Revolution #362 November 24, 2014
An Historic Dialogue:
Cornel West and Bob Avakian Enlighten and Challenge at a Critical Juncture
November 16, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
On November 15, 1900 people packed The Riverside Church in New York City to experience the Dialogue between Cornel West and Bob Avakian—REVOLUTION AND RELIGION: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion. There has never been anything like it.
It was an historic event. It was the first public appearance in decades by Bob Avakian, the revolutionary leader and architect of a whole new framework for the emancipation of all of humanity, who spoke directly and in depth to the need and basis for revolution; in dialogue with Cornel West, one of the most important and provocative public intellectuals of our time and who spoke and engaged in dialogue from the perspective of Christian and Black prophetic traditions, and as an uncompromising champion for the oppressed.
Cornel West had promised that the audience was “going to hear agreement & disagreement... transgression & convergence... most importantly, you're going to hear two brothers who are for real..." That happened, and more. With intensity, sincerity, and love, both speakers pulled the audience out of their collective and individual comfort zones—and challenged them to take responsibility for the state of humanity, in stark contrast to and explicitly in opposition to the prevailing morality of “me first.” Bob Avakian began his speech with a loving tribute to Wayne Webb, also known as Clyde Young, a close friend and comrade, and a member of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party who had just passed away—whose life was an inspiring example of how those this system treats as "the worst of the worst" can become the very best that humanity is capable of.
The Dialogue was driven by profound and historic challenges to humanity—at a moment when billions of people live lives of unnecessary misery and the very planet itself is in peril. As Host Committee member Ed Asner said before the event: “If hope and clarity can only come from this dialogue to lighten the dark times we live in, then I would wish this same dialogue will be played throughout the land. We need it desperately.”
The Dialogue was made possible by a diverse and determined grassroots movement, and a Host Committee that brought together an unprecedented range of voices, from academia to the parents of African-American youth murdered by the NYPD. Tens of thousands of dollars were raised to promote the Dialogue. Fundraising continues to cover the cost of a full-page ad in the Thursday, November 13 print edition of the New York Times. Radio station WBAI signed on as the media sponsor for the event.
Lining up outside, waiting to get into the Dialogue. Photo: Special to revcom.us
People came on buses from Ferguson, Missouri; from the South Side of Chicago; and from nearby housing projects in Harlem. They came from elite universities and community colleges and from churches, and classes came from high schools. The audience included long-time political activists and youth who had never been to a political event. The vibe and feeling of the audience was intense, enthusiastic, welcoming, vocal, and eager to get into the questions; the place throbbed with the feeling of something new coming into being. The seriousness of the speakers and the love and respect they had for each other set a tone that people very much responded to.
Differences around the key question of the event—the fight for emancipation and the role of religion—were deeply gone into, as were points of unity. As we said, the determination of both speakers to not only bring out how people today all over the world are forced to live and needlessly suffer and who is responsible, but also to sharply challenge the audience to act against that with courage, came through. People intensely listened to the truth-telling for over four hours. Thought-provoking and soul-searching questions were posed from the audience to Cornel West and Bob Avakian including on the state of popular culture; the morality of violence; the nature of the police and how to get justice; the possibility of actually carrying out and winning a successful revolution; and defining personal experiences in the lives of the speakers.
This event was a great beginning! And now the dialogue continues—between and with people from all walks of life and from a wide range of perspectives. In the coming weeks and months, in different ways, we will be providing coverage of this event and its aftermath here at revcom.us. Tune into the audio re-broadcast, which we will feature at revcom.us as soon as details are available.
Click here for the flyer handed out to people leaving the event. Share your thoughts in emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. And stay engaged with the movement for revolution through revcom.us.
A view of the audience, during the Dialogue. Photo: Special to revcom.us
Revolution #362 November 24, 2014
After the Dialogue:
Observations from the Audience
Updated with additional comments December 7, 2014
The comments at right are from people who were in the audience at the Dialogue between Cornel West and Bob Avakian on November 15, live and in person at the Riverside Church, and at simulcasts in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. A very wide spectrum of background and views was represented that day. There was unity and determination, but also controversy—between the speakers, and controversy provoked by the fact that both speakers challenged people to break out of the framework through which they see what kind of change is necessary and possible. We are just beginning to get a sense of the impact the event had on people. The following comments are mainly from exit interviews, and are very preliminary responses. They reflect the thinking of those who made them, in response to and provoked by what they saw and heard, not necessarily the views of the speakers.
