout the 2000s. Surgeons doing the implants were becoming anxious when they began noticing that some patients' implants were rupturing and leaking silicon, although it now seems that the true extent of the problem remained unknown because cases of leakage remained undetected, and because the women's health complaints were often ignored.
In 2000, after inspecting the PIP plant, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement reporting that the implants did not meet American health requirements. An open question is to what degree the motivation for this was to keep a competitive edge for U.S. pharmaceutical companies against their French counterparts. Another factor may have been a spate of U.S. lawsuits in the 1990s about silicone implants made by PIP and Dow Corning, also the manufacturer of napalm. This made the whole American cosmetic surgery industry nervous and put some demands for stricter regulation on the health authorities.
The French regulatory agency, which failed to take action all those years, now claims that it was unaware that the FDA had banned PIP implants in the U.S., although national health agencies routinely share information. The pharmaceutical industry is a particularly important core part of French capital and has long enjoyed unabashed government protection, especially against the competition in other countries.
At any rate, in recent years lawsuits against PIP began eating into company's profits. In an effort to solve leakage, another substandard gel was produced by the company. After repeated letters by the head of a plastic surgery clinic in Marseille to the French health watchdog agency, inspectors paid a surprise visit to PIP in February 2010 and established that its records had been falsified. Shortly after, the French government closed the company down.
Since then the scandal has continued to mount. So far the French health safety agency has registered 1,143 ruptures and 495 inflammatory reactions from the implants, out of a total of 30,000 women who received PIP implants in that country.
The behind-the-scenes debate smouldering over the past years was reignited in France when a woman who had PIP implants died from a rare breast lymphoma in November 2010. There are 20 reported cases of women in France who have the PIP implants and also have cancer, although no connection has been established.
The biggest health concern right now is whether silicone leakage may trigger an auto-immune reaction by the body's own natural defense mechanisms. Such a reaction means that a sort of civil war occurs within the body that can produce profound weakness, fatigue and pain, along with damage to the joints, skin, connective tissue and internal organs.
Last December the Associated Press reported the case of Emmanuelle Maria from the same town where PIP was based. As an adolescent she had a bone disease which left her disfigured and she had breast implants in 2007. In early 2010 her breasts felt like they were burning and globules of silicone gel were protruding into her armpits. Yet her doctor told her nothing was wrong. She went to two other doctors, who finally confirmed both implants had burst.
Even when an implant ruptures it may go undetected because the silicone may remain "cohesive" and not leak into the breast tissue. The PIP implants, however, are not only more likely to rupture, but the industrial grade silicone is more difficult to extract because it lacks this "cohesion." A French surgeon from Paris' Saint Louis Hospital commented that a rupture could leak internally, requiring surgery in other parts of the body and ''once these implants are removed, the story is not over... we don't know the consequences.'' (Boston Globe, December 22, 2011)
The extent and seriousness of the problem are not clear because the medical authorities have not been paying attention. In most countries cosmetic surgery is not submitted to the same close observation and record-keeping as other surgical procedures and pharmaceuticals. The reporting of problems is often done on a voluntary basis.
The lack of reliable data is itself an indication of official indifference to women's health. The French health authorities now estimate that 5.5 percent of PIP implants have ruptured. Transform, Britain's largest cosmetic surgery chain, reported a leakage rate of 7 percent for PIP implants. One of the members of the UK government-commissioned panel investigating the scandal, the head of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, said it was "quite possible" that the true rupture rate was in double digits.
Not even the rupture rate of all the implants on the market is known with certainty. While UK government health officials reported less than 1 percent rupture in general, a study conducted in 2005 found an 11 percent rupture rate after 13 years. (Independent, January 2, 2012)
Reactions by various governmental health regulatory agencies and health ministers from many of the countries involved have varied, but some common features in their approach are apparent. All insist there is no danger of causing cancer (which studies about breast implants in general so far seem to confirm) and that there is no reason for women to panic.
