Revolution #168, June 21, 2009

From a reader

Taking Revolution and Communism to the LA Times Book Festival

The Los Angeles Times Book Festival is the largest book festival in the country.  The two-day event is held every year at the end of April at the UCLA campus and attracts as many as 100,000 people looking for books, as well as attending dozens of panel discussions and readings by some of today’s best-known authors and journalists.    

A bunch of us went to staff the Libros Revolución bookstore booth this year.  Others set up a table on a major walkway leading from the parking area into the festival.  And we had small teams that worked the lines of people waiting to get into the panel discussions. 

“The positive attractive force of our line . . .”

One very striking thing was what’s been described as “the positive attractive force” of the Party’s revolutionary communist line.  We made a big push to get out the issue of Revolution with the dramatic cover, “A Revolution in Ideas...For a Radically New World,” and featuring  "An Open Letter to the Revolutionary Communists and Everyone Seriously Thinking About Revolution: On the Role and Importance of Bob Avakian".  Some grabbed it up right away, like the Black woman who said she wanted to read something that isn’t mainstream, and a revolutionary communist paper definitely isn’t!  Others would pass by, then they’d do a double-take and come back to get the paper.  Large numbers of copies were sold at the end of the festival as people were streaming out – they’d seen it before and hadn’t gotten it, but bought it before they left.

We were also focusing on promoting books by Avakian.  While the vast majority of the crowd were unfamiliar with him and had never seen Revolution newspaper – something we need to radically change – there were people who had read or heard things from Avakian in the past or had gotten the paper at some point, and a number of them sought us out to talk because they’d been challenged by what they’d read. It revealed the potential for a whole different political and ideological climate if we do make Avakian’s work and the newspaper much more of a mass question in society. 

For example, we met a man who bought his first book by Avakian off of an ad in the New York Review of Books and second off of an ad in The Nation and who asked, “So what do you do when everything Avakian says make complete sense, but you don’t know how to get off the fence?” We showed him the pamphlet Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation pamphlet and said, “If you knew there was a way to get there, would that help?”  He said, “So this is about how you would make a revolution?” and ended up buying that and a copy of Avakian’s book, Away With All Gods!  Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World and saying he’d try to make it to the programs at Libros Revolución. 

A high school senior who had borrowed Avakian’s memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond, My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, from the library came by the booth with a friend.  He recognized the giant poster with the enlargement of the book’s cover and told his friend enthusiastically, “I read that – it’s a good book!”  He also bought a copy of Away With All Gods! 

There were also more than a few people who had heard Avakian on the weekly KPFK radio show that Revolution writer Michael Slate does, including portions of the interview that Slate did with Avakian several years ago.  One guy said he likes Slate and Avakian, but that they lose him at a certain point – he calls himself a “free thinker” and doesn’t feel there should be any “isms,” that when you have a government and leadership, they eventually become repressive.  We took this on, including digging into the underlying conditions of society that make leaders and leadership necessary, and he left with a CD of part of Slate’s interview where Avakian talks about Stalin and the whole question of leadership, saying he’d listen to it and continue the conversation.  Another person had met us at one of the book festivals several years ago.

Then there were those who were not familiar with Avakian or Revolution but were drawn by the materials we were carrying.  Away With All Gods! in particular struck a chord.  One woman ran into the book when she saw the poster for it, saying she had to get that book.  A Chinese student read the blurb for the book and started laughing and shouting, “This is great!”  We talked with a guy who had just bought Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and after digging into some of the differences between Hitchens’ pro-America views and Avakian’s revolutionary perspective, his girlfriend got him a copy of Away With All Gods! so they could read them both.

We definitely made religion a topic of discussion and debate, and we talked to people whose views on it are changing.  A middle-aged Latina bought the Spanish edition of Away with All Gods!, saying that she was a bible school teacher and adding with a smile, “But I have my doubts!”  A 22-year old white woman is the daughter of an evangelical preacher and recently told her folks that she doesn’t believe in god – she said that her atheist anarchist boyfriend has been questioning her beliefs, and getting her to think.  A Roman Catholic woman who doesn’t like the state of affairs wondered where our morality comes from.  We dug into question of communist morality, including the necessity to move beyond all the oppressive class and social relations in society and all the ideas reflecting these divisions.  She said the problem was forcing people to not believe in god, and we talked about how we don’t think people can be forced to believe anything, but that in socialist society we would promote an understanding of reality and the role of people in changing that, not some supernatural force outside of ourselves.

