Revolution #146, October 26, 2008

Teaching Outside the Box—Taking Avakian’s Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy to Teachers

In early October, a couple of teachers and myself, supporters of Revolution Books, conducted a one and a half hour workshop for teachers, entitled, “What Is Democracy: A Revolutionary Critique of Jeffersonian Democracy—Challenging Conventional Thinking,” based on Bob Avakian’s new work, Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy at the annual “Teachers for Social Justice (TFSJ)” conference in San Francisco. In attendance was a multi-national, radical-minded crowd of 1300 teachers and prospective teachers from all over California, with the majority being younger, in the 20- to 30-year-old range.

The workshop, which was attended by 29 people, consisted of a demonstration of a model lesson plan using video and a PowerPoint presentation, with a focus on comparing and contrasting Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on democracy with Bob Avakian’s, as well as using quotes from Avakian’s text, highlighting what freedom and dissent would look like under socialism and communism. The beginning ice-breaker activity asked participants to get into groups and draw pictures of democracy on one side of a piece of construction paper, and on the other draw a picture of what would be better than democracy, and then explain their drawings to the group. A guy from Latin America was the first to respond, and he set the tone for the workshop: His drawing depicting democracy was of a huge figure with a long arm and a hand in the shape of a gun pointed at a smaller figure’s head. He explained the drawing by saying—“ I grew up in Latin America with the big guy forcing the little guy what to do. To me, democracy means the U.S. telling countries in Latin America what to do instead of trying to help. So to me, democracy is a bad thing.”

Another drawing showed democracy as two men speaking behind podiums, with “better than democracy” represented by 5 different figures, men and women, one with the “A” anarchists’ symbol, one with the peace sign, one with a dollar sign, a youth with a heart and one with a woman in an evening gown. One woman said that she was not satisfied with this democracy and wondered whether a socialist system would be better. Other drawings and discussion focused on whether democracy meant more freedom for more people, or whether it was something entirely different.

The next activity was a video showing clips of Obama, Malcolm X, Mumia, Bush, and Bob Avakian, expressing wildly conflicting views of democracy, after which the teachers wrote three brief responses which, in the interests of time, were not shared This was followed by the first part of the PowerPoint presentation, which focused on exposing Jefferson’s views on slavery and freedom as critiqued in Avakian’s new pamphlet, with historical background, illustrations and analysis. Teachers then answered questions using direct quotations from Jefferson’s views and there was much discussion around many different questions—the hypocrisy of democracy, how did democracy develop to apply to only white men, what is bourgeois democracy, how is this democracy a dictatorship.

The forces who came to this event were looking for alternatives to conventional educational methods and content, as well as more broadly expressing deep outrage and asking serious questions about where this society is headed. There was much engagement, and various levels of agreement over Avakian’s critique, with people coming to terms with the actual history of slavery, the actual meaning of democracy in the U.S. Constitution as well as the inequality built into the workings of the system at its foundation and which continues to this day. There were questions about how bourgeois democracy is a class dictatorship, how that works in contrast with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The last part of the PowerPoint presentation dealt with Avakian’s more direct views of freedom under socialism and communism in contrast with conventional views of bourgeois democracy. Teachers then wrote a response to the question, “How did the workshop challenge conventional views on democracy and communism?” There were various views expressed, including: 1) To some, they came in thinking that Jefferson’s ideals just needed to be perfected, as expressed in the U.S. Constitution, but now are questioning the foundation of democracy and how it was based on slavery and inequality from the be-ginning. 2) Several people thought the workshop was very good at illustrating the illusions of democracy—how it supported death squads, stripped away civil liberties, attacked dissent, but didn’t understand clearly how the concept of individual freedom in communist society would differ from bourgeois society. 3) The question of “getting beyond” democracy was a new concept—what did that mean, what would that look like? 4) How was bourgeois democracy a dictatorship, and how would that differ from the dictatorship of the proletariat? 5) One person said she thought the presentation was biased and not open-ended, and that there was too much conclusion, and not enough inquiry, particularly in light of trying to present this to high school students. 6) There were also questions about how to integrate this curriculum into the classroom, including how to present this material in ways that will not provoke repercussions from the administration or the community.

We had the video & PowerPoint from the workshop going, along with talks of Bob Avakian, as well as big color enlargements of Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, & Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That? along with posters from Revolution (Frederick Douglas’ “What to a Slave Is Your 4th of July,” “What’s the Difference Between ‘English Only’ and ‘Whites Only’?,” a poster on Obama and the election) The table attracted a lot of attention—and many teachers stopped to check things out. We got out 300 copies of Revolution, including a couple of bundles of the special issue, “The Oppression of Black People, the Crimes of this System, and the Revolution We Need.”

Overall, the teachers were very open to engaging in examining the real nature of this system, challenging the status quo, exploring alternatives, and in finding ways to introduce the whole new world that has been kept hidden from their students, the world of revolution and communism as represented by the penetrating analysis and vision of Bob Avakian, Many were interested in having further contact, picked up multiple copies of Revolution, as well as the Communism And Jeffersonian Democracy pamphlet. Those of us who put this workshop together are very encouraged by our experience and are still summing up what happened, and have a lot to understand and learn. We hope to take this presentation to other schools and make the curriculum available for wide distribution. We feel this workshop and the experience at the conference represent, in a beginning way, a new pathway, and show the possibility of taking this methodology, curriculum and vision to a whole new generation of teachers and students.

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