Since cancer is not the only risk, this only adds insult to the potential injuries women have every right to be concerned about. France's health ministry has acknowledged that there is a "well-established risk" of rupture. In France, Germany and Venezuela, governments have recommended implant removal while the authorities in most of the other countries have said that there is no need to do so except when there is an actual rupture.
In the UK, where the breast implant industry is worth over $150 million (100 million pounds) annually, with 20,000 to 25,000 women every year having the surgery at a cost of $6,000 to $9,000 (4,000 to 5,000 pounds) each, successive governments ignored reported ruptures as well as other alarms about PIP implants going back at least to 2005.
The initial UK government reaction was to downplay the need for what it considered unnecessary expenditures as it cuts back sharply on the National Health Service. Instead of focusing on concern for the 40,000 British women who have the potentially dangerous PIP implants, the official debate is centering on cost and who is going to pay.
At first the UK Health Ministry refused to recommend that all PIP implants be removed and replaced. It took the position that this was necessary only if a rupture was found. Nigel Mercer, the previous president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, was unequivocal in disagreeing with this approach. His advice was for all PIP implants to be removed. "This silicone can cause intense fibrosis [thickening of tissue]. You have to ask yourself what would you recommend a family member to do. I would not want them to keep the implants in. You are sitting on a time bomb." (Independent, January 2, 2012)
Over the last few days, with mounting outrage and as various surgeons denounce the lax attitudes by all involved, the health ministry agreed to allow the National Health Service to remove and replace the implants of the 3,000 women who received the implants from NHS if they and their doctors insist. But it refused to issue a blanket directive for all such women. Minister Andrew Lansley confined himself to saying that private clinics have a "moral duty" to remove the implants, leaving them legally free to refuse.
That is in fact what they have been doing. Private clinics have been unwilling to deal with the expense of testing their former patients or even talk to them in some cases, let alone bear the cost of new operations. They argue that they should not be held responsible for buying products freely available on the market when the authorities never indicated any potential problem. Bent on privatizing much of healthcare, the British government is in no position to force private clinics to operate unprofitably or close.
Since the scandal first broke out the dominant official view regarding breast implants has been disdainful of the women who have them. It is often said that cosmetic surgery is a question of a woman's "vanity.'' As an association of French women endangered by the PIP implants points out, they are twice victimized, once by having the faulty implants and now by being considered "bimbos" (brainless big-breasted would-be sexpots) as a result.
The subtext is that it serves these women right if their implants prove dangerous. Such views are probably a factor in why there is such a lack of follow-up on "cosmetic" procedures that are overwhelmingly performed on women, even though the dangers are as real as in any other type of surgery.
It is also true that there is a general lack of clinical trials regarding new substances used for implantable devices to understand their long-term and potential harmful effects.
The reasons for women wanting breast implants vary widely. Often it is because of disfigurement, most commonly due to breast cancer surgery. But mainly that is not the case.
Encouraging women to have them, the cosmetic surgery industry says that the answer to the low self-esteem many women feel is to enlarge their breasts. Websites touting breast augmentation services often argue that the most important reason to have the procedure is because it enables many women to feel better about themselves. But why would having bigger breasts make women feel better about themselves unless that were essential to the way they are valued? This says a great deal about women's real status. This lack of self-esteem cannot be separated from the oppression of women as sexual commodities and lesser beings in all spheres in society.
Many of those afflicted with the PIP implants are very young. In Venezuela, some people consider a breast implant operation to be the ultimate birthday present for a girl on the occasion of her fifteenth birthday (quinceañera). The fifteenth birthday is considered a rite of passage for these young girls. This, too, is a signal to them about what their future as women holds.
The cosmetic surgery industry, the authorities and other people often argue that breast augmentation is simply a matter of a woman's "choice." This ignores the fact that women are imprisoned in a patriarchal society that largely determines what their choices are. Rather than blame women for a lack of self-esteem, this should be recognized as an internalization of real-world social relations that cannot be changed without changing the way society is ruled and organized.
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.
Send us your comments.