A group of Black women got copies of the issue of Revolution with the “Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity.”  One said she sees all the horrors that face women here and around the world, “but what can we do about it?”  She bought the Declaration to understand the roots of women’s oppression in the development of surplus and private property.  She was intrigued by Avakian’s point that after the revolution, women who rebel against the continuing vestiges of the oppression of women will not be suppressed, but instead brought forward to play a crucial role in pushing the revolution further, all the way.

And we found a number of people who are seriously considering the question of revolution, and specifically wrestling with the question of what that would look like, what a new society would look like, and especially whether communist revolution is what’s needed.  For example, a young Nicaraguan college student stopped by the booth because she really wanted to know more about revolution and communism.  She had picked out two CDs of talks by Avakian, saying she wants to learn as much as she can.  We talked further and she ended up buying a trial subscription to the newspaper and the DVD of Avakian’s talk, Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About.

Contradictory Moods and Attitudes

The festival always attracts large numbers of people who are very disturbed about the state of the world and deeply concerned with some of the biggest political and ideological questions of the day – exactly the kinds of people we need to be reaching out to and wrangling with over our revolutionary communist analysis and the possibilities of bringing a whole different world into being.  But people’s attitudes and understanding were tremendously contradictory.

For example, we met a number of people who are angry about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sickened by the worsening poverty and homelessness around the world, and repulsed by the smug “let’s just take care of America” attitudes that they see around them.  The table had four big enlargements of centerfolds from past issues of Revolution on the history of Black people, the global food crisis, 21st century slavery, and the “It’s Capitalism Stupid!” piece on the international financial meltdown.  Lots of people came up to read the panels or take pictures, and to get into discussion.

One woman carefully read the poster that talks about how living in the U.S. is like living in the house of Tony Soprano – how you know that you have all these privileges because of the terrible things going on in the world, but there is tremendous pressure to shut your eyes and pretend you don’t know.  She said that people just don’t want to know what we are doing around the world, that they choose to be ignorant and the media keeps them ignorant.   We showed her the DVD of Avakian’s “Revolution” talk and she wanted to know if it was appropriate to show to high school students (her husband is a high school history teacher) and they ended up buying a copy. 

But there were others who are consciously trying to not confront the real horrors that imperialism means in the world today.  Several people from World Can’t Wait wore orange jumpsuits outside a panel on the Middle East to raise the issue of torture, but most of the people waiting to get in deliberately ignored them, pretending they weren’t even there.  One man argued for Cheney’s view that torture had “prevented another 9/11” and that there was no question in his mind that American lives were more important than the lives of people around the world.  When people who heard this were challenged about what they thought of this, many shrugged their shoulders and turned away.

The contradictoriness of the crowd was particularly sharp around the question of Obama’s election.  Many people were disgusted that Obama was sending more troops to Afghanistan and escalating the use of drone planes to bomb villages in Pakistan.  A number talked angrily about the government bailouts of giant financial institutions and corporations while funds for social programs are being slashed.  And some were very disturbed about Obama cozying up to reactionary Christian Fascist forces like pastor Rick Warren in Orange County, California.  But many of these same people had voted for him and still felt this was the right thing to do because “at least he’s better than Bush.”  Some even argued that Obama has been able to defeat some of the things that they had been worried about, like a progressive democrat who said that as a result of Obama’s election, the Christian Fascist forces had essentially been defeated.  (The recent murder of Dr. George Tiller put the lie to that notion.)

But all this also seemed to be in flux.  Even among those who voted for him and were still hopeful that things would be better with his election, many expressed a sense of unease and a  foreboding feeling about the future.  A number of people also agreed that there is something fundamentally wrong with this system.  They were all over the map as to what they thought should be done about it, and most of them had questions, disagreements, even vociferous opposition to the idea that communist revolution is the answer.  Still, significant numbers of people wanted to check it out. 

The economic crisis also had a real impact.  People seemed to be buying far fewer books than in past years, with some of the other book sellers complaining that they made hardly any sales at all.  Still, we sold almost 600 copies of Revolution that weekend, 2 dozen copies of Away With All Gods! in English and Spanish, along with a number other works by Avakian, some Marxist classics, and the Science of Evolution book by Ardea Skybreak.  And more than 100 people gave us a way to contact them, saying they wanted to talk further.

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What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond