Revolution #190, January 31, 2010
Letter from a reader
The Revolution Talk: "A Precious, Rare, and Enormous Tool"
We received the following letter from a reader:
I can distinctly remember the first time I saw a clip from Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About, a film of the talk by Bob Avakian.
I had grown up both immersed in politics and really looking for change. My parents were immigrants from the Third World. In our travels back to their home, all throughout my youth I was horrified and bewildered by the enormous poverty facing people there. And my parents had always talked about coming to the U.S. for us, me and my sister, and the kind of life we could have here. So from a very young age, I was struck by the inequalities of the world but was also a big believer in the American dream. I really thought that you could get it all—the white picket fence, everything—if you worked hard and if we got the right politicians in place.
After a while, I stopped being such a big believer in the dream. In my late teens and early 20s, I joined up with people speaking out for racial, gender and sexual equality. But I still had a really hard time letting go of the belief that this country offered people opportunity. And I was holding out some hope that maybe it was possible to elect a president or someone who would make a big difference, who would even out the playing field. "What about Abraham Lincoln?" I would think. "Wasn't he that kind of president?"
That's the sort of question I was struggling with the first time I started watching the DVD of Avakian's talk with a group of friends I had met through an event held by Revolution Books. My friends were excited to share this DVD and kept telling me what a difference it would make to watch it and get to really know the work of Bob Avakian.
The first thing we watched was the "Imagine" section of the DVD, where the chairman really gets into his vision for what a new society could look like. When I watch this section of the talk now, I am moved by how powerful it is. But at the time, I thought Avakian was just talking about free healthcare and better jobs and schools, and I wondered: "What's so special about that?"
"Well what do you think?" my friends asked. I could see that watching this part of the DVD had really gotten them fired up. One of them said it still blew his mind, even though he'd watched it several times before. I could see that they hungered for a radically new world.
But as I sat there in the midst of their excitement and passion, all I can remember thinking is: "I don't get it."
"Who was this guy Bob Avakian and why was he any different?" I thought. People and politicians had been telling me to imagine things my whole life. Obama talked about imagining change and one of the Beatles had a song about it and even Samsung and Intel had spent millions in advertising to slap the world "Imagine" on my television screen. I really, really didn't get it.
"But just think about what it would be like to live in a really different world,'' my friend said. "A world where society was structured in a way to end oppression and liberate all of humanity."
That's when I realized no matter how I tried, I couldn't. I couldn't really picture at all what a world like that would look like. But my friends definitely could and I wanted to be able to do that.
So we started the DVD from the beginning.
Avakian opens his talk with a lyric from a Bob Dylan song—"They're selling postcards of the hanging,"—a reference to the horrific lynchings that happened all over this country well after the Civil War and decades after the end of slavery. Now, I had taken enough history classes to know about lynchings. I'm sure I even got an A on the test that asked me about them. But what they don't emphasize in schools these days is the postcards. Or the fact that these lynchings were, as Avakian said, made into "picnics." Days of merriment for the white people and members of the American Legion who came to watch and buy mementos, postcards to show their friends afterward. It was sick.
It was sick to think that I lived in a country that was built on this. Sick to think of all the atrocities that Avakian described: whether it was the horrors of slavery and lynchings, the strategic elimination of the native population, or right down to the world we live in today where Black and Latino youth are brutalized by police, killed by officials of the State and where a woman is assaulted and raped every second of every day.
I knew horrible things happened in the world. I had seen extreme poverty and I had experienced firsthand the ugliness of racism. But it wasn't until I watched the DVD and listened to Avakian break these things down step by step, horror after horror, that I was able to think about them all at once and realize that not only is the world we live in today horrendous, but it is truly intolerable and criminal. There was no way any white picket fence was going to help any of this.
I kept getting together with my friends and watching about an hour or so of the DVD every couple weeks. I was also going to discussions at Revolution Books and had started reading Revolution newspaper regularly. I found that doing all of these things at the same time really enhanced my understanding, but the DVD became my "Communism 101" guide. My tutorial that broke things down in an easy way, but was still very deep in its analysis and which opened up a lot of further discussion.
I remember standing on the subway one day as a group of school children shuffled in and sat down in front of me. They were laughing and joking with each other, and basically being adorable. I heard the words of Avakian echoing back to me as I watched them. "Our youth deserve a better future."
As I looked at them, I began to be filled with a sense of outrage as I thought of the future that this system and this world would provide: Which one would be stopped and frisked on their way home from school the next day? Which one of these young girls would have to live with the unbearable weight of a decimated body image, starving herself to feel some value? Which one would be raped? Which one would be lynched, gunned down by the police? I couldn't bear to look at their faces any longer. I had to get off the train.
Once I got off the tracks this system lays out, I had no desire to get back on. But it's not just a matter of realizing that truly horrible things are happening all the time and everywhere; anyone who can go through any day in this society without realizing that these horrible things that are happening is fencing off the world around them. To really get off the tracks, you need to have a concrete understanding that the world doesn't have to be this way.
This understanding doesn't happen spontaneously or divinely; it happens through a material analysis of the world and the way it can be.
The most compelling thing about watching Avakian's talk isn't the way he exposes atrocities, or even the very real compassion he conveys for the people of the world; though both those things are extremely important. But what really makes Avakian stand out from the droves of other people telling you to "imagine" is that he isn't simply creating a vision in his head—he's getting there through a very real science, the science of communism.
Fundamentally, to make real change in this world and to emancipate all of humanity we need to have a different system. A system that isn't dependent on the exploitative production relations that keep people down and lower their sights of what can be. We need a system that doesn't rest on the shoulders of the millions in sweatshops, on the backs of Black people and other minorities and that doesn't discount one half of our global population as a gender that is somehow "inferior." When you watch Avakian break down how all these modes of oppression are spurred by and grounded in the capitalist system, you can't help but feel furious that this system hasn't been done away with yet. You realize that this system is a failure for all of humanity.
But watching this DVD fills you with more than just fury. Avakian's words are poignant and exhilarating. They allow you to really get deep into the wrangling and vision of what it would mean to have an entirely different world—something this system, with all its dreams of white picket fences, never allows for.
As my friends and I continued to watch the DVD, we eventually came back up to the "Imagine" section. And I have to admit, at the time, I felt a little worried. Was everything I had come to understand and learn going to lead to a different reaction when I saw this section again, or would I just come back to where I was before: Obama, Samsung, Avakian?
It was entirely different. I felt like I was watching something I had never even seen before. Avakian wasn't just talking about healthcare or jobs. He was describing what it would mean to have a totally new set of production relations, a socialist society working towards overcoming all exploitation as part of reaching a truly classless communist society. He was talking about radically changing everything: the way people interacted with each other, giving people voices and encouraging them to contribute to the whole way things are run and organized, giving people work they could really believe in and that was motivated by the purpose of increasing the common good. He was talking about a whole new world with a new ethos, culture, art and life. A world where the kids I saw on the subway would have a far better future in store for them.
Looking back on the first time I watched the "Imagine" section, I think the reason I didn't get it is because the vision of the future that Avakian lays out is so far outside the framework of this system and its dominant ways of thinking that it didn't compute for me. But as I watched and discussed more and more of the DVD—and as I reflected on the world around me—the complete intolerability and needlessness of this system became real to me… and the world Avakian was describing began to become real to me as well.
It was then that I understood the hunger that I saw in my friends' eyes, the first time we watched the DVD together. Because once your sights had been lifted, once you started to realize that the horrors of this world aren't the only way things have to be, it fills you with an immense sense of liberation and desire to achieve that vision of a new world. But I also understood that you can't achieve that desire without a real material analysis of why the world is the way it is now.
This DVD is a precious, rare and enormous tool. Whenever I get into discussions with people about the world and what it could be, I can't help but wish that everyone could have the experience of watching this talk—that everyone could feel that sense of liberation and deep hope for a new and better world. But it shouldn't just be a wish. It needs to be something that we can achieve, bringing out this talk broadly to the masses. To spread this hope as much as possible. To start discussions all over the city and the country about why we need a revolution and how this talk will begin to show people everything that means.
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