Revolution #172, August 9, 2009
A Reporter’s Notebook
“All That Has Been Hidden”
Ignorance and lowered sights are two pervasive elements of the objective situation that we, as revolutionary communists, have to transform in a major way. This has been quite apparent during my recent experiences taking out, and talking to the masses about, the need for revolution and communism and the importance of Bob Avakian’s leadership.
Looking back over notes from conversations I’ve had during the past two to three weeks, it really jumps out that people from different backgrounds and strata have been systematically denied a basic understanding of what is meant by revolution, socialism and communism; of the nature of the U.S., and the role it plays around the world; of the fact that we live under a capitalist-imperialist system, and the implications of that for humanity. Related to that, the basic questions at the heart of the RCP’s new statement, “The Revolution We Need…The Leadership We Have”—why the world is the way it is, and what must be done to radically change it—are questions many people have not even thought about; at least not in any in-depth, conscious way. In short, many people have accepted the bourgeoisie’s verdict on the first wave of socialism and communism, without even realizing it.
At the same time, within some of these conversations—including with many of the same people who lacked a basic understanding of revolution and communism— there was also a sense of dissatisfaction and anguish, in some cases profound, with the world as it is. So, perhaps we could also say: Many people yearn for socialism and communism, without even realizing it.
What I’ve written below constitutes snapshots, rather than a complete image, of some of the conversations that I’ve had with masses of different strata, during the past two to three weeks. I hope these snapshots will help bring the points I am making to life¼
* * * * *
“We need to make a change,” an older Black man tells me, as he stands on a street corner in a predominantly Black neighborhood. “How it’s gonna take place, I don’t know.”
As we speak, a revolutionary youth is agitating from a flatbed truck, in front of a banner that reads, “Humanity needs revolution and communism.”
I ask the man what he thinks of this banner, and he replies that he really isn’t sure what we mean by communism. I lay out our vision of that, and he asks, “Who would take over?”
So I lay that out for him as well. “That sounds good,” he says. But a moment later in the course of conversation, he adds, “I’ve given up on serious revolution in America.”
Why? I ask. “I read a lot of history of these movements,” he replies.
That night, a group of revolutionaries are making a scene in a public square, with red flags, banners, and the newspaper, and agitating on a bullhorn. I ask a young man who is watching what he thinks about about our presence. “I’m all about what you guys are doing,” he says.
When I ask him specifically about communism, however, he answers with a familiar refrain. “It’s a great idea that’ll never work,” he said.
I ask how he would define communism. “Basically, putting everybody on the same level,” he says. “Treating everybody equally.”
The problem, this young man offers, is that under communism, there will just be too many people who are going to want more. At least somewhat paradoxically, he also opines that under communism, people will get lazy, because they will lack the motivation to work harder and “do better.” Towards the end of the conversation, the man tells me that he is working as a full-time sales supervisor in order to pay for college; he offers this as an example of how capitalism motivates people to work hard “to make ourselves better.”
A little later that night, I talk to Jonathan, a man from Guatemala. Jonathan tells us that if we are really serious about spreading revolution and communism, we should go to Miami; if the U.S. is really so bad, and communism is so great, he asks, then how come so many people are fleeing Cuba to get to the United States? In the course of our discussion, he also cites North Korea, China, and Russia as examples of communist states. He says that, under communism, one does not have the right to say anything bad about the government. At one point, as we are talking about the history of China under Mao, I mention that life expectancy had doubled from 1949 to 1976, from 32 to 64. “That’s just a flat-out lie,” he responds.
Eventually, I ask Jonathan what had compelled him to get a copy of Revolution, given that he clearly disagrees with what we were putting forth. “I’m just curious to see this in your own words,” he says.
Fast-forward to the following weekend. “The Revolution We Need¼The Leadership We Have” is a few days off the presses, and a group of us are taking it out in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Revolutionaries are going through the streets on a sound truck, with the banner and copies of the new statement. I follow in their wake, trying to gather impressions.
Cesar, a 43-year-old man, starts by conveying the thoughts of the man sitting next to him, with whom he had just been talking about us. But given his tone, and the content of what he’s saying, it’s clear that Cesar agrees with what the man had been articulating. “He’s saying, ‘If you don’t like it here, get the fuck out’” Cesar says. “You couldn’t do what you’re doing in China.”
Or, if “getting the fuck out” doesn’t strike our fancy, Cesar suggests perhaps we should run for office.
“There’s plenty of shit I don’t like in this country,” Cesar says. “But what the fuck I’m gonna do?”
Cesar goes on to say that, as a convicted felon, he can’t find a job. “Me personally,” he says, “I feel powerless.” As we’re talking, Cesar volunteers that he is not college educated.
I show him the pictures of the centerfold from the new statement. Seeing the picture of the prisoner being tortured at Guantanamo, Cesar asks if I really mean to tell him that prison guards in the U.S. don’t take inmates out of their cells at 3 am and brutalize them? But then, as we discuss the statement and the pictures further, he adds, “Yeah, but you know what? I’m not driving a fucking plane into a building.”
Cesar then goes on to complain about how immigrants are taking all the good restaurant jobs; it used to be, he said, that you could get $16 or $17 an hour for those jobs. I ask him why he thinks immigrants come here to begin with.
“Because,” Cesar replied, “it’s shit over there.”
The next few people I talk to are more enthusiastic about our presence.
“I actually think it’s kind of cool,” Kathleen, a 19-year-old student of color, tells me. She says she is really upset with our government, and mentions reading a recent issue of Revolution about Obama’s decision to block the torture photos.
“If we’re a democracy,” Kathleen asks, “aren’t we supposed to know what’s going on?”
I ask Kathleen what comes to mind when she hears the words “socialism” and “communism.”
“When I hear those words, I think about government system. I think about¼” She pauses for awhile. “I think about ideals, I would say theories,” Kathleen continued. “I don’t know what’s a perfect system. I don’t know what’s a good system.”
The next person I talk to is Mike, a 29-year-old Lebanese store owner. The discussion starts slowly. “Actually, I don’t know,” Mike says when I show him the statement and centerfold photos.
But then I mention the wars for empire. “That’s what happened to my country,” Mike says.
It turns out that Mike lost two cousins—one of whose wife and two children also died—in Israel’s 2006 massacre of Lebanon. I tell Mike that what happened to his family was a crime against humanity, and that we are fighting to get to a world where such crimes do not happen.
Mike compares Israel’s assault on Lebanon to the U.S. war in Iraq. “We kill people for no reason,” Mike says. “For the oil.”
Mike says he feels that Israel’s slaughter of Lebanon was motivated by an effort to seize land. However, he expresses confidence that, having lost that 2006 war, Israel will not attempt another war. “They’re not going to try and fight again with my country,” Mike says.
I ask Mike why he thought the United States supported everything that Israel did. “I have no idea about that one,” Mike said.
I asked Mike what the word “revolution” meant to him. “It means a lot to me,” Mike said. “It happened to me when I was in my country.”
Then, I asked Mike if he thought we needed a revolution. “Of course!” he says.
What about a communist revolution? I asked. “That’s good too, yeah,” he says.
Why? “I see now, all the Arabic countries, we got a problem,” he says. “We fighting for no reason, you understand.”
I explain the party’s strategy of winning over millions to see the need for revolution.
“Of course, yeah,” Mike says. “More than that! Especially in America. Because here, they don’t believe it. You go to the Arab people, everybody believes it.”
I get more specific with our vision of communist revolution. “Right, yeah,” Mike said.
