Revolution #181, November 1, 2009
An Open Letter to NYU Students From Sunsara Taylor
The Furthest Thing From Your Minds
I came to NYU in hopes of finding those among this generation who want to change the world. Those who came with hopes and dreams brimming over, ready to fill your minds with the biggest ideas and the most fascinating discoveries. People with a passion for life and with imagination and ambition not just for yourselves but for the world around you.
And I met you and I listened. You told me shocking stories of deep interpersonal cruelty. And I learned that while the crimes of this system are truly monstrous—the global poverty and the wars of aggression, the torture of innocents and the global sex trade and the danger to the environment—that even the seemingly smallest of your individual agonies, many of which take place on the most intimate and unexamined landscapes, bear witness to the emptiness and cruelty of our times...
One evening, I sat in a room full of Black students and listened to a young man tell of being followed by security at age 9—only a child, but already a suspect—and of watching as his father pleaded for respect, but in a voice laced with fear. The kind of memory that never goes away. Then, here in the elite halls of NYU, I watched as almost every Black hand in a room of 120 goes up when the speaker asks if anyone has ever been profiled by police. Is it any wonder that rhymes invoking the slave whip still resonate in this crowd? When I stand to talk about revolution, people snap their fingers and murmur assent, but when I then speak of communism I get the feeling that it’s the furthest thing from their minds.
Days later, I am standing in the brilliant sun with a young Black woman who I’ve begun to get to know. All of a sudden she spills out the story of her brother, pulled over and humiliated on his 21st birthday, in front of his friends, taken down to the station over nothing. Again, the kind of experience that stays with you for life. She begins thinking about prominent people who can shine a light on this epidemic and I am eager to encourage her, but I also think, damn, this has to change where communism is the furthest thing from her mind.
Not long after that I had a chance encounter with a young white woman I had previously met on the street. She is studying feminist theory. And over coffee she tells me of first leaving home, striking out in a foreign city, no barriers existing on what she could achieve... at least that’s what she’d been told. Until she found herself in an unfamiliar space with a man taking off her clothes, ignoring her objections, and demanding, “What else are you here for?” This world never taught her an answer to that question that does not involve getting fucked and tossed back out onto the winter streets of a foreign city, 4 am, hurt, humiliated and feeling the fool—and worse. It is hard for her to talk about this and she tells me she almost never does, but that she’s learned this same sort of thing happens to maybe half of all women and she wants to do something about it and I am encouraged by this, even thrilled about it, but disturbed that communism is also the furthest thing from her mind.
A day or so later I am catching up with this freshman who is sweet and thoughtful and makes me laugh as he talks about his weekend with his visiting parents. He’d come to school seeking answers, hoping to find others with the ambition to understand the world and to change it, who looked out at the disparity on this planet and felt the same nagging feeling that this is something we, in this most privileged of all countries, have a responsibility for changing. He came with a curiosity as to whether the world could be different, and uncertainty over whether it had to be different. And when he got here, he couldn’t find that part in others. So, our conversation wanders and he begins telling me how he can’t figure out how to be friends with guys in his dorm who call women “cunts.” He is alienated and wants to fit in, but very righteously doesn’t want to fit in with all that.
And I am starting to understand why communism is the furthest thing from your minds.
All of you are suffocating. You traverse a wasteland in your intimate spaces, in your dorm rooms, in the cruelties and callousness of the authorities that go unacknowledged. You wade daily through the spiritual excrement of this torture state, of this country birthed in the blood of slaves, of this planet where women are so despised that it doesn’t even make front page that half of us will be assaulted or raped in the course of our lives.
But you are told that’s just how it is, and you’re taught that these are the parameters of the possible, and maybe you even begin to tell yourselves “it’s not so bad.” You face each other every day like you can live like this, like this is normal.
Except that all of this is totally unacceptable. And none of this should be accepted.
