Reading, Promoting, and Discussing Bob Avakian’s Memoir: From Ike to Mao and Beyond
We received the following letters from readers who have been reading, promoting, and discussing Bob Avakian's memoir From Ike to Mao and Beyond.
“Like a play that takes you into the world through the eyes of another person”
I first encountered the works of Bob Avakian in a college class where we examined a variety of political and ideological viewpoints, as well as our own views on the world. We read Bob Avakian's book Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones, and this was my first exposure to Marxism and its application to understanding the world and getting at the truth. This was a very challenging and exciting book that made me start to question a lot of things about the state of the world. In that book, Avakian examines religion, racism and women's oppression, grounded in where these things come from, while looking at the different forms they take. He breaks down different political views of what is the problem and what is the solution in the world. Preaching does this with a depth and nuance that I hadn't seen before. This approach to getting at the truth was invigorating and really challenging to think about. The book presents a communist view of the world, how a radically different kind of society and morality are possible. And when Avakian talks with great hope and aspiration about the kind of world we can create—his love for people and his desire to really know the world, in order to radically change it, really comes through. It made me want to be part of that, and even make my life about that.
So, when I heard that Bob Avakian's memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond, was coming out, I was eager to learn about his life and what kind of person he was growing up. Having been politically awakened by Bob Avakian's theoretical writings, I approached reading his Memoir pretty much without a lot of preconceived ideas. At the same time, there was an element of cognitive dissonance in the idea that a leader like this had created a piece of literature. I was intensely curious about how a communist would approach a memoir.
I spent a large part of my childhood in local theaters, making friends of all ages and races, and getting to know the world through theater. My mom read to me and my sister almost every night, and my imagination blossomed through books. From my own upbringing I developed a passion for storytelling, a love for film, theater, and books. Many works of art have stayed with me, and in one way or another altered the course of my life. In high school, I saw a play by Tom Stoppard where a 17 year old girl in the 1800s is awakened to life through studying mathematical theorems. From Dickens's Great Expectations, I got a sense of what a book could reveal about a society through its characters and humor. After the lyrical and intimate writing of Virginia Wolff, I noticed things around me a bit differently. My senior year, I played a grown-up "Scout" in our high school production of To Kill A Mockingbird. I got to share with the audience the words from this book, about not judging others until you have stood in their shoes. So, in a way, all of this was a backdrop when I picked up From Ike to Mao, to stand for a while in Bob Avakian's shoes!
I read this book mostly on the train going to work. It's not a hard read, but it took me a few weeks to get through. I was moved by the richness of it and I spent time reflecting on the stories. It's become a book I refer to and talk about with friends. It's more than just a series of life events. The interweaving narrative connects the reader with Bob Avakian, the world he grew up in, and the times that he lived through—in a way that is higher than life.
I admire the ways in which he was uninhibited, like the time he was singing at a sit-in at Berkeley, to keep people's spirits up. Or when he was "putting on his mack" to entertain classmates. I like that he describes the people who he's drawn to, and the different situations he was part of. He had a lot of energy about life and a lot of enthusiasm to the point where he was sometimes naive. Like in the story where he is so hungry he asks Leo Wofford, one of the tough guys in school, if he can have his extra piece of cornbread. Leo stares him down, and eventually gives up the cornbread, surprised at Avakian's persistence. You get the idea of how outrageous this was when his friend Sam comes running up to Bob afterwards and says, “You don't know how lucky you are."
Avakian vividly recounts many moments from his childhood, capturing both the flavor of the times, and the universals of relating to family. You get to know his parents, the lessons he learned from them, the values they instilled, and how they related to him when he was a kid. Then later, some of those same values lead Avakian to rebel in different ways from his parents and from many aspects of the environment he grew up in, like the gender and racial divides in society and the influence of religion.