We encourage everyone to watch the entire Dialogue at revcom.us! While we cannot post all comments sent to email@example.com, all of them are appreciated and forwarded to the Dialogue organizers.
Click here to print this collection of comments
(Updated December 7 with additional comments)
"I learned we can change this whole damn system that's guilty as hell"
What I learned from the Dialogue is that we can change this whole damn system that's guilty as hell. We certainly and most seriously need a revolution so our Black and Latino kids can rise up and be a part of our country instead of ending up dead or locked up because they are separating our families.
(Woman from Ferguson, Missouri)
"A More Scientific Perspective"
I appreciated what Bob Avakian said about putting things to a more scientific perspective—analyzing the way things are, but also looking at solutions to try to rectify, solve those problems. I think that analyzing problems, but also looking for solutions that can be the source of self-determination and overcoming a lot of the oppression, and also the social instability, the social issues, that are placed upon people. I think that's a real effective way of addressing a lot of those issues. Most surprising to me was how thoroughly they discussed a lot of the problems that exist in today's society. People who didn't come missed a very enlightening and informative discussion, and a chance to be amongst a lot of other like-minded, intelligent people.
(Young Black artist)
"A kindness there that was more real time in conversation"
The most important thing was watching two people sit down and discuss, respectfully, and having an end goal. And that appreciation for how they arrive at that end goal is different, but whether it's through religion or just basic human compassion, it was very exciting. I was probably more familiar with Cornel... I was exposed to him more on public TV; he's such a character. Not that Bob isn't, but when you see the REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! video, he's so serious in the recording, which is great; I know he's got a message and he's only got so much time. But there is an endearing side of his personality and there's a kindness there that was more real time in conversation, so it was nice. And you're also seeing him interact with someone, so it's gonna be different than someone like just going at it.
(A young white woman)
"I try to turn to God... but sometimes I have to change myself"
About Bob Avakian, he's a very good speaker; he seems like a very educated man. But you know I agree with what he's saying, though he's not a real spiritual person. He really don't turn to God for his answers, not like a lot of other people. A lot of people, even me, I try to turn to God with my answers, my solutions, but sometimes I have to change myself. I agree with some of the things he said. He just wants the system changed. He's not believing in what's above. He's believing that there's something going on down here on this earth. He wants this system changed and I agree with him. I want to see it changed, too. 'Cause I've had my own run-ins with this system. And this system here, I've got some good out of it, but there's a lot of bad. Like when it comes to the police, stuff like this. When they stop me on the street, and ask me all kinds of questions, if you don't say what they want you to say, you can't afford to get in an argument with one of them. Another human being, they can argue with me or I can argue with them, and then say, OK, it's over with, everything's OK. I go my way and they'll go theirs. But the police, if I argue with him one time, I might end up getting hurt; could be the last time. I could get hurt or get killed; or end up in jail.
(An older Black man)
"The role of today's Democratic Party seems to be a stumbling point for some"
...Turning to the ballot box or to a higher power may be the way that some people deal with being overwhelmed, but those actions bring only short-term relief. Voting will provide an immediate fix to a problem. Turning to prayer and to the Bible may bring immediate comfort to some. Although neither speaker said this directly, I came away with the idea that it may make sense for some, but the problems still required more direct action.
Voting down a 20-week abortion ban or a "personhood" amendment is an emergency measure, like triage or an ER visit. You have to stop the bleeding but that is not the end of the problem. Saying a prayer or reading the Bible may ease the pain. It may connect you to family traditions, loved ones, and memories that warm you, but prayer will not end the problems of society.
Moreover, the fact that some may pray while others do not should NOT divide us. There is room in the present struggle for everyone who wants real transformation and there is room in the future for everyone who wants to commit to a world of equality. Avakian is an atheist, West is a Christian, but they both see similar real-time problems and similar future possibilities. They will not be separated by their differences and neither should we.
(A woman who flew into New York for the Dialogue)
"Don't judge a book by its cover"
What struck me as most important was that two people from two different views can actually come together and express theirselves and come to a common agreement, and while disagreeing, that we're all in the movement for the same fight. And it wasn't too much beatin' around the bush, there were actual answers for the questions that we had. I would say to someone who hasn't seen this, don't judge a book by its cover, because you have a history of communism and atheism, don't judge by the cover. You have to first figure out why this is happening and what the solution is to the problem. There's some shit in taking this on you need to hear and listen and learn.
(Young poet from Ferguson)
"They weren't talking like Americans..."
What I loved is [Cornel West and Bob Avakian] proved to me that people can come together to change the world—and I mean all kinds of people from all walks of life. And I think they drew the crowd they did because they weren't talking like Americans. They were talking like and for the world's people.
(A Black student from the City University of New York who brought five people to the Dialogue)
"The one thing that kind of stuck out was Bob Avakian's approach to understanding—a scientific approach..."
What was important was that we all need to get involved for the common good against this injustice and exploitation and oppression in America and around the world. And it takes an active understanding of knowing people's differences as well as the common good that the masses need to agree upon.
The one thing that kind of stuck out was Bob Avakian's approach to understanding—a scientific approach—digging into the depths of understanding reality and the relationship of that to a scientific social agreement or unanimity agreement among the world. That is needed to be understood.
I have a fight with my faith and the church, so stepping out in the social arena and working with people against the injustices, a lot of them believe we gotta give man what is man and let God take control of what God has control of. But what I think about what Avakian is saying is God has already given us the will and the choice to stand for what he has already instituted in his word as well as in our consciousness of what is right. So we need to take that will and that choice and be active against that which we know is definitely wrong and definitely against society as a whole.
(A Black man active in the struggle against police brutality)
"Depth and concern about the conditions of women in the world..."
I've never heard anyone—man or woman—talk with such depth and concern about the conditions of women in the world like Bob Avakian did in this event. I found myself crying and standing up in applause in what seemed to be inappropriate times in recognition of this. He spoke with the same conviction in regards to Palestinians when he explained that the Democrats—not one of them—said a word about the massacre in Gaza by the Israelis.
(A woman from Europe who was raised Muslim)
“I was really impressed with his radical, militant, ‘I don’t care, I will tell you’ perspective...”
For a long time, I’ve been following Cornel West. Bob Avakian is pretty new to me. I really liked it and it’s something I follow closely. To see the line around Riverside Church was most empowering. A point of view I share very much was expressed in ways I’m not capable of expressing. So I really, really enjoyed it.
Bob Avakian really, really impressed me. I was annoyed with people asking him to stop. It was a bit long, I must admit that, but I was really impressed with his radical, militant, “I don’t care, I will tell you” perspective. I think we need more of that. This nation is in fact fucking imperialist. Fact of the matter is I am an immigrant (from the Islands). To dream of a future where there are no immigrants. When people have that conversation—when they have that immigrant conversation—when you look at the immigrant population, you need to ask yourself why are they here—why I left my country? I left my mother who works seven days a week to try to survive. “That is why I’m working at this table to serve you, sir.”
It’s spectacular. We need to have more comings together like this. We need to have more lines wrapped around buildings in the middle of winter a few days before Thanksgiving when so many people won’t have food on their table. My message to those who did not come would go a little like that.
(Woman poet in mid-20s)
“We need to go to a spiritual foundation...”
I don’t really believe in Bob’s views because I’m a man of the Lord and I love Jesus and I love the Holy Spirit. I love the way it leads me. With Bob, I think his message was typical—hey, we can do it through science, just like they have been trying to do for years. And that hasn’t worked. We need to go to a spiritual foundation. And as a Generation Xer, I intend to advance the knowledge of understanding the fundamental ingredients of open-mindedness, possibilities and freedom of thought. And that way all the Generation Xers are about to bloom and we are about to be burst.
Science has tried to attribute and contribute in a way that’s bigger than humanity, bigger than ourselves, meaning that it can reach to the heavens. It can reach beyond God. That’s what science is... Science does one thing, and faith does another thing. As you see, Cornel West explained when you take the familiar for the unfamiliar and the known for the unknown, you don’t choose science any longer. You know a power greater than yourself, and it’s called the Holy Spirit. And this is what you take before science once you become a believer of that. Now most of the time man believes in science. A man is like, “Oh, I can fix this. I can be better than this so-called God. And the only thing that kind of messes that up is a person that does not know how to get in touch with Jesus Christ, God Almighty, the Holy Spirit and the teacher.”
If I had a friend that wasn’t able to make it, I would tell him that both made very important points, and the whole program was a dialogue with two gentlemen who have been in the civil rights movement, who have been revolutionaries, who have been visionaries, who have been leaders of their own thoughts, of their own views, of their own opinions. They have been through storms and correction, and many many, detours of obstacles. They both have touched the ground of their own emptiness, and they have given us a message of hope.
(An activist who has been arrested dozens of times and served time in jail for activism)
“The creativity of the human spirit is something that needs to be allowed to flourish...”
BA said something that I didn’t expect, but something that touched a very unique chord in my heart. He began talking about the recent comet landing and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as being just as important as all of the arts.
This comparison of science and arts, placing them on equal footing and as interchangeable manifestation of human motivational needs hit me particularly close. I recall at one point trying (with little success) to convince one of my professors that science is also an art. Hearing BA validate this sentiment was refreshing and I wish I could have been as eloquent as him when addressing this professor. The creativity of the human spirit is something that needs to be allowed to flourish. Without this, we cannot be fully human. This is what a revolutionary society needs.
(White male, graduate student)
“This is not a game...”
People were hearing things said to a large group from two people who were speaking without any self-aggrandizement. That’s rare. Everyone around me had strong reactions to BA’s remarks about the Democratic Party—how he knew there were people in the audience who had been taken in and voted for Obama, and he explained what the Democrats are actually responsible for, how they’re part of the problem. One friend described this section as “brilliant, masterly.” People don’t hear the truth spoken very often, not just the truth, but why things happen. And that night they heard that about a lot of things.” The Dialogue itself was amazing. Magical is a good word for it. There was so much unity, not just ideologically, but they were working together.
Both were strong and confident, not just in themselves but for a better world. This was very real, and infectious just watching them function together. But it was not like they were larger than life. They were heroes and two people talking with great intelligence and passion.
BA repeated several times, “This is not a game, we’re very serious about this.” I think that’s important, and maybe the “headline” for what happened.
(A woman who has been a supporter of BA for many years)
“I didn’t know that Bob Avakian was a Caucasian male...”
What surprised me was that, first, I didn’t know that Bob Avakian was a Caucasian male, and it surprised me that he spoke the truth like that, because usually a lot of Caucasian people wouldn’t do that, ‘cause they don’t want people to know the truth, you know? And I feel like he really broke it down, and that was just really interesting, because the way they broke the subjects and the situations down I really understood it, and I feel like it’ll change things, change the world.
(Young Black woman from Chicago)
“Both speakers talked about the struggle of gay people with real substance...”
Both speakers talked about the struggle of gay people with real substance, they made sure to bring that in. I was surprised in a positive way, given the audience in Harlem where it might not be so popular, that they made a point of talking about this.
(A young artist)
“All the information about WHY most of our Black people are getting killed for no reason”
They said it’s always the Black people that get killed for no reason. What surprised me? Knowing that it’s always us—like my brother who was killed by police. You shoulda came because it gives you all the information about WHY most of our Black people are getting killed for no reason.”
(Twelve-year-old Black youth from Chicago)
“We need to give more thought to how people live while they are here and not pie in the sky.”
I’m a Christian. One of the things that struck me listening to the communist is that much of what he said is at the heart of, is foundational to Christianity, in terms of the Kingdom of God. The unfortunate thing about it is that the Christian religion gets a lot of criticism because we think a great deal about the pie in the sky by and by, thinking about a different world and getting the pie in the sky by and by. The reality is I don’t care if this is scientific or unscientific, this is a world full of people. One of the things I like to say to young people is part of the reason that a lot of these people get caught up in all these rituals they get caught up in it and can’t let it go. Because they’re thinking and acting like everything in this world is going to be forever. The graveyard in every society is an object lesson that nobody in this world is going to stay here and this world is not forever. But we need to give more thought to how people live while they are here and not pie in the sky.
(Black man in his sixties)
I was delighted that my question was one of those selected to be posed to BA and CW. I don’t think either gentleman had heard that one before. CW’s answer was predictable (“God is not a concept, God is love”) though I have to say, “love” is a concept, too. I think BA might agree with Lennon’s “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” once he ponders it a bit.
Unfortunately, “religion” comprised about 10 percent of the dialogue whereas race and class struggle occupied 90 percent of the dialogue. This was too bad since I came more to hear the former more than the latter, though I understand why race and class struggle matter. I also understand why it would have been hard to focus on BA and CW’s differences when they obviously find support in each other’s views.
BA needs to listen a little more with his audience—there were people all around us who were chanting “Give us Cornel!” I’m used to sitting in long lectures, but I’m guessing many there who were more familiar with CW than BA would have been shocked if they expected equal time for both.
The above critique aside, I thought both did a marvelous job of communicating their fundamental tenets and we all came away thinking, “Imagine.”