One obstacle in my conversation with Mike—which I ran into with several other conversations as well—is that it was difficult to get him to actually engage, and comment on, the statement, the photos, and our overall vision of revolution and communism. At times, even people who have seemed friendly in an overall way have offered non-response responses along the lines of “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Right”. In fact, Mike’s “Yeah, that’s good too,” response to my asking his thoughts about communism was similar to a woman I spoke to in Harlem who greeted my descriptions of the history of previous revolutionary societies by saying, “I know. I know.” I finally said to her, “Do you really know? Or are you just saying that?”
It would be worth reflecting further on why many of those who are not necessarily unsympathetic to what we are putting out there react in this way. Is our agitation not reaching deep enough and drawing people out sufficiently? Are we speaking too fast, and—rather than giving people a second to process what we are saying and respond—are we rushing to fill the silence? Is it that revolution and communism are so far outside the terms in which people have previously been thinking that, at least initially, it doesn’t even compute to people what we are saying? Some combination of the above? I think this point would be worth reflecting on further in a collective way.
Damien, a 37-year-old Black filmmaker, has a similar reaction to Kathleen upon seeing a crew of revolutionary communists rolling through the streets. “It was kind of cool,” Damien says. “You don’t see that often. It’s not a very popular ideology.”
However, as with the many other people described so far, his vision of revolution and communism was limited and vague. “I think of Cuba, Che Guevara, stuff I’ve read,” Damien said.
He also expressed pessimism about the possibility of a communist revolution in the United States. “That means a lot of change people would not be willing to make,” Damien says. “Especially in this society. I don’t think this society would accept it.”
When I ask Damien if he thinks we need a new system, he says, “We need something in the middle,” clarifying that he means in the middle of socialism and the “free market.”
I show Damien the centerfold and ask what he thinks about it. “I’m not for the capitalist system,” he replies. “This is what it leads to.”
Towards the end of the conversation, Damien tells me that he wants to make socially conscious films; that there is not enough socially conscious film and hip-hop.
The next conversation, with Sherry and Kendall—two Black women who appear to be in their 30s or 40s—is similar to my back-and-forth with Mike: It starts slowly, and then gets really interesting really fast. Sherry says that she couldn’t tell what the revolutionary youth who passed by were saying, because they were talking in Spanish; and Kendall says that she hadn’t been paying attention.
I start to get into the centerfold and the pictures with them. Sherry wants to know if we are addressing the prevalence of illegal guns, and the fact that youth are killing each other. Then, her attention focuses on the photo of a white cop brutalizing a young black man in West Virginia. “We know what’s going on in West Virginia,” Sherry says. She talks about seeing the police jump out of vans to stop and frisk youth, and ask for their identification.
“This basically is here in this neighborhood,” Sherry says of the photo from Martinsburg, West Virginia.
She adds that she trains her 17-year-old son in how to deal with the police.
A few moments later, Sherry is talking again about violence amongst the youth. She recalls being at a party recently. “The hatred among each other—certain kids, it’s crazy,” Sherry says. “You could just feel it.”
I pose to Sherry the question of what youth in this society have to live for. “You know what it is, it’s fear,” Sherry says. “Fear of everything.” She says that the youth in our society lack jobs, and lack “nourishment” to show them something different.
Kendall chimes in that she used to live in another neighborhood, but moved away because of people shooting in her building. In the course of further discussion, Kendall says that the community needs more people and more organizations fighting for it, instead of the police coming to harass people.
I ask Sherry what she thinks when I say the words “socialism” and “communism”.
“It means the world coming together as one,” Sherry says, “and respecting each other’s choices.”
As I speak about the connections between what the imperialist system does in the U.S., and what it does around the world, I once again grab Sherry’s attention: as I speak to her about the pervasiveness of homelessness, even in this country, Sherry jumps in.
“I talk about this all the time,” she says. “It’s ridiculous.”
As the conversation ends, Sherry says she will be bringing some of her youth to the program on “The Revolution We Need…The Leadership We Have”—I am fairly sure she was referring to the youth she works with, not her own kids.
“They need some revolution,” Sherry says.
I tell her to bring a whole bunch of people to the event.
“Honey, I got you!” Sherry exclaims.
My last conversation of the day is with Basilio, a 36-year-old manager of a cell phone store . He has a very different reaction than Sherry upon seeing the picture of the young Black man in Martinsburg, West Virginia with his face pressed into the pavement.
“He probably did something he wasn’t supposed to be doing,” Basilio says.
Basilio has a similarly reactionary take on the U.S. wars for empire; if the U.S. did not have troops in the Middle East, Basilio says, then people there would kill Americans. I ask him why he thinks the U.S. operates so many military bases, and has troops stationed, all over the globe.
“Just holding things down from other countries doing things they’re not supposed to be doing,” Basilio says.
Referring to the 8-year-old girl working in the battery factory in Bangladesh, Basilio says it is “sad.”
However, Basilio gives voice to individualism and American chauvinism, even in relation to that photo. “Before I think of poverty somewhere else,” he says, “I think of poverty here. Where I’m at.”
He mentions seeing homeless people in a nearby bus station.
When I argue that everything shown in the centerfold photos comes from a common system that violently subjugates people for profit, Basilio says, “That’s true.”
I ask Basilio what he thinks about socialism and communism. “Wow,” he says. “To be honest with you, it’s just tough out here any old way. With or without that.”
I tell Basilio that what is depicted in the centerfold photos is not just “sad”; it’s also completely unnecessary. It would be easy to meet people’s basic needs, I say, if society were organized differently.
“That’s true,” he answers. “But unfortunately, it doesn’t go like that.”
Towards the end of the conversation, I again ask Basilio what he thinks of when I say “socialism” and “communism.”
“I don’t think of nothing,” he says. “I just live. I don’t even pay no mind to things like that. I’m just trying to survive my own self.”
I close by asking him what he would think if we could do something to change the world. “Well, that would be good,” he says. “That would be excellent.”
Again, these are only brief excerpts from the many conversations I have had with the masses during the past few weeks. One point I am trying to drive home is that, from the standpoint of building this revolutionary movement around the leadership we have, it’s critical to remember just how much the liberating experience of past revolutions, and past socialist societies, has been hidden from people of all strata. In addition to the fact that tens of millions of oppressed people in this country are systematically denied access to education, and to the truth, the ignorance I encountered is also a reflection of the fact that the bourgeoisie and its institutions—most notably its media and its educational system—have tried their hardest to ideologize revolution and communism off the scene. And, to a significant degree, in the short run, they have succeeded.
Furthermore, while many of the people I talked to had some sense of the injustices and outrages that this system produces—and were genuinely disturbed or angered by these outrages— they lacked an in-depth grasp of why these things happened, or how they were connected. This is a reflection of the ways in which the nature and workings of this system have also been hidden from people.
Lowered sights (“We need something in the middle”; “I don’t think of nothing”) is, in turn, a phenomenon that stems very naturally from a lack of understanding that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is, and that it has—in fact—been radically different before.
It is not enough for us simply to be aware of these facts; rather, this understanding must be actively incorporated into all of the revolutionary work that we do. In taking out the need for revolution, and the leadership we have in Avakian, we have to constantly remind ourselves of everything that has been hidden from the masses, and everything that has been distorted. And, proceeding from this recognition, we have to be as specific and as substantive as possible in laying out exactly what kind of revolution we are talking about, what socialism and communism mean, what the tremendous achievements of past socialist societies were, and what the content and vital importance of Avakian’s leadership is.
In the process, we should learn, and take inspiration, from Avakian’s statement about the life and death of Willie “Mobile” Shaw—and from Shaw’s defining qualities. In that regard, this sentence, in particular, stands out: “Willie never turned his back on the people who had not yet come to the see the world as he had come to see it—as it really is; he never gave up on winning them to the fight for a radically different and much better world.”
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