On the other hand, throughout the entire book he has a deep love and appreciation for his parents, for who they are as people. Their relationship, as with other personal and romantic relationships, is not divorced from events in the world and later his development into a communist leader. We see times when he and his parents clash, and times when they grow apart due to sharp differences over how they looked at what the problems and solutions are in the world and what they thought he should be doing. Then later in the book, he's able to reconnect with them, and they become closer and respect his political point of view. He recounts a time when a reporter calls them, presumably trying to get a negative statement about Avakian's arrest at the protest of Deng Xiaoping in D.C. Anyone who's ever had tensions with their parents over the decisions they make in their life, and anyone who's been a parent, too, I think, can relate to what it meant that Avakian's mom and dad told the press they were proud of him for sticking to his beliefs.
This spoke to me for real. Parts of what my parents instilled in me, many of the rich artistic experiences they facilitated that opened up the world to me, as well as the principles they raised us with, were the very things that attracted me to communism. But making my life about that, as opposed to seeing my life through a career as an artist, or raising a family, has been hard for them to understand, controversial, and involved a lot of tensions. I try to learn from Avakian on this.
When Avakian talks about his illness, he opens up to share with the reader a profound life experience. It's the beginning of his adult life, and a time where so much in the world was changing, and existing societal norms are on the verge of cracking open. You go through the actual physical experience, the mental struggle, the emotional trauma, especially the insecurities he felt about his appearance due to the side effects of the drugs he had to take. He takes you through the months of recovering from this illness, fighting to gain back his strength, eager to take in the world around him, on the cusp of entering into the vibrant Berkeley scene of the sixties.
Avakian describes staying up late at night listening to recordings of Keats's poetry. This section is entitled "And No Birds Sing…" after a line in one of the poems, which he remembers for years to come. You see that at times his solitude when he was sick had positive aspects, and in that situation these particular poems really spoke to how he felt, and what he was going through. In all this he conveys the impact of this time in his life. And then, it was really exciting to go on from there, and get into his experiences which further lead to his becoming a communist and a leader. At that point, you could see a number of different directions his life might have gone in—as well as the possibility that he could have died from this illness.
There are so many dimensions to this one person's life. It seems like every time I go back into the book to refer to a story, I find a whole other section I liked and had forgotten about, another moment that is meaningful. You get a very complex picture of how Avakian went from one thing to the next, and how he appreciated and got into a whole variety of things, in different realms of society. His style of storytelling is very compelling and beautiful, in both its simplicity and complexity.
Having started out with Avakian's theoretical works, now that I know more about his life and what he's all about from reading his Memoir -- it doesn't just translate narrowly back to how I see the theoretical works, or my political views, although there is some relationship. This book is like a poem that speaks to you and comes back again and again, a song that captures something universal, or a play that takes you into the world through the eyes of another person. In this way, From Ike to Mao and Beyond is a timely work of art that stays with you.
- Alice Woodward
Taking the Chairman’s Memoir to South Central
People have downloaded the audio files of Bob Avakian reading the Memoir (available at revcom.us and bobavakian.net) and put them on CDs for distribution in places like the Nickerson Gardens where many people do not have access to the Internet.
Ester and I have been getting together each week over the past few weeks listening to the Memoir on CD and taking turns reading it out loud to each other. One day we got together at Starbucks for a cup of hot chocolate and some good reading of the Chairman’s Memoir. Ester loves hot chocolate, and she really liked reading the Memoir. We laughed and talked about the stories about Bob Avakian’s childhood growing up. Ester said he was a real “prankster,” and he’s funny. She used to listen to a lot of singers he mentions in the book, the Chantels, Jimmy Reed (one of her favorite blues singers), Chuck Berry, the Buster Brown Shoes, this was all during her time and she was reminiscing about it. She loved the corn bread story, she described how he must have been looking at that cornbread, and how hungry he must have been. She could understand how he would go after that cornbread, because the other kid had two pieces and he was hungry. She just laughs about this story and describes it. Then she says, he could have got his ass kicked, and then we laughed.
We got so involved in reading the book, even though Ester didn’t have any glasses and the strain was hurting her eyes she still wanted to read on. As we read each page in anticipation of what the next chapter would hold, what new adventure was young Bobby going to get into, she said to me, his life was exciting all the little chances he was taking. She went onto say that from reading the book so far “he is someone who loves people no matter what color they are. He hung out with kids of all colors no matter what people thought about him.” She is referring to the part in the book where this one white kid he knew was questioning why he was hanging out with Black kids. She quotes Bob’s response. She loves his response to this kid. When we got to the part about him going to the student dance with a Black girl during a time when there was segregation in the country and in his school, Ester was on the edge of her chair anxious to find out what happened. After reading it later she commented, that was a Big Kiss, and we both laughed.
She liked how the Chairman hung out with all nationalities and how he would fight for what he thought was right, even though it might get his ass kicked or get him in trouble. She thought the prankster stuff was like kids do and it was funny. She thought he was funny too. She liked the arbitrary authority chapter too. She said he was right, “his parents had taught him to stand up for his rights.”
Through the pages of the book and listening to the CD’s Ester is getting to know Bob Avakian, who he is as a person. She had seen the DVD, Revolution: Why It’s Necessary—Why It’s Possible—What It’s All About before and we have had many debates and discussions particularly over the question of him being white. After reading the book she is questioning if he is really white. As we read through the book each week, Ester has been referring back to things he said or did in the chapters before. Through the pages of the book she is getting to know who Bob Avakian is. This is just a beginning. Through the pages of the book the Chairman is becoming more a part of her life. She knows by heart many of the stories we have read and she talks about the stories as though it was a story of an old friend or neighbor. After reading the early years of his life some questions have come up with her and others who are reading the Memoir or listening to the CD’s. People want to know more about Armenia (Bob Avakian’s family is Armenian). Where is Armenia? What happened there? Why were people massacred by the Turks? How many got killed?
Mable and I listened to parts of the Memoir on CD and watched video clips of the Revolution DVD sampler.
She said, when you hear the Memoir on CD it’s like having a conversation with him. He’s telling you his story and he’s funny. She said in watching him in the DVD, he’s hard. She grew up in the South and could identify with and remembers all the stuff he talked about like about Emmet Till and all what Black people went through. She liked the DVD and the parts of the Memoir we have listened to on the CD. She wants to know how old is he? Where is Armenia? She thought it was awful what happened to the Armenian people with the Turks massacring a million people. She wants to know more about this and where Armenia is? She was impressed with the reviews on the back of the book from Cornel West and Howard Zinn. She has the book now and the CDs. I can’t wait to see what all she thinks of the book after reading it. I have told her and others most of the stories in the book and how good it is, and how he is such a great revolutionary communist leader and a real human being—who loves the masses and has a strategy and plan for how we can get out of this system and build a whole new one. People are beginning to learn who the Chairman is as a person.
“It’s so personal and honest”
A youth in the LA Writers Collective wrote a review of the Memoir last year while he was a college student. He said the Memoir was a very important part of him getting to know the Party better. At first it took struggle to get him to read the book—he asked why people should be reading books about an individual instead of studying what the U.S. government is up to in the world and organizing anti-war demonstrations. Eventually he decided to pick it up because he had been reading some of Bob Avakian’s works and he wanted to get to know the person more.
He said the thing he enjoyed the most about the Memoir is that it’s so personal and honest. He said that through reading more about how Bob Avakian became the kind of person that he is—his interaction and friendships with Black youth, his deep discussions with people on basketball courts, and the way he dealt with his serious illness—he gained a deeper appreciation for Bob Avakian. He also gained insight on why Bob Avakian stayed on the revolutionary road, while many others from his generation gave up or made peace with the system.
A book like this can move you to see what human beings are capable of doing even though they are born into a fucked up society like this. And through this book, he gained new insights into Bob Avakian and the Party he leads.
He said the Memoir is a reflection of the society we should want to live in and the kind of communist we should all strive to be like.
Tony and Pablo
I had a discussion of Bob Avakian's memoir with two Latin-American immigrant proletarians, Tony and Pablo, who consider themselves supporters of the Party, one much longer than the other. Both are much more comfortable reading and talking in Spanish, but both read the book.