These are not just a collection of individual agonies, burdens of misfortune or happenstance. Society is not merely the totality of individual interactions that somehow, by chance, add up to this matrix of overlapping and reinforcing cruelties. It is the other way around. This society and this world has a structure that took shape before you were born, a structure that provides a framework and gives dimension to your lives and to the lives of those around you. Yes, you have individual choices and particular personalities. But you live in a world where your wants and desires—and your means for pursuing those wants and desires—are shaped by structures of society that are bigger than you. It is these larger structures and forces that need to be—and can be—radically changed.
As much as many of you long to change the world, you are fighting and thinking and learning and dreaming with both hands tied behind your back. This is because you have been lied to. And not just about some incidental matters. You have been lied to about the things that matter most of all. You’ve been lied to so systematically and from so many angles—and those lies have been repeated to you, including by people you trust and by people who should know better—that even as you struggle for things that only revolution and communism can even begin to deal with, let alone solve, you remain convinced that communism should be...the furthest thing from your mind.
The truth is, every idea you have, every hurt you experience, every dream you come up with is taking place inside a prison of these lies—these lies that say, this is just the way the world has to be, that all this is just some outgrowth of an unchangeable human nature, that any attempt to really change it, especially in any radical way, especially in a revolutionary and a communist way, can only lead to disaster. (Just pause and consider how damning it is of today’s political and intellectual climate that the word “radical”—which only means getting to the root—is deemed scary and “beyond the pale!!”)
They tell you that communism may sound like a good idea, but it will never work. And you believe this, even though no one has ever really proven it to you.
The fact is that the real revolutions of the 20th century accomplished tremendous things. When it comes to education, to decent living conditions, to emancipating women, to overcoming the oppression of minority peoples, or even in the realm of bringing forward new and liberating culture and art—the socialist revolutions achieved unprecedented advances. But all this has been buried and lied about. Yes, these revolutions—these first steps to a whole different and far better world—were turned back and defeated, and no, they didn’t do everything right and yes, the world has changed since then. But goddamn it this world gets grimmer every day—and the need to open up honest debate and discussion over the strengths of those revolutions and their shortcomings, the need to open up real engagement over what lessons should be drawn from that experience and what lessons should not be drawn, is more urgent than ever.
But you have never had the chance to hear any of this put forward in a substantive, comprehensive and compelling way. To be honest, with most of you, hearing what you think of communism has been like listening to someone talk about the Civil War and Reconstruction—when their entire opinion of that experience comes from watching Gone With the Wind.
This is why I am urging you to come hear Raymond Lotta this Monday, the 26th, at NYU. Lotta is an expert on the socialist revolution that took place from 1917 to the mid 50's in the Soviet Union and the more advanced revolution that went on from 1949 to 1976 in China, under the leadership of Mao. He has wrestled with the lessons of what was accomplished and what were the errors—and he will bring this alive so that you can start to wrestle with it too. Even more important, he will bring alive the “new synthesis” on revolution and communism developed by the revolutionary leader Bob Avakian—a further development of, and in important ways a different model of, socialist society, one that can enable humanity to go even further and do even better the next time revolution is made.
This is a rare opportunity—and it comes at a time of great stakes. Be clear: the oxygen is running out in this prison of lies. Each year the dreams get smaller; each week the horrors escalate. We need the space for big and daring dreams, we need visions of a world that is fit for human beings... we need this in the same way that we need food and air and water. We need, right here and right now, to forge new communities of defiance and resistance to all of the abuses and outrages, and to the ways of relating that this world puts on us. And we need to be seriously grappling with the question of why things are the way they are, whether and how they can be fundamentally changed, and what to really learn from those who have gone before.
I’ve listened to you. I’ve learned from you. I am not going to forget what you have told me. And if I could tell you one thing that could speak to your haunting stories, that could show you a way out or a way forward, it would be to come out on Monday night. Skip class, call in sick to work, bring your friends...but don’t miss this.
Because just shrugging and getting on with things, just accepting the unacceptable, just going through four years and never once hearing, from someone who really knows their shit, a vision and understanding that has everything to do with your future and the future of humanity...THAT should be the furthest thing from your mind.
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