(A Columbia University professor)
“Avakian’s approach to ‘salad-bar Christianity’”
I feel there was an important subtle shift in Avakian’s expression of unity-struggle-unity with the religious. In Away With All Gods! and other previous criticisms of religion, I hear BA more blanketly dismissing the “salad-bar” Christianity, compared to what sounded in the Dialogue like a more embracing stance of accepting this approach when it is in the context of creating a movement for revolution. Others that I spoke to were surprised to hear BA say that he would rather walk with brother West than some other atheists. This didn’t surprise me, but the nuanced critical acceptance in Avakian’s speech was a significant emergence: “I don’t think we need God, but I do think the people need a lot more soul.”
Cornel shared his sentiment that Ferguson might be just the first of a wave of rebellions, more a righteous hope then a prophetic statement. This raised my eyebrows and my spirit.
To play off the Katt Williams comedy routine, where he proclaims to his friends and family (the ones that aren’t working all day or otherwise committed to a some pursuit)—”If you aren’t smoking weed, then I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?!!” The thing he is riffing on and hammering home in the routine is that there are ways in which altering your consciousness can be uplifting and lead to insight. And in a more provocative way, I want to express to my friends and family (all 10 of them, most of which are working or strongly focused)—firstly, if you aren’t engaging the need for revolution then WTF. Secondly, because more and more persons in the U.S. are, the Dialogue of 2,000 at Riverside, the national response to O22, and the masses making Ferguson an international issue, can be the beginnings of a movement. Thirdly, we need you to be “presente.”
“It opened my eyes...”
The Dialogue was very, very motivational. I was very inspired by Bob A. breaking down how serious it is that we need a movement for revolution. When Mr. Bobby broke down the reason we are in the predicament we are in today it opened my eyes and I really, really realized we need Revolution—Nothing Else.
(A Black middle-aged woman in Revolution Club)
“As a Christian myself, I had to think about my own views...”
And as a Christian myself, I had to think about my own views. Especially with the first speaker [Bob Avakian]. He helped me to look more critically at my own position and that’s very helpful. Whether you are going to believe in all he’s saying or not, it’s helpful to have your thinking tested. When Malcolm X spoke to a Christian audience, he would tell them that we are not oppressed because of what God we believe in, or because we are Methodist, or Baptist, or Muslim, we are oppressed because we are Black. I think they [BA and Cornel West] are able to work together because they are both genuinely opposed to that oppression.
(A Black student who attends Union Theological Seminary, where Cornel West lectures)
“On the question of violence...”
From the first time on hearing the topic that was going to be discussed by these two highly regarded public intellectuals, I got excited. These two men, coming from different perspectives, reached similar conclusions, which proves to me the seriousness of the world situation and the need for drastic solutions.
Having never been to NYC also motivated me to want to step out of my comfort zone and make arrangements to get off of work so I could participate. Having got the days off, I then had to think about the bus ride itself, which was a long one. I threw out my expectations and trepidations and figured I could handle the close quarters. I was not disappointed. Even though I am an introvert and not the most sociable person in the world, the youthful energy and intensely interesting conversations swirling all around me kept me engaged and connected to the group. The bus ride was great! On the whole, the trip was well organized and planned out, even though there were a few glitches. When we arrived in NYC and into the church for the lecture, I was ready. It took me a second for my ears to adjust to the sound in the hall which was very echoey, but once that happened, I was not disappointed.
The energy and articulation by both men confirmed my feelings that they are committed to trying to create a new and better society. Cornel West won’t allow his religion and belief in God to keep him from the critical analysis of the problems confronting society. Bob Avakian let it be known that he’s serious about revolution and not playing around. On the question of violence, he was clear that he’s not advocating anything except whatever is necessary to wrest power from the capitalist class, which won’t turn it over willingly. I only wish there was a moderator to kind of expand the question and answer portion of the program, but there was only so much time available.
“Openness and sense of humor...”
They really brought home that, in fact, the system itself cannot be expected to produce anything but what it has. Most surprising was the openness and sense of humor, and self-criticism they made by both Cornel West and Bob Avakian. To those who didn’t come, I would definitely say you’ve got to watch this when it becomes—I hope—available for viewing.
(A Black woman from Los Angeles)
On Saturday, November 15, 2014, Photography students from the High School for Arts, Imagination & Inquiry attended the Dialogue between revolutionary leaders Cornel West & Carl Dix on the role of religion and revolution in the fight for emancipation of all humanity. People from all over the country attended.
Here are reactions of some who attended, captured by students.