The younger of the two, Tony, had raised two years ago, before anyone knew that a memoir was being prepared, when he first had read a few issues of the newspaper, “He [Bob Avakian] seems like an important leader, do you have any kind of book about him?”
Tony said that there were many things that “surprised” and interested him in reading the Memoir. One was learning about Bob Avakian's father's family as immigrants from Armenia. He said he had never heard of Armenia before and said it was striking “how different the experience of immigrants has been coming from different places” and in this case how they fell out around the issue of racism in the U.S., identifying more as white people, and how Bob Avakian dealt with this contradiction. He also said he was surprised by Bob's account of growing up in a segregated environment in the late ’50s and then “crossing over” and sharing his life with Black people.
Pablo said that he was at a disadvantage in this discussion because he had lent his copy of the Memoir to a Latina immigrant friend (who finally has a place of her own after being in and out of homeless shelters and losing all of her possessions including her books) and so he hadn't had the opportunity to actually review the Memoir prior to our discussion. He said, “I read it like a novel. I find autobiographies/memoirs interesting as a story more than something I will take notes from” (like he does with other things he has read by Avakian). He said that though it wasn't fresh in his mind, some things still struck him a year later. He was surprised to learn that the Chairman had come from what he described as an “upper middle class” family and how that affected him. He said that it was interesting how “he learned a lot about law and politics from his father,” while at the same time rebelling and choosing his own path. He said “timing” was important to Bob’s development: “The turmoil in the world affected his thinking.” Like Tony, Pablo said that there were surprises in the book that made it interesting; he listed three: 1) His nearly life-ending illness; 2) His relationship with the people who would form the Black Panther Party and how that influenced him; and 3) His first experience “going to the working class” in Richmond, California—Pablo said “it seems that he went there with a lot of illusions about people.”
He said it was interesting how Bob Avakian described his (and others’) way of seeing life in the late ’60s, “they expected revolution to happen then.” He said that there was a theme in the book of repeatedly “learning from mistakes.” He found particularly funny the episode in China of continually being offered snails, a food that he and others had trouble with, but not wanting to offend anyone by commenting negatively.
Tony said he was also struck by Bob Avakian's journey from the middle class—“how people make that kind of change” was new to him. He said it was interesting how Bob Avakian “mixed with people” and how that affected him. Overall he said that the Memoir painted a picture of Bob as “another human being and not some sort of super-hero.” He was also struck by how the Chairman's mother's concern for basic people (albeit from a religious standpoint) was something that he learned from and was influenced by. He described the struggle in the book involving his sister dating a Black person and said it reminded him of a situation that he had had working in a Korean-owned store. The Korean owners tried to keep a distance from the mainly Black and Latino customers, but one of the sons (around 18-20) worked there and befriended him, which the owner tolerated but didn't like, but that then when the son started to date a Black young woman, the parents went ballistic.
Tony said he liked the part “Getting Free of Religion.” He said that this was very interesting. He said that the journey from religion to atheism was explained as because “there is no truth to it.” Tony said that in his own case he had lost connection with religion in much the same way, but “I couldn't be a total atheist until becoming a communist.”
Pablo said the memoir gave him a picture of Bob as a “regular guy...someone who liked sports,” etc. He said he liked (and identified with) Bob's description of how his “proudest achievement” in high school was being listed as “Teachers' Trial,” and how Bob saw himself as a rebel against “arbitrary authority.” This means a lot and concentrates, as Pablo explained, his own contradictory feelings about promoting leaders. Pablo had grown up in a home where his father was the tyrannical minister of an evangelical church, and was lauded as the “great leader” of that church. He said that this really angered and alienated him, and when he questioned this “arbitrary authority” he was literally thrown out of the house when he was 14 years old and lived on the street selling candies etc. on street corners before leaving his home town in the country he is from. So he says sometimes he feels uncomfortable with the promotion of Bob Avakian as a leader, even though he said, “I agree with more than 90% of what Bob Avakian says and writes.” At the same time, he said he felt a great kinship for his rebelliousness and his challenging “arbitrary authority.”
We also talked with someone who had really liked some portions of the DVD by Bob Avakian (Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About), but felt uncomfortable promoting any one leader. We talked about how to get into these kinds of issues—taking up the Leadership Resolutions [see “Resolution: On Leaders and Leadership” and “Some Points on the Question of Revolutionary Leadership and Individual Leaders,” both dated Oct. 1, 1995, available online at http://rwor.org/rcp-e.htm], and also the part in Michael Slate's radio interview with the Chairman, that discusses the question, “Isn't it dangerous to invest so much in an individual leader?” (Michael Slate's interview with Bob Avakian is available online at bobavakian.net.) I won't go into all of that here, but what is most directly connected with the memoir is how from reading the memoir even people with a general “distrust of leaders,” will “want to make an exception” for Bob Avakian once “they get to know him.”
People agreed that reading the memoir really gives you a sense of Bob Avakian's integrity and his deep connection with the people. But Pablo raised that is not enough. He said, Malcolm X had a lot of integrity and a deep connection with the people and this comes out in his autobiography, but “what if he had not been killed, I sometimes wonder what would have happened with him. I worry that he could have ended up becoming a mayor or something.”
This got us into how the memoir as a whole not only gives “a humanizing portrait” of Bob Avakian's early years, but paints a vivid picture of his development into how he is described on the back of the memoir, as “America's most radical revolutionary communist.” This brought Tony back to the day he first asked if there was a book about Bob Avakian. He said he had wanted to know “who is this leader, how did he become that kind of leader.” He said that as a young person himself, “I naturally identified a lot with the part on his early years.” But he said this whole book is about “his life and our lives.”
In the previously-mentioned discussion, the person had raised, “you can't put so much in one leader—what would you do if he became a fascist?” Tony said that the Memoir gave him great confidence that this wouldn't happen with Bob Avakian. He turned to the last chapter of the memoir and read aloud the concluding passage: “So this is what my life will continue to be devoted to, and this is what the ongoing story of my life will be about.”
From there we got into the significance of Cornel West's description of Bob Avakian as “a long distance runner in the freedom struggle against imperialism, racism and capitalism.” They felt that having read the memoir that they got a deeper sense of why that is in fact true. Pablo hearkened back to a part of Carl Dix's interview with Bob Avakian that had stuck with him—his answer to “What sustains you?” [“Bob Avakian Speaks Out: On War and Revolution, On Being a Revolutionary and Changing the World, Interviewed by Carl Dix,” also available as downloadable audio] He said his answer was very important. One of them (I forget which) said, “People often say to you, 'you are radical now as a youth, but then you will get more conservative when you get older,' but Bob Avakian continues to get more radical.” Tony raised that another reason he has confidence in Bob Avakian (in response to our friend's challenge) is how he will fight for what's right even if at times it is very unpopular or even dangerous to do so, even within the existing movement of the time. He mentioned in particular the section of memoir where Bob describes getting ready to go to the showdown RCP Central Committee meeting on the coup in China and his wife asks him “Do you think we will win?” and he answers, “I don't know if we will win, but we can't lose.”
“It was like having a conversation with someone”
I spoke with a Black college student who grew up in the Valley. She is not a communist or into socialism, or even revolutionary, but she is very progressive-minded. She really enjoyed reading the Memoir. When I went to speak with her, we talked about both her thoughts on the book and also seeing if she could help and/or had any ideas about popularizing it at her school. She told me that she was expecting it to be really different, more like Bob Avakian’s other writings (she’s read some of his pieces in Revolution newspaper, and also she read part of his book, The Loss in China and the Revolutionary Legacy of Mao Tsetung). She thought it was going to be more complex and at first she didn’t really like that. But she said, “It wasn’t a hard book at all! It was like having a conversation with someone!” She really liked the stories he told.
There were two things in particular she spoke about that really impacted her. The first was how he lived through the times of segregation. She said that a lot of people she knows, especially white people, were really affected in very negative ways from segregation. She said that a lot of the people she has interacted with “have this sense of ‘it’s okay’ or somehow acceptable if you called people ‘nigger’ back in those days. They try to excuse themselves by saying ‘oh that’s how it was in those days, everyone was like that,’ but he really lets us know that things weren’t like that and that not all white folks were racist like that and accepted that as normal!” I should say that she is half white, and growing up with her family that was the gringo side (that’s what she calls it), was very hard for her. She had to endure a lot of shit from them. So for her the beginning of the book, and how Bob Avakian looked at Black people as his brothers and sisters in those days is very admirable. It gave her a bigger sense of who he really is and his convictions, and how he became the leader of this Party.
Another part she really enjoyed was when he starts talking about his involvement with the Black Panther Party. That whole section about the sixties she really enjoyed. “It’s like a history lesson.” She says you really get a feeling of what he went through, and really a feeling of what youth were going through at the time and the real struggle. We were tripping out for a while because I have a copy of the movie, “Berkeley in the 60s” and we would watch it all the time. In the book Avakian talks about times he was at different events which are also documented in the movie. For example the time when the Mario Savio got arrested at a Free Speech Movement protest and people surrounded the car, and they had a rally and the stage was on top of the pig car. She remembered during our conversation that they mention Bob Avakian in the video at one point (I believe it was during “Stop the Draft Week”) and she got so excited saying she was going to go back to the book and read that whole section again.
Another really good conversation I had was when I spoke with a youth who lives in the projects. He also told me that he really enjoyed the part from the 60s. He said that in the part on the Civil Rights Movement, Chairman Avakian really brings it to life for people. It’s really good for youth to read and they can learn from the history and grow from that, like how he analyzes the socialist societies of the past and is advancing our science (of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) to a whole other level. We can learn from the movement of those times, and take it much further this time around. He was saying how this book is crucial for youth to get their hands on, especially with the immigrant struggle going on. When I talked to him it was in the middle of the week of walk-outs, so he was tripping out for a while, imagining, what if the students had this book in their hands and were reading it, what difference it would make! He said that the book really paints the picture of really how much struggle it took to keep the Civil Rights Movement forward, and how in the wildness of everything he became a communist.
He also said a really important thing in the book is how he analyzes the other trends he came across in the past, like the PLP (Progressive Labor Party) and others, like the Weathermen, and the Trotskyites. It’s like Marxism-Leninism-Maoism vs. other lines. People should see that and question these other lines in a way similar to how people were engaging in it during those days. We should study what they are really about and where these other lines will lead you. That is also really important for youth to get into because sometimes, he said, youth out of spontaneity get sucked into these other lines, and the wrong line leads people to nowhere good, so a lot of youth get discouraged and think that all revolutionary groups and communist groups are the same when it’s not the case. He explained to me that he really got a living sense of what the chairman is like, for example, how he would never run away from getting into struggle with people, and debating politics even from his early days as a revolutionary!
Another high school youth from the same housing projects said that it would be really good to get this memoir into classrooms. It can be a very good textbook. And also it can help people see what Bob Avakian is really like and what he’s really about and they’ll get over these wrong ideas they have of him and of communism. He had some really good ideas of how to promote this at school and among youth. He suggested having teachers sell the book in class to the students or have the students demand that the teacher carry the book in class, get the book into every library (public and school), get it to stores so people can more easily buy it, and promote Libros Revolucion because they carry all his works.
“I didn’t think it would be so humorous and warm and inviting...”
P’s comments on the Memoir were very heartfelt. He said: “There’s something special about it. Humor, his life story, the history of the 60’s in the Bay Area and the country—you can see his development and why he came out to be who he is. There are a lot of political lessons in the book—like the free speech movement. It shows a lot: the person, the political, why he is who he is, why he’s so important. Like the Autobiography of Malcolm X, you get to know this side of Bob Avakian. One thing I love about the Memoir—when I read it, it feels like he’s talking to me, telling me stories, I can hear his voice. There’s an element to personally getting to know this leader—it draws people closer to him. I didn’t think it would be so humorous and warm and inviting as it actually is, I thought it would be hard core.”
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.